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Non-violence demands veganism

Interview with Dr Roger Yates, press officer of Vegan Ireland and a lecturer in the Department of Sociology in UCD, with an animal rights focus.


By Frank Armstrong

‘The term “gatherer-hunter” is less often used although more accurate’.
‘On a moral level, all animal use is the same. It is wrong’
‘I believe that human beings can tolerate a small amount of animal flesh in their diet but there is no NEED for it’

What prompted you to become a vegan?

In the late 1970s I was active with the British Hunt Saboteurs Association and other ‘sabs’ gave me literature about other “animal issues” such as vivisection, circuses, and factory farming. Having read up about the latter issue, I did not turn to vegetarianism, as many do, but went vegan within 3 months.

How has the vegan movement changed since then?

There was a Vegan Society in those days but no vegan movement as such. There is currently a serious if uneven push to establish veganism as the moral baseline of the animal advocacy movement – or at least the rights-based part of it. However, in the 1980s we were all involved in single-issue campaigning and virtually no-one talked about veganism as a philosophy about violence or a campaign in its own right.

How do you feel about vegetarians?
From a vegan perspective, vegetarianism includes a form of animal use. Having said that, many people argue that vegetarianism is a “gateway” to veganism. Many animal advocates who were vegetarian before vegan report their regret that they were ignorant, often for many years, about how eggs and dairy are produced. It should also be remembered that veganism is more than just diet, one that is wholly plant-composed. It includes an overarching philosophy about human relations with other animals, each other, and the planet on which we live.
Some feel that vegetarians and vegans are on the same journey. However, the philosophical positions of vegetarians and vegans are different: the former opposed to animal use, the latter not opposed to animal use. So they are not really saying the same things about human/non-human relations.

Is there a contradiction between animal rights and animal welfare?
Yes. The crude distinction can be said to be the difference between treatment and use. Essentially, animal welfare is about improving the conditions of other animals who are used for a variety of human purposes, while animal rights opposes the human use of other animals. Moreover, the property status of other animals compromises welfare initiatives on their behalf.

Why should we care so much about animals when there is so much human suffering in the world?

We should care about ALL the suffering in the world, and the issues are interlinked. Veganism is essentially about non-violence. A vegan world should mean less violence in terms of human/non-human relations and human-human interaction. Research data on the vegan animal-advocacy community indicates that the majority of people in it are employed as carers, teachers, doctors, etc in the service sector, rather than in the private sector, which tends to belie the stereotype that “animal people” care nothing for humanity. We can and should care about all sufferers.

We have been eating meat since time immemorial. Is it natural for us to go without it?

I believe that human beings can tolerate a small amount of animal flesh in their diet but there is no NEED for it. Although we may be able to tolerate a modest amount of animal flesh in our diet, there is sustained evidence that the amounts consumed in “developed” countries are damaging to human health.
There is a question about whether humans are “natural” herbivores or omnivores. Dr Milton Mills argues that we are, physiologically, the former. Increasingly the term “cultural omnivorousness” is being used to describe our practice of eating animal flesh and other animal products.
There is quite a lot of ideology behind such questions. For example, we tend to adhere to a picture-book image of “early Man”, armed with spears, surrounding and killing a mammoth or whatever. The term “hunter-gatherer” is used commonly, including in sociological textbooks. The term “gatherer-hunter” is less often used although, quantitatively, that would be much more accurate. A modern term used to describe early humanity is “forager”. In ideological terms, however, we prefer to think of ourselves as skilful and brave hunters, rather than more akin to scavengers.

What do you say to someone who is advised by a doctor to eat meat for their health, if say, they are low in protein, iron or vitamin B12?

The glib reply is “change your doctor”. Many people are deficient in B12 – it is not, however, a problem confined to the vegan part of the human population. Vitamin B12 is derived from bacteria, so plant-based sources are available. There are several long-term (30-year-plus) vegans who have never supplemented their diet with any synthetic vitamins, although the general recommendation is that they should. There are plenty of plant-based sources of both protein (vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, lentils, etc) and iron (nuts, green leafy vegetables, wholemeal bread, some fruits, etc): indeed, some claim that plant-based sources are superior to others.

What should happen to the millions of domesticated animals if we give up animal husbandry?

They will not exist, certainly not in the huge numbers that they do now – billions. We need to understand that humans deliberately breed these animals in order to exploit them.
There is, for example, a large industry in artificial insemination here in Ireland.
In a vegan world, we would stop breeding them, so there would be a phase-out period. I think a vegan society would be prepared to fund sanctuaries for the bred animals that exist at the time. However, it would have to prevent them from naturally procreating, which raises ethical questions. There is also the possibility that some domesticates may well be able to exist as free-living beings.

Is it consistent for a vegan to own a cat or a dog?

Assuming that the vegan in question is an adherent of animal-rights philosophy, then no. Having said that, many vegan animal advocates care for other animals. At the same time, they often reject the notion that these other animals are “pets”, preferring terms like “compassion animals”, or “refugees”.
However, in law, they are wrong because cats and dogs are “legal things” – they are items of property. We can buy, sell, swap, surgically alter, and mutilate our pets. We can have them killed on a whim – we can even kill them ourselves if we ensure that “unnecessary suffering” is avoided.

Are some animal uses worse than others? For example is the use of fur worse than wool because sheep are not killed for their hides? Or is meat worse than milk?

