4:00 a.m. thoughts: The paradox of veganism

See updates through May 9, 2024, at end of post.

I was driving down a quiet country lane yesterday (April 26, 2024), when I came around a curve and happened upon a carrion-eating bird who had descended on some roadkill. My sense of tragedy for the roadkill was confounded by my recognition of delight as this bird had the pickings to themself.

How do I reconcile that paradox with a vegan and animal rights sensibility, in which we avoid nonhuman animal products for ethical, environmental, and health reasons? That carrion-eater would devour rather than give a rat’s ass about my sensibility. Yum.

This is the paradox of veganism. We extend to nonhuman animals rights as equals, though they would not and could not, generally at least, even conceive to do the same for us. This is somewhat altruistic, for no reciprocity can be expected, though we might share in environmental and health benefits.

And that will, I fear, always be a difficult pill for many to swallow. Why, so many will think, would I extend unto them what they would not do unto me? This is a demand for reciprocity, and where I had thought ethics should take account of what is right to do on its own merits, I see that this is an alien concept to a vast majority of my fellow human, let alone nonhuman, animals.

What I call a paradox of veganism is in fact a wider paradox: the coexistence of those who care about ethics with those who don’t. The suspicion held by many who don’t care, when human, that those who do are nothing more than elitist snobs, in which our altruism is reduced to their suspicion.

It’s now four a.m. I awoke, thinking about this, about an hour ago. I thought to make a record of it. I don’t have an answer.

Update, May 6, 2024: One omnivore argument vegans are weary of hearing is about the “circle of life,” in which animals feeding on other animals is part of the “circle of life,” and cannot be blamed for doing so. Therefore, it supposedly follows, that humans are blameless for eating nonhuman animals.

That final step neglects that humans have a choice. Ethics can only apply where decision-making is conscious and choices are voluntary.

My story today begins with a robin’s nest, constructed in what I had thought was an impossible location, perched atop the light next to my apartment door, the only way in or out of my apartment. Robins built it there despite my misgivings and soon there were three sky blue robin’s eggs safely—I thought—away from predators.

I was wrong about the second part of that as well. Yesterday, I came home to a mess of bird poop. The robins had heretofore been acceptably tidy neighbors and I was a little cross about the mess I’d have to clean up.

Then I discovered the baby robins were gone—I had seen three open beaks poking up from the nest—and the nest was abandoned. I now understand the poop to have been the consequence of a conflagration. The baby robins were gone and I assume the predator was another bird.

If indeed we limit our consideration of ethics to those creatures capable of decision-making, there is no blame here. There is only blame if a human, having free choice, makes the decision.

But I mourn the baby birds. I am not even a little bit happy about what happened to them. The chain of reasoning that holds their predator blameless holds that predator blameless only because they are nonhuman.

That’s not a very different argument really from the one that claims only white people can be racist (it confounds power relationships with hatred, animus, or disdain, assumes all white people enjoy power over people of color, and that these power relationships flow in only one direction).[1] I don’t accept that argument—indeed, I have personal experience of the contrary—and I’m just as deeply dissatisfied with one that discounts death unless a human is the culprit.

I still don’t have an answer. But it’s clear to me that the ethical argument for veganism is weak (as before, the environmental and health arguments remain substantial).

Update, May 9, 2024: I keep thinking about this. Basically, under the terms of animal rights theory, we have a severe asymmetry in that 1) nonhuman animals cannot extend to humans the same rights that animal rights theorists and activists would extend to nonhuman animals, and 2) killing is only objectionable when humans do it, not when nonhuman animals do it.

This is problematic because, under animal rights theory, nonhuman animal rights are held to be the same as human animal rights. If this is so, then we have assigned rights without consulting all the beings involved, without giving them a voice. I’m pretty sure an obligate carnivore will have a different view of killing than animal rights theorists and activists do and that they might very well assign different rights that are in conflict with those animal rights theorists and activists would assign them. They will likely not agree, for example, that killing is wrong. So if we agree that nonhuman animal rights are the same as human rights, then on what grounds do human animal rights theorists assert rights that nonhuman animal rights theorists would not? Human superiority? So much for their anti-speciesism.

My position on this will persuade no one. I have spent my life on the very wrong side of numerous power relationships. I despise them. I will not stop despising them when it’s a nonhuman animal exploiting such relationships or when it’s a nonhuman animal killing, harming, or abusing any animals. If an action is wrong, it is wrong. And I am unable to extend immunity to nonhuman carnivores and omnivores that I would not extend to human carnivores and omnivores.

I simply want the killing, the hurting, and the abusing to stop. And yes, it’s personal.

  1. [1]James Rush, “Goldsmiths Students’ Union diversity officer explains she cannot be racist or sexist because she is an ethnic minority woman,” Independent, May 12, 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/goldsmiths-students-union-diversity-officer-says-she-cannot-be-racist-or-sexist-to-white-men-because-she-is-an-ethnic-minority-woman-10244520.html

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