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Speciesism and Veganism: Transcending Politics and Religion

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?”

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Present Realities and the Moral Status of Animals

Blind Tradition: The Historical Moral Status of So-Called “Brutes”

From pre-history until the 20th century, it was believed by almost everyone that humans needed to use and eat animals to thrive and even to survive. This was especially true prior to the 19th century; and philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant had grossly distorted visions of the nature of nonhuman animals which fit well with the idea that God “put” animals in our world for our use, and that we had no moral obligations to animals whatsoever. Descartes viewed animals as insentient automata or “God’s machines”. For Descartes, one of the founders of modern vivisection, the intense squeals of dogs being beaten or tortured were merely the sounds of a broken machine, not cries of extreme pain. John Locke viewed animals as natural resources, like land and trees, which we may acquire as property and have “natural rights” to that property. For Immanuel Kant, animals were literally “things”: “…Beings whose existence depends…on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things.” (Kant, 1785) The old, traditional distorted view of animals is still in our language today as most of us refer to an animal as “it” even when we know the sex of an individual animal and therefore his or her proper gender.

Given the prevailing view and circumstances of the 17th and 18th centuries that animals needed to be raised, used, and killed for basic human needs, is not surprising that thoughtful philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Kant sought to avoid thinking and writing seriously about the similarities between humans and nonhumans and how those similarities might have serious moral implications. Instead, to protect the perceived need of animal use, they emphasized a morally irrelevant difference between nonhumans and most, but certainly not all humans: rationality. Another, more intellectually honest approach would have been for these thinkers to admit that there were morally relevant similarities, and that these imposed a direct duty to animals to reduce suffering as much as possible, but that ultimately, moral consideration would have to yield to the perceived survival needs of humans. But we have to remember that these were times when women did not count as full persons, and humans owned other humans as chattel property and were often as cruel to human slaves as to nonhuman slaves. We can see how even careful thinkers as Locke and Kant may have been lost in the fog of their culture’s deeply-held prejudices.

“Food” Animals and Human Brutes

The torture endured by farmed animals from birth to slaughter in our industrialized and mechanized processing systems is unimaginably horrible, and there is no significant difference between free-range, cage-free, and “certified humane” versus the traditional industrial methods, despite the misleading claims of large welfare organizations (incorrectly referred to by the media and themselves as “animal rights” organizations). If you are born a chicken in the most “humane” environment, the best thing that might happen to you is that you are gassed or tossed alive into a wood-chipper as a baby chick, so you don’t have to experience a life of hell as a cage-free or “certified humane” egg chicken (a “layer”) or flesh chicken (a “broiler”). Make no mistake; both the old methods and the new, so-called “humane” methods rely on intensive confinement with filthy conditions, diseases, no individual attention, and no veterinary care to speak of. One thing is obvious: It is literally impossible to raise and slaughter hundreds of thousands, millions, or billions of nonhumans without industrial methods. What is less obvious, but nevertheless true, is that “humane” labels are little more than a marketing ploy to ease the growing public sensitivity to the (unavoidable) reality of animal agriculture’s cruelty. Further, transportation and slaughter itself is extremely cruel, with slaughterhouse workers intentionally torturing animals, especially chickens, and animals often inadvertently being boiled or ripped apart alive (such cruelty is common knowledge among welfare advocates and has been documented in the Washington Post [‘They die piece by piece’] and in various films and documentaries of slaughterhouse conditions). When we do these things to a dog or cat, we are charged with a felony; when we do these while marketing unnecessary food preferences, we get paid a wage for it. Even if it were possible (and it’s not possible) to heavily police transportation and slaughter so that the cruelty was significantly reduced, it is still wrong to treat sentient beings with a crucial interest in their life and its quality as a means to an end. We need not wonder who the brutes are; a mirror will tell us.

Animal agriculture, on its modern scale of production, is an environmental disaster, with “cattle” and hog waste polluting groundwater, rivers, and streams and killing millions of fish throughout the country; and flatulence contributing significant quantities of carbon and other pollutants into the air. “Food” animals, particularly “cattle” and pigs, are reverse protein factories, consuming up to 10 times more protein in their short lives than they provide after they are slaughtered for food. A vast majority of the land used for growing plant food is to feed animals who will use up to 90% of that protein in their daily living, returning relatively very little after slaughter. The only way to achieve more pollution and greater inefficiency in food production is to breed and raise more nonhumans for food.

