I have a natural sympathy with Tzachi Zamir's article, Veganism.
As a vegetarian, I'd like to be convinced by what he says: that my diet is ethically the best one. Vegetarians, he thinks, are doing more than vegans to bring about the best world--one in which chickens and cows get to live in a mutually beneficial relationship with humans.
"Vegetarians" for purposes of the article are progressive vegetarians--they support humane eggs and dairy. He talks about two types of vegans--vegans (simply) think it's never going to be right to consume meat, eggs, or dairy. Tentative ("provisional" might be a better word) vegans think eggs and dairy could
be ethically produced, but the products available now aren't ethically produced, so shouldn't be supported.
HUMANS AND PETS
Zamir sees the human-pet relationship as a model for other human-animal relationships.
A world with pets is good for the pets, as well as for their owners. He's argues the same thing about a world with well-tended laying chickens and dairy cows.
Keeping chickens and cows for eggs/milk will inevitably involve some invasive procedures. Which are and are not permitted? The model of pets is supposed to shed light on this. Here's an interesting distinction--
There are limits on what can be done "to maintain the relationship." Declawing might be justified as a last resort--
But keeping a bird in a cage is out of the question--
Basic principle of veterinary ethics: Do what's necessary to (a) benefit the animal, OR (b) preserve the mutually beneficial relationship (as long as that doesn't violate what the animal is).
With all that in hand, we turn to the human-farm animal relationship. There are similar limits on what we can do to farm animals. Invasive procedures are OK if they benefit the animal or preserve the relationship (without violating what the animal is). Of course, killing animals is invasive and does neither. Breeding animals with a plan in place to kill them at a a certain age violates what at animal is, he says. So using farm animals for meat is impermissible. What he's defending is just
a certain sort of ideally humane dairy and egg farming.
GETTING TO EXIST
The human-pet relationship is a good thing partly because the animals involved get to exist. Likewise, cows and chickens get to exist in a world that includes humane dairy and egg farming. This "getting to exist" business is mysterious and complicated. Intuitively, it's good for cows to get to exist. Maybe "enough said."
But Zamir tries to say more. I'd be hard pressed to summarize what he says, because he shifts around a bit.
Here he rules out the "standpoint of a yet nonexistent entity that benefits or loses." I'm not sure how to interpret "standpoint," but it sounds
like he's saying we are not to think of Bessie's existence as benefiting a non-existent Bessie that preceded her. But in the next passage, he does seem to talk about benefits coming to non-existent things. It makes sense to claim that "future generations benefit from ecological steps that are taken now."
A non-existent thing can benefit or suffer from a present action in the sense that if
it would exist, it will benefit or suffer. Those permanently excluded from existing are neither benefited nor harmed by being excluded.
Imagine a vegan utopia. Billions of non-existent cows and chickens are permanently excluded. That neither benefits nor harms them. Now consider a vegetarian utopia. Formerly non-existent cows and chickens are benefited by breeding decisions. It's better to be "benefited" than "neither benefited nor harmed," so the vegetarian utopia is better for cows and chickens.
But why not make even more cows and chickens, plus pigs (etc), and use them for meat? Wouldn't they, too, be benefited by being brought into existence? No, he says, because it's not good for animals to be bred with built-in obsolescence.
So he's arguing for humane eggs and dairy, not for "humane meat." Breeding laying hens and cows is good for them, but breeding beef cattle isn't good for them.
Vegans will argue that they have a pony in this race. A 100% plant based diet takes up much less land, preserving habitat for wild animals. Why is "better for chickens" more important than "better for deer" or "better for foxes"? Maybe the idea is that the human-farm animal relationship yields higher animal populations. Maybe he's factoring in the benefits to us? Not sure.
A STEPPING STONE?
Today's humane farming is far
from perfect, by Zamir's own analysis. In real world humane egg farming, it's built into the plans for the male chicks to be killed right after birth. The females have a planned death after a few years of laying. If planning an animal's premature death is wrong (because, as Zamir says, it violates what the animal is) then humane farming is unethical. Of course, factory egg farming is far worse because the amount of suffering endured is so much greater.
Fully humane farming would be very different. Male chicks wouldn't be killed at birth. Male calves wouldn't become beef. Perhaps there would be selective breeding of females (the technology exists and it's already in use). Animals would live out their natural lifespans. There might be some invasive procedures, but they'd be either beneficial to the animal or "necessary to sustain the relationship" (so long as not a violation of what the animal is).
If today's humane farming is far from perfect, why are vegans wrong to abstain from it? Because, Zamir argues, it's a step toward that preferable world where there is fully humane farming. The abstainers are taking us to that other
world, the vegan utopia that's worse for chickens and cows. Omnivores are perpetuating the worse world (our world), where animals are bred with a built-in kill-by date.
Not only is it a step forward, but Zamir thinks today's humane farming is a significant
Now for my main doubts about this defense of vegetarianism. Humane farming is a lot better than factory farming, but is it a step that's ever going to lead to fully humane farming? I don't really see how it could. Maybe some day there will be selective breeding, so that fewer males are killed. But allowing animals a natural lifespan seems out of the question. Sure, here and there a few farmers could allow it, but not on any wide scale. It seems as if the egg and dairy industry will really always involve a certain amount of planned, premature killing. So I don't find this "stepping stone to perfection" argument very convincing.
There might be some sort of stepping stone argument in the offing. Every year, the humane offerings at my grocery store become more extensive. Many small reforms are being made in the mainstream sector as well. I think it's fair to say that supporting humane products sends the message to the industry that consumers care about animal welfare. There may be a benefit to all animals used for food production.
But here's the problem. That
would be an argument for buying not just humane eggs and milk but also humane meat. And that's not the conclusion Zamir wants to wind up with!
You could also make the argument that not buying any
eggs, milk, or meat sends the message that consumers care about animals. Maybe the rise of veganism and vegetarianism also stimulate the animal industry to make reforms. ("Better do something before we lose more consumers!") So there's a case for buying all humane products, and another case for being a vegetarian or a vegan. I find it very hard to see how it can come out that the very best option, focusing just on animals, is being a progressive vegetarian.
Of course, that's not a happy conclusion for me to reach, since I'm a progressive vegetarian. I still haven't figure out if that's "just fine" (for reasons I still don't understand) or merely "excusable" (because veganism is hard), to use a distinction Zamir makes at the end of the paper. Maybe somebody can convince me that Zamir is right!
Update: a few corrections made later in the day.
More: Scu has an interesting post about Zamir's article here
, and there's more interesting stuff in the comments.