What vegans and non-vegans alike don’t get about veganism, and why dialogue between two sides often results in unnecessary confrontation
Vegan is a loaded term, conversations about it often expose preconceptions and judgments that hinder dialogue, incite conflict, and contort meanings. It does not have to be this way for many reasons, several of which you may not have expected.
The first and foremost reason is the most uninteresting one; it is the one about what veganism is. The second and other reason builds on the first and is the more interesting and fundamental one; it is the one about accepting that violations always exist, even if they are necessary or unnecessary, or avoidable or unavoidable. Let us begin.
What is veganism
Veganism is specifically a doctrine of a single tenet, containing a single principle. Things that uphold this doctrine are considered vegan.
“The word veganism shall mean the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals.” Veganism Defined (Leslie Cross, The Vegan Society, 1951)
So a vegan diet is a diet that upholds this doctrine. A vegan is a person who does. Vegans are a group of people who do. A vegan restaurant is a restaurant which does.
Alignment with this doctrine is solely what makes something vegan, not anything else. As such, veganism is a political ideology. One may consume a vegan diet for health reasons, but unless they believe that principle, then they are not a vegan, they are just merely a consumer of a vegan diet.
A definition to note is that “animal” is often used colloquially to refer to “animals other than the human animal” or derogatively as “an animal beneath the human animal”. However, there is also the definition that includes humans as animals, which is why we can even say the human animal.
“Animal: A living organism which feeds on organic matter, typically having specialised sense organs and nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli.” Oxford Dictionary / Wikipedia
Veganism in essence is abolitionism for all animals, not just the human animals.
As veganism’s doctrine only covers a single principle, the implementation of that principle is up to the discretion of the individual vegan and their circumstances. To quote the Vegan Society, in the same article as before:
“If, for example, the vegan principle is applied to diet, it can at once be seen why it must be vegetarian in the strictest sense and why it cannot contain any foods derived from animals. One may become a vegetarian for a variety of reasons — humanitarian, health, or mere preference for such a diet; The principle is a matter of personal feeling, and varies accordingly. Veganism, however, is a principle — that man has no right to exploit the creatures for his own ends — and no variation occurs. Vegan diet is therefore derived entirely from “fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains and other wholesome non-animal products,” and excludes “flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey and animal milk and its derivatives.” Veganism Defined (Leslie Cross, The Vegan Society, 1951)
There are items that are outside a strict-vegetarian (plant-based) set that comply with veganism, such as lab-grown meat, which is not vegetarian but is vegan. Others can be second-hand leather, fur, and down. This is because those instances of procurement do not result in the oppression of an animal.
As veganism is only a principle, one becomes a vegan by merely agreeing with the principle, despite differing application. There exists times where it is necessary to harm an animal, in order to prevent harm to yourself — which affects application, but not belief. However, by having that belief, one is likely to attempt avoiding making that same violation again in the future. Such as packing more vegan food next trip so one doesn’t need to procure non-vegan food, or cleaning up your kitchen properly so one doesn’t need to kill more pests.
As such, when it comes to the individual application, veganism increases inquisition into the consequences of our encounters with animals, be it direct encounters (eg. did this product oppress animals in its procurement? or for pests, should I relocate it or kill it?) or are indirect (eg. should I financially support companies that test on animals? should I financially support non-vegan practices with patronage at non-vegan restaurants?). This equips the diligent vegan with a wealth of research and contemplation for their own congruence with veganism. This undoubtably is a barrier to entry for many, and somtimes judged as laudable and disdainful by non-vegans. How one judges it seems to depend on how important one places the vegan principle, that the more important it is to someone, as like the abolition of human slavery, then the more one willingly sacrifices conveniences as a worthwhile rewarding exchange for them, even to be a practice of spirtuality, the upkeeping of their spirit rather than the undermining of it.
Like any movement, veganism unfortunately is incorrectly associated with the common and not-so-common individual practices of its followers, rather than by the actual doctrine of it.
Violations are inevitable, how you deal with them is your choice
Now some argue that it is okay for us to oppress non-human animals. Most of the arguments for that, are refuted by the research going into the ideologies of anthropocentrism, speciesism and carnism, however there is a line of thinking is indeed more nuanced — necessary harm.
