A Response to James McWilliams’ “When Vegans Won’t Compromise”

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(Photo credit: Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.)

In James McWilliams’ article “When Vegans Won’t Compromise,” he argues that vegans value the moral principle over the actual and probably preventable suffering of many animals. And in doing so, they appear uncompromising. His secondary argument says that their radical beliefs are radical not necessarily because of what they involve, but because how they are presented. In taking an all-or-nothing stance on the consumption of animals, vegans alienate those who may want to join the movement by helping out in any way they can. For instance, those who may want to start off by eating meat only six days a week rather than seven. McWilliams’ takes a stance of moderation. This is, he thinks, the easiest and the safest stance.

In this essay, I respond to James McWilliams’ presentation of vegans as one of the major problems contributing to the suffering of animals. McWilliams presents vegans as uncompromising, radical, and unrealistic for following a principle so strictly and suggesting others do the same. In this essay, I address each of these blanket statements about the appearance of vegans. First, I show that, due to the nature of utilitarianism, McWilliams’ analogy of the fainting man in the theatre can be used against meat consumption as well as veganism. Then, I give examples of vegans—both as individuals and as welfare groups—compromising. Next, I show how meat eaters can be just as radical as vegans, following their own principle with just as much adherence. Finally, I defend vegans for suggesting strict adherence to this principle by showing the rationality behind this suggestion given the context of our degraded and exploited environment. Through evidence from PETA, McWilliams’ book Just Food, and other ethicists’ published work, I show that vegans are not as irrational as McWilliams suggests and that focusing on how vegans can improve the conditions of animals by simply appearing more approachable to non-vegans is not the best use of our time when it comes to solving such a controversial issue with so many devastating consequences.

McWilliams begins his article with the analogy of a man fainting in the opera house to show that vegans let preventable suffering continue for the sake of the beauty of a moral principle. Those in the audience are likely to let the show go on because they value beauty over one man’s life, and they assume that someone nearer will help the man. But doesn’t his analogy work better in favor of vegans? Consider this: a pig is brutally slaughtered, so that thirty people can enjoy his meat. One person, who has seen the suffering and slaughter of this pig is horrified, and calls to stop the practice which continues to cause pigs to suffer and be killed for the pleasure of consuming meat. The other thirty, are not close to the pig, nor have they truly witnessed his suffering, so what is the point of trying to stop one pig’s death? They do not witness any of the discomfort or pain of the animal, and they still get to enjoy the pleasure of eating meat. In this case, meat—and the enjoyment derived from eating it—is the art, the performance; the pig is the fainting man, and the person beside him is the vegan who is calling to end the suffering of this pig and pigs like him. Except in reality, it isn’t just one pig, but about 100 billion animals being killed every year which people choose to ignore.

I understand McWilliams’ thought process in using this analogy. In using this comparison, he shows the drawbacks of utilitarianism as a moral theory which supports strict veganism. It can be easy, not only as a utilitarian but as a human being, to ignore the problems of those not close in proximity. It is easy to forget or feign ignorance of suffering one does not witness. McWilliams’ friend, as well as many others in the theatre are not emotionally invested in the well-being of the fainting man much like most people are not emotionally invested in the torturing and killing of animals whom they have not met or formed a bond. Certainly, continuing to eat meat when one has the choice not to, is irresponsible regardless of how far away the suffering occurs. It seems it is the meat-eaters who are sacrificing the animals for the sake of pleasure because they are too detached from the animals just like those in the opera—besides those seated beside him—were too detached to help that man.

McWilliams’ main argument in the article is that vegans refuse to compromise with non-vegans; instead of supporting others for choosing to buy eggs and meat from free-range chickens, vegans complain that this is not enough nor worthy of praise. However, inherent in McWilliams’ argument is the straw man fallacy that assumes all vegans are uncompromising. Sure, there are animal welfare organizations that seem radical by using in-your-face tactics to shock people into seeing their point. But what about on the personal level? As a vegan, I have to compromise everyday. Not my morals, of course, since my refraining from eating, wearing, or using animals in any way does not affect those around me. However, to be totally uncompromising would be a lonely existence. I am not constantly walking around berating people for their choices, even though I believe they are wrong. I have to watch how I say what I say, so as not to seem too radical, though that is impossible when addressing something so near and dear to the hearts of the American people. I still eat meals with carnists, even when the amount of meat on their plates makes me want to cry. In fact, none of my friends or family are vegan. I even worked at a restaurant that cooked and sold meat because I needed the money. So actually, individuals need to make compromises and cut others some slack—a lot of slack, actually—just to survive in America.

