Sunday, June 2, 2019

Story of an Ethical Vegan - Carlo Alvaro

Veganism is a ubiquitous term today. It is supposed to denote a lifestyle devoid
of animal-based food and all sorts of animal byproducts, such as leather, fur, and more. However, many people, for a variety of reasons, like to toy with the idea of veganism and label themselves as vegans despite their using or consuming animal products. They might as well call it freeganism. Perhaps, one reason is that announcing allegiance to veganism gives one a feeling of superiority, a feeling of being part of some elite group, or makes one feel like a rebel. Many celebrities promote veganism, for one reason or other, and their fans, often following blindly their idols, embrace veganism. On March 3, 2018, for example, BeyoncĂ© had invited her hundred plus million Instagram followers to join her on a “vegan” journey; a year later a New York Times article appeared with the self-explanatory title “Wait – BeyoncĂ© Is Not Actually a Vegan” (Oh, what a surprise!). Many others, confused about nutrition, go vegan on the (false) promise that veganism will make them lose weight. Yet others are motivated by some tenuous or ill-understood moral principles. For example, I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard people parroting Jeremy Bentham’s line “...the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” So, in this age of moral and culinary confusion, many people embark on vegan journeys. But my journey has been a bit different.

One important difference is that when I went vegan – believe it or not – the Internet did not exist yet. There were no vegan celebrities, no graphic YouTube videos showing the horrendous conditions of farm animals, no Instagram, no vegan video recipes, no magazines talking about veganism, and no vegan aisles in supermarkets. In fact, when I went vegan the politics and aesthetics of veganism did not exist. Vegans then were referred to as “vegetarians.” Most important, my moral attitude toward life was, and still is, closer to Aristotelian virtue than to Benthamite utilitarian principles. I was more interested in becoming a compassionate, temperate, just, caring, and magnanimous person than a person concerned about the greatest good, or the greatest satisfaction of preference for the greatest number, or animal suffering or animal rights.

But before I get to the story of when and how I took the “red pill” and became a vegan, I want to make an important premise. I was not born in the United States of America; I was born in Italy. I am not mentioning this fact to brag or to put down the US, but rather to make an important point: the US tops the list of countries that eat the most meat. To be sure, the US is at the top of many lists, including the one of countries with the most obese people. Around 80 million adults and 13 million children (36% of the population!) are obese. The US adopts an aggressive campaign to push consumption of animal products. From “Got Milk?” to “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner,” the government has disciplined people into believing that food equals meat served upon meat. Only in America, the land of fast food, can you find the most unhealthful food in the world. Which country in the world could come up with such bizarrely unhealthful ideas as stuffing the crust of cheese pizza with cheese or to deep-fry butter in lard? Unfortunately, America’s culinary culture has now spread all over the world. However, when I was a boy in Italy, before Burger King and McDonald’s had set foot in the Italic boot, animal products were not omnipresent. Growing up, I recall, my diet was predominantly based on fruit, legumes, grains, and vegetables. Meat and dairy products were not an important aspect of my culture. Yes, of course, when you say “Italy” people immediately think of spaghetti and meatballs, chicken Parmigiana, fettuccini Alfredo, and other such concoctions seen in movies. But those are American inventions. Thus, growing up in a culture that does not literally shove meat down your gullet since birth may help.

Now back to my story: there was a particular event that made me become a vegan when I was only twelve years old. One day, some girls in my school decided not to eat lunch during the break and instead use that time to protest against animal cruelty. I approached them and asked what the commotion was about. They told me that they were against makeup. I wondered why makeup. Our exchange went something like this:

Me: “What’s makeup got to do with animals?”
Girl: “Well, makeup is tested on animals.”
Me: “So? Don’t you guys eat meat?”
Girl: “Yes, but…”
Me: “But what?”
Girl: “Well, it’s not the same thing.”
Me: “Explain why not.”
Girl: “It just isn’t!”

I walked away triumphantly for having exposed those girls, thinking how silly they were. But seconds later, what I said to them made me pause. I knew that what I said to that girl did not affect her, but it made a profound change in my life. I thought that using animals for testing makeup and using animals for food were, morally speaking, the same thing. However, while it was obvious to me that testing makeup on animals was callous, I had never connected the dots before. The following day, I saw those girls in the cafeteria eating ham sandwiches and caterwauling about makeup – nothing had changed for them. I, on the other hand, was a different person ever since – I quit eating animals.

In retrospect, what I find interesting is that I arrived at the conclusion that I had to quit eating animals not on the basis of typical considerations. What I mean by ‘typical’ is that when people go vegan or vegetarian, typically, do so out of love for animals or for health-related reasons. This is not to say that I did not care about the welfare of animals or about my health. I did. However, they were not my primary goals. My approach toward understanding my ethical relation with the environment had to do (and still does) with the question of what sort of person I should strive to become. One of my life’s goals has been to become a noble person. It is hard, but not impossible. In other words, I was not worried primarily about animal suffering; rather, I asked myself what kind of person consumes the flesh and bodily fluids of animals? What kind of individual supports the practices of raising animals for food? It seemed obvious to me that the answer is, “Not a noble person.” A noble person is one who lives simply and refuses to participate in violence or unjust practices. At that stage, I had no formal philosophical education. However, it was very clear to me that animal agriculture is a violent and unjust business. I did not have rigorous arguments to support my ideas of what a good, noble person is supposed to be. That came later in my life, and I will discuss it in a following paragraph.

