I’ve found myself drawn towards reading about subjects related to evolution, genetics, human behavior and all topics that surround these fields of study. They help me understand the drives of human behavior so that I can understand why humans act they way they do in a variety of circumstances, but primarily they help me understand my own behavior and why I both physically and emotionally react they way I do to the same general circumstances. The book that really lifted a veil for me recently was The Origins of Virtue – Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (Matt Ridley). I don’t intend to detail the book, but rather to summarize it’s main idea, which is that the human animal (all animals for that matter) are self-interested creatures. This may sound a little basic, but the premise is really a radical perspective in a world that wants to believe in a certain degree of selflessness and sacrificial attitude towards the betterment of others. It is radical because it says that those perspectives are not only false, but impossible. The point is that, as beings composed of genetic material, we are compelled by that same material to act in the interest of the survival and spread of said genetic material. Less robotically than it sounds, genes seek to reproduce themselves through the vessels of our bodies. This reproduction is carried out in various ways, but always such that they draw a line back to themselves. We are self-interested because we seek to survive and survival is predicated upon self-interest. It is here where everything gets more complex, in that self-interest is different than selfishness and where cooperation and altruism and empathy towards others may SEEM selfless, but again, always draw a line back to the self. The idea doesn’t go as far as supporting an Ayn Rand idea of “selfishness as a virtue”, in the cold, privileged, exploitive way she expressed it, but it also doesn’t allow for a purely selfless act. The reason I think it is important to state all this is because veganism if often perceived and expressed as a selfless virtue, in that it seemingly acts upon the behalf of others that we have little physical and emotional connection towards. Therefore, if we are to engage with veganism clearly and honestly, and effectively, we must evaluate the motivations behind our ethical stance and reconcile them with our self-interest.
A common phrase in the vegan community is “For the animals.” It has been stated this way, in part, because veganism was being interpreted as simply a diet for health or weight loss and confined to these parameters instead of its fundamentally ethical perspective related to the use of animals for human benefit. In the limited perspective of veganism, the lives of non-human animals were not part of the equation in their own right. Their bodies just happened to be a product to avoid in relation to losing weight or increasing athletic performance. Restating that veganism is “for the animals” was a way of bringing it back to its ethical roots, and yet, in the light of unavoidable and fundamental self-interest, even saying “for the animals” can be misleading because being “for the animals” is simply a way of being “for myself”. I don’t think this perspective is wrong in any way. The question we have to ask then, is WHY is being for the animals actually for oneself. This is a massively important consideration both for a sense of intellectual grounding, but also for strategy in spreading veganism.
Humans often consider why being vegan is good for oneself and the many campaigns to persuade others focus on these arguments, some of the most popular being health and environment. Athletic performance has become a recent addition to the discussion. I don’t think these arguments are necessarily false, but I also think they lack the ability to appeal directly to one’s self-interest on their merits alone. The environmental concerns of eating animals within the context of industrial civilization might be the strongest argument towards a universal human self-interest, of these options, but the immediate appeal to the individual seems to lack the sense of crisis, immediate reward, and understanding that shapes human behavior. The arguments related to health and athletic performance have a little more immediate and tangible rewards for the individual, therefore playing to their self-interest, but they also fall short when it comes to a universal self-interest. These arguments will only appeal to people who think they need to get healthy or athletes who would like to experiment. This isn’t to mention the many other diets and performance enhancers humans can utilize to seek those personal rewards. Veganism doesn’t outdo eating well as an omnivore and there have certainly never been athletic studies to determine if there is an unarguable benefit to vegan athleticism. Vegan culture tends to focus on these arguments because they think they are playing to one’s self-interest, even doing so unconsciously, but I fail to find much strength in this approach, especially over the long term in a culture of diet fads and athletic neophilia.
There are other arguments surrounding vegan practice that I also find unappealing in that they don’t apply to a universal human self-interest. The idea of caring for animals for the animals sake blatantly plays to the impossible idea of selflessness. The counter argument is “humane meat”. For all it’s painfully absurd argumentation, “humane” meat exists because it plays to the idea of consumer self-interest, in that people can care about the treatment of animals up until the point that the animal is killed, when it’s light switch of consciousness is switched off. The ability to give an animal a cared for life, devoid of pain and suffering (again, these arguments are all subjective and inconsistent and relative), then to simply end it’s life without suffering is easily absorbed by the consumer public. The need for most people to adopt veganism out of self-interest is counteracted by their ability to continue eating animals and feeling good about themselves due to the argument of humane meat. For all the ethical high ground that veganism may have over “humane” meat, the practice is humane enough to meet the standards of humanity, and in that self-interest veganism will always lose.
