What Would a Vegan Society Look Like? Preamble

Reader Mute Fox, from withwhatartthoudiscontented, said a while back:

“I am merely curious to know how you envision a free human society…interacting on equal terms with other species, all the time. I am not saying it couldn’t be done…I just wonder what you think that would look like.”

After a perhaps-unconscionable delay I figured I should try to say something about this. It’s hard to know where to start, especially because so much of the answer to this question is bound up with environmental questions about our relationship to the overall biosphere. There’s also the equally tricky question of which animals we’re talking about, and how they differ – to avoid that I’m talking primarily about mammals here.

But I think the best way I can think of the come at the question is from the idea of paradigms. By ‘paradigm’ I mean a sort of guiding thought that informs and determines how we relate to a particular thing – less specific or rigid than a rule, and one step more practical than a philosophical truth.

For example, at the moment, the primary paradigm by which human societies relate to animals (strictly, ‘nonhuman animals’ but I’m going to go for brevity here) is that animals are property. This is related to the philosophical claim that animals possess only ‘extrinsic’ or ‘instrumental’ value – that is, whereas humans are morally valuable and important intrinsically, animals are valuable insofar as they are valuable to someone else.

As I said, the paradigm is one step more practical, more concrete and specific, than this principle. It’s that claim – that animals have only extrinsic value – refracted into various sorts of definite relationships: animals which are positively valuable will become a resource to be owned, increased, and consumed, as food or clothing or work or information, while animals which are negatively valued will become pests, vermin, or ‘beasts’, and the target of extermination attempts, just like the dirt on our floor.

Obviously, part of my goal would be to do away with this paradigm. But what to replace it with? That will at least be the first step from a philosophical principle like ‘animals have rights’ to a concrete social vision.

One obviously inappropriate paradigm is something like ‘citizen’ or ‘fellow’, which is (in theory) how we’re meant to morally relate to other adult humans. The reason this isn’t appropriate is, in essence, that we can’t communicate with animals in the appropriate way – they can’t speak up in our discussions, they can’t understand and accept the rights and responsibilities that society might bestow on them, etc. Of course, nobody has ever suggested that we should apply a paradigm like that to animals, and I mention because sometimes people arguing against animal rights talk as if that were the only alternative.

I think there are at least two other alternatives, that we already apply to a certain extent when dealing with humans, and that I think would be the right ones to apply with different groups of animals.

The first is something like ‘infant’ or ‘ward’: essentially, a being which has intrinsic moral value, but which needs to be under the power of someone else, who thereby acquires both the right to control it and its environments, and the responsibility to do so in a way that secures its welfare. This is currently how we treat children, and to varying extents adults with certain mental disabilities.

This seems to me to be roughly how we should think about animals who are individually dependent on us – i.e. domesticated animals, which have been made incapable of living ‘in the wild’. That means the particular institutions and ways of relating that we’ve built up around care for children and certain mentally disabled people are the best model for caring for animals.

We already have something half-way there, in the peculiar institutions surrounding pet ownership – but that it’s only half-way, is indicated by the word ‘ownership’ there. Would we breed specially designed children with striking cute deformities? Would we sell them to people as birthday presents?

(Of course, I don’t think our institutions and practices around childhood and disability are ideal, nor that they have no element of the ownership paradigm – but they certainly have less of it than pets, who in turn have less than food animals)

This, of course, rules out most of our use of animals immediately. It’s inconsistent with meat, leather, fur, vivisection, milk, eggs, hunting, and fighting. It might nevertheless be consistent with certain of our current practices, in their best versions – I’ve already mentioned pets, but you could also look at the best-run zoos and safari parks. Obviously there are lots more details to consider but I’ll leave that there.

The other paradigm, which I think is appropriate to apply to wild animals, is something like ‘peaceful foreign nation’. What I think is distinctive here is that this paradigm is heavily skewed towards negative duties rather than positive duties. The whole point of dividing society into nations is that the people or government or supreme soviet of one nation is obligated to refrain from killing members of another nation, but not obligated to keep them alive by providing healthcare or unemployment benefits, or to maintain order in that other nation.

Now, I actually think that it’s a mistake to apply this ‘foreign nation’ paradigm to divide humans up into nations. And plenty of people accept it as the basic story, but add an extra layer of humanitarian concern that goes beyond it. I’m not trying to say anything about any of that.

I’m just saying that we have a way of thinking, and (to a limited extent) sorts of practices, organised around the idea of a group of beings with intrinsic value but who are running their own shit and thus don’t need anything from us except to leave them alone.

The reason why this would be appropriate for wild animals is that we’re just not able to positively intervene to solve their problems. Or rather, if we did, we’d fuck up the ecosystem and everything would be even worse.

So I don’t think I’ve answered the original question sufficiently. But hopefully I’ve taken one or two steps towards it.

Take the philosophical principle that animals (here meaning mammals and similar things, not necessarily every sort of animal down to jellyfish) have intrinsic value: react it with two basic facts, namely that a load of animals have no prospect of living outside of human care, and that humans have no prospect of making overall positive interventions in the lives of the rest.

The result is a guiding principle to treat the former group of animals as a large population of very odd permanent children, and to treat the rest as a sort of vast alien population who mainly need to be left alone.

This is relatively simple to apply as long as ‘animals we can leave alone’ and ‘animals we have to interact with’ remain separate groups. But it gets really hard on the boundaries – when there are animals just living there around us in our homes and cities, and when we need to go into ‘the wild’ to get food, energy, etc. At this point there’s a sort of contradiction – and how to mediate the demands of the two paradigms becomes a vexing question.

So, um, are 1200 words wortwhile if they serve to turn a vague problem into a more precise problem?

3 Responses to “What Would a Vegan Society Look Like? Preamble”

  1. links for 2009-11-23 « Rumblegumption Says:

    […] What Would a Vegan Society Look Like? Preamble « Directionless Bones […]

  2. Mute Fox Says:

    Thanks for answering my question in post form! ^^

    The problem is definitely more precise now, thanks for clearing that up. The two paradigms you described seem perfectly adequate to describe how human dealings with non-human animals could work. I have one question, though. I suppose that was inevitable.

    If the paradigm towards wild animals is similar to that of a peaceful foreign nation which needs to be left alone, what happens when humanity needs to expand? There is only so much space and so many resources on this planet, and barring our inevitable migration out into the solar system and beyond, human interests will come into conflict with those of animals. Nearly every scrap of land that is now free from human habitation (or industrialization) is inhabited by some form of animal life or another…so are we simply not allowed to press any farther than the borders we’ve already created? What of the wild animals that co-exist with us in our towns and cities? Non-human animals are incapable, as you pointed out, of communicating with us in any useful way as regards their own interests. They don’t have councils, can’t send delegations, etc. So how do we settle the inevitable conflict between our interests and theirs if only our side is capable of making the decision?

    Note that I am not saying that there aren’t plenty of ways to *reduce* the amount of space and resources that humanity needs, and ways to make less of an impact on our animal fellows. But there just doesn’t seem to me to be a way to avoid some sort of encroachment onto animal “national territory.” Do you think some sort of compromise would be neccessary, and what form would that take?

    I realize I’m just compounding the problem by asking more questions, but I am as always, intrigued to hear your thoughts. Thanks again for taking the time to answer, I look forward to your next post (on whatever subject.)

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