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Debunking the Anti-Vegan Alien Invader Fable

By Piper Hoffman — August 26, 2013

thumbnailThe animals need environmentalism.

They need veganism too, of course, but it isn’t enough. Practicing vegans reduce the atrocities humans commit against domesticated animals, including those raised for food or fiber, tormented for entertainment, and caged for research. But veganism on its own doesn’t protect the animals humans haven’t trapped or bred for our own purposes – the ones who live in the wild.

Environmentalism can help protect wild animals’ habitats and their lives. It has contributed to gaining protections for endangered species and initiatives and laws to prevent poaching, and to other efforts to stop our species’ apparent determination to wipe out or enslave all other fauna on the planet.

But you already knew that. You probably subscribe to environmentalism yourself. And for those of you who are vegan, it’s obvious that there is no contradiction between being vegan and protecting the environment. To the contrary, scientific studies continue to emerge proving that the two ideals can be mutually reinforcing. One example is the massive environmental destruction that factory farming wreaks every day. Having two arguments, animals’ interests and environmental conservation, to wield against meat-eating can only help.

The fact that animals need more than veganism doesn’t mean that they don’t need veganism. That seems obvious, but it eluded one essayist who tried to make an ethical argument against veganism.

Former vegan Rhys Southan attempted to make veganism, which he calls a “token compromise,” look bad in his essay “The Vegans Have Landed” in Aeon Magazine. To make his point he imagines that powerful and intellectually superior aliens have conquered us, and that their one and only moral code is veganism, defined as a prohibition against “the intentional killing of animals [including humans] in order to use their bodies as material goods.” Southan offers several examples of ways the aliens might hurt us without compromising their vegan beliefs.

But he doesn’t prove that veganism is bad, only that it is not enough, and that it cannot transform reality into utopia. Southan’s hypothetical situation demonstrates that veganism alone won’t protect all non-humans from all human activities, and that I agree with. Veganism is one step toward a better world but not the whole journey.

(For one attempt at a single philosophy that would protect all animals, read Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, which I reviewed for Our Hen House and recommend.)

The “Landed” article’s fundamental failing is that it argues against a straw man. Southan asserts that “if aliens with superior technology and minds came here and were determined to treat us the way that vegan humans treat animals on this planet,” humans would “be in serious trouble.” But his version of the way vegans treat animals is wrong.

I have never known any ethical vegan (that is, one motivated by compassion for animals) to claim that veganism alone will protect all living beings from harm. To the contrary, I can’t think of one vegan who doesn’t also believe in protecting the environment, including the habitats of wild species. Veganism alone is not a universal panacea, and no one thinks it is. Southan’s point is pointless.

His central conceit, which he borrowed from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals, has some merit. Comparing humans to conquering aliens is apt in that, as Southan observes, “humans cause animals so much suffering and death while offering them so little in return” that “for most other animals on this planet, we might as well be a malevolent invasion.”

The comparison falters on his assumption that ethical vegans are constrained solely by a refusal to eat animals or use products made from animals, and have no other beliefs or principles.

Southan writes that veganism prohibits “the intentional killing of animals in order to use their bodies as material goods.” (Veganism opposes more than killing – the Vegan Society defines it as “the doctrine that [humans] should live without exploiting animals.”) As he describes it, veganism “would accomplish next to nothing for free-roaming wild animals except to stop hunting, which is the least of their problems.” He implies that to safeguard wild animals humans must embrace environmentalist protections for their habitats and food supplies.

To illustrate, he observes that “universal veganism wouldn’t stop the road-building, logging, urban and suburban development, pollution, resource consumption, and other forms of land transformation that kills animals by the billions,” because none of those activities directly kill animals so that we may “use their bodies as material goods.”

Akin to the “road-building, logging,” etc., that destroy species’ habitats and replace them with human activities, Southan describes aliens evicting us from our residences and businesses and preventing us from returning. He translates our “resource consumption” to aliens stealing humans’ food. Then he ups the ante: veganism would not stop aliens from killing, in self-defense, humans who returned to their stolen property or took back food.

I agree. Veganism says nothing about killing in self-defense. So what?

This is one of the many points where Southan’s straw man rubs thin. Yes, his imaginary person who is vegan but holds no other beliefs about protecting lives or preventing suffering might act like his larcenous, homicidal aliens. But, again, no one is saying that veganism guarantees the safety and well-being of all members of all species, and no one is advocating that people abandon all beliefs outside of veganism.

Also, real vegans do tend to care about wildlife, often subscribe to environmentalism’s principles, and therefore oppose invading other species’ habitats and eliminating their food sources. I, for one, decry urban sprawl; the deforestation that is killing orangutans, elephants, and countless others in the interest of selling timber and planting palm trees and other crops; and the destruction of yet more habitats for the sake of extracting resources like coal and natural gas. None of those positions are dictated by veganism – these activities don’t directly exploit animals for our use. Rather, my environentalist values  arise from the same moral compass that pointed me to veganism.

