Honey and veganism

This Slate article on honey and veganism makes some good points: most notably about the inconsistency between refusing honey on ethical grounds and accepting fruit that is pollinated by domesticated bees. Not eating anything that requires bee labour for production rules out “almonds, avocados, broccoli, canola, cherries, cucumbers, lettuce, peaches, pears, plums, sunflowers, and tomatoes.” In theory, one might be able to find some of these things grown only with the assistance of naturally occurring pollinators, but I doubt it is something most honey-shunning vegans have even considered.

My personal position, as described before, is that there is no fundamental problem with using animals for food. The problems arise when it is done in an environmentally unsustainable, unhygienic, or morally unacceptable way. The latter condition means that, when animals above a certain threshold of sentience are involved, they cannot be treated in a way fundamentally contrary to their nature. In the case of bees, I would argue that they fall below the sentience threshold. While it is impossible to determine, at this time, whether they are capable of experiencing suffering, forming complex thoughts, and so forth, it seems plausible to conclude that they generally cannot, and are thus more on par with protozoans, plants, and fungi than with complex animals. I don’t claim that this moral code is entirely comprehensive or internally consistent, but it presently strikes an acceptable balance between my level of concern and the amount of time I am willing to spend pondering such questions and taking actions required in order to not contravene them.

In addition to honey, I generally disagree with the vegan objection to wool. There doesn’t seem to be any fundamental cruelty or desecration involved in the shearing of sheep, though I should probably investigate the conditions in which sheep used for wool production are raised and live.

More on food, ethics, and the environment:

There are many more, but that list should get the curious reader started.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

5 thoughts on “Honey and veganism”

  1. I’m not convinced that bees aren’t sentient, particularly when one considers the collective knowledge involved in a hive. On the other hand, giving them a big cushy home and a large, varied supply of sweet things hardly seems like treating them “in a way fundamentally contrary to their nature”, so if getting bees to pollinate fruit isn’t cruel then it doesn’t especially matter (to us) if they are sentient or not.
    On a side-note, the mysterious death / disappearance of bees known as Colony Collapse Disorder affects wild bees more than kept bees in the UK (which apparently can be partially protected) with the result that there are few wild bees around. Given that, we are more dependant on beehives than ever for our fruit.

  2. It seems to me that if bees aren’t individually sentient, even coordinated group behaviour cannot taken to imply group sentience. Behaving in a coordinated manner is certainly evidence of some kind of organization, but if we take self-awareness to be a necessary element of sentience, it seems implausible to assert that it is present.

    That said, I agree that using bees for honey production and pollination is not contrary to their nature. That being said, shipping them internationally en masse definitely is, and may well be a contributing factor in the CCD outbreak.

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