Peter Singer: “Oh my god, these vegans…”

In the ongoing debate between those who promote the abolitionist approach and those who promote the welfarist approach, some of the welfarists claim that they support veganism so there is, in reality, little difference between the two approaches on the matter of eating and using animal products.

To the extent that welfarists support veganism, it is important to understand that the abolitionist position on veganism is very different from the welfarist position on veganism.

The abolitionist sees veganism as a non-negotiable moral baseline of a movement that maintains that we should abolish all animal use, however “humane” our treatment of animals may be. The abolitionist position maintains that nonhumans have inherent value and that we should never kill and eat them even if they have been raised and killed “humanely.” Abolitionists regard veganism as an end in itself—as an expression of the principle of abolition in the life of the individual.

Abolitionist vegans do not campaign for welfare reforms that supposedly make animal exploitation more “humane.” It is, of course, “better” to inflict less harm than more harm, but we have no moral justification for inflicting any harm on nonhumans in the first place. It is “better” not to beat a rape victim but it does not make rape without beating morally acceptable, or make campaigning for “humane” rape something that we should do.

Abolitionists regard veganism as the most important form of incremental change and spend their time and resources on educating others about veganism and the need to stop using animals altogether, rather than on trying to persuade people to eat “cage-free” eggs or flesh produced from animals who have been confined in larger pens.

To the extent that welfarists endorse any form of veganism (and many do not), they see veganism not as an end in itself but merely as a means to reduce animal suffering. They do not regard animal use as the primary problem; they think that it may be acceptable for humans to kill and eat nonhumans and that the primary problem is how we treat animals. Welfarists who promote veganism argue that because it is difficult to obtain animal foods that have been produced in a morally acceptable manner, we ought to be vegans for the most part but that it is acceptable to be “flexible” vegans and to eat non-vegan as well. Because welfarists focus on treatment rather than use, they campaign for things like “cage-free” eggs or alternatives to the gestation crate.

Most of those who subscribe to this view agree with the position of utilitarian theorist Peter Singer, who provides an excellent example of welfarist “veganism.”

Singer does not think that it is necessarily a problem that we use nonhumans for human purposes because he does not regard the killing of animals as necessarily immoral. According to Singer, animals (with the exception of nonhuman great apes and perhaps a few other species) are not self-aware and do not really care that we use them but only about how we use them. This leads Singer to say that it may be morally acceptable to be “conscientious omnivores” if we are careful to eat only animals who have been raised and killed in a “humane” manner.

For example, in a 2006 interview in The Vegan, Singer states:

[T]o avoid inflicting suffering on animals—not to mention the environmental costs of intensive animal production—we need to cut down drastically on the animal products we consume. But does that mean a vegan world? That’s one solution, but not necessarily the only one. If it is the infliction of suffering that we are concerned about, rather than killing, then I can also imagine a world in which people mostly eat plant foods, but occasionally treat themselves to the luxury of free range eggs, or possibly even meat from animals who live good lives under conditions natural for their species, and are then humanely killed on the farm.

In Singer’s May 2006 interview in Mother Jones, he states:

[T]here’s a little bit of room for indulgence in all of our lives. I know some people who are vegan in their homes but if they’re going out to a fancy restaurant, they allow themselves the luxury of not being vegan that evening. I don’t see anything really wrong with that.

I don’t eat meat. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1971. I’ve gradually become increasingly vegan. I am largely vegan but I’m a flexible vegan. I don’t go to the supermarket and buy non-vegan stuff for myself. But when I’m traveling or going to other people’s places I will be quite happy to eat vegetarian rather than vegan.

In an October 2006 interview in the new welfarist magazine, Satya, Singer states:

When I’m shopping for myself, it will be vegan. But when I’m traveling and it’s hard to get vegan food in some places or whatever, I’ll be vegetarian. I won’t eat eggs if they’re not free-range, but if they’re free-range, I will. I won’t order a dish that is full of cheese, but I won’t worry about, say, whether an Indian vegetable curry was cooked with ghee.

