23 May 2009

The use of animal byproducts

Warning: This post is heavy on the philosophizing and includes hot button topics of death, Christianity and veganism. If this is not your thing you may want to steer clear. Also, it is long.

This is a topic that has been much debated amongst various members of the flock - with strong proponents on both sides of the issue. The arguments range from corporate greed to health to evolution to personal pleasure. That is not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about death.

Vegans are, with the possible exception of Christians, people who are more afraid of death than any other group I have encountered. This maybe because many of then were raised in a culture where the shadow of Christianity's fear of death has created a culture of youth that is unable to even talk about death. I don't know why it is, but most of the vegans I know, and know of, equate all death with cruelty and label all death as bad. There is a definite value judgement being placed on the ending of a life. In my experience value judgements are made out of two places - sometimes, they come from great joy; but, much more frequently, they arise out of fear. Now if you do not subscribe to a world-view where there is something after this life - be it heaven, reincarnation, or whatever - this fear makes sense. However, these same people are also frequently deeply spiritual people. I have to admit, this baffles me.

I understand, and even agree with, many of the arguments made about quality of life, health benefits, awareness and all of that, right up until they get to the point where death equals cruelty. That is where they loose me. None of the world-views that the vegans I know support this conclusion. Christians are only concerned with the life-after-death of humans, and it is supposed to be better than here. Buddhists believe in a cycle of reincarnation to end suffering - this one comes the closest to making sense to me, as your choices in this life effect your next incarnation, but death is a release into either the next incarnation or to enlightenment; it is the end of suffering. The Neo-Pagans I know come down on varying degrees between a summerlands-type heaven and a cycle of reincarnation, and the same issue that what comes next is something to look forward to applies to them.

So, if all these world-views see death as a good (or at least not bad) thing, why are vegans so opposed to it? Here we get to the value of life, which ones are more important and deserved to be preserved and which ones don't matter. It is argued by ethicists that the line sentience.The sentience line is usually drawn at the vertebrate/invertebrate line by science. But that is not the line that vegans take - otherwise lobster would be fine. And so would honey. So what is the line that makes some life ok to consume for sustenance and pleasure and other life, cruel. And who gets to decide where to step outside the cycle of life and death. Nothing lives except by the death of something else.

Now would probably be a good time to state that there are several points which vegans make that I completely agree with. That the quality of life of the animals we (omnivores) eat should be improved. And the giant corporate factory farms and animal testing do nothing to contribute to an improvement - or the ienvironment, or the health of developed nations. And that by making uninformed food choices which support these businesses, you perpetuate animal cruelty. I also think that it is important to consider all the consequences of your choices - especially food choices.

But by focusing on the death, I think that much is missed in the beautiful, natural cycles of the present.


  1. Really good post!

    I am not opposed to death - I am opposed to *senseless* death. Every living thing dies, but in its time, please. Any creature dying to fill my tummy when I can just as successfully fill it with plant matter is senseless indeed.

    As for the reincarnation thing; the traditional belief is that each life has a lesson for you. Death is not necessarily a release from suffering. In fact, you can end up in a much worse place in your next incarnation than you have here and now. Progression up the chain is not guaranteed - if moving to a better incarnation was guaranteed, why not just commit suicide repeatedly until you become enlightened? No, you must *earn* a better incarnation, and thus any death that comes too soon may be hampering that being in their progress.

    As for the sentience question, I tend to go with a broader definition. If a creature can suffer - at the very least, feel pain - then it is close enough to sentient for me to avoid putting it on my plate. I'm aware that there is a prof on the faculty at UW who is quite convinced that fish can't feel pain... and he is pretty much a lone voice, crying in the wilderness. If it has a nervous system, it probably can feel pain.

    And since someone always has to bring this up - NO, plants can't feel pain. No nervous system.

  2. Very thought provoking. Here are mine:

    Though I am not a vegan, I have been a vegetarian on and off for ten years (currently on). While it was once a necessity for us to hunt and eat meat, now it is merely luxury and that luxury has turned into a practically unavoidable habit. Do we eat meat just because that is how we were raised? Most people, I'm sure, don't think much about what they eat besides taste.

    Death, for many, is the be all and end all. The fear exists because there is nothing afterward. For non-reincarnation believers, they only get one shot. Because of this, they are so involved in their own ending that they forget about the end that comes to everyone - and everything - else.

    I'm with
    on the sentience thing. A nervous system is sort of the deal breaker. Once you know what happens to some of these animals before they are put on your plate, it is hard to ignore or try to revert back to a time when you were ignorant of such things. It reminds me of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. Once you know the shadows are shadows, it is too difficult to go back to seeing them for what they represent.

  3. Wow! I hang out with smart people.
    Thanks for contributing - I am still working out some of these thoughts/ideas/ponders, and you both bring up even more interesting and complicated points.

    HSBP - I hadn't though about the whole regression thing - I was kind of thinking of it as an end to animal suffering, which I do wish was unnecessary and want to clarify that I don't see that as a solution.

    Poet - I really dig the Allegory of the Cave comparison. And also, I don't think people think very much about taste even. Especially not in America - if they did there would be exponentially fewer McDonalds.