Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Modest Proposal: Why Not Now?

Copyright © 2008 by Joel Marks

The animal issue is first and foremost a moral and social issue. … the law is there to protect property interests. As long as the movement fails to shift the focus to abolition, veganism, and rights as a moral and social matter, we can expect that the law will continue to protect animal exploitation. We must understand that if there is going to be any progress, we must change the political playing field. And we can do that only through building a base in favor of abolition, which requires that we focus on the importance of veganism as the indispensable element of a movement that is concerned about justice. – Gary Francione

Three centuries ago the satirist Jonathan Swift made a “modest proposal” to help relieve poverty by selling children as meat. I would like to make a more modern proposal that we forgo eating meat entirely. Of course this is not an original idea; nor is it intended satirically. (Nor is it modest!) To be more precise, what I have in mind is veganism. This differs from the more familiar vegetarianism in two respects: (1) Vegans refrain from eating not only animals but also animal products, such as milk and eggs, and (2) vegans avoid using non-food animal products as well, such as wool and leather. In this essay I will address (1), but my comments could be applied to (2) as well.

The rationale for veganism builds upon that for so-called ethical vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is ethical when the reason for it has to do with consideration for other animals, specifically, the ones that human carnivores eat. A person can be a vegetarian for other types of reasons, typically having to do with the health of the human eater. For example, animal fat has been implicated in heart disease, so a diet consisting only of vegetables and grain would presumably be better for you in that respect. But the ethical vegetarian is thinking more about the effect of humans’ eating meat on the well-being of the nonhumans who are being eaten. In the past this concern had to do mainly with the slaughtering of animals, but today the focus is even more on the exceedingly cruel and cramped manner in which food animals are raised for their entire lives on factory farms.

But half-an-hour’s research on the Internet and a moment’s reflection on the implications thereof will demonstrate that ethical vegetarianism makes no sense if restricted to not eating animals. For the treatment of animals in the factory-production of milk, cheese, eggs, and the like is just as inhumane as the factory-production of meat. And that treatment includes even the slaughtering of the animals; consider, for example, the likely fate of the hen once her egg-laying capacity diminishes below a profitable level, and the fate of the cocks who are not needed to produce more hens. Hence on grounds of both anti-cruelty and anti-killing one is led inevitably to veganism.

You might suppose that veganism would also follow from health-vegetarianism since, for example, harmful hormones could end up in milk and eggs as much as in beef and chicken. True enough; hence the so-called organic movement. However, similar concerns apply to vegetables and grain, since all modern farming is based on the widespread use of artificially manufactured and introduced chemicals. So the organic movement is not really allied with vegetarianism, not to mention veganism; it is instead a food market for animal products, including the animals themselves (i.e., meat), that have not been exposed to “unnatural” chemicals.

Veganism, therefore, is an ethical concept. And that is a problem. As a general rule, people are not particularly motivated by purely ethical or moral appeals. (So much for my efforts as an ethics educator? But what I really mean to say is that moral reflection is probably not sufficient to make us moral persons, or the persons we want to be, although it could sometimes be necessary or helpful.) Oh, the occasional drought or tsunami will tug on the heartstrings enough to make us open the purse strings, and being confronted by some particular and local hardship suffered by family, friend, or neighbor can bring out the best in us. But by and large our motives have a non-moral character. And this is especially the case when a moral motive comes up against a basic appetite, such as hunger, pulling us in the opposite direction.

Veganism doesn’t have a chance when you go to the supermarket. You are surrounded by tasty foods of every conceivable variety, healthy and unhealthy, with narry a vegan item to be found. And the ones that do exist, if you can find them or have the time to locate them, may not bring out the Pavlovian dog in you. Tofu prime ribs, anyone? If the store were filled with giant images of cows and chickens being abused and slaughtered, you might avoid some items. More probably, you would simply avoid that store. So make it illegal to market animal products anywhere? Fine: unless you happen to live in a democracy, where the populace is not likely to support such legislation except at a relatively cosmetic level, such as the recent Proposition 2 passed in California that will give chickens room enough to stand, turn around, lie down, and fully extend their limbs. Isn’t that wonderful? But the hens will remain confined for their entire lives; and even these minimal standards will not be required until the year 2015 ... by which time, the chicken industry will have relocated to another state!

