"Jonathan Safran Foer is not a Vegan"

I bet this is the complaint that Jonathan Safran Foer is most tired of hearing as the media covers his new book Eating Animals (I'm going to read it over the holiday break--so stay tuned for a "review" in January).

Everyone who's made dietary changes for ethical reasons has encountered the same reaction from omnivores.  But do you wear leather?  But do you eat fish?  But do you eat eggs?  Even Elizabeth Kolbert, clearly an unrepentant omnivore, can't resist a dig about what Jonathan eats in her largely sympathetic New Yorker review:  "Foer never says anything about forgoing eggs or dairy, which seems to imply that he consumes them."

If you're a vegetarian, you get this kind of reaction from omnivores all the time.  There's no question what the motive is--to dismiss the whole argument for giving up anything.  They want an excuse to think about nothing and do nothing.  Obviously, they're being illogical.  Making less than the optimal effort is no excuse for making no effort at all.  But that's how people think. 

Vegetarians should ignore Elizabeth and Co and the high priority they assign to consistency.  If you do prioritize consistency, you're going to start thinking you've got to choose between being a consistently indifferent omnivore and a consistently scrupulous vegan.  A huge number of people will choose the first.  It's just the way it is--if you've spent 10 or 25 or 50 years learning to love ice cream, and you're surrounded by ice cream eaters, the only path to consistency you may be able to take is the path back to consistent indifference.

And that really would be a pity.  If you didn't eat chicken all year, that's about 25 fewer chickens dying after a miserable life.  You'd be making a big mistake if you discounted that savings, just because you could have saved 26 (that's about what it works out to), if you'd also given up eggs.

The obsession with consistency hampers all sorts of efforts people make to do good.  For example, you might (wisely) decide that saving the lives of strangers is more important than buying luxuries.  How inconsistent of you to write a check to Oxfam and then, the very next week, but yourself a new ipod!  For that amount of money, you could literally have saved another life!  But again, if faced with a choice between consistent indifference and consistent life-saving, most of us will choose consistent indifference.  It's really important not to think that's the choice we face.

The same point can be made about efforts we make to be "green."  If I had to be consistently indifferent or consistently green (which means recycling everything, flying nowhere, riding a bicycle all the time, etc.), I would certainly choose to be consistently indifferent.

Most absurd of all, Jonathan Safran Foer has been getting flack from a handful of militant vegans for being "just" a vegetarian.  They ought to think through what it means, practically speaking, to demand perfect consistency.  It's an obvious fact about the psychology of consumption (whether it's food or other stuff): the person who puts a premium on consistency is much more likely to choose consistent self-indulgence rather than consistent compassion.

Maybe what the militant vegans are really complaining about is the fact that Foer is not a vegan, yet he wrote a book of animal advocacy.  I'm sure glad the author didn't worry about that--or we wouldn't now have a powerful work of animal advocacy nearing the Amazon top 100.  I very much doubt his readers will find him less inspiring because he's still drinking lattes (if he is).  In fact, many people are going to find inspiration in the message that normal, struggling, imperfect people can start thinking and doing differently.  Go Jonathan!


s. wallerstein said...

"The obsession with consistency hampers all sorts of efforts people make to do good". Very true. People are not consistent or coherent: arguments are coherent or consistent. To speak of people being consistent is almost a category error.

Unknown said...

The consistency argument can be used in a number of different ways.
I think most often it is not coherent, and can be criticised in the way that you suggest Jean. (It strikes me as the worst sort of ad hominem argument against vegetarians. Almost as bad as this) But here are a couple of ways of constructing it that are somewhat more robust.
1. The value of personal preference or taste.
The omnivore argues that it is reasonable to kill animals and cause some suffering in order to satisfy a desire for certain foods or other animal-derived products. The vegetarian says - no, those preferences are not enough to justify the infliction of suffering. The omnivore says - but they are enough justify your use of leather (in shoes) or your consumption of eggs - so why can't my (stronger) desire for meat?

