Veganism: The Only Ethical Lifestyle?

Veganism: The Only Ethical Lifestyle?

Vegans and nonvegans alike ask, “What about societies that subsist in environments relatively inhospitable to plant growth?” They think it’s unfair or immoral to promote veganism as THE most ethical lifestyle for EVERYONE.

Here’s my response:

First and foremost, it’s most important to decide what’s right for YOU to do or not do. Regardless of issues of moral relativism, we simply can’t control other people. So unless you’re writing your Philosophy dissertation or you want to make a career writing books on vegan theory, don’t worry too much about whether one ethical philosophy suits all people. Worry about what’s right for you.

For many people, veganism is the most ethical choice because it allows them to be honest with themselves about their moral intuition regarding animals. Veganism is good for animals, the environment, and humans. It’s a solid, ethical philosophy supported by ethicists and by many compassionate people.

Second, The Vegan Society’s definition of vegan has some of this “problem” of absolutism built into the vegan philosophy:

“A vegan is someone who tries to live without exploiting animals, for the benefit of animals, people and the planet. Vegans eat a plant-based diet, with nothing coming from animals – no meat, milk, eggs or honey, for example. A vegan lifestyle also avoids leather, wool, silk and other animal products for clothing or any other purpose.”

This group (the Vegan Society) is the group that first invented the term “vegan” so their definition should be at least partially respected. (Go ahead and use the Oxford dictionary if you must, but realize that nonvegans probably wrote that definition.) Notice that the Vegan Society says “someone who tries to live without exploiting animals”. That means that veganism acknowledges that some animal exploitation is either a) unavoidable or b) in some circumstances morally acceptable.

That’s not to say it’s OK to test mascara on rabbits or that it’s OK to raise and slaughter chickens when other food sources exist, but it is to say that situations differ and each vegan may live different depending on his or her resources, knowledge, etc.

Vegan is an identity description. For food, the label vegan means the product doesn’t contain animals or animal excretions/ animal products. For people, the label vegan means “someone who tries to live without exploiting animals”. That someone might not always succeed in living without animal exploitation, but they sure as hell try.

When someone asks, “Are you vegan?” The answer is yes or no. Certainly, you can say, “I’m veganish” or “mostly” or even “failed vegan” but the answer is not, “It’s too hard to be vegan here.” Either you try to be vegan or you don’t try. You can’t have it both ways.

Moreover, many people believe morality is something that can only be achieved once one’s basic needs are met (think: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). I’m one of those people. So… in this respect, virtually ALL questions of morality are irrelevant to “people living in subsistence communities.”

You don’t have to see this as moral relativism if you don’t like that idea. You merely have to see veganism as something that requires free choice. Those who can’t make choices for themselves, whose lives are dictated by others or by circumstance, simply can’t choose veganism. That doesn’t mean veganism isn’t “the only ethical way of life”, that merely means some people aren’t capable of living an ethical life. Some vegans acknowledge this by saying something along the lines of, “We’re privileged to be vegan.”

Lastly, when we promote veganism, we usually do so only to people who are able to adopt a vegan lifestyle. For example, when I leaflet for Vegan Outreach, I do so at American college campuses, not at homeless shelters.

If I do talk to homeless people about veganism (I have some regular contact with some homeless people), it’s like this: “When you’re able to make more free choices about what to eat and what not to eat, perhaps you’ll adopt a plant-based diet. If you’re interested, I can give you some information about that.” And I only talk about it when THEY bring it up (whereas with people who have more choices I’ll discuss veganism without provocation).

Knowledge is power. There’s no reason to deny knowledge to people who are seeking it, in fact, denying information is denying power. So if anyone asks about veganism I take the opportunity to educate them, but there’s no expectation that they act on that knowledge until or unless they have more resources. That is, I won’t guilt-trip people who are living hand-to-mouth. This holds true not only for homeless people, but also for children, inmates, hospital patients, and others living in communities where they have little free choice over their food sources.

But what I’ve noticed is that many nonvegans who raise this issue do so to assuage their own guilt for eating animals. They want to generalize: ‘well if so-and-so isn’t expected to go vegan, then I don’t have to go vegan either.’ This type of reasoning is unfair to themselves, to animals, and to vegans. They deny their own power and free choice and use that denial as an excuse to refrain from following their moral intuition. And by doing so, they harm animals and they make veganism seem more difficult than it really is.

I’ve heard, “It’s too hard to be vegan in [enter foreign place name]” from people who won’t bother to research exactly how difficult it really is AND who thereby deny a more truly authentic travel experience because they refuse to acknowledge the vegan subculture. What other subcultures do they deny? Who else do they overlook?

I’ve even heard, “It’s impossible to be vegan at my college” from someone who attends a college where vegetarian meals and vegan food items are also readily available. To them, merely asking the cooks to prepare something vegan was “too much burden” and that inconvenience or discomfort outweighed animals’ lives. These kind of people need to get honest with themselves. They need to admit they’re unwilling to try. Because that’s what veganism is all about: trying to save animals’ lives.

Just TRY.


Originally published in February of 2009. Republished in 2013 for a new audience.

13 Responses to Veganism: The Only Ethical Lifestyle?

  1. While I agree with the thrust of this post, I don’t think it is necessary to equivocate quite so much when people ask if veganism is the only ethical lifestyle for everyone. After all, if someone asked sincerely if refraining from murdering and raping is really the only ethical lifestyle for everyone we wouldn’t feel the need to qualify it with disclaimers about different situations and cultures and encourage people to just try not to. We’d say “yes.”

