Holistic veganism: ontology and epistemology

Steve posted on holistic veganism over at the L.O.V.E. blog. This is an important post because it answers to a lot of tensions that have existed within the vegan movement. Is “the vegan ideal” more – or less – practical than the work of those who choose to focus solely on (superficial) practices? I wrote the following response in the comments, worth posting here:

Another way to look at it is that those who focus solely on “reducing suffering” take a ontological approach, while those who focus on ending oppression take an epistemological one. One studies the nature of existence, the other the nature of knowledge. Carol J. Adams discusses this distinction in her book “Neither Man Nor Beast.” From an ontological perspective, we might argue that because animals are sentient, their lives should be respected. From an epistemological perspective, we would look at how we came to be entrenched in our exploitation of animals in the first place. I think this is important because exploitation becomes a habit, and that is the hardest part to change. So I agree with you, steve, that the epistemological approach is actually more practical in a sense because it takes us a step deeper to examining our views and habitudes. We’re not just pitting our beliefs against each other and seeing which one wins in the game of logic, which as elaine says does derive great influence from habit; we’re asking where did those beliefs and habits come from, how did so much suffering (that we seek to reduce) come to be?

But it seems that the epistemological perspective is built off of the ontological one: of course we believe that animals are all sentient, but we take things deeper. Why are there people who believe otherwise? So I do think it’s important for others to understand that point, but I think it’s a limited view. The approach which asks us to question ourselves is the same one that asks us to make all sorts of connections. It’s the difference between material capital and social capital (as Adam W. calls it), between a marketplace discussion and a social justice discussion, between being and inter-being.

You can see in other social justice movements this same blindness to epistemology where certain privileged members or perspectives of the movement feel threatened by the less privileged because they refuse to see privilege as an issue. And, of course, what happens is that the former view the latter as somehow wasting their power (privilege?) through affirmative action, “moral purity,” “division of the movement,” when in fact all the latter are trying to do is ask deeper questions. Somehow what seeks to unite – harmonize – through interconnectedness gets portrayed as divisive by those who seek to unite by only looking in one direction.

So the only reason that the ontological approach is less practical is that it is simply a less complete approach. It is when we choose to cling to the ontology (reduction of suffering) and ignore epistemology (anti-oppression) that we have a problem. And it’s a problem I see all the time amongst Buddhists and lacto-ovo vegetarians who are fixated on either suffering or killing.


~ by Louëlla on October 22, 2009.

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