I have thought further about a vegan lifestyle, partly in reaction to the comments (which are always appreciated) to my previous post. The vegan lifestyle is based upon the premise that we should not make use of animals, which includes raising bees for honey, wearing silk and wool and other animal based products, and, of course not eating animals or animal-based products like milk and eggs. As one comment suggested yesterday, animal rights might not be implicated in all those activities.
The basic premise of veganism is in fundamental disagreement with the human-animal contract of domestication, which posits that humans will raise and care for animals in exchange for what they can give us—food, clothes, shelter, transportation, companionship. Of course, such a “contract” is a human idea and therefore, like all contracts where one party has the sole drafting control, is skewed in that party’s favor. Of all the provisions of this arrangement, going to slaughter to become food is the one least likely to be acceptable to animals and the most repulsive to people who observe it in action. In the modern age, with the choices we have for eating (even given the immoderate, might I say absurd, importance we place on eating) slaughter is not justifiable, if it ever was at some other time or place. In this category, factory farms are the big evil in treating animals like unfeeling commodities and selling us a bill of goods about how crucial it is we keep eating them.
Diary production is a vegan (although not a vegetarian) concern because cows in factory farms are kept in confinement, are forced to give birth annually, and lose their young prematurely. As I write that, I would like confirmation that what I have stated is accurate and that there are no circumstances under which cows could produce milk without suffering (although I would not take the word of the diary farmers’ association alone). For example, I don’t relish the thought of breeding an animal, but procreation is nature’s way to sustain a species and if we want more animals there is no other way; also I don’t know when a calf would leave its mother under more natural circumstances? All young do eventually leave their mothers. If a year is too early, then would it be a viable model to leave them together longer and then harvest the milk?
Even more than diary production, I wonder about the following. Is it cruel to raise sheep only for their wool if they live in the fields and are inconvenienced only periodically to be shorn? Even the Farm Sanctuary web site on raising sheep says that they must be shorn once a year. I have heard that many get cut while shaving, but don’t we all? Without being glib, I think that sheering might not be cruel. Likewise, if chickens are free range, is it inhumane to take their eggs? And whatever the discomforts (I would not countenance pain or mental suffering) the animals experience in being shorn or in giving up eggs, they do receive protection from predators and shelter — that is assuming the conditions of their sacrifice are not bad and the benefits are liberal.
When it comes to honey and silk I start to doubt. I do recall being disturbed about the cost to bees in making honey, and, having sugar, see no need for honey as an antiquated source of sweetness. As for silk, maybe if I saw a video of the way the worms are treated I would feel differently, but I do not have a concern for insects as I do for animals for reasons of their differences in brain power, their relationships to others and to humans, and their short lifespans. At this point I start to feel that vegans have veered into reductio ad absurdam. However, whether or not this appears to be inconsistent, I do abhor the treatment of lobsters (admittedly not insects but not cute and fuzzy or feathered). Keeping them alive in a tank of water without food (I assume they are not cared for in that environment) and boiling them alive horrifies me.
Although I have not encountered horse ownership in my reading, vegan logic would disapprove of horseback riding. The horse has to work in some way—few are the people who keep horses as pets; but is that cruel? We humans have to work. I wondered when the carriage-horse ban was passed in NYC what would become of those horses as well as heavy draft types ill-suited to do anything else. If conditions were regulated and not harsh, was pulling a carriage so awful? They are not elephants performing in the ugly circus, they are doing a job for which they have been bred and raised. Perhaps it was not tenable to make their work conditions humane and abolishing the carriage trade was the only solution. I can imagine that any working horse might prefer to roam free in the herd, yet nowhere does the potential upside for the animal appear greater in the contract with humans than with the horse (maybe because I actually know something about them). The horse running free that gets Lyme disease dies a slow and painful death. That disease is not a product of confinement, but nature. The horse that injures himself (which they are prone to doing) lags behind and becomes easy prey, which brings me back to the benefits of domestication—animals are put to use, but nature can be very harsh.
Now I arrive at the question that is theoretical but which I would like a vegan to answer. What happens to domesticated animal species once we stop making use of them? Will we raise them for sanctuaries or zoos? They are not companions except for very few people who have the money and space to accommodate and care for such large animals. On the other hand, it would be better for them to not ever be born than to live a life of misery, confinement, fear and torment, and face a merciless death. Living in harmony with animals might not mean foregoing all use of them, just writing a better contract.
The choice is animals as economic units, or no animals. If animal rights take the economy out of cows, the cow species will soon be gone. Is that what you want, just like draft horses?
I would prefer to recast the choice to make the arrangment more mutually beneficial..I can’t see animals as an economic units; I defintely can’t view them as something to eat.
That should probably say heavy draft horses, like the Clydesdale, Percheron, and the like with size 10 and up shoes. (12 nail shoes)
You know your shoes!
Laura, your posts on animals raise enough issues to start another blog. You seem to be chiefly concerned with the pain and suffering that we inflict on animals but there are other issues too. Do animals have rights? If rights are dependent on us being reasoning beings who is to say that no other animals reason and how are rights affected by degrees of rationality. You talk about the benefits of domestication but who are we to make that choice for animals? Keeping the spirit of John Stuart Mill’s famous quote about pigs and humans, the horse might feel it’s better to be a wild and free horse in a risky environment than a domesticated horse in a safe environment.
There is also the issue of evolution. We have evolved to compete for resources with other species and ultimately we cannot change that because we cannot transcend our evolutionary destiny. By that I mean that our brain was not designed to generate truth or moral codes, but simply to succeed in the evolutionary struggle for survival, whatever that entails. I sense that your argument could rapidly spiral into absurdity. How far should our new-found sensitivity to the pain and suffering of other creatures go? Should we attempt to stop the lion chasing down the gazelle or the cat from killing a mouse if it is in our power to do so?
Hi Malcom, Your previous comment prompted me to look more closely at a vegan lifestyle. This comment raises many issues that I have thought about that do relate to philosophy, Darwin, religion, morality– all of which are interesting. I’m looking forward to giving these questions some more thought. Another blog might be in order, but as of now I think that I will have recourse to Stoic ideas in sorting out my views on the human/animal connection, so I won’t be straying too far from my source. Thanks.