Is Veganism a Moral Imperative? Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

Morality is a human invention. Most of us who accept the truth of that proposition also believe that our moral principles are subject to review and criticism and should be revised if they cannot be rationally justified.

This brings me to the claim made by some that veganism is a moral imperative. By “veganism,” I mean here not just abstaining from consuming nonhuman animals or their products (e.g., milk, eggs) but also to the extent practical of abstaining from any use of nonhuman animals, whether for clothing, entertainment, medical experiments, or companionship. (Hereafter, I will shorten “nonhuman animals” to “animals,” but it is important for my argument that we keep in mind that we humans are also animals.) Although this view may strike some as radical, it is a view increasingly held, especially by those who take moral responsibility seriously. Indeed, I was motivated to examine this view when a philosopher I know and respect, Stephen Law, announced on Twitter that following conversations with Gary Francione, a well-known advocate for veganism, he had decided to become a vegan.

Francione is far from being the only scholarly advocate for veganism, but he may be the most tireless, having authored several books and many articles on the issue. Furthermore, having now read a few of his articles and his latest book, Why Veganism Matters: The Moral Value of Animals, I can state with some confidence that the argument he presents for veganism is clear, concise, forceful, and—superficially at least—more persuasive than some of the other provegan arguments on offer. Accordingly, I will focus on his argument that veganism is a moral imperative, an argument that I contend remains unproven.

Francione’s Argument

Francione states that persons are beings who have inherent moral value. Because of this inherent moral value, they have certain moral rights. Prominent among those rights is the right to life. But persons have other rights as well, including the right not to be treated as property. We cannot buy and sell other human persons (at least not now, not legally), keep them caged, or conduct experiments on them absent their consent.

That human persons have inherent moral value is not a position unique to Francione. Many moral philosophers take this position and, perhaps intuitively, so do many non-philosophers. Assuming one has a secular perspective, however, one cannot claim that human persons have this value because they possess a “soul” or some other mystical property. So, what gives humans their inherent value? The consensus view is that it is some mental property or set of mental properties. For example, some hold that the capacity for rational, autonomous action combined with self-awareness provides human persons with inherent value. This view has a noteworthy pedigree; it can be traced back to Immanuel Kant, albeit in a slightly different form. Moreover, this view has some initial plausibility because these capacities provide one with the ability to give meaning to one’s life and to set goals and objectives; put another way, the capacity to value things gives one value.

One problem with basing the inherent value of persons on self-awareness and the capacity for rational, autonomous action is that it appears to leave some humans without inherent moral value, namely those with severe cognitive disabilities. Most of us would hold that such individuals retain moral rights despite their cognitive deficiencies. Some animal rights advocates—including Francione—have seized on this fact to put forward an argument along these lines:

1) Humans with severe cognitive impairments still possess sentience, that is, they have some level of consciousness and experience pleasure and pain even though they lack rationality and self-awareness, among other capacities;

2) most of us believe that such humans have moral rights, even if they are only sentient and not rational or self-aware;

3) animals, or at least many of them, are also sentient, that is, they have some level of consciousness and experience pleasure and pain;

4) therefore, we are morally obliged to give many animals at least as much moral consideration as we give humans with severe cognitive impairments. Sentience is sufficient for substantial moral status; in particular, it grants beings sufficient moral status to have a right to life. We do not butcher the hopelessly demented for food; neither should we butcher cows, pigs, etc.

To his credit, Francione does not rely solely on this argument from cognitively disabled humans for his contention that animals have moral rights. His positive argument is that all sentient beings have an interest in living because they have at least a minimal awareness of themselves as being distinct from other beings and, to quote him, “Every sentient being prefers to continue living because every sentient being is, by virtue of being sentient, connected to the future if only in the next second of consciousness” (p. 83). Furthermore, because they are conscious, sentient beings cannot be considered mere things, such as a rock, a piece of furniture, or an automobile. Therefore, it is morally improper to treat sentient beings as property; but, of course, that is exactly how we treat animals under our control: as property.

The right not to be treated as property, not to be used exclusively as a resource for others, provides the basis for Francione’s throughgoing veganism. Animals not only have the right not to be used as food or have their bodily products used as food, but they also cannot be used for any other purpose. This includes, by the way, their use as companion animals. Francione opposes domestication for whatever reason. We should take care of the domesticated animals we have now, but we should not allow them to breed. It is against the interest of animals to be domesticated because “all domesticated animals are brought into a world into which they cannot fit” (p. 164).

