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A more reflexive post this week. The topic of veganism can be difficult to discuss openly and analytically in human-animal studies (HAS) circles, because it excites much passion and often a certain amount of defensiveness on all sides. That’s unsurprising, as the issue is one that obviously has implications for one’s personal choices and practices, and the debate is usually such that these choices become moralised – or highlighted as ethically significant – in such a way that the customary liberal individualism we hide behind is challenged. Consequently some may feel they are being unfairly judged, whilst others may feel the need to reassert the legitimacy of their beliefs and commitments, all of which mitigates against genuinely open discussion. As a result veganism sometimes seems like a sort of silent but unenforced orthodoxy in human-animal studies, with some regarding it as a prerequisite for HAS scholars, some settling for vegetarianism as a haphazard ‘good enough’ measure, and some far less certain about the necessary connection between veganism and HAS, but tentative about expressing this in the face of the conviction of others.

Full disclosure – having formerly been a pretty ardent advocate of veganism and practicing vegan for some 9 years, I experienced… I’m not sure what to call it as all the terms are value-laden – an epiphany? an anti-epiphany? a disenchantment? In any case I am no longer vegan and although there are still some animal products I won’t eat I cannot call myself a proper vegetarian. I hope I can still claim to have some understanding of what motivates veganism and of the ethos, and I by no means reject it out of hand. Indeed I find my current position hardly more satisfactory than my earlier vegan one, but somehow I find its open messiness and ad-hocery sits easier with me. Perhaps this is underpinned by the feeling that in the world such as it is we all live ethically untenable lives, and that in some sense it is better to be fully aware of one’s living embroilment within these contradictions than to strive to exempt oneself individually, an effort that is doomed to failure but which may nevertheless succeed in creating a blinkered sense of ethical purity and an accompanying feeling of certainty. Both purity and certainty I regard with suspicion; there is no getting away from the totality of what exists. Nor would I claim that this is fully coherent; it is more of a structure of feeling.

So that’s the reflexive context (confession? disclaimer?) for what follows, which is not intended as an attack on veganism per se, which would hardly be constructive, but which does problematise what I regard as the purifying tendencies that often seem to be a significant element in some vegan discourse, and which seem to underpin some of the certainties it espouses. I explain what I mean further by discussing the – admittedly quite particular – example of honey.


Stealing Honey?

As honey is an animal product, rather than a plant-based food, it is inconsistent with an animal-free diet and most vegans do not consume it. In popular vegan discourse there are a few recurrent core reasons given for this, which begin from general arguments concerning the consumption of animal products before applying these to honey. Prominent amongst these is always the argument that honey is produced by bees for themselves, should thus be seen as their property, and that beekeeping therefore amounts to stealing honey:

In common with other animals kept to produce food products bees are farmed and manipulated, and the honey they produce for themselves is taken from them.  Vegans do not eat products taken from any animal, including bees, because it is neither desirable nor necessary to exploit animals in order to obtain food for humans.(Vegan Society UK, 2012).

The striking thing about this is its absoluteness – it is not based primarily on an ecological or ethical critique of the problems of intensive large-scale commercial beekeeping of the sort that has contributed to the emergence of Colony Collapse Disorder, but is in essence a critique of beekeeping per se, regardless of scale and organisation. Thus an organic amateur beekeeper with a single hive, who extracts a modest quantity of surplus honey annually for sale or personal use, is no less guilty of exploitation. But there is a conceptual problem here, since ‘exploitation’, unlike cruelty or domination, is a political-economic term which rests on socio-culturally embedded systems of value and property, and is therefore not straightforwardly transferable to nonhumans.

Exploitation is centrally about unjust or unequal exchange, usually involving labour, hence exploitation can occur without necessarily being accompanied by either physical or psychological harm or suffering – slaves are exploited, but so are most contemporary wage labourers, even those with apparently favourable salaries and working conditions, since the harm is not directly to them but to their interests. Whereas for the concept to be at all meaningful in reference to nonhuman animals then either physical or psychological harm or suffering would have to be shown to be present. Thus it is really the infliction of harm or suffering that is being misnamed ‘exploitation’ in such cases. One might shift the argument by asserting that bees are indeed subjected to harm by beekeepers – this is true, in that there is always a risk of harming some bees when beekeeping, just as there is always a risk of harming some insects when gardening – but that is beside the point, as the crux of the vegan argument is that removing surplus honey in-and-of-itself harms the bees, even when sufficient honey is left to ensure that the colony has plenty for its needs. So the assertion is that even if beekeeping could be done in such a way as to ensure that absolutely no bees were harmed, the removal of honey would still constitute harm via exploitation. But this relies on the idea that the bees’ interests are being harmed in an intangible way via a relationship of unequal exchange, when there is no common socio-cultural system of value in which to ground such a view


Manipulating Nature?

Furthermore the claim is often made that the notion of ‘surplus’ honey is misleading since the bees only ‘naturally’ produce as much as they need, and a surplus is produced only when the colony is prevented by the beekeeper from dividing into another colony by swarming:

Although beekeepers claim that bees naturally produce extra honey, this isn’t necessarily true. Bees make honey to satisfy perceived demand […] Under natural conditions, if the bees in a hive were producing a great surplus due to an increased population of bees, they would divide into two colonies and there would be none wasted. Hives are often prevented from dividing or swarming by beekeepers in order to avoid losing bees and therefore maximise honey production. If bees were left to themselves, each colony would cast one or more swarms each year.(All American Vegan, 2013).

In this way the critique of exploitation is underpinned by the notion of ‘manipulation’, that is, human intervention into – or modification of – the natural behaviour of nonhuman animals, which is regarded as intrinsically unethical. The reasoning here is particularly problematic. For one thing it reifies the idea of ‘natural behaviour’; in other words, it treats natural behaviour as that which is ‘pure’, uninfluenced or uncontaminated by exogenous influence. But in a world made-up of complex entanglements of diverse entities and forms of life, no behaviour can meet such criteria – all behaviour is continually shaped and reshaped by myriad relations with other organisms and the changing environment, and it would be bizarre to see all this as distortion from some pre-existing and rightful ‘natural’ template; indeed, nature is precsely what constantly emerges from all these entanglements. But what really underlies the critique of ‘manipulation’ is the notion that human influence upon the behaviour of other animals is inherently harmful, so that it is specifically human influence that constitutes ‘manipulation’. This looks suspiciously like the old anthropocentric humanist idea that humanity (or ‘society’ or ‘culture’) is somehow separate from nature, since only then can any transgression of this separation amount to ‘manipulating’ the purity of nature. But humans are not separate, and nature is not pure – it is complex entanglement all the way through.

I find the vegan case against honey problematic then, insofar as it relies on an anthropomorphic misuse of the category of ‘exploitation’, as well as a notion of ‘manipulation’ that involves both an overly purifying view of ‘nature’ and an anthropocentric separation of humanity from other animals and the natural world. That is not to say that there are not other grounds for opposing beekeeping and honey production – a compelling ecological critique could be made of many of the practices associated with large-scale intensive commercial apiculture, for example. But the context-free argument that the use of animal products is unethical not in its harmful effects, which may or may not apply in any particular case, but in itself, and under all circumstances, looks like a disciplinary attempt to maintain consistency in the face of an example which does not lend itself to the vegan analysis.

© Richie Nimmo 2013.