2. Ought implies can
The meat-eater says - I simply can't stop eating meat, it is too central to my diet (and if I cannot, I am not obliged to). The vegetarian says - it isn't so hard, look I don't eat meat. But the omnivore says - ah but you are still eating cheese and eggs - see even you find that you 'can't' stop consuming things you think you shouldn't.

3. The complacent vegetarian
As Amos points out, the important question is whether arguments are consistent rather than whether people are consistent in their application of their arguments. But some vegetarians, perhaps unlike those writing here, do think that their arguments support vegetarianism but not veganism. So the omnivore does have a genuine consistency argument up his sleeve. The omnivore says that you can't consistently claim that it is wrong to kill animals for your food, but OK to kill them for your milk.

I think all of these arguments are rebuttable, but it is perhaps worthwhile recognising that there are versions of the consistency argument that need rebutting.


Unknown said...

sorry meant to add in link to this dreadful editorial in an Australian newspaper

(example of ad hominem ad nauseam)


Jean Kazez said...

Yes, there are lots of ways to use considerations of consistency to persuade people of things or change your own mind or behavior...so by all means, let's not rule it out!

I think the people attacking Foer have a rather extreme view about consistency as a moral virtue and inconsistency as a vice. The omnivores think that convicting Foer of the vice of inconsistency completely discredits him--shows him to be deeply screwed up, so not worth listening to.

Some militant vegans think ... pretty much the same thing.

Re: possible reasons to be a vegetarian but not a vegan. Yes, I simplified. You have to look closely at a person's reasons for not eating X before you can tell whether it's consistent or not for them to accept eating Y. In my thinking about all these things, I do see shades of grey. I don't subscribe to a Tom Regan-style rights theory that condemns all use of animals as resources. How and why we are using animals matters, morally speaking.

Jean Kazez said...

Dom, That guy definitely goes in the idiot file, along with AA Gill. Yet the headline did sort of speak to me. "Why are these vegans sent to plague us?" There is something definitely locust like about the angry vegans who have been plaguing me since I criticized you-know-who. (Hence the need for moderation at this blog--very tiresome.)

Then again--maybe I shouldn't think of these people as "vegans." They're "new vegans" (as in "new atheists").

Faust said...


I think Dominic raises good points. Of central importance is #2. I think a lot of people feel like they "can't" switch. Or that it would be extremely difficult. This difficulty is for lots of reasons: taste, social group, habit, special diet conditions etc.

Once you find someone's dirtly little secret, the place where their addiction to animal products is insurmountable in their particular case, then you can simply say "well my line is drawn over here: on what grounds can you complain about my failings given your own over there?"

I think all of this is very successful rhetorically but ultimately re-directs the issue. The issue is "what should our ideal behavior be?" If you agree about the nature of an ideal then you should work towards it, even if working towards it involves changing yourself, those parts of yourself unable to enact the ideal. Taking pot shots at the moral failings of the messenger is a way of complaining about the mote in your neigbor's eye rather than removing the beam in your own.

Still "purified" messengers seem to be important cultural touchstones. See: Buddha, Jesus, Prophets, Saints, Vegans, etc.

The most harcorde ode to purity I've read to date is SK's "Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing." Now that's a tough row to hoe!

Jean Kazez said...

I agree about the value of "purified" messengers, but think they make a mistake when they deliver the message by taunting and shaming the less pure.

Faust said...

I think a little taunting and shaming can be good in theory. But it's pretty easy to go over the line--and when you do, it's likely that you've done some damage to your own cause. Better to err on the side of more gentle rhetoric? Lots of disagreement on this one. This is one area where we recapitulate the new atheist/accomodationist issue.

Jean Kazez said...

There are very different ways to shame. I have had students ask me why I do X--in a sincere way. It has made me wonder whether I should keep doing X. I fact, I have changed my habits in that way several times. I am open to change (and I would say non-defensive).

It is another thing to use "you're not a vegan" as a competitive weapon, as a way of showing who are the "true defenders" of animals and who are the frauds. That's just mind-boggling stupid...to be frank.

