The Vegan Dilemma

By Brian Robinson.

If you are a vegan, and if you are sincere and passionate about your belief as I am sure most vegans are, then how do you follow that lifestyle faithfully in a world where it is impossible to distance yourself from everything which is either cruel or exploitative of animals? Even rubbing shoulders with cruelty can be painful in itself. Do you adopt the lifestyle insofar as you can and keep it to yourself; do you wear the tee-shirt and announce it to the world; do you raise a banner in protest; do you set out to educate and enlighten meat-eaters; or do you take matters into your own hands and actively try and stop it? Where do you draw the line? Indeed, we might ask, is there a line to be drawn at all?

Moral theorists themselves try to identify clear lines or boundaries which act as guides for moral behaviour. Stay on this side and you are morally safe: step over it and you must be doing something wrong. Our skin could act as one such boundary. For example, whatever you think or feel inside is your business and couldn’t possibly harm anybody. However you wouldn’t be much of a vegan if you held the principle of veganism within as a theory only and never put it into practice. However, once you do decide to lead the vegan lifestyle, then you automatically affect the lives of humans as well as animals. After all, farmers and supermarkets survive on the backs of animals and animal products. If we all became vegans, they would suffer to some degree. I can’t speak for vegans, but I’m fairly sure that most of them would not feel they were pushing the boundary too far by leading a vegan lifestyle. After all, we are all entitled to vote with our feet, and that can of itself be a very persuasive tool for change.

What about adopting a more evangelical stance: we wear the tee-shirt; go on protest marches; place pictures of animal cruelty right under the noses of meat-eaters and consumers of animal products? We make them feel the guilt, feel the pain. Is there a line to be drawn there? Well, things are a bit tricky now. Do you post the pictures through every meat-eaters door? Do you put pictures of animal cruelty on the products they buy? Or, do you just put the truth out there where it is likely to be seen? If you can shock or shame one person into becoming a vegan or vegetarian, then surely that justifies the unpleasant emotions the pictures might evoke. Or, do we have to weigh moral behaviour and take into account all the unpleasant side-effects of an action? Raising awareness is one thing: pushing, prodding, poking is quite another.

Then there is the more active approach. If veganism is a principle which stands up to every moral test, and if we can therefore conclude that there can be no justification for the way animals are mistreated, then surely we have the right to push even harder. Surely we have the right to stand up for animals? And, we might even argue that we have a duty to protect and liberate them from their suffering. Principles after all stand above the law and thus we should feel morally justified in pursuing them by whatever means we can. Or should we? Well, thing are even trickier now. If we are talking about taking action against all those involved in animal cruelty and exploitation, then there must be a line to be drawn? We cannot simply coerce or bully people into becoming vegans. We cannot daub the houses of meat-eaters with the accusation ‘Murderer’ in red. In fact, this type of action can be counterproductive in the sense that it could get people’s backs up and may even strengthen their resolve against change. Before we go too far or too radical with our actions, we have to be certain that the end justifies the means. And up to date, no truly moral philosophy has emerged where two wrongs make a right.

Perhaps at this point, we should stand back and ask ourselves exactly what principles are. Are they guiding lights which exist to help illuminate the moral pathway? Or are they defining moral laws which demand certain types of action from us?

Principles do not appear to be absolute. For example, if we were starving, as lots of the people are in the world, surely would we eat meat if we had to? And likewise, I have never heard the suggestion that we should extend the vegan principle to the third world. There is no suggestion that people should starve to death rather than eat meat. Perhaps veganism is a principle that applies only to the first world?

Principles do not seem to be things that are universal either. For example, on this planet, nature’s principle takes no account of animal cruelty or exploitation. Even if we all became vegans tomorrow, animals would still suffer the most horrendous cruelty. That would continue to happen on this planet and throughout the universe regardless. You could argue of course that principles only apply to humans, however, if there is a designing force behind the universe, then the designing force is certainly not setting a very good example.

