Veganism vs. Vegetarianism: An Interview with Tzachi Zamir

Veganism vs. vegetarianism is a frequent topic on this blog.  For the most part, I frame the issue this way: if veganism is ethically better, is it nevertheless still excusable just to be a vegetarian? I love to discover a whole new way of thinking about things, so I was excited to read Tzachi Zamir’s article Veganism recently (thank you, Taylor).  Zamir rejects the idea of vegetarians as low-achievers, and argues for the counterintuitive position that vegetarianism is actually the ethically preferable diet.  I discussed the main ideas in the article here, but  had lots of questions about details.  So here we go, this blog’s first interview.

Tzachi Zamir is chair of the English Department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of Ethics and the Beast: A Speciesist Defense of Animal Liberation and Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama, both from Princeton University Press.

My earlier post stuck to the main lines of your argument, which I’ll get to, but one of the things I really like about the article (which became chapter 6 of your book Ethics and the Beast), is the detailed discussion of very concrete questions in veterinary ethics.  (In the book’s introduction you say your wife is a veterinarian.)  I wanted to ask you about some of those issues.

I was intrigued by your suggestion that invasive procedures should be judged based on whether they (a) benefit the animal or (b) enable the owner-pet relationship (without altering “what the animal is”).   An example of the latter you give is declawing a cat when an owner is on the verge of giving up the cat to save his sofa.  Declawing isn’t so profound a change as to alter what the animal is, so in those dire cases, you think it’s OK.  You say “muting a dog” couldn’t be defended in the same way.  Can you explain?

Before I respond to your question, I need to contextualize my answer in relation to the larger stakes in this particular discussion. Small animal veterinary medicine presupposes a paternal framework that is surely questionable. Anti-pet arguments issued from the standpoint of animal-welfare would oppose the very framing of a human-animal relationship in such terms, and would object to any acts that rely upon such paternalism. Keeping pets would accordingly be morally rejected. For reasons presented in my paper (and book), such a conceptually pure position isn't beneficial to pets or to humans. Responsible and loving pet-keeping can exemplify a form of non-exploitative relationship between humans and animals. You did not ask about this prior move, so I shall not expound on it.

We are accordingly assuming that some forms of paternalism in relation to pets is morally permissible, meaning that it's  legitimate for us to act in ways that they themselves would not pursue and even resist (vaccinating them is an example of such an act). In terms of veterinary ethics, the morally easy cases are the ones that either straightforwardly benefit the animal, even if the animal does not experience them as desirable (say, operating on a dog hit by a car), or actions that irresponsible owners ask to be performed, but are obviously detrimental to the animal (an owner asking to euthanize recently born puppies of his un-spayed dog). Veterinarians should find both such cases easy to deal with, complying with the former and not with the latter.

The morally problematic cases fall in the middle. These are cases in which a) the animal does not benefit from the procedure, b) the animal is either discomforted, maimed, or loses permanently one of its capacities c) the owner insists on having the procedure.

Such procedures fall into two groups. First we have procedures that involve short-term pain, and from which the animal recuperates (tail-docking, ear trimming, declawing-- actions for which circumcision is a reasonable human analogue). The second group involves procedures that permanently eliminate one of the animal's capacities (wing-trimming, spaying, neutering, removal of vocal chords). The distinction between these kinds of actions does not map onto what may or may not be done to an animal. Some of the requests for short-term painful actions are immoral. Cosmetic operations (tail docking, ear trimming), are not to be performed, because by cooperating with such requests, the veterinarian is not just acting in a non-beneficial way to the specific animal, but is actually supporting a practice (cosmetic modification) that should be abolished. On the other hand, spaying and neutering (for reasons elaborated below, should be performed). A person asking to remove the vocal chords of a dog is permanently destroying that animal's capacity to communicate. Such acts should not be done. Obviously, we can only speculate how the loss of this capacity is experienced by the dog, but my own sense is that maiming an animal in this way should never be performed, and that such owners should be discouraged from taking in animals in the first place.

Yet I also realize that such remarks are the privileges of a philosopher, who can simply prescribe what is right and what is wrong. Life is harder for the conscientious veterinarian, who isn't operating in a perfect world, and confronts tacit ultimatums, in which a problematic procedure is either performed, or the animals is abandoned and is likely to die. It is in this context that the suggestion above regarding declawing was made. People who care that much about their sofas should be discouraged from taking in cats. Sometimes responsible owners ask for this procedure, because recently born toddlers risk themselves when playing with the older house cat. Declawing is a painful procedure (the nail is removed including the topmost digit from which it issues), requiring a recovery period of several days. Yet unlike the loss of a voice or procreative capacities (which I will discuss below), I do not see an indication for a substantial loss in terms of the animal's own experience. Once the alternative for the cat is to be abandoned, it is overall better for the cat to be declawed. Here, then, is one of those uncomfortable points in which the anti-pet purist has an easier time: no pets means no spaying, neutering, declawing (outlawed in some places), and no seemingly self-serving attempts to justify such acts.

