The imperfect veganism of Ezra Klein

Ezra Klein, founder and editor in chief of the news website Vox, was on the podcast of Tim Ferris, and one of the things they talked about was veganism and eating animals. Ferris asked Klein what he would give a TED talk about if he had to choose a topic outside of his actual specialty, and Klein said it would be something on the ethics of meat eating, which he feels “really strongly about.”

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein

Klein says that what we eat is a very profound moral choice. He believes – and Ferris concurs – that in the future people will look back on the way we treated animals in this era and judge us “very, very harshly”, because “we’re torturing a lot of sentient beings constantly.” Klein has clearly given a lot of thought to the topic – he mentions some advocates like Bruce Friedrich and Matt Ball. He talks about how we cause much more suffering if we switch from beef to chicken, and the same when we eat a lot of factory farmed eggs instead of beef. He thinks in terms of real impact: “if we can get everyone to cut meat consumption by half, that is so much better than quadrupling the number of vegetarians.” So, we need to think about reduction, according to Klein.

The most interesting part of the podcast for me was when Klein talked about his own eating habits. At some point in their dialogue, Ferris suggests that if you try to take people “from zero to sixty” [he’s talking about the demand for overnight conversion to veganism],  the dropoff is probably going to be above 90% after a few weeks. Klein tells Ferris of his own struggle with sticking to it:

“There is a fair amount of behavioral science evidence that it is important for people to act in ways reasonably consonant with the identity that they have for themselves. (…) And this is something I found because I floated back and forth between veg’ism and not for a long time (…). What happened was I would say “I’m going vegetarian”, and then at some point, I would fail. And having failed, it’s not like what would happen is that I would go to 95% vegetarian: I would completely collapse back into full-on omnivorism. And the reason in part was that if I’d set up the success structure such that I was vegetarian or I was not, then “was not” was almost the same kind of failure, no matter how much meat I was eating, what kind of meat I was eating…”

So, here’s how Klein solved it:

“The way this actually stuck for me this time was that the way I went vegetarian a couple of years ago now, was with a tremendous number of caveats: “I’m vegetarian except when I travel, cause I know when I travel I often have a lot of trouble sticking to vegetarianism; so, if I’m vegetarian except when I travel and then when I travel I eat meat, well then, it doesn’t offend my identity at all. And now, I’m mostly vegan. I eat vegan at home, except when I travel I’m vegetarian. And, there are a couple of points in the year, like I’ve been having sushi with my best friend’s mother since I was a  kid, and it is important to me that I am able to continue that tradition. And so, as opposed to having sushi there twice a year and then collapsing out of all my other eating habits because of it, this is now built into it. And so, I actually find that personally very helpful to not be so strict on myself (…).

I think this fragment pretty much speaks for itself. It reminded me of something that Jonathan Safran Foer told me in an interview: you have this person who was vegan and all of a sudden, he’s not anymore. So, you ask him: what happened, and he says: well, I was in the airport and there was nothing to eat, and I ate meat and then I just slid back into my normal omnivorous diet. Foer’s suggestion was not to make being a strict vegan too important a part of your identity.

The solution here for some people might be to try to make really sure that they never make an exception at all. But for other people, like for Ezra Klein, it could be to just build in the exceptions or the mildness as part of their vegan identity. It’s probably more sustainable to do it like this.

You can listen to the podcast episode here. The relevant part is from minutes 34 to 44.

44 thoughts on “The imperfect veganism of Ezra Klein

  1. This is so true. A friend of mine went from vegetarian to vegan. She gave up being vegan after a month as she missed cheese. Instead of just eating dairy cheese, she went back to having dairy everything and eggs, even though the non-dairy milks, yoghurts and ice cream were not a problem for her. I suggested to her she eat a vegan diet except the cheese. She said she had never thought of doing this, but went ahead.

    She easily stuck to this, and six months later has now stopped eating cheese. But even if she hadn’t dropped the cheese she would still no longer be eating dairy milk, yoghurt, ice cream and eggs.

  2. Klein’s cognitive dissonance is deafening. He first makes the case that using animals is horrendous and history will judge us harshly and yet he whines he can’t find anything to eat while traveling?! Going vegan is easy if you truly believe the morality you espouse. I suspect people get guilt pangs and decide in a moment of honesty to “give up” eating animals without doing the research and consulting with other vegans on how to maintain a vegan lifestyle. Yes, we live in an extremely animal-hostile world and it does take some effort to negotiate that. On the other hand, there are so many resources out there on how to go vegan in a healthy and fulfilling way – I don’t buy the rationalization.

