Should vegans eat oysters? Should vegans eat any animals or animal products? No. However, Christopher Cox disagrees and tries to argue that even strict vegans should feel comfortable eating oysters by the boatload. Humans have come up with various terms to reflect their choices of who, not what, we choose to put in our mouth. And one thing is clear - the term "vegan" means no animals or animal products wind up there. So, if you choose to eat oysters, you're not a vegan, and we can close up shop and move on to other matters, because this isn't really a valid question. This isn't to be arrogant, some sort of idealistic zealot, or judgmental. Words need to mean something, so if you eat oysters you're not a vegetarian either. The last time I looked, oysters were animals not plants or byproducts.
Many people choose their diet based on ethical principles. Sentience, the capacity to feel pain and suffer, frequently is the main reason people "go vegetarian or vegan." In his essay, Cox writes, "Moreover, since oysters don't have a central nervous system, they're unlikely to experience pain in a way resembling ours--unlike a pig or a herring or even a lobster." However, we don't know this is so. And, it's not important if oyster pain or the pain felt by any other animal resembles ours. They have their own pain and their pain matters to them. People also vary in their pain thresholds and it would be wrong to conclude that someone doesn't feel pain because they don't express it in the usual way.
For all we know, oysters might feel pain. For a long time people thought fish didn't feel pain, but we now know that isn't so (see also) A recent book titled Do Fish Feel Pain? by the renowned scientist Victoria Braithwaite shows clearly that fish do suffer and feel pain as do many other animals who were thought not to. Braithwaite concludes, "I have argued that there is as much evidence that fish feel pain and suffer as there is for birds and mammals - and more than there is for human neonates and preterm babies." (page 153)
There are a number of issues that need to be considered in who we eat. Should pain be the hook on which we hang our decision to eat another animal? Should we simply not eat other animals because they exist - because they're alive - and we really don't need to eat them anyway? Factory farming without suffering isn't acceptable either.
We should give animals the benefit of the doubt. Cox sort of agrees, but not really, because he believes it's improbable that oysters feel pain so even vegans should go ahead and let some slide down their throat. I disagree, and if you're vegan you wouldn't eat oysters anyway. As with many ethical decisions, we can easily find ourselves on a slippery slope that conveniently expands the range of animals we eat because we don't know for sure they feel pain. The argument that we really don't know something is a bit too facile for my liking.
We need to be serious about our food choices and ask that our critics, even "the converted," also be serious about their tongue-in-cheek criticisms. We can easily reduce suffering and increase our "compassion footprint" by choosing a vegan diet. Each of us is responsible for the decisions we make. Vegans don't have to defend or apologize for our humane and ethical choices. If in the future we learn that some plants are sentient, we will have to change our ways. Right now I'm happy to be a vegan, and don't feel guilty for eating a non-protesting brussels sprout -- but no oysters for me.
Follow Marc Bekoff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Marc Bekoff