Vegan Debates: The Marginal Hypotheses


There’s a prevailing sense among vegan detractors that complete moral perfection is required to legitimate veganism as a way of life. Indeed, whenever I engage vegan skeptics on the ethical foundations of veganism I find myself bombarded with little grenades I call marginal hypotheticals. What if you were starving on an island and had to kill a pig to stay alive? What about your pet dog? Would it be right to kill 1,000 chimps in a scientific study in order to save one human life? What if plants have feelings, too? And so on. The implicit message behind these questions is that, if vegans cannot definitively answer them, or if they do so in a way that is not completely consistent with the way they live their lives, then veganism is nothing more than an arbitrary and amoral dietary choice. Pass the guiltless burger.

Don’t get me wrong on this. These questions are important questions. Even if they do present situations that are unlikely to ever happen, marginal hypotheticals force vegans and non-vegans alike to think seriously, and at times philosophically, about the deeper nature of the human/non-human animal relationship. What comes from these contemplations can often be profound–one need only consult leading philosophical explorations of animal rights to appreciate the importance of marginal hypotheticals in honing our insights into the non-human animal world.

At the same time, though, getting overly bogged down in marginal hypotheticals pulls us further and further away from the central reality of everyday eating. And in the realm of everyday eating (and wearing clothes), nothing is hypothetical. There is nothing marginal, for example, about the turkey and bacon club sandwich you had for lunch. Nor is there much ambiguity in it either–after all, it doesn’t take a whole lot to prove that a) the club sandwich caused massive suffering for the farm animals involved, and b) you could have avoided it. From this perspective, the marginal hypotheticals serve not so much to hone a philosophy of rights as it does to distract attention from the much cleaner argument that eating animals and animal-based products causes undo suffering to a sentient being and, as a result, has serious moral implications for human consumers. In other words, just because I might struggle with your very clever marginal hypothetical does not mean your burger is guiltless.

Vegan educators should feel no shame in admitting that they will never–by the mere fact that they live in this world– fully live up to the purest ideals of ethical veganism.  Even the most committed vegans will, however inadvertently, cause animal suffering on the distant margins of life (how many insects did I kill on my recent  cross-country drive?) It is therefore imperative that we learn to draw lines (in pencil) between what we can realistically control and what we have little control over. In stressing the latter, vegan detractors go for the vegan jugular. But this is my point: finding inconsistency on the margin in no way undermines the moral core of veganism. In fact, it reiterates its inherent truth.




About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

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