Thursday, July 26, 2007

" ...uh, but what do you do for protein...?"

Having not posted in a little while, I suppose I ought to write something a little bit academic.

But, as it's summer, I think I'll stick to personal anecdote - an anecdote that I think most vegans (and, to a lesser extent, vegetarians) out there ought to be able to identify with. This week, I went in to the dentist. Unbeknownst to me, however, my mother had called in an hour before then, to have the doctor talk to me about my diet. So, after my mouth was poked and prodded for an hour, in comes the dentist. After introductions, he launched right into a conversation I'm pretty sure I've had about 50 times before:

Dentist: "You know, it's impossible to get enough protein on a vegan diet, because only animal protein is 'complete' protein."
Me: "Actually, soy is a complete protein."
Dentist: "Oh, I didn't know that. Did you know that eggs are really healthy for you?"
Me: "I've heard that. But I'm a vegan for ethical reasons, not health reasons."
Dentist: "Uh huh. You see, eggs have lots of protein..."
And so on.

We could all probably argue endlessly about whether or not veganism is a healthy diet. There is certainly plenty of evidence that vegans are in fact very healthy, and plenty of detractors who say they're not. But what my dentist - and it seems like much of the world - don't get is that, for this vegan, health has very little to do with it.

After all, why be strict about being vegan if I'm only interested in health? Why not indulge in one of those protein-laden eggs every once in a while; is it really going to kill me? Is it really possible to argue that no animal products - zilch, nada - can be part of a healthy diet?

I'll dodge my own questions for a moment and offer another personal anecdote. I work in a criminal law office. We represent a lot of sex offenders. Interestingly enough, pedophilia is a lot like animal agriculture - it's the non-consensual exploitation of another's body for one individual's pleasure or satisfaction. What I find interesting from reading through pages and pages of psychological reports, though, is that many pedophiles believe that sexually abusing minors is necessary for them to live a healthy and happy life.

Even if their claims were correct, few people would then roll over and say that pedophilia is an appropriate alternative lifestyle. My point is that the meat eater who claims they have to do it for health reasons is analogous (not identical - so please, don't respond with a comment to the tune of 'OMFG did you just call meat eaters pedophiles?'). Each is doing what they think is best for themself, irrespective of how it harms others. People can make all sorts of claims about what is healthy for them, but they are all missing the point. Even if my dentist could convice me that I'd be healthier as a carnivore, it wouldn't much matter.

Veganism is not about what is best for the individual human. If ethical systems really stemmed from self-interest, there would have been no reason for Southern Whites at the top of the racial hierarchy to march alongside MLK in Selma in the 1960s, no reason for dominant husbands to concede that their wives really did deserve to be treated as equals during the women's liberation movement in the 1970s, and no reason for heterosexual congressman to allow funding for AIDS research when HIV was concentrated among homosexuals in the 1980s. Campaigns that push veganism only as a way to lose a few pounds only perpetuate the attitude that, in the end, all of our decisions are to be weighed on moral scales that consider only ourselves. In contrast, a just - and by extension, vegan - society will invariably be one in which we are willing to look past what is best for ourselves towards what is best for others.

Tell that to my dentist. Meat eating: it's wrong, healthy or not.


  1. I want to defend the self-interest theory of ethics against the particular charge Alex makes against it. Let the self-interest theory of ethics be the claim that,

    (1) For any agent S, S should act so as to make his life go best.

    This formulation is ambiguous on the point of whether we know when S's life go best because of (a) S's standards for what makes a life go best, or rather because of (b) standards for making a life go best which hold independently of S. Let (1a) be the conjunction of (1) and (a), and (1b) the conjunction of (1) and (b). The distinction is important. Many, though certainly not all, people do not regard helping others as in any way instrumental to making their own life go best. I think this view would be difficult to defend. I claim that, on the contrary, helping others is often instrumental to making one's life go best, independently of whether one realizes it. For example, I think it is very plausible to hold that fighting for justice, especially if one is an elected official, is often central to making one's life go best. Since it is the case that racism is an injustice, even an elected official who believes the self-interest theory of ethics may be compelled to fight racism when it is unpopular to do so. Certainly such an agent will be spared the harms which come to ones life from false consciousness, hypocrisy, and dissembling. He may also reap more tangible benefits: Southern anti-racists were often celebrated as heroes, though obviously not always in their own constituencies. For these reasons and others, it seems that, on (1b), an agent who accepts the self-interest theory of ethics will be compelled, at least on some occasions, to help others. (If we accept (1a), on the other hand, an agent S who mistakenly holds that helping others is never (or rarely) instrumental for making his life go best may, consistently with the self-interest theory of ethics, never act to help others. But this sounds more like an objection to (1a) than a problem for the self-interest theory of ethics per se.)

    I do not want to give the impression that the self-interest theory of ethics is one that I find very attractive. I also don't want to exclude the possibility that it is open to objections other than the one against which I am defending it. On the contrary, it is open to several objections, ranging from good to devastating. For example, although I do not think it is open to the objection that it never motivates one to act to help others, it is certainly open to the criticism that it never motivates one to act to help others *out of concern* for others, or at least, not directly so.

    Since we are discussing veganism, I thought I would close my defense of the self-interest theory of ethics against the objection that it is helpless to motivate one to act to help others with an illustration of how it might motivate one to act in ways consistent with veganism. Almost everyone will agree that part of acting to make one's life go best involves acting to promote one's physical well-being, and, to some extent, the physical well-being of one's children. Global warming, according to our best science, threatens that well-being. Veganism, according to our best science, promotes that well-being. Therefore, on the self-interest theory of ethics, one should act in ways consistent with veganism.


  2. I just got off of work. I can't even read that whole comment above mine; by brain will overflow.

    That said, here here.

    It would have been more amusing if you pointed out, that, on top of the ethics, it *is* healthier. By about forty different standards; and if you *are* geared towards "just losing a few pounds," it's a lot more sensible than any count-your-calories, streamlined, starvation diet.


  3. I'm happy to report that my doctor was very pleased with my vegan diet I reported to her. She didn't even tell me I needed to make sure to get enough protein (sounds like she's one of the few doctors who realizes Americans get sick from having too MUCH protein and animal fat, hardly ever too little.)

    I can't believe your mom called ahead to your dentist, though, wow. Since when are dentists qualified to discuss your diet with you anyway?