Veganism Is Good to Think With

Origins IconMartin Rowe

The anthropologist and social theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously said that animals are “good to think with.” This observation has been questioned. Lévi-Strauss actually suggested that animals weren’t just “good to eat” (bonnes à manger) but “good to think” (bonnes à penser; the English language, however, finds it impossible not to supply a preposition to the phrase, which is why bonnes à penser is usually translated as “good to think with.”

I like to think that in making this observation Lévi-Strauss is not offering a cheap joke along the lines of “I love animals, they’re so tasty.” Instead, he’s moving between two notions of “good”: between the sensuous pleasures of eating animals and the ethical value that ruminating about animals provides. I take Lévi-Strauss’s freighted word bonnes to suggest that animals’ conceptual value (“good”) is inextricable from their status as property to be bought and sold by human beings (“goods”). Animals’ embodiedness—whether they’re eaten, controlled, worshipped, looked down upon, or kept as a companion—not only holds our preconceptions about what those animals are worth, but the very act of (ethical) thinking itself. In other words, it’s not only impossible to imagine animals outside of their utility to us; it’s impossible to imagine us (the thinking animal, the ethical animal, thought and ethics themselves) without the utility of animals.

One premise of the Vegan America Project, therefore, is to build upon Lévi-Strauss’s observation to explore the notion that “veganism is good to think [with].” Is a contemporary economy that doesn’t involve animal products genuinely and literally thinkable? Can we disengage animals as “goods” from animals as “good” and retain the capacity to think (ethically)? What might happen to our concepts of ourselves as humans or thinking animals if we do? What might happen to our ethics?

My version of the Lévi-Strauss paradox is that it is precisely because veganism is currently unthinkable to so many that we must think (with) it. To many, on the left or right, veganism seems so extreme, so stringent, so apparently anti-civilizational (even anti-human), that it offers a radical and potentially transformative means by which we can think (with) the future. It unpacks the burden of the pack(ed) animal; the onus is now on us.

This is all well and good, might run a response to the above, but why does it have to be so extreme? We understand the ethical, human health, environmental, and animal welfare reasons why it might be better to raise and eat fewer animals, and to do so in more humane conditions? But, the objection would continue, why would it be necessary let alone desirable for everyone to conform to such a fringe philosophy that is mostly a manifestation of metropolitan elitism, decadence, faddism, and everyone who is wealthy or idle enough to afford the luxury of worrying about unimportant things.

Furthermore, the counterargument might go on, as journalist Marta Zaraska has charted in her 2016 book Meathooked, we humans love our meat: the texture; the protein; the fats, blood, and other juices. Indeed, we might love meat not in spite of our squeamishness about the life we’ve taken either directly or indirectly but precisely because it involves death and power over the nonhuman world. Meat’s added value comes precisely because we know it carries a cost, which is why it was surrounded from the outset of civilization with proscriptions, rituals, and the paraphernalia of sacrifice. As we might say with foie gras or veal, the more exquisite the suffering, the more consequential the killing, the more refined the palate.

And still the objections mount: As Zaraska delineates, some have argued that without animals—as vehicles for the protein that enabled our brains to expand and our societies to form through the enforced cooperation of hunting and ultimately the domestication of certain species; as subjects for experimentation, or as labor and as carriers of wealth—human societies wouldn’t have developed, let alone flourished. Moreover, food cultures and the culture around food mostly involve animal products: to envision a world without our utilization of animals would not only deny such cultures, but even Culture itself. What will happen to the cowboys and ranchers, the bronco riders and herders, and the fishermen and the small-scale dairy farmers—their livelihoods, their identities, and the communities (some of them poor and/or marginalized, and already threatened by globalization or urbanization) that depend on them?

It’s possible that you can already hear the anxiety, defensiveness, and anger in these questions. Surrounded by so much technological and globalized change that has uprooted entire regions of the country and their long-standing industries, and yet also delivered the world and its possibilities to your fingertips, these communities’ fierce hold on the stability provided by cultural practices (however self-sabotaging or socially destructive they may be) becomes understandable. My aim is not to dismiss these anxieties, etc., but to emphasize just how intensely they’re felt and how profound a challenge veganism is—not only to those who advocate but to those who fear what it proposes and what it might lead to. My aim is to address these objections in the coming months, and to think veganism through them. However, for the moment, let me explore just one reason for taking on this project—climate change—and one of its main drivers, animal agriculture.