If principles aren’t universal or absolute, then it is difficult to argue that they should dictate or drive action rather than simply shed light. Pursuing a principle too far can cause bad consequences and therefore we shouldn’t lock onto them blindly and head for the moral high ground. Perhaps there is another way of looking at things? Instead of trying to get more and more people to adopt a vegan lifestyle; instead of trying to shame them into compliance, perhaps we should simply be asking the question how can we improve or prolong the lives of animals. Perhaps we should be asking how can we bring about radical change, but in a way that is considerate and less disruptive for humans?

Is it possible then, to bring about radical change which is virtually painless across the board, yet which can still be classed as a moral action? In theory at least, I believe it is. But before we look at that, there are a couple of things to be said about morality. Firstly, I would argue that the whole idea of the existence of moral dilemmas is a misleading one. If we are forced to choose between two or more bad actions, then surely we can’t be doing morality. We must be doing something else. I’m certain that someone will now come up with a true example of a moral dilemma, but in practice they are rare in life if indeed they exist at all. And I would also argue that the idea of moral dilemmas is a dangerous one in the sense that they can give justification to bad actions. Yes, bad actions are sometimes necessary, but they do not exist in the moral arena.

If we reject the idea of the existence of moral dilemmas, then I believe we can argue that moral action, by any definition, should never produce causalities or bad consequences. In the moral arena, moral action should be about doing the right thing rather than doing something which is bad; something which produces bad consequences; and something which is done for the wrong reasons.

Here then is a suggestion. It is a theoretical proposal admittedly, but it is one which might be able to move the discussion forward. Some people will think it a good idea: vegan purists almost certainly will not.  

Leaving aside issues of animal welfare etc, it seems that egg production throws up two main areas of concern. Firstly, all newborn male chicks are either crushed or gassed as they are simply surplus to requirements. Secondly, the lifespan of hens is determined not by their right to life, but by their ability to produce eggs. When egg production falls they too become surplus to requirements. Both these practices make perfect economic sense: but they make no moral sense. We have somehow found a way to switch off our moral conscience or so it seems. The question is, given the previous suggestion that a moral act should never produce casualties, how can we bring about radical change without creating victims?

This then is the theoretical suggestion: day old chicks should not be killed but allowed to live on to give them a reasonable lifespan. And laying hens should not be slaughtered after production has peaked, but rather their lives should be extended considerably. And then, after a reasonable lifespan has been enjoyed by all the birds, they should be killed and offered as meat to help the starving and hungry in the third world. 

The obvious question that springs to mind is how is this to be funded? There may be some who would be prepared to pay a premium for such eggs, but that would limit things considerably and the likelihood is that change would be minimal. There are also people who already rescue hens from factory production and people who run ethical farms producing eggs. The problem is, these outlets are thin on the ground and so hard to find that for the average vegan it makes more sense just to stop eating eggs.

A better idea would be to offer a heavy subsidy for ethical egg production and this would encourage more farmers to abandon traditional methods and enter the ethical scheme. However, would the general public be willing to sanction such a subsidy?

Well, there is a growing concern regarding the way we target our national charitable giving. Many of the schemes we support are ill conceived to the point of being ridiculous. Much of the money is wasted and too many people profit from it with little or no input from themselves. If it was seen that the subsidy to farmers for ethical hen production also had a clear benefit for those in the third world then I believe there would be considerable support for it.

It goes without saying that the above idea would need much refinement before it could ever be put into practice. And indeed, it is also true that theory is one thing: practice quite another. But, nevertheless, the theory meets the fundamental condition set out here that moral action should never produce victims. In fact, it actually produces considerable benefits. The chickens would gain; farmers would benefit; the third world would be fed; and the conscience of many would be eased.

Of course, it does not get over the fact that we would still be exploiting animals to some degree. However, the one argument against the vegan stance, is that if you bring significant numbers of animals into existence, and thereafter give them a good quality of life, then surely that must have some weight against the exploitation argument? It also seems to be true that although veganism is growing, the world clearly is still not ready to embrace it. So which comes first: the chicken or the egg: veganism or compromise?

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