Vegans vs. Vegetarians

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.


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.


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.


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 step forward--


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.


Wayne said...

Thats what I was saying in my comment in the previous post... It seems like he really isn't arguing for vegetarianism at all, but Hare's demi-veg or Singer's Compassionate Omnivorism.

Look at the end of section IV... he seems to be advocating that farmers debeak their chickens because its better for the chickens. I'm not sure how systematically harming your chickens will better them when only a few die from being pecked to death.

Jean Kazez said...

The diet he's arguing for is what I'm calling "progressive vegetarianism." No meat plus humane eggs/dairy.

Demi-veg and compassionate omnivorism are humane everything. He's very clear that he's arguing for vegetarianism, not for any form of omnivorism.

What he says about debeaking is intriguing. He obviously has a veterinarian in the family who he's talking to. It could be that the standard line on that is incorrect!

Scu said...

Thanks for bringing my attention to this article. I'd heard about his arguments from people who have read his book, but I have not gotten around to reading it.

Regardless, my thoughts on his article can be found over at my blog at http://criticalanimal.blogspot.com/2010/05/why-i-disagree-with-zamir-or-why.html

I think that the major take away point is the problem of humane-washing in his argument. Increased demand for progressive animal products has tended to crowd the market with various products promising humane meat or cage free eggs with vastly different conditions for the animals. Moreover, it has also tended to have companies reduce standards for animals in order to meet the increased demand and profits.
This might be a reason for superior market reasoning, but still seems like a shaky foundation.

Unknown said...

Thanks Jean,

it is worth noting the distinctiveness of Zamir's argument. Ethical vegetarians usually claim that veganism would be at least a bit bit than being vegetarian but it is too demanding. Or they might claim that veganism is no better than vegetarianism because they claim (incorrectly) that vegetarianism does not involve animal suffering, or the killing of animals.

Zamir claims, however, that veganism is worse than vegetarianism.

There are two components to his claim.

The first is his claim about benefits to animals. It is better for there to be a vegetarian utopia (one in which animals are all treated humanely, but some are milked, free range eggs used etc) than a vegan utopia because it is good for the animals concerned.

Zamir refers to the philosophical problems associated with coming into existence, but is a bit slippery about his view, and doesn't appear to realise its implications.
Zamir claims "My comparative judgment that the vegetarian utopia is better than the vegan one does not, then, rely on the present perspective of the nonexistent animals, but on the future ones who will be grateful to discover that vegetarians rather than vegans won the day"
He appears to accept what philosophers have referred to as non-comparative benefit from coming into existence. (Non comparative because the animals are not better off than they would otherwise have been. We might say (following Parfit) that it is good for them to live, though not better.

But there are two problems with this view. The first, you identify above, is the problem that this might mean that it would be good for animals to be brought into existence if they have lives worth living, even if they are killed for meat consumption. (Zamir tries to slip out of this by suggesting that it is bad to bring into existence an entitiy who will die/be killed prematurely. But his 'teleological violations' seem ad hoc)

The second, more significant flaw is that this view appears to have other troublesome implications. I should have 6 children (or 10 children, or 20 children) rather than 2 children because they will be glad to exist and will not have their lives prematurely ended. And we should aim for the largest global population of animals who will have lives worth living.


Unknown said...

The second claim that Zamir makes is that vegetarianism is better than veganism because it is more likely to promote humane farming.

This is his 'selective purchasing' argument. If there are free range egg farms and battery farms, and I buy selectively from free range farms, then my purchases (in a small way) exert pressure on the market in favour of humane farming.
On the other hand, if I buy neither free range nor battery eggs, then my impact is neutral between nasty farming practices and better (even if not perfect) farming practices.

There is something to this argument. There are two key questions related to it, though. Are current farming practices good enough to justify supporting them? and secondly, is supporting free range farming (in its current form) more likely to lead to much more humane forms of egg farming than a boycott?

Zamir claims yes to both of these questions, though I think both are somewhat in doubt.

My own view is that it is not clear whether a vegetarian utopia (with lots of happy cows and chickens) is better than a vegan utopia (with smaller numbers of happy chickens or cows but potentially larger numbers of other smaller mammals). That question involves some very tricky philosophical questions about the benefit of bringing different animals and different numbers of animals into existence, as well as some really intangible empirical questions about global animal populations that arise in a vegan/vegetarian utopia. However, it is very easy to identify particular features of current farming practices, even in free range farms that cause harm to animals. The best way for me to influence those practices is to refuse to support them (until such time as they do genuinely cause no harm to animals), and to publicly advocate for others to adopt a similar position.

Jean Kazez said...

The idea that vegetarianism is ethically preferable to veganism is novel (as far as I know), so that's why I spent so much time on this!

If you agree that "getting to exist" is good for chickens, I don't know that it really means you have to produce the maximum number of chickens. There are lots and lots of other ways to maximize good. If you fill the world with chickens, there can't be as many people, rabbits, etc. Also, existing people, rabbits, etc., can't make their lives as good if there are chickens everywhere.

What he is saying is--don't take away all the chickens and replace them with parking lots, and then think you've done chickendom a favor. He doesn't have to add "maximize the number of chickens."

Actually, his pet analogy does a lot for him. If people got rid of dogs and cats and put the same time, energy, money into gardening and carpentry, it wouldn't be good for dogs and cats. That's the idea.

I rather like the idea that there's something deep-down insidious about creating a creature with a "kill-by date" even if it does have a slight odor of ad hoc-ery. (He wants to support vegetarianism, not humane omnivorism.)

Biggest problem, I think, is that it's wishful thinking to say that supporting today's humane farming does anything at all to bring about the perfectly humane farming he envisions--the system where animals don't have kill-by dates.

chigio said...

of course you've seen this, right?


Jean Kazez said...

Yes, it's one of those very impure diets that make good pragmatic sense, but annoy some people half to death.