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Spirituality, Speciesism, and The Ethical Symmetry Gap

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Guest Essay by: Jonathan Dickstein

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The cornerstone of abolitionist veganism is consistency, a symmetry of thought, word, and action. A sound refutation of the abolitionist worldview would certainly negate its corresponding ethical duties. But the truth is we don’t reject it, we already agree with it completely.

Abolitionist veganism, as developed by Gary Francione, is based on the simple idea that all animals, human and nonhuman, matter morally. We stop our cars in front of dogs, raccoons, and deer because we recognize that these animals do matter. They matter first in the sense that their own lives mean something to them, and this “meaning to them” produces the recognition in us that their lives also mean something for us. We intuitively grasp that how we behave towards animals does matter, it does mean something. As Gary Steiner states in Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism, “The origin of ethical principles is not some detached transcendent standpoint. It is a felt sense of lived kinship with other sentient beings.” Ethical principles derive from this intuition of “mattering,” not the other way around.

Children apprehend this immediately. Recently while speaking to a group of middle school students, I asked whether there is a fundamental difference between kicking a soccer ball and kicking a puppy. The students stared at me in disbelief, wondering if responding was worth the effort. I replaced the puppy with a piglet and received the same response. I replaced the soccer ball with a sunflower and got it again. They get it, animals matter. Since animals do matter then only something that matters more can warrant subjecting them to confinement, suffering, and death. But when we are honest with ourselves and admit that we almost exclusively use and consume animals for reasons of taste, convenience, and habit, then the scale remains ever-tipped in their favor. Animals’ lives simply matter more.

Living consistently demands that we refrain from using and consuming animals altogether. This conclusion aligns with what we already believe and an honest acknowledgement of that can be unsettling at first. Many nonvegans, especially those who participate in ‘spiritual’ communities, agree that animals do matter morally. However, upon recognizing the real-world ramifications that consistency demands, these same individuals often retreat into supramundane ‘spiritual’ notions that assumedly exonerate their continued use and consumption of animals. All of a sudden animals somehow cease to matter morally. All of a sudden nonvegans invoke the underlying meaninglessness, interdependence, oneness, or emptiness of all existence; how morality is but a hollow human construct; how all terrestrial living is nothing but suffering; or how all dualities, such as good and evil and right and wrong, are false from the perspective of some ‘higher’ truth.

An example.

This following excerpt on “wholeness” is from “Who hears This Sound?,” a 2007 The Sun interview with Adyashanti, a contemporary American spiritual teacher. He is responding to questions about violence in general and then violence towards animals:

“The first Buddhist precept is ‘Do not kill…” [yet]
“The more awake we get, the less we see life in absolutes. Enlightened action doesn’t arise from absolutes. It comes from wholeness moving through you.”

Adyashanti’s meaning is that even though there is an authoritative objective ethical precept—“Do not kill”—one’s “awakening” involves the recognition that “enlightened action” does not derive from objective ethical precepts. Rather “enlightened action” stems from a subjective ethical determination based on how “wholeness moves through you.” In other words, proper action is subjectively determined.

“Life is killing. If we eat a vegetable, we’ve killed it. If we eat an animal, we’ve killed it. To be a living organism is to kill. There is no life without death. When we die, we’re going to be nutrients for something else.”

However, from an “awake” and apparently objective perspective, the speaker argues for an ethical equivalence among those that (who?) are killed. Any subjective determination that alleges a fundamental difference between pulling up a carrot and stabbing a pig in the neck is thus misguided. Vegetables and animals are equally “the killed” and treating them otherwise ignores the reality that “Life is killing” and “To be a living organism is to kill.” Yet if this truly is the case, shouldn’t this equivalence naturally extend to humans as well, their deaths no different than the uprooting of carrots? Well, not exactly.

“I don’t see life as “anything goes,” but I have seen wholeness move through different people in different ways.”

Even though killing is killing, whether animal or vegetable, Adhyashanti denies the “anything goes” ethical perspective that is exactly the logical conclusion of his notion of a “wholeness” with subjectively-determined “movements.” And herein lies the core problem, which is double-sided.

First, if there are some actions that categorically may not “go,” then there exists an objective standard or “absolute” that circumscribes behavior, no matter “how wholeness moves through” the agent in question. But this simply cannot obtain if “enlightened action doesn’t arise from absolutes.” Simultaneously asserting that “wholeness move[s] through people in different ways” and is thus the basis for “enlightened action,” while rejecting the ethical permissibility of certain manifestations of that “wholeness” is clearly problematic.

Second, if one accepts an objective limit for “enlightened action,” it is perfectly reasonable to place unnecessary violence towards animals safely beyond that limit. In other words, the “No Anything Goes” exception can and should extend to nonhumans. Unfortunately nonhuman animals are rarely deemed worthy beneficiaries of the “No Anything Goes” clause, and this is apparently what the speaker has in mind. This exception is almost exclusively reserved for human victims of violence, based on nothing other than the assumption that species membership in and of itself is ethically relevant. This assumption is the essence of speciesism.

I am not trying to disprove or demean the veracity of Adyashanti’s (or anyone else’s) esoteric metaphysical worldview. I simply question how strictly the contemplative critics of veganism live according to the implications of their supramundane conceptions? How many harmonize their daily behaviors with the purported ‘higher’ recognition that animals (and humans?) actually don’t matter morally?

Thankfully I have yet to meet someone who criticizes a woman’s demand for equal pay on the basis of the eventual falsity of all dualities. Thankfully I have yet to meet someone who avoids swerving in front of dogs due to the fundamental suffering native to all embodied existence. Thankfully I have yet to meet someone who tolerates rape and genocide based on the ultimate oneness of all beings and the emptiness of selfhood. Thankfully I have yet to meet someone who tacks the murder of his daughter up to the conclusion that “To be a living organism is to kill.” Thankfully these ‘higher’ perspectives lack jurisdiction in the conduct of our daily lives.

Unthankfully there is a nervous reflex to summon ‘higher’ truths when real-world ethics towards animals demands a fundamental shift in personal habits. But let us be honest. Let us stop pretending. Animals do matter. We already believe it.

Live consistently. Go vegan.

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