Friday, May 21, 2010

Why I disagree with Zamir: Or why ethical vegetarianism isn't superior

I never know what do with Tzachi Zamir, the author of Ethics and the Beast: A Speciesist Argument for Animal Liberation. Sadly, I have still only read selections from that book, rather than in toto. One of the arguments he advances in that work is that ethical vegetarianism is superior to ethical veganism. In order to exam that argument, we can turn to his article on veganism. And this post will seem at times harsh to Zamir, and I don't mean for them to be. He is obviously insightful and dedicated. In the end, though, I just find his argument unsustainable.
I guess before we go further, I should say a few things about my current stances on these issues. I'm not sure I believe in an absolutely ethically vegan position. Which is to say, I am not sure that every production and possible consumption of an animal product is always and forever wrong. I do believe, however, that I could be wrong about this one. But, from a practical standpoint, I believe that ethical veganism is almost always going to be necessary. There just are not many times when most of us will have access to eggs, milk, etc. that did not depend upon systematic violence and exploitation of other animals (from the genes of their birth to their eventual death). I am, however, not one of those people who believe there is no moral distinction between vegetarianism and eating animals' flesh. And I am certainly not one of those people who believe vegetarianism is somehow worse than that of flesh eating. Now that that is cleared up, let's get into the meat of the argument.

Zamir divides up pro-animal welfare people into three categories: vegans, tentative vegans, and vegetarians. Vegetarians are people who don't eat animal flesh (of any sort) but who do eat eggs and milk from 'progressive sources'. Vegans believe that all use of animals and their products are equal to exploitation of animals. Therefore, we can never eat an egg, wear wool, live with a companion animal, that does not entail violence and exploitation to other animals. Tentative vegans (a phrase I don't particularly care for), believes that in some idealized or utopian situation it might be possible to use animal products, but for practical purposes we have to be vegans currently.

