May Only Some Beings Be Happy and Free: Reflections on a recent interview

Not long ago I interviewed four senior yoga teachers to see if any shared one of my recurring observations. As hoped and expected, the respondents tackled topics both directly related to and orbiting this admittedly unsurprising phenomenon, which is:

While left-leaning America moves towards vegetarianism, veganism, and animal rights, modern yoga is (and has been for some time) moving in the opposite direction.

In prior essays I have elaborated on the case for vegetarianism and veganism in Classical Yoga and the problem with spiritual appeals to nonveganism. I won’t repeat those points here. Nor will I speculate on why modern yoga has moved away from vegetarianism, veganism, and concerns for animals, although the commercialization and detraditionalization of yoga—for better or worse—explain a great deal. Rather, in this follow-up piece I offer some reflections on, and criticisms of, viewpoints and conclusions expressed in the responses.

To preempt any charge of “moralizing” (which is curiously levied at animal rights advocates far more frequently and heavily than any human rights advocates), I include this bit by moral philosopher Judy J. Thompson:

Since well before the twentieth century, moral philosophers have taken it to be their task to produce a theory about what we ought to do and why. That “why” is important: moralizers are happy to tell you what you ought to do—moral philosophers differ in that they aim to tell you also what makes it the case that you ought to do the things they say you ought to do. Moral philosophy, in other words, responds to the desire that moral requirement be ‘rationalized,’ that is, shown to be a requirement.

Animal Products or Animals?

One of the most common mistakes in thinking about animals and ethics is focusing on products and not living animals. Beginning the conversation from the consumption of substances derived from the harming and killing of animals ignores the initial ethical issue of inflicting harm and death upon the animals themselves. Intentional or not, insisting on a post-harm/post-killing starting point, a point at which the animal’s pain and death are already things of the past, is a defensive and strategic move to rhetorically execute or otherwise erase the actual animal in advance of the discussion.

“Is [the act of] eating meat wrong?” is the wrong question, or at least the wrong starting question. Existing animals could care less what we do with their dead bodies. Whether we eat them, wear them, or throw them away, it’s all the same (that is, nothing) to the soon-to-be slaughtered. Nor do they care about what we do with their secretions after we’ve extracted them from their living bodies. Animals care about being harmed and being made dead, not about what happens after the fact.

This is one reason why the “eating meat” question misses the mark. One’s lunchtime ingestion of bodies and secretions does not directly inflict pain and death on already-harmed or already-dead animals, but it does directly contribute–materially, socially, psychologically–to the further breeding of, and subsequent infliction of pain and death on, future animals.

Therefore the more appropriate question is: “Is the unnecessary and avoidable harming and killing of animals wrong?” Here the conversation begins from the ethicality of participating in the harming and killing of animals, not how various substances (e.g. meat, leather, milk, cheese, eggs, honey) are suitable for consumption by yoga practitioners. This additional concern for the suitability or “purity” of substances qua substances is, as one respondent notes, only a “secondary” motivation for a practitioner’s vegetarianism or veganism. The “primary” motivation is wrongness of causing unnecessary and avoidable pain and death to animals.

The misguided and misguiding emphasis on our products and not their bodies is common to discourse critical of vegetarianism and veganism. This discourse regularly and uncritically prioritizes human animal interests over nonhuman animal interests, no matter the nature of the interests. Modern yoga likewise traffics in this blanket speciesism, even while it is conflicts with traditional and modern yoga values of honesty, discrimination, and of course, non-harming.

As but one example, one respondent expressed their hesitancy, if not aversion, to promoting a specific “diet” to their peers or students, including a vegetarianism or vegan diet. Yet as intimated above, this reflex inclusion of animal bodies and secretions within the categories of “food,” “diet,” and “personal choice,” assumes the permissibility of productifying animals at all, that is, manipulating them into products to be casually “chosen” by consumers. Neglected is the quite obvious fact animal products can only be procured (to date, see here, here, and here) through the harming and killing of actual animals. Harm and slaughter are intrinsic and not merely incidental to these products’ very existence

The same respondent noted that a plant-based diet may be the traditional yogic diet, but we no longer live, or no longer choose to live, in a traditional yogic environment. This is a peculiar response, for if anything the non-traditional modern practitioner inhabits a world in which it much easier, if not easier than ever, to survive and thrive animal product-free. The concept that our ethical obligations, and the strengths of those obligations, change with changes in our circumstances is common sense, as it is for the Tibetan Buddhists linked below.

