It would hardly come to as a surprise to anyone to know that most people in the animal advocacy movement are strict and vocal vegans. As a matter of fact, not being a vegan in these circles can stir up quite a bit of controversy and more time is spent debating about someone’s decision to consume something ethically questionable than what may be justified or useful.
The rationale of course is that, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, it is only natural to assume that any product derived from animals involves some degree of harm to the sentient beings, varying from denial of freedom to horrendous torture for its entire lifetime. That’s a reasonable assumption, but what about the justification for the contours that define the boundaries of personal consumption?
At first glance, it may appear that veganism involves avoidance of food that comes from animal sources, including meat, fish, shellfish and all forms of dairy products. However, diet is only one component and a vegan lifestyle rejects animal-derived clothing like fur and leather, animal-tested products (especially cosmetics), boycotting animal-exploitative industries/facilities like circuses and zoos.
While stressing the importance of abstaining from all these other animal-exploitative choices, often the greatest focus comes down to the diet (probably also the most consequential). Indeed, it is a matter of legitimate debate whether to boycott a giant conglomerate for the violations of one of its minor subsidiaries but with personal diet , it is significantly easier to separate products that come from animals and those that don’t. Cheese is out, spinach is fine, skip the Bloody Mary but you may crush another lime for a mojito.
Simple? Not quite.
Perfect vegan is an elusive goal
Here is an undeniable truth — unless one chooses an extreme lifestyle (yes, way more extreme than run-of-the-mill vegan!), avoidance of harm (or contribution to it) to sentient organisms is impossible. This is a natural consequence of living in the modern world where industries and supply-chains are deeply intertwined. If you eat veggies that are products of modern agriculture, then most likely it is accompanied by use of pesticides and herbicides, not to mention that ploughing and harvesting the land often involves deaths of several animals. And while we are at it, almonds would also not be vegan if we take into account the fact that commercial beekeeping is used in their pollination.
If you use the roads and highways for transport (and even if you don’t, the food that you eat almost certainly did) , their construction leads to habitat fragmentation and pose a mortal threat to different species. The upward trajectory of our consumption and perpetual expansion of economy is creating greater strain on the natural resources leading to its increasingly greater exploitation, inevitably affects animals in the wild. No doubt, being a vegan limits that destruction but it does not reduce to zero.
And even though vegans may not buy products that are made from animals, it is quite conceivable that purchasing from a business involving animal products may on the whole be a net contributor to suffering (one may make the argument the other way around that this creates a greater demand for vegan products in the business, but regardless, no vegan has done the long term economic evolution modeling at a given store or restaurant to justify that position).
Direct and indirect harm
The standard response to this of course is to draw a distinction between harm caused directly and those that can be considered as ‘second-order’ effects. While there is a more immediate connection between consuming honey and harming to bees, there is a layer separating almonds and commercial beekeeping much as there is between animal ingredients in fertilizers and the broccoli that was grown using it.
This second order effect being qualitatively different from direct causes is an important distinction and presents a good argument. However, by applying an asymmetric ethical standard to direct and indirect effects, it is implicitly ignoring the other great ethical principle, namely, consequentialism. Consequentialism holds that ethics of an action is determined entirely by the consequences that causally emerge from it. By that yardstick, what matters is the amount of harm that accompanies a particular action and if it so happens that 10 almonds (assume California) leads to greater suffering of the bees than 10ml of honey, then clearly it may be better to have the honey instead.
Maybe the almond case was a little too neat of an example and so let’s set that aside (say that all vegans avoid almonds from here on). In reality, what distinguishes the almond case is that it is just easier to explain but the principle applies to almost everything else.
Minimization of harm
If being a vegan is equivalent to absolute minimization the harm, then why stop with just direct animal products? Why not seek out plants that have been grown without using pesticides or animal fertilizers? Why not take dusty back roads and avoid highways that likely involved some harm to the animals? Surely, this is impractical if not impossible in general.
It may still be argued that being a vegan represents a definite baseline and while one can go to greater lengths than that, it represents what is the ethical minimum that should be expected from a person (or at the very least, an animal advocate). However there are two problems with this : first, why exactly is being a vegan an ethical baseline and not, for example, vegan together with refusal to patronize a business that trades in animal products?; second, if consumption of x gms/ml of vegan quantity A is worse off for animals than y gms/ml of non-vegan B, then why should it be ethically justifiable to consume A (or conversely, why is it unethical to consume B)?
Defenders would argue that, despite all this, the vegan boundary is a natural and a fairly uncomplicated one. Veganism of course is doing the best we can for animals, and even the most hardcore purist proponents do not argue that all suffering will be eliminated by it. Every extra step to expand the forbidden goods requires more effort and that cannot go on forever.
But what if the effort required to avoid a certain vegan product is less than it is to avoid a non-vegan one? What if someone found it easier to avoid figs, but finds it a hassle to avoid trace non-vegan ingredients in a product? Wouldn’t it be ethically better off for that person to skip the figs and also skip looking at the ingredients list with a microscope?
