Animal Rights Vegan Guilt
By Karen Davis, Ph.D., President of United Poultry Concerns
“The public needs a strong, clear message from the animal protection community.”
“They’ve heard it. They’ve rejected it.” – James McWilliams
This was history professor James McWilliams’s reply to Mary Finelli, founder of Fish Feel, in an exchange of comments relating to his blogsite post
“Beyond Veganism?” published on August 18, 2015. The post was one of several that included “A Modest Proposal” – a challenge
to animal rights vegan advocates to “consider trying to make an ethical argument for eating animals.”
The challenge includes a call upon ethical vegans to support eating insects – grasshoppers, ants, crickets, beetles, and others – as these
animals appear unable to experience pain, based on a lack of identifiable pain receptors such as those found in birds, fish and mammals. In this view,
oysters and clams may also be eaten.
Those of us who contend that oysters, clams, and insects are sentient, and that, regardless, animal rights vegans should not be promoting animal
consumption, are challenged to critique our “ideological purity” as a hindrance to helping animals, since the public doesn’t support the
animal rights vegan movement, according to McWilliams.
Here are my thoughts in response to these challenges:
The public has rejected the animal rights vegan message
The animal rights message did not go public in the form of a burgeoning movement in the United States until the late 1970s – less than 50 years ago
– and it wasn’t until the 1980s that the vegan message became established among animal rights activists. In the year 2016, this message cannot
be said to have been “rejected” by the mainstream, as the animal rights vegan movement is still very new. Fifteen years ago, it could
reasonably have been thought that society had already “rejected” the gay rights message. Add to this the fact that the public is still largely
ignorant of vegan foods and cuisine, and while our message is about more than food, it may be said at this point that the public cannot have rejected what
it scarcely knows.
Animal rights vegan advocates should make ethical arguments for eating animals
Carol J. Adams, the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat and other books on the psychology of meat culture, has observed that when you are in
power, you don’t have to justify what you do with logic and evidence, but when you are not in power, you have to. Meateaters take what they do for
granted – though on grounds much shakier than before the animal rights movement began – whereas ethical vegans and vegetarians feel a need to
explain to themselves and others why they choose animal compassion over animal consumption. This is perfectly fine so long as the vegan attitude is not
defensive but affirmative. Our intent should be self-awareness, education, persuasion, and change.
As an animal rights vegan activist, I do not, however, feel obligated to construct an ethical argument for eating animals, any more than Martin
Luther King should have felt obligated to construct an ethical argument for why white people are justified in discriminating against black people. In
addition, I think it’s insulting to animals for us to feel that we should engage in such a demeaning exercise, except as a parody. We all have
internalized and rehearsed the justifications of the other side and done battle with them ad nauseam. Are feminists obliged to make an ethical argument for
why women should be denied equal rights with men? It may be hard to remember now, but in the 1960s and ‘70s the mainstream media still scoffed at
by Mary Oliver from her book,
What Do We Know
Each one is a small life, but sometimes long, if its
place in the universe is not found out. Like us, they
have a heart and a stomach; they know hunger, and
probably a little satisfaction too. Do not mock them
for their gentleness, they have a muscle that loves
being alive. They pull away from the light. They pull
. They hold themselves together. They refuse to
But sometimes they lose their place and are tumbled
shoreward in a storm. Then they pant, they fill
with sand, they have no choice but must open the
smallest crack. Then the fire of the world touches
them. Perhaps, on such days, they too begin the
terrible effort of thinking, of wondering
. If they can bury themselves again in
the sand they will. If not, they are sure to perish,
though not quickly. They also have resources beyond
the flesh; they also try very hard not to die.
Animal rights vegan advocates should support eating oysters, clams, and insects
Oysters, clams, and insects are members of the animal kingdom. As such, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Their behavior indicates sentience and
awareness even if the sources of their feelings are elusive to science, which apparently is not the case. Neuroscientist, Lori Marino points out that there
are “close to one million neurons in an ant or bee brain.” All insects, she writes, “possess a complex central nervous system . . . and
many insects show very complex learning capacities. . . . [and] we found that fish and crustaceans feel pain when it was assumed that was just not possible
for ‘simple’ organisms.”
There may be ways of experiencing being alive in the flesh and the world that we do not know and will never fathom. Nor is the perception of pain per se
the only proof or sine qua non – an indispensable condition – of sentience. Conscious perception of nonpainful but highly
distressing stimuli includes gagging, inability to breathe (dyspnea), smell of blood, apprehension, fear and more. Throughout history, various groups of
humans, birds and others have been dismissed as mindless and insentient until the truth showed otherwise.
Muddying our message, and for what?
If animal rights vegan activists take the position that oysters, clams, and insects may be farmed for human food (and “farmed” means factory-farmed), we are muddying our message, and for what? People don’t need to eat insects to be well fed. The fact that people in some
parts of the world eat insects and have probably done so forever is no reason for activists to support mass producing crickets for human consumption. In
some places, people eat dogs and horses and monkeys, but we do not embrace every form of “cultural diversity.”
As soon as animal rights vegan activists start saying that oysters, clams, and insects may be ethically farmed and eaten, we create one more excuse for
people to skip the vegan foods and head straight to the animals that “even the vegans say are okay to eat.” Instead of facilitating this
behavior, we should be expanding the vegan economy, proudly promoting companies like Hampton Creek, Beyond Meat, Tofurky, Gardein, The Vegg, BOCA, and
other innovators that are revolutionizing the culinary world and making the planet a better place. We owe our allegiance to these companies, not to clam
diggers and ant farmers.
Courage for Animals & Food that is Animal-Free
I remember years ago, someone talking at an animal rights conference about how great it would be if only we could get food companies to put a
“vegan” label on vegan products. It seemed wonderful back then, but unlikely, yet thanks to animal rights vegan zeal, it has happened. This is
one example of how pushing forward with new ethical desires and demands that may seem outlandish at first pays off. We owe it to the billions of animals
who, as we sit comfortably at our computers and shop at stores overflowing with things to eat, are living in hell. We owe it to them to stake our claim and
expand our territory and to advocate, not glumly or belligerently, but passionately and positively. Confidence in our cause and the courage to advance it
will make the difference. It already has made a difference, and this is just the beginning, as long as we are strong.
All of us who care about making this world a better place can make choices that translate our desire into concrete steps in our own, everyday lives. As
well as getting the slaughterhouse out of our kitchens and off our plates, we can find ways to reach out to people. When asked, “Why are you
vegan?” or “Don’t you eat chicken or fish?” we can relate, in a kind and positive way, what transformed us. Motivational experts
advise: “Telling stories matters. By telling stories, we can soften people.” We want to soften people’s hearts for chickens and
other animals. And always, ALWAYS, put an informative brochure in the questioner’s hand. Our Chickens brochures, Turkeys brochures,
& Life Can Be Beautiful brochures are fantastic resources for reaching people.