Okay, a little back story first. Once again, I got into a debate with a close friend on Facebook. Actually, this time I jumped in rather late. But one of my good friends is a vegan who I happen to think has swallowed a little too much of the PETA Kool-Aid.
So he posted the following status on his Facebook account:
Today while driving I saw one of the thousands of Nazi death trucks that they transport cows in. This time it was empty; though, I have seen one full. And I can’t fully express how sad and angry it makes me. To be feet away from them while they are driven to be tortured and killed. I just don’t understand why this is worth it so people can eat meat.
Now here’s the thing. I can sympathize with his anger. He has a particular view of the world and it bothers him to see such things that offend his sensibilities. I get it. It pisses me off every time I see the Pope not rotting in jail after covering up so many child rapes, and being very confident that he will almost certainly never be punished for his crimes because he’s too influential.
But while he actually was a literal Nazi…in a manner of speaking anyway. And while his organization has a somewhat dubious history of anti-Semitism and being on at least friendly terms with Hitler’s government, I recognize moral nuance. Sure, I make jokes from time to time, but when having a genuine intellectual discussions, I don’t throw the Nazi card out very often.
But here my friend is calling vehicles transporting livestock “Nazi death trucks,” and from the comments of others, he seems quite sincere and confident that this is an appropriate analogy.
I disagree. Before I got to respond, Staks from Dangerous Talk had a fairly lengthy back and forth, criticizing him for “Glenn Becking” everyone who disagrees him, a term I rather like and think is appropriate in this instance. Staks’ focused on the hyperbolic and aggressive rhetoric as his chief criticism, so I didn’t devote much time to it myself since I think he more than sufficiently argued that point.
Now the following paragraphs are my lengthy response, which focused more on my opposition to the moral argument for vegetarian/veganism. I thought it was pretty substantive, so I figured it’d make a good editorial article.
So without further ado:
I have to concur with Staks. Now your rebuttal to criticisms of your playing the Nazi card seems to be simply that in your case it’s apt, but as Jon Stewart so eloquently argued tonight in his criticisms of Fox’s use of the Nazi card, everyone always thinks their Nazi comparson is appropriate. And sure, on rare occasions like when you happen to be slaughtering Jews, it is apt. But in this case, it is a false analogy drawing on superficial similarities that rejects all nuance and attempts at reasonable discourse in favor of hyperbolic rhetoric designed to get attention.
The Nazis didn’t rely on torturing and killing Jews for their very survival. If they did, they probably wouldn’t be so popular in analogies designed to dehumanize people’s political or ideological opponents because most people understand the survival drive. Indeed, as JFK once said, “A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.”
But don’t confuse this for the naturalistic fallacy. For the first 500,000 years of human civilization, using meat and animal products was absolutely essential to our survival as a species. Had your ancestors chosen to live by your moral standards, none of us would be here now. And in most of the world, these resources are still absolutely essential to human survival. And up until maybe a 100 years ago, the decision to live a vegan lifestyle in a first-world country would be almost indistinguishable from the decision to commit suicide. The only reason we see a thriving vegan movement in first-world nations today is because science has finally devised methods for making it possible for people living in wealthy, privileged nations to live full, healthy lives with a diminished reliance on animal products.
So while I have no problem with someone choosing to live this lifestyle, I for one am not very impressed by the moral argument when the lifestyle depends on one being privileged enough to live in a specific time and place in history when and where it happens to be convenient. I can’t respect such a bourgeois moral system.
And while you can choose to ignore the complex economics involved in making sure all the forces involved in getting sufficient vegan alternatives to an American retailer near you after being manufactured thousands of miles away, these are important, practical matters for most people. For instance, some family living in dilapidated conditions in some random third-world country doesn’t have a Whole Foods to shop at, or even an efficient trucking industry shipping huge quantities of tofurkies or whatever to a nearby grocer where it can then be sold at an affordable price. All I’m saying is the life you know, all this infrastructure you take from granted is absolutely essential to living according to your moral standard. Additionally, if everyone in America decided to suddenly become vegan tomorrow, that very infrastructure you rely on to get your vegan products would crumble because right now, our economy depends on the meat industry and they are too big to fail…right now.
Then there’s the problem of anthropomorphizing the animals. Not all animals have the same capacity to suffer as human beings. And as far as we can measure, few of them are particularly self-aware. This too is problematic for the Nazi comparison..unless the argument is that Jews are not sapient, which is problematic for different reasons.
Now as it so happens, my vegetarian friend Michael De Dora just wrote an interesting article addressing this point in more depth. To quote one excerpt:
“Many vegetarians (and vegan, but let’s stick with one position) argue that we should not use animals as a means to some end, but as inherently important, worthy of certain rights and protections. This is a morsel from Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy. Kant argued that every human being is deserving of respect (i.e., moral concern) because of its cognitive faculties – its autonomy, ability to reason, make free choices, and plan for the future. Vegetarians would have us expand this to non-human animals. But there is no reason to suppose that animals have such capacities, and I see little reason – judging from scientific evidence and philosophical thinking – to give them the benefit of the doubt.
“Here, then, is where we reach an interesting juncture: if there are no compelling ethical reasons to not kill animals for food, then vegetarianism risks degenerating from a moral stance to the level of preference.”
So then it comes back to, can we at least work towards treating farm animals less cruelly while we gradually move our society towards the seemingly inevitable, where we can more or less perfectly simulate meat and animal products and where it is both more efficient and cheaper to do so than to continue to raise livestock. Then you won’t be able to talk the meat industry out of switching to fake meat (Hell, Taco Bell has been using fake meat for years to save money). At which point, these domesticated animals will probably die off quickly as the damage is already done and these animals are not suited to the wild…but hey, at least they won’t become happy meals. Now I’m all for fighting for less cruel methods until we can successfully switch to completely to alternatives as it seems to be reasonable and an actual achievable goal, whereas “the meat-eaters are Nazis” gambit is entirely unpersuasive to anyone and will accomplish nothing to benefit the animals. It’s just a losing strategy.