I am an ethical vegan, but I slaughtered a horde of ants when they invaded my bedroom. I wrote about it in October in “A Vegan Angel … of Death” for my column on Our Hen House. As my article explains, I felt terrible about it but didn’t know what else I could have done. Vegans who responded were supportive, agreeing with me about the obstacles to living in perfect harmony with our beliefs. No one suggested that because there are obstacles and we can’t be perfect, we shouldn’t try at all.
A non-vegan, Jesse Marczyk, disagreed. In a blog post, “A Curious Case of Vegan Moral Hypocrisy,” he did his best to castigate me, not so much for killing ants, but for asserting the virtues of veganism while failing, in his mind, to live up to its tenets.
Marczyk first argues that being vegan makes no sense because lions would not refuse to “eat meat on moral grounds.” He seems to be saying that lions don’t have a mechanism in their brains that would lead them to a moral decision to boycott meat (he goes so far as to “stress again how absolutely bizarre” it would be for lions to do that), so humans probably don’t either. An analysis of thought processes is an interesting time to decide that human and non-human animals are largely alike, but I’ll roll with it.
One place where Marczyk goes wrong is in his assumption that human beings are entirely rational, a notion that even stodgy economists have been forced to admit is silly. Economists have tried to revive their Rational Man model by treating it as a rule with itemized exceptions, like recency bias and the overvaluing of sunk costs. Marczyk, too, is attached to the idea that we act based on reason, and he is sure there is always a rational explanation for our apparently irrational behavior. He even narrows the already overly restrictive Rational Man to just one kind of reasoning: cost-benefit analysis. In another article, Marczyk describes a study that asked people to choose between saving a pet and a person from an oncoming bus, and argues that people generally wouldn’t choose to save a stranger’s pet over a human, because, really, what benefits could they expect to receive from the pet?
I never saw much predictive power in Rational Man, maybe because I grew up watching Mr. Spock illustrate by contrast just how illogical people are. Or maybe it was because I and everyone I knew did obviously irrational things, like cry at movies that not only had nothing to do with our lives, but weren’t even real.
Still, Marczyk labors to find some rational motivation for people like me to choose to be vegan and try to persuade others to do the same, especially in light of how unpopular that makes us (according to his cost-benefit analysis).
Marczyk actually gets mean about it – Rational Man true believers sometimes feel threatened when confronted by the mess of real life. He sarcastically conjectures that, since I don’t wear silk because of its derivation from boiling silkworms alive, but I do slaughter ants, I must believe that “silk production is exploitative in a way mass murder is not.”
You know when you see a disaster coming, almost as if it’s in slow motion, but you can’t stop it? I watch Rational Man stick his foot out, right in Marczyk’s path, and I watch him trip over it and spill his argument all over the floor. If he hadn’t been distracted by that rationality, he may have realized that when I found that my bedroom wall had disappeared under a black layer of ants, I was not operating on logic or doing a cost-benefit analysis between ants and worms. My decision-making functions had slipped right down into my reptile brain. Ethical Piper went bye-bye.
Marczyk, missing the point that I was not attempting to rationally justify killing ants, concludes that I am simply a hypocrite – it is hypocritical for an ethical vegan (me) to wipe out a colony of ants with insecticide (Raid). Well, yes – the hypocrisy is the entire point of the column. Without that it’s just a somewhat creepy story about bugs. Alert readers may have spotted me describing myself as “despicable,” “needlessly cruel,” and “a monster” in the piece. The ambivalence is the message.
While I was writing about my ant massacre I interviewed some experts who, like Marczyk, study the human brain, and asked them why my brain skipped the rails of my ethical beliefs when confronted with bugs in the boudoir. Psychiatry professor Nicole Avena of the University of Florida thought that my instincts overtook reason. “Humans are designed to respond to adverse or dangerous events by initiating the fight-or-flight response,” she said. That triggers automatic physiological changes we can’t control. Avena continued, “One might find that they are biologically being programmed to respond in a way that might not be in line with their beliefs.” This explanation addresses Marczyk’s question, “Why didn’t Piper’s conscience stop her from acting?” (Apparently in Marczyk’s world I have reached the level of celebrity at which there is no need of last names. Over there I am simply “Piper.” I’d like to visit.) The answer is that my instincts and neurochemicals and reptile brain took the helm away from my superego when the ants showed up.
But Marczyk tries to turn my arguably hypocritical, lethal ant removal into a sledgehammer that can bring down veganism’s “foundation of reducing animal suffering.” He proposes that veganism requires that we should kill all carnivorous animals to protect those who would otherwise be prey. In Marczyk’s utilitarian version of veganism, the only relevant consideration is whether killing the predators and saving the prey would increase or reduce the sum total of suffering, and the only acceptable reason not to take a side is a lack of information about how much suffering would result from each alternative. As he did with my pesky reptile brain, he has again missed the key to resolving his conundrum: veganism targets suffering that humans cause. In my August column I adopted the Vegan Society’s description of veganism as “the doctrine that [humans] should live without exploiting animals.” Humans should live that way. Not lions.
Marczyk says he has never encountered anyone who would give an up or down answer to his proposition to eliminate the carnivores; everyone says they don’t have enough information to decide. From this he concludes that people aren’t interested in “minimizing suffering,” a phrase he calls too broad “to be of any use.”
A lot of people are interested in minimizing suffering. If I can’t believe that, I will have to retreat to a cave and live out my days in isolation from my species. At least those days will be mercifully few because I have no survival skills.
To top it all off, Marczyk says that my hypocritical ant-icide, an episode that haunts me enough to write a whole lot of words about it, is proof that I personally don’t care about minimizing suffering when it isn’t convenient. So why do I go to the trouble of being vegan? Marczyk: “Presumably, it has something to do with the signal one sends by taking such moral a [sic] stance. I won’t discuss the precise nature of that signal at the present time, but feel free to offer speculations in the comments section.” In other words, my veganism is a calculated attempt to create an artificial persona that gives people a certain impression of me, and people who have never met me are welcome to speculate as to what impression it is that I’m after.
I am curious what he is insinuating, particularly given his belief about the effects of veganism on my social life: he writes that it “could potentially threaten otherwise-valuable social ties, and is unlikely to receive the broad social support capable of reducing the costs inherent in moral condemnation.” Then what sort of signal could I possibly be trying to send, in his mind? Maybe “hey folks – come stone me”?
The comments section that he apparently hoped would go all Heathers on me currently has a population of just one, which reads, in its entirety: “Well, that was one of the most long-winded and bullshit-ridden pseudo-intellectual apologist/excuse articles I’ve ever read. Get.Over.Yourself.” I’m thinking that comment is neither speculative nor about me.