personal life philosophy reflections vegan

Just Because It Is, Doesn’t Mean It Has to Be (Or Why Facts Aren’t Enough to Determine Futures)

Facts are not ethical statements. So how can we make moral judgments from observation?

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks (1834)
“Peaceable Kingdom”, Edward Hicks (1834)

Just a few weeks back, I was reading a post on the Vegan Biologist which argued that humans are not herbivores. One would think that a vegan blog would adamantly defend veganism by appealing to nature, but the post flat-out argues against the awful science that many misguided vegans perpetuate.

While I am, for the record, vegan because of ethical reasons (it is undeniable that animals are conscious: the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness categorically stated that nonhuman animals are not mere automatons and are capable of emotions much like humans. Therefore, their continued exploitation is simply immoral, indefensible, and speciesist), I still believe that clear-eyed science must guide our arguments.

As the Vegan Biologist mentioned, humans are not herbivores–we are built to be omnivores. We have adapted to survive on a diet of vegetables and animal meat.

That being said, just because someone can, means that someone should. This is exactly what philosopher David Hume argues in his famous Hume’s Law: you cannot purely extract ethical viewpoints from factual statements. Observations of fact are just that: they describe the conditions which exist.

But who is to say if one should stop there?

To say that we have evolved with the ability to consume meat does not mean that we should continually do so, especially since that we are able to survive on a purely vegan diet. Much like how the existence of cancer (a totally natural occurrence) doesn’t mean we should not attempt to cure people who get cancer.

Of course, the tricky part here is, where do you draw the line between what should be accepted and what should be not? How do you exactly build an ethical statement from fact?

There is no easy answer to this, and it ultimately depends on how far someone is willing to accept the limitations of nature.

Just awhile ago, I was talking to my therapist about how individualist and collectivist cultures can both be toxic, depending on where your perspective is. We broached the topic because I was having some work problems where people who have been performing really poorly were dragging everyone down, and everyone was too afraid to address the elephant in the room.

Collectivist cultures can disincentivize high performers because they end up carrying the weight of those who do less. Apart from that, social and behavioral change is harder to accomplish (overturning ingrained traditions involves disrupting the norm, and a culture that highly regards harmony can be very severe towards anyone who challenges long-established structures.)

But on the other hand, collectivist cultures consider the impact of one’s individual actions to the greater good, which is very important especially when resources are scarce and the weakest need support the most.

So what’s my point? You could approach any other situation,from a purely observational angle, wherein you describe it for what it is. Is it right? Perhaps. But could it be wrong? Maybe, depends on who you ask.

You really can’t discount emotions from the decision-making process.

Circling back to the start of this post, I regard veganism as the best way for people to move forward as a society–as the most ethical standpoint, so to speak–simply because suffering is shit, and if we can cause less suffering in this world, whether to human or nonhuman animals, shouldn’t we do so? I am of the moral persuasion that it is our duty to cause as less suffering as much as possible (unquantifiability of suffering be damned.)

As Albert Einstein had famously said:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

(Frankly I wanted this post to explore another idea–Kant’s famous “ought implies can” statement, plus my belief that the universe is deterministic anyway and my frustrations may be for nought, but it’s a wonderful Sunday evening and I think I’d rather spend the remainder of my weekend looking at nice furniture.)

By Evan Tan

Evan Tan is a writer & communications professional based in Manila, Philippines.

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