Before we talk about necessary harm. Lets first consider the common argument “a cow that lived happily that is then killed for human consumption is sufficiently ethical”. This is the animal welfare over animal rights argument.
While I and others do not like the term “rights” for non-human animals, as it does not seem technically correct, as non-human animals cannot uphold law and thus cannot uphold rights. It is what that line of arguments are called that focus on reducing our enslavement of animals, rather than just improving their wellbeing.
There is no disagreement that while animals are actively enslaved, that striving to improve their conditions is fantastic for the animal, improves the conscience of the farmer, and the quality of the produce. The stance that the vegan doctrine takes however is that we should strive to not violate the animal in the first place. The most common violations are the killing for meat, the sexual abuse for breast milk, and the concentration camps for eggs and honey.
Those who promote animal welfare and ignore animal rights, argue on necessity pleas, of which there are many. The most common pleas generally are arguments for survival, unique health conditions, economic and ecological dependencies, etc.
However, what all these necessity pleas fail to realise is that necessity doesn’t make a violation no longer a violation. Even despite the violation now having some justifications to its necessity, the violation still exists and should still be avoided.
As moral agents we encounter cognitive dissonance, an unconcious angst that presents itself when there is a mismatch between what we are doing, what we ought to do, and what we want to do. The goal of cognitive dissonance is to eradicate violations to make us more integrated and functional.
When we recognise animals as people that have their own lives, a will to live, a will to be free, a will to self-actualise, then we recognise that we are violating this person, violating their will to live, violating their will to be free, violating their will to self-actualise. We then have a choice of, do we wish to maximise the violations of these animals, violations that take the forms of sexual abuse, enslavement, and killing—or do we wish to minimise it? This becomes a mismatch of our wanting self, should self, and actual self.
These violations also come at an expense to ourself, as violations of our own value of kindness and compassion, and to our own belief in civil liberty and reciprocity.
Veganism resolves these particular instances of cognitive dissonance through consumer choice and education, refined corporate practices, and government regulations.
However, necessary violations are still violations, and a violation is still something that should be aimed to be avoided. Killing against a victim’s will is bad, it is a violation of someone else’s agency. Killing in self defence can be justified, however despite the justification, a violation has still occured, and it should still be a situation to avoid occuring in the first place.
In the Steppes of Mongolia, the ecology is comprised of humans, horses, wolves, and grass. The humans protect the horses from the wolves, and that forms an aliance between the horses and the humans, allowing horse riding to be possible. The humans will eat the weakest horse when it comes time to not starve. From the carcass they feed and build their home and tools for their family. The horse is killed against its will, to prevent further harm to the humans (by fending off starvation), and even perhaps to prevent further harm to the horses (humans become nourished enough to continue protecting the horses from the wolves). The killing of the horse is still a violation, despite it being necessary in those circumstances, and the necessity of it does not mean a violation did not occur, nor does it negate the violation.
The idea that necessity eliminates violations, seems to stem from a naive belief that one is, or even can be, violation free. But one who has killed, even when justified, is still a killer. No amount of neccessity surrounding a violation removes the fact that the violation still occurred. All that the necessity states is that the violation was justified, not that it did not occur. Being violation free in the face of a violation is wishful and delusional thinking, a longing for a sense of purity that is nonexistent.
It is not possible to be put into an ecology and never violate any other being’s rights/freedoms in that ecology. Every order we place, we participate in an ecosystem of tradeoffs, a few little violations are exchanged for a little wealth. However of course, this creates unease, as we desire to be ethical, virtuous, honest, integrated people, as such committing violations concerns us, often deeply and endlessly, we simply do not want to commit violations and if for whatever reason we do, we go through cognitive dissonance, often excruciatingly so, which takes many forms. This continues until we find a belief system that can integrate the violations congruently with our shoulds, wants, and actuals. For instance, in Jainism, a jain wishes to never have a violation of harm on their conscious, so they practice veganism and even avoid eating root vegetables, as that is an act that kills the entire plant. For most of us, Jainism is not worth the trade offs, perhaps we can save more animal and plant lives by eating potatoes. We do not have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. This is why you likely use a mobile phone or computer, despite the sweatshops and mining conditions involved, it is a worthwhile trade; a few little violations for each procurement of the device, exchanged for the potential good that your actions with the device can bring to the world.