Nobody wants to torture and murder animals, human or nonhuman (except a few nuts and evil characters, of course). And the vast majority of people would like to be moral and ethical, I’m sure. So the trick is to align our everyday motives with our natural, or at least our best, tendencies. And one way to do that is to make it easier, even enjoyable, to be moral. Not too easy since we don’t want to become morally slack; for example, it’s not really moral to tell the truth if your reason is that you’ll be caught and punished if you lie. But Aristotle for one did consider virtue to be both habitual and pleasurable. And by the way, my recommendation would apply even with an alternative account of moral motivation. For suppose that we humans were indeed morally motivated in large part. It would still be the case that since so many concerns tug on our moral attention and time, we simply have to prioritize them; thus, meticulously avoiding harm to other animals could well lose out to, say, providing basic necessities for one’s family.

Enter my bright idea, my immodest and thoroughly entrepreneurial proposal (which occurred to me while I was taking a shower, so I hope it’s not all wet.), to wit: a chain of vegan grocery stores across the land (and, ultimately, the world). There are already some organic foodstores, but, as noted, these are usually not even vegetarian; furthermore, they tend to be upscale, not to mention few and far between, and hence not useful to most consumers; hence also they are not much help to the other animals. There is also a handful of vegetarian and even vegan restaurants around, whose proliferation I would certainly encourage. Indeed, I keep suggesting to the students in my university’s hotel/restaurant school that a fortune awaits the founder of the first vegan fast-food franchise. But people cannot eat out for 21 meals a week. That is why I propose a nationwide chain of vegan grocery stores to make the desirable product readily and affordably available.

An obvious objection will occur to the capitalist: doesn’t my suggestion put the cart before the horse? For you need demand in order to have the needed supply, but I’ve got it reversed. In other words, where will the consumers come from to convince a bank to extend the capital for such an enterprise in the first place and then to assure long-term profitability? My response is twofold. (Well, threefold, since first I will point out that a true animal-rights person would not want the cart to come after the horse anyway!) The grand scale of the project is precisely what will entice vendors to create the needed variety of tasty foods to stock the shelves and hence entice customers, and the larger market for the suppliers would help make vegan food more affordable because of the economy of scale and greater competition.

Secondly, the marketing potential is huge. I can easily imagine a two-pronged effort. There would of course be the standard moral appeal along the lines of, “Do you know where your hamburger really comes from?” But I would supplement that with a more upbeat approach, such as: “I don’t eat vegan because I love animals. I don’t eat vegan because it’s good for me. I eat vegan because it tastes good!” Saturate the tele with ads of those sorts and in a matter of months it will be as uncool to frequent a regular supermarket as it now is to light up a cigarette.

There is in fact an abundance of tasty and nutritious vegan cuisine, especially if one counts the international scene. Somebody needs to bring it all together, that’s all, and present it in a manner that appeals to the average consumer in a given locale and circumstances. For the citizens of my country, this might mean dumbed-down and convenient, with a dash of showmanship thrown in. For example, in my state we have a popular chain of dairy superstores, where animatronic barnyard animals entertain the children while the parents shop. Just replace that with a store full of animatronic wild animals, and abundant stocks and varieties of animal-free foods and groceries.

One of my “pet” peeves is the complex manner in which vegan nutrition is typically broached. These stores could perform a great public service by having sections dedicated to the three meals of the day and, within each section, several sets of foodstuffs – maybe a different set for each day of the week, not to mention, varied tastes -- arranged as recommended packages, which, together with the packages from the other sections, would assure one’s daily nutritional needs. In this way the busy consumer would not have to become an instant nutritionist in order to embark on the vegan path, where one wants to be sure that the moral choice is also the prudent one for oneself and one’s family.

Naturally there would also be free samples, prepared foods and meals, maybe an in-store eatery. A community room would allow for appropriately themed seminars offered by guest speakers: vegan cooking classes, nutritional tutorials, showcases for animal sanctuaries, and so forth. I could also see eventual inclusion of an “alternative” clothing section, etc.

It seems to me that the way a dream becomes reality is to make it happen. So: “Build it and they will come.” Why not now? What are we waiting for?

For information on becoming a vegan, check out my Website, "The Easy Vegan."

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