Chomsky on Veganism

Still being quite distraught after seeing Earthlings on Wednesday, I’ve been trying hard to put the ongoing catastrophe of violence against animals into a larger moral context. It is easy to emphasize violence against animals because it is so highly cruel, and because we are so immediately present to what it produces – one can hardly walk around a city without seeing meat, dairy, leather, etc… But, perhaps I am simply fetishizing a certain kind of immediacy, as citizens of a US client state, am I not immediately related to numerous wars, to the support for brutal dictators, and to economic imperialism which threatens to impoverish any nation which does not abide by Washington‘s orders? And anyway, doesn’t Zizek call vegetarians “degenerates”? Well, perhaps he is not the best moral authority on account of claiming to be a monster. So, I went to google and searched “Chomsky +Vegan” – a series of correspondances turned up, this being the most relevant response: (I can’t guarantee the authenticity of this correspondance).

Chomsky: I’ve discussed animal rights here and there, mostly in response to questions. It’s true that it’s not a huge effort — though it is a considerable one — to live a vegan lifestyle. It’s even easier to give up a lot of what we do to contribute to saving 1 billion people who are dying from hunger, or to stave off the serious threat to species survival that will destroy animal life too, or to try to prevent the destruction of biodiversity, or…. Your arguments hold just as well for these and innumerable other morally obligatory commitments, many of them I think ranking higher than using animals for human use. Should we, for example, buy commercial products from (and thus help fund) corporations that are contributing to global destruction? Try to avoid them.

But time and energy are finite, and each of us sets priorities, inevitably.

I’m not teaching grad courses on ethics, or on these issues. I have taught undergrad courses for many years (on my own time) on matters that seem urgent to me, the kind I write and speak about.

To be clear, I’m not challenging our priorities. Merely trying to indicate my own.

Noam Chomsky

These priorities correspond with how I felt about the treatment of animals before I saw earthlings. “It is a horrible violence, out there”, I thought, but my distance from it allowed me to categorize it as only one violence among many. When you expose yourself to the content of the violence directly, however, you recognize that it is violence not because it is suffering but because it is callously imposed suffering. When I first became vegetarian (temporarily) back in undergrad, my reason was “the callous treatment of animals is a force of degeneration to the human moral character”. I have never believed this statement to the extent that I now believe it now – the disaster of the treatment of animals can not be measured in the suffering of animals, but in our lack of concern for that suffering, and in the immediacy of our complicity in it – in our food, our clothes. Heck, according to this TED talk, pork pretty much everything from roads to toothpaste.

But, what I disagree with him Chomsky’s response to veganism is not so much his priorities, but the way he characterizes obligation: “Your arguments hold just as well for these and innumerable other morally obligatory commitments”. In fact, veganism is not the taking up of a morally obligatory commitment, it is a strategic adherence to an ideal shared by many, directed towards an end. It is a project shared, participated in by many people together – it is a cause of coming together (at Toad Lane’s vegan-pot lucks, for instance), and it is – in my eyes at least – in need of constant re-evaluation to increase its prospects for expanding, becoming mainstream, and being an important part of moral revolution.

In other words, I disagree with Chomsky on veganism in the same way that I disagree with his charge the BDS against Israel is hypocritical. Actions done in common are not hypocritical if they apply a standard in a tactically useful manner – standards can only come into being in the world if applied in tactically considered manners anyway. The question of becoming vegan, or of taking a stand against global warming or Israeli apartheid is not about what moral demands are abstractly placed on us by the totality of chaos in the world – but rather are choices we can take, from the particular situations we find ourselves, to ally with others and strive together for a fairer world.


5 thoughts on “Chomsky on Veganism

  1. Yes It does not take effort to be a vegan. I also avoid products produced in sweatshop labor factory. But I am not human activist either. But I only purchase fair trade and will never purchase gold and diamonds(blood).

    This disappoints me about Noam, it only shows that a meat eater even if intelligent will temporarily become dumb while defending their “cruel lifestyle”.

    You don’t have to be any less a human rights activist to be a vegan. Being a vegan activist is a different thing.

  2. Being a vegan does not take any energy from your ability to pursue other goals. We all have to eat anyway, and veganism is healthier according to modern research.
    I fail to see the reasoning in what he says.

    Greetings from Israel

    1. I can say from years of experience that veganism, for ethical reasons, does take energy. Emotional energy at least. Chomsky takes the view that the crimes against animals are just more drops in the bucket alongside a near infinity of other crimes. But taking on any cause makes it more than that.

      1. Wow I know I come super late, but I thought this was a meaningful conversation. Maybe you’re not even vegan anymore… I agree being vegan for ethical reasons takes up some effort. But I don’t agree with Chomsky’s view that it’d take from other efforts. In fact, I’ve found that on a general basis, vegans are way more mobilised, educated and vocal about all the other problems in our society, from climate change to poverty to sexism to racism. This is ofc anecdotal, but I know my fair share of vegans to believe it to be representative enough, at least in my country (Basque Country, Spain).

        The vegan “movement” is among the strongest I consider myself to be part of, and provides with intense backing, moral and practical from peers. And it helps build bridges to other movements. yes it is true that it is annoying to have to discuss with family members, or being at a smaller or unknown town and not being able to find easily options to eat. But on the other hand, it is truly invigorating. I believe that one of the truest statements about human nature is that our will, our empathy, our sympathy, is not only flexible and contagious, but a muscle that gets trained fairly easily.

        And first, the contagious element makes it so more important to belong to a movement that in a practical sense acts like a community of people with above average willingness to empathise with others and take action over these reflexions. And second, being engaged, being active, allowing an essential part of your life, that you have to take action upon several times a day, every single day, helps you keeping in a proactive, positive state of mind.

        Disregarding veganism as a “distraction” from other “more important” social fights, in my opinion, is like going to an elite basketball player and telling him that he shouldn’t do other sports than basketball. That is ridiculous, and no good player of any sports practices a single one. You need to go to the gym to practice some isolated muscles that are not trained enough with basketball, but yet make your overall basketball skills better. It is good also to practice other team sports, since they help you connect with different-minded ways of thinking (sport-wise). And also because they can bring you joy too, especially if you find a different group to play with. It is also important to eat well, have good social connections, etc. What I mean by that is that, like most times in life, diversity is what makes us humans thrive. And single mindedly focusing on just the “most important topics” because “the rest is a distraction” is a recipee for failure.

        Veganism is a philosophy that in most instances is not only not directly against other forms of activism, but directly aligned and paramount with them. Obesity related to poverty due to food deserts and strong subsidising of meat and other unhealthy products. Mental health problems and abuse in towns with slaughterhouses. Pandemics caused by animal abuse and use. Climate change consequence of factory farming. Destruction of the biosphere caused by factory farming. Racism enabled by an overall mentality that animals are lesser than us and comparing minorities to animals. Etc, etc.

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