Xenotransplantation, Subsistence Hunting & the Pursuit of Health:
Lessons for Animal Rights-Based Vegan Advocacy
For the Between the Species special issue in honor of Tom Regan.
For the Between the Species special issue in honor of Tom Regan.
I argue that if animal experimentation is wrong, since it violates animals’ moral rights, then killing animals for food is wrong also, even when animals are the only available food source, and so subsistence hunting is wrong. And if it is wrong to kill animals to stay alive, then it is also wrong to kill animals to be healthy and feel well: if it’s wrong to kill animals to achieve some prima facie more important good (e.g., life), then it’s wrong to kill them for some prima facie comparably less important good (e.g., health). I discuss these arguments’ implications for animal rights-based vegan advocacy, insofar as some people claim that they don’t feel their best on vegan diets and so their eating meat is morally justified.
Communities that survive by subsistence hunting probably rarely, if ever, encounter vegan or animal rights advocacy. But a common question asked of vegan advocates is, “What if you were somewhere where there was literally nothing else to eat but animals? Would eating animals be wrong then?”
I suspect that many vegan advocates dodge the question, observing that our finding ourselves is such a situation is very unlikely, and very unlike most of our present circumstances where vegan foods are readily available. They might also urge postponing the question until we found ourselves stuck, say, at the North Pole, when it’s a “live” issue for us. They might also respond that just as we don’t need to decide whether and when human cannibalism is ever morally permissible to know that it’s wrong in ordinary circumstances, we also don’t need to answer this question to know that we should eat vegan when we easily can. And some might respond that, no, it wouldn’t be wrong, in those challenging circumstances to eat animals: perhaps the view would be that “all (or many) bets are off” in such extreme circumstances: ordinary moral rules no longer apply.
I argue, however, to the contrary, that killing animals for food, even in circumstances such as these, would be wrong: subsistence hunting is wrong. At least that’s what animal rights advocates, following Tom Regan, should think. I then discuss what impact this finding should have for vegan and animal rights advocacy insofar as some, more than a few, people claim to not feel their best on vegan diets and so argue that their eating meat or other animal products is justified.
2. Xenotransplantation and Animal Rights
To see why subsistence hunting – that is, roughly, the killing of animals for food when there is literally nothing else for human beings to eat besides those animals – is wrong, we can consider the animal rights basic perspective on animal experimentation, the using of animals in medical contexts to try to benefit human beings. As Tom Regan reviews in his essay “Empty Cages: Animal Rights and Vivisection”:
Experimental procedures include drowning, suffocating, starving, and burning; blinding animals and destroying their ability to hear; damaging their brains, severing their limbs, crushing their organs; inducing heart attacks, ulcers, paralysis, seizures; forcing them to inhale tobacco smoke, drink alcohol, and ingest various drugs, such as heroin and cocaine (2012, p. 108).
Experimentation clearly harms animals, especially since they are nearly always killed at the end of the experiments.
The animal rights perspective on animal experimentation is, of course, is that it is wrong because it violates animals’ rights to their lives and bodies, at least. And it’s wrong even if done “humanely” and with a painless death: healthy, or potentially healthy, animals are done no favors by being killed before their natural times. And it’s wrong even if human beings, even lots of human beings, benefit from it. That is the animal rights position: so-called “animal welfare” positions deny some or all of this in permitting animal experimentation if certain conditions are met.
According to the animal rights view, for example, animal experimentation in development called xenotransplantation, the “harvesting” or theft of organs from animals such as pigs and primates to transplant to human beings who will likely die without an organ transplant, is wrong. This is because it violates the animal’s rights whose organ is taken and so dies as a result. While it is very unfortunate when a human person needs a new organ to survive and that organ is not available from a human donor (and no artificial organ is available), that does not justify violating any animal’s rights, just as it would not justify stealing an organ from a human patient in the next room, even if that organ theft victim will survive the loss.
Tom Regan provides the theoretical explanation for why such organ theft, in both human and animal cases, is wrong: doing so treats others as mere things for one’s own personal benefit (Regan 2004/1983). Even if it’s a one-time operation, never to be done again, organ theft treats someone else as a mere resource to be used for the benefit of others. Fundamentally, it’s a disrespectful action that denies the victim’s inherent value. There are limits to what we may do to save our own lives, even when we are “under attack” not by any moral agent or even a moral patient but a disease or our own bodies’ malfunctions, and violating others’ rights is never a morally acceptable response to the attack. For example, if my child is gravely ill, I cannot perform a fatal experiment on my neighbor’s healthy child to even successfully save my own child’s life, especially if the parents don’t consent, and even if they do, since this violates that child’s rights.