Many people believe this. Vegetarians certainly think it about meat and cow milk (which I tend to call “calf food” since that is what it is). Many vegan animal advocates appear to think it too. Some types of animal use “look worse” than others: vivisection and “goose cramming” to produce foie gras most graphically resemble torture, for example, while other forms of animal use appear more benign.
I believe that all types of animal uses are wrong but it is possible to see some differences in use which can be significant in terms of animal welfare. For example, Ireland sends live animals throughout Europe, Libya and Russia. This has led to a welfarist campaign based on the slogan, “on the hook, not on the hoof”, claiming a genuine welfare advantage if animals are killed where they were bred and fattened, and then shipped as frozen body parts.
Of course, while we can see some differences, we should recognise that regulating the welfare of other animals can be a messy business, and many other animals suffer terribly due to routine practices like being put through slaughterhouses, for example.

On a moral level, all animal use is the same. It is wrong.

How are landowners on marginal land, inappropriate for growing crops, expected to make a living if we abandon animal agriculture?

First, agriculture is dependent on government and other forms of subsidies. Second, there is virtually nowhere that plants and trees do not grow, or cannot be grown. A vegan society can be expected to subsidise veganic farming practices which, incidentally, is likely to result in more farmers returning to the land. No-dig veganic gardening and farming may well be a viable possibility too.
The bottom line is that we can expect a vegan population to be willing to fund the changes necessary to bring about a world consistent with their values. A vegan population would be interested in the R&D required to forge change, not least because present methods of growing and harvesting crops harm and kill other animals.

Is it ever conscionable to kill an animal? How do we manage the deer population other than through selective culling?

I think this is a complex question. In terms of killing another animal in general terms, we should avoid doing so wherever we can. We may kill another animal, including a human one, in self-defence. Animal rights theory “allows” this too. The thing we need to stop doing is reaching for the gun, the poisons, and other forms of killing, as an automatic first response to problems we have in our interaction with other animals. Some would quibble about the whole notion of “managing” other animal populations and be in favour of just leaving them alone. Some populations of other animals seem capable of regulating their numbers themselves. Other people, however, see that the fate of humans and many other animals are interlinked. The deer population has often been put forward as a case where human intervention is necessary and positive. The alternative is characterised as “nature red in tooth and claw”, and so on, involving hunger, starvation and suffering.
We would need to understand what are the consequences of particular other animal populations “managing” themselves. Would it be perpetual cycles of starvation, and what should we do about that? Do we investigate populations of ants, or other animals we may be less aware of, to see if they routinely suffer periods of growth and starvation – and do we intervene then?

What about people living in areas where hunting is necessary for their survival? How could an Eskimo survive without hunting?

Yes, Eskimos often appear to have a moral “get–out-jail-free” card. Perhaps they should move so they no longer “have” to kill to survive. That, obviously, would be regarded as an instance of cultural imperialism but it does raise the question of why some human populations exist in areas which seem not particularly conducive to living well, or easily, or non-violently. The answer to that is likely to be that human conflict drove peoples to such places. In that sense, other animals may seem to be paying the price for human war behaviour.
Although this is not an animal rights point, I know that Greenpeace International once offered to transport “beef” to Eskimo communities in order that they no longer would “need” to kill whales. They rejected the offer on cultural tradition grounds.
Vegans who take a rights-based approach see the killing of other animals as rights violations and we would wonder what the general reaction would be if we found a human population who claimed that their geographical circumstances and culture meant they “must” be cannibals.

How would a general adoption of veganism lead to changes in the law? Should butchering really be equated to murder?

“Meat is Murder” is a good song, and has long been used as a campaigning slogan – whether it would be translated verbatim into “vegan law” is another matter. Vegans would equally claim dairy and eggs involve murder too, of course. “Cheese is Murder” seems less catchy to be sure!
I would hope that the force of argument will win the day with most people but you are right to imply that the force of law will have to be employed to control the behaviour of those who insist on their “right” to kill other animals. This is sure to be a goldmine for lawyers since vegan agriculture itself will probably never be without elements of animal harm. There is a deep irony in the sense that many will regard the law as a form of violence, meaning that a form of violence will be employed to stop or reduce violence.

How do you feel about laboratory-grown meat?

I am in two minds about it. I do not think I have heard about any example of “lab meat” that has not involved animal use along the way, so there’s a major vegan stumbling block with the whole idea.
On the other hand, many vegans, while not necessarily using the “vegan meats” or “vegan cheeses” themselves, can see the utility in them. Some people new to veganism, and who may be concerned to appear as “normal” as the majority, or concerned on that score for their children’s sake, find such products very useful. Meat-eaters appear to often be puzzled that vegans can eat something that looks and tastes like animal flesh. However, if a vegan is so for reasons of ethics and not aesthetics, then that is easy to understand.

Do you anticipate widespread adherence to veganism in the coming years?

I’m hopeful of that, and there are some environmental indicators that suggest such a move may be necessary for a reason as dramatic as planetary survival. The ideology of speciesism, however – the main “problem” from an animal rights point of view, is very deep and can seem unmoving. As individuals socialised by a thoroughly speciesist society, I have no doubts that the vast majority of people reading this article will think that a vegan future sounds unlikely, if not impossible; and probably undesirable as well.
I claim that we are still in the pioneer stage of veganism – the term was only coined in the 1940s which, historically, is not long ago. The fact that many people are not familiar with the aspirations of vegans shows our pioneer status I think. My work for the Vegan Information Project shows that there is a good deal of interest in the “vegan way”. I see many “vegan curious” people in Ireland, so I interpret that as a positive thing for the growth of veganism.
Schopenhauer suggested that we have pretended that other animals have no rights. We can see the advantages gained from such pretence but we need to answer the call of justice regarding other beings who can suffer and experience life in similar ways to ourselves.