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Chime in on Subsistence Cultures

Here's a question from a new-ish reader. Chime in with your thoughts and help Newish Reader work through the issue.

I've been vegan almost 2 years and  . . . I consider myself probably an 'abolitionist' but I'm still learning a lot.

One area that seems troublesome to me for abolition that I don't see addressed much is: What about societies that subsist in environments relatively inhospitable to plant growth? At what point does the convenience or sustainability of obtaining food in those societies trump the immorality of taking sentient life? I tend to think the rules are different in different societies based on place. Whereas for Westerners and many others veganism seems the only ethical way of life, I'm not comfortable supposing I know what's right for all people, and particularly for those in subsistence societies.

And I'd like to add: Is moral relativity part of this question?

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Joe #

    Moral relativism need not be accepted to allow for the eating of other animals in certain situations. We do not support the unnecessary killing of sentient beings, but that does not mean that we deny that there can be situations in which sentient beings may be killed. For instance, if another human is trying to kill me, I will not be condemned if I kill him/her while defending my own life. The situation in question is similar in that, if it is impossible to survive without killing and eating other animals, then it is acceptable to do that.

    February 15, 2009
  2. Sammy #

    I am the New-ish reader who posed this question. Joe, it sounds like you're saying that it needs to be "impossible to survive without killing . . . " in order for it to be ok to kill. I see your point and I think I agree with it, certainly in the context of Western culture. What about if it is merely difficult to survive for those people? (I remember a book by Buettner called Blue Zones in which he studies the healthiest, longest-lived peoples in the world and finds those societies to be eating, I think it was, 90-99% plant foods.) Am I a moral relativist if I say I don't think it's wrong that they drink yak milk or if they kill one animal per year to help meet their nutritional needs? (Perhaps they could live solely on plants but they probably haven't tried nor even asked themselves whether they could.) Or, is the difference one of quality vs. quantity? Quantity: Killing more is worse than killing less (perhaps you'd agree with me there?) Quality: But it's not wrong to kill in some societies and right to kill in others. (Would that be moral relativism?)

    Thanks for helping me sort through these issues.

    Then, I think the other issue going on for me here is the attitude "I'm right. You're wrong." Perhaps it's my buddhist leanings that make me uncomfortable with my thinking I am privy to the Truth that others' are not. If we're just noticing a universal human value like 'not killing' and pointing out to people their inconsistencies, that's one thing. It's another to say that their values are wrong because they're different from mine.

    February 15, 2009
  3. First and foremost, it's most important to decide what's right for YOU to do or not do. Regardless of issues of moral relativity, we simply can't control other people, so don't worry too much about them. First worry about what's right for you.

    Second, The Vegan Society's definition of vegan has some of this "problem" built into the vegan philosophy:
    "A vegan is someone who tries to live without exploiting animals, for the benefit of animals, people and the planet. Vegans eat a plant-based diet, with nothing coming from animals – no meat, milk, eggs or honey, for example. A vegan lifestyle also avoids leather, wool, silk and other animal products for clothing or any other purpose."

    This the group that first invented the term "vegan" so their definition should be at least partially respected. Notice that it says "someone who tries to live without exploiting animals". That means that veganism acknowledges that some animal exploitation is either unavoidable or in some circumstances morally acceptable. That's not to say it's OK to test mascara on rabbits or that it's OK to raise and slaughter chickens when other food sources exist, but it is to say that situations differ.

    Vegan is an identity description. For food, the label vegan means the product doesn't contain animals or animal excretions/ animal products. For people, the label vegan means "someone who tries to live without exploiting animals". That someone might not always succeed in living without animal exploitation, but they sure as hell try.

    Moreover, many people believe morality is something that can only be achieved once one's basic needs are met (think: Maslow's hierarchy of needs). I'm one of those people. So… in this respect, virtually ALL questions of morality are irrelevant to "people living in subsistence communities."

    You don't have to see this as moral relativity if you don't like that idea. You merely have to see veganism as something that requires free choice. Those who can't make choices for themselves, whose lives are dictated by others or by circumstances, simply can't choose veganism. That doesn't mean veganism isn't "the only ethical way of life", that merely means some people aren't capable of living an ethical life.

    Lastly, when we promote veganism, we usually do so only to people who are able to adopt a vegan lifestyle. For example, when I leaflet for Vegan Outreach, I do so at American college campuses, not at homeless shelters.

    If I do talk to homeless people about veganism (I have some regular contact with some homeless people), it's like this: "When you're able to make more free choices about what to eat and what not to eat, perhaps you'll adopt a plant-based diet. If you're interested, I can give you some information about that." and I only talk about it when THEY bring it up.

