When discussions of animal rights come up, and especially when those discussions lead to an assertion by an animal rights advocate that veganism is a moral imperative, a comment is often made implying, if not stating outright, that we shouldn’t be imposing our beliefs on others. This is particularly prevalent among those who see morality through the foggy goggles of cultural relativity; instead of seeing morality through careful reasoning, justice, empathy, and most importantly, impartiality. This “anti-imposition” position is also prevalent among those who see the entire subject of morality as “muddy waters”, “messy”, or “subjective” (subjective in the way that a preference for a certain amount of sugar in one’s tea is subjective).
To be clear: there are muddy areas of morality and genuine dilemmas and conflicts where right and wrong are ambiguous (e.g. decisions about, say, justified war or conflicting rights). There are also honest and interesting disagreements in the realm of meta-ethics and between different moral theories, which can be ambiguous. However, there are also areas of morality where right and wrong are obvious, but due to traditional prejudices, individual habits and the like, these areas happen to be controversial in a given place and time (e.g. human slavery and, dare I say it, animal rights).
The point is that just because something is controversial doesn’t entail that it is also “muddy”, “messy”, or “subjective.” Ending slavery was so controversial that it was one of the significant causes of the American Civil War; but from a rational, just, empathic, and impartial moral standpoint, ending slavery was a moral imperative and that is plain and obvious to anyone capable of consistent moral reasoning.
As we will see in this essay, attempting to persuade others that ending slavery or going vegan is a moral imperative is not imposing that belief on another; it is merely advocating in favor of that belief.
What Do You Mean By “Imposing”?
To start with, I think it is helpful to define what we mean by “imposing.” Imposing, by definition, implies force of some kind. Politically, the sovereign state can impose laws, restrictions, and taxes through force and/or threat of undesirable personal consequences. As a practical matter, the individual cannot impose any belief on anyone in liberal democracies that is not already a law without getting into trouble with the law themselves (assuming non-guardian relationships). So, by discussing moral issues and participating in public demonstrations, nobody is imposing beliefs, circumstances, or behavior on anyone, unless they are using some kind of force or duress; and if force is the case, they are also very likely breaking the law.
Do You Mean Persuading?
If we are talking about persuading or convincing others of certain beliefs, then we should call it persuading or convincing, not “imposing”. I see nothing wrong with attempting to persuade or convince others to our beliefs, especially if our beliefs result in less violence and harm in the world. If someone feels guilty, for example, because I’ve told them how buying flesh or animal products contributes to severe harm and suffering that makes them feel very uncomfortable, I may have imposed on their conscience, but I have not imposed my beliefs, behavior, or any actions on them. Is imposing on someone’s conscience by informing them of facts, circumstances, and perspectives of which they were previously unaware a bad thing? No, it’s not. If anything, I’ve done them a favor by informing them of something they ought to know or a perspective they should consider.
So, vegans will continue to not impose our beliefs on anyone, but we will not stop attempting to persuade people of living a less harmful and less violent life, even if that means imposing on their consciences.
Impositions: On Persons Versus On Consciences
Let’s address this question of who is imposing beliefs on whom when it comes to nonhumans and their right to live free of gross injustice, serious harm, and murder (murder being defined in the moral sense as the intentional killing of the innocent).
Non-vegans impose, in the ultimate sense of the word and all of its force implications, extremely violent beliefs and actions on 10 billion land animals (i.e. persons) annually in the United States alone and impose that way of life on vegans (i.e. persons) every day by breeding, enslaving, and killing “food” animals (or buying product from those who do) and forcing vegans, through the law, social institutions, and their vast numbers, to refrain from imposing our much more sane and just beliefs and actions on them. Because non-vegans have so much overwhelming power in every way, imposing beliefs is simply not an option for vegans, while imposing beliefs and actions (on nonhumans and vegans) is the only way non-vegans do what they do (innocent animals are not giving their consent to be slaughtered any more than an innocent 3 year old child would give that consent). Vegans, as a practical matter, have only persuasion and reasoning, or imposing on consciences, as a viable way of changing the world at this time.
Granted, society-at-large is a bit like a speeding freight train that can’t exactly stop on a dime or turn sharp corners, regardless of its engineer’s wishes, and will impose on anything in its immediate path, including animals and vegans. Fortunately, however, individuals within society are NOT like freight trains. Individuals can stop on a dime and turn sharp corners, changing their moral lives rather quickly and permanently.
So, we can now see that the suggestion that vegans impose beliefs on others is, at best, a thoughtless misuse of the word “impose”, and most often, absurd. Individual consciences may be imposed on, but if consciences can be imposed on, then something out there isn’t morally right and consciences should be imposed on. Imposing on consciences is not the same thing at all as imposing on persons themselves or forcing (imposing on) people to do things that their consciences do not dictate the need to do. Vegans will only start imposing beliefs on persons when we have persuaded enough people with enough political power to be capable of imposing on persons who have not been persuaded via an imposition on their conscience (perhaps because, like many felons, they lack an adequate conscience).
The Moral Neutrality of Imposition
Finally, imposition itself, like power or intelligence, is morally neutral. It is the moral content of what is being imposed which has either positive or negative moral value. For example, the Nazis imposed their beliefs on Jewish people and the allies. I think that was a morally wrong imposition. On the other hand, the allies in World War II imposed their beliefs on the Nazis. I think that was a morally right imposition.