Vegan Purity

Let's talk about the "Chronicle" article (without the adjunctivitis).  Here's the passage that I think will draw fire from vegans--
Life is everywhere. I squash millions of micro-organisms with each step and wash down the drain unnoticed multitudes with each shower. Brushing my teeth kills innumerable bacteria (it's them or my gums!). With every swallow, I destroy some of the bacteria in my gut that keep me alive by helping to digest my food. But even larger creatures like cockroaches and rats, do they enter into the purview of animal-rights activists? And the HIV virus, the swine flu, tuberculosis? Do I want to eschew antibiotics and vaccines that help my life out of respect for theirs?

The grandstanding of vegans for carefully selected life forms, to serve their own sensitivities—through their meat- and dairy-free diets, their avoidance of leather and other animal products—doesn't produce much besides a sense of their own virtue. As they make their footprint smaller and smaller, will they soon be walking on their toes like ballet dancers? And if so, what is the step after that? Pure spirit (a euphemism for bodily death)? If our existence is the problem—which it is—then only nonexistence can cure it. The supreme biocentric act is not to discover yet one more animal product to abstain from. The supreme biocentric act is dying, returning the finite matter and energy you have appropriated for yourself and giving them back to the creatures you stole them from. And what makes them so pure? Are they shedding tears as they tear you and each other apart? The real "crime" is existence, not being or using animals.
Obviously, Fromm has not read his Regan and Francione.  These people draw the line in a way that easily allows us to brush our teeth. The crucial characteristic for them is being a subject-of-life or (simpler still) sentience (Francione), not mere animalhood. So Fromm's reductio ad absurdum is premised on a misunderstanding.

On the other hand, is this line of thinking entirely worthless?  I don't actually think so.  Even drawing the line where advocates of veganism really do, there really is a question what sort of a life a human being can have, while fastidiously avoiding every last infringement on sentient life.  There is something to the idea that these ethicists want us to reduce our ecological footprints until we're on our toes...or not fully living. I think that's a reason to avoid purism, but not a reason to abandon the whole attempt to treat animals morally.  Fromm seems to agree:
I think vegetarianism is admirable. I would recommend it. Unlike vegans, who are enlisted in an open-ended but futile metaphysic of virtue and self-blamelessness that pretends to escape from the conditions of life itself, vegetarians have more limited goals and have marked out a manageable territory with fewer cosmic pretensions. They are concerned about their health. Or they don't want animals to be raised expressly to be tortured and killed—especially in factory farms and slaughterhouses—for their dinner plates. Or they don't want to ingest the dead bodies of fairly complex creatures, which is apt to make them feel queasy. No doubt they would prefer all animals (whatever that might include) to be treated humanely, but they are not prepared to stop wearing leather shoes or eating Jell-O. At least vegetarianism—though it can't resolve the moral dilemma of the savagery of our lives—is more or less possible in both theory and practice.
What he's rejecting is perfectionism about doing right by animals, not everything.  I give him high marks for his conclusions, low marks for misrepresentations he made along the way.


Aeolus said...

Apart from his philosophical ignorance, Fromm sets up a straw man to knock down. The people I've known who claim to be vegan have little in common with the stereotypes. But perhaps they aren't really vegan? Perhaps vegans, like the fictional country of Belgium, don't actually exist.

Unknown said...

Aeolus said it well, and I agree with him. Fromm is talking in extremes to attack an opposing ideology. I mean, if he is going to attack "puristic" veganism (which apparently means any form of veganism) but then characterize vegans as being "not prepared to stop wearing leather shoes or eating Jell-O," I have to question his integrity or accuracy. If he thinks most vegans live this way, he is obviously hanging around the wrong vegans.

Jean Kazez said...

It's the vegetarians he describes as wearing leather and eating Jell-O.

The vegans he has in mind are the purest of the pure. I think Aeolus is wondering how many of those there are.

As for Belgium--I periodically wonder whether it's still around. Must follow that link...(with apologies to Belgians).

Wayne said...

I think vegetarians and vegans generally have the SAME goals.... Just different ways in trying to achieve it. I'm sure vegans would also like animals not raised in factory farms.

C'mon Jean, I know you know that veganism doesn't mean that people don't eat anything animal related because it makes them feel queasy. And a vegetarian who isn't wearing leather shoes, or stops eating Jell-o (I don't unless I'm hospitalized) isn't suddenly in unmanageable territory.

Why is a vegan lifestyle, or a green vegan lifestyle not fully living? Take a vegan buddhist monk. Is this person not fully living because he'll never see the Eiffel Tower, or watch "The Invention of Lying", lacks an internet connection, doesn't know how to drive?

Unknown said...

Ah, okay, thank you for clarifying that. Sorry for the confusion!

Unknown said...

Wayne raises a great point. I would question the definition of a "full" life. Seems very hard to make absolute definitions...and I would reject ones that are made purely on conventional cultural (Western) standards of living. Heck, animals may have much fuller lives than we modern urbanites do!!!