The Solution to Animal Agriculture

Now, early in the 21st century, more and more mainstream dieticians and health professionals are telling us that balanced vegan diets are optimal for our health. (For information about vegan nutrition, see the link on this blog.) There are now vegan alternatives to most animal-based ingredients and expanded vegan options, making gourmet vegan entrees and desserts as delightful to the palate as non-vegan versions ever were, and much healthier too (see the vegan menus links in this blog). Dieticians are also telling us that traditional animal-based diets, especially in the quantities we consume them, are literally killing us with heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, strokes, and cancer. For clothing, there are now synthetic materials, such as nylon, synthetic fleece, faux “leather”, faux “suede”, and faux “fur”, which easily replace, and are better than, the animal alternatives. The solution is to go vegan.

Animal Experimentation: Archaic, Brutal, and Dangerous

The things we do to sentient nonhumans in labs, 90% of the time for trivial reasons and never for crucial reasons, are beyond savage. Again, if we are unspeakably cruel to a dog or cat in the street, we get hit with felony cruelty charges (as we should); if we do the same thing in a lab under a thin veneer of respectability backed up by the law (laws heavily influenced politically by the vivisection industry), however, we get paid a wage.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of well-researched literature showing that modern alternatives to animal testing and training on animals, such as computer modeling and simulation, human tissue research, clinical observation and research, epidemiology, pathology, genetics, prevention, autopsies, and post-marketing drug surveillance are making animal testing archaic, obsolete, and even dangerous to humans. Indeed, it is blind tradition, powerful business interests, and wealthy lobbying which supports a vast majority of current animal research. Jean Swingle Greek, DMV, and C.Ray Greek, MD, have contributed volumes of valuable research, ranging from non-technical research appealing to the lay reader to highly technical research appealing to scientists and health professionals on the lack of need for animal use in modern medicine. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine is also playing a valuable role in educating scientists and health professionals about responsible alternatives to animal testing.

Moral Reflection and Conclusions: The Personhood of Animals

We are clearly no longer in need of any animal use which would preserve the meaning of the word “need”, and in fact, if there is a need, it is a need to avoid animal use for our health and environmental sustainability. This has profound implications for our behavior toward nonhumans. Nonhumans have always had morally crucial and important interests in not being intentionally harmed or killed. The psychological and emotional interests of sentient nonhumans are too similar to and overlapping with our own to continue to ignore those interests, especially at a time when ignoring those interests is so unnecessary and destructive in so many ways. Rationality is a nice tool to use for good or evil, but it has no moral relevance when it comes to crucial basic interests such as the avoidance of serious physical or psychological harm or death. It is arbitrary to look to rationality as defining moral or legal personhood. Also, to do so is to necessarily exclude many humans from personhood, such as infants, the senile, and the mentally disabled or mentally ill. Sentience, the ability to have experiences (including pleasure and pain), is certainly sufficient for moral and legal personhood, and any being who has sentience to the high degree that cows, pigs, chickens, geese, deer, goats, sheep, elk, marine mammals, and many fish do, clearly has crucial interests and profound corresponding moral claims on our behavior. There may well be other criteria which would also suffice for personhood, such as the likely future acquisition of sentience. Such a criterion as a high probability for future sentience would be appropriate for considering the moral and legal personhood of comatose normal human adults and fetuses. Criteria other than sentience for moral and legal personhood, however, are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that sentience itself is sufficient.

It has been clear empirically, even from the 18th century, that there is no non-arbitrary way to distinguish morally relevant characteristics of humans from nonhumans. In other words, there is no morally relevant characteristic which all humans and only humans have which would give humans special moral consideration. As such, attempts to distinguish between humans and nonhumans on species membership alone, without some morally relevant characteristic that all and only humans have, is plainly arbitrary, and therefore, is plainly speciesist. Such speciesism is every bit as morally unacceptable as racism and sexism. There may have been a weak excuse for such speciesism back in Locke and Kant’s day, considering the perceived need to use animals and the cultural racism and sexism of the time (all of which itself was wrong, even then), but with the knowledge and alternatives available today, there are no more excuses, not even half-baked excuses. A speciesist is a racist is a sexist: it is all the same moral wrong. If we do not consider ourselves racist or sexist, and if we are to avoid hypocrisy and maintain consistency, we must eliminate our speciesism by going vegan.