Humans First, And Last

Another respondent presented possible causes for the decline of vegetarianism and veganism in the modern yoga world. One suggestion was that the detraditionalization of yoga in the US derives, if only partially, from the rejection the abusive behavior of gurus and the abusiveness of guru-centrism itself. The denunciation and renunciation of these “traditional” aspects of yoga practice have prompted a similar distrust and abandonment of other “traditional” practices, such as restrictions on diet. The legitimate condemnation of guru-centrism has motivated a shift to the “self-improvement and empowerment of the individual.” This newly empowered individual perceives the insistence on strict vegetarianism or veganism as an oppressive infringement on bodily autonomy and self-care.

However, this rejection of vegetarianism and veganism expresses: 1) a “guilty by association” phenomenon, whereby any dietary restrictions are framed as mere vestiges of guru-subservience and unquestioned dogma, and thus justifiably discardable; 2) an apparently boundless “me first (and last)” mentality when it comes to self-serving actions involving the harm and killing of others, specifically nonhuman others.

First, “guilt by association” is by no means a reliable criticism of the ethical imperative of vegetarianism or veganism. The very same traditional gurus who committed deplorable abuses also practiced and taught asanas and pranayama, yet many of their former students continue to practice and teach these asanas and pranayama. They do so because the practices are neither intrinsically evil nor even indirectly problematic due to association with the gurus. This distinction surely holds for ethical practices as well, practices grounded in principles easily distinguishable from any specific guru or tradition.

Now one may argue that this analogy does not hold, for while the practice of asanas and pranayama are not personally restrictive, the practices of vegetarianism and veganism very much impose “extreme” restraints on bodily autonomy and one’s pursuit of well-being. But such a reply, as previously mentioned, casually productifies living animals without even considering their autonomy and their well-being. The insistence on vegetarianism or veganism is not some arbitrary dogmatic regulation regarding the suitability of mere substances, but rather a concern for living animals under constant threat of frivolous harm at the hands of human beings.

Second, a general concern for “self-improvement and empowerment” is both legitimate and defensible, but in no way sanctions any and all behaviors one subjectively determines to support their own improvement and empowerment. No yoga teachings (and no moral theory other than pure egoism) encourage a regimen of self-care unconcerned with the unnecessary and avoidable harm it may cause others. The assumption that in defiance of the abusiveness of guru-centrism one may deploy an abusive anthropocentrism is ethically reckless, whether in the name of empowerment or not. And how exactly is one justified in oppressing completely innocent animals as a type of resistance to, or reparations for, prior human-inflicted oppressions? In Dangerous Crossings, political scientist Claire Jean Kim writes:

Unjust disadvantage in one sphere does not earn unjust advantage in another. Having endured racism and colonialism, subjects deserve justice and reparations from their oppressors, but they do not therefore deserve to dominate women, animals, and nature. 

One does not acquire a right to victimize others by virtue of their own past victimization, indisputably so when the “others” are blameless for one’s victimization and themselves victims of the exact same machinery of oppression. Yet it is the failure of modern yoga practitioners, and humans in general, to see–really see–animals as victims, that sabotages their ability to cognize nonveganism as the routine patronization of systemic oppression that it undoubtedly is. Modern yoga’s approval of nonvegetarianism or nonveganism as a type of defiant act quickly reveals itself as reactionary once we acknowledge the victimhood of animals which, ironically, yoga teachings have expressed for millennia. Having spotted this glaring ethical inconsistency, the same respondent astutely adds: “Unfortunately, the rights of animals seem to have been lost in this transition.”

Whether we chalk all this up to a movement away from “traditional” yoga or a mixture of cognitive dissonance, stubbornness, laziness, and apathy, the hypocritical fact of the modern yoga world’s willing participation in animal oppression remains. As one respondent remarks: “They [modern yoga practitioners] love their dogs, cats, and birds but still eat cows, fish, and chicken. Even today, most of the students in my school and the ones I meet at workshops and in India are not even vegetarian.” Clearly not all beings everywhere are being wished happiness and freedom, and even those who assumedly are–some dogs, cats, and birds–remain trapped within the machinery of unchallenged human supremacy (here on “pets”).