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, The vegan purists I have in mind are people who do things like spending hours and days trying to decide whether to eat an oreo, even though there are no animal products in the ingredient list. There are plenty of such people on the internet--acolytes of Gary Francione. I'm not calling someone a purist for more ordinary vegan behavior.

If you really think about what it would mean to do no harm to animals (really none, not just less), in the society we live in, where animal products are everywhere, it really does mean living a pretty cramped life.

Mel said...

Fromm: "But even larger creatures like cockroaches and rats, do they enter into the purview of animal-rights activists?"

As a matter of fact I know of one prominent animal rights activist who was involved with a group that finds new homes for rats.

According to the Vegan Society, honey and bee products are not vegan. Yet are bees the only insects killed, eaten and/or "exploited" by humans? Are roach motels and bug sprays vegan? If not, why is that fact not made explicit in the Vegan Society's definition of veganism? Perhaps bees are more intelligent and feeling than roaches? I don't know.

Fromm: " If our existence is the problem—which it is—then only nonexistence can cure it."

This is going out on a limb here but it seems most vegan philosophers and activists do not have children and are often vocal about their views against humans "breeding." Fromm is definitely onto something here.

Unknown said...

Sorry to drag this out at all, but one other issue I wanted to raise here. Whatever valid points Fromm might be making about purist veganism, he is in fact writing in such a way to discredit ALL veganism--in contradistinction to "looser" vegetarianism. What this essentially does is to put things in an all-or-nothing light, so that veganism in any form is cast as foolish and worthless. If we only think in ideal terms, then yes veganism becomes untenable. But to do so ignores the very real good that we can do by trying, as much as possible, to reduce the harm we cause for other beings. Why is this somehow foolish or worthy of ridicule? By adopting a vegan lifestyle, even without worrying about bacteria and insects but just the more obvious things, vegans still do a great amount of good in the world (for animals, for the environment...). It makes me sad to have these efforts and intentions dismissed out of hand or mocked. I fear that Fromm may lead many people to disregard veganism completely rather than see what aspects of it actually are worthwhile and doable.

Ed said...

The majority of vegans are normal people (yes family people, raising children) who seek to avoid exploitation and killing of sentient beings as far as possible. They do not claim or aspire to be absolutists. They just make reasonable efforts, that's all. Both major vegan societies agree with this non-absolutist approach.

The Vegan Society states that "Vegan lifestyles exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose". The American Vegan Society in it's definition of vegansism states that " Vegans usually make efforts to avoid the less-than-obvious " animal products. Neither one of these definitions is absolutist.

Are there purist vegans? Yes. Do they represent the majority? IMO no, not even close.

Ed said...

I'd also like to second what Justin wrote. Why the need to denigrate vegans? They do much good and should be applauded. So what if they are aiming higher than we are? There is no loaded gun pointing at any of us forcing us to adopt the same standards.

Do we belittle people who seek to contribute more to disaster relief or feeding the hungry? Do we pull them down if they desire to give $1,000 but only manage to give $700? Do we castigate them for not keeping their goals "managable", maybe at a reasonable $500? Do we get all defensive and insecure because there are people giving more to these causes than we do?

Jean Kazez said...

Justin makes a really good point. The more I thought about that column yesterday, the more I started to see Fromm was not just attacking "vegan purists" but assuming all vegans are purists.

Ed, you ask about why anyone should be belittled for making the maximum effort. Indeed. Here's the thing, though, I have been trounced by purists for NOT making the maximum effort. I have been told that as a vegetarian, I make no contribution whatever to "animal liberation." In fact, I've been told it's even worse than that. Vegetarians are actually "embezzlers," detracting from the animal cause. See here--


These supervegans see their own behavior as "normative"--anything else merits stern disapproval. If I criticize that attitude, the these people really can't complain, because their attitude is critical of 99.9% of humanity.

Something I'm really curious about--what percentage of vegans are of the very judgmental and intolerant persuasion? I used to go to vegan restaurants whenever I could, but since my close encounters with the intolerant kind, I've been less eager to do so. Why go break bread with people who would compare you (Francione style) to a murderer or rapist? I would welcome the news that most vegans are not like that, but I want the truth!

Unknown said...

Jean, I have been a very strict vegan for 11 years, and I have to say I have never personally encountered a belligerent, intolerant vegan to the degree you (or Fromm) mention. The root issue here is not veganism in the extreme, or any particular -ism, but the human tendency to turn fanatical about some belief. Be it religion, political ideology, racial identity, or even tastes in art, I cannot help but see a common underlying thread: Humans just love to get fanatical. The sad thing is that the minority fanatics get noticed, while the majority of reasonable people in any "group" get lumped in with the extreme ends of their particular spectrum. This only shows me the need for all of us to work on tolerance, pure and simple, with a good dose of compassion and humility.

Aeolus said...

Justin: Yes to much of what you say. But what is "tolerance, pure and simple"? Taking a moral stance entails being at least implicitly critical. There's so much out there of "Diet is just a matter of personal choice. No one has the right to criticize anyone else." I.e., if I want to eat veal, no one should criticize me or take a "morally superior" attitude. (And I suppose if I want to beat my spouse or be a racist bully, that's my choice too.) How do we walk the line between insisting morality is not just a matter of personal preference and recognizing the frailties of people in an imperfect world?