    Knowledge is power and there's no reason to deny knowledge to people who are seeking it, so if anyone asks about veganism I take the opportunity to educate them, but there's no expectation that they act on that knowledge until or unless they have more resources. That is, I won't guilt-trip people who are living hand-to-mouth. This holds true not only for homeless people, but also for children, inmates, hospital patients, and others living in communities where they have little free choice over their food sources.

    I think I'll blog about this idea some more…

    February 15, 2009
  4. Sammy #

    Thank you, Elaine, for your detailed response.

    "First worry about what's right for you." Agreed.

    "…veganism acknowledges that some animal exploitation is either unavoidable or in some circumstances morally acceptable." Yes, I understand that.

    "… virtually ALL questions of morality are irrelevant to "people living in subsistence communities." " This is helpful–I hadn't thought about the hierachy of needs. It's certainly plausible that it's why some societies don't consider veganism.

    "That doesn't mean veganism isn't "the only ethical way of life", that merely means some people aren't capable of living an ethical life." Sorry to quote you out of context (for the sake of brevity). I'd prefer to say they're living ethically within their means/circumstances (if they are in other respects). Something about saying they're not capable of living an ethical life doesn't sit well with me. Perhaps it sounds a tad condescending. These are difficult concepts that I'm grappling with for the first time. Thanks for your help.

    February 15, 2009
  5. Joe #

    Sammy-Perhaps it would help if we tried to define moral relativism, so you wouldn't have to worry about whether or not you are a relativist. Moral relativism is the -ism that claims that there are no objective moral facts-which is to say, we cannot make moral judgements about other people's actions. Most moral relativists I have read claim that morality is based on culutre (i.e. one culture cannot judge another), though you could push it to the conclusion that no individual could morally condemn the actions of any other. If you are a relativist, you should be indifferent about the diet of anyone else.

    As far as the question of quantity, if it is wrong to kill ten animals for some reason, I fail to see how we are to draw a line that would make the killing of a certain amount of animals acceptable for that same reason. If it is wrong to kill ten animals for food, is it wrong to kill nine? eight? How do we make such a determination? I honestly have no idea how that would be done.

    We are not claiming to have the Truth here (what exactly does 'Truth' mean and how does it differ from 'truth'?), but we are claiming that it is in fact wrong to kill animals without good reason.
    Don't be afraid to claim that you are right; there is nothing wrong with that! If my son says that 2+2=5, he is wrong, end of story. If someone says that rape is acceptable, they are wrong, period. If someone says that killing animals for the sheer pleasure of it is wrong, not because their opinion differs from mine, but because it is in fact morally reprehensible to do such things.

    Also, referring to your response to Elaine's post, it may sound condescending to you, but what she said is in line with what I said above. Some theorists (Hegel being the only one coming to mind at the moment) defend what have been called rights of distress. Under normal circumstances, stealing is an immoral act. However, there may be circumstances, such as the aftermath of a war or natural disaster, in which stealing (food, medical supplies, etc) would be necessary for survival. We would not pass a negative moral judgement in this case because you are not under normal conditions, or, to put it another way, you do not have all of your needs met and cannot act freely.

    I hope this has been helpful for you, I know that these issues can be very confusing.

    February 15, 2009
  6. Dan #

    I’d like to chime in with reinforcement and elaboration of what Joe said. Yes, there are moral facts and moral truth. We can know some of these facts intuitively. Other of these moral facts, we can reason from various intuitions and appearances to either confirm them or hold them probable. Circumstances will change what is morally true in any given situation. Intentional killing is prima facie (or pro tanto) wrong; however, there may be circumstances in which intentional killing is either permissible or even required.

    Subjectivism, of which individual and cultural relativism are branches, is essentially a view that claims moral infallibility for everyone. In individual relativism, if what is “right for me” and what is “right for you” is different under the same circumstances, then neither of us is wrong and we’re both morally infallible. In cultural relativism, the individual can be wrong, but the culture is infallible.

    Ethical intuitionism, which claims there are objective moral facts and that we can know many of these facts, claims fallibility. I may claim that “X is good” or “X is right”, and under ethical intuitionism, I may be correct or incorrect. The ethical intuitionist has certainty in some very basic and obvious moral claims such as “Torturing an innocent child is wrong”, and less certainty in other moral claims, such as genuine moral dilemmas. But the ethical intuitionist believes there is a “correct answer” in a moral dilemma, even if s/he considers it too difficult to be sure that his or her belief is the correct answer. The ethical intuitionist should be more and more tolerant of others’ views as the correct answer (e.g. in a moral dilemma) is less and less clear.

