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What do you think? Is it possible to live as a vegan whilst eating other animals? This essay from Tim Gier may present a perspective many of us haven't considered before. I think he raises some difficult issues, and I invite ARZone members to discuss their thoughts, and consider some of the questions raised in this essay. 

possible and practicable veganism

 

The Vegan Society, in their Articles of Association, explains that “the word ‘veganism’ denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” They go on to say that “In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

One may choose to read these two statements as presenting something a conflicting message. The former clearly allows that veganism isn’t an absolutist position: that’s why it includes the emphasized caveat “as far as is possible and practicable.” The latter appears to ignore this caveat, claiming that veganism requires dispensing with “all products derived wholly or partly from animals;” this appears to be an absolutist position. However, given that the former statement is the more inclusive of the two, encompassing veganism in all its aspects, I believe that any fair reading of these two statements will acknowledge that the latter implicitly assumes the caveat of the former. In other words, I take it that the Vegan Society means to say, ”In dietary terms veganism denotes the practice of dispensing with – as far as is possible and practicable – all products derived wholly or partly from animals.” This makes sense and tracks well with what most vegans believe.

For example, I believe that most vegans would accept that, just in case the organic granola they might have eaten for breakfast contained some unintended and negligible amount of dead insect matter, they would still be vegan while eating it. Indeed, it’s commonly held within the vegan community that the unintended killing of field mice and other animals in the production of food crops doesn’t render those crops “non-vegan”. Given then that it’s not possible or practicable to remove every trace of every other animal from one’s diet – or to eliminate every instance of killing in the world – vegans accept that perfection isn’t possible or practicable. In terms of defining veganism then, so far is so good: Absolute perfection can’t be required. However, there is a problem that arises out of this line of reasoning; the following example should illustrate what that problem is.

Suppose that there is a young woman who fully understands and accepts the arguments made for veganism. She believes and wants to act on her belief that other animals should not be treated as mere commodities for human use and consumption. Unfortunately, she’s married to a man who is both physically and psychologically abusive to her. It just so happens that he is also an avid hunter who not only refuses to respect the woman’s beliefs, but who demands that the woman cook as well as eat the dead animals he brings into the home. On threat of torment and violence, the woman has little choice but to comply. As far as is possible and practicable for her, even though she identifies as a vegan and would abstain from all consumption of other animals if only she could, veganism for her includes the regular consumption of other animals.

Now, what are we to make of this?

On the one hand, given that she seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose, this woman is vegan. On the other hand, vegans are not likely to want to admit – because she regularly eats other animals – that this woman really is vegan. But then, what is the point of the definition of veganism including the caveat “as far as is possible and practicable”? If the definition is to mean what it says, then considering the circumstances this woman unfortunately finds herself in, she must be vegan. Otherwise the caveat doesn’t mean ”as far as is possible and practicable” but means little or nothing instead. That is, if in effect the definition means “as far as what other people determine is possible and practicable” then no one has the opportunity to live as a vegan on the terms that are possible for them, but only on the terms forced on them by others. But it must be the case that a person who lives in a city with no options to purchase 100% veganically grown plant-foods, for example, can’t be held to the same standards as one who lives in a self-supporting vegan commune. What is easily possible and practicable for the latter may not be at all possible or practicable for the former.  It must be the case, then, that each person must be able to claim – for themselves – what is possible and practicable for them in their practice of veganism.

Therefore, it must be the case – as it would be in the case of the abused young woman – that there are circumstances (however unlikely and infrequent they may be) in which a person can regularly consume other animals and yet correctly claim to practice veganism, as far as is possible and practicable for them. If it must not be the case, then the definition of veganism is meaningless.

tim gier

http://timgier.com/2012/07/02/possible-and-practicable-veganism/


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A picture may be worth more than a thousand words...   http://i2.photobucket.com/albums/y6/mmissinglink/Animals/CryingFish...

Hi Louie,

Thanks for your comments.  I am not, as of now, committed to any particular definition of veganism myself, although I agree with you that it doesn't seem to make sense to hold on to a definition just because it's been around for decades.  In fact, I think it's the consequence of the social construction of the meaning of language that definitions must evolve in order to reflect the changing realities in individual lives.  

