By Katy Fulfer
I’ve recently attended the International Congress of the Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, held in Rotterdam, the Netherlands in late June. One argument that Mary Rawlinson presented in her talk, “The Future of Food: Bioethics, Justice, and the Imperative to Consume,” has stayed with me in the following weeks. In her talk, Rawlinson asks the following question to ground her analysis ethical analysis of human animals’ eating practices: “Can eating and its complex infrastructures be reimagined to be more life-sustaining and to better promote justice, community health, and agency for each and all?” (conference abstract). She uncovers a number of relationships and ethical ideas that our current eating habits and food production systems ignore. At this moment, I want to dwell on a minor point that Rawlinson made in her talk that I’ve continues to mull over in the weeks after the Congress: that global vegetarianism would not be, from a philosophical perspective, a sustainable practice.
Intuitively, I agree with Rawlinson’s claim. For example, the claim seems plausible because healthy vegetarian diets may not be accessible to all people everywhere. But animal consumption bothers me. Global vegetarianism may not be philosophically defensible, but most of the people I know, living in Southwestern Ontario, could easily (healthily and conveniently) reduce or eliminate animal products from their diets. Even among my colleagues and acquaintances who only purchase animal products from local, humane sources, including cows that have been grass-fed, milk from goats or cows that are not treated with hormones, chickens that have free run spaces and do not have their beaks burned off, I am bothered by the degree to which people do not think about their purchasing animals that only exist to be killed and eaten.
I will not defend or refute the claim that global vegetarianism is not philosophically defensible. Rather, I want to think about Rawlinson’s reasons for not holding a principle of global vegetarianism and put some pressure on the scope of those reasons. Rawlinson raised three reasons why global vegetarianism is philosophically flawed: (1) humans are responsible for the production of domestic farm animals (e.g., cows, chickens, pigs) and must continue some (humane) animal farming to ensure the continuation of these species; (2) some cultures have deeply significant practices involving animals as food and multiculturalism demands a level of respect for these cultural practices; and (3) I forget—but I remember that there were three reasons!
I want to challenge reasons (1) and (2) by making an argument similar to the one Susan Moller Okin offers in “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” According to Okin, tolerance for marginalized cultural practices can conflict with feminist principles of justice. Cultural practices can be harmful for women. According to Okin, the private sphere, including sexual and reproductive labour, forms a central part of cultural focus for many groups. Many cultural values and practices take place in the home and are sustained by women’s labour. In addition, many cultures promote or aim for men’s control over women. When liberals argue for the protection of group rights, they need to pay attention to the private sphere and to the vulnerable parties within those groups and address their needs as well.
Could a similar argument be applied to cultural practices around eating animals? To successfully make an argument, we would need to demonstrate that it is wrong to harm animals, and that killing animals humanely for the purposes of eating them
is not a harm. In Practical Ethics, Peter Singer successfully argues that we have an obligation not to inflict harm on animals (Rawlinson certainly agrees with this point). He also extends his argument to include the killing of animals when such killing is done for human “pleasure and convenience.” Animal suffering should not come at the expense of moderate human pleasures, especially given that humans can live healthily (and happily!) without consuming animal products.
Arguably cultural practices are not mere practices of pleasure and convenience. But, is the importance of cultural practices important enough to kill animals? Ecofeminist philosopher Karen Warren argues in Ecofeminist Philosophy (an excellent introduction to the topic) that some cultural contexts are able to acknowledge the moral nature of eating that does not present human animals as separate and apart from their ecological contexts. Warren emphasizes the recognition of the moral relationship over and above the eating of animals.
This approach seems better to me, when people acknowledge their situatedness within ecological contexts with other animals. However, it is not enough to convince me that moral recognition justifies eating animals. If someone could successfully argue that nonhuman animals have an interest not to be killed, and that cultural practices around eating the animals do not outweigh the interest not to be killed, then we have some reason to doubt the scope of reason (2), that cultural practices around the eating of animals should not be abandoned.
The argument behind reason (1) is certainly interesting, and echoes the justification I often offer for keeping my feline companions (Simone de Beauvoir and Felix) and for feeding them locally sourced raw animal meat. Humans are responsible for breeding domestic cats, and the life I can provide for them (even without air-conditioning) is better than their likely suffering as outdoor animals (although Simone may not agree, as she only enjoys the outdoors from the confines of her 12-ft lead attached to a stake in the backyard). I am compelled by arguments in favour of biodiversity and being responsible for cows because they only exist because of human breeding. Cows are not and cannot in the foreseeable future, be wild animals. Perhaps we could maintain cow populations on animal sanctuaries, where they could happily enjoy their lives munching on grass. But, I’m not convinced we have a responsibility through biodiversity to continue to eat them.
The moral nature of our eating practices and their relation to culture is certainly complex. As a small example, by transition to veganism was facilitated by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero’s Veganomincon, a cookbook that contains numerous vegan-renditions of traditional Jewish dishes. I do not know enough about cultures with deeply significant practices around eating animals to know if possibilities for vegetarian reimaginings are fruitful. I do not know if my idyllic picture of sharing spaces with domesticated animals is too romanticized to be realistic. However, I am committed to continued philosophical thinking about the moral nature of eating—sharing food with others, eating animals and plant life, farming practices, and so forth. Here, I have shared with you some of my recent thoughts about justifications for eating animals that were inspired by Rawlinson’s thoughtful and provocative presentation at the International FAB Congress.
Please check out the International Network on Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (FAB) and the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics (IJFAB).