Veganism: Where to Draw the Line?

I’ve written before on this blog about what I call the “marginal hypothesis.” The marginal hypothesis is often put to vegans in order to expose the supposed weakness of our position. For example, we might be asked what stance we would take if–and I’m just making this up–sacrificing 1,000 pigs to science would lead to a cure for a disease afflicting one human child. Would we do it? If so, how do we square that choice with principled veganism?

As I have said before, these are serious questions that deserve to be taken seriously. But they are also, in a way, distractions from the larger vegan tenet that choosing to eat pigs for pleasure is, quite simply, wrong. We have every right to hold firm the latter belief while grappling honestly with the former hypothetical. Those who persistently foist the marginal hypotheses upon us often miss this important point.

A similar thing happens on the “where to draw the line” question. At what point on the evolutionary chain do vegans decide that an animal’s consciousness is complex enough to warrant human compassion? Tough question. Many vegans (controversially, of course) call themselves vegan but eat oysters and sea urchins.  Others, although unable to answer the question with hard facts, err on the side of caution and avoid all animals, no matter how simple they may be.

Again, we cannot avoid this question, even if it can never be satisfactorily answered. I’m the first to admit that, while I avoid eating oysters, I have a hard time convincing an open-mined skeptic why I make this choice (and, naturally, I welcome insight on this). By contrast, I find the oft leveled claim that plants feel pain and have a conscience to be not only grossly ignorant of evolutionary biology, but just plain absurd. When the “plants have feelings too” argument comes my way, I know I’ve won the debate.

Nevertheless, it is critical that, as vegans who hope to be secure intellectually in our position, we don’t allow the difficulty of the “draw the line” challenge to undermine the basic and undeniable tenet that the vast majority of animals humans do eat for pleasure, and pleasure alone, are undoubtedly complex enough to be included in our circle of compassion. Just because I cannot fully defend why an oyster deserves my compassion does not mean I cannot tell you in the most convincing terms why a pig does.

Nobody has made this point better than the philosopher Tom Regan, in The Case for Animal Rights: 

Where one draws the line regarding the presence of consciousness is no easy matter, but our honest uncertainty about this should not paralyze our judgment in all cases. We cannot say exactly how old or how tall someone must be, in all cases, to be old or tall, respectively, but it does not follow that we cannot recognize that some people are old or tall. Our ignorance about the shadowy borders of attributions of consciousness is no reason to withhold its attribution to humans and those animals most like us in the relevant respects. 


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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