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The Importance of Being Vegan

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World – a non-profit educational 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 the transition.
This article was originally published July 8, 2011 on Care2.


“If a man earnestly seeks a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from animal food.”
– Leo Tolstoy

Intellectually, most of us agree that inflicting unnecessary harm is unjustified – whether the victims are human or not. Yet somehow, most of the same people who subscribe to this belief are willing to turn a blind eye to such harm when they themselves receive some kind of advantage from it – whether the benefits are in the form of food, possessions, vanity, or amusement.

Sadly, because widespread violence against animals in the form of ‘agriculture’, ‘research’ and even ‘entertainment’, is sanctioned by mainstream society and its legal systems, the majority of people tend to be unwilling to see this brutality for what it is, and to step outside of the pervasive conditioning that makes such atrocities possible.

It’s true that more and more people are beginning to speak out about the many abhorrent abuses that occur within the animal industry, and the movement to ‘improve conditions’ for these animals continues to gain popularity. And yet, each one of the awful practices that animal advocates protest passionately against – intensive confinement, enforced insemination, separation of mother and child, castration, de-horning, tail docking, de-beaking, mulesing, de-toeing, live scalding, force molting – all of these horrific procedures, and many more, exist because an ever-growing number of human consumers continue to create demand for animal products. To an industry that views sentient beings as economic units – money-making machines – it is unavoidable that such violence will be viewed as an acceptable means to the end of delivering products that turn a profit.

In any case, even if every one of the aforementioned practices were abolished, it would still be immoral and inexcusable to use other sentient beings as resources. In today’s world, vegan alternatives are available for every single significant purpose for which we currently use animals*. Increasing numbers of people are embracing veganism as the solution to the problems we experience as individuals and as a society – from our many health crises, to our environmental emergency, to the issue of escalating violence – all of which have us living in some degree of fear for the future.

*NB: Although animal products are used in certain items for which there currently are no consumer alternatives – such as computers and car tires – there are alternatives that could easily be used in their manufacturing.

As this movement for animal emancipation grows in size and strength, a powerful example is being set by the individuals who refuse to take any part in the brutal oppression of innocents that we call ‘the animal industry’. Men and women all over the globe –simply by living as vegans – are demonstrating that there is no moral justification for the harm we inflict on animals.

Some people might attempt to justify consumption of animal products for reasons of health. And yet, an increasing number of medical professionals are beginning to realize that not only are plant-based diets nutritionally complete, but they are actually more nourishing and far less toxic than their animal-based counterparts. In addition, the public is beginning to realize that many of the major dangers associated with diet – heart disease, cancer, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and many, many more – are exacerbated by the consumption of animal products, and can actually be avoided by adopting a vegan diet.

According to the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, the American Dietetic Association (“the ADA”):

“…Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases… Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”

In other words, the official position of the – very mainstream – ADA is that including animal products in one’s diet is not only unnecessary, but can actually be harmful to our health.

What about our other uses of animals? Leather, wool, silk, down, fur, toiletries, cosmetics, entertainment, sport, the vast majority of our experimentation – all of these are also clearly unnecessary under any coherent concept of the word “necessary”, as there are vegan alternatives available for them all.

Veganism is not a fringe philosophy – it is a moral baseline that is consistent with beliefs that most of us already hold. Veganism is a simple matter of refraining from participating in unnecessary and harmful use of sentient beings. As most people are naturally opposed to unnecessary violence, becoming and staying vegan is not a matter of changing any of our basic moral beliefs. It simply requires us to be willing to change the habits we have developed that prevent us from living according to our principles.

Every one of us has been conditioned by the propaganda of a highly speciesist society – a worldwide culture that is extremely prejudiced against the interests of those animals who did not have the good fortune to be born onto this planet in human form. And yet, every one of us has the power to break free from this indoctrination. Becoming vegan is simply recognizing and admitting who we really are – it is the opportunity to become who we would be if no one had ever taught us that it’s okay to turn our backs on the needs and rights of our fellow animals, that it’s okay to ignore their pain if it leads to our pleasure.

