I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian for more than ten years, and more recently, maybe a year and a half ago, I started a gradual transition to veganism. For the past year I’ve been more or less vegan — ‘more or less’ because I’ve still made a few exceptions in cases where vegan food simply wasn’t available, e.g. when travelling or visiting old relatives. In addition, I find that the typical definition of veganism is wanting: if interpreted in the strictest possible fashion, no one, and I mean no one is or could be vegan. So, although I still use some leather products which I acquired before I started the transition to veganism, and even though I still consume some things, such as beer and wine, which have been produced with animal derived products, I belive that I can legitimately call myself vegan. Veganism, as I understand it, comes in degrees.
The usual, brief definition of ‘vegan’ is as follows (from Merriam-Webster):
Definition of VEGAN
: a strict vegetarian who consumes no animal food or dairy products; also : one who abstains from using animal products (as leather)
This definition leaves things rather open, but it does appear to suggest that abstaining from the use of animal products is optional, so the primary definition is dietary. In fact, from Wikipedia, we can find a number of different definitions:
Veganism is the practice of eliminating the use of animal products. Ethical vegans reject the commodity status of animals and the use of animal products for any purpose, while dietary vegans or strict vegetarians eliminate them from their diet only. Another form, environmental veganism, rejects the use of animal products on the premise that the industrial practice is environmentally damaging and unsustainable.
I identify most with what is here being called environmental veganism, as my primary motives are ecological, but I sometimes also cite health reasons. A somewhat stranger motivation, which I’ve heard other people cite as well, is the ‘challenge’ of being vegan — I simply wanted to have a go at veganism and see how it would work out, given that being near-vegan for so many years was relatively easy. All of these definitions leave some important questions open though. I will mostly be taking issue with the so called ‘ethical veganism’.
The two dogmas of veganism that I’d like to discuss in this post concern the neglected degrees of veganism, and the derivative definition of veganism. They are related, because by considering the derivative definition of veganism one cannot avoid realizing that a sharp boundary, degreeless ‘black or white’ understanding of veganism is not sustainable. However, they are also distinct, because the issues concerning the derivative definition are largely independent of moral philosophy, whereas the sharp boundary understanding is driven almost exclusively by ethical considerations. Veganism, or vegetarianism, for that matter, cannot be a ‘black or white’ issue, nor can a thoroughly derivative definition of veganism be sustained. What I mean by the lack of a sharp boundary is that one can be more or less vegan, rather than just vegan or not-vegan. What I mean by the derivative definition is the idea that veganism requires complete avoidance of not only the products that contain animal products, but any product that has been produced in such a way that it has been in contact with animal products, has been manufactured with animal derived products, or has caused direct or indirect harm or suffering to animals.
Milk is Murder?
If it weren’t for these two dogmas of veganism, I would probably have adopted a vegan diet much earlier — after all, during my ten+ years as a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I don’t think I ever bought any eggs, and I replaced milk products with soy/oat products a long ago simply because I much prefer their taste (and they tend to be healthier). One reason why I thought I’d write this post is due to my irritation of those militant vegans who attempt to motivate veganism by uttering phrases like ‘milk is murder‘, or otherwise guilt tripping vegetarians and omnivores alike. Much of this is due to understanding veganism as an ethical stance, and hence vegans seeing themselves as taking a moral high ground. We’ve all seen it: people who think they’re better than you because of their superior moral attitude — this doesn’t apply just to veganism, it’s quite typical in holders of any ethical stance which they see as a sharp boundary issue, religious fundamentalists being one of the most obvious examples. Unfortunately, rather than promoting veganism as a positive choice, such militant vegans are likely to alienate those of us who are not convinced by such juvenile arguments. So, it is my hope that by diffusing the two dogmas of veganism, it will be easier for people to adopt the diet. Note that I am consciously avoiding the use of the verb ‘convert’ here, as it would seem to have connotations that are associated with the two dogmas.
There *may* be sharp boundaries in football.
The Dogma of Sharp Boundary
Meat is murder, milk is murder, honey is murder, leather is murder, isinglass is murder, and — presumably — any vegetable from plants fertilized with animal derived products, or sprayed with pesticides, is murder. We can already see how this is related to the second dogma, but let me focus on the ethical issues for now and address the dogma of derivativeness later. The dogma of sharp boundary suggests that either you are a proper, full-blown vegan, or you are a murderer. We may be able to define, by stipulation, a sharp boundary regarding, say, whether a football is in the goal or not (does it count if it’s on the line?), but doing so in the case of moral issues is not so easy. Two immediate problems emerge. Firstly, it is unclear what ‘full-blown’ vegan means — this is closely related to the derivative definition of veganism. Secondly, the superior moral attitude suggested by ‘vegan or murderer’ calls for some kind of justification, which is very rarely given. Since the first problem will be discussed later on, I will address the broader issue concerning moral philosophy first.
