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?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.
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.
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.