This sounds like a pretty poor defense of veganism so far. The point I’m getting to though, is that veganism has at it’s roots an appeal to universal human self-interest. That doesn’t mean it’s easily adopted or of a moral totalitarian nature, but it also doesn’t mean it’s an extremist, niche of ethical consideration. Veganism exists because it appeals to human self-interest…or else no one would adopt it. The value of veganism is the value of most ethical stances, in that we seek to treat others in ways that we would like to be treated. This phrase isn’t the shallow pacifist perspective that it’s often used to uphold, but rather a flexible and literal interpretation. We treat threats to our individual survival in various ways, sometimes with a violence we would expect to receive if we posed a threat to others. Most often we seek a cooperation among others that we hope to gain in return for our own needs. Everything draws back to self-interest. Veganism meshes into this idea of treating others as we’d like to be with an easily understandable clarity.
By definition, veganism rejects the use of animals by humans, for the animal’s sake of not being used, but also because we recognize the self-interest of not wanting to be used ourselves. The permission of behavior we condone to others allows for the permission to be treated all the same. This is the universal human self-interest of veganism.
In modern industrial civilization we have found ourselves treating animals in a variety of ways, the greater number of them with tremendous exploitation. We have domesticated others, objectified them, imprisoned them, modified them, destroyed them, and eradicated them for a certain limitation of human self-interest. In the same way, we can see how we have allowed the same to be performed upon the human animal. Through wage slavery, sexual and racial objectification, the prison-industrial complex, eugenics, war, genocide, we have brought the treatment of animals upon ourselves. And for all the very self-interested reasons we reject racism, sexism, homophobia and all human specific offenses, veganism is an equal expression of that human self-interest, in that as an ethical stance it rejects the various use and exploitation of non-human animals in order to prevent the same being done to the human animals. We are doing a poor job of adopting an anti-exploitive psychology in our culture. Veganism, uniquely, extends our perspectives to see the ways we treat fellow humans as extensions of the ways we treat all animals.
In practice, veganism is an act of treating animals in the ways we would like to be treated, that is without objectification, without enslavement, without domestication, without suffering and without death. It is also an act of reacting against those that treat others with more of a selfishness than a self-interest, that is to say they preserve their sense of survival by exploiting the cooperation of others. They gain advantages by reducing the advantages of others, through economic exploitation, physical exploitation, and even psychological exploitation. Veganism is a resistance to this selfishness by rejecting the means by which those with selfish privilege exploit non-human animals and therefore human animals as well.
I have directly witnessed the end result of this psychology of exploitation under the roofs of factory farms, between the sheds of fur farms, and in the pens of slaughter houses. The suffering in the bodies of these individual animals compelled me to open cages and set them free into lives without exploitation, because to allow them to remain confined in suffering until death, is to give permission to the mechanisms that would do the same to me should the social circumstances change. The overhead visuals of factory farms and concentration camps can not be discerned from each other. The industrialization and mechanisms of efficiency that process millions of bodies of animals are the same that process millions of bodies of humans. There is no “other” when the psychology behind the exploitation is of human self-interest in a certain context.
We then have two considerations to make moving forward. In terms of every campaign and every act of persuasion, we must understand how to appeal to one’s sense of core self-interest and to understand the social context that shapes one’s self-interest. We will never compel anyone towards veganism out of the idea of selfless empathy, but rather that empathy appeals to a specific self-interest. We must draw the lines between the treatment of others and the treatment of ourselves, defining how exploitation is a threat to our individual survival. The greater challenge, however, is recognizing the context of exploitation that we have created as human animals, one that is composed of authoritarianism, hierarchy, domestication, efficiency, and all the mechanisms of industrial civilization. That context compels people who struggle for survival by achieving positions of privilege to continue exploiting others (and convincing others to exploit others) in order to retain their position of privilege. They are safe because we are unsafe.
Veganism will be mired in obscurity if it can’t adopt a perspective of appealing to universal human self-interest. The good news is that this universality is inherent in it’s definition, because the definition rejects the USE of animals, in all ways, which means that it also rejects the use of all humans. Veganism by definition rejects non-consensual relationships, because it rejects relationships between individuals, no matter how mediated, who can not consent with each other due to barriers of language and other forms of communication. This rejection of non-consensual relationships is the very dignity of humanity. It is the very premise of survival. Veganism is an ideology of human self-interest, but if we don’t view it that way, we will cut short it’s ability to liberate all animals. Vegansim IS “for the animals” because humans ARE animals.