What about the animal welfare organizations that McWilliams mentions? For example, let’s take a look at PETA. PETA is well-known for its shocking advertisements and protests, and many view them as a radical organization. However, a quick perusal of their website and campaign history will show you that PETA is actually relatively compromising. They state that they “stopped PETA protests outside Burger King or McDonald’s restaurants when those companies agreed to reforms, but that doesn’t mean that we would ever suggest eating meat from” them.[1] Clearly, PETA shows that they do not support eating “meat” at fast food restaurants; they specifically mention meat, but do not say they are against eating non-animal products at these establishments. In addition, they admit to ceasing protests, but do not state whether these chains actually made any reforms. It seems that these protests probably had no effect on anyone’s consumption of meat. On the same page, PETA admits, “Yes, it’s better to pay extra for an egg from a chicken who had a marginally less hideous life than one who suffered more.”[2] This does not seem like a radical vegan statement to me, but more like that moderate stance McWilliams’ is suggesting vegans adopt. Here, PETA admits that it is willing to make compromises by not outright condemning places like Burger King and McDonald’s or those who choose to eat eggs from backyard chickens or “organic and free-range” chickens. Strict veganism would not support eating at a fast food restaurant that makes billions of dollars by exploiting and killing animals. Furthermore, PETA has celebrated victories such as causing Safeway to reform policies so that they now “encourage all of their eggs suppliers to ban battery cages, implement a purchasing preference for pork that was produced without cruel gestation crates, and favor poultry suppliers that use controlled atmosphere killing instead of electric stun baths and throat slitting.”[3] Aren’t these reforms the exact compromises McWilliams’ is asking for?

In addition, PETA is known for using influential celebrities for their campaigns; most of these celebrities are not actually vegan. For example, PETA has used Khloe Kardashian as a model for their anti-fur campaign, and yet, she is constantly seen toting leather bags. Using these models for their campaigns promotes a certain level of hypocrisy. I could go on about other reforms PETA has helped make possible in the animal agriculture business which reduce the suffering of animals even when they are still exploited and slaughtered, but I think I made my point.

Not only are vegans uncompromising, according to McWilliams, but they are also extremely radical, not unlike members of a cult. Here, McWilliams is guilty of the straw man fallacy again. He actually seems to blame vegans for the fact that more people are not adopting a vegan lifestyle. According to him, meat-eaters do not even consider veganism as a serious issue because of the vegan attitude.[4] Apparently we are coming off too strong in our defense of animals. In this second sweeping generalization, he ignores the fact that the same could be said of meat-eaters. It takes absolutely zero willpower to conform to the majority and eat meat and other animal products, and most do so thoughtlessly. But just like followers of a cult, many Americans believe that milk is the best way to build strong bones and protein is hard to come by without meat or eggs simply because this is what has been advertised for years. They don’t even question it. In reality, milk is not the best source of calcium; in fact, milk only began to be marketed as a good source of calcium during World War I as a result of a milk surplus.[5] Similarly, beans have almost as much protein as meat when comparing equal amounts. Yet people continue to espouse these statements as facts without researching their validity.

McWilliams also criticizes Gary Francione, who epitomizes the no-compromise stance of vegans, but he overlooks Francione’s point. Francione warns against the danger of supporting welfare groups that push for moderate reforms like cutting out red meat but continuing to eat chicken because people are prone to absolving themselves from guilt. It is all too easy for consumers to say that because they participate in Meatless Mondays that they are doing enough. Francione expresses a valid concern that the public will not view these reforms as baby steps but rather as the end result. We cannot confuse people by suggesting that these reforms are enough. In reality, participating in Meatless Mondays is the equivalent of murdering everyday except Mondays and calling oneself a good person because of one day of abstinence. If we are to promote these moderate reforms, we must emphasize their use as temporary stepping stones to total veganism.

