As I read through Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, I’m having a lot of different reactions. To give a non-exhaustive account, there’s been some incredulity, some curiosity, some frustration, some confusion, and some concern.
I’m intrigued by Bogost’s notion of Carpentry, but the first two chapters of his book I found very disagreeable. Either Alien Phenomenology (thus far) is an unconvincing account of Object-Oriented Ontology, or OOO itself is fundamentally nonsensical to me. Now, I don’t actually think persuading people to adopt OOO is Bogost’s only concern with this book, but–not having finished reading yet–I’m not going to speculate too much. However, I do have a lot of questions about OOO, particularly how Timothy Morton can find it compatible with Buddhist philosophy. Unfortunately, it seems that most of Morton’s thoughts on the matter are yet unpublished, so I have no non-intrusive way of picking his brain about how Nagarjuna/sunyata/anatta/etc and OOO aren’t at odds with one another. OOO strikes me as a strongly reificationist perspective, and–at least according to James L. Garfield’s analysis–Nagarjuna (“the second Buddha”, as he is sometimes called) would react most disagreeably to the tenets of OOO. Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way are a rejection of both nihilism and reificationism, and to assert that there is some substantial-essential reality to any object at all (however strange and inaccessible) seems to violate Buddhist principles.
But I have to stop myself before I get off-track or haphazardly make arguments I’m not well-equipped to make convincingly. I did want to post the above thoughts somewhere, but my motivation to write this blog was not to critique OOO in general. This blog is about veganism, but it was indeed inspired by my reading of Alien Phenomenology.
I do think that OOO causes some very real problems for the idea of empathy, which we can probably all agree is one core motivation for any talk of animal welfare. Rather than critique OOO’s callousness (of which there may not be as much as I’m thinking now), I just mean to speak more specifically to something Bogost says in his book, as well as a few things he doesn’t say but are assumed in our culture.
Most people don’t understand vegetarianism. By that, I don’t mean “most people don’t understand that veganism is a moral imperative”, but rather that people have developed a wholly distorted view of how and why someone is a vegetarian. We can see this in the old Maddox maxim of “For every animal you don’t eat, I’m going to eat three”, and the related blog post. Taking this to be serious philosophy would be an embarrassing mistake, but ignoring its sentiment would be just as foolish. The most common silly question asked of vegetarians is why we eat things that look and taste like meat if we’re so disgusted by meat, and the most common misconception about vegetarians is the nature of our “crusade”.
Of course, as not to generalize just as much from the opposite direction, I should say that I’m only speaking for myself. It could be the case that I’m a highly unusual veg*n and the vegan police would place me under strict surveillance. My turn to vegetarianism came about with a subscription to Buddhism, so my philosophy of either will almost inevitably include the other.
Just to get it out of the way, let me combat the “clever” question from earlier with some clever questions of my own. If meat is such an intrinsically human-oriented food, why do we have to be so careful with it compared to true carnivores (cooking, refrigeration/freezing, avoiding cross-contamination, etc)? Why can’t you subsist on a meat-only diet (and I do mean meat-only, no herbs, spices, grains, sugars, lettuce, anything)? Why does a diet high in meat directly lead to specific health problems when a plant-based diet is widely regarded as ideal? If meat tastes so good, why do you have to dress it up with so many non-meat accoutrements to enjoy it?
Okay, that was pretty snarky, but the point is this: most healthy people (and a lot of unhealthy people) are mostly vegetarian anyway. No credible nutritionist would tell you to eat mostly (or only) meat. Furthermore, you wouldn’t taunt a lactose intolerant friend with the question, “If milk makes you so sick, why do you eat cereal with soy milk instead of eating it dry?” The substitution is not an endorsement of the original, and being a vegetarian in our society is inconvenient enough without needing to come up with our own cuisine that makes absolutely no reference to existing meat-oriented dishes. This isn’t to say that a diet full of meat substitutes in normal, American dishes would make for healthy living, but I think I’ve made myself clear.
Also, tofu was around for many centuries before Donald Watson’s invention of the word “vegan”. So let’s not act like tofu is the iPhone of foods and people only have it to feel superior to people who like eating Big Macs. It’s a healthy food regardless of what’s not being eaten (which I’ll talk about later).