A More Mindful Harming

The modern yoga world, akin to mainstream culture, imbibes the idea of “humane” animal products and “mindful” animal product consumption. While no one would deny that some harms are worse than others, inflicting the lesser of two unnecessary and avoidable harms is not justifiable on the basis of being less harmful than the other. Needlessly beating my dog with a newspaper is neither “humane” nor ethically defensible on the basis that my neighbor beats their dog with a club. Both acts are wrong as neither of us have any justification for beating these animals at all.

One respondent expressed that whether or not “we feel comfortable eating meat” is very much relevant to the rightness or wrongness of paying others to “process” living animals into “meat.” This is surely mistaken. The quantity and quality of time we allot to thinking about what we do has no bearing on the rightness or wrongness of what we do. The fact that we are mindful of the harm we cause when knowingly, unnecessarily, and avoidably consuming animal products, in no way makes our consumption any less wrong or blameworthy. We need only imagine a bully defending their bullying on the basis of the mindfulness they practiced while bullying.

If anything, knowledge of the origins of animal products (confinement, mutilation, forced impregnation, natal alienation, theft, slaughter) and one’s mindfulness of directly contributing to them, only seem to increase one’s culpability rather than mitigate it. For if I am fully knowledgeable of an unnecessary and easily avoidable harm, and yet still choose to inflict it, no matter how mindfully, am I not more blameworthy than one who inflicts the same harm in the absence of such knowledge and mindfulness? When all is said and done, animals do not need our mindfulness or acknowledgement of their pain and death, they need us to recognize their moral status and behave accordingly.

Mindfulness could be relevant and even respectable in situations of absolute need and unavoidability. But hardly any humans need to consume animal products under any reasonable understanding of the term. So before someone yells “Food deserts!” (see here and here) or “Tibetan nomads!” (see here and here), I reiterate them that I am calling out– and calling in–the great many privileged modern yoga practitioners and not those for whom the immediate abstention from animal products would pose a life-threatening situation. This latter predicament is simply not applicable to the modern yoga world, whose accepted nonveganism expresses the indulgence of wants and certainly not the satisfaction of needs.

A Quick Note on Ahimsa

While seemingly a minor philosophical point, we must question the assumption, voiced by one respondent, that the precept of non-harming derives solely from the negative consequences for the aspirant and not the intrinsic badness of pain and wrongness of inflicting pain on others. The respondent wrote: “He’s [Patanjali’s] not necessarily saying that we shouldn’t do harm because it’s wrong. Rather, he’s saying that we shouldn’t do harm because it will interfere with our path to enlightenment by disturbing our mind.” This is a commonly held perception regarding the basis for ahimsa, and one we should not accept so readily.

This is not the place for a full elaboration on the topic, but in short the ethic of non-harming is at least partly based in the badness of pain. The intrinsic badness of pain is, generally speaking, a pan-Indic maxim and one accepted by Patanjali. Pain is bad for any sentient being, human or nonhuman. As such, inflicting unnecessary and avoidable pain on any sentient being is wrong, even if the severity of the wrong can vary according to the characteristics of the being. Inflicting pain on others may also be wrong due to resulting negative consequences it has for the practitioner, but that is surely not the only reason, and itself a reason requiring further explanation.

(For anyone seriously interested in the subject, I refer them to Christopher Framarin’s Hinduism and Environmental Ethics . This text provides a series of excellent arguments for why “instrumentalist interpretations”of non-harming fail, or at least stumble considerably, under scrutiny.)

For simplicity’s sake, I could have sidestepped this technical issue by reiterating that ahimsa (according to Patanjali) is an inviolable proscription, and its philosophical basis is irrelevant to the unconditionally of its practice. In other words, if, according to the logic of Patanjali’s formulation, non-harming requires vegetarianism or veganism for the modern yoga practitioner, who themself has willingly adopted this ethical precept, then it doesn’t matter why vegetarianism or veganism is required, only that it is.

However I sense—and very much hope—that the unreflective adherence to ethical precepts is distasteful for any critical modern yoga practitioner. And thus I also hope that the unreflective acceptance of social norms and personal habits, which the practice of yoga labors to uproot, too becomes unpalatable, and instigates a firm rejection of the myriad practices that violently oppress our fellow earthlings.

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