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What If Veganism Is Not a Choice: The Moral Psychology of Possibilities in Animal Ethics

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The ethics of consuming animal products normally assume that there are two choices equally available: to engage or not to engage in such behavior. But for those who refuse to participate in animal exploitation it is not a choice, but a reconfiguration of their understanding of what animals, and the products made out of them are. Such reconfiguration involves not seeing animals as something to eat, wear, control, etc. As long as the debate purports to address equally available possibilities which are chosen by some and not by others, it will continue to ignore the deep aspect of veganism and of living with other animals.

SILVIA PANIZZA: Discussion about the ethics of buying and consuming animal products normally assume that there are two choices equally available to moral agents: to engage or not to engage in such behaviour… In some cases, the experience of those who refuse to participate in animal exploitation is not a choice, but a reconfiguration of their understanding of what animals, and the products made out of them, are. Such reconfiguration involves not seeing animals as something to eat, wear, control, etc. Hence, it is not always correct to speak of veganism as a choice: the reason being that, sometimes, the opposite does not present itself as a possibility…

An analysis of moral impossibility in animal ethics shows that it arises when one’s conception of ‘what animals are’ shifts — say through encounter with other animals. It also arises when individuals learn more about animals and what happens to them in production facilities. This establishes a link between increased knowledge, understanding, and imaginative exploration on the one hand, and the exclusion of the possibility of using animals as resources on the other. Taking moral impossibility in veganism seriously has two important consequences: one is that the debate around veganism needs to shift from choice and decision, to a prior analysis of concepts and moral framing; the other is that moral psychology is no longer seen as empirical psychology plus ethical analysis, but the contents of psychological findings are understood as being influenced and framed by moral reflection…

The phenomenon of moral impossibility, in the context of veganism, enables us to reach a better understanding of the moral dimension of veganism, with two important consequences. One is the reframing of the debate surrounding the use of animals as resources for human purposes. On this view, veganism does not only, and on a day-to-day basis no primarily, involve making an overt and conscious choice to avoid animal products, where consuming them is seen as possible but rejected, but rather involves a thorough shift in perspective and worldview, in which the very concept of animal, as Cora Diamond famously suggested, involves the idea of being ‘not something to eat’. If this is so, then we may have to consider altering the debate on animal use, which is no longer exhaustively captured by the model that takes it as a disagreement about different principles applied to certain shared, available facts.

Rather, the debate needs to take into account the process, briefly sketched here, which takes some individuals to no longer see consuming animal products as a possibility, and the process by which others take it not only as a possibility, but as a default option (in this sense, we can say that eating animals is also ‘not a choice’). The discussion will need to carefully analyze the way in which the relevant concepts employed by both parties (starting with ‘animal’, or more precisely‘ lamb’, ‘chicken’, etc.) are formed and used, which involves, to some extent, sharing the sensibility and imagination which frames those concepts…

The refusal to take other living beings as resources is, for many, not a choice, because the opposite is not a choice. Even less is it a personal choice, understood as a merely subjective inclination or preference. It is living in a world where other animals are perceived as ‘fellow living beings’, which means living within the boundaries of what their (individual) lives require and how we are able to respond to them. Through the moral imagination, which can be used to evoke, behind the end product (meat, cheese, coat fur, etc.), the living being who is the subject of that process, it means attending to what the competing worldview refuses to attend to.

Hence, this moral impossibility requires, at the same time, a broader understanding, and a broadening of possibilities in other areas (such as engaging with animals as other selves, as companions, with pity, with shared joy, etc.). In other words, in making some possibilities available, others, incompatible with them, become impossible. What veganism guided by moral impossibility does not do is ask the other side to follow either a different inclination or a moral imposition coming from the outside. It asks, instead, to look here, to look at this, and, as Murdoch put it, to look again. As long as the debate purports to address equally available possibilities which are chosen by some and not by others, it will continue to ignore the deep aspect of veganism and of living with other animal. SOURCE…

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