A Frequently Asked Question: What About Plants?

One of the questions most frequently asked of any vegan is: “what about plants?”

Indeed, I do not know any vegan who has not gotten that question at least once and most of us have heard it many times.

Of course, no one who asks this question really thinks that we cannot distinguish between, say, a chicken and a head of lettuce. That is, if, at your next dinner party, you chop a head of lettuce in front of your guests, you will get a different reaction than if you were to carve a live chicken. If, while walking in your garden, I step on a flower intentionally, you may quite correctly be annoyed with me, but if I intentionally kicked your dog, you would be upset with me in a different way. No one really thinks of these as equivalent acts. Everyone recognizes that there is an important difference between the plant and the dog that make kicking the dog a morally more serious act than stepping on a flower.

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A “Triumph” of Animal Welfare?

I admit to being a harsh and relentless critic of animal welfare. For the past 15 years or so, I have argued that because animals are property, animal welfare standards will generally only protect the interests of animals to the extent that the protection facilitates economically efficient exploitation. Animal welfare campaigns, for the most part, involve animal advocates trying to persuade institutionalized exploiters that “better” animal treatment will translate into greater profits and this reinforces the status of animals as economic commodities with nothing more than extrinsic or conditional value. Moreover, animal welfare is counterproductive because it misleads the public into thinking that exploitation is being made more “humane,” and this encourages continued animal use in a variety of ways.

I am frequently criticized by animal welfare advocates as being too negative in my assessment of animal welfare reform. This essay is the first in an occasional series that will examine particular animal welfare campaigns to see if my analysis is fair.

In 2002, animal advocates, led by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Farm Sanctuary, and others, succeeded in getting nearly 700,000 signatures to put on the ballot in Florida a proposal to amend the state constitution to ban what are known as “gestation crates.” Voters approved the proposal, and the Florida Constitution makes it a misdemeanor as of 2008 to confine a pregnant pig in “an enclosure,” or to tether a pregnant pig, in “such a way that she is prevented from turning around freely.” Peter Singer claims that the amendment is a “triumph” (New York Review of Books, May 15, 2003, at 26) and as “near the top” of the list of the most important animal welfare victories of the past 30 years.

For at least six reasons, the characterization of the Florida amendment as a “triumph” demonstrates that the bar of progress is ridiculously low where animal welfare improvements are concerned.

First, the campaign against gestation crates, which began in Florida but is now being conducted in other states, and which recently prevailed in Arizona, is based explicitly on making animal exploitation more efficient. Animal advocates promoted the amendment as a way to keep larger, intensive hog operations out of Florida, and thereby protect property values and tourism. They maintain, as a general matter, that alternatives to the gestation crate, such as group housing, will reduce costs and increase productivity.

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Peter Singer Supports Vivisection: Why Are You Surprised?

The Sunday Times (UK), November 26, 2006, reports that in a BBC documentary, Peter Singer, described by The Times as “father of the modern animal rights movement” meets with Tipu Aziz, an Oxford vivisector who uses primates in his research on Parkinson’s disease. Aziz informs Singer that he induces parkinsonism in primates and claims that his use of 100 monkeys has helped 40,000 humans. Singer replies:

Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment. I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided—I take it you are the expert in this, not me—that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge. I could see that as justifiable research.

So far, I have received 64 emails from animal advocates in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere expressing astonishment and disbelief over Singer’s position. Almost everyone starts her message with some expression of astonishment, such as “Can you believe what Singer has said?”

My answer is simple: Why are you surprised?

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