Is veganism a sacrifice? Not at all. On the contrary, it is every non-vegan choice that sacrifices our own inherent goodness. Once you make the decision to live consistently with your values, the rewards – in the form of a healthier body, clearer mind, and more peaceful conscience – will be both profoundly apparent and a source of continuing joy.

But even if veganism does require us to give up some of our favorite foods, beloved items of clothing, and cherished habits, does that question really matter? The institution of slavery and the treatment of sentient beings as ‘things’ – whether human or nonhuman – are inherently and gravely unjust.  The changes that veganism requires of us, and the rewards that veganism brings, are irrelevant to the true moral question:

Is the taste of a particular food, or the way you feel in your favorite pair of shoes or your winter coat, more important than the life and freedom of another living, feeling being?

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Killing by the Numbers

The intentional, unnecessary deaths we inflict on sentient individuals of other species worldwide — mainly for food choices, and excluding animals from the water — is greater in five days than the deaths we’ve inflicted on humans in all wars and all genocides in recorded human history. Even if every non-vegan cut their current animal product consumption by 90%, it would take us only about 41 days to kill as many sentient nonhumans as we’ve killed humans in recorded history. [1]

Our treatment of individual sentient nonhumans as renewable resources — as property, things, commodities — is a moral blind spot. The reason for this moral blind spot — the reason we contribute, individually and collectively, to this extreme and senseless violence — is that we have been heavily indoctrinated into speciesism throughout our lives. Additionally, by nature, we often “rationalize” this indoctrination and ignore unpleasant facts for various reasons set forth in this essay. I hope that the magnitude and severity of the atrocity of institutional animal exploitation will encourage readers who are not already ethical vegans to open their minds and hearts to learn about what speciesism is; the extreme and unnecessary violence speciesism causes in society; and to go as far as reasonably possible to avoid speciesist attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. The two links above are a good start. There are many other links on the side bar, including information about vegan food and nutrition. Keep learning; keep growing more just, more empathetic, and more courageous.


[1] We intentionally breed, raise, and murder approximately 56 billion innocent land animals annually, worldwide. That’s about 1.07 billion weekly, or about 153 million daily. The total of the highest estimates, with some double counting, of all humans killed in all wars, all genocides, and all other human-caused atrocities in recorded human history is about 619 million. That means we kill as many innocent, sentient nonhumans in less than five days days (for food choices alone, excluding animals who live in water) than we have killed humans in recorded history.

If we cut animal product consumption by 90% worldwide, we would murder about 15.3 million daily, and within 41 days, we would murder about 627.3 million (compare to the 619 million human mass-murder total in all recorded history).

I intentionally used the highest estimates and allowed double-counting of human deaths to avoid doubts about possible inaccuracies in the source. The highest estimates did appear too high in several cases, based on other sources I’ve read of those wars or genocides. If there is anything inaccurate about the above facts, it is that we kill as many sentient nonhumans in less than three or four days (for food choices alone) than we have killed humans in recorded history.

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On the Environmental Benefits of Being Vegan

While the environmental benefits of being vegan are tremendous, and probably the single best thing one can do for the environment, the environmental benefits do not compare in importance to the moral reasons for going vegan.

Sentient nonhuman beings are just like us in all of the morally relevant ways. They value their lives. They strive as hard as they can to live. They feel pain intensely. It is wrong to breed, exploit, torture, and kill them for food or any other preferences.

Focusing on the environmental benefits of being vegan is therefore much like focusing on the environmental benefits of avoiding an unjust war. True, war and animal agriculture are both “tough on the environment” (to say the least), but to oppose an unjust war and the killing of innocent civilians, or animal agriculture, by appealing to environmental protection ironically misses the point in the same way.

We need not be silent about the environmental benefits of veganism, but when we do address such benefits, we should imply or point out that, while great, they are very much incidental to the grave moral wrong of exploiting and unnecessarily breeding and killing the innocent.