Erin said...

milk and eggs are not cruelty free. leather, wool, and silk are not cruelty free. all those animals live short lives of horrid suffering and captivity and ultimately end up in cheap tv dinners, tacky sweatshop clothing, and on fast food menus. did you know that the milk industry IS the veal industry? these are simply the facts. how exactly does being factual equate with being militant? or is that just an insult that is supposed to shame abolitionists into shutting up? if you really feel it is wrong to exploit animals for human consumption or any sort of use as a commodity, you either are vegan or are working toward it. it's not hard and i promise if you have chosen to be vegetarian out of a personal conviction that it wrong to exploit animals you will feel much better if you just stop participating in it.

Jean Kazez said...

Erin, I have a perfectly good grip on the facts, so it's not necessary to recite them. The question is whether omnivores and vegans should be taunting and shaming vegetarians for inconsistency. I think not, for the reasons given. Perhaps you'd like to take a moment to think about those reasons?

s. wallerstein said...

I'm not so wild about purified messengers: they make for great or not-so-great poetry, but I'm more interested in messengers who show me realistic paths for living a better life.

Tom said...

Jean wrote:

"Everyone who's made dietary changes for ethical reasons has encountered the same reaction from omnivores. But do you wear leather? But do you eat fish? But do you eat eggs?...If you're a vegetarian, you get this kind of reaction from omnivores all the time. There's no question what the motive is--to dismiss the whole argument for giving up anything. They want an excuse to think about nothing and do nothing."

Although I have no doubt that some who ask these questions have the impure motives Jean attributes to them, not all do. When someone tells me that he or she is a vegetarian, I often ask those kinds of questions but not to try to expose inconsistency but to get a sense of (a) what type of vegetarian the person is and (b) what his or her reasons for being a vegetarian are. I'm genuinely curious because, as you all well know, there isn't any one use for the term 'vegetarian,' nor is there one particular motivation for becoming a vegetarian. People who are vegetarians typically have interesting reasons for this choice; and the reasons given are myriad.

Jean Kazez said...

Tom, I'm intimately familiar with the "gotcha" form of questioning because I used to do it myself, back in Arizona days, before I got interested in these things. One graduate student in particular was a vegetarian but wore a leather jacket. I pointed this out (with "gotcha" tone) and he said (wisely) "yes, what about it?" Probably if I had said it in a different tone we would have had a genuine conversation. So...yes. It's interesting to find out what people's motivations are and what sort of distinctions they think are worth making.

lorrwill said...

Militant vegans is why I am not a part of my local vegan community.
These people focus on what they don't want (most times in gory, graphic detail) in order to get what they want. Sounds like a form a insanity to my mind.

And as an aside, I have been doing my darndest to be consistently indifferent to the growing number of alcoholics I have to deal with in the business world. They just can't stop making digs because like animal products, I have no use for alcohol, either.

Faust said...

Isn't that wierd? I used to work at a bank and I was pretty shocked by the lunchtime cocktail hour.

Talia said...

Classifying people against Foer as 'militant vegans' is a cop out to not actually look into the problems some vegans may have with Foer. Instead they're being cast aside as radical and probably ridiculous without even considering them.

I guess I'd fall into your militant category because I'm upset that Foer isn't vegan, but it's not for any of the reasons mentioned here. I'm glad the book was written, I don't care who wrote it. I think it's unfortunate that the book received notoriety because the writer was an omnivore prior to writing the book, that says many unfortunate things about our society.

My biggest problem with Foer is that he does discuss how animals are treated for eggs and milk in the book in thorough detail. He discusses chickens living in cages eighteen stories high with as much room as a sheet of paper. If the author who wrote these horrifying things still consumes these products - why should the reader bother to change? There's a theory in Black Feminist Epistemology where the background of the person is just as important as what they are teaching because if their theories have informed their life then they believe in them. Clearly Foer's work has not informed his own life, so why should anyone else change because of what he has written?

So yes ultimately it's important that he's not vegan, because it sends a message that says I know all of this information so well that I wrote it and I don't care because I still think vegetarianism is enough. That's not a message I agree with, so of course I'm not going to be happy with Foer.