The Moral Limitations Of Being Vegan
Six years ago I stopped eating meat. As a chef and a foodie, enthusiastic about quality local ingredients, meat and dairy were a big part of my lifestyle, but I had been feeling increasingly uncomfortable with my meat consumption, or rather, what I was supporting with my money.
There is no doubt to me, that there is something natural about taking a life for food, as horrible as it may seem we only need to look at other animals to see that it is often a crucial part of survival. Yet, we can also observe a natural balance where the cost of taking a life is high enough to provide constraint.
If we humans had to kill directly for the meat on our plates, I have no doubt it would curb our consumption drastically! Which is part of that natural balance I mentioned. For humans, conscience is a high cost, whether an obligate carnivore, such as a lion, has a conscience or not I don’t know but we can see the cost is high enough in effort and energy to maintain that balance.
The way we consume meat today is far removed from anything natural, it is unspeakably cruel and vulgar!
Before I stopped eating meat, I began changing the meat I purchased from affordable supermarket brands to the more expensive “outdoor reared” or “free range” labels, paying more but eating less in an attempt to hush my nagging conscience. But the truth is it wouldn't make much, if any, impact on animal suffering, it was just a way for me to keep eating meat with less guilt.
“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That’s the essence of inhumanity.” — George Bernard Shaw
It was a Sunday morning in February 2013, when I experienced something of an epiphany; I was reading through a free recipe booklet I had requested (not realising it was vegetarian) which included statements from various celebrities on why they were vegan or vegetarian, and as I read them I realised I felt the same! Although I was already aware of the horror behind the meat industry, it was something I tried to avoid giving too much thought. I didn’t want to see it because it would make eating meat far less comfortable for me.
But this particular morning I chose to look, and to look hard; it was truly horrendous! I cried all day and felt so much repressed guilt pouring out of me, I vowed in that moment, never to eat meat again!
Needing a supportive ear, I called a friend who hadn’t eaten meat since she was old enough to have a choice in the matter, and she advised me to look into the dairy industry as well…
While I was aware of the cruelty of the meat industry, I had never really understood why dairy should be an issue, after all, as I had been taught through my childhood, cows produce milk and it doesn’t harm them for us to take the milk and make use of it, does it?
At the time I was breastfeeding my 13 month old daughter and was still very much in a state of awe at the miraculous ability of my body to not only create an entire human but even produce a food substance, custom designed for the specific individual being it was intended for!
I think for this reason I was even more impacted by learning the truth about the dairy industry, which now seems so strikingly obvious.
The image of Daisy the cow happily ambling in from a relaxed day in the field to be gently milked by the kind old farmer, perched on a wooden stall was strongly etched in my mind and still today I see children being severely miseducated about milk, where it comes from and why…
Because of course cows, like all mammals, produce milk for their young, not for humans, or any other animal. Still, I believe these placid, gentle natured creatures would willingly provide for any infant in need of nourishment.
“If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.”
― François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire
I was shocked by the revelations of truth about dairy, particularly as a mother. We exploit the miracle of birth and the female reproductive system in such, often, horrendously cruel ways! One of the images that has stayed in my mind, is of a calf wearing a spiked nose ring, known as a “weaner ring” to discourage the natural behaviour between mother and infant of nursing and suckling. While this may be extreme and not common practice for all dairy farms (many remove the calf altogether), the basic premise of taking milk produced for a young mammal can not easily be both profitable and ethical!
Does This Make Me Vegan?
So within a day of deciding to give up meat, I now determined to stop supporting the (even crueller!) dairy industry too. Where did that leave me? I was half way to being a “vegan” something of an alien concept to me; I’d only really known one vegan, and whilst it seemed admirable to me, I didn’t have a great understanding of it, or what one would actually eat!
“Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.” — Thomas Edison
With more awareness of my own ignorance, I began to question everything and become more mindful of my choices; I considered other vegan subjects such as eggs and honey, cleaning products, clothing. I joined vegan food groups on Facebook and began to learn exciting new ways to cook and eat; something I really enjoyed. I initially suspected that my diet would become very restricted but in fact it was quite the opposite! I was trying loads of new ingredients, discovering new meals and new ways to create old favourites, in fact I was inspired (and very relieved to realise I could still eat chocolate)!
So I jumped wholeheartedly into my new lifestyle and began to identify as a vegan But…..
I felt I didn’t quite fit. I had experienced an awakening and it had changed my life. I have always felt a strong sense of empathy and compassion and hate the idea of causing pain or suffering to another, and now I had come to realise that I was indirectly doing just that with my everyday choices, and vowed to make a change, to align my actions with my own moral compass. As it was specifically cruelty in the animal products industry that had spurred this change for me, it was only natural that I would turn towards veganism as the most recognisable movement for my newfound philosophy. Surely here, I would find like-minded people? To an extent, yes, I did, but I also discovered a certain ugly dogma that unsettled me greatly.