Jean, I think you said somewhere (though I can't find it in your book) that veganism is morally obligatory -- even if we shouldn't always demand that people live up to the ideal. Is that your position, and, whether it is or isn't, could you share your thoughts on that? (Exactly what veganism is, we can probably leave aside for the moment.)

Unknown said...

Thank you for the question, Aeolus. By "tolerance," I do not mean blind acceptance or complete relativism. Far from it. I simply mean a toleration for opposing viewpoints without an immediate, knee-jerk reaction that turns into vitriolic attacks before a serious, critical examination is made of the opposing viewpoints. Nothing should be immune from criticism; I simply mean that we should tolerate differences and respect that our own view is not the ONLY "right" one, as well as that the holders of another view are as sincere in their belief as we are in ours...and should be engaged in discussion, not sought out for demolition. Even if we can root out and expose flawed, harmful positions, I would feel terrible if we lost our own humanity in the process and turned into a culture of constant attacks.

Mel said...

Vegetarianism (or semi-vegetarianism) is "reasonable." Veganism by definition is extreme. Is veganism "do-able?" For some, yes, and it's a perfectly wonderful, valid lifestyle choice. But when veganism is claimed by some to be the moral ideal, and when the Vegan Society declares that honey and bee products are not vegan, why should anyone be surprised such purist "cosmic pretentions" are criticised?

"Denigration"? Vegetarians get the worst of it -- ridiculed from both ends by vegans as well as meat-eaters that have little or no regard for animal welfare. And no, vegetarians are not plagued by guilt (as vegans like to believe.) We simply have differing views on certain issues.

Fromm: "Unlike vegans, who are enlisted in an open-ended but futile metaphysic of virtue and self-blamelessness that pretends to escape from the conditions of life itself, vegetarians have more limited goals and have marked out a manageable territory with fewer cosmic pretensions."

Fromm is correct. If the Vegan Society's goal is (as quoted by Ed) to end "as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose," Yet... vegans--both purist and the more flexible--benefit in countless ways from animal exploitation while opposing and at times attacking vegetarians, animal welfarists, conscious omnivores, and so on -- again, why should anyone be surprised by the criticism directed at vegans and veganism?

Unknown said...

Mel (and all), I do not mean to hog the discussion here, and I hope others weigh in, but I feel compelled to respond. Being a longtime vegan, and one on the more strict or "extreme" end in how I live my personal life, this is a very meaningful topic...

You seem to be missing the point I made earlier, that the majority of vegans recognize there are limits to what they can do, and they also recognize that there is almost no escape from a larger culture that has exploited and still does exploit animals. It is about trying to reduce the direct, intentional harm we cause animals, as much as we can. I just cannot see why you find this horribly extreme or hypocritical. (Again, if you say extremists flout ideals and criticize, then again I ask you not to take the extremes for the whole--or the majority.)

As for bees not being vegan...bees are animals, and honey is an animal product (essentially bee spit). If you look at most bee production, it frequently involves killing the queen, smoking out bees so the honey can be acquired, and the use of chemicals on the bees themselves. (Some information on this is here: http://www.peta.org/mc/factsheet_display.asp?ID=122.)

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus, I keep struggling with this. In my book I do present veganism as obligatory. That seems like the most plausible view. I think it's another matter how we ought to see ourselves, and how others should see us, if we don't live up to the obligation completely. I don't see the obligation to be vegan as akin (eg) to the obligation to pull a drowning baby out of a pond, at trivial expense to oneself. There, you do it or you're evil. Being a vegan is much harder, because the dominant culture is so through and through animal dependent, and we evolved as a meat-eating species (so our taste buds say Yes). I don't think all that should be dismissed and discounted.

Jean Kazez said...

Mel said--

"Vegetarians get the worst of it -- ridiculed from both ends by vegans as well as meat-eaters that have little or no regard for animal welfare."

My experience too (at least here, under the onslaught of the Francinistas), and I have not appreciated it.

Ed said...

But the Francinistas are an irrational bunch and not worth listening to IMO.

Jean thanks fot the link to your vegans, donans, greenans post. I had forgotten it, so I enjoyed reading it again. Your analogies are right on and demonstrate clearly why the Franconista critics should be dismissed.

Mel said...


I do not find veganism "horribly" extreme. I said extreme -- as in beyond the norm, which is true.

Honey - buy organic. I buy one small jar a year at most from a small local farm. This is unacceptable according to The Vegan Society.

Bee spit! Ewww. But seriously, bees are amazing creatures and honey is one of nature's gifts. Cockroaches on the other hand...

Jean Kazez said...

I just want to say I appreciate everyone's comments.

Jaelle said...

I eat raw vegan for health reasons, not ethical.
One thing that really bugs me about vegans is their willingness to harm their *host body* and disregard the sanctity of our Mother Earth's life and wellness by ripping her guts out to produce those "harmless" synthetics to make their shoes, instead of using leather.
It's not rational thought to harm your host body, especially when it takes millions of years to replace oil based raw materials, and only two or three years to replace a cow.