But let’s talk about that first idea: the infamous superiority complex that vegetarians supposedly develop. I think there’s merit to the idea that it’s actually an inferiority complex in meat-eaters that is reversed and projected upon vegetarians, but that’s as far as I’ll take that proposition for now.
I’ve been a relatively outspoken vegetarian for a few years now. I always invite people to make an argument for the moral acceptability of eating meat versus being a vegetarian, and most people can offer nothing of the sort. There are, however, two ethical arguments against the vegetarian imperative. Neither is “I like meat”, by the way. Liking something is not a defense for its ethical validity. Liking genocide or heroin doesn’t make the holocaust or drug addiction acceptable.
The first valid argument against vegetarianism is available to anybody who believes the book of Genesis contains the word of God. Genesis 9:3 clearly designates meat as food for humans. Now, taking the bible as the word of God in every instance will cause some problems down the line in 21st Century society, but fair enough. However, given the increasing rejection of organized monotheism in our society, this argument holds less water by the day.
The other argument is that meat has no moral weight to it. This may surprise you to read from me, but this argument is ultimately sound. This is also what brings me to Bogost’s remarks. Now, before you take this as an endorsement of meat consumption, read on.
“When the vegan eats the tofu… she constructs a caricature of the soy, which does more than render it nutritive or gratifying; it also renders it moral” (77). To acknowledge my ellipsis, I don’t believe I’ve left out anything vital for what Bogost is advancing here. Speaking to my brand of veganism (as not to overstep my bounds), Bogost is misrepresenting the matter entirely. Not because he’s characterizing vegans as female (though it is an interesting pronoun choice, even if he meant it to be arbitrary), but because he’s assuming that for a vegan to eat tofu, the vegan is taking it into their body as a kind of holy communion, or at the very least a sort of dietary supplement to one’s moral storehouse.
Now, vegans do (ideally) take certain things into their body specifically and positively as a result of being vegan. Getting Vitamin B12 from plant-based foods (themselves) is virtually impossible. It is not, however, a nutrient that is sourced from animals (nor is anything else humans need to be healthy). It comes from bacteria, and it is often communicated via dairy and meat.
But tofu is just bean curd, if anything. Its culinary history is attached to Buddhist vegetarianism to some degree, but Bogost’s conclusion is correct even if his premise is presumptive: there’s no moral dimension to eating a piece of tofu. Nor is there a moral dimension to eating meat.
Now, take my verbiage very strictly here: there is no appreciable moral dimension to eating meat, generally. Ultimately, the meat itself has no moral dimension either. Actually, I wouldn’t even make the argument that a chicken wing is a part of an animal in any strict metaphysical sense.
The reasoning for this isn’t especially simple, but it’s also not too complicated. From a Buddhist perspective (and, because I agree, my perspective), there’s no sense in getting upset about a hamburger’s existence or someone’s ingestion of it. There are a few reasons for this, the most important of which being the concept of sunyata, or “emptiness”. The aforementioned hamburger isn’t actually a hamburger in any stable, ontological sense. It’s a hamburger in our mental construction of reality, but that mental construction is only a mental construction. There’s nothing about that hamburger that will inform any ultimate meaning of anything. However, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing there; it means that there is no thing (in this case, a hamburger) there. It’s a subtle distinction, and one that I’ve only recently begun to fully grasp. So, if there is no hamburger per se, there are none of the things associated with the hamburger: the grilling, the slaughter, the raising of cattle, etc. It’s all empty of any intrinsic essence, and it’s all illusory. Should we be tilting at windmills anyway?
Siddartha Gautama (“the Buddha”) did not teach vegetarianism. In fact, much of Buddhist philosophy is in response to the strict vegetarianism of Jainism. The Buddhist critique of Jainism could be said to be the appreciation that there is nothing about eating pork (which is what is reputed to be the last meal of Siddartha Gautama) that has an ethical or metaphysical bearing on your being. Monks were not forbidden from accepting meat from laypeople. There was a very important caveat, though: not to accept meat that the monk knew had been specifically prepared for them. Translating the matter into modern (and lay) terms, this is the difference between eating and buying meat.* Vegetarianism is not dietary-magical ethics, but a refusal of a specific process (animal slaughter).
