radical Jainism makes more sense to me than veganism
Let me preface this by saying that I couldn’t care less about what people choose to eat, whether it’s no meat or all meat or no wheatgerm or whatever. I can’t imagine wanting to scold someone for eating meat, but I also can’t imagine giving someone a hard time about not eating meat– especially in the defensive, assuming-an-implied-critique-of-meat-eating way a lot of people do. Eat what you will, says I.
That said, on just a philosophical level, I understand radical Jainism more than I understand veganism. Certain strains of the Jainite religion have a diet that is vegetarian, allows the consumption of dairy or honey or other animal products that don’t involve the death of the animal, but disallows the consumption of root vegetables like onions, potatoes or carrots– because that kills the organism. So an apple or peas would be okay, if I understand the philosophy correctly.
That just strikes me as having more internal consistency than conventional veganism, which disallows the consumption of animal products like honey, but permits the killing of vegetables. In his recent essay on vegetarianism from the NYT magazine, Jonathan Safran-Foer asks “Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it.” My question for vegetarians who abstain from eating meat for moral reasons is, why is it permissible to end vegetable life but not animal life? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. The typical argument I get from vegetarians is no argument at all; it is usually just a snort, an assumption that I am just being a punk, or a refusal to take the question seriously. But the impatient insistence that a question is not serious does not constitute an effective response to that question, or a rebuttal to the notion that it should be asked in the first place.
I put it to you that it’s exactly that kind of elementary resistance– to considering a right to life or moral content for more organisms, to expanding the scope of what we consider to have some sort of access to rights– that vegetarians and vegans have pushed against for so long. The application of incredulity or dismissal in the face of the question of a right to life can’t be synthesized with the points that Safran-Foer and others are making.
What genuine arguments I have seen on this front usually involve arguments that right to life is a consequence of consciousness, or that the argument against eating meat is really an argument against causing pain, or similar. Yet I find none of these ideas adequately developed, and usually they exists only in the specific and limited instance of answering my question, not part of a larger lattice of philosophical belief about the right to life of any organism. Surely, the association of the prohibition against eating meat with consciousness, and the association with preventing pain, are both very troubled constructions, with a vast amount of logical consequences that I don’t think many vegetarians or vegans have considered. (For instance, consciousness is not a binary, but rather a spectrum, so the question becomes whether an animal has more right to life if it is more conscious– a cow has more right to life than a lobster, which has more right to life than an earth worm, etc.) While we’re in the business of considering the moral and philosophical underpinnings of vegetarianism and veganism, these questions have relevance, salience, and power.
Like I said, eat what you want, and advocate what you will. But as long as people like Safran-Foer are asking questions, I’m asking questions too.