Utilitarianism And Banana Ethics
There’s a particular argument used against ethical veganism that crops up rather too frequently. More often than not, it’s dressed up as some kind of intellectual slam-dunk, when in reality, it merely demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of basic rights and our obligations to the beneficiaries of those rights. I am, of course, referring to the “argument” that animals and humans are harmed in the production of crops, so therefore ethical veganism is pointless and in contradiction with itself. There are some people who genuinely consider this a valid argument. The most bizarre form I have seen of this is published in a recent Vice article where the author, Laura, after being “partly vegan” for the last 15 years (whatever that means), decides to write the prospect of veganism off entirely on account of a “food expert” informing her that conditions for workers on banana and cocoa plants are inhumane.
Laura concludes that it would have been “much fairer and more sustainable if I had had an occasional piece of meat from a local cow, instead of all the bananas and chocolate bars I wolfed down over the last 15 years.” Used in this way, the “argument” isn’t just an attempted intellectual slam-dunk, it’s crossed that line and sits firmly in the realm of faux-ethics. The person isn’t just defensively casting fireballs on all of your arguments for veganism – they actually believe that their position is a moral one. But why?
Well, while we live in a society that embraces (or appears to embrace) fundamental rights where humans are concerned, our societal approach to animals is incredibly utilitarian. Whereas with humans, the fundamental right not to be used as a resource or treated as property is unanimously accepted and condemned whenever it occurs (and it does), we don’t – as a society – consider the prospect of fundamental rights for animals. We merely assume the legitimacy of our breach and denial of their interests for utilitarian reasons, without considering the fact that animals are also sentient beings like humans with the identical fundamental right not to be treated as a resource. This is what 200 years of animal welfare has resulted in; animal ethics discussed in terms no deeper than the “reduction of suffering” while in human ethics we respect the fact that humans should not be made to suffer at all as a result of being used exclusively as a resource.
This is how we end up with the bizarre “argument” that killing a “local” cow is somehow more moral than eating bananas. Because society embraces utilitarianism with animals and rights for humans, we end up conflating fundamental animal interests with non-fundamental human interests, and treating them as one of the same. Conditions on banana plants may not be acceptable at all, but that is not a justification for denying the existence of fundamental animal interests in life – interests that all sentient beings possess and which give rise to the right not to be used as property – and choosing to exploit animals. When we consider that both animals and humans have the same fundamental right not to be used as a resource, Laura’s argument would be no different to saying that it would have been “much fairer and more sustainable to purchase slaves from the the local elderly home, instead of having child slaves shipped over from Iran the last 15 years.” The former is no better than the latter as both represent fundamental rights violations – neither are morally acceptable. In Laura’s example, however, it is not even fundamental rights vs fundamental rights; it’s fundamental rights vs non-fundamental rights. While certain places that humans work may be horrible places that we should avoid purchasing goods from wherever possible, it is not permissible to enslave humans and kill them for their body parts, excretions, or their offspring. The idea that animals must be exploited in order to preserve non-fundamental human interests demonstrates how very misguided our societal perception of animal-value actually is. We claim to think about animals morally, as having some value, yet because we’ve been taught to think about them in utilitarian terms, we don’t immediately connect that value to having rights. We merely assume that animals can have the short straw every time a conflict with humans occurs, even if the threatened human interest is not a fundamental interest and the animal interest involves life and death.
The speciesism that is perpetuated by animal welfare in our society (keeping us talking about animals in ways no deeper than “suffering”) enables these sorts of “arguments” to exist by legitimising the notion that humans somehow have a fundamental right worthy of protection that animals lack. The fact of the matter is, our very existence causes harm to both animals and humans, no matter what we do. But just because we live in a world in which incidental and accident harm exists, does not mean that we are permitted to abandon moral principles. Humans will inevitably harm each other as a result of passing contagious illnesses, but that incidental harm does not mean we can inflict intentional, unnecessary harm via treating humans as replaceable resources and harvesting them for body parts. Equally, humans will inevitably harm other animals as a result of living in the world and needing to grow crops, but that incidental harm (that in a vegan world would be drastically reduced) does not mean that we can inflict intentional, unnecessary harm via treating animals as our property, denying their inherent value, and harvesting their excretions and body parts in all the horrific ways we do. For both humans and animals, the existence of incidental and accidental harm does not negate moral principle, it actually further highlights the importance of maintaining those principles.