3. Subsistence Hunting
We are now able to see why subsistence hunting is wrong. Animal experimentation of many kinds is wrong, since it violates animals’ rights. And if animal experimentation of various kinds is wrong, for reasons like those that Tom Regan (and others) develops and defends, then it is also wrong to kill animals for food even when there is nothing else to eat.
If it’s wrong to kill an animal to save your life from a likely fatal medical problem by taking a pig’s or primate’s organ(s) to save your life, then it is also wrong to kill an animal to save your life from starvation. If you can’t permissibly kill a pig to get an organ to transplant to save your life, then surely you can’t permissibly kill the pig to get an organ to eat to save your life. One’s “needs,” even one’s needs for what’s needed for life itself, need not justify violating another’s rights, as Judith Thompson made clear in her famous discussion of abortion (Thompson, 1971): even if someone needs to use another’s kidneys to stay alive, they do not have a right to the use of those kidney’s and nobody violates their rights by not allowing them to use their kidneys: a person’s own right to life is not a right to others’ bodies, even if that body is needed to preserve one’s own life.
This all seems to imply that substance hunting is wrong. So, unless communities that depend on subsistence hunting can find something else to eat that doesn’t involve violating rights, they will have to move to stop violating animals’ rights in these ways. Or they would have to perish, it seems.
While this may seem harsh, it is perhaps comparable to a country where, for whatever reason, nearly all the citizens are in desperate need of organ transplants or else they will die. A neighboring country could be raided and its citizens’ organs taken, and those people killed in the process. But that would be profoundly wrong, as it would involve massive rights violations. So, unless another solution can be found, it appears that the organ-needy persons would have to perish. This reminds us that respecting rights can have high personal costs and can be personally demanding, but this is a simple consequence of the idea of rights: some actions must be done (or must not be done) “though the heavens fall” for individuals or communities. A contrary position, that self-preservation or community-preservation can be justified at literally any cost to others is likely indefensible. In this case, violating rights would have high personal costs to those whose organs are stolen and their lives taken.
In the only passage from Tom Regan highly applicable to subsistence hunting, since he only discusses “sport” hunting, as far as I can find, he writes this concerning the potential permissibility of killing animals for food:
If it were the case that these [essential] nutrients [that meat provides] were not otherwise available [from non-animal sources], then the case for eating meat, even given the rights view, would be on solid ground. If we were certain to ruin our health by being vegetarians, or run a serious risk of doing so . . and given that the deterioration of our health would deprive us of a greater variety of number of opportunities for satisfaction than those within the range of farms animals, then we would be making ourselves, not the animals, worse-off if we become vegetarians. (Regan 2004/1983, p. 337, emphasis mine).
Regan’s response to this reasoning is just to observe that the factual claim concerning nutrition is false: we don’t need to eat animal products to be healthy. So, he responds that meat-eating could be justified, if the facts were different from what they are, but that they are not.
Regan does not, however, engage the hypothetical “What if?” and underlying moral reasoning behind his argument that eating meat could be permissible. This is unfortunate since what he says seems to be, at least, inconsistent with the animal rights perspective on xenotransplantation. Consider some comparable claims:
If we were certain to ruin our health, or lose our lives, by not taking organs from healthy animals, or run a serious risk of doing so . . and given that the deterioration of our health, and loss of our lives, would deprive us of a greater variety of number of opportunities for satisfaction than those within the range of farms animals, then we would be making ourselves, not the animals, worse-off if we refrained from taking organs from animals. If it were the case that these organs from xenotransplantation were not otherwise available, say from human donors or artificial organs, then the case for xenotransplantation, even given the rights view, would be on solid ground.
Rejecting such reasoning is at the core of the rights view: indeed, it distinguishes the rights view from, say, utilitarian and other so called “welfarist” perspectives: animals rights must be respected, even if that makes human persons worse off.
So, what Regan says about eating meat appears to be inconsistent with the rights view. I do grant that if every human being had to eat meat to survive, as opposed to a few isolated individuals with peculiar biological needs for meat, and that’s the way it always has been, that might make the case feel different: in this world, it would seem unavoidable that we routinely engage in rights violations. This recognition, however, might prompt us to vigorously find some other food sources that don’t involve rights violations, or we might realize that we are making a choice to violate rights that we don’t really have to make, and act accordingly, whatever that might be.