As far as sentience is concerned, there is a difference between a being's capacity to experience something and the capacity for subjective consciousness.  That is, it is not necessarily the case that a being that experiences pain, for example, is conscious of itself as the individual who has qualitative experiences.  A being may feel pain and have the mental state "Pain!" without having the conscious thought "I am in pain" or even "There is something that is causing me pain". In any case, I defer to the judgment of those who are considered experts in this field and it isn't the case that most (or even many) experts consider insects to be sentient.  I believe (as I've said) that the case for sentience in fish (and all other vertebrates) is stronger, although I also accept the majority view that it is a grey area when it comes to the sentience of fish, amphibians and reptiles.  But, having said all that, I also believe, in agreement with Prof. Tom Regan, that it isn't the case, if other animals have rights, that sentience alone can be the ground for such rights. 

Louie Gedo said:

I believe that getting caught up on a definition that is decades old is not very productive. If the Vegan Society's definition is a problem, let's posit a new, better definition of what it means to be vegan. 

I believe insects and fish are most definitely sentient. 

I should add that it's not helpful to anthropomorphize other animals - fishes, for example, whatever the experiences they have in the world, those experiences are the experiences of fishes, not the experiences of humans.

When we try to impose our own concepts of the world onto other beings who have radically different experiences of that world, we run the risk of discounting those other beings. For example, it would be a mistake to try to prove that other animals can count in the way that humans can. Instead, we should try to understand what the underlying component processes involved in counting are and try to determine whether and how other animals utilize those processes. Otherwise, we place other animals in the position of having to measure up to human standards - to do that would be to fail to respect other animals as they are, for who (or in some cases what) they are. 

Hi Tim,

In your own words, on what evidence do these "experts" posit that fish and / or insects do not have the capacity of sentience (not being able to sense that "There is something that is causing me pain")? Afterall, why would many aquatic animals and insects disguise themselves, lure other animals, take on specific social roles, and flee away from attacks if they do not have some sense of self? What could possibly motivate these and other behaviors if not a subjective, conscious thought process?

Warmly,

Louie

Tim Gier said:

Hi Louie,

Thanks for your comments.  I am not, as of now, committed to any particular definition of veganism myself, although I agree with you that it doesn't seem to make sense to hold on to a definition just because it's been around for decades.  In fact, I think it's the consequence of the social construction of the meaning of language that definitions must evolve in order to reflect the changing realities in individual lives.  

As far as sentience is concerned, there is a difference between a being's capacity to experience something and the capacity for subjective consciousness.  That is, it is not necessarily the case that a being that experiences pain, for example, is conscious of itself as the individual who has qualitative experiences.  A being may feel pain and have the mental state "Pain!" without having the conscious thought "I am in pain" or even "There is something that is causing me pain". In any case, I defer to the judgment of those who are considered experts in this field and it isn't the case that most (or even many) experts consider insects to be sentient.  I believe (as I've said) that the case for sentience in fish (and all other vertebrates) is stronger, although I also accept the majority view that it is a grey area when it comes to the sentience of fish, amphibians and reptiles.  But, having said all that, I also believe, in agreement with Prof. Tom Regan, that it isn't the case, if other animals have rights, that sentience alone can be the ground for such rights. 

Louie Gedo said:

I believe that getting caught up on a definition that is decades old is not very productive. If the Vegan Society's definition is a problem, let's posit a new, better definition of what it means to be vegan. 

I believe insects and fish are most definitely sentient. 

Hi Tim,

If your comment is in reference to the illustration, it's meant to evoke emotion, not be a dissertation on human anthropomorphization of other animals.  That said, I do agree with your concern for anthropomorphization.



Tim Gier said:

I should add that it's not helpful to anthropomorphize other animals - fishes, for example, whatever the experiences they have in the world, those experiences are the experiences of fishes, not the experiences of humans.

When we try to impose our own concepts of the world onto other beings who have radically different experiences of that world, we run the risk of discounting those other beings. For example, it would be a mistake to try to prove that other animals can count in the way that humans can. Instead, we should try to understand what the underlying component processes involved in counting are and try to determine whether and how other animals utilize those processes. Otherwise, we place other animals in the position of having to measure up to human standards - to do that would be to fail to respect other animals as they are, for who (or in some cases what) they are. 