    1. paul, should i assume you don’t do anything that you think you shouldn’t do? or conversely, you don’t neglect to do anything that you know you should do?
      then by all means, cast the stones…

    2. I agree with you. Besides, what the hell is “imperfect veganism? One is a vegan or one is not a vegan: you stick to your principles or you don’t.

      1. That attitude is the point of the article. We cannot impose a rule on others based on our own perceived moral superiority. It’s not about YOU, its about the animals. Every single animal saved is what it is about. Your “All or nothing” is not what is going to change the world, but “imperfect veganism” actually could.

        1. exactly. problem is that it’s very tempting to say we are actually morally superior and others are not. so it will be tempting to tell others so, and thus demonstrate an attitude toward them that is not, imho, very productive at all.

      2. I identify as vegan but I probably have different principles from you. For example, I consider driving a motor vehicle to be far more exploitative than eating a beef burger. If another vegan drives do I get to berate them for being imperfect?

        1. Wow, didn’t get that comment at all. I guess it depends on WHY you are vegan. As far as I know, steel and metal don’t have emotions and can’t be hurt or suffer any pain..

    3. Cognitive dissonance is very powerful and to discount it’s power as moral weakness is to dismiss it entirely. Factoring it’s power into one’s approach has a more impactful real world outcome. After all, it’s about impact, not purity.

    4. pslebow,

      I’m similar to Ezra…..though for me I don’t make a wholesale objection to the use of any creature that is part of the animal kingdom. But my actions have nothing to co with cognitive dissonance, for example, despite thinking that the typical way dairy is produced is morally problematic I don’t strictly avoid dairy. The reason is that my actions have little to no impact on the world and I don’t control the availability of options in the market place. So I’m happy buying soy milk instead of regular milk…..the extra expense isn’t an issue for me and its readily available. On the other hand I rarely if ever eat vegan chocolate….its not readily available.

      When vegans say its “easy” to be vegan…..I think they are typically ignoring cost, nutrition and dietary behavior.

    5. One one hand it’s a set of morals, on the other hand it’s a set of habits.

      Frankly, I found it easier to pay attention to my morals before I had as much stress in my life as I currently do, now as a working parent. My eating patterns had once been structured by my (vegan) morals. Soon, they were more structured by practicalities.
      I was worn down and there were a few non-vegan-friendly work functions and I found myself backsliding as Klein describes.

      I never imagined I would as I consider myself an animal abolitionist. But at different times in life, I have found different things at my mental forefront and they are not always the horrors I learned about while researching farming. The swim against mainstream eating can be hard, the reality of what you are doing so obscured, the unknowing easier than you imagined when you first connected with veganism. I think having a backup harm reduction strategy is wise.

    6. Great reply. It’s the research and understanding of the depth of suffering we cause animals, as well realizing that life is of value to all sentient beings, not just humans that makes a person go vegan. Once you recognize that we do not have the right to take life or exploit other beings you will be vegan. It’s not a change of diet but of paradigm. TBH I’ve never stuck to a diet in my life for the reasons outlined in the article, no amount of guilt or self criticism made me stick.

  3. And then there are the many for whom once the make the connection -once they get it on a visceral level what the choice to eat animals, eggs, dairy really means, and that the thing in their mouth was part of someone, and begotten by the most unspeakable injustice and suffering, they stop. Just like that. They refuse to be a part of it anymore.

    That said, I certainly prefer people refrain from eating animals and animal products most of the time consistently than not at all.

    But, please don’t call it vegan. Vegan is much much more than what we eat.
    It is not a diet. It is a moral baseline and set of tenets that inform not only our food choices, but what we wear, the (non animal tested) products we buy, companies we support, and how we live in the in the world.
    A daily choice to align our values with our actions.
    A commitment embody our compassion.

    I am not claiming moral superiority or “perfection”
    I am simply pointing out the profundity of the term and asking that we not dilute it to suit current trends.

    One cannot be a part time vegan.
    They can follow a plant based diet, pat time, full time, whatever works -and that is a really great thing.

    1. When I’m tabling I tell people all the time that they are a partial vegan. (As in, “You eat vegetables, right? You’re probably at least a 50% vegan”) And they are surprised and agree, and this makes them more receptive to learning more and taking future steps.

