I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life and mostly vegan for a number of years. I eat cheese on occasion when I’m eating out but other than that I’m vegan. I’m very interested in social justice issues and various kinds of activism but I’ve never been attracted or interested in vegan activism. I love sharing information about vegetarianism/veganism if people are interested but in terms of what I write about I much more interested in other social justice issues. A lot of non-vegans find vegan activists to be really obnoxious. What is the deal with that? Is it just that vegans are pretentious, condescending, and self-righteous or is there something else going on here. If you haven’t guessed I think there might actually be something else going on here.
I’ve developed a suspicion that it is not merely that some vegans pretentious, condescending, and self-righteous, although certainly some are more than others, but that the entire enterprise of vegan activism might be self-righteous.
If my argument is correct it is wrong to to people they should be vegan, or condemn them for not being vegan. But not wrong to encourage people to be vegan or to tell people currently factory farming practices that are wasting of natural resources and food and cause extreme suffering are wrong.
This is big topic and certainly more than I can cover in a short blog post but if animals don’t have a full blooded right to life, i.e. the same right that humans have, then it would be wrong to demand someone to not kill them. Or condemn someone for killing them.
So the question would then be “On what moral theory would animals have such a right to life?” It would be a type of Kantian style ethical system that acknowledges that animals have the same kind of value that humans have. Tom Regan’s book The Case for Animal Rights would an example of this type of theory.
But I think Regan is a little off in his conception of animal rights. According to Kantian Ethics we ought to treat others as we would want to be treated by treating others as “ends in themselves.” But there is no corresponding Kantian right to be treated as an end in itself. The basic principle is that a moral claim doesn’t translate into a right, which I think is generally true. So, while I ought to help an old lady across the street the old lady doesn’t have a right to my help.
How are rights determined? That is a big question, and here is a short answer. I think political rights are determined in a Hobbesian, or Contractarian, way, by means of a social contract.
To try and be a bit less abstract, we could say that it is not morally permissible to ask someone to curtail their liberty when another member of society another human being’s liberties are not at stake.
It is morally permissible to ask someone to curtail their liberty when another human being’s liberties are at stake because that is what we agree to, albeit tacitly, by participation in the social contract. And this is the sort of thing we can demand from other members of society because we have a right to it. And as mentioned we have a right to it because all members of society have agreed to, or would agree to, certain basic rules.
But we don’t have a right to demand kindness. I can demand that you not harm me but I can’t demand you be nice to me.
What I suggested there is that it is both. From a perspective of ethics it is a matter of justice but from a perspective of right it is a matter of kindness. And again I am assuming that ethics are determined by a Kantian or contractualist style of reasoning and right is determined by a Hobbesian or contractarian style of reasoning.
Obviously the above account contains some substantive philosophical claims about how rights are determined but regardless I think it is important to note that even it is wrong, in a moral sense to kill animals, it doesn’t necessarily follow that animals have a right to life.
This of course doesn’t mean that it is not wrong to torture animals or waste resources, both of which are issues connected to modern industrial agriculture and factory farming practices.
It also doesn’t mean that it would be wrong to promote veganism and encourage people to become vegans. However I think it does mean that it is wrong to tell someone else they should not eat meat.
That is a pretty startling claim for me to see on paper, but it meshes well with a number of my intuitions, my experiences with the way people respond to vegan activists, and my basic theoretical outlook.
I think it also have a fair amount of explanatory value in terms of why some liberals, activists, and people concerned with human rights and social justice issues, are not vegans or interested in vegan activism. There could certainly be other reasons as well but it does offer a charitable explanation of a significant phenomena. Charitable is not always true but there are lots of people out there who seem like they deserve a charitable explanation on this one.
I’d love to hear from some vegan activist on this!