Naturally, if the story ended there it would be too easy, but it isn’t easy. At that tender age, I was not ready to dedicate my life to my new idea. Moreover, my family members were not exactly supportive. In fact, they did not understand what I was doing at all. As a result of family pressure and peer pressure, about two years later, I abandoned my principles and went back to eating what was considered a normal diet. Forward a few years later, I was in college taking a course in public speaking for which I had to give a persuasive speech about anything I liked. I thought about what topic I could discuss and it suddenly hit me: I decided to give a speech on why we should boycott McDonald’s. I received an A+ for the speech – and I quit meat again. This time I knew I would stick to my principles. Perhaps the process of preparing the speech opened my eyes anew. I realized that animals are, well, animals; they are playful, angry, cute, fluffy, ugly, small, big, smelly, aggressive, docile – but not food for humans. I went home that day and trashed animal products that I had in my apartment, and donated to a homeless man my only pair of leather shoes.

I realized that our behavior toward animals is morally appalling. Considering our stage of intellectual and technological development, we don’t need to raise animals for food. We do not live in the desert or in the Dark Ages. Eating animals and their byproducts is not necessary. Those like us who are lucky enough (lucky?) to live in affluent societies do not need to exploit and kill other beings in order to thrive. We have easy access to plenty of vegetables, fruit, grains, and legumes. These foods are environmentally sustainable and healthful. Yet, nowadays-intensive factory farming is considered a normal aspect of society. But what is normal about killing billions of creatures? Farm animals are reared in cages, separated from their families, cut into pieces, packaged, shipped to supermarkets where they are sold and labeled with funny euphemisms such as beef, pork, drumsticks, eggs, and so on. Sorrowfully, they are just the mutilated body parts of what once were beautiful animals.

Egg farms are horrific too. Since male chicks are not profitable to the industry because they cannot lay eggs, every year, 200 million baby chicks are ground up alive. Workers separate male chicks from females and toss the males into a chute where they are ground up alive in a meat grinder into a bloody pulp. Speaking of birds, turkeys are artificially inseminated. By “artificially” I mean that there are people whose job is to collect sperm cells from a male turkey (I’ll let you imagine how) and manually deposit them into the reproductive tract of a female. (Try bringing up artificial insemination of turkeys during your next Thanksgiving dinner!)

At this point, I became deeply interested in the subject. I started wondering why people eat meat. It is a complicated question. One’s diet, like many other aspects of life, traditions, beliefs, and customs, is seldom considered or questioned. I don’t think I am a conspiracy theorist when I say that in our society we are not exactly encouraged to think for ourselves. Quite to the contrary, we are taught to always accept and never question the status quo. In most cases, people eat meat because their parents taught them to do so. And of course, people enjoy eating meat. However, there are two interesting aspects of this: first, I often wonder whether it is eating animal flesh that people really enjoy. Take any mutilated part of an animal, boil it and serve it on a plate. I am willing to bet that most people would refuse to eat it. Eating meat is not like eating cherries or mangos. Meat must be prepared with spices, marinated, cured, smoked, and cooked because, after all, it is rotting flesh. Second, people enjoy all sorts of things that are unnecessary, such as drinking, gambling, smoking, and taking drugs. But my question is, “Is that the way a good and noble human being is supposed to live?” The practices required to produce animal-based food are less than noble; they involve the worst vices of which human beings are capable, such as callousness, gratuitous violence, injustice, intemperance, and smallness of soul.

Another reason people eat meat is that they say, it is “natural.” By natural, I take it, it is meant that human beings are somehow “designed” by nature or by God to eat animals or that eating meat is the cycle of life. Considering that most people in affluent societies buy conveniently packaged meat in supermarkets, it is not clear what they mean by “the cycle of life.” Rather, it is the cycle of supermarkets. Also, human beings are not animal eaters. I just cannot imagine how anyone could observe cows, pigs, chickens, lambs, cats, dogs, and other animals in their natural environment, and find them appetizing. Think of a chicken scurrying on the grass or a pig enjoying a mud bath or a cow chewing grass. Such creatures may be considered cute or funny or gross, but not appetizing.

I find it interesting that animal rights advocates argue that eating animals is wrong because animals suffer. I agree that animals suffer and causing gratuitous suffering is wrong. But what if we discovered that animals do not suffer at all? What if Descartes was right in saying that animals behave like, but are not, sentient creatures? This is where my attitude toward nature differs from the attitude of many animal ethicists. I do believe that sentience is important, but it’s not the principal factor. I would not eat or use animal products even if it were discovered that animals do not feel pain. Rather, I would still avoid such products because the actions and practices required to produce them are bloody, violent, unnecessary, unaesthetic, and deleterious to our health.

