Vegetarianism and veganism are growing movements that oppose animal suffering and promote environmental sustainability. More and more people in the US, especially in California, are adopting a plant-based diet. This course will discuss vegetarianism and veganism: their underlying claims, their philosophical roots and history, their discussion in literature and the media, and ultimately their implications in our contemporary world.
Though the consumption of meat and animal products is a subject that may at first appear insignificant, the questions raised by this topic are profound and concern multiple fields of knowledge including theology to medicine, anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics, ecology, law, and moral philosophy. This course will explore a range of questions like: haven’t humans evolved to eat meat? Should animals have rights? Is the slaughter and consumption of animals sanctioned by religion? How, if at all, does animal oppression intersect with issues of gender, race, and other systematized forms of oppression? Is a vegan world a utopian fantasy or a crucial next step in the evolution of human society?
In order to address these issues, the course will be divided into three parts:
1. The cultural, sociological, and psychological pillars of carnism
2. An overview of the fundamental concepts and principles of environmental and animal ethics
3. A critical approach to questions related to the consumption of animal products
Carnism is part of a broader concept called anthropocentrism (a human-centered point of view), which is deeply embedded in Western civilization via our religious background (Christianity and Judaism) and philosophical roots (Stoicism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism).
Carnism is the ideology that conditions people to eat only certain animals (i.e. chickens and cows, but not cats, rats or horses). People typically don’t think about the reasons why they eat certain animals but not others, or why they eat animals at all. Today, eating animals and animal products is not only unnecessary but also has been scientifically proven to cause many diseases. It also involves an indiscriminate use of resources – land, grains, and water – and is a massive threat to the global environment.
Furthermore, meat eating is a choice that stems from beliefs. The first objective of the course is to shed light on such beliefs and their origins. Students will understand that what they perceive as normal and natural is not only the product of a cultural history (anthropocentrism, humanism, masculinism) but also the result of psychological and sociological processes. Indeed,
a vast majority of people care about the environment and animals. They don’t want the former to be destroyed or the latter to suffer and be killed. We are disturbed by slaughterhouses, animal farms, and the resulting deforestation and pollution that they generate; but at the same time, we relentlessly encourage the industry by consuming meat, dairy, eggs, and fish. By learning key concepts such as “cognitive dissonance,” “conformity,” and “denial,” and through studying disciplines such as criminology, sociology, and psychology, students will come to understand what is now famously known as the “meat paradox.”
2 – ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS / ANIMAL ETHICS
While the treatment of animals and the environment increasingly alarms people, major ethical issues have emerged in the last few decades which are likely to become more prominent in the future. First, we will examine the origins of animal ethics, a branch of moral philosophy that appeared with Pythagoras more than 25 centuries ago and was pertinent during all of antiquity. Above all, we will emphasize four prominent philosophical schools: utilitarianism (Peter Singer), deontologism (Tom Regan, Gary Francione), ecofeminism, and the ethics of care (Marti Kheel, Carol J. Adams). Although their topics differ, these authors converge on the same practical conclusions: namely the moral duty to end the consumption of animal products.
The debates about the possible rights of animals and/or humans’ duty not to harm them raise fundamental questions about the principles of justice or legality as well as the concepts of rights and cognition. We will also focus on 18th century philosophers’ most important foundation of “rights”: sentience. The idea of pathocentrism—or the centrality of sentience—distinguished animal ethics from environmental ethics: the latter is less about individuals than ecosystems and the long-term interests of the human species. In this perspective, a plant-based diet should not be seen as a moral imperative but as a way to preserve the environment and future generations. This is typically what Hans Jonas saw as the “imperative of responsibility.”
3 – BEYOND VEGANISM
During this last part of the course, we will focus on concerns related to or raised by veganism. We will start each session with a though-provoking question. For instance: Why are vegans so annoying? Isn’t veganism a form of colonialism? Is a vegan world utopic? Is veganism “for girls”? These questions will lead to a critical examination of our daily behaviors and to further consideration of the definition of cultures, differences, and identities.
This course is not about promoting or preaching veganism. No matter our dietary choices, our concern for animals, the environment, or our health, thinking about what is at stake with veganism permits us to critically explore our traditions, our culture(s), and the relationship between us and the world. It allows us to think critically about society and ourselves. It forces us to think about our consumption habits (of meat, fish, or dairy) as political choices that impact issues about which students care deeply: the environment, capitalism, and the ethics of our everyday choices.
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