04 October, 2005

Edge cases

I had dinner with an old pal of mine last night, who is a vegan. As I often do,* I began to probe him about the limits of his veganism and why he chose to abide by his particular set of standards. He was remarkably good-natured about it and readily admitted that, of course, like all philosophies veganism invariably breaks down around the edges.

My particular test case was oysters. I had recent experience with these myself, watching some friends drip raw oyster over the tongue and into the back of the throat, and I was left wondering why exactly such a tantalizing experience must be taboo for me.

Another example that came up today: ciona, also known as the sea squirt. This little bugger is actually a chordate, so more closely related to us than a mere mollusk. But it amounts to little more than a stomach with attached mouth and heart. It (like the oyster) lives an almost purely vegetative lifestyle, breathing in sea water and filtering out whatever nutrients it can.

Compare this to the mustard plant, or a corn stalk. Not even the most susceptible of vegans feels a twinge when their teeth cut into an ear of corn. But in point of fact, the differences amount to mere biochemistry; one lacks a chloroplast and cell walls, the other produces no hemoglobin, etc. This, I very much doubt, is what motivates most vegans. ("No heme molecules shall pass these lips! Except the ones from kissing my girlfriend when her lips are chapped! Those are okay!")

Of course, most vegans these days are hardly strict, and not surprisingly their patterns of consumption are frayed around the edges. But it seems a difficult thing for us, with our dichotomizing minds, to live in a frayed world. Is that something we can escape? Or must we learn to live at odds with the knottiness of reality?

* Not because I'm a bastard, although I am, but because I enjoy understanding how well-grounded people's deeply-held beliefs are, and why.


First of all, nice ant-spam system. This is very pretty as I leave a comment!

Second: It has been just 64 hours since I gave grief to my vegetarian roommate for not eating the raw oysters on which I feasted in Bolinas. I told her that her carrots felt just as much pain as this oyster and probably did more environmental damage in production -- no pesticides or even tilling to make an oyster!

What makes it even better is how many lacto-vegetarians there are. They are amusing. The milk industry not only provides the steers for the meet industry, it also treats its cattle worse than many beef farms, especially out here in the West where the beef cattle wander the open range for over a year before being subjected to the indignity of the feedlot, where they live briefly before their very unpleasant dispatch. Dairy cattle live a while in a field and are then knocked up and hormoned for years to produce unnatural quantities of milk, confined most of the while. How is this more ethical than eating a beef cow -- or more obviously, an oyster?

My father, having grown up an orthodox Jew, has never eaten an oyster, for they crepeth. Nothing fuzzy around that edge.  

Posted by hedgehog

the argument for drinking milk but not eating beef is that the amount of resources necessary for a calorie of milk is much less than the amount necessary for a calorie of beef.

it depends on your priorities, so for animal welfare you're probably right, but if you care only about human welfare/general environmental damage, then milk is better than beef (though vegan is usually better than both).

but these differences remain for organic/free-range cows. grass-fed beef *could* be better, but only at much smaller scales - right now, forests are being cleared to make pastures.

of course, if this is your perspective, then it's all a matter of degree. you could argue that ordering the vegetarian meal on a transatlantic flight is like rearranging deck chairs on the titanic. 

Posted by aram

And what if you restrict yourself milk from farms which are environmentally responsible and not factory farms?

I think most vegetarians who don't are probably merely limited in availability or funding.

Being vegetarian is both economical and responsible. Being vegan is usually expensive and not as healthy.

Also, arguments which consist of "if you really wanted to think you were doing something good, you'd do *X*, and therefore you should give up doing anything positive at all" are absolutely wrong-headed and idiotic.

Uh. In my humble opinion. ;) 

Posted by Sandry

I tried to leave a comment here about 10 times in the last three days, but through no fault of Rhinocrisy's, it always got eaten. I will try to hit the main notes. Of course the comment has only grown longer in my head in the intervening days. I can see from the preview button it's grown into the mother of all comments, but oh well--I doubt anyone is listening anymore anyway. :-D

Re:self-education/philosophies and edges: I'm not a big fan of spending a lot of one's life trying to construct a rigid and absolutely consistent moral philosophy, especially if said time-spending means the philosophy never actually gets deployed . Life is short, I have other things to do. I am a big fan of constantly thinking about what kind of person you want to be, what's morally important to you, how you want to interact with the world, how you want to be better in whatever subjective but still moral sense you can muster. And also thinking about what kind of actions and habits and principles and practices you can engage in on various bases, how realistic would be trying to implement those, and then implementing them. Constant personal policy analysis and policy execution. So yeah, there are going to be rough edges. If you draw some boundary around your behavior, things-you-just-will-not-do subset A of possible-things-to-do, there is almost inevitably going to be a a a smaller subset of A, subset of B, of things you really wouldn't mind doing much at all. (So, Saurabh , I don't know what your boundaries are or how they were constructed, but it would seem that oysters fall into this subset B somehow.) Ideally you could just redraw the boundary for yourself--subset C, that in A that is not in B. But life and humanity being rough and unsmooth spaces, sometimes C just isn't a tenable boundary, and it will quickly slip down to a smaller subset D--some subset of A that conveniently excludes everything in B, but also some other items which you really don't morally want to be doing, yet now you end up doing them once in a while. B/c we are really creatures of habit and convenience, and we have a lot of inertia. :-} Dynamic, deliberate, self-imposed rules are one of the best ways we can enforce our will-power over habit and inertia and vulnerability to circumstance. There is also the matter of pragmatism. Know thyself, and draw the line where you can best stick to it.

