A question of ethics: foraged shells?



I think anyone who has spent any part of their childhood at the beach will identify with this: collecting sea shells, possibly making some kind of artwork or dubious jewellery out of it. Indeed I have a few choice shells I've beach-combed over the years now dotted around the house as little ornaments. The bigger finds even got used as musical conchs. Hmm.

But is this vegan?

Sure, these collected shells came from shellfish that were not raised to be eaten and were not intentionally killed by humans either. The shellfish long gone, their shell rests on the beach on top of the sand which, come to think about it, is an animal by-product too. I'd never considered that before: is the use of sand vegan? We (my partner and I) keep a bucket of sand for dousing any fires for which water would not be suitable, but perhaps I should think about this differently: is it just a bucket of finely ground carcasses? I don't see vegans boycotting the beach any time soon, in protest of animal exploitation, simply by use of the sand...

Better still - I mean better to get one's philosophical mind working - I was out one day foraging for sea vegetables, for eating this time, and I saw plenty of shells that I could have quite easily taken with me and boiled in with the soup. Just the empty shells. What about that? Strictly speaking that would indeed be the consumption of an animal product but I think it might depend more on the individual; whether the mere concept is ethically intolerable... because no human raised or killed it, and that is perhaps the key. It lived out its life and, whether or not we polluted the seas thereby cutting that life short, that bears little ethical issue on the use of the shell once it has gone (in relation to the other) - we haven't polluted the seas so that we could precisely do that; there's no link. Maybe this is a tad hypocritical to say, but some have likened using shells to using wild roadkill and I disagree. Roadkill, for one, involves the butchery and mutilation of the carcass, and the link between death and human involvement is a little more defined.

Am I making these quandaries up? Is it really black and white? I've seen arguments against using foraged shells as follows: other animals use abandoned shells for protection and shelter. Yes, but the same argument can even be said for the plants we eat, and many other things humans make use of that are indeed considered vegan. And those vegans who take that issue might well be filling up their car's petroleum tank at the same time too. Vegan?

I think the issue is that the semantic definition of veganism isn't precise enough about matters of sand, petroleum, foraged shell (and feathers) and we don't seem to have any decent semanticists on the case either. As veganism expands, becomes more in dialogue with modern life than it was before, the concept should be evolving and defining itself better - but it hasn't for quite some time. Well, not that I know of - Peter Singer has backed off somewhat after opposition to what some perceived as 'loopholes' in his publications. I recommend his earlier, not later, editions which are more ethically and philosophically engaging - his books have gradually become more acculturated in my opinion. Hmm, OK, I've got a few names popping to mind now but none having the impact Singer did.

It needs to be thought through, not blindly rejected by vegan totalists who say 'don't pick up that feather; it's an animal product'. I'm an ethical vegan: I don't simply live this way because I looked at the list of 'vegan approved' products - I've given personal thought to it every step of the way... and here, the way is not clear.

So I ask you, where do you draw your line and why?
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