I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.
This article was originally published November 10, 2011 on Care2.
Although this may come as a surprise to some, there are ethical vegans across the political spectrum and in every major religion. Veganism transcends politics and religion because it is based on the simple matter of rejecting a particular form of prejudice: speciesism.
Speciesism, racism, sexism, and other prejudices rely on a morally irrelevant criterion (in this case, species) as the basis on which to deny the interests of an individual belonging to a different ‘group’, even if those interests are more significant than one’s own. As such, speciesism is simply a different form of the same underlying wrong at the foundation of all prejudices. It really doesn’t matter which morally irrelevant criteria we base our prejudice on – sex, race, skin color, age, sexual orientation, species – it is ethically wrong to use such arbitrary criteria to deny the rights of others.
Despite the cultural evolution that has brought humanity a long way from the ‘kill or be killed’ mentality of prehistoric times, the world today remains profoundly speciesist. The extreme prejudice of our cultural speciesism reaches far beyond disregarding an individual’s right to avoid persecution. It extends as far as absolute indifference to the right to be free from unjust imprisonment, mental and emotional torment, extreme physical violence in the form of mutilations and the infliction of injury and death. Owned as chattel property, with no laws to protect their most fundamental rights, those who are not human are condemned to a life with no protection against the brutal and unremitting oppression from those who control their world: Us.
Animal exploitation is perfectly legal and socially acceptable everywhere in the world, despite the emergence of satisfactory alternatives to virtually all uses (not to mention those yet to be developed, once our society rejects our current speciesist practices). Although there is a growing movement drawing attention to the many brutal rights violations routinely carried out against nonhumans being used for human gain, we continue to confine, injure and kill animals of all kinds, maintaining unnecessary, antiquated exploitative practices for food production, research, fashion, and even entertainment.
The ubiquitous nature of this extreme cultural prejudice explains why speciesism (and the proper moral response to it: veganism) is unrelated to political leaning. Although social justice movements generally arise from the left, there are some political conservatives who are principled vegans, while some on the political left, sadly, continue to scoff at issues of animal rights. In fact, it is remarkable that the vast majority of those on the political left choose to remain uninformed and to deliberately ignore these glaring justice issues, including their own participation in practices that would be rightly abhorred by anyone in touch with their conscience.
As it is with politics, so it is with religion. Christians were strongly divided over human chattel slavery in antebellum America, with slavery proponents using Bible quotes to defend their “God given” right to own slaves. Opponents of slavery used different Bible quotes to point out that slavery was condemned by God. And so it is with regard to animal rights today. Those on both sides of the issue use quotes from religious texts either to justify unnecessary killing, or to validate the vegan ethic of nonviolence.
Eastern religions are no exception. Many of today’s Buddhists attempt to justify animal use, unnecessary killing, and speciesism by pointing to loopholes in the various contradictory writings about the Buddha’s teaching of universal compassion for all sentient beings. Other Buddhists choose instead to practice and promote veganism as the rational response to the essential Buddhist teaching of nonviolence. Presumably, having been liberated from their own speciesism, vegan Buddhists are able to see through such prejudiced rationalizations, and recognize the higher authority in the truth the Buddha was apparently trying to impart to his students.
(In other words, if the Buddha wasn’t a vegan, as some people claim, then he wasn’t living up to his own teachings, which state very clearly that reverence for sentient life is a fundamental principle of a spiritual existence.)
In any case, it is clear that politics and religion are irrelevant to rejecting our common prejudice against fellow sentient beings. Regardless of whether we are conservative, liberal, leftist, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, or fall under any other category, we have the choice to acknowledge and reject the underlying cultural speciesism that we have all been conditioned to accept.
In fact, one might say that a deep-seated awareness of the essential rights and needs held by all sentient beings is the common ground that we every one of us shares.
Despite our many differences and divergences, underneath religion, politics, worldviews, interests, personalities, shape, size, sex, color, and even species, underneath it all, every single one of us is made from flesh and blood. Or, as the Buddha himself is said to have taught:
“All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?”