So the dynamic thinking process, the negotiating with oneself that Shrub famously refuses to do, is important. It's important to examine the edges and not fall into the easy complacence of having found a rule, to not let one's brain disintegrate like the poor sea squirt. And since it is such an important, interesting process, it's one ideally engaged in with a little help from our friends. So a sincere inquiry and debate, and even a little affectionate grief-giving, can be important roles for true friends to play. Really, it's a great piece of the substance of the best human relationships. I think it's part of what we're all looking for from other people, especially smart people, and it's a big reason we're drawn to activities like blogging.;-) Whether it's a conversation on the street or a soulmate, people have a desire to be made to think, to sharpen themselves. My favorite wedding toast ever was the notion that the person you should be with is the one "most makes you like the person you most want to be," but it's a criterion that can apply to a whole swath of interactions. Is this making me better? So no, I don't think you can escape, but neither can you resign yourself to giving up. The whole business of living and thinking and connecting with other people is wrapped up with dealing with these edge cases.

But I'm glad you brought up being a bastard b/c that often gets mixed up with it. We all like to be clever and self-satisfied; there is a distinct pleasure in humiliating someone else by deflating their ego, and what better ego to deflate than their moral ego? As journalists and bloggers, some of us are practically bred to prick holes in bombast, the better to record the delightful collapse.:-) But Sandry is exactly, perfectly, wonderfully right. Consistency and dependability are wonderful things, rank hypocrisy is awful. But given that it's almost impossible to be entirely consistent and that we have a strong tendency not to even try to be better, I'd rather have someone who sincerely tries, but is inconsistent, than someone who does not try at all. It's always about balance, and our ruthless pursuit of hypcocrisy should be balanced by an appreciation of effort and intent and sincerity. That applies less so when judging institutions, which are heartless. When it comes to judging other humans, however, I'm not really interested in someone with arguments and judgements that appear morally superior if they are so obviously unkind to their subject. I feel kindness and compassion and the avoidance of cruelty are at the heart of any good moral working-method.

Which brings me to the actual topic at hand. If I got a penny for everytime I've been subjected to the "hear the baby carrots shriek!" speech, I'd be rich as Croesus. I disagree strenuously that mere biochemistry separates the oyster from the corn cob--there are definite cellular and physiological differences."an almost purely vegetative lifestyle" seems a bit handwavy to dismiss intro zoology, as well as descriptive of some people I've met. Personally the bright shining line I hope never to intentionally cross is animals with nerve cells--which include both the lowly sea-squirt (yes, the notochord disintgrates upon settlement, but neither do I eat Alzheimer's patients), and the oyster with its fine network of nerves . Now, since I don't feel like carrying a zoology text with me whenever I go out to eat, and since my appetite is not so inclined anyway, I have a simpler rule--no multicellular animalia. Why the nerve boundary? I don't want to unnecessarily kill or maim something that can suffer, and my best understanding of suffering centers about nerves. Maybe carrots suffer, for which I am sorry--some Jains and Buddhists are good enough to restrict even some kinds of plants on that basis, and more power to them, say I. But there isan obvious line at nerve-endowed animals, and pretending there is not is mere display of disingenous cleverness. Those are fun for a while, but I'm not going to take them seriously for the reasons outlined above.

Re oysters and the enviroment--I kind of also find that hard to believe. While culturally "my people" find sea-food eating to be most acceptable, I personally find it to be almost as appalling factory farming. More so b/c we (human knowledge royal we there) have a good understanding at some level of how factory farms work and what kind of damage they create. We really have no f---ing clue what collecting seafood does b/c we don't know the second or third thing about the oceans ecology. We just notice when everything dies. Oyster overfishing has been a problem in lots of places, including, historically, Tomales Bay. Given how rough our sea-harvesting methods are, organic carrots, especially hereabouts, seem much more probable than non-damaging oysters.

Re:dairy: Hedgehog is right, we lacto-vegetarians are caught in a bit of a moral bind in this society. I'm glad he finds us amusing, since I actually gave him the same speech as his (couched as remorse, not mockery, obviously) on BART when we met a couple weeks ago. In my ideal world cows and bulls (and goats and sheep) would be maintained, very kindly, on much smaller scales and with intense environmental management; when their productive lives ran out they would be put out to pasture and treated like pets. (And of course bulls would be used to do work, and not be eaten.) This for much the same reasons as Aram has outlined. Not acknowledging that ideal world is nowhere close to existing, especially in this country, is naive. Nevertheless, as Sandry has pointed out, it's a bit easier to be a healthy and cheap vegetarian than a healthy and cheap vegan. As I said above, lines must be drawn where they are practical. So I buy milk from organic dairies like Strauss and Brown Cow (and less so from Horizon) where I know them to treat their cows well, at least, until the end, and I am sad that they have to be killed. When I have the opportunity to support a cow who won't be killed (nor her male family),I do, but they are few and far beteween, something I'd like to change one day. :-|

Note, of course, that when I say "we" lacto-vegetarians, I am acknowledging that I am actually a religious lacto-vegetarian, and so the lines really aren't actually very fuzzy. I know a lot of irreligious I-won't-eat-red-meat types (plaudits to them), and irreligious vegans (plaudits to them), or even irreligious lacto-ovo-vegetarians, but most lacto-vegetarians I meet tend to be of my persuasion. So that might temper amusement by providing an explanation. ;-) Anyway, if I suddenly, deeply improbably, lost religion tomorrow, I'd still be a vegetarian for the reasons outlined above.

Sorry for such an overwhelming comment, I'm an argumentative gal and this is a debate that I almost literally cut my teeth on. :-) 

Posted by Saheli

I'm profoundly irrational (i'm a dairy-loving vegetarian who ocasionally intentionally eats off a grill that just made bacon), but I think I'm probably doing more overall good with my consupmtion habits of relative lack of meat consumption than you are, even if the values aren't entirely consistent :P


Posted by Saurav

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