“Would you kill and eat a rabbit if you were stranded on a desert island?”
Conversations about veganism often drift toward questions about what one would do in order to save one’s own life. If you’re a vegan, you’ve probably been asked this question or something quite like it. Actually, you’ve probably been asked the question more times than you could count.
There are not many other moral commitments that invite such bizarre lines of questioning. For example, someone who takes a principled stance against human exploitation is unlikely to be asked whether she would use or benefit from child labor in order to save her own life. But within the world of vegan advocacy, only questions about protein (sigh) and killing plants (double sigh) are more common than desert-island questions.
These questions are frustrating, because they lead to no moral insight. There are two big problems.
First, how someone would behave in a case of personal crisis tells us little about how they should behave in those situations. When faced with a life-or-death emergency, some people would be willing to kill other humans in order to save themselves; this doesn’t mean that it is morally acceptable to kill other people to save your own life. It’s very difficult to know what’s morally acceptable (and excusable, and forgivable) in crisis situations, and there will often be a big difference between what we would do and what we should do.
Second, what it is morally acceptable to do in cases of crisis or emergency is often very different from what it is acceptable to do in other cases. For example, it would presumably be morally permissible to tell a lie in order to save your life or to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family. But in non-crisis situations telling lies and stealing bread is morally wrong. This should not be surprising: just like normal guidelines for hiking or driving may become strained in unusual situations, so too the normal guidelines for moral living may be challenged in extraordinary cases. It may well be that the moral ‘answers’ about what we should or may do in true emergencies are not neatly related to our obligations in more mundane circumstances.
For these two reasons, when someone asks you whether you’d kill and eat a rabbit to save yourself from starving, it’s hard not to roll your eyes. Their question leads nowhere interesting.
Most thoughtful people are aware that desert-island questions aren’t that helpful. (This is why similar questions are rarely asked about other moral matters!) But when veganism is being discussed, people can’t help themselves. So what’s going on?
There are at least a few different reasons that someone might take the conversation in this odd direction.
1. As a simple avoidance technique. Asking about imaginary desert islands moves the focus of the conversation far away–away from the non-vegan’s actions and choices, and away from the actual world.
2. To show that the vegan does not accept the implications of her own view. The non-vegan may believe that it is an implication of the abolitionist position that it is never permissible to kill any sentient being, regardless of the circumstances. By trying to force the vegan to admit that there are some cases in which she would be willing to kill another sentient being, the non-vegan may be trying to demonstrate that the vegan does not truly accept her own stated view. The non-vegan might think: “If you won’t accept your own view, then why should I?”
3. To demonstrate the vegan’s personal flaws or failings. This is similar to the last option but slightly different. Rather than seeking to show that the vegan doesn’t really accept the view she professes, the non-vegan may just be trying to show that the vegan is morally imperfect. The idea here is simply to show that the vegan is flawed, since she might be willing to kill another sentient being in certain circumstances. One might make this point to try to alleviate one’s own feelings of guilt or to suggest that the vegan is not in a position to criticize others.
Of course, for the reasons explored earlier in this entry, in none of these cases do desert-island questions truly challenge the abolitionist vegan position. What an abolitionist vegan would or wouldn’t (and should or shouldn’t) do on a desert island has no bearing on the abolitionist position more broadly, and no bearing on the immorality of using and killing animals in general.
In light of all this, how is it best to respond? Here are a few tips.
- Politely ask your questioner what is behind her question. She may reply that she is “just curious.” If so, ask her what makes her curious about this particular issue. In many cases, this will bring the real issue out into the open. (For example, your questioner might say: “I don’t know. Your view just seems very extreme. Do you really think animals are as important as people?” Or she might say: “Your position seems very hypocritical, because I bet you’d be willing to…”)
- Offer a simple example that illustrates the disconnect between desert-island scenarios and ‘normal’ situations. If your questioner persists in pressing desert-island questions, you can politely show that they don’t offer much moral insight. (For example: “Gosh, I don’t know. I might steal from my rich neighbor to feed my other neighbors, if they were in a really tough spot. But I don’t see how that tells us anything about stealing in general.”)
- Explicitly state that using and consuming animals in the here-and-now is immoral, regardless of what one thinks about hypothetical emergencies. The most important point to communicate is that even if the person you’re speaking with believes it would be morally acceptable to kill an animal on a desert island, it is immoral to use and kill animals when she has no such pressing reasons.
Desert-island questions aren’t going anywhere soon. Luckily, we needn’t figure out what to do in these imaginary situations to determine how we ought to behave the rest of the time. And if we can communicate this point effectively, even these dreadful questions can be turned into good educational opportunities.