Singer argues that there are times when we have a moral obligation not to be vegans:

I think it’s more important to try and produce a change in the right direction than to be personally pure yourself. So when you’re eating with someone at a restaurant, and you ordered something vegan but when it comes there’s a bit of grated cheese or something on it, sometimes vegans will make a big fuss and send it back and that might mean the food is wasted. And if you’re in company with people who are not vegan or not even vegetarian, I think that’s probably the wrong thing to do. It’d be better off just to eat it because people are going to think, ‘Oh my god, these vegans…’

There is, of course, no moral distinction that can be drawn between flesh and dairy products or eggs. Therefore, Singer would be committed to the position that if you were in a restaurant with non-vegetarians and ordered a vegetarian meal only to have it come with bits of bacon or other flesh products on it, or if your non-vegetarian host served you flesh at a dinner party, you may well be obligated to eat the flesh to stop people from thinking, “Oh my god, these vegetarians…”

I discuss Singer’s view on the issue of killing animals at length in my essay, The “Luxury” of Death.

Singer’s focus on the treatment rather than the killing of animals leads to the position that veganism is simply one of a number of ways to reduce suffering, but that there is nothing mandatory or required about veganism because there is nothing inherently wrong with killing animals. Indeed, Singer regards being a consistent vegan as “fanatical.”

And many welfarists talk about veganism in this way. For example, Paul Shapiro, Director of the HSUS Factory Farming Campaign, states

The reason I’m vegan is because I see it as a tool to help reduce animal suffering. Vegan Outreach has written about this extensively, and I agree with them. They write that vegan eating ‘is not an end in itself. It is not a dogma or religion, nor a list of forbidden ingredients or immutable laws—it is only a tool for opposing cruelty and reducing suffering.’

In other words, veganism is just another way, along with bigger cages and other welfarist reforms, to reduce suffering. This is how Shapiro apparently justifies promoting “cage-free” eggs as “socially responsible,” campaigning for other welfare reforms, and working as part of the coalition that supports the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label.

For the welfarists, the basic issue is animal treatment, not animal use. As Singer states:

It’s pretty difficult to be a conscientious omnivore and avoid all the ethical problems, but if you really were thorough-going in eating only animals that had had good lives, that could be a defensible ethical position.

In February 2007, I had a podcast debate with Erik Marcus from Erik’s Diner. Marcus is an enthusiastic promoter of insignificant animal welfare reform, including “cage-free” eggs.

But, as the debate made painfully obvious, Marcus exaggerates the protection provided to animals by welfare regulation despite his not having knowledge of the relevant facts. Moreover, he is seemingly unaware as to how welfare reforms are making animal exploitation more socially acceptable and increasing consumption, as well as how these reforms are in the economic interests of institutional animal exploiters. An essay by sociology instructor Roger Yates reveals the stunning ignorance of Marcus and his HSUS colleagues about the basics of institutional animal exploitation.

Marcus, like the other welfarist “vegans,” maintains that it is acceptable to eat foods that are not vegan as long as they are “essentially vegan” and he regularly promotes animal products that are supposedly more “humanely” produced. I do not question Erik’s sincerity, but I disagree strongly with him.

This casual attitude about veganism is characteristic of the welfarists. In a December 2006 article about Dan Mathews of PETA, Mathews and the writer went to McDonald’s to eat and the writer asked if it was okay to order a cheeseburger. Mathews is reported as saying “‘Order what you want,’. . . .’Half of our members are vegetarian and half think it’s a good idea.'” Putting aside that Mathews eats at McDonald’s and tells the reporter to order what he wanted, and proclaims without apparent consternation that only half of the PETA membership is “vegetarian” (let alone vegan), Mathews himself ate a product—the “veggie burger”—which not even McDonald’s claims is vegetarian given that it is cooked on the same grill with meat products and handled along with animal products.

The abolitionist rejects the welfarist position on veganism both because it explicitly endorses speciesism and exploitation, but also because it is counterproductive as a matter of strategy. If you explain to someone that there is no moral justification for eating any animal foods, she may not give up everything right away, but you have stated a clear and consistent position and you have provided a clear goal to which to aspire. If you tell her that it is morally acceptable to do less than become a vegan, you can be certain that she is unlikely to see any need to go further. When you have people like Singer, the so-called “father” of the movement, telling people that they can act morally by being “conscientious omnivores,” that is exactly what many people will do.

In conclusion, there is a world of difference between the veganism of the abolitionist and the “veganism” of the welfarist. The latter sees veganism as a means of reducing suffering but does not see it as a moral baseline.

There is a world of difference between a person who takes the position that sexism is always wrong and one who says that we should be “flexible” about sexism and allow ourselves the “indulgence” of a bit of sexism, or even that we have a moral obligation to engage in sexism in certain circumstances because we should avoid eliciting the reaction, “Oh my god, these feminists…”

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione