Over the past month I have had a lot of conversations about veganism, the personal choice to become vegan, the philosophical justifications for being vegan, and of course delicious vegan food. There are many reasons to be vegan and it seems to be an idealogical past time to debate their relative merits.
What I realized over the course of these discussions is that I do not seem to care precisely why I am vegan.
I agree and comply with all of the standard justifications as well as having an individual credo which extends beyond this. For argument’s sake, I’ll often choose a position when forced. Still I feel that doing so is a manufactured way of having a dialog. That I am vegan is enough.
In a practical sense, that one acts in a vegan manner ought to be enough for any other other vegan. Forsooth, often times it is not and vegans typically request that their fellows are vegan for exactly the same reason they themselves are vegan. Why we all cannot just get along is a question for the sociologists.
There are three, largely independent arguments that are used to justify vegan acts: anti-suffering, environmental, and personal purity.
How important is a belief in each of these? Is it valuable to believe in all of them or is a belief in one equivalent to believing in more than one? Given a metric to jointly weigh these three arguments, how important are external arguments?
I posit that since all arguments are independent
- belief in one does not preclude a belief in any other,
- the arguments cannot be ranked, and
- a belief in more is better than belief in fewer as it diminishes the likelihood of accidental infractions of veganism.
The following is a short discussion of the main arguments for veganism in light of these suppositions.
Minimization of Suffering
This position is often called “ethical veganism.” I dislike this term because it implies that other reasons for being vegan are somehow less ethical, less justified, or less meaningful. That said, the tenet of minimal suffering is the correct way to phrase this argument.
Suppose we were instead to justify the hedonistic inverse - the maximization of pleasure. Arguably, the more capacity for intelligence a being has the greater its potential to feel pleasure. In such a system, it would be allowable to cause pain and suffering to less intelligent creatures as long as the smarter ones experienced a greater than commensurate pleasure. This greater pleasure is largely due to their increased capacity to feel pleasure. Arguably the maximization of pleasure is the status quo and serves as the justification for existing animal abuse by humans. Most people tend not to think on these issues though and the true reasons for animal abuse is probably closer to apathy, nihilism, and cruelty.
Maximizing pleasure falls further apart under scrutiny. Is it OK to slap your comatose mother? Most people would say that it is not, even if they enjoy slapping people. Is it wrong to hit anyone in a coma? Can the person feel the hit? Maybe. Maybe not. If they do, it is in a way that is very different than how us conscious folks experience it. What seems to be at issue is consent. If abuse is not agreed to in good faith, then it is impermissible. This applies to the sentient and the non-sentient who are not able to negotiate in a bona fide manner. People should not abuse the weak and infirm simply because they can. Failure to extend this to animals indicates a position of innate human superiority. I don’t believe in the divine right of humans as masters of the universe. Call me anti-speciesist.
Minimization of suffering has the same problems with quantifying pleasure and pain as a function of intellectual capacity. However, it has the advantage of erring on the side of less suffering. A honey bee may not feel in the same way that a chimpanzee does but neither deserves avoidable suffering.
Still, minimization of suffering is often a ‘kingdomist’ position. Why stop at animals? How much more can a krill feel than a phytoplankton? At what point is Life important on its own? At what point is a living thing unimportant and merely subservient to more complex life forms? If our understanding and empathy of suffering is not necessary for its minimization, then all life’s suffering ought to be minimized.
At the point where one starts fretting about the suffering of microbes, it is reasonable to start asking why Life is so important. Most of the universe - to the best of our knowledge - does not contain life. So the question goes, “Should the universe be free from the kinds of abuses humans perpetrate on animals?” This is is reminiscent of the rock ethic found in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. It does not make sense to speak about the suffering of rocks or stars. Yet perhaps the universe should be appreciated for what it is rather than what humans can make of it. If you believe this then you have walked the path from anti-suffering to environmental veganism.
The primary point in this argument is that veganism is tens to thousands of times more efficient than alternative modalities. Water usage is a great surrogate metric. Vegetarian products have to go through an animal’s systems — which requires the animal to be alive at some point. Meat products are a one-time use of an animal and so the water required is not able to be averaged over multiple usages. For example, consider the same caloric value coming from eggs versus chicken breast. The integrated water usage of chicken breast is much higher than that of the egg. Both of these are much higher than the water usage for the equivalent caloric content of the corn which fed the chicken throughout its life.
The ethical arguments for environmentalism are much discussed. They can, however, tend to speciesism. “We should try to prevent large scale climate change so that we have an ecosystem to pass on to our children.” In such statements ours and our own are primary and the planet is secondary. Veganism is thus a tool to prevent our own suffering and incidentally minimizes that of other species.
Still, the environmentalist argument provides a needed alternative to the anti-suffering argument. This is because the basic metric is theoretically measurable. As seen above, if you don’t believe in quantifiable suffering then you are lead to question the underlying value of life in natural systems. If instead you do believe that intra-life suffering is comparable then it is possible to say that perhaps certain animal by-products are less bad because they cause less suffering. Honey is the canonical example because bees arguably have much less capacity for suffering than large scale mammals.
However, environmentalists veganism has no such quandaries. Bees - whether they can truly feel or not - is irrelevant to honey production. Honey still requires many times the amount of water as opposed to equivalent food stuffs (eg sugar cane).
Further environmental reasonings may be found within a sense of tikkun olam. It is impossible to humans to act in an unnatural way; we are products of nature ourselves. So while we are confined to act within the universe we ought to act in a way that heals and creates a better universe. Veganism is one mechanism by which we can be responsible stewards of existence.
Thus in the limit where suffering becomes small or unintelligible, environmental and ecological arguments become more important as a justification for veganism.
This argument is often derided as being selfish, vain, and transitory. Personal purity justifications span the gamut from trying to loose weight to “my body is a temple” to “I just feel better as a vegan.”
However, what the purity argument has that the other arguments lack is a strong sense of personal responsibility. Veganism is something empowered by the individual. It is not possible for anyone to be vegan for someone else in this belief. Other arguments focus more on systemic and external factors that could be averaged away if there were fewer people or more other vegans. For personal purity, one must be vegan oneself.
If someone has made the choice to be vegan or to remain vegan, this is presumably because it brings them some measure of aesthetic or emotional satisfaction. “I want to be beautiful.” I feel that dismissing this argument in light of veganism is inappropriate. People should be allowed to enjoy life in whatever way they choose provided it does not cause implicate them in other moral hazards. Veganism is a moral positive and does not contain such hazards.
Veganism making you happy is equally as valid of a reason to be vegan as any other.
Though this is fundamentally an aesthetic argument, its strength is bolstered - not diminished - by the anti-suffering and environmental arguments. If you are vegan for environmental or anti-suffering reasons and are not happy with it, you really should consider being happy with being vegan.
The reasons for veganism are many and varied. Here alone we touched on three branches of philosophy to explain it:
- ethics - pain is bad and the relative capacity for suffering is unquantifiable,
- metaphysics - humans have no special rights over existence, and
- aesthetics - happiness is good.
Following many of these lines of thought to their extremes often lead one of the other branches. This is why it bothers me when I am asked to formally pick one reason. Like the x, y, and z axes they are independent and inseparable. The broad space of veganism is large enough for everyone to eat, drink, and be merry.