      It also neutralizes meat-industry propaganda that seeks to “other” vegans as weird or unhealthy.

      There are plenty of places to have the moral discussion – and I believe it’s crucial. But there are plenty of places where you can’t. If I started making moral arguments to strangers at the farmers market they would back off – and the meat industry propaganda would be affirmed for them.

      When you can get someone to use your language that’s an activist / marketing “win” that you can build on. It’s the activists’ job not to get complacent and settle for partial solutions, and I’ve never met a LESS complacent group of activists than the vegans. 🙂 So, personally, I’m not worried about diluting the term.

  4. Thanks for this, Tobias. It is a great discussion of how we can have a real impact for animals in the real world, rather than just discuss back and forth on our curated Facebook feed. It is telling that instead of recognizing the important insights here, so many are instead worried about “defending” a word. Our egoism is quite stunning.

    An expansion of the points Klein and Ferris makes is here:
    http://www.onestepforanimals.org/why-one-step.html

    Thanks again, Tobias!

    1. thanks matt. I would say “ego-centricity” rather than “egoism”. we take ourselves as the measure of things and have a very hard time looking outside the box we’ve ideologized ourselves into, and can no longer be in other people’s shoes.
      (enough of the metaphors now! 🙂

  5. When we look at the facts: 80% of people who go vegan or vegetarian go back to eating animals, the importance of the ideas expressed in this post seems evident. More animals
    are saved by not promoting an all or nothing, moral baseline, don’t dilute the definition of
    veganism choice.

    I stopped eating meat approximately 41 years ago, and went vegan approximately 25 years ago. I say approximately since I had stops and starts and exceptions myself in the early years. Now I get it at a visceral level as Leslie says and eating animal products is unthinkable to me.

    However, that doesn’t matter!!! I am a small minority. I have seen so many people go back to eating animals over the years. I cannot count them. Both people I know personally and famous vegetarians. Even the folksinger Mealanie who wrote a song with the lines, ” I don’t eat animals cause I love them you see, I don’t eat animals, I want nothing dead in me” went back to eating animals.

    For whatever reasons: convenience, social pressure, cravings, the facts are what they are. We need to deal with the world as it is and human nature as it is, not as we want it to be.

    I am more concerned with the animals and their suffering than with the definition of veganism.

  6. He is an omnivore; not a vegetarian, not a vegan.
    Why lie?
    If he truly cared about animals, he would not eat them.
    If this site truly cared about animals, they would not promote this obviously callous attitude towards the lives of others.

    1. shane, i think it’s not up to you or me to say whether Ezra “truly cares” or not about animals, just like it would be very uncharitable of me to say something like: if you truly cared about animals, you’d be thinking more strategically. I believe you truly care for animals. I believe Ezra does, and I believe I do. I think a charitable attitude towards each other is a minimum requirement for dialogue and conversation.

      1. I’m not sure Tobias, can you care about animals but occasionally kill them because you like the taste of their body?

        1. do you want to tell everyone who’s not 100% vegan that “they don’t care for animals”? Is that going to solve anything, be good for anyone?

          1. No. You are right. I’ve been thinking about it and done some research. It won’t help. I like this quote from onegreenplanet which discusses Carnism – the dominant animal eating narrative. It reminded me that “that people eat animals because their hearts and minds have been manipulated by a culture that is antithetical to their core values and has coerced them into acting against their own interests and the interests of others” not because they don’t care or don’t love animals.

  7. I try to avoid telling others who they are or who they are not. The all-or-nothing approach is surely the most ethical, but does not work in practical application. Food is not just about eating, and veganism is not a diet. One reason why ‘vegan’ is being interpreted as a diet is that food is often the main focus of vegan advocacy. And that’s a good thing, regardless of someone’s reason for stopping animal consumption or cutting back.
    Most people, including vegans, do not understand the extraordinary depth and breadth that food has in life. The psychological, emotional, cultural, survival mechanisms that drive food choices are almost invisible. Yet these forces are so ubiquitous, thick, and powerful they can seem impenetrable. A transitional approach is the most reasonable at this time. If we try to shape hardened cement, it will crack.
    Many people are cutting back on animal product consumption. When I speak with people who state this, a part of me cringes and wishes everyone would go vegan NOW. However, I choose to be supportive and encouraging, and engage in conversation with them while offering vegan alternatives and share simple tenets of living vegan. My go-to quickest statement is, “It’s wrong to turn sentient beings into commodities. They lose their freedom and are put into harm’s way.” That excludes any “humane” lies.