Rights are not absolute, however; Regan acknowledges that they are prima facie in nature and that there can be circumstances where violating rights is justified. Indeed, his comments about the “solid ground” for killing animals for food might be an application of a misinterpretation of his own “worse-off principle,” which is meant to provide guidance in cases where we must violate rights:
Special considerations aside, when we must decide to override the rights of the many or the rights of the few who are innocent, and when the harms faced by the few would make them worse-off than any of the many would be if any other option were chosen, then we ought to override the rights of the many (Regan 2004/1983, p. 308)
This principle prioritizes those who are made worse off by an action, whatever their numbers, when we must violate rights: if must either minorly violate the rights of a 1000 people or majorly violate the rights of one, we should minorly violate the rights of a 1000: the numbers don’t matter.
The problem though, if this principle is supposed to justify the potential for meat-eating being justified is this: in cases of xenotransplantation, or substance hunting, there are alternatives that don’t involve any rights violations, namely, not stealing organs and not killing animals for food. That may, or, for the sake of argument, will result in human deaths. And those human beings might very well be worse off for that than any animals would be, if they were killed. But nobody’s rights were violated. And so the worse-off principle does not apply to cases of xenotransplantation, or any typical animal research, or subsistence hunting, contrary to Professor Regan’s remarks, since they are not cases where any rights must be violated.
4. Vegan Advocacy
I have argued that subsistence hunting is wrong, if animal experimentation is wrong, for animal rights reasons. Few readers of this essay, however, likely encounter subsistence hunters or have much, if any, influence over them. We do, however, encounter people who claim to just not feel good, or not feel their best, on vegan diets, or have medical conditions that make eating vegan and staying healthy enough very difficult or impossible. At least one successful vegan advocacy organization, Vegan Outreach (VeganOutreach.org), very much acknowledges this concern and very much avoids a false message that every person who eats vegan will be healthy and feel their best: sometimes that’s true, but sometimes it is not, and that fact must be acknowledged, respected and thoughtfully engaged (Adams, Breitman, Messina, 2017)
Some people who claim to not feel their best on vegan diets may be not telling the truth, or haven’t tried very hard, or would benefit from skilled nutritional guidance. But it’s surely possible that some people have sincerely tried hard, have sought expert guidance on how to meet their nutritional needs, and yet still do not feel well on a vegan or vegetarian diet. It’s not only possible that there are such persons, there probably really are such persons: they’ve tried their best, but they still don’t feel well on vegan diets. In personal conversation, Tom Regan told me that he knew of a man who he (Regan) sincerely believed just felt very poorly if he did not eat meat.
If subsistence hunting is wrong, and it’s wrong to kill animals to maintain one’s life (as it would be wrong to xenotransplant and take a healthy animals’ organ to save one’s life), then it would presumably be wrong to kill animals to maintain one’s health, in the vague sense of “feeling good.” If it’s be wrong to kill animals to stay alive, which presumably is more important than just feeling good, then it’s also wrong to kill animals to feel good and healthy.
This is not to minimize or trivialize the importance of feeling good: living with chronic pain, or chronic fatigue, or any other condition that profoundly worsens someone’s quality of life, and perhaps entire worldview, can be very bad for that person and those around him or her. But that doesn’t seem to justify violating anyone’s rights to try to improve the situation, including violating animal rights, and so it would be wrong to kill animals for food, even if doing so is genuinely necessary to promote or preserve one’s health and feeling well. At least that’s what the rights view suggests, it seems.
Or does it?
Perhaps not. In Regan’s essay, “Animal Rights Advocacy and Modern Medicine: The Charge of Hypocrisy,” (2012) he considers the charge that animal rights advocates who use prescription drugs, or other medical treatments, developed using animals are “hypocrites” or not, insofar as they demand that animals’ rights not be violated, yet benefit from drugs, the development of which involves violating animals’ rights.
Regan acknowledges that the issue is complex, and his discussion is rich and full of insight and wisdom. Regan does not advocate that animal advocates simply let themselves die to avoid supporting drug companies’ violating animal rights. Presumably, he would also not encourage anyone to starve themselves to death to avoid supporting any killing of animals for food. (This potential scenario is far more unrealistic than the pharmaceutical or xenotransplantion case, since it seems potentially biologically impossible that someone must eat recently killed conscious, sentient, “subject of a life” animals to stay alive and healthy: it’s hard to believe that such an extraordinary person couldn’t survive and be healthy eating, for example, bi-valves or other non-conscious animals, insects, or the eggs laid by chickens that live good lives, or roadkill, or animals who recently died of natural causes, etc.).
