Ideology Smackdown: The Ethics Of… Vegans

I’ve been thinking about it and I honestly think that vegans might be one of the most hated groups of people in western civilization. No seriously, think about it – name any other hated group out there and you will find they either have a pretty sizable number of people defending them, or the hatred is at least diluted with other emotions.

The abortion debate is one of the most emotional in existence, and while it’s fair to say each side hates the other, there are at least two sides to that debate. You might be disgusted at the antics of Trump (henceforth referred to as Drumpf) enough to hate him, but you do have to admire his ability to manipulate several million people into letting him screw them over. Even universally reviled terror groups like ISIS, who are almost universally hated by the west, are also feared at the same time – we may seek their destruction, but we still do respect their ability to threaten us.

But vegans? The mere mention of the word guarantees you an eye rolling at the very least, and howls of outrage at worst. Type the word into google and you’ll be greeted with some friendly sites explaining what veganism is all about, some guides on how to best eat vegan, and approximately 2.3 million memes mocking the ever loving crap out of the movement.

So what is it about vegans that pisses everyone off so much? Aren’t they like, vegetarians with fine print?

“Vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, or poultry. Vegans, in addition to being vegetarian, do not use other animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products, honey, leather, fur, silk, wool, cosmetics, and soaps derived from animal products.” – from The Vegan Resource Group

Yeah ok that’s quite a bit more intense than just ‘not eating meat’, but fair enough, right? If vegans want to take those sort of extraordinary steps to reduce their environmental impact then good for them! Just so long as they don’t try to tell me how to liv… oh look at that, they’re telling me how to live. Looking over the more official sites out there, it can seem like veganism is all ‘live and let live’, but the longer you look the more obvious it becomes.

“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” – from The Vegan Society

Notice anything telling about that statement? Maybe the words ‘exploitation’ and ‘cruelty’? Those words are fairly loaded with moral judgement, aren’t they? I mean if your way of doing things is cruelty-free, and my way of doing things contradicts your way of doing things, then you’re pretty much straight up saying my way of doing things is cruel, aren’t you?

Strip away the friendly façade and it quickly becomes clear that (with the exception of those who do it for dietary reasons) veganism isn’t just a personal choice – it’s a political stance. The movement clearly states that they believe the production of animal products is both cruel and exploitative. The only possible conclusion from this statement, is that these practices are unethical, and that unless everyone else embraces the vegan way, we are all complicit in this evil.

As with pretty much any frank moral statement like this, it tends to get people’s hackles up. It’s a pretty core element of human psychology that no one wants to think that they are a bad person, and being told that they are is a mighty quick way of getting people defensive. Being told that we’re bad people by a fringe groups of tree-hugging hippies only makes things worse, as does their insistence that the only righteous path involves abandoning a fairly huge number of useful, delicious and economically important products.

No surprise then that veganism has made some fairly determined enemies. At the entry level you’ve got the virtual landslide of meme-based mockery the internet and popular media throw around every day. Sure it’s not exactly what you’d call ‘intelligent’, ‘well thought-out’, or even ‘coherent’, but the sheer volume of it has a persuasive impact all of its own., what an amazing ad hominum fallacy that completely failed to address her point! What an example of our superior meat-fuelled brains in action!

There are also plenty of intelligent critics of the movement as well, pointing out that veganism still involves environmental impacts and cruelty to animals, that a vegan diet is unhealthy for many, if not most, human beings, that a serious application of the vegan philosophy basically promotes the sacrifice of humanity for the benefit of livestock, and that vegans sometimes create significant animal suffering themselves by forcing their carnivorous pets on non-meat diets.

Unfortunately for the anti-vegans, all these arguments suffer from one very serious flaw: they totally fail to address the core point of veganism. And you know why they fail to do this? Because the vegans are right.

Completely, totally, absolutely correct.

And you already knew that, didn’t you?

And it’s driving you friggin’ bonkers, isn’t it?

It is extremely well documented that the production of meat is a horrific process, particularly when done on a commercial scale. But it’s also well documented that the production of most animal products is equally fucked up – eggs are produced in hellish caged conditions, milk requires the regular slaughter of bobby calves and some seriously messed up experimentation with hormones, and leather and soap both depend entirely on the mass-slaughter of animals to get them. Don’t even get me started on fur. There’ll be a whole article on that one day, and it will not be forgiving.

You’d think you’d be on more solid ground with silk, wool, honey, and soaps, and while these products don’t cause direct harm per se (regardless of what the liars at PETA would like you to think) you still need animals to create them. That means breeding them, housing them, moving them and working them, every step of which risks harm and or distress to the animals involved. You could argue that a silk worm or bee has a pretty limited ability to be distressed, and that there are ethical farming practices that drastically decrease the suffering involved, but the point still holds – sticking to a vegan diet causes precisely 100% less harm to them than not doing so.

With those facts established the question of morals becomes a bit clearer: Eating non-vegan leads to significantly more suffering than a vegan diet. Suffering is a negative thing that we should seek to reduce wherever possible. Thus, the vegan diet is ethically superior to a non-vegan diet and the ethical imperative is clear – we should all go vegan to whatever degree we are able to.