From the foregoing, it is apparent that Francione relies principally on a rights-based approach in determining what obligations we have to animals, but at times he does make an appeal to consequences. He contends that animal welfare programs that seek to reduce the suffering endured by animals are doomed to be insufficient palliatives at best and masks for immense suffering at worst. The problem, again, is that animals are property, and the rights of property owners, especially those who operate factory farms, will always stand as an obstacle to truly effective animal welfare regulation.

It is often said that animal welfare standards require … that we balance human interests against animal interests. This amounts to a claim that we should balance the interests of humans, who have rights in general, and who have property rights in animals, against the interests of animals, who have no rights and who are the property of humans … . The outcome of any such “balancing” is determined before the process even starts. (p. 33)

So, treating animals as property is morally wrong not only because it violates the rights of animals but also because it results in animals being insufficiently protected from suffering.

Francione’s Question-Begging View of Morality

From the foregoing, one can see that Francione’s argument is straightforward and logical. If one assumes that moral rights, including the right to life and the right not to be treated as property, derive from a being’s inherent value and sentience is sufficient to endow a being with inherent value, then animals have moral rights. But as Thomas Hardy once observed in his book Far from the Madding Crowd, “dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion” do not always arrive at a correct result. Logical consistency is not enough if one’s starting point is faulty.

Francione’s starting point is unsound. “Inherent value” is just soul-talk dressed in secular garb. Claiming that a person has inherent value is rhetoric masquerading as a fundamental insight. What is the basis for asserting that the possession of any particular capacity bestows inherent value? As indicated, the Kantian view was that rationality is necessary to value things and, therefore, to reason about moral matters, to be a moral agent. But it does not follow that an individual’s capability to reason about moral matters entails that this individual has inherent moral value. One needs a separate argument to show why possession of rationality bestows special moral status on those who possess this capacity. But this gap between possession of rationality and special moral status is typically ignored; it is just assumed there is a necessary connection.

One can understand why talk of the inherent value of persons is attractive. Otherwise, don’t we lack an objective basis for human rights? And if we lack such a basis, doesn’t that open the door to nihilism?

That fear is unfounded; it’s confusion about the nature of morality that feeds that fear.

Previously in the pages of this magazine, I have argued that morality is neither objective nor subjective as those terms are commonly understood, and for those who want an in-depth analysis of the objectivity of morality, I refer them to that essay. For present purposes, it is sufficient that we consider these questions: Why should we have morality? What purposes does morality serve? Once we answer these questions, we can begin to see why we do not need mysterious sources of value to ground morality.

There are both sociological and philosophical answers to these questions; although analytically distinct, these answers are related, as we will see.

Broadly speaking, morality seems to have these functions: it provides security, creates stability, fosters trust, ameliorates harmful conditions, and facilitates cooperation in achieving shared and complementary goals. In other words, it enables us to live together and, in doing so, improve the conditions under which we live.

Early humans were able to establish small communities that survived, in part, because most members of the community followed core moral norms; there were severe sanctions if they did not. Over time, these small communities grew larger, again in part because of moral norms. Anthropologists, as well as ancient history, inform us that early human communities were often at war with each other. Morality was tribal: outsiders were considered potential threats and were not entitled to the same moral consideration as one’s fellow tribe members. One of the earliest moral revolutions was the extension of cooperative behavior—based initially on trade—to members of other communities, which allowed for peaceful interaction and the coalescing of tribal groups into larger groups, city-states, and then nations. This process has been repeated over the millennia of human existence—with frequent sanguinary interruptions—until we have achieved something like a global moral community. In this regard, it is worth noting that it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the notion of human rights took hold among a significant portion of the Western world’s population.

Nowadays, of course, the notion of human rights is widely accepted; even dictators pay lip service to it. Along with this acceptance has come the reinforcing rhetoric: “Every human being is inherently valuable.” Nothing wrong with this rhetoric as rhetoric. To the contrary, to the extent it reinforces inclinations to include all humans within the moral community, it’s a good thing. Cooperation is a better way to improve one’s conditions than violence. Problems arise only when the philosophically disposed infer there must be some special capacity, some special property referenced by this rhetoric. Thus begins the unavailing, misdirected search for the mental property or properties that supposedly bestow “inherent” value.

At this stage, some may protest that I have only sketched a sociological account of moral behavior; I have not provided any rational justification for morality. Might not such a rational justification require a foundation in properties that have inherent value?

