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