Skeptical…Vegan???

A couple weeks ago I attended the 4th annual SkeptiCal conference in Berkeley, CA and had a blast. The conference offered much be learned and many wonderful people to meet and was a great warm up for the upcoming The Amaz!ng Meeting. One of my favorite of the presentations was one given by Laurie Issel-Tarver titled “Who Owns Your Body? Henrietta Lacks, Myriad Genetics, and the Future of Medical Ethics”. Eugenie Scott also gave a passionate presentation on the “Legends, Hoaxes, Frauds, and ‘Frauds’ of Science” that at one point made me tear up as she spoke about the exploitation and abuse of Oliver the “Humanzee”. Anthony Pratkanis’ presentation on the “Weapons of Fraud” was also great at busting some myths around financial fraud and arming the audience with tools to detect and avoid such frauds. He has also done some great work with the AARP and other organizations to study and combat fraud. There also tables set up with vendors from various organizations and I was pleasantly surprised to see these wonderful vegan and atheist shirts on sale from the folk over at Secularity Clothing.
photo

As often happens at such conferences, a non-attendee who was staying at the hotel approached me and asking me what this thing was all about. I responded with a pat answer I had developed a couple years ago based on Tim Farley’s “elevator pitch” for skeptics, “It’s about scientific skepticism and critical thinking. We focus on the intersection of science education and consumer protection, because there is a lot of misinformation and fraud out there that can cause people harm.” Sometimes people ask more questions and sometimes not, but I’ve found that to be my best short introduction to the subject and it saves me from fumbling around with my words. Now after having attended a number of skeptics events I am seeing the need for me to have an elevator pitch about animal rights and my own veganism. It may not stop some of the amazingly un-skeptical follow-up questions like, “But aren’t we supposed to eat meat?” & “What would happen to the cows is everyone ‘magically’ went vegan tomorrow?”, but it could be useful in addressing some people’s basic curiosity and serve as a gateway to a deeper conversation about the subject. I’m not the first one to arrive at this idea, and other vegans have compiled their own lists of vegan elevator pitches. But I want an elevator pitch that specifically speaks to skeptics and atheists in terms of secular values and critical thinking.

I believe I have settled on an answer, Human exceptionalism, the idea that humans are essentially different than (and inherently superior to) other animals, is a relic of the idea of special creation.  As we suffer, they suffer. One of the most basic things we can do to begin to help non-human animals is to cease to exploit and kill them for food and consumer products to the greatest extent possible.”

I’ve also solicited a few other responses:

@RebeccaOnCanvas says,

(For the scientists:) “As scientific skeptics we recognise the inevitable biological similarities between human and non-human animals (for example a central nervous system) If we acknowledge that animals can suffer… and that suffering sucks, then we should try to minimise it: Therefore vegan.”For the scientists:

& (For the ethicist:) “Unnecessary and unwanted suffering (unlike kinky fun) is universally disliked by all sentient creatures. As secular yet moral people the only real measure of how we act is its effect on others, if our actions inflict suffering maybe we should reconsider those actions : Therefore vegan”

Rebecca also mentioned requesting that people watch the conversation between Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer from The Genius of Darwin: The Uncut Interviews. I have to say that I definitely agree on that being a great interview to watch and it would be on the top of my list of recommendation along with reading Animal Liberation by Singer.

@paulmfox
says,

“Veganism is applied pacifism; the abstention from all animal products, inspired by a reluctance to cause suffering.”

James Funston responded with a response of his own, Why Be Meat-Free?, that is it very well written and concludes that,

“Eliminating meat from your diet is one of the best steps you can take to reducing your impact on the planet and minimizing suffering, not just in the lives saved directly but also in shrinking your carbon footprint.

Nerdi Wizzurd added his own reply,

“Given the substantial amount of scientific evidence which points to all biological organisms having a shared tree of ancestry, its hard to rationalize eating other animals for pleasure, especially when evidence also points to plant-based diets being significantly better for your health. The Earth and Universe were not designed or created for us and the beings that inhabit it are not ours to do with as we please.”

So what are your reasons for going meat-free? Let me know in the comment below.

Further reading:
Why Vegan – Vegan Outreach
A Vegetarian Philosophy by Peter Singer

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13 Responses to “Skeptical…Vegan???”