The answer is “no.” Here’s the justification for morality: it works. If the purpose of morality is to allow us to live together in peace while cooperating to improve our conditions, then the core moral norms shared by all cultures—e.g., don’t kill, don’t maim, don’t steal, don’t lie, keep your commitments, and so forth—help us to achieve that objective. Support for morality is rationally justified.

Of course, it is open to someone to argue that morality has other purposes. Various philosophers have from time to time put forward different objectives, such as maximizing happiness, cultivating virtuous characters, or respecting the rights of others. Discussing each of these alternatives in depth would require a book; here, suffice it to say, I believe these alternative views focus on certain aspects of the moral enterprise, but they mistakenly elevate part of what we accomplish through morality into the whole of it.
As Francione argues for a rights-based morality, though, let’s spend a few minutes considering that. If someone has a right to do X, then there is a strong, nearly irrebuttable presumption that he must be allowed to do X. Rights are a useful tool for governing conduct because, among other things, they avoid having to do a calculation of the advantages and disadvantages of allowing someone to engage in a certain course of conduct in each instance where someone wants to engage in that conduct. Predictability facilitates peaceful cooperation. So, it is beneficial to the smooth functioning of our moral system to have a package of individual rights. Exactly which rights individuals should have and which individuals should have such rights are issues that the normal community must resolve.

Francione, however, considers rights in isolation from their role in the moral project. He starts from the premise that persons have rights, and this requires him to have some metaphysical basis for this premise, which he locates in the obscure “inherent value” of persons. This gets things backward. Francione converts rights, a tool for furthering the objectives of morality, into the rationale for morality. To the contrary, individual rights serve the objectives of morality; they do not constitute the objective of morality.

If one does not accept that the goal of morality is to protect individual rights and these rights derive from an individual’s inherent value, then Francione’s argument collapses. We do not even need to reach the question of whether possession of sentience is sufficient to invest a being with inherent value.

The Significance of Sentience

In any event, with respect to sentience the proper question to ask is not whether this by itself bestows value on an individual. Rather, the question to ask is whether the possession of sentience or, for that matter, any set of mental properties, guarantees that the inclusion of an individual within the moral community would further the objectives of morality. Earlier I stated that there is a gap between claiming an individual has rationality and claiming this individual has a special moral status because of their rationality. Let me buttress that statement with a couple of examples. Consider two cases, one based on human prehistory and the other a sci-fi hypothetical.

Although the evidence is not entirely clear, it seems likely that our species hastened the extinction of Neanderthals in part by killing them. Neanderthals had self-awareness, could plan, could think in abstract concepts; they possessed rationality. They had mental capacities far exceeding mere sentience. But they were in competition with us for resources, so for our own survival we killed them. Was this immoral? Did their possession of mental capacities not that different from our own bestow on them an inherent value that we violated by engaging in violence against them? Not if we think that morality should, at a minimum, not be self-defeating.

Let us now consider a situation in which humans are threatened with extinction. Imagine we encounter an alien race, the Spores, who appear to have mental capacities similar to but in some ways superior to our own. The Spores regard us as food; for purposes of consumption, they kill us. We resist, of course, but our efforts at best appear to buy us some time. In desperation, we send a delegation of philosophers to negotiate with them. Here is how that goes:

Philosophers: We seek peace. We are willing to cooperate with you. You must be able to tell that we are able to do so.
Spores: We don’t need your help for anything. And we’re hungry.
Philosophers: But we humans are self-aware, rational, with a sense of the future and an interest in living. So, we have inherent value, and your killing us is highly immoral.
Spores: ????
Philosophers: Are you not acquainted with moral philosophy? Here, let us explain …
Spores: [Chomp]

In such a situation, I suggest that we have no moral obligation to the Spores, and, likewise, they have no moral obligation to us. Inclusion of the Spores within our moral community not only would fail to further the objectives of our moral system but would thwart them. And the same could be said about us from their perspective.
The point of this hypothetical exercise is to show that neither sentience nor the possession of higher mental capacities, such as rationality and self-awareness, is sufficient to trigger moral obligation. We must always ask whether inclusion of beings within the moral community would further the objectives of morality.

Let us now consider animals.

Traditionally, some have excluded animals from the moral community because of the notion that humans are somehow special; we are “above” animals. I take a different approach. We are just animals among other animals. There’s nothing special or inherently valuable about us. Our ancient ancestors had to compete with other animals for resources and for life itself. Sometimes animals ate us, just as we ate them. We had no more moral obligation to other animals than we had to Neanderthals.

