Teaching Children Not to Harm Others: Who Counts as “Another”?

Are we others or are we just things? (Photo by Christina Maiia on Unsplash)

“I take my veganism very seriously. I certainly hope that my kids will be vegans. I intended to educate them about the immorality of animal exploitation, and I hope that they will make the right choice. But I cannot impose my beliefs on them, and force them to vegan. I will support whatever choice they make.”

I hear something like this just about whenever I am in a group of vegans. It is a very common sentiment expressed by even the most thoughtful vegans. Joaquin Phoenix, who is clearly a committed vegan, expressed it in a recent interview. This view is not only commonly expressed by vegans; it is commonly accepted by vegans as a position that cannot be challenged or criticized. After all, you can no more “force” your children to be vegan than you can “force” them to believe in God or to accept your political views. All you can do is to educate kids as well as you can, hope they make the right decision, and support whatever decision they make. There is nothing more to say.

Or is there?

I would suggest that this view rests on a confusion between beliefs and actions that directly result in harming others. There is a difference between, for example, the belief as to whether God exists or whether deficit spending is a good idea or not, and, say, engaging in killing or assaulting another. With respect to actions that harm others, we do take the position that not only can we “force” our views on our children; we consider that we must do so, at least to the extent of what happens in our houses.

Whether or not a person is a vegan is more than a matter of what the person believes; it is a matter of what the person does. A person who is not a vegan is participating directly in the suffering and death of sentient nonhumans. In my view, that is simply not analogous to believing or not believing in God or deficit spending.

If you child is bullying other children, you do not take the position that you cannot “force” your child not to be a bully and that you will “support” your child in whatever decision they make. Although part of the reaction here is that your child’s bullying others may end up in a criminal prosecution of your child or a lawsuit against you for your not exercising due care to supervise your children, I think that the concern goes beyond the legal concerns. When our children harm others, we cannot support that because to do so would be morally wrong and profoundly so.

The problem here is that participating directly in animal exploitation is much more like bullying than is the belief as to whether God exists or which political party has a better solution for unemployment. Most parents who will “support” their child’s non-veganism and not think it appropriate to “force” their vegan views on the child and to prohibit the child’s having animal products in an otherwise vegan house would not, for example, think that they must support their child’s decision to be a hunter and allow the child to go out and kill animals and bring those carcasses into the house and then consume them or use them to make clothing.

There is, of course, no morally coherent distinction between purchasing animal products at the store and killing them with a gun or an arrow or in a snare. The only distinction is the appreciation that in the latter situation, the child has harmed another. But any such appreciation is necessarily arbitrary because non-veganism necessarily means participating directly in harming animals.

So I would suggest that if one maintains that veganism is a moral imperative because animals have moral value, one is committed to the position that animals are “others” who count, and that we cannot “support” the decision by children to harm those others. Does this mean that we must “force” the child to be vegan, at least in the house? Yes. But that “force” is no more morally objectionable than saying that a child cannot bully a sibling or another child they bring into the house.

One cannot control what goes on outside the house in the same way. If a child chooses to go to a fast-food restaurant and eat animal products, one cannot stop that just as one cannot stop the actions of children that harm others. But that does not mean that one should not be as clear about not harming animals as one is about not harming other humans. On the contrary, if one accepts that animals have moral value, one has an obligation to be as clear.

As a final note, the belief/conduct distinction is not perfect. That is, there are certain beliefs that a child may have that we have a clear obligation not to accept or “support.” Promoting Nazism is different from having agnostic or atheistic views or views about raising the minimum wage. If you go into your child’s room and find the walls adorned with Nazi imagery, would you think it your obligation to “support” the child and to not “impose” your views? Of course not. You would demand that the imagery be removed, and probably seek to get your child psychological help precisely because, in that situation, the belief is one that is so odious that it is itself regarded as harmful to others.

I am not saying that we should not love others, including our children, if they engage in harmful actions against others (human and nonhuman). I am, however, saying that we should never support, or fail to be clear in our condemnation of, any deliberate and unjustified action that results in harming any sentient being

In sum, if you believe that veganism is a moral imperative, you cannot treat non-veganism as something you can “support” any more than you can support bullying or other actions that harm others. To support the harm of nonhumans when you would never think it remotely permissible to support the imposition of harm on humans is the very essence of anthropocentrism.

Originally published on Medium