Regan tentatively and cautiously argues that it can be permissible for animal rights advocates to take medications developed with the use of animals. He presumably would argue that it can be permissible for animal advocates to eat animal products when it genuinely necessary for them to be healthy and feel good enough. One of the general reasons he gives is that if animal advocates are dead or ill, they cannot effectively advocate for animal rights. So, to continue advocating for the respect of animal rights, it can be permissible to partake in some practices that violate animal rights. Regan also emphasizes that the context of our decisions is not our own creation: we are thrown into a world full of massive rights violations, animal and human, and must make the most of it to try to lessen these rights violations and work for the respectful treatment of all. Since the context of our decision is not self-created, and certainly not created with a peaceable kingdom in mind, acts of self-preservation are excusable and understandable, even if they involve some participation in rights violations, if doing so is likely to increase the respect for animal rights, in the long run.
Finally, although Regan does not discuss this, but perhaps this is a situation where the “impotence of the individual” might make a positive difference for animal advocates: in most cases, if an animal advocate were to eat meat, or other animal products, it is unlikely that purchase and consumption will cause more animals rights to be violated. If so, then eating animal products might be a kind of “free riding” that does not cause more rights violations but allows for some human being to be in a better position to advocate for animals. The same might be said about pharmaceuticals developed using drugs, although this defense is harder to apply to xenotransplantation, if a specific animal is killed for an organ for a specific individual: then an individual’s actions might plausibly make a causal different to the fate of some animal(s).
It appears then that some actions that involve violating animals’ rights, such as using drugs developed using animals and humans eating animal products when they genuinely must do so for good or better health (or life), might be morally permissible, even though they involve violating animals’ rights, if doing so will better enable the person to advocate for animal rights. Whether these rights violations could be justified only if they better enable to someone to advocate for animals is an interesting question: if ‘yes,’ that answer might, surprisingly, result in it being permissible for animal advocates to occasionally support violating animals’ rights, but wrong for foes of animals to do the same action: that is an interesting result, and surely one that it would be hard to use to develop policy.
In conclusion, vegan advocates are often asked “What if you were somewhere where there was literally nothing else to eat but animals? Would eating animals be wrong then?” The basic options for response are to either dodge the question, answer ‘yes’, or answer ‘no.’ I have argued that the ‘no’ answer, that it would be permissible to eat animals in these circumstances is contrary to animal rights perspectives: in particular that reasoning would justify xenotransplantation. I have argued that the ‘yes’ answer, however, faces challenges but that there may be complicated, but plausible, ways to at least morally excuse people supporting some violations of animals’ rights, especially if their doing so better enables them advocate for animals. Perhaps the best and wisest response, for most people, in most contexts, is to dodge the question, as perhaps Professor Regan did, so that none of us not get distracted from the core, immediate, and pressing questions and challenges about animal rights that confront each of us as we are and where we are, now.
After developing the main arguments for this paper, I read Jason Hanna’s excellent paper, “A Moral License to Kill? Animal Rights and Hunting,” in Mylan Engel and Gary Comstock, eds., The Moral Rights of Animals (Lexington Books, 2016) who also argues that the wrongness of animal experimentation implies the wrongness of subsistence hunting. Hanna’s paper offers some arguments that are similar to mine, but for generally overall different purposes, and readers are very much encouraged to read his very insightful paper.
Adams, Carol J., Breitman, Patti & Messina, Virginia. Even Vegans Die: A Practical Guide to Caregiving, Acceptance, and Protecting Your Legacy of Compassion. Lantern, 2017
Hanna, Jason. “Animal Rights and Hunting.” In Mylan Engel and Gary Comstock, eds., The Moral Rights of Animals (2016): 257-277.
Regan, Tom. The Case for Animal Rights, updated version. First edition, 1983. University of California Press, 2004.
Regan, Tom. “Animal Rights Advocacy and Modern Medicine: The Charge of Hypocrisy.” In Jeremy Garrett, ed., The Ethics of Animal Research: Exploring the Controversy (2012): 267-291.
Regan, Tom. “Empty Cages: Animal Rights and Vivisection.” In Jeremy Garrett, ed., The Ethics of Animal Research: Exploring the Controversy (2012): 107-124.
Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion.” Philosophy & Public Affairs (1971): 47-66.