  1. Luis Tovar Says:

    But you´re promoting veganism or some kind of utilitarianism?

    Veganism is not about suffering, but about use. Veganism means no using nonhuman animals for any purpose. Doesn´t matter if using them causes harm, death or suffering. Using them is always morally wrong.

    «Fortunately, the word “veganism” has a precise and simple meaning. It means: the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals. Because the question of definition is so obviously an important one, I am going to ask you to be kind enough to commit it to memory, so that when we use the word “veganism” we shall all be thinking of the same thing. Veganism then, is the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals.» Leslie Cross

    http://www.candidhominid.com/p/vegan-story.html

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      You are confusing the lifestyle of veganism with your own particular philosophy of animal ethics and ignoring the philosophical diversity among not only vegans but animal rights/liberation/justice/advocates in general.

      For me veganism is an act to oppose both suffering and use.

      • Luis Tovar Says:

        No, I´m not.

        You are confusing veganism with utilitarianism. Veganism has nothing to do with suffering. It´s all about use. Veganism rejects the objectification of nonhuman animals and it is in favour of their freedom from our domination.

        Veganism has a clear meaning since 1951. And it is the only coherent meaning with the practice of avoid animal products and all speciesist activities. Focusing on suffering is irrational, and doesn´t justify that practice; only justifies to inflict death to all sentient beings (to erradicate suffering in the world) or welfarism (“humane” slavery).

        Sorry, but the meanings of the words are not decide by you. Relativism is irrational in any kind of sense.

        • skepticalvegan Says:

          I’m fine with folks coming to veganism from a variety of utilitarian or deontological approaches. I’m all down for philosophical discussions and even arguments (though mainly in person) but I’m really over this more-vegan-than-thou crap. Save it for people who actually consume meat and diary.

          • Sandris Says:

            I agree with the view, that trying to minimize suffering does not neccesarily lead to the ethical imperative for us to be vegans. At least in theory we could kill sentient beings without causing suffering – which is what even Peter Singer maintains, talking about the “conscientous omnivorism” and the so called “happy meat” phenomenon.

            As in Huxley’s “Brave New World”-ish scenario one could drug someone making them (in a way) happy, but at the same time exploiting them, depriving of something. I think there definitely should be some kind of a justice dimension for a vegan imperative to exist at all.

  2. Ingrid Hansen Smythe Says:

    Hey Skeptical Vegan! I just wanted to let you know that Michael Shermer is going to be coming out with an issue of Skeptic concerning Animal Rights/Veganism, so be sure to scout him out at TAM and offer your full support! Ill be writing the article representing the vegan side of things, so if you, or anyone out there, want to provide some direct input, feel free to email me at ihsmythe.shaw.ca (or visit my website at http://www.ihsmythe.ca). Have fun at TAM!

  3. Taylor Says:

    You may be interested in my review of Wesley J. Smith’s explicitly human-exceptionalist and anti-liberation book A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy:
    http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/bts/vol13/iss10/14/

    Other thoughts:

    Not using animals for any purpose is impossible and not even desirable, just as not using humans for any purpose is impossible and not even desirable. (Right now I’m using you to post my thoughts on your blog.) Never exploiting animals (in the sense of never using them in a harmful way) would be desirable if it weren’t impossible.

    Why should you care whether you fit anyone’s definition of “vegan”? You shouldn’t care. What you should care about is your attempt to live a flourishing life while minimizing your harmful impact on others.

    I don’t agree with veganism as “applied pacificism”: I want justice for animals and humans, not necessarily turning the other cheek when confronted with violence or exploitation. Non-violent responses should typically be preferred, but non-violence should not be a fundamental principle.

    And why on earth should we attempt to abstain from all animal products? Arguably, some/many animals are not sentient. (I’m thinking particularly of insects.) Let’s not have “veganism” (whatever that means) become a church with faithful adherents mindlessly following prescribed rules.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      Not using animals for any purpose is impossible and not even desirable, just as not using humans for any purpose is impossible and not even desirable. (Right now I’m using you to post my thoughts on your blog.) Never exploiting animals (in the sense of never using them in a harmful way) would be desirable if it weren’t impossible.

