Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
Like many other people concerned about animal rights, veganism, and the oppression of other species, I believed that animal rights and liberation represented an inevitable march of civilization, progress towards a universal ethic of compassion and morality and empathy that encompassed a shared ethic and belief in something greater uniting all people of all ethnicities and cultures. In other words, I believed that veganism is something that everyone living in all eras would want to strive to, if only they knew better
As much as I wish for this to be true, I am starting to think it is not. I think it appears inevitable to us because of the social paradigm we live in. Let's think about past civilizations living in completely different contexts, such as the the ancient Peruvians or Aztecs, or ancient Chinese, or aboriginal Australians before the arrival Europeans. These people, I believe, possessed a worldview so different from ours that the way we think about veganism may have been incomprehensible to them. (I don't think I'm explaining this as clearly as I could, so let me know if I can clarify anything.)
I think the reasons activists can even think of a vegan world is possible is because of the European-based world we live in. When European imperialism spread across the world from 1492 onwards, Europeans transplanted their ideas of civilization and progress and politics (think about it: the nation-state system itself, and the courts, and laws, and legal structures that are a part of all countries today have their origins in Europe), and I believe those of ideas give sprout to the possibility or desirability of veganism. Indeed, activism as we know it, that pushes veganism and animal rights both in the Western and non-Western worlds has its origins in the Western world.
I hope I am wrong and that there is some universal, timeless, transcendent element to veganism and animal rights and all of those civilizations--the ancient Peruvians and Aztecs, various African tribes, Eskimos, traditional Chinese--just were hadn't realized the truth, but I fear that is not the case. Part of the reason I am coming to the conclusion I am coming to is, I think, because I subscribed to a purely atheistic, materialistic worldview.
All of this--the reality of cultural relativism I seem to be suggesting--does not suggest that activists should doubt what they are doing. The suffering of animals is colossal, and we should not give up. But I think if people really subscribe to the atheistic, materialistic, naturalistic worldview, we will have to face up to the real of nature of veganism.
Once again, I hope I am wrong and that there is something greater and all of the non-vegan societies and peoples of the past that viewed and used animals as resources were in the dark about the truth of veganism and veganism is an inevitable part of human evolution. I fear many AR activists will condemn me and my dedication to the cause, and I understand why they would do so, but these thoughts are something I just needed to share.
What do you think?
I agree with most of what you've said.
Pranav, first let me say where I think we agree:
1. Moral progress is not some inevitable or universal thing or process. Humanity is not "evolving" somehow into something more moral than it has been in the past; there are no internal or external forces at work that are or could be causing any increased morality. Rather, there are individuals who, acting individually as well as collectively, struggle and negotiate day-by-day - with others and against structural features of society - to improve their lot in life. Oftentimes, no progress is made, or things regress, or what looks like progress turns out to be something else.
2. The idea of "animal rights" is rooted in the Enlightenment liberal tradition as you say it is. That tradition is at odds with the first point above because it is a tradition grounded in the notion of "inalienable rights" or "natural rights" or "Reason" or "Truth" or any number of other weird abstractions. Since we appear to agree that the first point is correct and that in an atheistic, material, natural universe weird abstractions don't actually exist, then the Enlightenment liberal tradition is somehow inadequate. Therefore, "vegan education" can't be the answer if by "vegan education" we mean a process of imparting or imposing our version of Truth on others (since such Truth doesn't exist).
The points of disagreement I may have with you are:
3. There is such a thing as "moral progress" if by that we mean the human notion of "moral consideration" becoming more inclusive from time-to-time. For example, I think it's true that, as a class, women in most Western societies have benefited from such progress in many ways. As noted in the first point above, such progress doesn't just happen, nor is it meant to happen, nor is it necessary that it happen. It certainly doesn't happen for all people at the same time, in the same ways, and, of course, for many people, it never happens at all. But, when people are willing to struggle and negotiate for it, progress can indeed happen.
4. Cultural relativism is not the problem that many people seem to think it is (I don't think you're endorsing relativism by the way, so this isn't so much a disagreement with you as it is an explanation of how I think about the way these things are usually framed). For instance, I think it's perfectly reasonable to acknowledge that people in Ancient Greece weren't acting immorally when they owned slaves, given what they knew about the world and their place in it. However, what we can say is that had they understood the case against slavery as we believe we understand it today, then they would have been wise not to perpetuate slavery. So, slavery wasn't "right" in Ancient Greece while it's "wrong" today. But, would it have been the case that they had understood what we take ourselves to understand about why slavery ought to be rejected, the Ancient Greeks should have rejected slavery .
The challenge for the "animal rights movement" is to articulate what it understands about why people ought to reject the using, harming and killing of other animals such that most people choose to reject those things. I'm not quite sure how to best to go about doing that, but my sense is that the best way would not involve insisting that other animals have rights, or that other animals are persons. That approach seems to fall into a trap as a result of not understanding points 1 & 2 above; I think it's bound to fail as a result. We won't change the world by dogmatically insisting that every person must accept the "rights" of other animals. We may change the world by trying to arrive at some mutual understanding. (And I agree with your other forum post, the basis for such understanding will not be a rational one, it will be one that begins on the affective or emotional level.)
Pranav Merchant said:
Tim, what part(s) do you not agree with?