    ~ Recent blog post: Late Feudalism ~

  2. Ryan, you’re right.
    However, there is a difference in that rape and murder are not socially acceptable.

  3. Another great article, so well thought out and etailed… love it, very pro.vegan but not horrendous like reality for animals… I also agree with the vegan society’s definition of veganism… i mean, isn’t it impossible to live “normally” and vegan without EVER hurting ANY animal, but WE surely try our very best- if everone actually followed and didn’t turn their nose up at the thought of it like most omni’s, there would be a much more mino amout of animal cruelty, but I can’t say 100%. I love how you mentioned “many non-vegans say they can’t because he/she can’t, when actually it;s a free country and one person’s diatary guide lines doesn’t and shouldn’t necessarily influance another, especially if it is causing animal pain, suffering and hurting the enviroment as well as other starving human beings.” I so hear this, and I wish others did as well. My friend ( the lacto ovo again) said, ” I couldn’t be vegan, I couldn’t live on vegetables, and beides, one perosn out of a couple billion won;t make a differance, niether will you.” TA! She wishes! That’s EXACTLY how a great leader or organizatuion establishes! One or just a few people “spead the word in the world” and if it’s interesting or has a HUGE effect, many (* smart) people listen! JUST TRY. I wish I could drill this into so many omni’s heads who can and should be able to thrive on and affort a veggie diet, but that just fuels defense. Thanks for the great writing again, Eccentric Vegan? :)

    ~ Recent blog post: New obsession: oats ~

  4. Good post.

    I believe, though, that primitive and proto-humans were probably very nearly vegan. Migration to areas that are inhospitable to plant growth would only have occured AFTER humans started exploiting animals. And areas that were previously fertile can be made barren from overgrazing of domesticated animals (and intensive monoculture).

    We can’t do anything about it, now, obviously, b/c there’s not enough space for everyone to live in warm, tropical, fertile places. But I think it’s important to realize that people just didn’t show up in the arctic. They purposely went there.

    I guess it’s possible that they went there not knowing how bad it was and then had to make the best of the circumstance, but I’m more inclined to think that they had to have already known how to hunt and butcher animals before they set sail, so to speak. On some level it was acceptable to them. Otherwise, they would’ve gone back where they came from where the foraging was better.

    ~ Recent blog post: Gardens! ~

  5. College is the easiest place to go vegan. People shouldn’t even argue with that. It’s cheap and colleges are making major efforts, check out my blog for proof!

    ~ Recent blog post: Definitely worth a listen…(Michael Pollan) ~

  6. I tentatively agree with you Eccentric given that one foundational premise on which I (and many others of course!) ground moral veganism is that suffering is impartially bad, animals (other than human) can be harmed and therefore this principle extends. Therefore, as an action-oriented application of this principle, we have a duty to avoid causing unnecessary (however defined) suffering.

    It follows that A) people who exist in otherwise baron land can morally defend eating animals (limiting this to “nonhuman animal,” however, would require a strong sub-principle most often never defended) and B) veganism truly is the moral baseline.

    Therefore, I am not uncomfortable defending the latter conclusion, however, I am required by logic to also defend the former conclusion.


    “However, there is a difference in that rape and murder are not socially acceptable.”

    As a pragmatic concern, I would agree with you Eccentric. However, as another pragmatic concern, categorical claims may be necessary to move this discourse forward. Equivocation implies some discomfort with one’s position.

    ~ Recent blog post: Animal Rights ~

  7. Alex,
    The equivocation implied is only in forcing/coercing my will upon others.

    I view other humans in the same way I view nonhuman animals: they do their own thing: follow the herd, follow instinct, whatever. I’ve never been convinced that humans actually, truly reason and act according to logical principles. Too much of their behavior is erratic and complex. Very few humans can think critically at all, let alone be persuaded by logic. Logic is for computers, not for shaping human behavior.

    I may think what others do is morally repugnant, but I’m more interested in shaping/guiding/nudging the behavior into a direction that’s more peaceful and sustainable than in developing concrete philosophical positions. Quite honestly, I think that task of developing ethical theory is more suited to others in the movement than to me personally. I don’t have the intellectual stamina for it. It’s more suited to people like you, Alex :)

    Interestingly, Peter Singer said something that stuck in my mind. Here is part of an interview:

    In an earlier piece about global poverty, you argued not just that people should help others but that they should make great sacrifices to do so. In this latest version, that view has softened. What led you to revise your approach?

    It is a tricky issue, and not all philosophers would agree with what I’m about to say. I think you can have a difference between what a person might privately decide they ought to do and what you might think is the best thing to advocate as a public standard. You might privately think you ought to do a lot, but if you put that out as a public standard, it might be too demanding for most people.


  8. Excellent post! Lots of great insights.

  9. Unequivocally agree!

  10. Please do not sit so high on your horse that you can’t see that some people need animals as a way of survival. Here in the US and many other countries, we are blessed with a plethora of food and alternative foods. But many people simply do not have those options. Do you expect them to die? To starve for lack of carrots when there are rabbits hopping nearby? Should the Eskimos just go on and dig their graves? Should the bushmen in Africa stop eating insects because the dirt is too dry to grow food? This line of thought is so silly, it is almost criminal! I thank God everyday that I am blessed and live in a country that offers me plenty of food to choose from. I am a vegan by choice, not necessity. How awful must it be to have corpse flesh as your only option?

  11. Living without a car is an ethical lifestyle and one practised mostly by people on low incomes. So how ethical is a well-off car-driving middle-class professional vegan, compared to the less well-off (onmivores or otherwise) who have to get the bus?


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