Veganism: ideology versus results

(trigger warning: contains interesting thought experiments! :-))

As readers of this blog may know, I like to challenge the cherished and well established vegan concept now and again. Why? Because 1) I think everything – everything – should be questioned, again and again, not for the sake of questioning itself, but to make our thinking, or ideologies, our dreams, our tactics better, sharper, and more effective. 2) Because I think there is so much more to helping animals than just being a consistent vegan.

Obviously, not everyone appreciates this questioning of veganism, as a concept, as a practise, as a strategy. Many people believe they know exactly what veganism is, what role it plays, how necessary it is, and who is a vegan and who isn’t. For those people, everything is simple: veganism has been defined, some decades ago, by Donald Watson (as the avoidance of animal products in as far as practical and possible). You just do as he says. Never mind that that is quite a vague, subjective phrasing. Never mind that Watson and his friends at the early UK Vegan Society welcomed everyone who agreed with the objectives, independent of whether they practised veganism or not.

Like I have stated before, I have been vegan for 17 years, so my critical comments on vegans and veganism are to be read in a different way than those of your average omnivore. I make them, like I said, in the hope of making us more effective. What I want to do here is take a brief, closer look at why people are vegan, what the impact of it is, and what some of the issues that I have with it are.

ideology vs results

Let’s start with a very simple question: Why do vegans eat only vegan food? Why, in other words, are they vegan?

Most of us vegans may think they have a definitive answer to this, but let’s investigate.

When we judge the morality of an action, we can judge it in terms of 1) its results and 2) whether it is right for wrong for a person to do that action. These are two different things. To see this more clearly, imagine that for every person who becomes vegan, an imaginary, quite mean omnivore commits to eating twice as many animal products, thus neutralizing any effect vegans may have. The vegans’ action thus has no results (point 1 above). Being vegan in this case seems to become much less important or urgent, but most of us – including myself – would still do it, simply because we find it wrong to eat animals (and there may also be disgust or health concerns, but these are another matter).

Reason number one (the results) is my main reason for being vegan. I believe that enough vegans, together with the bigger group of vegetarians and the much bigger group of reducetarians, are slowly but surely changing demand, and thus production (stimulating the development of good alternatives and lowering the demand for animal products). Thus, we save animals from a life of suffering (by them not needing to be born). When a life is more misery than happiness, it is better that that life was never there.

Reason number two, the morality of an act, is important to me but is secondary. If one agrees that eating animals is wrong, it seems that it is always a wrong thing to do, independent of the circumstances and consequences. It is easy to imagine situations where whether you eat or don’t eat a product with animal ingredients makes no difference whatsoever in terms of results. When something is offered to you (i.e. when you don’t intentionally buy a piece of meat, for instance) your refusal to eat that product will have no impact on demand itself. Of course, with your behavior you can still show others that you don’t eat animal products, which is about raising awareness. But let’s say that there is no such awareness-raising factor involved. Let’s say there’s some leftover piece of meat somewhere, and no one sees you eat it. What exactly is the problem with eating it? There’s no impact on anyone, and no impact on demand. It is a piece of meat that would be thrown away. Foods thrown away by supermarkets would be a case in point.

I am not saying there is nothing wrong with eating thrown away animal products, but if there is, it will not be in terms of results. In the above case, whether you are consistent or not is neutral in terms of results. I, for one, can imagine circumstances in which being consistent results in a net negative effect. I have previously posited the thought experiment of whether you would eat a steak that was about to be thrown away, if you were offered 100.000 dollars for it, given that you could help a lot of animals with that money. People who would say no to this money, are attaching a lot of importance to reason number two, more so than to reason number one. Or imagine that someone tells you they’ll go vegan if you eat a steak.

Of course you can just not play along and hate thought experiments like these (though I would have hoped you wouldn’t still be reading after the “trigger warning”). But if you take them seriously, as I think you should, you can see that consistency doesn’t automatically deliver the best results for animals.

Apparently – judging by some of the criticism I get for these posts – it is necessary for me to point out that I’m not advocating vegans to make exceptions for no reason. And if vegans don’t want to make any exception, in no matter what circumstances and for no matter what consequences, who am I to fault them for doing so? Maybe their 100% consistent behaviour has some possible benefits or consequences too. It’s just not the approach that I would choose. It would be nice though, if conversely, someone like me, making these pragmatic considerations for the benefit of animals, would not be accused of all kinds of things (like not being a vegan or even an anti-vegan – even though I’m only talking about micro-incredients, and not even about a small bite or slice of cheese).

I am not attacking people who want to be entirely consistent and pure (most people would call me pretty consistent and pure, by the way). What I am saying is that sometimes, in some situations, it is worth considering an alternative to being entirely consistent. Or rather, one can consider being consistent with the aim of veganism (reducing suffering) rather than the definition of veganism.

All of this may seem trivial and unimportant, but it’s not. What I’m talking about – and will write about more in the future – is the difference between ideology and concrete impact. Far too often, I think, we follow ideology for ideology’s sake, without having much attention for the actual effect of following that ideology. It is, in the end, results that we are about. Or at least, it is what I am about.