A yummy veggieburger or a dreadful vegan burger?

For those who dig them, here’s another thought experiment (you know I love those).

Suppose you’re out and about with an omnivorous friend. He’s very hungry and he wants to humor you and try something veg. The only restaurant in the area has two things on offer: a delicious vegetarian burger (you know it contains a bit of egg or cheese) and a very dry and tasteless vegan burger. Which one do you recommend he order? (Or a bit more difficult: Which one would you buy for him?)

veggie vs vegan

In an ideal world, of course, there’s great tasting vegan burgers everywhere, but going along with this thought experiment may help you discover or make explicit something about your values. I’m sure we agree that the vegan burger is in theory the more ethical choice. But does it follow that it is necessarily the best choice?

The experiences omnivores have with vegan food will have a very big impact on their thinking about vegan and animal rights issues. Those who have had only Bad Tofu Experiences will likely be much less open to going vegan, while those who know the joys of vegan dishes may realize that once they quit their omnivorous diet, they will have great alternatives.

So in this context, of course, it does not seem to be a good idea to suggest a bad product to a person, even though it’s vegan. A yummy experience with the veggie burger (which will look pretty plant-based to your friend anyway) will do much more to open his mind.

I remember speaking at a (non-animal rights related) seminar that took place in a hotel. I had eaten there the night before and I knew the vegan food was quite bad. But after the talk I gave on the problems of eating meat, the organizers asked the audience who would want to switch to a vegetarian meal that night. Almost everybody raised their hand, and I thought: “Noooooo! Not here!”

Take away one: Helping people have great vegan taste experiences is absolutely crucial. If we can’t serve them good vegan food, it might actually be better to let them eat a hamburger.

Take away two: Don’t think just about short-term impact, but also about the long term.


8 thoughts on “A yummy veggieburger or a dreadful vegan burger?

  1. I think the key here is that your friend is not yet vegan or even vegetarian. As long as you aren’t misleading him, I’d order him the veggie burger (and if the vegan burger was that bad, I might just have the fries!). It might not be the most ethical choice, but that’s on him, not me (I’m a bit of a vegan libertarian when it comes to this sort of thing).

    On the other hand, I’m don’t think it’s crucial that someone’s first vegan food experience be great if veganism is the goal. If they’re in the ethically inclined camp, they won’t really care (speaking for myself). My husband, on the other hand, who is still an omnivore, has no problem eating entirely vegan as long as it tastes good. So, I’d say good food is crucial for getting non-vegans to eat vegan food, but they also might never make the transition from omnivore to vegan.

  2. One time I gave a talk at Princeton (organized by Peter Singer), where there was a bunch of famous professors and others (including pre-vegan Jonathan Safran Foer). I talked about how up-and-coming delicious vegan food would make the switch much easier for more and more people.
    After, a bunch of us went to a dinner put on by Princeton, where the main dish was a slab of tofu with a little sauce dribbled on it. I KID YOU NOT. It was quite possibly the most disgusting thing I’ve ever been offered — it was as though the Princeton kitchen was directly mocking my talk.

  3. I think the answer usually simply comes down to which choice holds the most possibility for what you’re trying to ultimately achieve.

    If you’re trying to remain a “pure vegan”, then yes, you can accomplish this by ordering the vegan option for you and your friend. However, you have to accept that if you know the vegan option isn’t going to taste very good, then you’re most likely going to be turning your friend off to vegan food. Even more importantly, they aren’t going to have much incentive to try it again in the future, either.

    I think in this instance, ordering the vegetarian option is akin to sacrificing a smaller “battle” in order to help win the big war. But this is, of course, if you are more concerned about a humane world for all beings, and that holds more importance to you than being able to claim you are a “pure vegan”.

    The sad and unfortunate state of the world is that if we wish to see an increase in the numbers of vegans, we are going to have to bend the “vegan rules” in order to get many non-vegans to understand that being vegan isn’t just about eating tree bark and drinking wheatgrass smoothies.

  4. I realize what you’re getting at here and it’s an interesting utiltarian question, but in real life our recommendations are typically qualified, either by data or an opinion, or both. They are also not typically just one-dimensional representations, whereas you are posing the question a little bit as if we are required to treat the 2 dimensions here (taste, ethics) in isolation or as if they are mutually exclusive.

    In reality, I would most likely just provide information about both dimensions. I might say something like, “Just so you know, the vegetarian burger isapparently really yummy, whereas the vegan burger is pretty awful. I personally am going to suffer through the vegan burger for ethical reasons…” I might give some extra explanation of the latter, like “…because chickens and cows suffer for those vegetarian burgers”, depending on the circumstances.

    W.r.t. the problem of buying the burger, I think that this will really just remains a function of what you would buy for someone else under any circumstances. I am not sure whether you would buy a vegetarian burger for someone because the vegan burger is dreadful is fundamentally different than whether you would buy the vegetarian burger for them under any other circumstances.

  5. I’m not sure how offering someone a non vegan burger advocates veganism. The burger might as well be made out of a cow, the exploitation of a dairy cow or chicken and all the cruelty along with for a veggie burger is just as bad as a burger made out of a cow. It’s akin to offering a comfy leather coat versus an uncomfortable vegan coat, how does that advocate veganism?

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