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On Ex-Vegans

On Variety in Meaning

As the word “vegan” has fully entered mainstream media during the past five years, it has come to have many different meanings for many different people. For some of us, “vegan” means a strong, lifelong, and morally internalized commitment to avoiding the use of animals and animal products as much as is reasonably possible in an extremely speciesist society that uses animal products ubiquitously. For others, “vegan” might mean avoiding animal products only in one’s diet for some period of time ranging from hours (“vegan before 6pm”) to days (“a vegan cleanse”) to a few months or a few years (a vegan fad diet). So, when someone says “I am vegan”, the statement by itself means virtually nothing without adequate definition provided explicitly or in context.

Likewise, the standalone term “animal rights” has become virtually meaningless, unless specifically defined or used in a well-defined context. To get an idea of just how meaningless the term “animal rights” has become, consider a quote in the recent book authored by Professors Gary L. Francione and Robert Garner entitled The Animal Rights Debate. On page 2 of the book, Professor Francione quotes Randy Strauss, President and CEO of Strauss Veal and Lamb International, Inc. a large American meat processor saying, in an effort to increase veal and lamb consumption, “Animal rights are important.” Animal rights has come to meaning everything from the right not to be tortured over and above the routine processing torture endured in a slaughterhouse (traditionally known as “animal welfare”) to the right not to be the property of another. Like the word “vegan”, when such a term has come to mean virtually everything, it has also come to mean virtually nothing, unless adequately defined explicitly or in context.

The point of addressing the variety in meaning of the terms “animal rights” and “vegan” is that when people claim they are no longer vegan or animal rights vegan, it has very little meaning outside of the context in which those terms are used. There may be a lot of “ex-vegans”, but when they were “vegans”, what did that mean? Did they go without animal products for several hours daily (“vegan before 6pm”)? Did they go on a “vegan health diet” for a few weeks, months, or years only as a fad diet right after their Atkins diet? If they were vegan for “animal rights” reasons, what did they mean by that? Are they referring to a concern about animal welfare?

We should be careful about the claims of people who currently call themselves “vegan” and those who call themselves “ex-vegans”.

On Variety in Character

Just as there is extensive variety in the interpretations of the terms “animal rights” and “vegan”, so is there at least as broad a variety in the character and type of people who identify themselves as “animal rights advocates”, “vegans”, and “animal rights vegans”. Indeed, they are likely as varied in character as the public-at-large: from moral exemplars and unsung heroes; to hard workers and good Samaritans; to moral cowards and liars; to attention-seekers and megalomaniacs; to criminals and con artists; and everywhere in between.

So although we might expect to find the majority of people we meet who self-identify as “animal rights vegans” to be good, honest, conscientious people – solid, reliable, and stable people – we should also expect to find a minority who self-identify as such to be flaky, unreliable, dishonest (intellectually or otherwise), and self-absorbed. And so it should not surprise us that some people go “vegan”, but eventually succumb to weak character traits and become “ex-vegans”.

The point here is that ex-vegans are at least partly a reflection of their own character traits at this point in their lives (character can be built and improved upon or diminish throughout life), not a reflection of veganism.

On Variety in Reasons

Although we might expect to find the majority of self-identified “animal rights vegans” to be vegans for good reasons, we should also expect to find a minority who go “vegan” for poor reasons or who lack a sufficient understanding of good reasons to be vegan (and perhaps never were vegans), and then become “ex-vegans”.

The point here is that vegans often become ex-vegans at least partly due to the poverty of their reasons for previously being vegan, which is no reflection of veganism or the many excellent reasons for being vegan.



On Variety in Egos

Regardless of whether the fall from veganism was a matter of poor reasons, a character flaw, or both, if ex-vegans liked a lot of attention when they were “vegan” (whatever that might have meant), chances are great that they’ll like a lot of attention when they go “ex-vegan”, so we shouldn’t be surprised when such people publicly showcase – often quite dramatically – their “justifications” for consuming animal products, often including “confessions” about how awful and intolerable it was to be vegan, how “self-righteous” they were as vegans, and how “relieved” they are to “come back home” to where they belong. As drama queens and kings are common in life generally, so are they common among self-identified “animal rights vegans” and “ex-vegans”.

Again, the negative grandstanding is a reflection of the ex-vegan’s ego and character at this time in life, not a reflection of veganism.

