What would a Vegan Society look like? Part 2: Species and Cultures

I sort of feel like the ‘what would a vegan world look like?‘ topic deserves a couple more posts, although this one continues to duck the central and thorny (and sticky – like a thornbush covered in treacle) questions, and instead deals with certain concerns that often come up in this sort of context.

One recurrent question goes as follows:

“If we all became vegatarian/vegan what would happen to all the existing domestic cows, sheep and pigs etc? Would a truly vegan society mean the extinction of domestic cattle and sheep and pigs?  What happens while they all die off?”

The other question is:

“What about places where there are ‘indigionous’ people such as Inuit who  do not have the weather to grow sufficient vegatables?  How much will we have to ride roughshod over peoples’ culture to do this?”

Now, I think in both these cases, there is a reasonable and very difficult question of means, and relatively simple question of ends.

The question of ends in the first case is – do we aim at the extinction of the domesticated cattle, pig, etc. sub-species? And to this I think the question is fairly straightforwardly ‘yes’ – we don’t aim at that for its own sake but if, as is quite possible, it would be the consequence of veganism, we’re fine with that. Sub-species in themselves aren’t particularly important, and don’t have moral rights that way that individuals like you do.

And similarly, in the second case, there is the question – are we happy to cause an irrevocable and radical change in hunter-gatherers’ cultures, essentially amounting to the disappearance of the older cultures? Again, I would say ‘yes’, because cultures are not in themselves morally significant things.

Partly, this view is a product of my view about what, factually, cultures and species are – namely, that they are inherently changing, relative aggregations, without a stable essence. Cultures are always changing – certainly, hunter-gatherer cultures are changing, and have changed radically simply by contact with industrial societies (after all, something done deliberately, in awareness of alternatives, is culturally different from something done from necessity). There is no such thing really as ‘Ontario culture’ or ‘Inuit culture’ – or if there is, it’s not the same now as what it was a decade ago. So I’m not even sure it makes sense to want to ‘preserve’ particular cultures for their own sake.

The same actually applies to species, although it’s perhaps less widely recognised. If you looked at the last 10 million years, and the various hominids (human-like animals) that have existed, there are certainly changes, gradations, variations, and these could be used to divide those animals up into distinct species and sub-species. But there are no lines written into the animals themselves, and we could choose different schemes of division if we thought one was more convenient than another.

But partly, I suppose, it’s just a sort of general feeling about moral value: moral value comes ultimately from things that can care about their own lives, and this means it comes from individuals, not from abstractions. The sub-species ‘domesticated pig’ doesn’t mind what we do to it, it doesn’t mind anything.

Of course that doesn’t mean species and cultures are entirely worthless, any more than life-support machines, beautiful paintings, or beloved childhood toys are worthless. It still makes sense to want to preserve them in general, where that’s possible – it still makes sense, for instance, for people to spend their lives transcibing details of languages spoken only by 50 people in Papua New Guinea, before those languages disappear altogether. But it’s not worth violating the rights of individuals of those species or cultures to preserve the abstraction – it would be wrong to, say, preserve said language by demanding that members of that tribe be imprisoned if they speak English or any other language.

Of course, as I said, the question of means – of how we deal with this sort of thing in practice – is still difficult.

What this demands, in the species case, is that we have some idea of how to care for an enormous population of more-or-less entirely dependent beings, in the interval before their population crashes from us not reproducing them.Of course, if the transition to veganism were slow enough, this wouldn’t necessarily arise – the numbers of farm animals would decrease step-by-step as fewer were economically desired. But let’s consider the hard case.

The problem is, we don’t really have a good model of how to do this even with humans, as is indicated by the number of children who need adoption – not even counting the pets who are ‘surplus’ to what people want. Our general model of how to care for the vulnerable and dependent isn’t adapted for the task of dealing with large numbers of ‘orphaned’ dependents.

Similarly, in the cultures case, what we need is a model of how a culture can be deliberately but harmoniously changed, neither from outside or from inside but by both, in a way that can do away with the violent parts without leaving people isolated, alienated, and deprived of the sense of meaning and community that cultures function to provide. And again, how do we do that? Because we will need to work this out, to change both pre-industrial and industrial cultures in loads of ways – to deal with issues of sex, pollution, militarism, and a hundred other things. But we don’t have, as far as I can see, a good model – we have the very partial ways it has happened, with the various degrees of anomie and social dislocation that have resulted.

(On the particular issue of not being able to grow enough vegetables in a given place – sure, but since IIRC we’ve recently passed the 50%-urban mark, most of the people in the world live somewhere where they can’t grow enough food locally and need to have it imported. Though this obviously presents its own issues, it’s not a problem specific to this topic so I’ll focus on the worries over ‘culture’)

So I don’t think I can give, in the abstract, a really good answer to either question. But I think they can be chopped in half so that the one half, which rested on the idea of preserving species and cultures for their own sake, can be dealt with, leaving the other half as a practical problem which, though difficult, pose only the same basic questions – how to care for dependents, how to consciously alter cultures – that we lack, but desperately need, answers to for many other reasons.

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