When discussing animal rights, people sometimes object that there are too many problems in the world involving humans, and that once we get our global or national house in order regarding humans, then we can worry about nonhumans. Ignoring the embedded speciesism and “othering” in this line of thought, even if one prefers assisting humans prior to assisting nonhumans (which, just like the reverse, is fine), there is no reason for contributing to the intentional harm and exploitation inflicted on nonhuman beings. In other words, other than changing habits, merely being vegan requires no significant time or effort that would take away from one’s time or energy available to help humans. Being vegan does not entail becoming an animal rights activist any more than avoiding cannibalism entails becoming a human rights activist or avoiding a career as a pimp entails becoming an outspoken feminist. One simply refuses to engage in exploiting nonhumans (or humans or women) and goes on with life as usual.
Another problem with the objection that we need to “take care of humans before we go vegan” is that so many human problems are directly rooted in our consumption of animal products and the deplorable animal agriculture industry that supplies this consumption. One of those human problems is world hunger. A large portion of total demand for grains is made up of the animal agriculture industry’s demand for animal feed. Animals always consume significantly more calories, nutrition, and protein in plant-based food than they provide in animal products (meat, eggs, and dairy). This artificially high demand makes the price of those grains – which could instead be allocated to feed starving human populations – rise to a significantly higher level. In addition, more large populations of humans in places like China that used to be almost vegan are being introduced to larger quantities of animal products, artificially increasing demand and price for grains even more. Sadly, perhaps even potentially catastrophically, the world demand for animal products is expected to double over the next couple of decades, putting enormous upward pressure on the price and supply of grains, and causing even more human starvation for the have-nots. Another human problem solved by veganism is the animal waste and digestive gas, particularly from pigs and cattle, released into our air and water which has a devastating effect on our environment by polluting our water and air and contributing to global warming. A third human problem that is significantly reduced by veganism is the health problems brought on by moderate to heavy milk, cheese, egg, and meat consumption, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity. So do we really want to help humans, ourselves included? If so, then we should go vegan.
Once we go vegan, we are no longer directly contributing to various human problems and the problem of animal exploitation, and as long as we are “just vegan” and don’t do anything to promote so-called “humane” animal products, we are blameless for what goes on regarding our society’s exploitation of nonhuman beings. As vegans, we have met a minimum standard of moral behavior with respect to nonhumans. At this point, as vegans, if we believe that there are other areas we would prefer to spend our time on other than animal advocacy, such as working at the homeless shelter, then that’s fine. Active animal advocacy, while highly desirable, is no more a moral duty than getting involved in any other cause or movement. There is nothing wrong with spending our volunteer time engaging in what interests us most (e.g. the human rights cause), but we should not contribute to a major problem like animal exploitation and all of its extremely negative external costs to humans and nonhumans and use the failed excuse that “there are more important things to do” than going vegan (or refraining from violence in general).
So, being vegan, by itself, achieves the moral baseline of avoiding the exploitation of others, and vegan or abolitionist advocacy beyond merely being vegan is very desirable and strongly encouraged, but it is ultimately supererogatory. There are, however, as I discussed in the three recent essays on vegan education, certain activities and types of supposed “animal advocacy” that are counterproductive and that vegans ought to steer clear of: namely, getting involved in efforts to regulate animal exploitation and promoting supposedly more “humane” eggs and dairy.
As vegans, we ought to either promote vegan living (including, for example, vegan food-only blogs and promotion) or decline to get involved in advocacy. Joining with those who promote exploitation, even if described and marketed as “humane”, is inconsistent with our behavior and beliefs as vegans, and in the long run promotes and reinforces animal exploitation instead of eroding it. Also, while it is true that, as vegans, we would like to see less suffering of those exploited than more suffering, there are two additional interrelated reasons why we ought to refrain. One reason is that we have limited time, money, and energy for advocacy, which makes our decision in what to invest them a zero-sum game. Every quantity of time, money, and energy spent on promoting so-called “humane” animal products is necessarily diverted from vegan education. The other reason is that abolitionist vegans are outnumbered by consumers and advocates of “happy eggs” and “happy milk” by several orders of magnitude. The movement for “happy” animal products, which is ultimately a boon for the industry and its long-term profitability, is going very strong and only shows signs of growing stronger at this time. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that welfare reform efforts lead people to go vegan. People may become interested in reform efforts and then eventually go vegan, but what gets people to go vegan is vegan education: people go vegan when it is understood why we are not morally justified in killing animals for food and other trivial purposes and when it is understood how delicious and nutritious vegan food is.