But hang on hang on hang on, what about all those criticisms I mentioned just before? Ok so they don’t really attack the core point of veganism, but they’re still pretty compelling arguments, right? And yeah you have a point there, because while veganism is pretty solid in terms of principles, it’s got more than its fair share of practical problems to deal with.

First up veganism is never going to be perfect. Yeah farming soy and other vegan-friendly food do cause environmental damage and kill animals in the process, but on the other hand they cause one hell of a lot less problems than eating meat does. Sure there might be economic impacts from moving away from established animal industries, but that’s not a reason not to do it – more a question of managing the transition well than anything else. And yeah, there are some idiot vegans out there that try to make their pets eat tofu, but if we start to cherry-pick our examples then things are going to look pretty grim for meat-eaters in short order, I’ll tell you what.

By far the most compelling criticism is that there are indeed many people out there who can’t stay healthy on a fully vegan diet. Some struggle with iron absorption or need additional vitamins, especially children who need that protein for growth. But all of this is easily managed – sure it might not be possible or safe for everyone to go full-vegan, but any amount less animal products you use is an improvement. You might only eat meat one time less than usual, but that’s one less bit of meat that needed to be produced and one less unit of demand making the suffering of animals profitable. Just take on as much of veganism as you can handle; as The Vegan Society suggested, go “as far as is possible and practicable”.

So veganism is both correct in principle and manageable in practice. Case closed then? Yeah right, like I’d be writing about something that simple. See veganism tends to suffer from the problem that certain atheists have been struggling with, and possibly the biggest practical problem of them all: self-righteousness. Or as I like to describe it, ‘Arseholes who happen to be right’. Did you watch that video up there, where the lovely and articulate Hank explained why exactly we find vegetarians so annoying (and why we’re wrong)? Well this is how some vegans decided to react to that:

In case you can’t watch video where you are, here’s the summary: ‘We’re right, you’re wrong, we’re perfect, even vegetarians suck in comparison, smug smuggity smug.’ It just makes you want to reach through the screen and slap the self-satisfaction out of them with a steak. Check out that expression. The last time I saw that expression it was attached to a Jehovah’s Witness at my front door, so fucking enraptured with how much holier he was than me, and how wonderful he was for offering me this chance to even aspire to be like him. It’s the kind of shit that makes you consider butchering a goat on your front lawn, just to spite the prick.

Oh sure, they’re still right. I mean not a damn thing they said in that video was factually incorrect or even that controversial. But the way they chose to deliver it made me willing to abandon science itself if that would give me a way to defy them. But it’s not just the smugness that’s the problem here, it’s the implied demand that you either go 100% vegan or you’re a terrible person. Remember how I mentioned before that most of the practical problems of veganism can be managed by moderation? Well the demand that you be 100% or nothing undermines that completely. Moral absolutism is kind of like fascism in that it sounds like a great idea – why would you ever accept anything other than correct behaviour? – but in practice ends up with you fighting the people who won’t, and ostracising the ones that can’t. And when the whole point is to convert people to your way of thinking, alienating those same people is a pretty terrible strategy.

So here’s the take home message for us non-vegans out there: try to be better. Yeah it’s a pain in the arse, yeah the food choices are worse, and yeah you personally get nothing out of it. But unless you have a serious dietary problem, then what this truly boils down to is whether massive animal cruelty is more important than how tasty your food is.

For the vegans, congratulations on being right and for the unbelievable commitment needed to stick to your way of life. But should you ever get those impulses to enlighten the rest of us knuckle-dragging meat murderers, remember that the goal here is conversion – might be a clever idea not to piss us all off in the process.

10 thoughts on “Ideology Smackdown: The Ethics Of… Vegans

  1. I really liked the way you did this argument. I guess for me the argument boils down to this. We are all going to draw a moral line somewhere about what is okay and what is not okay to eat. I think that it’s natural to have a strong draw towards animals, especially ones with central nervous systems. But the emotional and visceral response to the harming of animals gets stronger as that animal more closely approximates human. I’ve heard the argument before from vegans that it is human conceit that makes us think the animals are all here for our purpose. But I think that there is also human conceit in the idea that any organism that is more like us, is inherently more valuable and thus it is more unethical to destroy that life than any other. Every bit of life on this planet is valuable in its own way and has evolved to survive in its own environment. I suspect that we will slowly trend towards eating less and less meat, and I think we are not that far off from creating meat that will taste very close if not exactly like meat in the laboratory and this will slowly takeover. It’s not going to be a revolution won in a day. I do think that it is possible to respect the value of life, while still ending it. Because there is no way for life to thrive without the ending of another life. Reducing waste, increasing sustainability, preserving ecosystems, etc I think should be goals of everyone.