Hi Louie, 

Adaptation through natural selection results in living organisms that are capable of complex interactions in the environment without necessarily entailing any subjective conscious experiences within those organisms.

Louie Gedo said:

Hi Tim,

In your own words, on what evidence do these "experts" posit that fish and / or insects do not have the capacity of sentience (not being able to sense that "There is something that is causing me pain")? Afterall, why would many aquatic animals and insects disguise themselves, lure other animals, take on specific social roles, and flee away from attacks if they do not have some sense of self? What could possibly motivate these and other behaviors if not a subjective, conscious thought process?

Warmly,

Louie

So, is vegan a belief or is it an action? ... that seems to be what you're asking?

I think it's both, actions that originate in a belief that other animals not be harmed or exploited.

Is the abused woman vegan if her husband forces her to eat meat? I say she is. None of us goes a day without eating something or wearing something or using something that is made from or has harmed an animal. The thing that makes us "vegan" is that we try our best to minimize those things. This woman would be minimizing the harm she causes as much as she is able, just as I do.

It seems to me there is a set of animal uses that many vegans have come to think of as acceptable, mostly because other vegans think they're acceptable. Rather than each situation being considered and evaluated for the "less harm" choice that applies to that unique situation, it's more like there's a list that says "these things are OK to do, we don't expect anyone to not do this."

There are vegans who will tell me I'm not vegan because I might eat Oreos twice a year, and the sugar could be refined with animal bones. And in the same breath, they will happily proclaim they only eat organic produce ... which is grown with animal bones. The difference, they say? "Well, you CHOOSE to eat Oreos! I'm not CHOOSING to harm animals by eating produce!" Yes, you ARE choosing. You've just set a level of inconvenience beyond which you won't go, which may be different from mine.

We can look at someone doing what we consider to be "less" than we are, and jump all over them with cries of, "That's not vegan!!!" But I think that's a totally unproductive use of our time as vegans. I've done it myself in the past, but will try to never do it again going forward (I think it's also, often, something newer vegans do). I think it drives people away from being vegan and makes us look like hypocrites ... and silly and mean, too.

There's a local woman I know who does poultry rescue. She has chickens and ducks and turkeys and they get to live out the rest of their lives happy and cared for at her place. She does animal advocacy and has even been attacked for it ... she's had dead animals thrown on her lawn and threats made, etc. Every once in a while, she eats an egg one of her chickens lays. Because of this, she refuses to call herself vegan. IS she vegan? In my view, she IS vegan. It's not in any way hurting or taking advantage of that chicken to eat one of her eggs ... let me be clear, it's not harmful under those very particular circumstances.

 


We don't all live under the same circumstances. One person might find it easy to locate veganic produce (which still causes the death of animals anyway), and another may have to shop at a corner convenience store where vegan fare may be almost nil. When we make the decision to be vegan and to do the best we can, then we're vegan. 

I just want to clarify something that I think might have caused confusion. When I said that my hubby is launching a blog advocating a "vegan" + fish diet, I did not mean to imply that he or I is saying he is a vegan, or that he is campaigning to include fish in a vegan diet! I was just trying to explain that carnists (like my hubby was) can be persuaded to avoid slaughterhouse and factory farm products, and, indeed, to see the dubiousness of 'ethical' vegetarian diets, more easily  than they can be persuaded of the sentience of bees, or indeed fish.  I agree with Lisa - I can't see anything wrong with a vegan eating an egg from a battery hen that they've rescued as it is not causing harm, whereas a vegan who eats plants is causing harm.  I had never considered the use of animal bones in organic agriculture, but it is clearly not 'pure' vegan to eat anything that has harmed animals in its production. The field mice are also a real worry. I would love to grow all my own food by hand, but it is an impossible dream for me and most folks. Perhaps vegans should campaign for cruelty-free cultivation and harvest of plant foods? I also think what Carolyn put on the FB wall is spot on:  I have no right to determine what is practical and possible for another individual, nor do they have the right to do so for me. 
I agree that eating another individual may exclude a person from being considered vegan, but, in terms of what is possible and practical to some, so would driving a car, consuming palm oil, using a computer, benefiting from the death and mutilation of field mouses, along with so many more practices that may well be, and are, regarded by some as non-vegan.