  8. Tobias,
    I think there is a subtlety here that should be emphasized. I am not sure from what you wrote if you are thinking this or not. There is a difference between flexibility in the form of rules that say “I won’t worry about this” and flexibility in terms of vague willingness to break the “rules”. I think, from what you report, that Klein gets this — he is a very good social scientist.

    So here is the point: Making a well-defined exception like the sushi, or not worrying about micro ingredients when making a one-off purchase or eating choice are rules that make it easier. But saying “I will be vegan 95% of the time” is a recipe for failure. The former makes the choice easier and thus more promising for success. The latter leaves you on a slippery slope.

    In my 1999 paper, available at http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/70/3/608s.abstract, I point out how being in between clear “peaks” in the choice space is an uncomfortable situation. So one peak might be whatever clearly delineated version of veganism you might choose is (with whatever exceptions). Another might be “eat whatever”. Being at one or the other is a fairly stable situation. You can stick with it just fine, notably even if you might actually be happier at the other. But hang out in between — in that “I will do x%” space — and you will very likely slide toward one or the other.

    Now as a personal contra to that theory of how most people will operate, I will grant my own situation is actually an exception to what I am arguing. After being vegan for decades, I now have a family where veganism is simply not a survival option my wife and child, due to food allergies. For reasons that should be obvious, I therefore do not stick to being vegan at home. But I stay much closer than them. And I aim for veganism when I am not eating with them. But not 100%. Both of these put me in that vague in-between zone I don’t think really works. But I do stay almost vegan, at the level of “if five average people did what I am doing, it would have a bigger impact than four going totally vegan”, or maybe more like “…ten…nine…”. But I think the difference is that I practiced veganism for the majority of my life before this, which is not the case for most of the people I or you are talking about in our models.

  9. I appreciate every one of these folks thoughts! I have gained more insight as to how people try and live as kindly as possible yet still struggle to live by their true morals. We need to try not to judge anyone who even tries in little ways to cut back on meat and meat product consumption as every little bit counts! You can’t talk a cigarette smoker into quitting. They must do it alone. I was a very strict vegan for 5 years starting at the age of 59. I didn’t allow one bite of anything made from animals to pass my lips. Then one day I was told I had breast cancer with metastasis to the lymph nodes. Naturally I was so angry after feeling I had been doing everything right with exercise, happily retiring early and eating a diverse vegan diet. But shit happens and when I told my doctor about this, she said “Look at it this way. Your cancer was an extremely slow-growing one that you had before you even turned vegan. It’s possible going vegan actually slowed this cancer down for many years so it wasn’t aggressive”. Something to consider. I remained a vegan throughout my brutal chemo and radiation until I was so weak, I broke down and ate salmon once a week rationalizing my body needed this kind of fat and protein as I was too tired at times to cook much. “Perfect vegans” might chastise me for that but until you are in a situation close to death, you really shouldn’t judge others. I am still a vegan who scrapes off mayo on something I’m served or skims off the cheese on my salad when by mistake the waiter serves it to me. I try every day to spare the pain animals are caused and maybe not perfect but forever working towards it. If we proselytize, we will get nowhere. When someone tells me they’ve cut way back on meat to once or twice a week from daily, I congratulate them and encourage them to continue. Every little bit counts!

  10. I find it interesting that even some of the comments supporting Ezra Klein reflect, to a lower extent, the obsession with purity that is unfortunately quite typical to veganism (an already implicit in the term). The argument basically goes like this: in an ideal world, people would be one hundred percent vegan, but since we are all humans and not angels, we cannot expect to be perfect.

    I disagree with that assesment: I think it is the ethically right choice for Mr. Klein not to become 100% vegan, given that he already is at least 95% vegan (however you would measure is). The reasons for that are quite obvious, once you consider opportunity costs (and read some of Tobias’s older blog posts) 😉
    In many non-western countries (and also in some western countries) vegetarian or even vegan food is quite difficult to get. So when in his function as a journalist, Mr. Klein arrives at his hotel late at night and is hungry, should he really spend an extra hour walking around, searching for a restaurant that offers a veg*an option? Or is the time not better invested in relaxing or preparing tomorrow’s interview, so he can write a much better article and thus hopefully influence more people. (Of course he not only writes about animal issues, but I assume the people posting here have other ethical principles in addition to their concern for animals) If Mr Klein were an average omnivore, it might very much be worth it to invest time and energy to ethically improve his diet. But because going vegan has diminishing returns (like ever other effort in live) and given that he already is at least 95% vegan, the extra hour a day or a week or even a month that would be needed to become even more “pure”, can almost always be better spend.