The idea of Meatless Mondays, or promoting other “achievable goals” that “limit meat consumption” is a good point made in the article.[6] If the meat industry is directly fed by demand, shouldn’t vegans promote eating less meat? Yes, they should. However, the problem with eating less meat for moral reasons, or even being a moral vegetarian, is that it is actually impossible. One cannot agree with a moral principle, that the torturing and killing of animals is wrong, and then still support the meat industry by sometimes eating meat or consuming dairy products. Dairy cows are constantly inseminated so that they will produce milk; then their babies are taken away so that humans can drink the mothers’ milk. After several years of constantly giving birth and producing milk, the cows are slaughtered for meat. The babies, if female, are allowed to grow up so that they can produce milk like their mothers. If the baby is male, he is either killed for veal at a few weeks of age or raised for beef. Clearly, the dairy industry directly feeds the meat industry, so giving up meat is not really enough.

Well, what about eating less meat for health reasons? Tons of websites and books are now saying eating meat can be harmful to one’s health. But health fads and diets are constantly changing. Every decade the media attacks a new nutrient or food. The Atkins diets says meat is great and carbs are bad, but others say sugar is the enemy. Refraining from the consumption of meat for health reasons is flimsy, and if the reasons don’t hold up, then you can bet that people will start eating meat again. Refraining from animal products is only maintainable in the long-term if one has moral reasons for doing so, and if one is morally opposed to eating meat of any kind, they must be opposed to all animal products.

Despite my examples and evidence, McWilliams is correct in saying that many vegans are unwilling to compromise. However in his criticism of vegans, he fails to mention the severe state of our environment as a result of the meat, egg, and dairy industries. For example, he says that “providing larger cages for the soon-to-be-slaughtered” is still a step in the right direction, but I argue that this is not enough given the increasingly devastating effects of raising animals.[7] In his book, Just Food, McWilliams clearly agrees, calling the problems caused by meat production “urgen[t]and complex.”[8] Such consequences include “[m]onocropping, excessive applications of nitrogen fertilizer, addiction to insecticides, rainforest depletion, land degradation, topsoil runoff, declining water supplies, even global warming.”[9] He insists that a sustainable way to produce meat “does not exist” “[n]o matter how much we’d like to find a magic loophole.”[10] It seems vegans are justified in maintaining an all-or-nothing attitude toward consuming animal products after all.

As I mentioned before, McWilliams’ makes some important points in his article, mainly his criticism of utilitarianism, the appearance of veganism as radical, and the need for slightly more moderate reforms. Utilitarianism, an ethical theory which generally supports veganism and animal rights, due to its adherence to lessening suffering in the world does present issues because it is so flexible. Besides the issue of proximity, it is also difficult to measure suffering. Some may not think the suffering of animals outweighs the pleasure billions of people get from consuming meat. For example, one appeal to this argument against veganism is that many people enjoy meat as a cultural tradition. Yet it is important to remember than not all practices are worth keeping simply on the basis that they are traditions. In his book Food Ethics, ethicist Ronald L. Sandler, expresses this point as well as the fact that “while some meat eating may be culturally significant, the vast majority is not.”[11] Furthermore, the idea that animal suffering is not morally wrong as a similar objection is also problematic. Sandler writes that because people tend to agree “that suffering is bad, the onus is not on the proponents of the argument from animal welfare to explain why we should take animal suffering into account, it is on the argument’s opponents to explain why we should not.”[12] Unlike McWilliams, Sandler maintains that it is not necessary for vegans to constantly justify their behavior to non-vegans.

