I am grateful to Dr. Tagami for giving me permission to reproduce the following exchange.
Dear Dr. Tagami,
Hello and I hope you are well. As you are aware I am sure, I am interested in the philosophical evolution of the "animal rights movement". I see that in a very short period of time, you have realised and appreciated that one must turn away from Peter Singer's utilitarianism, and turn toward theorists such as Gary Francione and Tom Regan, if one wishes to gain a genuine animal rights understanding of human relations with the nonhuman world.
Given this, you have taken a journey that the "animal rights movement" refuses to take. Therefore, I would be interested to hear of your philosophical journey, so to speak, in your exploration of animal ethics. At the present time, in Europe and North America, there is a struggle going on involving animal advocates who are serious about rights and animal advocates who merely use rights rhetorically, in group names for example. I would very much appreciate your comments on this, should you wish to share them.
With very best wishes and respect,
Dr. Roger Yates.
Dear Dr. Roger Yates.
First of all, I would like to explain how I have come to accept the theory of animal rights.
To begin with, my main research theme is 'the formation of ideas in early Marx’, and since the publication of my first article in 1991 I have been writing on issues surrounding the texts of early Marx, such as Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and the German Ideology. After collecting the results of my research in a book entitled The Theory of Alienation in Early Marx, I obtained a doctorate in 2000.
However, this does not mean that I had no interest in, nor knowledge of, animal ethics. For I have been asked to teach ethics in university since 1994, and as a result, I have come to study issues in modern ethics, and become familiar with Peter Singer’s work. As you well know, Animal Liberation describes in detail the horrific conditions which animals suffer in factory farming, and this strongly impressed on me the strength of Singer’s argument. Yet, at the same time, I felt antagonistic towards his demand for vegetarianism. A ‘meal without meat’ seemed to me at that time unimaginably ‘abnormal’. I loved meat and was under the impression that I could not tolerate vegetarian meals. Besides, the fact that there were no vegetarians around me, and the fact that no one recommended it really worked against me.
In terms of my profession, there are many ‘academics’ who teach ethics, but there are no vegetarians, nor an ‘ethicist’ who supported animal rights (this is still the case).
On the contrary, the common attitude among the ethicists around me was that it was ‘ridiculous’ to put animals in the same category as humans, and that Singer’s argument was ‘extreme’ and did not deserve to be taken seriously. Consequently, although I felt that Singer’s argument was quite persuasive, I pretended to ‘look away’, and decided ‘not to think about it’. Nevertheless, ever since obtaining a doctorate, I have come to research environmental ethics in earnest. While re-reading books relevant to animal rights, I was becoming more convinced than ever of the evil of meat-eating. And Singer’s message that ‘one should become a vegetarian’ had changed from an irritation like ‘something in-between one’s teeth’ to an intolerable discomfort.
Yet the reason I still could not decide to be a vegetarian was that I believed that if I became a vegetarian, my muscles would deteriorate. I like training myself and I thought I couldn’t stand losing the results of all the exercise I had done over the years. That I used to worry about such a small thing is quite laughable now I think about it, but I didn’t know any vegetarians and couldn’t get rid of the stereotype of a ‘pale vegetarian’.
Around that time, I happened to come across an opportunity of going to India. It was December 2002. This trip to India turned out to be the biggest turning point in my life. It was literally a ‘culture shock’. One of the culture shocks I experienced was their diet. Apart from expensive restraints for tourists, diners for the Indian general public Alwasa served a set meal of dahl (a kind of soup) and vegetable curry, and even for snacks it was the rule not to use meat rather than the exception. In India ‘not eating meat’ is neither ‘abnormal’ nor ‘strange’, but rather a ‘natural’ thing to do. To witness the fact that far more people than Japan’s population are vegetarian made me feel certain that it is impossible to damage one’s health by not eating meat. After I came back to Japan, I had gradually reduced the amount of meat and animal product I consumed. And before long I became almost vegan at home, although I still consumed a tiny amount of dairy product. When I went out for a meal, if there was no way I could avoid it, I ate a small amount of animal product. Even in such cases, I chose sea food over meat. This is how my present eating habit became established.
Eating a small amount of animal product when I go out is a compromise I have to adopt in order to survive in Japan, which is an extremely backward country when it comes to vegetarianism. Of course I don’t want to consume animal product at all, but otherwise I wouldn’t be able to go out at all. Japan really is a difficult place for the vegetarian to live in. Once I became a vegetarian, I discovered that my worry that ‘I would lose muscles’ was totally unfounded. On the contrary, my muscles came to develop more easily through training. Being able to lead a much healthier life when I am vegetarian than when I was a meat-eater has allowed me to feel that it is right to be a vegetarian. And as I lived a vegetarian life, before I knew it, the desire for meat had disappeared. By becoming a vegetarian, I felt as though the thorn with which Singer had pricked my heart had been pulled out, and this gave me a stirring feeling that I was finally released from hypocrisy. I no longer have to adopt an attitude that is unworthy of an ethicist – that is to say, an attitude of pretence that animals are excluded as the objects of moral consideration.
However, once I became a vegetarian and seriously committed to animal issues as my own problems rather than somebody else’s, I started to look at Singer’s argument differently from the way I used to.
Although I used to think that Singer’s argument was a radical extremist one which forced people to become vegetarian, I began to think that in fact his argument is full of holes; a ‘loose’ argument. For although Singer emphasises that we should not inflict suffering on animals, he does not criticise the use of animals by humans in itself. Therefore, if animals are kept in comfortable environments and slaughtered painlessly, he will have no right to criticise factory farming. And as for animal experiment, if the ‘benefit’ humans gain outweighs the loss inflicted on animals, then, in Singer’s argument, animal experimentation is acceptable as an ‘exception’.
Soon after I became a vegetarian and started to engage with animal issues seriously, I discovered that Singer’s argument cannot be a true rationale for the protection of animals. For, because Singer’s theory is not a ‘rights theory’ that regards animals as ‘rights-bearers’, I cannot help but think that his theory is one that accumulates ‘deferral’ which allows the use of animals, and ends up rolling down the ‘slippery slope’, and that such a theory would make the animal rights movement spineless. Thus, although Singer made me aware that we should protect animals by becoming vegetarians, once I actually became one, I began to think that in order truly to protect animals, we should not stop at Singer’s position, but proceed to genuine animal rights theories such as Tom Regan’s or Gary Francione’s.
This is how I have become an animal rightist. Compared to the study on Marx, I have but begun to research animal rights. As a beginning I have submitted an essay [now published] entitled the Reality of Animal Rights Theories to a human rights organisation journal. The aim is to cause a stir in the present situation where Peter Singer is mistaken to be a representative of animal rights theories. Although you may find it unbelievable, in Japan there are few ethicists who subsequently declare themselves to be vegetarians and then support vegetarianism or animal rights theories. There is a gap between theory and practice. Against this tendency, I intend to deepen my research as a vegetarian animal rightist and to present my own position.
Dr. Koichi Tagami.
We can only hope that, as Dr. Tagami continues his journey toward veganism, that it becomes as easy as it is elsewhere. It is a noteworthy and welcome development that there is someone in Japan able to explain what is - and what is not - animal rights.