I want to briefly discuss my thoughts about a disturbing phrase I’ve been hearing far too frequently in conversations about veganism.
I’d like to see those on both sides of the conversation stop saying “putting ethics aside” when the primary and truly critical issue at hand is an ethical one. When used by vegans (probably at the point that they feel they are losing the ethical argument and need to hurriedly switch gears), this imprudent tactic derails any opportunity to drive home the only argument for veganism that truly matters – if one believes that non-human individuals matter morally and that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on them, then the only logical response is to start living vegan immediately. Once this primary area of concern has been temporarily dismissed so as to focus on secondary and tertiary matters (examples of which are named below), it is extremely difficult and highly unlikely that it can be revisited with the same power it would have had prior to it being, in effect, intentionally minimized. When used by non-vegans, it’s an indication that they are experiencing cognitive dissonance triggered by the ethical dilemma being brought to their attention – namely that their behaviors are incongruous with their beliefs – and it is employed as an avoidance mechanism. It is tantamount to saying, “I don’t want to look at that… so let’s look at this instead while I conveniently forget what it is we were looking at.”
When we “put ethics aside” in almost any situation, we open the door to a myriad of problems, and one need only look at modern political systems to see examples of this in abundance and to observe the negative consequences of taking such an action. The “putting ethics aside” point in the vegan conversation is usually followed by some discussion about diet, personal health and/or the environment. Specific to veganism and animal rights, “putting ethics aside” trivializes the injustices inherent in animal exploitation by intentionally overlooking them and starts to frame animal exploitation as a matter of personal choice, which it is not. Any choice ceases to be “personal” once that choice involves a victim. This is precisely why laws protect victims of crimes (ostensibly, anyway) and disallow “It was my personal choice to kill that guy, so I’m not guilty!” as a valid legal defense.
I couldn’t imagine, in situations where the victims were human, anyone saying, “Putting ethics aside, it’s better not to intentionally run someone over with your car because that would cause your insurance to go up and you’d have to pay for some costly auto repairs, not to mention the personal inconvenience of having to clean blood off your bumper. On the other hand, putting ethics aside again, you could always rob a bank to get the money to pay for all that, provided you don’t get caught, and maybe get rich in the process!” Such statements shift the focus from an examination of the harm that would befall the potential victim(s) in favor of focusing on the benefits that stand to be gained by the potential perpetrator (in this case, the benefits include the avoidance of negative consequences and a potential financial windfall at the expense of others). Sadly, when the victims are non-human individuals, speciesismtends to bethe default position. For those unfamiliar with the word, here’s a definition:
Speciesism (spe·cies·ism) – noun – by analogy with racism and sexism, an unjust double standard placing higher moral value on some individual animals over others, based solely on the morally irrelevant criterion of species membership.
For those of you who are vegan and choose the “putting ethics aside” angle in your advocacy, please ask yourself why you do that. Why would one make the choice to forego one powerful argument in favor of several weaker ones? My guess is it’s due to a lack of information, confidence or experience. I would like to offer the following suggestions to assist with these issues.
Since, as mentioned previously, the ethical argument is the only argument for veganism that truly matters, please doall you can to strengthen your working knowledge of the ethical reasons for living vegan. Join an upcoming online reading group offered by International Vegan Association, an invaluable resource for any vegan advocate of any experience level. Read abolitionist vegan essays here (and hereand here – if you need more and can’t find them, contact me and I’ll guide you), listen to abolitionist vegan podcasts and find other experienced abolitionists with whom you can share advocacy tips and ideas. This will strengthen your ability to confidently advocate in unequivocal terms for veganism, rather than having to sidetrack both yourself and the non-vegans to whom you’re speaking with tangential matters like diet, health and the environment. People who “go” vegan for dietary or health reasons tend to “go” back to their old eating habits once they’ve met their weight-loss goals or their health issues have resolved, while those who live vegan for ethical reasons tend to continue living vegan, as personal ethics are not normally subject to change on a whim. I can’t think of anyone I know who’s truly “vegan for the environment” (plant-based maybe, but not vegan by definition) and if I did, my guess is they’d cheerfully go back to consuming products of animal exploitation if there were a way to do so in an ecologically-conscious manner. George Carlin, not vegan but a person of masterful insight into human nature, spoke eloquently of such individuals: “I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists, these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is there aren’t enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world safe for their Volvos. Besides, environmentalists don’t give a shit about the planet. They don’t care about the planet. Not in the abstract they don’t. You know what they’re interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They’re worried that some day in the future, they might be personally inconvenienced. Narrow, unenlightened self-interest doesn’t impress me.”
“Putting ethics aside” is a step onto a very slippery slope that inevitably leads to tragic ends. Let’s stay on solid ground and keep our ethics where they need to be – in front of our behaviors, not put aside where they can be mislaid or forgotten about altogether.
[I encourage all readers to click the blue links embedded in this essay and explore the information on those sites.]