I noticed recently that there have been continued notes and questions to Noam Chomsky throughout the years regarding his views on animal rights, vegetarianism/veganism. One of the artifacts of this small conversation includes an email correspondence I had with him in January 2009, when I was a senior undergraduate at Michigan State University. So I decided it would be easier if I posted the email exchange here:
DREW ROBERT WINTER:
> My most sincere condolences for the loss of your wife.
> In the interest of your time, since I know you much time responding
> to emails, I’ll keep
> the pleasantries short- you’ve inspired me in many ways and I
> highly value your insight
> and research.
> Since you seem not only to be very well-read in world affairs, but
> also committed to
> discussing morality without the cold IR-like theories that
> obfuscate atrocities, I’ve
> been anxious to ask you about your opinions regarding the accepted
> enslavement, torture, and killing of animals for food,
> entertainment, and research. In
> Manufacturing Consent you mentioned numbers of livestock killed in
> Vietnam from US
> bombing, but that’s the most I’ve heard from you.
> I’m very interested to hear your position, as I (a human- and
> animal-rights advocate)
> feel that sympathy for the oppressed does not end on a barrier of
> species, but ability
> to suffer. This is happening in our own country and is directly
> supported by consumers
> who can easily live healthy while abstaining from animal products.
> I hope you will find the time for a short response but regardless,
> I hope to continue
> reading new works from you for years to come!
> Thanks so much for reading,
Thanks for the kind words, much appreciated.
> Actually, I have discussed animal rights a number of times, also
> expressing my feeling that as the tendency of the past centuries to
> extend the scope of rights — to slaves, to women, to children, to
> the disabled, to future generations (the environmental movement),
> etc. — it will increasingly come to incorporate animal rights, as
> has already happened, particularly as a result of the activism of the
> ’60s, which was instrumental in some of the cases I mentioned. I
> think that’s a good thing, and look forward to it. But time and
> energy are finite, and that requires us, necessarily, to set
> priorities. While I sympathize with and support these efforts, a
> much higher priority for me is the fact that a billion humans are
> starving, that the species is marching on to destruction of itself
> and perhaps most living organisms by reversible policies that are
> being implemented right now, that the US and Israel are at this
> moment consummating one of the worst crimes of recent history, and
> innumerable other similar cases.
> Again, time and energy are finite, and each of us has to set
> priorities. Mine are pretty much those.
DREW ROBERT WINTER:
A few follow-up questions and then I promise to leave you alone,
I certainly understand your point of view regarding humankind’s march to destruction, especially in the case of Israel and the United States; I have been attending numerous rallies and protests since the conflict began, including taking a bus to Washington DC. I also write on such topics regularly for my school’s editorial page. And although my time and resources are limited, I was able to do all of this and more without giving money to industries who cut the beaks off chickens, scald pigs alive, etc.
I know campaigning for animal rights is not your top priority (which is fine- you’re doing very important work), but don’t those of us who disagree with using animals as a means for human use have a moral responsibility not to participate in those acts insofar as it is possible or at least feasible? Isn’t what you “support” defined more by your financial decisions than your words? Similarly, if one disagrees with, say, child prostitution, they have a moral obligation to abstain from hiring child prostitutes. This is not a question of political action—although it effectively amounts to a boycott—but rather a personal moral responsibility.
The time and resources required to live a vegan lifestyle are marginal: a Google search or a pamphlet is an effective guide to products and good health, and otherwise one lives their life just like any other human being. This is quite apart from political campaigns, but if we recognize the capacity of animals to suffer and therefore the very serious suffering they incur, mustn’t we stop paying its torturers?
Also, where could I find your discussions on animal rights? I’d love to read/watch them if possible. Do you teach any graduate philosophy programs that would cater to animal issues or consumer ethical responsibility in general? (I just now thought to ask you this: these emails have not been a diversion from an application pitch.)
I’ve discussed animal rights here and there, mostly in response to questions. It’s true that it’s not a huge effort — though it is a considerable one — to live a vegan lifestyle. It’s even easier to give up a lot of what we do to contribute to saving 1 billion people who are dying from hunger, or to stave off the serious threat to species survival that will destroy animal life too, or to try to prevent the destruction of biodiversity, or…. Your arguments hold just as well for these and innumerable other morally obligatory commitments, many of them I think ranking higher than using animals for human use. Should we, for example, buy commercial products from (and thus help fund) corporations that are contributing to global destruction? Try to avoid them.
But time and energy are finite, and each of us sets priorities, inevitably.
I’m not teaching grad courses on ethics, or on these issues. I have taught undergrad courses for many years (on my own time) on matters that seem urgent to me, the kind I write and speak about.
To be clear, I’m not challenging our priorities. Merely trying to indicate my own.