Of course, to state the obvious, over many tens of thousands of years, we out-competed other animals. At this juncture of human history, we are no longer in direct competition for survival with most animal species. Still, there are species (e.g., rodents) whose thriving is inimical to our own. We destroy such pests when they pose a threat to human health and, again assuming morality is not supposed to be self-defeating, it is morally permissible to do so. We commit no wrong when we try to eliminate rats from residences.
But how about most animals that do not currently pose any threat to us? The absence of a threat does not imply animals must be incorporated into the moral community as members in full standing. Fulfilling the objectives of morality requires some level of coordination between and among the members of the moral community. With the exception of animals that have been specifically trained to coordinate their conduct with us (and remember, Francione opposes domestication), animals do not and cannot coordinate with us. They are the quintessential outsiders.

Francione supports this last statement—but then fails to draw the appropriate inference. Throughout Why Veganism Matters, Francione emphasizes how living with humans is not a good “fit” for animals. Recall his end goal is to have animals living completely apart from us. This is a tacit admission that animals are not part of our moral community. A moral community that excludes most of its members is a moral community in name only.

We may have some limited moral obligations to animals (I will discuss the subject of cruelty below), but they do not merit the same level of consideration as humans, nor do all the prohibitions on how we treat other humans apply to animals.

No doubt Francione at this point would again bring up the subject of cognitively impaired humans, who similarly lack the ability to coordinate their conduct with the rest of us. Are they also outside the moral community?

Although moral principles should be rationally examined and rationally justified, moral conduct is not primarily the result of rational argument. Unless individuals are already disposed to care for others, no amount of moral philosophy is going to move them to do so. Good moral conduct owes much to the inculcation of moral norms in us when we are young; the most sublime exposition of moral principles will not persuade those who have been habituated into antisocial behavior. As part of our moral training—if we were raised properly—concern for other humans, all other humans, has been drilled into us. This concern for others underlies the social bond that holds our human community together. That bond consists of multiple interconnected threads. If we start to carve out exceptions to our moral obligations for certain humans based on their mental capacity, those threads may unravel, weakening our commitments. We consider ourselves under obligation to humans with impaired capacity, not because they still retain sentience but because our moral sensibilities resist the carving out of exceptions for cognitively challenged humans. Part of that resistance is attributable to the fact that most of the cognitively impaired were at one time full participants in the moral community; to excise them now when they are in distress runs counter to our underlying norms regarding assisting those in need. Claiming that we are obliged to assist them only because they possess sentience again focuses on a largely irrelevant aspect of their relationship with others.

Indeed, to show that sentience is not the key to moral status, consider the recently deceased. The dead, to put it mildly, no longer exhibit sentience. Some say the respect we show human dead is due to concern for the sentiments of those close to them. That may be part of it, but it is not the whole explanation. The bond that holds our human community together extends to the recently deceased. Consider the coarsening of moral attitudes that would result if the instant people died we threw their bodies into the street to be picked at by birds and dogs. Treat the dead as garbage, and we will soon treat the living as expendable.

To sum up the argument so far: deriving moral rights from the possession of certain mental capacities, whether it is simple sentience or sentience plus rationality, rests on a misguided conception of morality. Moral rights are a tool for fulfilling the objectives of morality, and extending moral rights to animals (at least to the extent they are extended to humans) is not necessary to serve the objectives of morality and, in some cases, may be counterproductive.

The Interests of Animals

Besides the inherent value that sentience supposedly bestows upon animals, Francione also maintains that sentience implies they have interests, including the interests to live and not be treated as property.

I will grant that animals, like all living things, including plants, strive to continue living. Animals react to various stimuli in ways that indicate the animal is trying to preserve its life. (Again, plants do this too. For example, injured trees release compounds to form chemical barriers.) Whether they have a conscious interest in continuing to live or to live under certain conditions, i.e., outside the overall control of humans, is another matter. Francione claims to know this, but he undercuts his own argument because at various points he also concedes we cannot know what animal minds are like. As he states, “precisely because we really do not know what it is like to think without the concepts that are part of the sort of language we use, we do not really know what their minds are like” (p. 74). Francione employs this lack of understanding of animal minds to argue against those who insist that animals have no self-awareness or concept of the future, so they have no conscious interest in living. However, Francione’s claim of ignorance cuts both ways. If it cannot be said that we know they have no conscious interest in living, neither can it be said that we know they do have such a conscious interest.