PETA's Meat is Murder campaign in NYC, image ripped off from http://ayshfi.wordpress.com/
The infamous ‘meat is murder’ phrase and its derivatives are of course inspired by the anti-anthropocentric idea that humans are in no way special, and animals should be treated as our equals; hence, killing an animal, or causing suffering or harm to an animal is just as bad as doing so to a human being. The idea itself is worth supporting, but it is questionable whether it has the moral implications suggested by some ethical vegans. For one thing, the notion of ‘murder’ has legal connotations which are in no way related to killing or harming animals. Imposing this type of moral constraint on others is where things get especially suspicious though — and where the rhetorics start to resemble those of religious fundamentalism.
While it’s not very difficult to motivate anti-anthropocentricism to the extent that we should not consider ourselves entitled to cause undue suffering to non-human animals, it’s much trickier to establish criteria for ‘undue’ in a world where it is considered acceptable to exploit our fellow humans in all sorts of ways, especially those who are physically removed from us, i.e. people in third world countries. This is of course not a reason to give up one’s anti-anthropocentric ideals, but it is a reason to get one’s priorities straight: as long as there is wide-spread exploitation of other humans, it’s a utopistic idea to remove the suffering of non-human animals. So, one must be careful here: a vegan taking this type of attitude should presumably aim for the least total suffering for any animal, human and non-human alike — even if this would entail causing harm or suffering to animals in some situations. Or, if such a utilitarian conclusion is too much, at the very least the ethical vegan owes us an explanation as to how the sometimes opposed goals of eliminating non-human animal suffering and human suffering are to be reconciled.
A more direct ethical dilemma emerges from observations of the non-human animals. If we take the anti-anthropocentric ideal seriously, then it is difficult to justify strict moral standards for humans where there are none for non-human animals: no non-human animal would hesitate to take advantage of an animal of a different species, or, at least most of the time, even of a member of the same species (as long as they are not immediately related, and sometimes even regardless of that). The usual reply to a concern of this sort is that some animals need meat to survive, or do not know any better. But as soon as it is acknowledged that humans have the ability to sustain moral standards where non-human animals do not, the anti-anthropocentric argument collapses: it appears that, after all, humans are somehow superior to non-human animals. Without this argument, there is little left in the arsenal of the ethical vegan to motivate complete abstinence from animal derived products.
There are, of course, plenty of good reasons to think that animal derived products should be avoided, completely independently of the anti-anthropocentric argument. These are the reasons which are one of the primary sources of my own choice to adopt a vegan diet — mostly ecological and health reasons, driven by sustainability and the avoidance of catastrophies caused by the consumption of animal products and the close proximity of humans and animals associated with it, such as the Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease and Avian influenza.
A Sad Cow?
Even if there were some way to address these ethical dilemmas, there are still empirical questions that need to be considered. The ethical stance that motivates the dogma of sharp boundary is based on the idea that animals are sentient beings that feel pain and it is wrong to cause pain or suffering to sentient beings. There are numerous issues with this idea. Firstly, research on animal consciousness, although abundant, is far from conclusive, there are arguments both for and against animal consciousness, which need not be re-iterated here, not to mention the philosophical problems surrounding the notion of consciuousness more generally. As the interesting Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article which I’ve linked to in this paragraph suggests, it is the wide acceptance of the following biconditional which spurs our interest in animal consciousness:
Animals deserve moral consideration if and only if they are sentient (especially possessing the capacity to feel pain).
The ethical vegan should of course give us some reasons to believe this biconditional (or at least the left-hand side of it), but also case-by-case reasons to think that different kinds of animals indeed are sentient and capable of feeling pain. While this may appear to be quite easy in the case of mammals, the jury is still out there in the case of most invertebrates, and especially insects, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. But even a positive result in all of these cases would not be enough to support the ethical vegan’s stance, for a case would also have to be made for the suffering of cows used solely for dairy production, bees for honey, silkworms for silk, and so on. All of these cases are extremely complicated, yet detailed arguments in defence of the ethical stance that they are supposed to motivate are sparse.