Hi Sandra,

Thanks for the quote from Bekoff.  As I have said (twice before, so this will be the third time!!) I believe that the case for sentience in fishes is much stronger than is the case for sentience in invertebrates.  I have not claimed that fishes are not sentient, I've claimed that it remains an open question. Perhaps I am wrong about that and there is widespread consensus among those who study the neural processes of fishes that fishes are sentient. Since I would be happy to be proven wrong about this, I will continue to look for the evidence that would prove me wrong.  However, it is important to understand exactly what Bekoff is claiming in the quote you've provided. First, he is not claiming (at least in this short quote) that fishes are sentient; he is simply noting that fishes are biologically similar to others who are sentient as well as noting that fishes react to painful stimuli. That's not the same thing at all as claiming that fishes possess phenomenological consciousness (i.e. sentience). The claim made about some insects is stronger - Bekoff claims that they "seem to experience pain" - but it's still not a claim that insects and other invertebrates are actually sentient.

Sandra Higgins said:

Tim,  this is what Mark Bekoff states about sentience: 

'Fish have nerves similar to those that are associated with the perception of pain in other animals.  Fish show responses to painful stimuli that resemble those of other animals including humans.  Even some invertebrates - animals without backbones such as insects - seem to experience pain and also possess nerve cells that are associated with the feeling of pain.'  (Animals Matter, Page 86).
 

Sandra,

Science cannot possibly demonstrate the sentience of fishes, or of any other living creature. All that science can do is test hypotheses via experimentation; science can't look inside the minds of living beings and demonstrate what mental states or conscious experiences those minds may or may not be having. In the case of other humans, each of us (assuming that we're normally functioning and acting rationally), based on what we think we know about our own minds as well as what we can observe of the behaviors of others, think that almost all human beings are conscious in and of the world as we take ourselves to be. But there is no way for science to demonstrate that that is actually the case.

The problem, when it comes to non-human minds, is that there are almost always explanations for the observed experiences of other animals that do not require that we posit that other animals possess phenomenological consciousness.  That's why Bekoff and Allen, in the article I quoted from earlier, do not claim that other animals are sentient, but they only claim that it is likely that many other animals are sentient. We simply have no way of knowing with certainty, although at some point the explanation that best fits the evidence appears to warrant claims of sentience in some other animals, and I would argue, some forms of higher-order consciousness in a few species as well.  

Sandra Higgins said:

Science demonstrates the sentience of fishes. 

Hi Tim,

That in no way answers my question. In fact your answer appears quite glib. I am left to believe that the sources you rely on do not know whether or not fish and insects can have subjective conscious experiences (exhibit sentience).

I am certainly convinced from all my studies that insects and fish exhibit sentience. The fact that they experience pain subjectively is a clear indication that these individuals are sentient. Fish and insects clearly appear to consciously (an awake mental state) recognize self because when they engage in mating rituals, flee from a threat, warn others of their group of a threat, disguise themselves (those that do), etc, etc, etc they behave in similar ways as we would in similar circumstances. In those similar circumstances we are acting in self interest utilizing conscious thoughts - why would someone assume that fish and insects behaving in similar ways under similar circumstances are not having subjective conscious experiences??? If anything, in not having a clue as to knowing with absolute certainty whether or not sentience is exhibited in fish and insects, the benefit of the doubt must be given, as I see it. That is the morally responsible choice.

Warmly,

Louie



Tim Gier said:

Hi Louie, 

Adaptation through natural selection results in living organisms that are capable of complex interactions in the environment without necessarily entailing any subjective conscious experiences within those organisms.

Louie Gedo said:

Hi Tim,

In your own words, on what evidence do these "experts" posit that fish and / or insects do not have the capacity of sentience (not being able to sense that "There is something that is causing me pain")? Afterall, why would many aquatic animals and insects disguise themselves, lure other animals, take on specific social roles, and flee away from attacks if they do not have some sense of self? What could possibly motivate these and other behaviors if not a subjective, conscious thought process?