      In general I would agree with that to an extent, at least as far as my practical and realistic side goes.

      I don’t agree with veganism as “applied pacificism”: I want justice for animals and humans, not necessarily turning the other cheek when confronted with violence or exploitation. Non-violent responses should typically be preferred, but non-violence should not be a fundamental principle.

      This too I would agree with. I’m am most certainly not a philosophical pacifist, especially as it it thought of in abolitionist circles.

  4. Anna Says:

    I think that is a great elevator speech when addressing other skeptics. In my own life, I am, unfortunately, not in too much contact with skeptics, so I might not always be appealing to them. But when someone has a rational and scientific mindset, I do prefer to talk about the undeniable capacity for suffering that we share with most animals, with has been developed through millions of years of evolution. Then I will say that veganism is a choice I can make to opt out of a lot of that suffering, while not causing any harm to myself in the process.

    It seems like lately a lot of “anti-vegan” hate I’ve come across has been in the social justice community, in which vegans are accused of being “privileged” in some way. This confused me at first, but now I think that some people have the idea that vegans can only get food from CSAs, Whole Foods, farmers’ markets, and other pricier locations, and spend hours a day cooking their meals. So I will simply point out that we can’t compare vegans who shop at Whole Foods to omnivores who shop at Safeway. In terms of money, vegans are going to be spending less money on food than their omnivorous counterparts, controlling for other variables like the general healthfulness of their diet, free time to cook food from scratch, preferences for conventional vs. organic, etc.

    But probably the best advocacy I do for veganism is to make delicious food and invite people over to eat it. No complaints yet. Especially when it comes to dessert.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      “It seems like lately a lot of “anti-vegan” hate I’ve come across has been in the social justice community, in which vegans are accused of being “privileged” in some way. This confused me at first, but now I think that some people have the idea that vegans can only get food from CSAs, Whole Foods, farmers’ markets, and other pricier locations, and spend hours a day cooking their meals. So I will simply point out that we can’t compare vegans who shop at Whole Foods to omnivores who shop at Safeway. In terms of money, vegans are going to be spending less money on food than their omnivorous counterparts, controlling for other variables like the general healthfulness of their diet, free time to cook food from scratch, preferences for conventional vs. organic, etc. “

      I’ve noticed this myself as well. I think oftentimes it is a misunderstanding of who the audience of the vegan advocate is. Whether passing out a leaflet on the streets of Berkeley or writing a post about the latest Hormel undercover investigation, the audience is certainly not impoverished people in other nations. For the most part vegan and animal rights advocates are speaking to the upper, middle, and working class of industrialized nations. I think this attitude toward AR and vegan advocacy ignores the contributions to the movement of many people of color in places like Oakland who advocate for animals and vegan lifestyles. It also ignores that vegetarianism in India and some parts of SE Asia is far more common than in the US. Of course this isn’t the same this as a large vegan population, though it seems that even advocacy of vegetarianism or of reducing ones consumption of animal products is met with similar opposition. Ultimately what is most frustrating is the refusal of other to understand that many vegans and animal advocates can accept nuance and are aware of potential medical and economic barriers for some people.

  5. Graswurzel Says:

    “Eliminating meat from your diet is one of the best steps you can take to reducing your impact on the planet and minimizing suffering, not just in the lives saved directly but also in shrinking your carbon footprint.“
    I know, you didn’t write it, but are we Vegans really saving lives?
    My point is, we do not save lives (directly). We only reduce the animals that are living in horrible conditions. But only because the animals were never born. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is better to not have lived than in such conditions, but still the argument isn’t true.
    Indirectly we save lives because less area is needed for our food than for the others. So less animals get killed by accident.
    And sorry, normaly I don’t mention it, but the blog has skeptical in the name.

    • skepticalvegan Says:

      I personally think that the idea that vegans save X number of animals a year is a comforting myth we like to tell ourselves. That is not to say I don’t value veganism. But it is not synonymous with saving animals. Ive actually had this convo a few times lately via Facebook.

  6. Graswurzel Says:

    oh I forget to mention:
    I’m vegan, because I asked some years ago:
    What would I eat, if I never had eaten before?
    Eggs, milk and meat wasn’t on that list.

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