The Dogma of Derivativeness
Moving on to the dogma of derivativeness, finally. The issue is perhaps less complex, but at least as pressing. What I mean by the ‘derivative definition of veganism’ is the definition which requires complete avoidance of any product that contains or has had contact with animal products at any stage of the manufacturing process, or has been produced with the assistance of animal derived products, or could be considered to exploit or otherwise harm animals in any other way. Now, this is one broad definition. Yet, it seems to be what the standard definition of ethical veganism implies.
Beer -- there's something fishy about it...
The usual examples of products that would be ruled out by the derivative definition include isinglass, which is derived from the swim bladders of fish and is sometimes used a clearing agent (i.e. ‘fining’) in beer and wine. This is especially prominent in British style cask ales, much less so in kegs or bottled beers. While no or very little of isinglass remains in the final product, drinks made with isinglass are commonly considered non-vegan, and even non-vegetarian. One problem that this causes is the simple fact that it’s sometimes impossible to tell whether a beer or wine has been produced with the help of isinglass. There is a good list of the status of many beers and wines available, but it is by no means comprehensive. Ignorance, it could be argued, is no excuse, but maybe it ought to be…
Refined sugar is another rather problematic case: some, although not all sugar is refined by using animal bone char. This is not generally stated in the packaging, so once again it may be impossible to tell. In any case, no animal products remain in the final product, so sugar can be considered non-vegan only on a derivative definition.
Honey is another case in point. While it is of course animal derived, it is not clear that honey should be considered an animal product according to a dietary definition of veganism. Fortunately, there are online resources (Vegan Action) which get this about right:
Insects are animals, and so insect products, such as honey and silk, are not traditionally considered vegan. Many vegans, however, are not opposed to using insect products, because they do not believe insects are conscious of pain. Moreover, even if insects were conscious of pain, it’s not clear that the production of honey involves any more pain for insects than the production of most vegetables, since the harvesting and transportation of all vegetables involves many ‘collateral’ insect deaths.
Now we are getting to the core of the matter: if the harm caused to bees during the production of honey constitutes a sufficient reason to consider honey non-vegan, then we are on a slippery slope to considering just about anything non-vegan, including, as suggested here, all vegetables — yes, even the ones you grow organically in your own garden. Every time you rip a carrot out of the ground, you’re quite likely to cause some harm to some insect or another, and you probably squish a good number of them whenever you move about, even if it were just by walking or cycling rather than driving. Recall: ignorace is no excuse.
It doesn’t stop there. Manure is commonly used as a fertilizer, and it is obviously animal derived. Pesticides of various kinds are essential for the production of many fruit and vegetables; even organic food production uses natural pesticides, and they don’t harm just insects, by the way. The list is endless, of course. A quick sweeping argument can be established with fossil fuels, which, in addition to being (partly) animal derived themselves, involve the deaths and suffering of animals due the manner of their acquisition and transportation. With that we’ve just about covered all aspects of human life, so it would seem that on a strict derivative definition, no human is, or ever was, or ever could be vegan.
It’s not surprising that the ranks of even ethical vegans are not quite consistent on these issues. As the Wikipedia article on veganism states:
There is disagreement among groups about the extent to which all animal products, particularly products from insects, must be avoided. Neither the Vegan Society nor the American Vegan Society consider the use of honey, silk, or other insect products to be suitable for vegans, while Vegan Action and Vegan Outreach regard that as a matter of personal choice.
Giving Up the Dogmas
Clearly, the derivative definition of veganism cannot work if it is interpreted strictly, so some kind of a compromise is necessary. But where do we draw the line? The dogma of the sharp boundary is of no help here, as we have seen. I believe that the best option is to not draw a line at all: veganism comes in degrees. You can call yourself a vegan even if you occasionally consume or use animal derived products — it should only be required that you avoid unnecessary consumption or usage of animal derived products, to the best of your knowledge and ability. There is no sharp boundary, even if your motivations are ethical.
For my part, I think it is perfectly acceptable to consume and use animal derived products in situations where abstaining from them would cause severe complications, be them ecological or personal. There are areas and situations where it would simply be impossible to engage in anything like a vegan diet as it is usually understood. In some locations, especially in third world countries, keeping live stock is both ecologically sustainable and economically necessary. This is no reason for those of us who have the option not to do our best to abstain from using animal derived products, but even in this case, I consider global ecological considerations to be prior to any personal ethical stance. If being vegan means that you have to use products that come from unsustainable sources or are imported from exotic locations, then your global ecological impact might in fact be smaller if you instead used locally produced animal derived products. It all comes in degrees.