Jean Kazez provides a good overview of Zamir's arguments along with her objections to his argument here, and I suggest reading it. But I am going to focus on my objections to Zamir's work. He spends a lot of time trying to argue that vegans get it wrong, and that it is possible to have a non-exploitative relationship with animals, that includes digesting animal products. Again, I think he is right, but I don't think he meets his burden of proof here. First of all, because I think the concept of exploitation remains fundamentally under thought in the article. Now, there are limits to article spaces, and I don't know if he gets more thoroughly into this question elsewhere, or if he plans to do so. However, I am not sure the most luxurious pet environment isn't coercive in some way. Zamir feels that I would believe this only if I anthropomorphed the other animal into an autonomous individual. Rather, according to Zamir, I should see the pet as as a child. I think this is a good situation to understand Deleuze and Guattari's objection to the pet in A Thousand Plateaus. Particularly, they argue against the oedipalizing nature of pets, the threat is to see them as children (and I would add that part of that threat is naturalizing paternalism, and that we should be uncomfortable with paternalism, even to children). I worry about my relationship with my cat, and I am often raked by moments of existential doubt on being a pet owner. And it isn't because I anthropomorphize my cat, but because I am frequently confronted by both the cat's alienness and similarity. That the cat's desires and thoughts remain fundamentally opaque, and the power I wield over that being is so casual and absolute. How can any sane person not have moments of moral vertigo in such situations? Owning a life that has its own desires, capacities, and goals should always provoke unease, no matter how much I love that life.
I would agree that good pet environments are usually superior to letting them survive in the wild, particularly the urban wild. However, that doesn't prove that we should be in the business of reproducing animal life. Just because my cat's life is better off than the alternative doesn't mean that not existing is a better alternative (for the record, I think my cat is better off existing), and that requires more philosophical work than Zamir gets to his article. In order to follow this point means getting into his arguments about why vegetarianism is superior to veganism, so let me bracket this discussion briefly to make a few other points.
In Zamir's discussions about there being animals who can be well treated and still exist as pets or producers of milk, eggs, and wool, it is striking how often these examples are filled with some of the shocking and regular forms of violence we bring to bear on other animals. Some of these are things that Zamir supports or finds acceptable, some feel him with unease and it is unclear how he comes down on these issues, and some he completely objects to. To give examples, he completely objects to having the vocal cords of dogs cut (good for him), he is filled with unease over debeaking of chickens and declawing of cats, and he finds forced and constant impregnation of cows acceptable and spaying and neutering of cats and dogs to be supported. All of these things, with the exception of spaying and neutering which I am uneasy about but support, I find objectionable. I am particularly horrified that keeping a being constantly impregnated against their will is something he doesn't even seem uneasy about. Furthermore, Zamir doesn't bring up two forms of systematic violence that would still plague animals in a purely vegetarian world: one is that of genetics and the other is animal sociality. The issue of genetics is that we have breed many animals into the walking dead. Zamir objects to bringing a being into existence whose teleology is determined, but we have created many animals whose teleology is determined genetically and violently. Moreover, Zamir either doesn't seem to believe that breaking up animals from the societies and families they exist in is a problem, or that his vegetarian ideal will somehow not cause this to happen. While we are unsure of different species's levels of bonding and sociality, it is not to say that it doesn't exist. This goes back to my point about the opacity of the animal and my unease in casually wielding power over their lives.
Now, to unbracket the earlier point on vegetarianism vs. veganism. Zamir believes that we have a duty both preserve species, but also to keep a large quantity of species around. Now, I have written before about my problems with this obviously biopolitical species logic. However, the entire question to if we owe duties to non-existent beings, or at least not yet beings, is a complicated question (random question for any of the OOO people who might still be reading this. Harman doesn't think potentiality or the virtual are correct ontological determinations. Does that means his version of ontology excludes the ability to plan for future generations? I don't mean this flippantly, but seriously, if not particularly thought out). However, Zamir's belief that we owe not just a species the right of reproduction, but that we must be on the side of quantity is a move I honestly did not understand in his article. Is it a responsibility to the species, or to each potential life? If the former, is there a cap or some amount that is properly paid off that after which we don't have to increase that species' numbers? If the latter, does that mean every time we practice birth control I am doing a violence or morally suspect act? I am not trying to be intentionally dense, I honestly did not follow his argument or its implications. Regardless of feeling that these arguments are not fleshed out, let move on. Zamir argues that a vegan world means that some species might go extinct, or at the very least many domesticated animals would see large reductions of numbers to morally unacceptable levels. In order to make sure this doesn't happen to chickens, cows, and sheep we should practice vegetarianism. Now, you might object that even eggs, dairy, and wool bought from progressive sources still practice horrible and unforgivable actions. The mass slaughter of male chicks when they are born, the selling off of male calves to become veal, and the like. In short, one assumes that the logic of ethical vegetarianism might lead one to ethical veganism. However, Zamir argues that we should nudge and support progressive sources for the welfare of animals, otherwise we are left with the pure factory farmed conditions of the non-progressive sources. Moreover, that withdrawing from the market doesn't drive any market forces. Well, the number of committed vegetarians in this country, much less vegans, is small enough to make one weep. I think we have very, very little influence on market forces. But even outside of that issue, Zamir doesn't confront what I call, following the term greenwashing, humane-washing. Because, for the most part, increasing the humane conditions of animals decrease profits market logic dictates that people don't increase humane conditions. But, one might object, isn't this why it is important that we demand more humanely raised animal products? Well, just as with greenwashing, humane-washing involves selling the image and myth of more humanely raised animals while not fulfilling this promise. Which makes far more market sense really. And we have seen this, over and over again. We have seen this with so-called cage free eggs, and we have seen this with humanely raised meat. Increased demand in both these cases didn't lead to better conditions, it frequently led to companies decreasing standards in order to gather the profits of higher demand. Market forces just don't seem to work the way that Zamir presents them as working, which makes it hard to depend upon this argument for moral superiority. And, while I cannot prove this, my gut feeling is that large scale production of animal products just cannot be achieved without unacceptable living conditions for animals. To give one example, Zamir says that he was informed that cannibalism among chickens doesn't just happen with factory farm conditions (indeed, factory farm conditions can often minimize issues of cannibalism by controlling for diet and light), but happen outside of factory farmed conditions. My understanding is that this is true, and that even a medium size fairly free roaming group of chickens can often lead to cannibalism (especially if issues of feed, spaces for mating, etc, are not properly attended to). This means that debeaking is common even with many free-roaming chicken farms. We need totally free roaming and very small numbers of chickens given a great deal of attention to prevent cannibalism. Which is just not a model for large-scale egg production. People can have pet chickens that they can have relatively guilt free eggs from, but not be able to operate a large chicken farm from without issues of debeaking and/or cannibalism.
Finally, I think Zamir intensifies the idea of combining vegetarianism and veganism with economic rationality. I find this move troubling, and problematic. Especially because economic rationality seems so implicated in some of the most vicious relations to animals. When I talk about becoming-vegan, or becoming-vegetarian I mean partially developing a concept outside of models of economic rationality. Vegetarianism and veganism means confronting basic questions of political economy. And being a vegan or a vegetarian is not, despite what Peter Singer says, the model of the boycott. It's relationship to the boycott is like the relationship of the general to the particular strike, the forms may be similar, but the stakes are entirely different.
Now, part of my concept of becoming-vegan and becoming-vegetarian is to get away from our rituals of innocence and our protocols of purity. So, this post is not some sort of attack on vegetarianism. But I know, and you know, that vegetarianism isn't morally superior to veganism, that no matter how attractive the argument is, it's bunk. I wish it were true, I wish I could have relationships with pets that were not filled with moral vertigo, and I enjoyed dairy and eggs and wish I could consume them guilt free. And while I see Zamir as an ally in struggle, and I think he is a clear thinker and a sound writer, I don't find comfort in this article.