Joey at The Starting Point wrote an excellent Q&A about veganism.
Here’s a selection below.
I’ve emboldened the points I feel are strongest:
“Q: I think that animals should have rights, but I feel that going vegan is too extreme. Can’t I show my support for animal rights by eating vegetarian food most of the time and only eating free-range, organic animal products when I do eat them?”
“A: Because eating animal products is so common and accepted in society, there is a misconception that while veganism may be a political statement, meat- and dairy-eating is politically neutral. This is not true — the action of eating meat, dairy, or other animal products implies that you accept the idea that it is okay for us to use animals, including to kill them unnecessarily (as it is certainly not necessary for human health to eat animal products, and “free-range” animals, even those who are exploited for their milk or eggs, have their lives cut short just like those raised in factory farms).”[...]
“Therefore, when we talk about “animal rights”, we need to be aware that the many forms of institutionalized animal exploitation in our society, including the use of animals for food, clothing, medical testing, entertainment, and other purposes, violate the most basic right that animals would need to be accorded by humans, the right not to be considered property. If you are serious about wanting animals to have rights, the first thing to do is to stop participating in violating their rights, in order to live in a manner consistent with your ethics. This does mean going vegan as the minimal baseline.”
“Veganism may seem overwhelming at first, but remember that nearly all vegans were once in your position, and succeeded in making the transition. You can do it as well.“
Many vegans were once vegetarians. If you’re a vegetarian, you’re on the right path. Just keep going. You can dump dairy and eggs, really, you can!
A person can believe in animal rights while being a vegetarian and not a vegan. But beliefs only do so much. Habits and practices mean more. So if you’re truly concerned about animal rights, you should go vegan and express that concern through your actions. Trust me, you can do it. I did it. I was a pro-animal rights vegetarian for 25 years before going vegan. I’m so glad I finally went vegan. I no longer feel like a hypocrite and I am much more confident as a vegan animal advocate.
Something happens when you go vegan from vegetarian: when your habits truly represent your beliefs, the beliefs get stronger. You build conviction, confidence, and strength. And your voice represents your ethical consistency. When you begin at “the starting point” your path is clear.
In abolitionist animal rights, veganism is considered “the starting point” or “the moral baseline.” Organizations and individuals are judged by their essential premises and moral bases. From the abolitionist perspective, the pro-animal organizations that do not use veganism as a moral baseline are considered welfarist organizations, not truly animal rights organizations. That is, they are more interested in “humane treatment” of animals rather than abolishing the property status of animals and ceasing use of animals by humans. You can think about it this way: welfarists fight against poor treatment of animals, abolitionists fight against animal use. But sometimes they fight together on certain joint causes, see below.
‘Rights’ have a variety of interpretations for humans as well as for animals. Many people believe animal rights are about the right to freedom from cruelty. But true animal rights is about more than that. True animal rights is about the right to freedom from domination. True animal rights is about respecting animals’ interests to not live, breed, and die according to human whims (many of which are frivolous). For example, true animal rights cannot allow dairy farming at all. Forced impregnation, human or machine milking, separation of cow and calf, fences and cages, hormone and antibiotic feed and injections, and slaughter when cows are no longer productive represent human interests, not cow interests. Dairy farming treats cows as commodities, not as sentient beings. Even small, organic, sustainable dairy farms violate animals’ rights because the cows live, breed, and die according to human interests, not cow interests. Therefor dairy farming is anti-animal rights. And therefor consuming dairy is not an expression of support for animal rights.
Plenty of welfarists as well as abolitionists are vegan, too. Even some abolitionists see incrementalism as an effective method of ending the property status of animals. The trouble spot is welfarist incrementalism. For example, laws that ban cruel practices can be seen as abolitionist incrementalism as well as welfarist. But laws that mandate humane practices are welfarist and not abolitionist. Do you see the subtle difference? One, abolition, is chipping away at the essential problem of animals as commodities. The other, welfarism, is chipping away at the problem of treating animals cruelly while simultaneously building roadblocks for true animal rights.
While it may be possible to believe in animal rights without going vegan, the inconsistency of this position will undoubtedly affect the nonvegan’s perception of animal rights and will often tend towards animal welfare advocacy instead of animal rights advocacy. In order to be true – true to the animals we represent as advocates, true to our critics, and most importantly true to ourselves – animal rights advocates must go vegan.