You say that (b) type reasoning is “foreign to human-human morality,” but the day I read your article, a friend of mine said she’d started medicating her daughter for ADHD because “we couldn’t take it any more” (there weren’t school issues, as far as I know).    Not that she was going to give the girl up, of course, but the relationship was suffering.   Does that seem beyond the pale to you, or justifiable in the same way as declawing

As you say, there was no question of turning out her daughter. The disanalogy between this example and my point relating to procedures that preserve the relationship as such, is that unlike pediatricians, veterinarians are constantly aware that owners may abandon their animals and that it is accordingly often beneficial for these animals to be subjected to otherwise objectionable procedures. This, I tried to say, should not serve as a carte blanche that is meant to sanction any cruelty. The veterinarian is morally required to factor in the kind of damage done, its duration, and its long-term modification of the animal's experience as far as we are able to imagine it (the strength of Nagel's skepticism and the fear of anthropomorphic projection are overrated). Like any issue in practical ethics, the veterinarian is also urged to consider alternatives and to suggest them to the owner, including finding another home for the animal. 
Let’s talk about spaying and neutering.   You say that “no evidence suggests that the pet conceives of its postoperative state as a loss.”  Perhaps you’re familiar with Tolstoy’s story “Strider, the Story of a Horse,” and/or Paul Auster’s novel Timbuktu.   In Tolstoy’s story, a male horse loses “zest” after sterilization, and in the novel, a male dog is similarly “diminished”.  They don’t cognitively reflect upon their state, but they feel the difference.  Physiologically, it seems plausible that diminished testosterone makes an animal feel quite different.  In fact, neutering may even “change what an animal is.”  No?

Spaying and neutering certainly change what an animal is. From an entity that can procreate and fulfill its sexual and biological instincts, it turns into something else. This is another point at which the anti-pet position comes out consistent and strong, whereas pet owners seem to be rationalizing. In fact, most of what you will morally accept regarding pets is likely to follow from the position you take on the question of spaying and neutering. Clearly, without such procedures, pet-keeping will become impossible. Those who imagine that they can keep fertile cats and dogs should understand that non-paternal ownership of such animals requires not merely avoiding the procedures that take away these capacities, but enabling the animals to actually act on their instincts. The implication is that one will be yearly responsible for a litter of cats or puppies as well as their welfare. Such cannot be practiced on a large scale, and it is doubtful whether it can be responsibly conducted on a very small scale.

Pet-owner relationships require that the animals will be unable to exercise these instincts. In "return" (though, again, this is not really a system of exchange since they  are not asked), pets "receive" longer lives, are cared for when they are sick, enjoy better diets and are often dearly loved and seem to respond deeply to the humans that care for them. They pay a substantial price to enter this relationship with humans. Yet given the beneficial outcome, I do not think that the relationship is exploitative.

It is perfectly consistent to claim that given such loss, the pet-owner relationship is exploitative and should not be supported. Yet if that's so, millions of cats and dogs as well as millions of meaningful relationships with these animals would not exist. As for the difference between this action and the removal of vocal chords, the latter involves losing a capacity that the owner ought to accept in the animal he is taking up. Dogs bark, and if you are fiercely discomforted by this, don't take one in. To put this differently, having a relationship with a dog, means that one will often be discomforted by its barking. The same cannot be said in relation to the dog's procreative capacities. The owner will not simply be inconvenienced by these, but will have to be morally responsible for their consequences. Breeders happily do this (though again, where and when these animals are permitted to procreate is highly controlled even then). Most pet owners, however, cannot.

This is one point at which a broader dimension of animal ethics should be mentioned. You notice that my argument above is inconclusive, hesitant, and is not meant to refute the anti-pet position. I am basically setting out the moral stakes, the long-term consequences of some actions, and stating a moral preference in relation to these. Most philosophers dislike such murky moves, which is why most writings in animal ethics prudently avoids commenting on the precise pro-animal alternative being envisaged. For me, that's too easy a choice (prudent, but unwise), one that should be expected in the first wave of a revolution, but cannot be sustained in the long run. I realize that my arguments will not generate universal consent (and not because no philosopher managed to attain that). My hope is to see an actual considered specification of the liberationist ideal (whether vegan or vegetarian) in the best writings on this issue, rather than repeating the easier move of attacking speciesism. Does liberationism entail a petless world? I think it should not, but I wish the question would be raised and discussed in these terms.  