    Where the threshold is exactly, depends largely on the individual’s place in the societal hierarchy (and thus their ability to influence other) or, alternatively, their income (which through donation can be converted into influence). But even if you are lowest in the hierarchy and only earn minimum wage or less, the additional hour can probably be better spend then working on your perfection.

    As Tobias mentioned in other blog posts (but fails to mention here), the question is not “how vegan are you?” but “how can you reduce the most animal (or human) suffering possible?”. Given the latter moral framework, neglecting your perfection can very plausibly be the ethically better option.

    1. thanks chris, interesting thoughts.
      Another pragmatic factor to take into account here is ezra’s (or others’) relationship with other people and the effect that strictness or lack of strictness has on them. i recently heard this from some AR activists: every month they have at least three lunches with members of parliament, in parliament itself. at those moments, they are vegetarian, while they are otherwise mainly vegan. this is to be closer to these people, to not give the impression that they are fanatics for refusing a tiny ingredient, etc. Makes perfect sense to me (though of course some in our movement will of course say that 100% consistency is oh so inspiring 🙂

      1. Yes, that’s another good point. I don’t get the people who think it should be a priority for him to change the food he has when meeting his friend TWO TIMES a year and that he apparently does not care about the animals if he is not ready to do that…

        I think it was Peter Singer who pointed out on various occasions that our society puts too large a distinction on the difference between act and omission even if the result is the same. The vegan community (or parts of it, as I don’t like generalisations) is the reductio-ad-absurdum of that attitude. You can leaflet, donate or be an effective communicator (like Ezra Klein), but if you drink milk, you are not “pure” enough apparently. Conversely, many vegans are perfectly happy to go vegan and are not interested in becoming animal activists, although that would probably enable them to alleviate far more suffering then through becoming vegan alone.

  11. Okay, try mapping Ezra’s words and actions onto any other issue and see if they hold up. What if he was on a podcast and said, “There’s still so much misogyny in the world. Future generations will judge us incredibly harshly on how women are treated today.”

    “So I’m committed to treating women as equals in all of my actions. But, you know, some behavioural science has found that it’s important to be consonant and I don’t want to slip off the wagon. So when I see my old frat buddies we still neg girls at the bar and compete to see who can pull the most.”

    “And, my uncle, bless his soul, just loves to sit on his stoop and catcall women. He’s been really special in my life so when I visit him twice a year it’s important to me that I continue the tradition of sitting with him and objectifying passers by.”

    Now a feminist blog posts these comments and the reaction is.. positive? People in the comments section defend his actions and say at least he’s trying, ‘you can’t expect people to actually live the values they espouse all the time’? Not likely.

    Same argument for racism, homophobia, environmentalism, anything. Except, apparently, veganism.

    If you’re a moral person and really believe an action is torture than you don’t build a ‘tremendous number of caveats’ into your actions.

    1. Actually, the impression you get from comparing veganism to any other issue is exactly the contrary. (I didn’t come up with the following example but I find it very illustrative) Imagine an NGO that wants to change the exploitation of poor people in coltan mines. Should they refrain from using mobile phones, computers, because these products might contain coltan gained under slavery-like conditions? Since that would basically mean their campaign has no chance to succeed at all, I would argue that it is the right thing to use these products.

      Imagine further, there are both types of computers on the markets: those produced under conditions that respect miners’ rights and those which use minerals gained under slavery-like conditions. If the difference is only a couple of euros (or dollars), clearly they should buy the morally superior product. But to what extent should a funding-constrained organisation be willing to make that choice, and, in the process, reduce their investment in their actual programmes.

      It is easy to imagine that people within this imaginary organisation, as well as their supporters and critics, have a rational discussion about these questions. In contrast to that, large parts of the vegan movement have a fundamentalistic obsession with purity that impedes any such rational discussion.

      1. amen to the idea that we should be open to discuss these things rather than to take a closed dogmatic stance that doesn’t allow us to gain new insights.

Leave a Reply