The Ethics of Second-Best Choices

Crossing out Plan A and writing Plan B on a blackboard.It’s not a perfect world. I’m reminded every day of my own imperfections. As I gossip at work when I know I shouldn’t. When someone is insulted and I don’t stick up for them, because I fear being thought of as difficult or a goody-goody, or I’m just too tired to bother.

The Pagan Activist blog exists because it’s such a deeply imperfect world. Acknowledging that is one of the first steps toward creating justice. People with a Candide attitude that we’re living in the most perfect world possible aren’t doing anything to make the world a better place.

But all too often the world’s imperfection, and more so its imperfectability, is used as an excuse to do whatever we want. To not even try. And it’s used to try to talk activists into giving up, to stop trying to raise awareness.

I’m a vegan in a deeply nonvegan world. That means there’re animal products in my tires. There’re probably animal products in the glue binding the books I read. There is probably some percentage of insect parts in my peanut butter. I can’t avoid those things without completely dropping out of society. Which is certainly an option. Really committed Jains are hardcore about nonviolence and will leave society. But that really removes one’s ability to make a positive difference in the world.

It’s one thing to recognize that and do the best we can, both to reduce the harm we cause and to do what we can to make the world a better place. But we’re often told, “You’ll never be completely 100% vegan, so you might as well just eat whatever you want.” Which misses the point.

If your ideal option, causing no harm whatsoever, is not attainable, your second best option is not to cause as much harm as you feel like. Our response to the world’s imperfections should not be, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

Humane Meat

A lot of my friends value the idea of humane meat. The idea is to buy meat, and presumably other animal products like dairy, eggs, and honey, from sellers who treat animals more kindly. What’s desired is animals who had some room to roam; ate their natural diet; didn’t have unnecessary antibiotics, hormones, and amputations given to them; and in general had a peaceful life up until the end.

I don’t support this as a goal, but let’s go with it for now. It’s a common goal among Pagans and other alternative spiritual folk, environmentalists, and people concerned about organic food and health. But it’s not currently available for most people. It’s not available in a lot of areas and can be quite expensive compared to conventional meat. An aside about conventional food: Factory farms, hormones, GMOs, and so on represent a new standard; organic used to be the default standard.

People into humane meat who either aren’t wealthy enough to afford it or who don’t live somewhere it’s available might feel a bit like me, living in a world profoundly in opposition to their values. And those values are similar – the desire to tread lightly, to do less harm.

What does someone do when humane meat isn’t available? Usually, eat conventional meat. That sounds an awful lot like, “The best option wasn’t available, so I decided to choose the worst option as my Plan B.” There is a third choice. You could not eat meat at all, until a humane option becomes available.

Spoiler: it won’t. Unless you mean one of the many delicious vegan meats already available, or laboratory grown meat when that becomes available. I will write more in the future about why humane meat is a myth.

If humane meat is a goal for you, conventional meat is not the second-best option for several reasons. If you’re choosing humane meat for ethical reasons, such as animal welfare, then veganism, not factory farms, is going to better reduce harm to animals. If you’re choosing it because you prefer organic but can’t afford organic meat, you can buy organic vegetables, which is cheaper than organic meat. You’ll be saving money. And if you can’t afford the organic vegetables either, you’re still better off eating nonorganic fruits, grains, and veggies than meat because environmental toxins tend to accumulate in higher levels as you move up the food chain. Since your body doesn’t require animal products, conventionally raised animal products don’t have to be Plan B. They’re the worst possible option, not second-best.

Plant Killers

This is one of those issues that’s brought up most often as a “Gotcha!”

Some studies have suggested that plants have feelings. Actually, no study has suggested that, but some people interpret the findings that way. And often, in the Pagan community, it’s less about scientific studies and more about telepathic communication with plants. That’s a bit beyond the scope of this article, but I don’t think that we can use such unverifiable beliefs in ethics.

In reaction, more thoughtful people have said, “There is no real way to eat without doing harm, so we might as well eat meat but raise it in the most ethical way possible.” See humane meat, above. Less thoughtful people say, “See! Vegans aren’t any better!” as though being morally superior had anything to do with it.