    For more reading on this topic and a superb defense of ethical intuitionism and objective moral facts, I highly recommend the book Ethical Intuitionism by Michael Huemer, who is a philosophy professor at University of Colorado, Boulder. Other intuitionists include G.E. Moore, H.A. Prichard, and W.D. Ross.

    Sammy, to answer your question specifically, I suppose it depends on how difficult it is for them to go without killing animals for food. It is difficult to give a yes or no answer without actually living in their circumstances, and even then, I might not be certain of my answer, even though I would believe there was a correct answer.

    February 16, 2009
  7. Sammy #

    Joe and Dan, I appreciate your very thoughtful replies. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of time for constructing a reply at the moment but I'll certainly get to it as soon as I can. Thank you! Sammy

    February 16, 2009
  8. Regarding subsistence cultures, it's ironic that even their interests are threatened with advancing "civilized" habits and demands. In the name of "conservation" and "livestock" – people of Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Nairobi are all in danger of loosing their very survival to oil, livestock and tourists.

    The Center for World Indigenous Studies has amassed an enormous amount of information on the subject… but this is just a bit of what struck me about the (im)moralities that those who are merely surviving face… True poverty:

    "To get them through the hungry season, a household in Mali cut consumption to one meal a day in order to avoid having to sell a traction animal. A woman in Sudan leaving her village in famine, preserved millet seed for planting on her hoped-for return by mixing it with sand to prevent her hungry children eating it. A Maasai family drink more blood when there is no milk to prevent constant slaughter of livestock."

    I don't know what it must be like for them to have the modern world encroach… The tourists, hotels and paying hunters all have interests in "preserving" the land that was once what they lived on. There's something highly unethical about that too isn't there?

    "Concerns over spreading diseases from livestock to wildlife have not ceased either."

    And these small villagers are not permitted to hunt many areas that they survived on previously yet: "Often the hunters or conservationists kill animals to get a thrill. Culling is defended. Itself is a horrifying spectacle. “Rangers sport the elephants by helicopters, then move in with automatic weapons and slaughter an entire herd in minutes, amid the screams of panicked elephants”. And "People would be arrested, shot or whipped for killing wildlife. Our people knew no other way of life. Our lifestyle was turned upside-down. The ban on hunting struck a deathblow to the survival of the Yaaku People".

    And the Environmental Injustice of the Ogoni and the Bakola-Bagyeli Pygmy Peoples:
    "Land is the basic means of survival for the close to half a million Ogoni people. This arouses in them strong emotions and high sense of aesthetic quality. In this regard they see land (nature) as the source of life and do not think of themselves separate from the land (mother earth). They do not separate themselves from nature and from God. Man, nature, and God are one, hence the use of “Ogoniland” and “Ogoni people” are used interchangeably.
    Most of Ogoniland was once part of the tropical rain forest that stretches across central Africa. Today, the forest is almost completely loss as most of it has been cleared to create grazing and farm land. The Ogoni are one of the many indigenous groups inhabiting the Niger River Delta of Nigeria.

    "Ancestral groves, have been destroyed by pipe line tracks and oil spills. As a result, families can no longer pour libation to their ancestors and carry out other traditional rites. The artistic ability of wood carving and drum making of the Ogoni peoples that rely on the availability of specific wood type (iroko) has dwindled enormously, primarily due to loss of trees (wood) to make way for pipelines and cattle.
    "This sedentary way of life began “distorting” the hunter-gatherer way of life of the indigenous Pygmy population."

    But when something is being "conserved" you have those who wish to visit such areas… and outfitted hunters must keep the numbers in check (so there's more for them the next year), and hotels must have fresh beef to feed the tourists…

    There's mention of a photo showing: "a global person, corpulent, male, white, suited and cigar smoking who grow wealthy on blood shed of African wildlife. And “a poacher carrying his day hunt.” Indigenous people are blamed for the damage they have not caused. Fat contractors, corrupt politicians, international companies and consumers from the North are hidden from sight. Who apologises? Who sees even the cause for apology? Better to blame the victim than to bear the responsibility oneself."

    It really is a lengthy series of dissertations – more essays and references to deforestation for cattle, prohibitions on land use, poisoned water – water that is diverted away from small villages for livestock… It all really is a mess.

    And it all seems so wrong – for money interests, wealthy foreigners and "conservation" hunters to be literally taking THE ONLY FOOD from the mouths of the people who actually LIVE on it!

    Perhaps sustinence hunters aren't permitted to be "ethical" eaters, given the circumstances they are in… but what does it say about a culture which denies them even that?

    And oddly enough… what are they advertising for in Nairobi – but a position as a slaughterhouse worker:

    I suppose it is only a matter of time till the sustinence hunters will have other choices… I see golden arches in their future.

    February 18, 2009

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