Should Vegans Drive Cars?

It’s the question that never needed to be asked, and Rupert Read of Talking Philosophy has answered it. In reviewing Craig Taylor’s Moralism: A Study of a Vice, Read explores a number of philosophical and ethical quandaries that inspire critical reflection, in addition to a desire to find Taylor’s book. In line with Read’s assessment of Taylor, my own assessment of Read is that he is largely but not universally correct. Take for instance the titular question, posed by Read in response to Taylor:

On p. 147, Taylor criticises an SUV-driver with a “No blood for oil” bumper-sticker. An easy criticism to make, but perhaps too easy. There seems a tacit danger at this of Taylor descending into moralism here towards individuals. For: It is a perfectly legitimate move for an individual to make under many circumstances to say that they would do something as part of a collective that they are not obliged to try to do merely as an individual. To think otherwise is to think in a way that is naïve or insufficiently politically smart. . . . An example is that it may well be legitimate to continue to fly and to enjoy the subsidies that are given to flying, while campaigning against those subsidies. To insist that this is hypocrisy and that one should instead have to go by train even when the train is far more expensive (and thus drains away funds that could otherwise be used for campaigning with) is moralistic and anti-political. (A more extreme example is roads, which were often made with some ingredients taken from non-human animals. Does this mean that vegans should refuse to use roads? An absurd conclusion.)

Like so many authors and thinkers, Read is kind enough here to answer his own question, thus saving the readers from the onerous task of formulating the answers for ourselves. Nevertheless, I wonder what precisely is absurd about the conclusion that someone who is principally opposed to the commodification of sentient life, someone who not only does not eat meat or animal product but who does not wear wool or decorate with ivory or use cosmetics tested on kittens should also not drive on roads made out of animals. The implication of Read’s logic, both with the example of veganism and the choice between planes and trains is that inconvenience (on an existential level) and utilitarianism (on an ethical level) collaborate to justify various incompatible moral choices. Because we cannot conceive of the absurdity of some people refusing to use roads, we assume that their ethics must be sufficiently sophisticated to handle the dissonance created by the common sin of killing animals for food and clothes and killing animals for transportation infrastructure. That hardly seems a necessary conclusion. Rather, the burden is on vegans to demonstrate such a sophisticated ethos to justify the apparent hypocrisy. The nasty thing about ethics is that they demand difficult action, if they are worth their philosophical weight in gold. When life and ethics collide, the responsible solution is to either change your life to suit your ethics or to change your ethics to suit your life. The latter is the more common course, naturally, but Read seems to prefer a third path wherein people continue to live in the self-delusion that they are consistent moral actors while behaving in morally inconsistent ways.

Vegans Protest on top of Dead Animals

Vegans Protest on top of Dead Animals [photo by hughesdk]

The distinction between individual and collective action seems equally problematic in that it assumes different standards of conduct for individuals and societies. Societies, unfortunately, have no real existence, not in the way that individuals do. (I realize that this is a ideological judgment on my part, but I trust it is one that will be widely shared.) A society is an abstraction, something constructed which has neither real existence nor uniform existence in the diverse minds in which it is conceived. As something which exists more in the realm of language than actuality, it cannot be held to ethical standards and therefore cannot be a separate ethical realm of action. If it is wrong for me to kill Bob, it is wrong for Rick and I to get together and kill Bob. It is wrong for Rick and I to round up a posse to kill Bob, and it is wrong for Rick and I to vote Barry in to office to kill Bob with a remote control stealth bomber being operated by some marine on an Xbox. My actions do not suddenly become more or less moral based on the number of people complicit in them. It is, of course, possible to construct certain teleological systems of ethics that oppose certain behaviors on a national scale by virtue merely of the scope of those actions, but those strike me as rather blatantly self-serving. Nations cannot do anything any more than societies can. Only people, those free rational agents Read is critical of (perhaps not unreasonably), do things. Whether they do them alone or in concert seems less significant than what they are doing. And if what they are doing is personally contributing to the demand for oil which has prompted the nation to collectively decide to invade oil rich countries, then in some infinitesimal but real way, they condemn themselves with their own critique.

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7 thoughts on “Should Vegans Drive Cars?

  1. Craig Taylor says:

    I am pretty sympathetic to this reply to Read – as the author of the book Read is criticizing I said similar things myself. Thus in a footnote to the very section Read quotes, that he appears not to have read, I say, ‘It might be objected that my SUV driver may have been willing to be part of collective action for change yet reasonably felt under no obligation to take individual action. Here I make three points: first, collective action for political change starts with commitments and sacrifices by individuals; second, giving up what I suggested was essentially a symbol of lifestyle (maybe buying a smaller more-fuel-efficient car) was hardly a big sacrifice given the kind of injustice the driver seemed to be protesting against.; third, given that this was a brand new vehicle and the West’s supposedly morally problematic dependence on oil from the Gulf was not new, I have my doubts about the driver’s enthusiasm for the kind of change he was advocating.’ I could, as I also note, be wrong about my SUV driver, but I was not here (despite what Read says) in the business of judging anyone, but of pointing out a certain psychological tendency (hence my query about the driver’s motivation) that we are all to some extent prone.

    • I appreciate your stopping by to reply and am more than a little delighted to see that my point about the inability to draw sharp lines between individual and collective action is compatible with and anticipated by your comment in the book. I look forward to reading it for myself at that mythical point in the future when I have free time for leisure reading.