I’ve heard the matter of equanimity in Buddhism (and, thus, nirvana) as a situation allegedly proposed by the Dalai Lama, in which one has dog feces in one hand and chocolate cake in the other. The enlightened perspective would be to prefer neither over the other. That’s ultimate truth, and there’s nothing you can point to in the contents of either hand that ultimately could dictate which you should prefer. It would all depend on psycholinguistic constructions and assumptions.
But who of us wants to eat poop? Vegetarianism is simply a matter of refusing to eat poop. If you’ll indulge me, I’m merely continuing the metaphor, so it’s not a case of refusing an animal product (as the chocolate cake is likely to have eggs, etc in it). It’s a matter of evaluating our conventional (yet reasonable) understanding of the world and deciding our responsibilities within it.
To be clear, there is little appreciable moral consequence to eating a hamburger, especially if it was just going to go to waste if you didn’t. We can talk about if you would still be placing demand on the meat industry or robbing truly carnivorous scavengers of nutrition, but the more important point is that vegetarianism is ultimately not an affirmative lifestyle. There is nothing that positively makes you a vegetarian. Vegetarianism is defined via negativa. It’s all about what you don’t do. It’s a choice to not place demand upon an industry you disagree with the practices of, or support said industry with your money. Now, there are clearly industries that have emerged to cater to those who would identify as vegetarian, but doing business with those companies doesn’t make you a vegetarian. Buying shoes from a website that only stocks vegan footwear is not a sufficient condition for veganism. There’s nothing stopping said consumer from buying and eating a ham and cheese omelette immediately afterward, and there are more than enough non-vegetarians who buy vegan or vegetarian items regularly that we can’t take these gestures as affirmative qualifiers of either of these labels. So, in summation, it is not by purchasing canvas shoes, brown rice, and rice milk that one is a vegetarian. Veganism comes by not purchasing babyback ribs, extra sharp cheddar cheese, leather upholstery or Guinness Draught (they use fish parts to filter the beer).
Now, as to the matter of empathy in OOO… we don’t know what it is to be a pig, but I know enough about the experience of being a mammal to feel comfortable assuming that I wouldn’t want to put a pig through the experience necessary for bacon production. Also, pigs seem pretty intelligent from our studies of their behavior. If I have to admit that intelligence is a standard for my ethical consideration of other beings, that’s fine. A soybean is of less moral significance to me than an animal, and I don’t think we should kid ourselves with the absurd and unfounded idea that plants are just as aware as animals. Automatically moving towards sunlight does not constitute an emotional being.
So, whether we take the Buddhist view of things being empty of goodness or badness or a less strict appreciation of conventional reality, we can see that neither vegetarianism nor veganism is a good thing. Is there some degree of satisfaction that comes from it? Perhaps even a sense of moral superiority? Sure. But this is true of any action that reveals itself to be skillful. Why wouldn’t we be proud of ourselves if we act in a way that we find agreeable? But there’s no gold star for the vegetarian, and certainly not for the vegan (who I believe has possibly replaced the homosexual in popular culture as the easiest target for ridicule, not to dismiss existing homophobia). Nor should there be. Veganism is not good, it’s simply eminently preferable to non-veganism given the (conventional) reality of food production. It is a luxury to have a digestive system that can eschew meat, and it’s easier than ever to not eat meat and be healthy. Vegetarianism is nowhere near as difficult as non-vegetarians imagine it to be, and veganism can be only trivially inconvenient depending on where you live. Neither is good, but the alternative is clearly worse.
*Vegetarianism in Buddhism is actually a pretty controversial topic. I do want to be clear about my opinion, though: I don’t think lay practitioners can defend not being vegetarian (or vegan, really, given the facts of egg & dairy production). The very first precept (not law, but still) of lay Buddhist practice is to abstain from killing sentient beings. Whether or not buying meat “counts” as killing can be debated (obnoxiously), but one of the five types of livelihood that Siddartha Gautama explicitly forbade was trading in meat. So if you’re a Buddhist and think that getting someone else to break the rules for you doesn’t count as breaking the rules, go ahead and buy all the meat you want. Hopefully you’re just as happy as if you didn’t, even if it’s at the expense of other sentient beings.