    • Hi Swarn, thanks for the insightful reply as always (and thanks for the compliment!). Yeah the tendancy to care more about animals we find aesthetically appealing or cute, also known as the Bambi Effect interestingly enough, is a huge factor in how people justify their treatment of animals. Always strikes me as super weird that we dote on our pets but happily eat mass-slaughtered cows and chickens. I mean they’re not as smart to be sure (mind you pigs are a big exception there), but you’d think we’d see the inconsistency in our treatment of two relatively similar animals.

      Happily I agree with you – technologies such as lab-grown meat and the simple progress of ethical thought will make animal farming a thing of the past fairly soon. But while that may solve the issue of animal cruelty I wonder whether it might cause its own problems – if we no longer need livestock for food and products, will we stop valuing them at all? Could the extinction of the cow be plausibly on the horizon?

      • Well I think if we got to the ethical point to avoid all animal cruelty, I don’t think we would just get rid of cows altogether, because that would be like purposely committing genocide against a particular species. Not that we are incapable of doing that, but it hardly seems sporting to hunt the cow to extinction, especially if we have viable meat substitutes. Honestly though I think that we will have a harder time letting go of dairy, especially cheese, compared to meat.

        I’ll confess to you that I eat meat. And although I try to be more and more responsible as my budget allows to buy more organically raised and fed animals, in the end it still results in an animal death. I recognize the fact that I may just want to eat meat and that my rationalizations that life consumes life, and that all life is important in its own way to the ecosystem and whether I eat vegetable or animal it’s all just a continuous spectrum of consciousness are perhaps just convenient arguments that help justify my behavior. I also recognize that there is a part of me that eats meat because of the emotional ties it has. Much like why I think many people remain in religious communities and buy into those beliefs simply because it is more emotionally painful not to because it means the loss of friends, family, and community, I find that I have strong emotional ties to the foods I like to eat. My grandparents on my mothers side were farmers. I grew up around the killing of animals. The industrialization of meat production seems wholly different from how my grandparents treated and respected life. Perhaps the difference seems arbitrary to you, and maybe it is, but there was, I believe, a greater respect for life by farmers who cared for their livestock than I think there is, in those places that are feedlots that put 1000’s of cows in a small pen, pumping them with hormones waiting for the slaughter. It was livelihood for my grandparents, but I don’t believe that my grandparents ever wanted to become millionaires off of raising cows. And maybe it just boils down to the fact that most of us aren’t in pursuit of vast wealth and riches and willing to step over any ethical principles along the way to get there. Most of us just want to survive, have a little extra rainy day money, and help our fellow man in anyway we can. And maybe it is contradictory that I and my grandparents doted on the dogs in the farm but had no problem beheading a chicken, but we humans are walking contradictions at times, but I can tell you that as someone who respects life, but also eats meat, I don’t feel overly torn in two, except when it comes to the industrialized farming of meat, but not the actual killing itself. Maybe it makes me a bad person, I don’t know. I also know that both in my dad’s Indian culture, and with my grandparents, waste was not acceptable. They used as much of the animal as possible, and I think that I think there is value in that philosophy also. I don’t find leather as deplorable if we are already using the cow for food as compared to the raising of minks particular for their fur and discarding the body. Finally, for me cooking is a big part of my life. It is an expression of my creativity, and meals were and still are an important part of my life. And many of the things I cook really well and am most creative with involve meat. When I’m making a curry that I grew up with it gives me a strong emotional connection to family and culture. I’m not saying that makes my actions moral, but simply explaining why it is very hard for me to let go of meat from my life. To tie to your recent post about atheism, and the reason why I liked the way you wrote this, is that telling people they are immoral and being abusive or smug is no way to change people’s minds. How the message is delivered is as important as the message itself…at least to us emotional beings.

        It is a tu quoque argument to look at all the other unethical practices vegans might engage in, to excuse your unethical behavior, but I do think there are a lot of things, especially we in the west have to start changing our practices towards to show a greater respect for life. Deforestation, strip mining for coal, global warming, waste management, water usage, are some big ones that come to my head. It is very hard to do all these at once, and that’s why I also liked your message of simply taking it in small steps. A lot of these things I think are just going to slowly get better (or at least I hope) generation by generation. Perhaps I’m not as evolved as some of my vegan friends, but I’ll keep trying. Maybe I’ll become vegetarian one day. It at least seems like a possibility to me, where as before it did not. Vegan though, I don’t know. Cheese, and milk in my chai, that seems less likely. I’ll keep working on it. 🙂

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  4. In the end you say this:

    But unless you have a serious dietary problem, then what this truly boils down to is whether massive animal cruelty is more important than how tasty your food is.

    Firstly its not just animal cruelty, its also about how much more damaging to the nature a non-vegan diet is.

    Secondly, you are implying that non-vegan food is tastier which is incorrect.

    • Hi Martin, thanks for the comment.
      You are correct, environmental impact is indeed a significant factor in the value of a vegan diet, thanks for adding that.
      Regarding the tastiness, that’s a fairly subjective point – some people prefer the taste of meat, others may not. My point is that regardless of how tasty a given individual may find meat, it cannot be ethically justified if it causes animal suffering.

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