Alright, let’s cut to the chase!  Here’s how I’d summarize your defense of vegetarianism as ethically best.  Step 1: It would be good for chickens and cows to exist in a relationship with humans that granted them life and us eggs and milk, so long as they were not prematurely killed or subjected to harmful procedures (apart from ones that enable the relationship and don’t alter what they are).  This “vegetarian uptopia” would be better than a “vegan utopia”  with no chickens and cows at all. Step 2: We ought to support today’s very flawed humane egg and dairy farming because it’s a step toward that vegetarian utopia, whereas abstaining from eggs and dairy is a step toward the inferior vegan utopia. Is that a fair summary?

Yes, though I spend a lot of time on how guarded we should be regarding "ought to support" in 2.

The points I made about Step 1 in my earlier post are dealt with in your book.  On the whole, I really find that step quite convincing.  So let’s focus on step 2.  I do buy cage-free or free-range eggs, which are mass produced by a local operation. In principle, I can see how the success of this company could spur a competitor to produce even more humane eggs, creating a trajectory in the direction of a wholly ethical chicken farm. The thing is, at some point that becomes commercially non-viable.  Right now, I pay 2-3 times as much to buy humane eggs, but I won’t spend 10 times as much.  So how can I really justify my egg consumption using your reasoning?

Money brings up several complex issues, since the mere fact that the progressive products cost more, creates a morally precarious association between the well-off and the just. That issue aside, the moral obligation is to support an emerging industry that professes to commit itself to higher moral standards, rather than to economic expediency alone. Such support remains effective even if some of these breeders are cynically using pro-animal sentiments to acquire a commercial edge for themselves. What matters is that breeders believe that there is a substantial market for "progressive" products. The mechanisms that will eventually verify that breeders live up to what they promise will develop because of economic forces (consumers don't like to be fooled).
How much more should you pay for such products? For me, any intervention in animal-ethics today, is part of a long-term process, and should be contextualized within a longer movement, in which minor changes for the better today, will be replaced by better solutions later (feminism and the abolition of slavery are my models for such long-term changes, in which an insistence on absolute purity and equality at the very early stages of the revolution would have been self-defeating and therefore morally unwise). At this stage, a liberationist is obligated to issue a financially-backed willingness to purchase some products that, due to professed self-imposed morally motivated restrictions on the part of the supplier, cost more. At a later stage of the hopefully successful revolution, such products should either be subsidized or altogether replace their immoral alternatives, so the comparison between the cheaper exploitative products and the progressive ones, would not exist at all.

An objection to the old “more animals get to exist” defense of meat-eating is that it ignores wild animals.  An animal-based diet requires much more land than a plant-based diet, and therefore takes habitat from wildlife. Why can’t vegans say their diet is  just as good as, or maybe even better than, a vegetarian diet for producing large numbers of animals, just not chickens, cows, etc?  Isn’t it just as good for a lot of rabbits, deer, etc., to get to exist?

According to estimates published by the UN Population Division, by 2040, the earth's population will near 9 billion. The likelihood of preserving feral populations of wildlife in such a context would be low. A world with a rich countryside is fast disappearing and is becoming a nostalgic mirage. By contrast, the vegetarian ideal tries to bring together economic interest, human needs and animal welfare in a way that can work for those animals. Given human needs, keeping large amounts of "farm" animals is mandatory. To turn this interest into one that can be subordinated to ethical considerations seems feasible, given sustained work by philosophers, veterinarians, experts on agricultural planning and others (a philosopher cannot provide all of this in a convincing way, since it is a task for several professionals. Much depends, too, on evolving technologies that can annul moral questions. I mention in the paper the use of genetic techniques involving selective fertilization in hens to prevent the birth of male chicks). Denying the possibility of such a future at this early stage of the hoped for revolution strikes me as defeatist. The next meaningful intervention in animal ethics would/should not be more arguments over the viability of speciesism, but a pragmatic proposal for large-scale moral production of milk and eggs.