It is somewhat contradictory that McWilliams even suggests providing larger cages for soon-to-be-slaughtered animals, especially when one considers his other statements about reducing meat intake. While it is consistent with his argument about reducing suffering of animals even if they are still going to be killed, it is entirely insufficient and practically irrelevant as a solution to our problems. He writes that “strict veganism, of course, would be better on all counts.”[13] Consistent with this idea, in Just Food, he maintains that the best thing to do is drastically reduce meat intake, if not refrain from eating it altogether because “unlike other food commodities, the production of meat is driven exclusively by demand,” so “we can, as individuals, play a direct role in initiating environmental change.”[14] Here, he admits that as individuals we are able to make changes, but other strategies for lessening suffering such as “improving animal diets” or enlarging cage size, are solutions “left for others to design and implement.”[15] He goes on to write that the simplest, most empowering, and most “effective answer to the problems” is veganism.[16] In other words, as individuals, we have no control over improving situations for animals that are soon-to-be-slaughtered, but we can boycott animal products by refusing to consume them.

James McWilliams is right to point out that the expectation that everyone adopt veganism overnight is unrealistic of vegans. And it is important to note that he is not against veganism at all. However, by focusing solely on how vegans should change their appearance and attitude toward non-vegans, he ignores the major issues of animal welfare which remain in the hands of the majority. It is not my responsibility as a vegan to be gentle and kind to people who murder on a daily basis; it is not my responsibility to tone down my passion for equality and justice for animals. Overall, McWilliams’ article is thought-provoking, but it is not helpful in offering real solutions to a severe problem which we have limited time to solve. In fact, it is practically a waste of time.

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1. “Burger King Ups the Ante on Farmed-Animal Welfare.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Last modified July 2001. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.peta.org/about-peta/victories/burger-king-ups-ante-farmed-animal-welfare/

2. Ibid.

3. “Safeway Victory.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Last modified February 11, 2008. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.peta.org/blog/safeway-victory/

4. McWilliams, James. Bob Fischer. “When Vegans Won’t Compromise.” The New York Times. Last modified August 16, 2015. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/when-vegans-wont-compromise/?_r=0

5. “Early Developments in American Dairy Industry.” United States Department of Agriculture. Last modified November 23, 2015. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://specialcollections.nal.usda.gov/dairy-exhibit

6. McWilliams, James. Bob Fischer. “When Vegans Won’t Compromise.” The New York Times. Last modified August 16, 2015. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/when-vegans-wont-compromise/?_r=0

7. McWilliams, James. Bob Fischer. “When Vegans Won’t Compromise.” The New York Times. Last modified August 16, 2015. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/when-vegans-wont-compromise/?_r=0

8. McWilliams, James E. “Meat—The New Caviar.” Just Food, 117-154. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 123.

9. McWilliams, James E. “Meat—The New Caviar.” Just Food, 117-154. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 119.

10. Ibid, 118.

11. Sandler, Ronald L. Food Ethics. (New York: 2015), 80.

12. Ibid, 82.

13. McWilliams, James. Bob Fischer. “When Vegans Won’t Compromise.” The New York Times. Last modified August 16, 2015. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/when-vegans-wont-compromise/?_r=0

14. McWilliams, James E. “Meat—The New Caviar.” Just Food, 117-154. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 133.

15. Ibid, 133.

16Ibid, 145.

Bibliography

“Burger King Ups the Ante on Farmed-Animal Welfare.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Last modified July 2001. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.peta.org/about-peta/victories/burger-king-ups-ante-farmed-animal-welfare/

“Early Developments in American Dairy Industry.” United States Department of Agriculture. Last modified November 23, 2015. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://specialcollections.nal.usda.gov/dairy-exhibit

McWilliams, James E. “Meat—The New Caviar.” Just Food, 117-154. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

McWilliams, James. Bob Fischer. “When Vegans Won’t Compromise.” The New York Times. Last modified August 16, 2015. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/when-vegans-wont-compromise/?_r=0

“Safeway Victory.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Last modified February 11, 2008. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.peta.org/blog/safeway-victory/

Sandler, Ronald L. Food Ethics. New York: 2015.

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  1. How do you get around the fact that the neural system in many species requires active B12 to function properly and this nutrient only comes from meat based products. Only two or three plants carry inactive V B 12 which does not feed the human Brain at all. You state that humans should not eat meat but you allow other species to eat meat! This makes no sense at all to go so totally against biology.

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