  2. rupertread says:

    First, on your blogpost here. Thanks for the attention, but I can’t say that I’m at all convinced. Let me give a couple of key examples:
    >You suggest that I am saying without realising it that “people continue to live in the self-delusion that they are consistent moral actors while behaving in morally inconsistent ways.” On the contrary, what I think is that someone who is (for example) vegan is continually beset by the tragic way in which the world is designed to make life difficult for them. We realise it. Of course, one COULD decide to seek never to use roads, on the basis that the material used to make them may well contain animal products. But try to seriously imagine what such a life would be like. Basically, one would never be able to leave one’s house, or at least not to travel outside a tiny island where it is surrounded by roads. One would not be able to go to school, to hold down virtually any job, to achieve any qualifications, to go shopping, to take most forms of exercise… one would be reliant on other people for virtually every single need, in the most abject and unfair way. This is an absurd life, and probably a very short one. I am not necessarily saying that I wouldn’t admire someone who chose to live it. But I think it is literally absurd to claim that, if it is true (as I understand it is) that many roads contain some small amount of animal product in them, then vegans are obliged never to use roads at all. Sure, it punctures the delusion that some self-righteous vegans may have that they never morally put a foot wrong. But any sane vegan, like myself [actually, I am not a strict vegan – that’s another (though not entirely unrelated) story] or Gary Francione, is all too aware that life is full of messiness and tragic ways in which one is more or less forced into impurity, contaminated with imperfect choices or actions. To pretend that this reduces everyone to crude utilitarians is very crude.
    Second, you can’t help yourself at all to the individual being prior to the community. My view is that the community is prior to the individual. Only in a madly individualist society like ours, which is historically anachronistic, and in which individualism is a crudely-shared presupposed religion (which nearly all ‘individuals’ have in common without realising how … un-individualist their doing so is… (Shades of LIFE OF BRIAN)) can such a move seem reasonable. The community is prior to the individual; and (a linked though distinct point) decisions of the polis are quite different from individual decisions (a point indeed made admirably by Craig); decisions that make sense for a community often make no sense for an individual. Your argument to the contrary is pure idealist (in the worst sense) ignorance of politics and of the nature of rational action for social animals. Again, a failure to take into account the consequences of one’s political actions is not an alternative to utilitarianism; it is merely ineffectiveness or ignorance. Again, saying this does not commit me to utilitarianism; only to reality and to intelligence.

    • Painting broadly with a utilitarian brush may be crude but it is not for that reason entirely incorrect. Crudeness has its value; its easier to hammer a nail with a rock than a scalpel. You paint a very convincing picture of why it would be impractical for a vegan not to use roads, but do not thereby demonstrate that the use of roads by vegans is ethically consistent. Instead you make an appeal to the “messiness” of life. If they want to argue for an ethical system that makes pragmatism a prerequisite for moral behavior, then I’ll get off vegans case for being inconsistent (because they wouldn’t be). But that isn’t what you’re doing. You’re speaking in terms of being “forced into impurity,” as if the fact that structural constraints which impede consistent ethical behavior somehow negates the ethical implications of “impurity.” So I stand by my point that in the face of the logical options to either change ethics to suit behavior or change behavior to suit ethics, you are suggesting that people can ignore their inconsistency because it is inconvenient (or, if your prefer, impracticable).

      As for the relationship of the individual to the community, I recognize that is an ideological judgment on my part (something I stated above) and that it is a widely held hallmark of our present culture (something else indicated above). I also realized that you probably didn’t share that opinion (which is not stated above, because I didn’t see any need to assume). Setting aside whether or not I can even be convinced of the possibility for independent ethical behavior in an abstraction (and the historical matter of whether or not individualism is properly described as anachronistic), you still need to develop an ethical system sophisticated enough to justify one set of behaviors in an individual and an entirely opposite set of behaviors for those individuals acting in concert. And if the measure of distinction is pragmatism, then I can warn you in advance that it will be decidedly less than compelling.

      As for being an idealist (in the worst possible way) and politically ineffective, I wear both as a badge of pride. Pop back to any entry here from last May if you’re curious as to why.

  3. rupertread says:

    Craig; thanks for your reply.
    re. your footnote: The 3rd point isn’t I think fair to the driver. You know that that slogan was coined in response to the proposed war on Iraq. The slogan is a political slogan, protesting against war to buy oil. There is no inconsistency between such protest and driving a large car. Saying that there is risks individualising and de-politicising.
    Connected to that: your 1st point in the footnote is I think wrong, in a way related to what I am getting at in my reply to The Itinerant Mind, above. It is generally untrue that “collective action for political change starts with commitments and sacrifices by individuals”. Much collective action for political change starts, rather, with consciousness, organising, and a strategy. My worry, in fact, is that you have a potentially-moralistic conception of mass / activist politics, which is ironic, given the interesting and impressive argument you make in the book against moralistic criticisms of power politics. Symbolic commitments can be useful and important; sacrifices underline authenticity and attract support; but it is quite wrong to say that any of these things are _required_ for authenticity, let alone effectiveness, in a political stance. For example, as I put it in the quote cited above: “it may well be legitimate to continue to fly and to enjoy the subsidies that are given to flying, while campaigning against those subsidies. To insist that this is hypocrisy and that one should instead have to go by train even when the train is far more expensive (and thus drains away funds that could otherwise be used for campaigning with) is moralistic and anti-political.”
    The real challenge, it seems to me, is how to avoid moralism in politics without being moralistic in one’s attempted avoidance of moralism! And taking politics seriously! This is a tough challenge indeed.

  4. rupertread says:

    Re. both: I’d love to talk more. The real moral dilemma is: in doing so, would I be making the best decision? Faced as I am with incessant tragic dilemmas on how to spend my time, in a world in a desperate state…

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