Combining Varieties

When we combine the above varieties in meaning, character, reasons, and egos, as well as the individual anecdotes and tales of drama, we see that the stories of ex-vegans can tell us nothing of significance or of any reliability about veganism, what vegans are like, what being vegan is like, or what good reasons there are for going vegan. For that kind of information, we should consult longtime vegans, unbiased dietetic professionals and vegan nutritional books and materials, abolitionist animal rights books and education materials, and most importantly, commit to veganism and vegan education ourselves.

“Failure to Thrive”

Since animal product consumption and use is virtually always unnecessary for humans and harmful to nonhuman animals, and unnecessary harm is wrong, it’s impossible to justify or even excuse animal product consumption outside of genuine need, such as survival. Because of this, one of the most common excuses for not being vegan or becoming an ex-vegan is that the individual needs animal products either to thrive or for a minimum standard of health.

This excuse plays on the problem of induction in science where we cannot “prove” that X is the case for 100% of a large population, even though all scientific reasoning and evidence to date on less than the entire population has show that X is extraordinarily likely the case for the entire population. Combine such doubt-from-inductive-reasoning with pseudo-science, false or mistaken inferences, anecdotal claims and exaggerations, drama and ego, and you have a recipe for the chaos of anything-goes regarding personal health claims. A recent rebuttal written by a registered dietitian of ex-vegans’ common claim that “vegan diets are not for everyone” displays the typical unscientific nonsense that is put forth as “evidence” by ex-vegans and non-vegans to “support” their claim. It is also worth noting here that the mainstream American Dietetic Association’s position paper on vegan diets concludes that well-planned vegan diets are appropriate for people of all ages and all stages of life.

Bad health is unfortunate, but what is much more unfortunate is blaming the bad health on the wrong cause, which is almost certainly the case when people blame it on being vegan rather than looking for the real reason (perhaps unrelated to diet) or the specific nutrients they’re lacking and can obtain from non-animal sources, if only they would conduct proper investigation and research into their particular case.

Failure to Justify

As a way to activate the smoke alarm on the “failure to thrive” health nonsense, ask ex-vegans and non-vegans if they are still vegan except for the particular animal product(s) in the particular quantity that they cannot thrive without. I have asked this question to many who plea “failure to thrive”, and while I have received many different responses (usually some version of avoidance or silence), I have not yet received the response “Yes, I’m vegan except for that.”

If such ex-vegans are serious and genuine about a “failure to thrive”, we should expect them to continue veganism in every other way they are reasonably able, and to continue to fully support the ethical reasons and environmental benefits they previously did. If they do, and they are genuine and sincere about their health issues, and consume limited, prescribed quantities of animal products with the strong reservation that a person who was prescribed a highly undesirable medicine took the medicine, I see no reason why they should announce that they are no longer vegan. Inherent in the concept of veganism – the way genuine abolitionist vegans define it – is reasonableness: Vegans avoid using or consuming animal products to the greatest extent reasonably possible.

While I’m almost certain that, based on significant reading of materials written by experts in nutrition science, absolutely no animal products are necessary for any human to thrive, I could believe in the sincerity of someone who embraces veganism in their lives as much as they believe they possibly can, even if they consume some “limited, prescriptive amount of certain animal products” with the regret and reservation of someone who undergoes a painful treatment to maintain their health. Sadly, I have yet to see one case among ex-vegans that would even remotely fit this description. What we have is not a failure to thrive, but a failure to justify.

Go vegan; learn what you need to learn about nutrition from reliable dietetic professionals; learn the best reasons for being vegan as a minimum standard of ethical behavior (i.e. reasons set forth in the abolitionist approach to animal rights); and stay vegan for life.

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On Indoctrination and Education (Part 2 of 2)

Part 1 of this essay defined indoctrination, contrasted it with education, and briefly described the indoctrination process from early childhood through our teenaged years. Part 2 continues with the on-going indoctrination we receive as adults and concludes with vegan education as the antidote to indoctrination at any age.

Indoctrination as Adults

As we enter our adult years, the indoctrination and pressure to conform continues relentlessly throughout our lives. From working and business relationships to friendships to family and romantic relationships, most of us have far more contact with people who have never questioned the speciesist indoctrination of animals-as-things than people who have rejected speciesism in favor of animals-as-persons [1] to be respected. Not only have most people not questioned it, but the indoctrination is so entrenched that they are likely to find our rejection of speciesism odd and even personally threatening. As such, depending on the relationship, we will usually find reactions to our sane, nonviolent views ranging from evasive to defensive to passive-aggressive to hostile.