Effectively, Francione is attributing to animals interests that he thinks they should have. This comes out most clearly in his opposition to domestication for all animals. Although the exact process by which dogs and cats were domesticated is lost in the mists of time, from what we can tell, dogs and cats made the first move: they approached us. Our settlements were more reliable sources of food, and that continues to this day. (Take a walk in some city’s alleyways and compare the stray cats one finds there with the cats found in most households.) A fair assessment of the situation of dogs and cats is that, overall, they benefit significantly from their domesticated relations with us. Yes, some dogs and cats are treated horribly, but the Michael Vicks of this world are a distinct minority. Most people love their companion animals. Americans shower about $140 billion on their pets each year, including billions for medical treatment of diseases and injuries that would remain painful and untreated were these animals in the wild. Domestication is necessarily against the interests of dogs and cats? Only a misguided moral absolutist could make such a claim.

Companion animals are, of course, in a different situation from other domesticated animals. We do not use food produced by them—hairballs are not nutritious—or use them as food. But even with respect to animals used as resources for food, it is not clear what is in their interest or what they would choose were they able to make a conscious choice. Egg-laying hens who are kept on free-range farms have a decent life for a couple of years compared to feral chickens, who are unprotected against predators, disease, and the elements and must struggle for their nourishment. It is true that most (not all) farmers will kill their egg-layers after two to three years because their production declines. So, the issue is whether it is in the hen’s interest to trade a longer life beset by many woes and dangers for a more pleasant but probably shorter life. Unless we have Francione’s powers of selective animal mind-reading, I do not think we can make that judgment with any confidence.

We can repeat this type of analysis for any animal used as a resource for food. Assuming the domesticated animal lives under conditions conducive to its well-being, it is not clear whether it is better for that animal to live a short life as a domesticated animal or a possibly longer life in the wild.

Admittedly, that is a big assumption—which brings me to the topic of cruelty to animals.

Protecting Animals from Cruelty

Many animals, including the ones we use most often for food, have complex nervous systems that make them susceptible to physical and psychological distress. Recognition of this fact has, for the past couple centuries, moved many people to advocate, often successfully, for laws and regulations that provide some protection to animals from both intentional and negligent infliction of suffering.

There has been much debate—among philosophers— about the basis for the belief that we should protect animals from suffering. Some have contended we have no direct obligation to animals; instead, we condemn cruelty to animals because of the effect this has on humans. Some, including Francione, heap scorn on this position, but I do not think this position deserves ridicule whether it is ultimately correct or not. There is a psychological connection between our attitudes toward animals and our attitudes toward our fellow humans. Cultivation of the virtues of compassion and sympathy serves the interests of the moral community. It is no coincidence that the first organized steps toward reducing the suffering of animals came at roughly the same time—the late eighteenth century—as widespread opposition to slavery and brutal, painful punishments.

But, at the end of the day, it does not matter outside the philosophy seminar whether we think of cruelty toward animals as simply a vice of human character or as immoral treatment of animals. Acknowledging that the reduction of suffering of animals is a moral good apart from any effect it may have on human character does not imply that animals now have the same moral standing as humans. They can suffer, but they cannot coordinate with us, so they are not full members of the moral community.

Francione harshly criticizes what he calls the welfarist movement—the movement to prevent cruelty to animals and reduce their suffering. He maintains that it has been a failure and, in any event, falls far short of our moral obligations to animals: “The revolution that the animal welfare approach supposedly ushered in has failed completely” (p. 44). But this judgment is skewed by Francione’s absolutism. There have been substantial improvements in how we treat animals, including more vigorous enforcement of laws prohibiting cruelty and enhanced regulation of how animals are raised. The aforementioned Michael Vick received a twenty-three-month prison sentence, lost his job, had to repay his employer $20 million, and endured well-deserved public contempt and obloquy after his cruelty to dogs was exposed. Farming regulations have improved the conditions under which many animals are raised. Moreover, increased awareness of the suffering resulting from some farming methods has led to significantly increased consumer demand for free-range eggs and beef. Should more be done? Yes, but the fact that protections for animals remain inadequate does not compel the conclusion that we need to become vegans. Child abuse remains a persistent, refractory problem—in part because of inadequate regulation and oversight—but this does not require us to ban making babies. Moreover, on a practical level, pushing for tougher regulation is likely to do more for animals than preaching veganism. There is a disconnect from reality in some of Francione’s arguments. He thinks that regulation will always fall short of protecting animals from serious harm, in part because of the lack of motivation by too many humans to do more—yet he holds out hope for veganism? If we cannot persuade more of us to demand greater protections for animals, how does he think he can persuade us to become vegans? To the extent he has an answer, he seems to rely heavily on his contention that it is the (mis)classification of animals as property that is the real obstacle to appropriate treatment of animals.

