Friday, September 11, 2015

The Trouble with Being Bred: Vegan Ethics and Antinatalism

Antinatalism comes in may forms. Most notably out of the tradition of philosophical pessimism (e.g. Arthur Schopenhauer, Emil Cioran, and David Benatar), but also importantly in queer theory and activism (e.g. Lee Edelman and Gender Mutiny). In addition, there have been antinatalists who argue that humans should cease to reproduce for environmental and animal welfare reasons (Patricia MacCormack  makes the argument for human extinction to save animals in Posthuman Ethics, and The Church of Euthanasia has long advocated we should "Save the Planet, Kill Yourself") Carmen Dell'Aversano combines Lee Edelman's argument with concerns over animals in the important essay, "The Love Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken." My desire here is not discuss the common argument around antinatalism, which concerns humans voluntary ceasing to reproduce (a position I have some issues with), and instead focus on the implicit antinatalism within veganism that is concerned with stopping the production and reproduction of other animals.

Antinatalism is at the core of so much animal ethics and activism. We can take one example that manages to unite vegan abolitionists, large animal rights groups (PETA and HSUS), and animal welfare groups that don't care about ending violence toward other animals in general (ASPCA), and that is the campaign to spay and neuter your pets. This is one antinatalist policy that manages to be shared by all types of animal advocacy groups. But veganism itself is, in many ways, principally a policy of antinatalism. Now, there are ways to advocate that becoming-vegan is about the productions of certain kinds of subjects and relations, but when we examine the mechanism of veganism to directly relieve suffering of animals, it does so through principles of antinatalism. Here, let me quote Will MacAskill being interviewed by Dylan Matthews:

Right. The chicken's already dead, so that's not where you're having an impact. Instead, you're just slightly decreasing demand for chicken. That means that shops are going to buy, on average, a bit less. They're going to stock a bit less chicken, so they'll buy less chicken from farmers, and in the future they'll produce fewer chickens. You're not saving animal lives — you're preventing animals from coming into existence. You may think it's such a small change that it wouldn't make any difference. Most of the time you don't make a difference. That's true. But occasionally you make a large difference, which makes up for it. Maybe the supermarket makes decisions on how many chickens it's going to buy in 1,000 chicken breast chunks or something. So if it sold above a certain number, then it would increase stock, and if it sold below a certain number, it would decrease stock. Most of the time, you won't make a difference, but if you take it over the threshold, then it won't decide to buy 1,000 more chickens. So maybe 1 in 1,000 times you'll make a difference to 1,000 chickens.Economists have actually studied this, and assessed how much of a difference you make. If you don't buy one egg, you decrease the supply by 0.91. If you reduce the amount of beef you buy by 1 pound, you reduce the supply of beef by 0.68 pounds. [Emphasis added]
I think that MacAskill has the function described above basically right. Veganism in its mechanism of directly helping animals is not about either saving current animals, or even really about improving the lives of future animals, it is rather about preventing animals from being born into lives that we feel are not worth living.

Now, why does thinking about veganism's implicit antinatalism matter? I have at least a couple of reasons. The first is that because antinatalism strikes most people as counterintuitive, and that this is no different when it comes toward animal ethics. It is no accident that ASPCA and the Humane Society spend more time talking about health and behavioral reasons to spay and neutur pets, than they do talking about issues of pet overpopulation, because many people are not going to be convinced by the arguments that because we love dogs and cats, we need to have less dogs and cats in the world. And furthermore, because our antinatalism tends to be implicit, and not something we think about, we tend to produce rhetoric and justifications that are more easily hijacked by "happy meat" producers. One of their central claims is that without eating other animals, these animals wouldn't exist. Which is, on some level, true. Certainly less animals would exist. Look at Temple Grandin making this point in a recent interview:

I was up on a catwalk over a whole sea of cattle — this was in the summer of 1990 — and getting kind of upset about it. And then I thought, you know, none of those cattle would have been born if we hadn’t bred them — they would never have existed at all. But we’ve got to give them a decent life. [Emphasis added]
You can find similar arguments in Michael Pollan, and any number of other advocates for different kinds of happy meat. You can see how this makes a certain kind of sense. If existence is an unquestioned good, then bringing animals into this world is a good. All that is left is to figure out how to reform a system. To get rid of the system, it means taking the stance that for many animals, it is better to have never been. That is actually a hard argument to make sometimes, but perhaps it is one we need to practice making, and making explicitly. Otherwise, vegans can always be painted as bizarrely antianimal.

The other reason we need to explore antinatalism with vegan ethics is because it might change our view of certain tactics. Most of you know that I am pluralist when it comes to tactics in animals activism. Meaning essentially I am not sure what tactic will work (or if, indeed, only one tactic can work), and support a variety of tactics and creativity with promoting animal liberation. There are, however, a great deal of vegan activists who believe we should exclusively promote vegan education, or vegan demonstrations and/or education. I believe we need vegan education and demonstrations, certainly. But I cannot understand the exclusivity with such a view towards these tactics. And one of the reasons becomes clearer when we view it from a standpoint of antinatalism. If veganism is about antinatalism, than these tactics are not about helping already existing animals. It is about making sure future animals are not bred into these conditions. But it becomes easier to understand that we might want to help improve the quality of living for those already existing animals, while also believing we should stop producing more animals in these conditions. The manichaeism of certain abolitionists becomes harder to sustain from this viewpoint (and indeed, most of these abolitionists seem to have no problem taking this stance when it comes to pets, but magically develop an allergy to this sort of pluralism when it comes to advocacy for farmed animals).

I am sure there are other important things we can realize when we make our antinatalism explicit in our thinking of animal ethics. But we need to figure out how to sell the argument that wishing a being into existence is not always a kindness, and can indeed be the worse kind of cruelty.