Updated: Jul 26, 2019
Reflections on the burdens of sentience, the flame wars, confusions of words, and the goals of ethicists for animals and consciousness.
By now it must be clear what a vegan is and does, right? The media has helped clarify veganism for most people, and 2019 is even the year of the vegan. More and more vegan food is now hitting the mainstream of supermarkets and fast food outlets. It may nevertheless surprise many people who don't identify as vegan that the passionate vegans and their close allies, animal advocates, don't always agree about such basic things as definitions and ways that veganism can be applied.
To most people, all vegans seem to be a very similar bunch of people, or so the stereotype goes. Vegans are all equally disreputable, with more lowly reputations than almost all socially undesirable minorities, all except drug addicts, according to one survey. The same thing that may make vegans undesirable also leads to significant debate about the best way to practice veganism: the intensity with which they hold, test and consider their beliefs. Some vegans appear to think that one of the worst things you can do as a vegan advocate is to question veganism or to act as though it may be a complex ethical platform that doesn't always deliver the most effective outcomes for animals. For these people, veganism is like a fortress. It must be guarded and protected. It's always under threat. The worst threats come from those people who don't act as though veganism must be protected using a conventional set of tools. These same people might even consider the powerful understandings and evidence about impact in addressing the goals of veganism, animal cruelty, suffering and exploitation. But, regardless, they still consider people who challenge the idea of veganism as a fortress as threats - opposers of the common purpose of the group - rather than opportunities to better enhance veganism itself. Acting as though veganism is not a fortress is guaranteed to raise the gates of veganism that some vegans have in their heads. A particularly challenging vegan may find themselves exiled to the moat. Nothing is guaranteed to raise the ire of vegans in the vegan community than asking if veganism might need some redefinition to accommodate practices they may see as outside the fortress. The word vegan is a most sacred word for vegans, and is more often guarded than any other word. As I explained in a previous post, when a word is confused, or threatened with redefinition, dictionaries are often treated like fortresses which protect words and meanings, rather than enable new meanings and spreading current understandings of meaning. According to the simplest dictionary I could find via google, a vegan is:
n. a person who does not eat or use animal products.
Now, below we can see animals. These are the animals that no vegan consumes. No animals whatsoever. On pain of no longer being vegan. Simple huh?
If you look at this image above closely enough, it even makes a V. For vegan. Of course. Not quite. No, it doesn't. The classification of animals, taxonomy (or cladistics) doesn't hold the key to all ethics or even to what an animal's interests are or capacity to feel pain. There is compelling scientific evidence that some animals are not sentient: micro-animals, coral, sponges, cucumbers, the porifera, various parasites, and the bivalves. This is not merely belief. What does this strange equivocation in the world of veganism mean? The relationship of vegans to these nonsentient animals is equivocal, especially the micro-animals, coral, and porifera, and other undesirable animals like parasites. I have never seen vegans take much of an interest in protecting these animals, as most destroy their habitats or kill or consume them unknowingly. But for some vegans to discuss these animals and what is done to them is an absurdity, a reductio ad absurdum. It is not perceived to be an opportunity to refine and understand ethics. They do not want to consider the way that veganism may be burdened with simplifications that are not helpful to the cause or that lead to incongruities and biases. If it is important for vegans to act consistently in their ethical practices, why is not important to be consistent when it comes to these undesirable or invisible animals out there? Do some vegans imagine that the word animal, the taxonomy, is good enough to avoid discussion? Can we can simply ignore debates about sentience - such as in other living beings like plants - only in so far as they affect the 'higher order' animals who suffer from industrial animal farming? If we consistently followed the simple definition of veganism as found in dictionaries, imagine what could happen, a dystopic situation that I will tell in the form of a story about biologists:
A group of biologists, sick of wading through forests, rivers, and mountains, and then having to spend too much time in labs, decided one day to spend the rest of their poorly-funded careers creating paper-based work for themselves by changing the taxonomy of the kingdom of animalia. They conspire to ensure one particular animal should lose its status in this kingdom, and invent all kinds of evidence to prove its evolutionary origin and the particular status of its tail. These biologists are distrusted by half of the world's biologists, and believed by the others, who are similarly bored and seeking better paid government jobs. One half of the world's scientists and educators decide to depart from taxonomic associations and, with a totalitarian fervour, change every cladistic chart in their half of the world. A vast dynasty of change spreads its soft power throughout space and time. Suddenly, all ethical bets are off in this one half of the world, and vegans who are caught in between decide to move or stay in one half of the world and spend some time at the vegan society for the first time in a long time to rule that the particular animal that the biologists spent so long debating over, the canus lupus, and all its domestic breeds, is to be cut loose and eaten without a second thought.
So, yes, let's absorb that story.
It's true I don't believe for a second that vegans would behave in the way that people in this story behave. Certainly not according to the whims of biologists, who are not very whimsical in any case. Of course, biologists never designed the kingdom of animalia with sentience in mind.
To summarise the moral of the story, one way to respond to the incongruity this story presents is to ignore the problem and shun the questioners. Or we could be curious about all of this, and not confuse definition with interpretation or ethics.
What this story shows is that in veganism it's best not to insist on a fixed definition of vegan as a word: it's not what matters ethically or to animals that suffer.
In the field of law, there's an oft-quoted summary from Judge Learned Hand, who is referring to the court cases in which the case is so complex that dictionaries have actually been used to settle interpretations and even incarcerate people for many more years:
"[I]t is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary." —Judge Learned Hand ( Cabell v. Markham 1945).
I think similarly that it is one of the indexes of a mature and developed veganism not to make a fortress out of cladistics.
The usage of words can change, and discussing words is important without saying yes or no to simple questions inadequate to the task. I think the redefinition question is largely irrelevant. What's much more important is the question of what kind of vegans we want to be, and how much of a clear sight do we want to maintain over our impact on animal suffering?
Some things can be moreover complex, rather than complicated.
Complicated has an answer that may take a long time to reach. Complex requires everyone to consider decisions for themselves and take actions that help us generate more data that might never solve the problem. My veganism is complex. I dream of a veganism around me robust enough, curious enough, complex enough, mature enough to discuss interesting exceptions, border cases, and opportunities to help animals without telling people they are selfish or cruel. I call for a veganism that is excited about considering ethics in detail or even using a word in a way that clashes with a dictionary. A veganism that seeks out opportunities to help suffering beings in any shape and size, rather than simply help vegans live in ignorance. A veganism that can articulate ways of addressing preventable animal suffering and direct exploitation without denying the reality of suffering and indirect exploitation. Otherwise, I may as well just become a sentientist, a new word that extends ethical value to any sentient life. That is, until that word, too, becomes a victim of the logomachy of people who may who do no better than me to help animals but who do hold unshakeable belief in dictionaries and human designed charts over the reality of living beings.
This post is dedicated to microscopic water bears (see image above) and was first drafted for the Facebook group Sentientism, following a flame war and exodus of some vegans who objected to a discussion of whether or not definitions of veganism needed to change. The discussion was about the ethically-minded consumption of non-sentient animals such as bivalves, which are farmed with minimal impact on other animals (unlike typically plant farming). The issue is a complex one and I haven't done it complete justice here. Minor changes have brought this post to literarychange.net.