If you truly value plant lives just as much as animal lives, you will save more plant lives by going vegan. It’s simple thermodynamics. I can eat a pile of plant foods, or I can feed those plants to a cow, wait awhile, and get some meat back. But it’s going to be a negative return on investment, because every bite eaten isn’t transformed directly into meat. It actually takes 17 pounds of grain to make a pound of meat. That’s a lot of plant lives that could be saved, or we could use it to end world hunger.

Now I wouldn’t ordinarily begrudge cows the plants they need to eat. I wouldn’t suggest we take away a cow’s meal, either to save plant lives or in order to feed ourselves. But what kind of life do they have? They live in boxes in abject misery before dying (mercifully) young. That’s not really doing them any favors. Better to just let those free-range plants live in peace, or feed them to a human in need.

Grass-fed beef would help some, in terms of freeing up resources for humans (such as the rainforests we are burning down to grow soy for cows, not humans, to eat), because grass is grown on different types of land than most veggies for direct human consumption. But this doesn’t apply to a lot of other animals, such as pigs.

If people were really concerned with plants’ lives, they’d go fruitarian. That means a diet of fruits and vegetables that don’t harm the plant as they are obtained. That includes tomatoes, peppers, avocados, and similar foods in addition to the traditional sweet, juicy fruits. Really serious Jains won’t even shake a tree to get it to drop its fruit.

But most people aren’t really concerned with plants’ lives except when talking to a vegan or vegetarian.

A related issue is pointing out that animals are killed in the harvesting of veggies. That is true. This is one of those issues that can’t be solved entirely. We can grow our own food, which means that there won’t be gas-fueled combines going though the fields and killing field mice, and that would save a lot of lives. But there will still be some accidents and unintended fatalities.

But the discussion of such accidental deaths is almost never discussed on its own merits. It’s a gotcha to prove that vegans kill animals too. But in this issue, too, we can save more lives by not eating animals. Because we have to first harvest plants to feed those animals, and harvest much more than we would need if we were just going to feed ourselves directly.

It’s Not Always an Excuse

When people consistently choose the worst option because perfection isn’t possible, it sounds like an excuse. And frankly, usually it is.

They’re ways to deflect criticism, or feelings of guilt. Ways to end the conversation.

But that’s not always the case. It can also reflect a focus on purity. That morality is about being pure. The concept of sin reflects a perspective of purity: bad actions are those actions that stain one’s soul. If one has that attitude about morality, then taken to an extreme, the inevitability of imperfection can become crippling. If any amount of imperfection makes us a failure, and we can’t avoid imperfection, then we’ve already failed. No need to try to do better.

It sounds like an extreme position, but I’ve encountered it in regular people. A friend said that I shouldn’t advocate for veganism because I ate meat until I turned 18. He said that I’m like a reformed serial killer trying to claim the high moral ground because I stopped killing. But that only makes sense if the point of ethical behavior is to be perfect, or to be good in and of oneself.

I’m of the opinion that individuals and their lives, freedom, and happiness are inherently valuable, and being moral means respecting that. It means doing no harm, or as close to that as possible. Morality isn’t about me, the doer, but the individuals acted upon. In that light, our past mistakes shouldn’t stop us from doing better now.

That’s why veganism isn’t a diet. It’s not about what I put into my body, in and of itself. It’s about reducing harm and avoiding exploitation of all animals, including humans. We’ll never achieve perfection, but every life we save matters. Every time we opt not to buy a product that requires suffering and death to produce, it’s a better option for those that don’t have to die.

I’ve brought up the fact that human consumption of animal products is the single largest human factor contributing to climate change. Sometimes the reaction to that information is to throw up one’s hands because we can’t currently eliminate other (smaller) sources of pollution like transportation and power production. When we can’t do everything, the next best option is not to do nothing. When the single largest factor in climate change is so easily eliminated, why would we ignore that until the smaller factors can be eliminated as well?don-t-do-nothing-quote

Easy answer: we don’t want to.

What are some other areas where we choose the worst possible alternatives? One example that comes to mind is green energy. Green sources of energy aren’t perfect replacements for coal and oil, not only because of technological issues but because it would take a lot of infrastructure change and fighting against a powerful lobby.

So what option do we choose instead?