Since the dawn of mankind, we’ve created endless beliefs and rationalisations to provide comfort for the ceaseless angst that unavoidable violations play on our conscience, often with religious practices. Or we downright ignore it, never resolving our dissonance, becoming quick to trigger. As technology and society progresses, the less moral violations remain necessary, and our belief systems update accordingly. Now, for the first time in history, a nutritionally complete/comparable selection of plant products are available to the average supermarket consumer, regardless of the consumer’s season and budget — making veganism now enter the public consciousness, as oppressing animals wanes into the unncessary. As an example, imagine getting a shepherd 2000 years ago to become nutrient complete and thriving on plants alone for their entire life, it won’t happen, so instead rules and ideologies around the necessary consumption of animals were created to workaround the guilt of the oppression of the animal which no longer apply today. Saying the prayer before slaughter/eating “thank you God for forgiving my sin in taking this animal’s life so that I can live and not die from starvation” hardly applies when the animal was killed mass-market by someone else so you can enjoy their flesh in an airplane at 35,000 ft flying in the sky—there is no unavoidable necessity of starvation in that circumstance—yet the legacy of those rational delusions sputter onward.
For any atrocity throughout history, one will always find a companion rationalisation or ideology that provides justifications for the atrocity’s existence. Do those justifications ever make that atrocity okay? No. Should atrocities always be sought to be avoided? Yes.
Vegans and non-vegans alike, all actively educate themselves on avoiding the violations that are important to them, to attempt to prevent systematic atrocities that could come from those violations. Vegans are merely those aligned with tackling a particular set of violations, that is the violations and atrocities against non-human animals. Violations that manifest themselves in the accessible mundane consumer choices that we all make multiple times each day. Does that mean non-vegans are evil? No. Does that mean vegans are pure? No. Does that mean the violations each individual is aware of should be examined by the other? Yes, they both may be aware of different violations that either can act upon, or even different necessities that may justify (but not overlook) such violations.
Different focuses of violation between people seem to arise fundamentally from the oversight and refusal to accept that with a particular set of violations, one is not violation free, and that one may never be. Sometimes violations are necessary, sometimes unnecessary, yet should always be aimed to be avoided. Until this is accepted by those in dialogue, then dialogue remains trapped in stress fused justification battles from the perceived vilification of others and ourselves, which just isn’t productive for progress by any means. Once we accept our violations (which can be eased by recognising that we did not know at the time, and thus the violations were likely unavoidable then) dialogue productively moves to identifying and understanding differences of necessity and avoidability. Moving the focus to which violations are still required, which can be avoided today, and which can be phased out through effort and time.
This isn’t to say we should drop all that we do and become a vegan or a jain, it is to say we should educate ourselves on all exposed violations and identify which are ultimately avoidable and passionate in own lives. One can hate the messenger or their delivery, but to ignore their valid points just because one hates the messenger, is a behaviour that is unvirtuous by any standard.
We need to stop the suppressing the guilt of our violations. We must recognise naive, ignorant or outdated thought patterns or ideologies that are hiding our violations away from us. We must bring violations to light and examine them and scrutinise them, together and individually, to decide if they are indeed violations? were they necessary? and how can they be avoided in the times to come?
Otherwise, what nobility is there in oppressing animals when the violation was unnecessary and/or avoidable? None that I can see.
Let me know your thoughts and arguments, or whatever that resonated, agreed, or disagreed with you. I’m keen to know.
I wrote this on 21 November 2015, hopefully it is still relevant. Its intention was to target confusions that kept arising on Sam Harris’s Waking Up Podcast when it came to veganism. Let me know your thoughts.
For the resources that lead me to veganism. See this guide that I did back in 2013 when I made my switch. There may be better ones now, and it may be dated or immature, but it is what lead me to where I am today. Let me know your thoughts.