To be fair, if we are take consequentialism seriously, you arrive at some truly unappealing conclusions (it’s actually called repugnant conclusion) . For example, if actions are all that matters, then it may argued that an individual who eats foie gras for all meals while donating a million dollars to various animal causes is ethically better than a vegan purist (who also avoids almonds and figs!). These are unrealistic examples, but yes, if I were pushed to answer one way or the other, I would still back our dubious foie gras eating philanthropist!
Even though that example is ludicrous, but consider two hypothetical individuals — the first enjoys a scoop of ice-cream once a month while converting three people to cut down their meat consumption by 75% for the rest of their lives in that same period and second, who is a strict vegan but does not influence anyone. It is obvious that the first person is making a greater difference towards reducing animal suffering overall. If that is not controversial observation, it does not appear logical to focus on that tiny amount of dairy the person consumes and castigate that person as a hypocrite or worse.
Of course, it is an empirical fact that the most effective and powerful advocates for animals are pretty strict vegans too, but that is besides the point here. It’s great to have that strong correlation but should the movement be so concerned about the the purity of an individual’s diet?
Can the vegan baseline be defended?
Despite all of the above, there can still be some arguments made in favor of setting veganism as the ethical baseline:
1. Setting an example: As an advocate for animal rights/welfare, being a strict vegan sets an example of personal discipline, commitment and seriousness about the cause. And whether they admit it or not, people tend to take that into account when evaluating the movement, its front-runners and ultimately their decision to join or support it. It would be significantly harder to create that same unblemished and scrupulous image of rectitude if the decisions of what is eaten is based on detailed considerations of the harm caused.
2. Slippery slope: If we start to accept the fact that it may be justified to consume certain animal products under certain circumstances ( reasoning along the lines above), then that would lead us to the slippery slope where the continuum ranges from ignoring the fine-print about trace animal ingredients all the way to eating meat.
3. Uniformity among activists/advocate: It may be argued that, even if ultimately the vegan boundary is arbitrary, it creates a standard for the community to follow. Again, it is well-known that communities of various sorts have unwritten codes and adherence to them establishes a unifying bond and contributes to creating that shared identity, something that cannot be underestimated.
Unfortunately, I am not convinced by any of these arguments despite the fact that they invoke some genuine issues. The primary issue with (1) and (3) is that, if we take that route, then we are essentially undermining the claim that the movement is based on scientific facts and clear-headed philosophical reasoning, and leaning towards adoption of attributes that are typically associated with religions. Indeed, much like the accusations that scientists typically receive from religious fundamentalists, we reject strongly any suggestion that the movement has a religious quality to it. And for good reason.
Not just religion, more than any other movement, animal advocacy would vehemently also reject any commonalities with any form of tribal nationalism; indeed that runs counter to the fundamental precept of expanding our consideration beyond our species. If that is true, insisting on a certain uniformity goes against that very principle.
More important and consequential, (1) represents a strategically sub-optimal choice. For a movement that is vastly outnumbered, it cannot insist that the only bona fide advocate for animal causes has to follow a certain standard. Especially when that standard is an arbitrary one. For someone to become an advocate despite the overwhelming normalization of industrial abuse of animals requires considerable re-education and re-evaluation of assumptions. It is also a very personal journey. To alienate that person by demanding they follow a certain doctrinaire approach to diet is to deny them that freedom to reason and think independently, the very qualities that animal advocacy wants to instill in the general public.
Further, animal advocacy is counter-intuitive in many ways — it’s not for nothing that the majority of people you persuade to change their standard lifestyle often cite the meat-eating habits of our ancestors and the food chain as evidence for why veganism makes no sense. We have to constantly challenge the casual, unexamined assumption that using animals towards our ends, be it horse carriage or leather belts is normal, reasonable and decent thing to do. Why not extend that open-minded questioning to reconsider what, if any, should be the minimum expectation of an animal advocate ?
This does not even touch upon how the obsession over being a perfect vegan dealing with those corner cases of infinitesimal amount of animal products ignores the most important issues that are at stake here. Impossible Foods — a company the produces fake meat that nearly mimics the real thing — recently agreed to carry out animal testing for their products to be certified as safe by FDA, it was met with a barrage of criticism even though the company made a statement explaining the difficult choice.
One may have made a different choice there, but you cannot claim that the company was hypocritical if you care any bit about consequentialist ethics.
It would be a much better approach if we focused on the animals directly, and consider honestly the myriad ways in which our actions, decisions and choices can cause harm, direct and indirect, and then decide what foods and activities to abstain from. The power is in exposing the reality, debunking the myths, countering the falsehoods. As I said, the majority of advocates are vegan, and would remain so even if the argument were presented this way but presumably there will be less obsession over purity and perfection.