Indoctrination also continues heavily in entertainment, news media, and advertising. Virtually everywhere we look in our commercial society, we are constantly bombarded with the speciesist assumption that animals are things with only instrumental value, and no more intrinsic value than dirt.

Indoctrination is even strong in religious and other groups known for promoting nonviolence, justice, and compassion “for all sentient beings”, such as Buddhists. Animal exploitation, animal product consumption and the adamant “defense” of them are almost as common within such groups as in the general public.

Can we look to large animal “protection” groups, such as PETA and HSUS, to challenge our indoctrination in any meaningful way? No. Instead, they send us a mixed message: “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use or entertainment” mixed with “animals are ours to eat, wear, experiment on, and use for entertainment, if we win this welfare campaign or single issue campaign. So send us your donation today, and then it’ll be okay.”

The speciesist indoctrination is a self-perpetuating vicious circle, similar to when child abuse continues to occur across generations, in which formerly abused parents become child abusers themselves, perpetuating the cycle indefinitely until some strong, educating agent breaks one or two generations free of it.

As individuals, can we overcome such indoctrination? Many of us who have overcome speciesist indoctrination provide conclusive evidence that it is possible through vegan education.

Vegan Education

Vegan education seeks to inform people about why and how to avoid animal products and use as far as is reasonably possible, and does so without the use of undue influence, power, coercion, or appeals to authority or tradition. It is generally one-sided because the opposing side is already overwhelmingly present in speciesist indoctrination. It is also “one-sided” in the same way that racial tolerance education is one-sided: racial tolerance education does not promote racism or unjustified and unnecessary harm and killing of people of other races or it would not be racial tolerance education.

The reasons to avoid animal products and use include the fact that more than 99.999% of nonhuman animals we exploit have the same morally relevant characteristic (sentience) as we do when it comes to a fair assessment of inherent value, as opposed to instrumental value. Just like certain abilities – such as abstract reasoning – do not count when it comes to assessing the inherent value of a human being, such abilities do not count when assessing the inherent value of a sentient nonhuman being. Another way of saying it is that if sentient nonhumans do not have inherent value, then neither do any humans have inherent value. To think any other way is pure prejudice: it is no different from denying a sufficiently-abled human a university education or vote based on her sex or race. Speciesism is the same underlying wrong of favoring morally irrelevant characteristics over morally relevant characteristics that is found in sexism, racism, and heterosexism.

The way to avoid animal products and uses is to learn all you can about animal ingredients and vegan alternatives to your food, drink, clothing, personal care products, and entertainment choices, and act accordingly.

A well-planned diet free of animal products is very healthy. Also, like any other kind of diet, planning should include both the nutritional profile of various foods and an individual’s particular needs. Fortunately, there are plenty of vegan cooking, baking, and nutritional resources available in books and on the Internet (see the side bar of this blog for links). Also, consider seeking out other vegans, either on the Internet (forums and social networking sites), and/or, if you live in an urban area, vegan social groups. It is much easier, especially as a new vegan, to socially identify with others who have rejected the violence and injustice of speciesism.

Finally, as a new vegan, constantly remind yourself why you are vegan to offset the incessant speciesism that you will encounter in your everyday life. Remind yourself that, as a vegan, you are one of the strong, independently-minded people who has made their own choice — despite being heavily indoctrinated otherwise for years or decades — to reject the blatant injustice and unnecessary violence of speciesism and animal exploitation, and embrace veganism as a minimum standard of decency.

 [1] Many people get confused when they hear or read animals referred to as “persons”. This confusion stems from two misunderstandings. First, in a speciesist society, animals are defined, referred to, and thought of, literally as things, both legally and in common language use. Second, people get confused between the words “people” and “persons”, which have very different meanings. “People” is a synonym for “humans”, plain and simple. Animals are not people. “Person” has a much broader meaning, both legally and in common language use, but especially in law. A person is an entity due moral or legal consideration, and can be a human; a legal entity, such as a corporation, foundation, or trust; or a nonhuman animal. Animals are persons.

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