“The death of dogma is the birth of morality.”
― Immanuel Kant
My journey was one of invoking mindfulness, compassion and informed ethical choices, not limited to the welfare of animals, which unfortunately was something I discovered among vegans. Certain subjects caused huge and often explosive divides among those identifying as vegan, palm oil, for example or the ethical implications of eating eggs from pet hens; both subjects worthy of careful consideration and discussion, yet what frustrated me was the hostility and assurance of those who stuck rigidly to a perceived rule that being vegan, by definition, meant avoiding animal products regardless of circumstances. Therefore a person living a mindfully ethical existence, avoiding all animal cruelty, yet occasionally eating an egg from the happy chickens being cared for in the garden, would be (metaphorically) lynch mobbed by indignant vegans!
The same mob would rain fire and brimstone down on any who dared to question whether palm oil should really be considered suitable for vegans.
It made me sad and frustrated, as did the aggressiveness and intolerance towards “non-vegans”, after all, most of us had started as one!
I’m not criticising veganism, as a choice, I applaud anyone who takes a stand against the disgusting and relentless exploitation of non humans, but there is something of the same guilt assuage that I found in changing my brand of meat; a lack of taking full responsibility; If we choose to identify as vegan and dogmatically follow a set of agreed principles we can feel better about ourselves, (superior even!) without actually having to think critically.
The truth is a “non-vegan” living a sustainable lifestyle in harmony with nature; keeping chickens for eggs, bee’s for honey and catching the odd fish or rabbit to supplement their home grown vegetables would undoubtedly be causing significantly less harm than the judgemental vegan, loading up on plant based products made by ruthless companies, sold by unethical supermarkets, shoved into plastic bags and driven home in the car!
Of course, it’s not possible or practical for all of us to just up and go to live off the land but my point is if you want to live a more compassionate lifestyle (and undoubtedly, that is the only reason one would become vegan!) it’s not as black and white as just being vegan. It’s about taking responsibility for your choices by being informed and educated.
Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to be complacent about the impact we have, and certainly corporate intent makes it even easier for us to enjoy consuming in ignorance and comfort. Empathy soon kicks in, if we allow ourselves to so much as imagine the reality of where our bacon comes from, and even then, we would fall short of grasping the true horror, I’m certain.
“If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.”
― Paul McCartney
Ultimately we need to bridge the divide between our choice and it’s consequence. Corporations will always respond to demand which is why we see so many more plant based products becoming available and why we see the biggest most unethical companies buying vegan companies and producing vegan products, as more of us take a stand against animal cruelty and exploitation. What we should be demanding is more transparency, so that we can determine exactly what we are supporting with our money!
To practice compassion requires more than simply swapping apathy for veganism; if you avoid wool, for example, in favour of nylon or cotton from unscrupulous corporations you may be doing more harm than good but at least you’ll feel better! If we want to do better we need to give more specific consideration to each choice we make, instead of soothing our troubled conscience with a cosy (polyester) blanket of veganism.
For example, while it’s not considered vegan to wear wool or leather (for obvious reasons), they can still be the least harmful option, especially if buying or using existing materials, instead of paying for the unethical production of unsustainable or immorally produced clothing, that’s harming humans, the planet and animals!
“Compassion is the basis of morality.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer
I pondered the idea of an alternative label for myself, since “vegan” didn’t fully encompass my new way of being, but the truth is I don’t need to call it anything; actions mean more than words. The principle itself is not new to me, I have always felt a strong sense that it’s wrong to harm others, be they a spider, snail, fly or a pig, hen or dog and I would never dream of hurting an animal directly! When I allowed myself to fully accept the realisation that I was hurting them indirectly every day, I had to make amends.
But I extend that same principle to all; Humans, animals, plants. Just avoid causing harm! Sometimes very simple but life is full of “grey areas” and often deeper consideration is required, sometimes harm is unavoidable and it’s a case of trying to find the least harmful option. The problem is that so much of the harm we cause is indirect (though, no less real), we are disconnected from it, so we must try to reconnect and be directly involved as far as possible. If you can grow your own food or buy from local suppliers, with whom you can converse, even observe their practices, you will be much closer than when buying from a supermarket, for example. If you eat meat, it’s a good idea to visit your local abattoir, just to make sure you’re comfortable with everything happening there… (!)
Finally, I must stress that I’m not speaking from a place of moral high ground here; only yesterday I handed money to a ruthlessly unethical, abhorrent corporation so I could indulge in a decadent vegan version of a popular ice cream but I’m not going to attempt to justify that choice to anyone, least of all myself! I will instead strive to keep making better choices, one day at a time, vegan or otherwise.