At the end of your article (and chapter) you note that humane eggs and dairy can be hard to find and expensive.  Instead of saying people should choose vegan food at those times, you say it’s “excusable” but not “just fine” to buy factory farmed eggs. A reason you offer is that “taking eggs or milk does not create suffering or loss.” I wonder why you focus on the moment of “taking” as opposed to other aspects of egg and milk farming. You do say that breeding animals with kill-by dates and prematurely killing non-productive animals are indefensible.   In light of that, why don’t we have to be vegans when humane eggs and dairy can’t be found, though just vegetarians when they can (because of the trajectory you see to fully humane farming)?

To begin with, the strategy you suggest is perfectly consistent with my argument, that is, practice selective veganism and vegetarianism according to the available products. The reason I do not adopt this position, relates to broader considerations having to do with the nature of purity and guilt regarding these issues. More precisely, my position demands of the liberationist to explicitly face the points of moral failure in her conduct, the points at which she is cooperating with exploitation (terms like 'excusable' are intentionally chosen for the philosophical and moral discomfort they induce).
To explain this in greater detail, the broader point is that striving to attain moral purity in one's direct or non-direct relationship with animals is impossible. Veganism is not enough, since one is still relying on medication that has been devised relying on experimentation and death of millions of animals. The purist would have to avoid these too, and, when one is a parent, to avoid using medicine (as well as vaccines) in relation to one's children. Some surgical interventions were also developed by using animals, so the true purist should avoid undergoing these as well. Moreover, should the purist even socialize with people who eat animal flesh? Should s/he enable their child to attend a school in which the teachers mindlessly wear leather products? It is obviously silly to conclude from this that, since purity is unattainable, any monstrosity becomes excusable. Yet, given the unattainable point of non-guilt for all but rare saints, the moral objective at this stage is to advance meaningful interventions that can be practiced on a larger scale.

From this perspective, the position you describe, especially for a parent, is very hard to implement. Progressive products are not always available (it's not just a matter of buying, but of noting scrupulously what one consumes outside one's home), and there is a difference between cooperating with the killing of an animal by eating its flesh, and using products that rely on exploitation. Since the broader meaningful intervention at this stage is to get as many people as possible to practice moral vegetarianism on a large scale, it would be imprudent (and in the long run immoral) to insist on a much harder life-style, which is what the position described involves.

The usual counter-argument against what I have just said, is that it amounts to confusion between strategy and morality. A course of action can be strategically beneficial in promoting a morally desirable goal, but be itself immoral. Yet the plausibility of this counter-claim depends on the examples one has in mind. It's very easy to conjure up examples in which beneficial ends do not justify immoral means. Yet, in the case of long-term changes like liberationism, strategy and morality are interlinked: support a course of action that cannot be adopted by your projected reformers, and you undermine your larger moral objective. In a society in which recreational fishing goes unopposed, it seems important to consolidate a manageable and accessible moral objective that individuals and families can practice. To see why the same reasoning cannot be used to justify the selective eating of animal flesh, you need to examine the third chapter in my book with a specific critique of Hare's demi-vegetarianism.

Let me conclude by thanking you for sending these excellent questions. I appreciate your close engagement with my paper, and applaud you for dutifully locating each weak spot in my argument. I hope that you and your readers will have a fruitful disagreement with my responses. I will be regrettably unable to participate in a follow-up discussion of this interview, if such would develop. I do, however, urge critics of my responses not only to delineate the flaws in my position, but to risk specifying their own considered sense of the range and scope of the liberationist proposed reform.

I really appreciate your thorough, careful answers, especially because I know that right now you're very busy.  I'll resist the temptation to ask any follow-ups and makes this impossibly long.  But just two quick thoughts--yes, we need to think about how animals are going to fare in a world with 9 billion people.  And another quick point--for people who eat "as a family," things are extra complicated.  Thanks very much.


Taylor said...

Thanks for this interview. Good work. Let's have more interviews with others in the future.

Lots of good, if controversial, points by Zamir. But I'm not at all convinced that the prospect of 9 billion people means we should give up on wildlife. Wild animals living in viable habitats strikes me as intrinsically and instrumentally valuable in many ways, and worth fighting for.

Jean Kazez said...

Taylor, The thought of a world without wildlife is seriously depressing. I find that's something everyone agrees on--we must have other creatures sharing the planet with us. That's one of the most powerful arguments there is for shifting to a less animal-based diet (which is particularly land-intensive). The more plant foods we eat, the more room will be left for wild habitat. I seriously hope we don't need to give up on wildlife, and settle for a world where the only other animals (at least large ones) are those we have molded to suit our needs.

More interviews--yes, that's my goal!