On Making Others Do Disgraceful Work

My friend Lois Baum recently gave an invited sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rochester, NY. In the sermon, Lois quoted a statement attributed to an animal liberation summit, circa 2010: 

Veganism is a moral and ethical way of living; the practice of non-cooperation and non-participation in anything that exploits nonhuman animals, humans, or the environment. It is a moral baseline for our conduct and how we are revealed to the world.

A spot-on description, I think, of the connected ethic of a vegan life.

Making Others Do Disgraceful Work 

And it leads me to think again about the humans who do the disgraceful work of killing living animals and turning their bodies into commodities for human consumption. 

I do not believe vegans should invest in undercover investigations of these employees’ actions. Some people disagree. Here is my logic.

Time and time again, the “successful” undercover investigation means:

  • Workers get caught, punished, and driven out (and many if not all of them are leading the most exhausted, marginal, and fragmented of lives already).
  • The company increases surveillance of the workers who remain.
  • If regulators do suspend the company’s business, the business usually tidies up and reopens.
  • The case against the company involves employees’ failure to follow regulations. It is never about real caring, real fairness, and it’s definitely never about justice. (Injustice is heaped on, as workers’ precarious lives slide into worse ruin.) 
  • Arguments resume on whether “ag gag” laws should tighten up to prevent undercover investigations, as the company swears up and down that it is now adequately self-monitored.

One of the points made by early vegans is that we shouldn’t expect other human beings to do disgraceful work for us, work which we’d avoid doing ourselves.

That, I think, invokes an empathy and fairness principle. It does not assume that we should blame these employees for doing what they do…badly.

Animal agribusiness is all unfair, and so many humans are implicated. Only a few people are vulnerable enough to be cast out of society for the way they do it.

6 thoughts on “On Making Others Do Disgraceful Work

  1. I have to disagree, Lee. Such investigations help reveal to the public in very potent ways what is going on in those places. They have caused many people to stop eating animals, including many who have gone on to become animal activists. They also cause a crackdown on some of the most egregious abuses. My primary concern is with the primary victims: the nonhuman animals who are tortured and killed in such places. I believe the good of these investigations far outweigh any problems there may be with them.

    • I agree with you Mary. And I add this thought: The people who are employed in these animal concentration camps are there voluntarily, the animals are not. My sympathies lie with the true victims( the animals), not the ” guards” who are” just doing their job”.

    • Rather than arranging various groups and needs according to levels of priority, I think our task as vegans is to:
      • Locate the basis for oppression wherever it is found.
      • Cultivate identification with any individual being subjugated.
      • Call subjugation out.
      • Demand that it stop.
      Veganism, to my mind, doesn’t need to prove various individuals or groups are equal, nor does it need to rank them. Its reason for being is to interrogate the framework of domination.

      As for volunteering, no; we’re talking about people attempting to survive and barely doing so. Some states allow for a $5.15 wage for employees in animal agribusiness. It is a privilege not to be in a position to need such a job. One of the reasons I am vegan is because I wouldn’t wish that job on anyone.

      Thank you for being part of this discussion, dear friends, and for prompting more.

  2. As always, Lee, your articles are provocative and stimulate debate. The undercover stories always gave me chills, how could anyone watch, document, and still be controlled enough to not stop the egregious acts.
    I always wondered what kind of person could work a slaughterhouse without being emotionally scarred. I saw that the whistleblowers were the demonized ones. It seemed the results were to adjust actions to make the public feel better. Practices such as no downed animals for slaughter, or the trite phrase of free-range gave the appearance of addressing the cruelty. In fact, animals are still mass produced, lead a short, tortured life as product, not as living beings, and who can say Humane Slaughter and believe it? Thank you for this.

    • Dear Marie, thank you for writing this. And yes, plenty of people do view graphic imagery and resolve to seek out animal products that don’t come from the places in the videos. So-called humane animal processing businesses do get a boost from this; if there were no inhumane scenes, how could they market themselves as humane? A feel-good brand comes along and offers imagery and terminology to distinguish itself from the exposés, and wins that coveted contract with a fancy grocery store, and next thing you know there are banners in the store showing farmers with their elated chickens and pigs and cows and people making righteous reaches for their wallets. So, even from the ends-justified-means perspective, I don’t think the argument for this type of activism is persuasive.

  3. Hmm. Can we claim to be doing our best as vegans and still eat plant-based versions of hamburgers from entities like Burger King? What about all the low-level employees who work there? What about the other supposedly vegan foods made by animal-use companies (sometimes unknown to buyers who must do layers of research to uncover those really profiting). Feels like we are all a bit involved (perhaps indirectly or unknowingly) in the convoluted animal-use industries.

    While I can understand those who feel low-level employees may be targeted with some measure of benefit due to publicity, I think, as vegans, we need to keep our focus and resources on abolition at its core. This is summarized in the paragraph posted by Lee, as follows:

    “Veganism is a moral and ethical way of living; the practice of non-cooperation and non-participation in anything that exploits nonhuman animals, humans, or the environment. It is a moral baseline for our conduct and how we are revealed to the world.” (would love to know the exact author –best definition I’ve seen)

    Peace and abolition,

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