Warmly,

Louie

Sandra,

I have ideas what pain probably feels like to others who are similarly situated to me, but I have very little idea what pains feels like for others, or even if qualitative conscious experiences accompany the registering of painful stimuli in others.  Please allow me to explain.  I am led to believe that there are creatures who live in conditions that would be almost instantly and excruciatingly painfully lethal to me.  For example, there are fishes and other vertebrates who live in the oceans at depths that the pressures there, were I able to swim on my own down to them, would crush and kill me in short order. The pain to me would be immense.  However, those that live there seem to not be bothered by the experience of the pressure at all. What would pain feel like to them?  I really have no idea other than that it seems to me that if they can withstand forces that would annihilate me in an instant, they aren't feeling pain in the same way, or in response to the same experiences, that I would. I take it that they may still, in fact, be able to experience pain, I simply don't have any idea what, if anything, it would feel like to them.  

It's difficult to speak about these topics because the words we use are "loaded" with meaning. For example, in any earlier comment, I believe that Louie said something to the effect that some other animals disguise themselves in order to evade predators. However, other animals whose colors or other features may change in response to threats in the environment are almost certainly not making a conscious decision based on a conscious evaluation of a perceived threat.  That is, it just so happens that nature has selected for the trait color changing, say, in response to a threat and all those who have inherited that trait have no choice but to change color in response to a threat. They are not "disguising themselves" but rather they simply become disguised - through no conscious mental process at all. Very much of the behavior in other animals (and, we are learning, in human animals as well) can be accounted for in such a way - very much of what all living creatures do is simply the result of non-cognitive genetic programming.

Anyway, individuals who are conscious in and of the world appear to have interests and preferences based on those interests. All other things being equal, it's better that individuals get to act on their interests and satisfy their preferences (as long as in doing so they don't unjustly harm others).  So, all other things being equal, it would be better for all those who are able to avoid the unjust and harmful interference in the lives of others that they do avoid such interference.  If that means living up to the vegan ideal as best one can, and for me that is what it means, then one should live up to the vegan ideal as best one can. 

Sandra Higgins said:

Tim,

 

Let's hypothesise that science is wrong and that some other animals are merely sentient and not subjetively self-conscious.  When they are in pain is not their pain much worse than the pain of a being who is subjectively self aware across time and space?  Scientists used to suggest human infants were not self-consciously aware, but merely sentient, and on that basis their pain was thought to be much worse than the pain of a self-conscious adult who is able to use cognitive self-soothing, be comforted by the temporal nature of pain, and rely on inter-personal or intra-personal self capacity to relieve that pain.  Surely that sentience should protect them from violations of rights that cause them pain?

 

Here is another scenario: even if all our arguments (for other animals being rights holders or entitled to protection of rights violations by humans on the basis of sentience/consciousness/self-consciousness) were proved incorrect, if the world became vegan a great deal of exploitation of other humans would cease.  Slaughterhouse workers would not be exploited.  Farmers and vivisectors would not be forced to disconnect from other forms of life.  World hunger would be relieved (I understand this is a complex issue but it would be greatly improved); and one of the largest, if not the largest, source of environmental destruction would be removed.  
 
Tim Gier said:

Hi Louie,

Thanks for your comments.  I am not, as of now, committed to any particular definition of veganism myself, although I agree with you that it doesn't seem to make sense to hold on to a definition just because it's been around for decades.  In fact, I think it's the consequence of the social construction of the meaning of language that definitions must evolve in order to reflect the changing realities in individual lives.  

As far as sentience is concerned, there is a difference between a being's capacity to experience something and the capacity for subjective consciousness.  That is, it is not necessarily the case that a being that experiences pain, for example, is conscious of itself as the individual who has qualitative experiences.  A being may feel pain and have the mental state "Pain!" without having the conscious thought "I am in pain" or even "There is something that is causing me pain". In any case, I defer to the judgment of those who are considered experts in this field and it isn't the case that most (or even many) experts consider insects to be sentient.  I believe (as I've said) that the case for sentience in fish (and all other vertebrates) is stronger, although I also accept the majority view that it is a grey area when it comes to the sentience of fish, amphibians and reptiles.  But, having said all that, I also believe, in agreement with Prof. Tom Regan, that it isn't the case, if other animals have rights, that sentience alone can be the ground for such rights. 

Louie Gedo said:

I believe that getting caught up on a definition that is decades old is not very productive. If the Vegan Society's definition is a problem, let's posit a new, better definition of what it means to be vegan. 

I believe insects and fish are most definitely sentient. 

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