On Holocaust and Rape Analogies

Being a moral vegetarian is a phenomenologically weird affair. Sitting in a restaurant is to be, more often than not, surrounded by people complicit in a serious crime. Yet not only are these people unashamed and unabashed by their complicity, they are laughing, flirting and talking about inane matters. Walking down the street is to witness members of the public feeding themselves with bits of flesh; to see them discard the chunks that they no longer want on the floor or the bin; to see a shop full of carcasses, organs and lumps of congealed blood. On being invited to dinner or a barbeque, not only is one expected to attend, but to also refrain from discussing the issue for fear of impoliteness or of fostering a social dolorosa.

To the newly converted vegetarian these experiences often prove overwhelming. In her eyes the perpetrators will seem morally and epistemically deranged. How can they not see this wrong? Why, when the issue is brought to their attention, are they not interested in reflecting on whether or not what they are doing actually is wrong? Why, when asked to defend their position, do they brazenly churn out the same fallacious arguments they’d refrain from using in different contexts?

Having once shared in carnivorous exorbitances provides little interpretive comfort since your past self is also the target of the same questions. Moral conversion is accompanied by a shift in the phenomenology, and this shift piggybacks hermeneutical difficulties.

It’s the difficulty in bridging between these two perspectives that makes Holocaust and rape analogies philosophical tools for the moral vegetarian. Yet it’s often the case that the intention behind deploying these tools is misunderstood.

Most people have likely been subjected to, and offended by, the analogy between intensive farming and the mechanized murder of six million Jews. In fact, some academics have even gone so far to class the Holocaust as an ontologically unique or sui generis event, incomparable, in principle, to anything else. But these analogies offend, not because someone is making an ontological blunder in comparing them, but because they are taken to assume that animals are like Jews; because killing an animal is no worse than killing a Jew. In other words, even if the mechanized slaughter of billions of animals is wrong, it’s on a morally different spectrum than the Holocaust. Drawing the analogy confounds the different spectrums and it’s because of this that is offensive. With rape analogies it’s much the same. Their deployment is most often met by replies that “it’s not the same” or “you can’t compare rape to killing an animal” followed by the summary dismissal of the broadcaster as a kind of fanatic or extremist, ironically, as if there were something a priori and categorically mistaken about extremism, irrespective of what it is extremist about.

However, the purpose of deploying the analogy is not to suppose or argue that killing animals to eat is, in the relevant sense, the same as killing other humans or raping people, for this would be to blatantly beg the question. Rather, it’s simply a request that the non-converted attempt to see the animals issue in the same light as they would see cases of rape or of killing other humans; a demand that they shift phenomenological perspective. If those requested to affect this shift were successful in doing so they would see that life from the other side, with regards the issue in question, is exactly like life for them with regards the original target of the analogy. After all, one does not attend dinner parties where people are raped or feel constrained to not mention the issue for fear of generating social discomfort. In fact, most people would agree that someone’s failure to prevent such a dinner party would constitute their complicity in a serious wrong.

Finally, although the sharp end of the analogical wedge is a request that someone see in a different light, the blunt end forces on us the substantive issue, which, in this case, is the question of whether animals actually have moral value.

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3 Responses to “On Holocaust and Rape Analogies”


  1. 1 isachandra November 14, 2006 at 6:43 pm

    I just got into this argument with someone because I am against using the rape analogy. The reason why is not so much that I feel it is invalid, which I do, but because I don’t like the way some people use it in the same way George Bush uses 9/11. It comes across as opportunist and insensitive and more often than not it is a man making the analogy. Analogies are dubious to begin with, why use this when it seems to do little more than divide and alienate people?

    By the way I came across your blog while looking for information on Tristram Stuart because I am reading “Bloodless Revolution.” It has been a good read, thanks. (I mean your blog, not Bloodless Revolution, but that is good too!)

  2. 2 Ed November 14, 2006 at 7:00 pm

    That’s quite weird. I was reading your blog less than an hour ago! Those cakes do look nice. I’ll let Jim know and maybe he’ll reply.

    Take care!

  3. 3 Jim November 15, 2006 at 3:33 pm

    Hey there Isachandra

    Thanks for the comment! I’m not totally sure what you’re objection is but here is what I was trying to say. The cases in which I personally have seen the analogy deployed is in attempting to cajole people into seeing the issue from the moral vegetarian’s perspective. What it’s trying to do is show that just as rape is wrong for the non-vegetarian, so are many instances of animal slaughter for the vegetarian. This is a useful exercise because if the cajoled is successful they should be able to “see” from the vegetarian’s perspective.The analogy is not an argument for the wrongness of animal slaughter, since that would reply on exactly what you’re trying to show – the wrongness of the act in question.The fact that it may come as opportunist, insensitive and may have the consequence of alienating people is exactly because they have failed to realise the point of the analogy, which, is what I was trying to talk about in my post. If, for example, you are convinced that killing animals to eat is a serious wrong then you’re unlikely to take any offence at their comparison; both are instances of seriously wrong acts. Conversely, if you’re convinced of the wrongness of one but not the other and you miss the point of the comparison, which is simply to try and make you see the issue from the perspective of those that think both wrong, then you’re likely to get offended. But the offence only stems from a misunderstanding on the intention behind the exercise since it is not an attempt to induce in you the belief that killing animals is wrong but simply to make you see the world from the perspective of someone that does.

    So I guess I was trying to say that understanding the intention behind the analogy is really the issue. Is that any clearer?


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