So far, Southan’s critique targets veganism as an ideology. He raises a more interesting question around pets, but undermines his thesis to do it by changing targets – rather than criticizing veganism for not being a universal panacea, he criticizes the way that individual humans, inclulding vegans, behave in reality. He acknowledges that, “even now, pet ownership is a controversial issue in animal rights, but most activists say that it’s okay for vegans to keep some animals as dependents since they have been domesticated and, as a result, would suffer in the wild.” What if the vegan aliens felt the same way and wanted to keep human pets? Say they could use the same rationale we do, that “some of us couldn’t make it on our own,” and then spay or neuter unwilling people? Since that, according to Southan, would be obviously wrong, veganism is therefore obviously flawed.

This companion animal analogy is an aberration from the rest of Southan’s article. He must make his choice between addressing veganism as a doctrine and addressing what vegan people actually do. If he critiques what most vegans do, he pulls the rug out from under his wildlife habitat and food arguments: he argues that vegan aliens would demolish wildlife because veganism itself doesn’t mandate habitat preservation, but what most vegans do is protect the environment. So if he wants his aliens to act like most vegans act, they would not steal humans’ property and food.

If, on the other hand, he wants to critique veganism itself, he has to give up his threat that vegan aliens would keep us as pets. As he admits, veganism precludes exploiting animals for our use, which arguably prohibits keeping and spaying or neutering companion animals, so humans would be safe from surgical sterilization at religiously vegan aliens’ hands.

Another aberration in Southan’s essay is his postulation that aliens with diseases or allergies that require them to eat meat could choose to eat humans. This is not a critique of veganism. People who eat meat, however lofty their aspirations, are, by definition, not vegan.

Then he takes vegans to task for harming animals, however unintentionally – for instance, rabbits and rodents killed in the harvesting of plant crops. But his beef here is with reality: for some to live (such as lions), others must die. It’s a bitch, but you can’t pin that one on vegans or veganism. It does no good to hope the aliens “don’t try to be anything like us.” Unless they have some magical technology to transport us all into an alternate universe where no one ever gets hurt or dies, resources are infinite, and no beings must eat meat to survive, the aliens will hurt and kill humans.

At best, the moral of Southan’s story is that, if you want to protect all animals, you have to adopt values like environmental protection in addition to being vegan. And even then, there is probably no way to live your life without doing some harm to someone. That is true, as most of us freely admit. It isn’t much of a critique of vegans’ beliefs to acknowledge that while they can significantly improve the world, they can’t bring about paradise.

At worst, his message is that no one should be vegan, maybe even that it is a hypocritical ideology. Fortunately, he completely fails to prove that point.

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(5) Readers Comments

  1. August 26, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    Well said, Piper! While disagreeing with Rhys on many points, I used to take his blog seriously. I thought it was an honest and earnest attempt to expose the logical contradictions of vegan ideology. And what's wrong with some honest criticism? But criticism without honesty and accuracy is of no use. Thank you for exploring - point by point - how hollow the Let Them Eat Meat Project really is.

    • Piper Hoffman
      August 26, 2013 at 1:49 pm

      Thanks Jonathan! I don't know that I would call him dishonest, but his argument is definitely flawed.

  2. August 27, 2013 at 9:23 am

    Agreed - I was a huge fan of Rhys, and it's awesome the site encourages doing your own research and taking things with a pinch of salt, but I think he ends up on shaky ground with some arguments. Like this one. He was totally right to originally critique nutrition, and right to point out the stupidity of vegans calling others with health problems liars and shills and telling them to shut up. On the other hand, claiming veganism in its current form isn't 100% healthful for everyone everywhere doesn't really invalidate a generally pro-animal philosophy. Just yesterday, I found (anti-GMO) letter by Vandana Shiva listing why we didn't need GMO crops with high iron content, because we already had ones that were extremely iron-rich...and she named about 15 I'd never ever heard of (although I'm personally kind of in favour of Golden Rice). Then I hear it's possible to make fake meat from lupin seeds. And New Harvest just grew a protein-rich hamburger in a lab. And the latest meta-analysis on omega-3s finds that fish oil itself actually doesn't do anything in particular for the human body so ranting about a DHA/omega 3 lack in vegan diets is a bit alarmist, PLUS even the latest issue of New Scientist is debunking Paleo diets now. So much as some nutrition may be a little hard now, it gets easier every day. There's no limit to our inventiveness, once we decide something is morally urgent. The more of us there are working on this sort of research, the more we're going to come up with solutions we never even dreamed possible. So I'm not particularly taken with some of his critiques anymore, because, having studied other historical social justice movements, I'm pretty sure there's no way in hell Emmeline Pankhurst envisioned Radical Lesbian Seperatism, or a No to Page 3 campaign. We do not have every future detail of where this not being an asshole to other species thing will lead planned out. We're probably hilariously wrong on some points. It doesn't stop it being generally a good direction to move in.

    • Piper Hoffman
      August 27, 2013 at 2:29 pm

      I like your perspective: we certainly don't have it all planned out and we don't know all there is to know, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything.

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