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Incidental harm to animals is not an excuse not to go vegan

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Guest Essay by Anita Moos


The simplest of our actions as we go about the business of living seems to cause inevitable, albeit often incidental, harm to animals. Almost immediately after I became vegan, I was asked (mostly by non-vegans), how I could reconcile being both a pilot and a vegan. The point of contention was the fact that the airplane I flew did kill birds, insects, and other animals who accidentally strayed into its path. Wracked by guilt and a little confused, I very briefly considered changing my profession, but then realized that there is a fundamental difference between incidental harm caused by the act of flying or otherwise earning a living that causes indirect harm (as all forms of existence do) and the very insidious act of avoidable and deliberate animal exploitation.

Vegans, like all other people, have to work for a living. Vegans are employed as bus drivers, waitresses and supervisors, or at publishing houses, grocery stores or at bakeries. Every day, they reconcile their moral beliefs with the reality of whom they work for or where they work. However, there are very important reasons for vegans to keep working at professions not related to large animal organizations. Let’s consider the following:

  • When we become financially dependent on animals, we tend to form coalitions with non-vegans in order to keep the donations coming in for our organizations. These coalitions mean that the vegan message is necessarily diluted or watered down to the point of being both unrecognizable and meaningless.
  • Since animal use is so pervasive in society, it would be pretty near impossible to find employment that is completely free from such influence. Choosing not to work and living off of welfare would not help either, because all that would have changed is that you would now be living off money made by non-vegans.

When I fly the airplane, I do not fly with the intent of killing animals. I do this to transport people from point A to point B. I would, instead, compare it to the act of walking or maybe driving a car. Accidents happen to humans and animals alike as we perform these activities, but we continue to perform them, all the time acknowledging these unfortunate, and sometimes inevitable consequences. We must, however, be extremely diligent and try to minimize the impact we have on other sentient beings as we perform these acts.

The production of crops and other plant foods also causes accidental harm to animals. This is often pointed out by non-vegans as being inconsistent with the vegan ethos of not causing harm. After all, are mice, rabbits and snakes not killed or displaced when we bring increasing land areas under cultivation? Yes, some animals are certainly harmed in the production of grains and vegetables, however there is more to be considered. Much more grain needs to be fed to the animals than if the produce was eaten directly by the person. Thus, as vegans we would reduce harm and make more efficient use of available resources.

The only way to completely eliminate harm is not to exist at all. I think none of us would consider this to be a viable solution. Professor Francione makes an interesting observation when he states that some humans construct roads and let other people drive on these roads knowing full well that some, unidentified humans will unfortunately die as a result of road accidents at some point in the future. Humans continue to build roads acknowledging this reality. So there is definitely a moral difference between an activity that has human harm as an inevitable but necessary consequence and the intentional killing of human beings. Therefore, we cannot conclude that the accidental harm we cause animals during plant agriculture is justification for the deliberate act of raising and killing animals for animal agriculture. Animal agriculture that only serves to satisfy completely frivolous human desires of palate pleasure, wearing clothing made from animal skins, fur and wool, or for entertainment provided in the form of rodeos, zoos etc.

So, to all the people who try to use incidental harm as an excuse to justify animal use, please stop! We cannot justify our arbitrary exclusion of animals from the moral community, based on a false sense of superiority. The fact that we cannot avoid all harm to animals is no reason for us to ignore the very real moral obligation we have towards sentient nonhumans to go vegan. The longer we take to do this, the more we are prolonging the enslavement and abuse of innocent, sentient beings who are counting on us to speak up for them.

Suggested reading: http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/profile-modern-animal-activist-jenna-woginrichl-activist/

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  • stewart lands

    I agree with the points you have made, except on two counts. To begin, one cannot discount the animals killed by agriculture as “accidental” when the first step taken by any farmer in establishing his field is to eliminate every wild life form inhabiting that land. In fact, these organisms are eliminated for the simple reason that their existence prohibits the exploitation of the land in the manner intended by the farmer. Native plants compete with the farmers intended crop and native animals consume them. For this reason, both are purposely eliminated.

    Your point that more creatures are eliminated in such fashion for the production of livestock, for example, than the production of broccoli is perfectly valid, and a good reason to consume less meat. But not all meat and plants are created equal in this regard. Some meat, such as the deer taken from unaltered habitat, may be consumed with less loss of animal life and less environmental degradation than any vegetable crop. One deer is immediately replaced by another which would have otherwise died for lack of resources if not for the removal of the first. Nature always breeds more animals than habitat can support, and the rest perish of starvation or disease if not consumed. The consumption of excess wild game animals, at sustainable rates, does no harm to animal populations or to the habitat upon which future generations depend. The same cannot be said for any form of agriculture, which necessarily destroys every single individual, of every major species, on the land converted to that purpose.

    You make the point that we have the moral imperative to reduce our impact on animal lives. In fact, the consumption of meat is faulted not only for the direct loss of life that results (the life of cow, etc), but also the greater loss of life that results in producing the vegetable matter upon which the cow must feed, the diversion of water from sensitive aquatic systems, the pollution of soil, water and atmosphere, etc. Of course, this tacitly acknowledges my point above–where we convert the land, we kill wild animals and destroy habitat, and where such can be avoided, it should, because such death is indeed no “accident”. If they were, then there would be no reason for complaint according to the logic posited.

    Which brings me to my final point. I wonder, when I read the news proudly announcing the latest “vegan” beer (for example), how many actually consider the philosophy they claim to espouse. Certainly, animal exploitation and death cannot be avoided entirely, but by wearing the vegan label we accept that we will act to reduce such impacts to the greatest practical extent. Are we really going to claim beer as one of life’s necessities, the impact of which we cannot conceivably avoid? Can we really argue that meat consumption is selfish and extravagant and then pretend that alcohol is not? The animal life forms that we unnecessarily sacrifice to grow barely and hops would rightfully disagree.

    Of course, beer is just an example. Almost any food may be unfavorably compared to another, and so the effort to distinguish between “good” food and “bad” cannot be achieved by etching a line firmly between plant matter and animal. Insistence on a solution simple enough to suit the “uneducated masses” (or so it is argued) cannot hope to achieve the stated goal of reduced animal harm as well as a more nuanced approach.

    • Chris Knight

      Couldn’t the more nuanced approach be a goal as veganism on the whole gains more traction? The current system of unabashed exploitation keeps even a basic level of veganism at bay. I believe the ultimate conservationist would grow their own food on their property but how likely is it that the ones arguing against veganism would ever go that far? Or that everyone even has that opportunity? Veganism has to be made accessible so it becomes the norm, then within that system, people and organisations will have greater inspiration to take further steps to reduce their impact.

      • stewart lands

        Yes, our first priority must be those measures most likely to achieve the desired impact. However, to argue against the consumption of wild fish and game is counterproductive and there is absolutely no reason for it. Why exert our energies to overturn an even better option? And, under these circumstances, who would ever believe that, once done, we would suddenly reverse course and argue instead for the reinstatement of wild foods? It is better to acknowledge the weaknesses in our arguments and correct them, and thereby maintain the integrity of the argument and deflate what might otherwise be valid criticisms.

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