My ethical relationship with the environment made me reflect upon the purpose of my life on this planet. The world has been conquered and nature dominated by humans. In so doing, humans have killed not only other humans but also animals and destroyed the environment. So, I changed my attitude toward animals, acknowledging that they are not our property or food. I don’t even worry about whether they can suffer or whether they have rights. I believe it is unvirtuous to exploit and kill animals or destroy nature. Modern life alienates us from nature and gives us the illusion that we are here to dominate the world. In my journey to veganism, I realized that humans are the guests on earth, and not the hosts. The notion of using animals for food and other purposes became clear to me. I realized that it is the world’s greatest injustice. Thus I decided to stop eating animal flesh, to cease using animal by-products, and to shun all products obtained through animal testing. Those who fail to treat animals and the whole environment with respect are certainly less than fully virtuous. They fail to be admirable individuals, and they exemplify a variety of vices. In particular, using animals for food evinces indifference to the value of nature, ignorance, and self-importance. It evinces lack of humility, and a sense of beauty. In short, animal exploitation is a failure at human excellence.

In 2015, I began thinking about my experience and my journey and all the research on environmental science and the science of nutrition I had done, and began writing my first book, Ethical Veganism,Virtue Ethics, and The Great Soul (Lexington Books, 2019), which discusses in details how embracing an ethic of virtue naturally leads to ethical veganism. I also discuss how most of the so-called modern ethical systems (utilitarianism, deontology, rights theory) force us to view the morality of our relationship with animals in terms of duty, rights, or maximization of utility. No wonder that typical discussions of animal ethics focus on the rights of animals or the duty of humankind. What I offer is to reevaluate this dichotomy and show that the most profitable way to talk about how we ought to treat animals is to look ourselves in the proverbial mirror first and realize that the most basic virtues show us that we should be or become vegans.

Is this the end of the story? No, it isn’t! For many years, believe it or not, I never was concerned about the health aspect of veganism. As I said, I went vegan because I believe that it is the only noble way to live. In 2013, I started toying with the idea of going completely raw, that is, eating only food in its raw state, nothing cooked. At first I experimented raw veganism off and on. It was not until the beginning of 2017 that I went completely raw. Eating directly the food that nature makes is the best possible diet for human beings. What I mean by raw may be different for another person. My approach to raw veganism is to eat only salad and fruit. I do not consume tea, coffee, alcohol, nuts, seeds, sugar or salt.

Cooking food changes its molecular structure – and not for the better. It destroys nutrients, creates acrylamides and other carcinogenic substances, and denatures proteins, which leads to many problems. Just to mention one problem: Leukocytosis is an increase in the body of white blood cells. This occurs as a reaction to inflammations or infections. In other words, when the body detects a threat, as a response it produces more white blood cells. This obviously does not happen when we eat fruit and salad. However, it does happen whenever we consume any type of cooked food. There is a wealth of scientific research showing that cooked food – vegan or not – shortens our lives. Another interesting fact is to consider that humans have been around for about 200,000 years (not to mention that human-like creatures have been around for millions of years). During this time, no significant change occurred to our digestive system that equipped us for digesting cooked food. Thus, considering that human beings are evolved creatures, adapted to their environment, it is obvious that there is a diet that is specific and optimal for our species. Cooking food is a relatively new practice for humans. For the longest time, humans have eaten fruit and tender leafy greens. This is a scientifically documented fact – humans are frugivores. Consequently, cooking food is in no way beneficial to human health. The only benefit is that it provides easy calories by heat-processing food that otherwise would be indigestible. I don’t want to get too technical here; and I don’t want to reveal too much because this is the topic of my next book, whose title speaks for itself, and that is, The Human Diet.

Such is my journey to veganism. It is a great accomplishment for me to live this way and having raised three children to be vegans since birth. I have no desire to eat animal products. Even if in the future scientists discovered that animals don’t feel any more pain than rocks, I would still not be interested in consuming animal food. I do not see meat and animal products as food that I chose not to eat. Rather, I do not see animals as food in the first place. About being a raw vegan, initially I had the desire to eat cooked food. However, today I regard cooked food the same way I regard animal-based food – not for human consumption.

Finally, I learned one important lesson from my journey: it takes years of deep philosophical and moral reflection to realize what I have realized. Those vegans who condemn meat eaters should think about this. They should be more understanding because becoming a vegan often requires going against the grain, against the status quo, against one’s deepest beliefs, against one’s upbringing, against one’s social life, and against one’s culture. For these reasons, I do not criticize or judge or attempt to change meat eaters. Rather, I tell others about my moral journey to veganism by teaching, lectures, writing articles and books. In other words, instead of telling people what they’re doing wrong, I tell them what I have done right in the hope that they will join me in my endeavor to make the world more compassionate and realize that animals are friends – not food.

- Carlo Alvaro, Ph.D. teaches philosophy at New York City College of Technology, CUNY, and elsewhere. You can purchase his book, Ethical Veganism, from Amazon here. Better yet, the book is available at a 30% discount if ordered directly from the publisher with code LEX30AUTH19 here.

Copyright©2019 by Carlo Alvaro – All Rights Reserved