By Oliver Eagleton,
I find that the most honest, most pervasive strand of omnivorous logic is as follows: “I like the taste of animal products, they are a part of our culture; therefore I will continue to eat them.” This rationale is not only dogmatic; it demonstrates a lack of free thought which is ubiquitous in our society: a widespread willingness to abide by social traditions, no matter how harmful or unjust. If there is one key lesson from the Socratic dialogue, or the Hegelian dialectic, or the Enlightenment, it’s that the overarching doctrine of our time can be contested. The ideas of the church, state, or average civilian are not self-evident; they must be submitted to a higher moral critique.
Change can only be catalysed when ordinary people begin to turn scepticism inward, and examine the principles on which their everyday habits are based. We must attempt to awaken the majority (e.g. those who use animal products) to the fact that they are still morally accountable for their actions, and therein create a subtle, though important shift in animal rights discourse.
Most vegans recognize that the exploitation of animals – for food, fashion, experimentation or otherwise – is morally unfounded. But in order to win people over to our lifestyle, we must understand why this conclusion is still unpopular among the majority. Is there a grand justification, known to all non-vegans, which we have yet to grasp? Or, more plausibly, is the absence of justification integral to the exploitation industry itself? This article will show how animal use can survive only when it is removed from the sphere of moral argument – a removal which provides the basis for eating animal products, suppresses rational critique, and is all but embraced by new welfarists.
Not every non-vegan completely shuns the moral question. Several academic arguments support animal use. For example, some hold that because animals cannot show kindness, respect or compassion to humans, we are not obliged to reciprocate. This “social contract” theory, though worthy of discussion, certainly doesn’t go through most peoples’ minds before they carve the Christmas turkey. Ethics and philosophy are central to this issue, and there are pundits who back animal use on intelligent grounds. However scholarly positions cannot be said to drive animal consumption in any real way, since they are by no means familiar to the bulk of omnivores.
When pushed, non-vegans occasionally fall back on points about “the food chain,” or espouse the scientifically baseless view that universal veganism would cause a rise in methane emissions; yet these statements can be factually refuted. They are essentially off-the-cuff notions that crumble under scrutiny, and few animal users stick to them. Instead, I find that the most honest, most pervasive strand of omnivorous logic is as follows: “I like the taste of animal products, they are a part of our culture; therefore I will continue to eat them.”
This rationale is not only dogmatic; it demonstrates a lack of free thought which is ubiquitous in our society: a widespread willingness to abide by social traditions, no matter how harmful or unjust. If there is one key lesson from the Socratic dialogue, or the Hegelian dialectic, or the Enlightenment, it’s that the overarching doctrine of our time can be contested. The ideas of the church, state, or average civilian are not self-evident; they must be submitted to a higher moral critique. This discovery has driven advancement throughout the ages. History is made when the most deep-seated doctrines – those which appear as “natural” or “common practice” – are called into question by independent minds. In the 20th century, civil rights, workers’ rights, and votes for women were all won by ethically examining society’s most engrained values, and disposing of them accordingly. Development organizations are currently trying to apply this process to countries that permit female circumcision, or other such abhorrent cultural practices, through re-education campaigns. Yet it is not just underdeveloped nations which eschew the progressive mind-set. Today’s animal industry is a reminder that tradition still trumps reason, even in the west.
If vegans are to lead the struggle for animal rights, our main aim should be to combat this reactionary thought current. But first we must comprehend it. How, exactly, does faith in social customs function with regard to animal use? If we look back to the era of racial segregation, it is clear that most people were not wholeheartedly convinced by arguments, moral or pragmatic, which supported the subordination of black citizens. They did not read segregationist literature, compare it with its integrationist counterpart, and then arrive at an opinion. Rather, they conformed to the beliefs of a society which considered it benign. For many, inequality was a natural concept. Its wide acceptance meant it did not need to be debated, defended, or morally justified. And I believe a similar situation exists with the issue of animal rights. Some vegans think it a contradiction that animals are consumed despite the consumers’ lack of genuine moral reasoning. Yet it is far more likely that this lack is, in fact, what sustains animal use. When it comes to one’s diet and lifestyle, morality is often left out of the equation entirely. Asking non-vegans to justify their dinner habits, on those grounds, is like asking them to explain why they are entitled to wear trousers; the universality of such practices helps to detach them from moral argument. This accounts for the bottom-line, “I like meat therefore I’ll eat it,” position. People who abide by the prevailing social dogmas have no need to question or defend them.
When the majority considers animal use a normalized custom, which requires no justification, it becomes the task of the minority to defend vegan diets. In other words, the view that animal use is self-evidently righteous moves the burden of proof onto those who abstain from exploitation, rather than those who fuel it. This also holds with the civil rights analogy. Citizens of the Deep South who showed solidarity with the minority’s struggle were viewed as oddities, made to defend their ideas, and met with extreme scepticism. It is vital for animal rights advocates to reject this warped logic in the present day. Change can only be catalysed when ordinary people begin to turn scepticism inward, and examine the principles on which their everyday habits are based. We must attempt to awaken the majority (e.g. those who use animal products) to the fact that they are still morally accountable for their actions, and therein create a subtle, though important shift in animal rights discourse. An example of this can be seen in last year’s Intelligence Squared debate, titled “Animals Should Be off the Menu,” in which a number of well-known chefs and meat industry spokespeople put forward arguments to support slaughter. It is highly unlikely that such an event would have taken place even a decade ago. Vegans have always been able to explain their lifestyle choice, but it marks a positive shift in consciousness when others start to do the same.
Non-vegans won’t abandon their habits en masse; change will occur through a gradual process of winning people over, one at a time. The first step in achieving this is to dispel the notion that animal use is not a moral issue. By getting people to question the validity of their traditions, and adopt a more analytical, sceptical approach to society’s doctrines, we will challenge the base conceptions that standardize animal harm. However the problem inevitably arises: What method can vegans use to carry out such a momentous task? Numerous psychological experiments have shown that failure to break with the crowd, or reject the advice of an authority figure, is a component of human nature. There is a deep-seated reluctance to deviate from certain norms which, as we shall see, cannot be displaced by new welfarist tactics. Only a radical, abolitionist outlook can hope to stifle this complacency.
New welfarists take the (sometimes) valuable idea of reforms, and turn it into a creed of reformism. They attempt to make existing laws and regulations more animal friendly, or focus on extreme cases of abuse. In doing so, the base notions that underpin animal exploitation go unchallenged. The most important goal – namely, to sway public opinion in favour of veganism – is all but forgotten. And by working within the coordinates of the exploitation industry, they become unable to disrupt its foundation: that which pits traditionalism and conformism over reason. Welfarists may call attention to the moral repugnance of, say, foie gras production, but when it comes to non-veganism as a whole, they too leave moral questions safely outside of consideration. Many also mistakenly place “action over theory” with regards to animal rights, failing to realize that if the true theoretical foundation for animal use is left untapped, then it cannot possibly be uprooted.
To advance the struggle for veganism, we must point to the system’s
inherent groundlessness and irreparability. An automatic removal of morality
from what we eat or wear is the driving force behind the animal industry.
“Small, immediate steps” advocated by some activists may bring surface-deep
improvements, but without shattering the conventionalist outlook that
underlies most peoples’ animal intake, there will be little hope of
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