Animals as Property—a False Problem

In Francione’s universe, one is either a person or a thing: “To be property is to be a thing” (p. 112). Francione contends that because animals under our control are considered property, “this creates a structural imbalance that makes impossible any meaningful assessment of animal interests” (p. 120). Francione argues we should stop classifying animals as property and instead consider them persons.

To begin, Francione’s contention that the status of animals as property dooms any attempt to improve their conditions lacks empirical support. Again, laws and regulations have been put in place to prevent the suffering of animals, and their status as property has not proven to be an obstacle to meaningful reform despite Francione’s arguments to the contrary. Further, it is undeniable that we do not treat animals as mere “things” like rocks or furniture. You can beat your chair to your heart’s content, but not so your horse. Moreover, if it were true that classifying animals as property somehow prevents meaningful protections for animals, we could always create new categories, legal and moral. We could create the category of “animate,” with animates being wards of the state, with responsibility for their raising and care being granted only to those licensees who meet certain standards. Unlikely to happen? Yes, but less unlikely than persuading most of us that rats are persons.

Furthermore, in classifying animals as persons Francione is implicitly altering the concept of personhood in a way that presents practical legal and moral problems. Persons are currently understood to have the right, within limits, to make decisions for themselves; they have autonomy. Of course, young children and the cognitively disabled need guardians to speak for them. However, those guardians can make judgments based on their knowledge of what humans typically need and desire. Again, Francione concedes that we cannot meaningfully substitute our judgment for animals on most matters because we do not know what, if anything, they are thinking or what it is like to be them. In a passage where he states that in a crisis situation he would choose to save a human over a dog, he justifies this decision not on the ground that the dog is morally less significant but “based on [his] own limitation in not understanding what is at stake for the dog” (p. 160). If we cannot understand what is at stake for the dog, the cow, the chicken, etc., who then will speak for these animal persons? The cattle farmer? The egg producer? Francione? Any choice of a guardian that we make will be arbitrary.

The only inference we can make with some assurance regarding most animals is that they can experience pleasure and pain, and our laws, regulations, and moral norms should be tailored accordingly. The property status of animals does not prevent meaningful reform in this regard, and were that true, we could alter the status of animals without converting them into persons, a categorization that would result in moral and legal confusion and arbitrary judgments.

Some Other Points

Francione is against any use of animals, but his principal target, understandably, is the use of animals for food. An essential part of his argument on this point is that we do not need meat in our diet. Well … this is sort of true. Meat supplies vital nutrients, including vitamin B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids, that cannot be obtained from plants. If our hominid ancestors had not eaten meat, it is likely we would not have developed the brains we have today. It is true that these nutrients can now be obtained as supplements, but, that said, it is not entirely accurate to say a plant-based diet is as nutritious as a diet that includes meat. One needs the supplements (and Francione admits this).

With respect to the use of animals as food, Francione opposes the use of insects as food, although he admits he does not know whether they are sentient. Given that much of the world does consume insects on a regular basis, and it is unclear whether there is enough plant food available to make up for the withdrawal of insects from the table, this position does not make practical sense, leaving aside its probable lack of theoretical support. Insects lack the complex brain and nervous system that seem to be necessary for sentience. Social insects can organize themselves into impressive groups, but their behavior appears to be hardwired, with communication based on involuntary chemical signals.

Finally, with respect to domestication, Francione’s stance implies that dogs could not be used for life-saving purposes, such as searching for survivors in earthquakes or abducted children. Given that these dogs are usually well-treated and provide immense benefit to us, this is another example of the rigidity of Francione’s position. Francione, speaking for dogs, claims that being helpful and living a comfortable life as a result is not in their interest. The dogs might disagree.


Francione’s powerfully argued work forces us to consider how we treat animals. Veganism is not a whimsical or absurd position. Many morally serious people have become vegans after reflecting on our relationship with animals. However, after giving due consideration to Francione’s arguments, the case for veganism remains unproven.

Morality is a human invention. Most of us who accept the truth of that proposition also believe that our moral principles are subject to review and criticism and should be revised if they cannot be rationally justified. This brings me to the claim made by some that veganism is a moral imperative. By “veganism,” I …