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Veganism – a matter of justice or compassion?

After a recent discussion in a prominent animal rights page on the so-called “justice vs compassion” issue, I began to think on some problems within the rights-based approach to veganism, the foundation to which is deontological ethics. Deontological ethics alone is insufficient to explain things at fundamental levels; at some point it should necessarily coincide with virtue ethics (assuming “moral care” is a virtue). The British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe famously argued that terms such as “moral obligation” which we use in contemporary ethical discourse lack a proper conceptual foundation to their use. This is important to understanding the “justice vs compassion” argument which I’m going to present here. As for the other major approach to veganism, consequentialism, it fails to address some of the crucial problems of Ethics, which has serious implications when enquiring into the concepts of both ‘justice’ and ‘compassion’.


This article is not about "animal welfarism vs abolitionism", but about some of the meta-concepts which are common to both positions. I do not have a background either in Ethics, or philosophy in general. Whoever reading this are most welcome to correct my thoughts and share their important insights on the topic. I hope they will also pardon me for my grammatical mistakes, as English is not my first language.


Let me start by analyzing the following statement: “Veganism is not a matter of compassion or mercy; it is a matter of fundamental justice”.


This statement, though harmless in its intent, does the damage by making a categorical error in conceptualization. The statement implies that compassion is something entirely different from justice, and both are not conceptually connected in any way. Moreover, it negates the ‘compassion’ factor entirely. Here, I’m going to argue that this is misleading and may turn out to be counter-productive in our advocacy. In attack of my argument, somebody can make an analogy such as "I'm not exactly compassionate towards my neighbors but I don't imprison and torture them". But, do we start from such a picture? We can say if we had refrained from denying animals their moral or legal ‘rights’, there wouldn't be a (justice) issue in the first place. But we do not start from there; we start from a picture of injustice. So our actual analogy should be, “I’ve been imprisoning and torturing my neighbors, and now I ought to stop it!”


Of course, here we stand for ‘justice’, and call it an "act of justice" as if we were trying to restore a state of moral normality or ought-ness in order to be ‘just’. But such a state exists only ideally, and in reality, we are not restoring but creating it. And in the very act, our indifference or the state of mind of "not exactly being compassionate towards our neighbor" turns into a state of care! The very act points towards a quality of human nature, without which 'justice' is a dead concept.


One may object by saying that sometimes in the interest of “being just”, one performs acts that are not compassionate at all. For example, a judge may hand out a punishment to an individual because it is ‘just’ to do so. Similarly, while deciding a property dispute, it is not compassion but the principle of justice that is involved.

But this is incorrect reasoning. A demand for justice comes out of the moral care for the victim, and what really happens is that this care is directed as judgment towards the culprit. But again, this ‘care’ factor cannot be separated from the act of judgment (punishment). As for the case of property dispute, it is not one of fundamental justice. But veganism is about fundamental justice, and therefore justice in the context of veganism is necessarily linked with moral care, though, not in the case of "property dispute".

Now, let me look at the concept of “moral obligation”. One may say that “being compassionate” is a matter of personal choice while “being just” is a matter of our moral obligation. That is, abstaining from deliberately inflicting harm to animals is our moral obligation and not a matter of compassion. But what exactly do we mean by that term? For e.g. a non-vegan might be tended to ask, “Is it my moral obligation to become vegan? But who says so”?


When we use the term “moral obligation” in our ethical discourse,


(1)   Though we are not using it in a sense like “legal obligation” (which could be based on some kind of contract), there is some similarity between both these conceptions.


(2)   We are using the term “moral obligation” in an absolute sense of that term.


Now, as Ansombe argued, together, these conditions would require us to point towards a supreme moral legislator– a divine law giver or God. Indeed, the term “moral obligation” has its roots in religious-based ethics. When separated from this religious foundation, the term loses its meaning altogether. In a secular or even atheistic worldview which is adopted by many ethicists and vegans today, the term “moral obligation” lacks the proper foundation to be employed in the sense we intend it to be! The Kantian notion of “self-legislation” is simply incoherent, unless that means one has found an absolute source within oneself which is the ‘legislator’ of one’s moral actions, which would then serve as a foundation for the same. But as long as there is an ‘agent’ of action which we can’t dispense with, “self-legislation” is a meaningless notion. Reason itself cannot be that legislator, because there is no “absolute reason” for something to be the case (with logical necessity), as far as an ethical action is concerned.


So, our "moral obligation" to animals is 'obligation' only because we morally care for them! "Abstaining from deliberately inflicting harm" directly correlates with moral care. Why do we do that? Is it because there is some essentially lifeless code which says so? No, we do recognize the life in that code! Is it possible that someone can act out of a ‘sense’ of duty, and discharge moral obligations to others that one does not like at all or care about? Yes, it is quite possible, but what makes it possible is the “moral care” which is essentially contained in that act, in our recognizing the life in the code.


So, something runs prior to our ‘act’ of justice, and for the proper conceptualization of it, this ‘something’ is essential. We may name it as “moral care” or “moral concern” and distinguish it from ‘compassion’. But isn't there an obvious conceptual similarity here? Or, let’s say there could be something fundamental common to both “compassion” and “moral care” (which leads to the act of justice). Therefore, when we make a statement like "Veganism is a matter of justice, and not compassion", we negate the conceptual structure which is common to both 'compassion' and the factor "that drives" the act of justice. But not only is there a conceptual problem here, but also a practical one. It is the effect of language on human mind.


To conclude this article, though I’m not presenting here a case of virtue-ethics approach to veganism, the deontological or 'legislative' conception of ethics which concerns itself with “moral obligation” has to have something like a concept of virtue - ‘care’, ‘compassion’ or whatever we may - to support itself. So, talking about cultivating virtues such as compassion and altruism, and developing the moral character for the flourishing of all life on earth, is important to veganism. Or, at the very least, explicitly negating such qualities in our discourse on veganism may turn out to be counter-productive.











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