Recently, an individual posted the following comment responding to an anti-vegetarian article:
“I’ll admit that I haven’t entirely made up my mind on this subject. Having said that I will confess to being a meat eater. While I do not like causing other animals harm, I cannot accept that feeling pain is the only criteria for my acceptance of another being as being worthy of my altruism. Were this the case, I would never harm mosquitoes or arguably even bacteria (which will also attempt to flee harmful conditions and so might be said to experience pain) and would likely die of an infection rather quickly…Until then, I plan to enjoy the meat.”
As a display of this individual’s failure to grasp the ethical principles on which veganism is predicated, the question of bacteria is raised. Remember two things: One, “fleeing harmful conditions” is but one indication of sentience – prior to making the assumption that a being can experience pain one must consider its evolutionary history, its reaction to stimuli that I (or you) would experience as painful, and its physiology (e.g., central nervous system, biochemical functions) – a criterion that bacteria (or germs, mosquitoes, blades of grass) do not satisfy; and two, (assuming a being’s sentience) inflicting pain on a feeling being cannot be justified for any and every reason, which is why murdering a baby cow because you enjoy the taste of his flesh is absolutely not justifiable. (We can debate what makes a “good” reason; however, as Francione often argues, if unnecessary pain for example, is to mean anything at all, “taste,” “entertainment” or “convenience” cannot justify suffering harm on another individual.)
Therefore, not only has the first condition – assuming sentience – not been satisfied, but the case of bacteria, as it relates to the second condition, is markedly different than that of consuming meat: some types of bacteria kill human beings; and unlike any other situation between nonhumans and most humans, in our day-to-day lives bacteria cannot simply be avoided – they exist all around us, all the time. How many bears do you encounter while watching television? Is your “struggle” with the birds of this world tooth-and-nail? Such encounters are easily avoidable, while bacterial infections, or colds, the flu, etc. are common: in these situations there exists a true conflict of a most fundamental sort – health, life – whereby some harm, assuming that bacteria can be “harmed,” is justifiable. Of the billions of nonhumans we murder or torture annually, none present a threat of harm to you – it’s laughable to suggest otherwise.
It is a mischaracterization (purposefully?) of veganism to suggest absolutes: no suffering can ever be justified; all harm, in all circumstances, ought to be avoided; all life, sentient or not, should be preserved. This is absurd. I’ve yet to hear an argument supporting ethical veganism that proffers a theory wherein such absolutes are foundational. Pure pacifists may agree that these absolutes are objectively right (although most “pacifists” fail to account for the limitless suffering of nonhumans). But these pacifist principles aren’t necessarily implied in ethical veganism; indeed, most vegans may agree that violence ought to be avoided as best we can. However, if confronted with an angry mother crocodile, the situation becomes “life or death,” and different principles may apply.
Most people would agree that human life ought to be sustained; however, when encountered with an extreme case – direct self-defense against a rapist, for example – if the attacker were to be harmed or even killed most would agree that an ethical principle was not violated. “Innocent shields,” “innocent threats,” and “secondary self-defense” would also be cases where different principles, which may include harm, would be reasonably assented too.
Given that the case of bacteria (and germs) creates a true “burning house” question – a situation of true conflict between “needs” – the ethical dilemmas (if any) that arise when treating a bacterial infection with antibiotics is qualitatively different than that of “training” a lion to jump through a ring of fire for our entertainment. Mosquitoes, given certain conditions, raise similar dilemmas – West Nile virus. Bacteria? Some types of bacteria aid their human hosts. However, others cause pneumonia and tuberculosis.
So, even assuming the sentience of bacteria (which is unfounded), one cannot plausibly deduce from the ethical principles on which veganism rests an ethical constraint on our dealings with the bacteria that cause syphilis. Likewise, ethical veganism cannot be criticised by appealing to the situation of bacteria, or germs, or dust mites.
Interestingly enough, this individual actually makes this point well when he/she says,
“I would never harm mosquitoes or arguably even bacteria (which will also attempt to flee harmful conditions and so might be said to experience pain) and would likely die of an infection rather quickly.”
But again, it’s merely a failure to consider the issue in any real depth. Instead, relying on baseless assumptions and mischaracterizations of the argument for veganism seems to be the method being employed here – by most people actually.
I’m going to make an assumption and argue that this flawed counter-argument has less to do with a misunderstanding of our position, and more to do with this: “Until then, I plan to enjoy the meat.”
Oh how people expose their true motives so unknowingly – “It tastes good so I don’t want to think about it.”
I went ahead and labeled my assumption as such therefore it’s easily critiqued. Our critics, however, don’t extend us such favors because often they don’t realize they are making assumptions that ought to be defended, or because they’re simply dishonest and willfully fail to take their beliefs to a logical conclusion. Stopping short is far easier – nobody likes to acknowledge their own hypocrisy or bad deeds. I didn’t for a long time…until I stopped exploiting nonhumans for food, etc. – but I’m still working on it.
P.S. It’s not “altruism,” it’s justice!
Crossposted @ That Vegan Girl