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Veganism in a World Full of Harm

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I move in circles with people who care about social justice issues and who also care about animals. While such people are often open to being vegan, they frequently object to veganism for three reasons, even when they understand and agree to the moral principles underpinning it.

The first objection is to the fact that we live in an unjust world, in which animals are harmed frequently and indirectly. Those who try to diminish the moral imperative of veganism on these grounds overlook the fact that our lives and our actions also cause indirect harm to other humans. We would never use the existence of indirect harm as a justification to harm other humans or to abrogate their rights avoidably and directly whenever it suited us.

Our behaviour towards others is undergirded by certain moral principles that compel us to refrain from causing unnecessary harm to those others. This is why we don’t steal from people, even though it would be to our material advantage to do so. This is why we don’t allow arguments to escalate into physical confrontations, even when it may benefit us physiologically (by releasing nervous energy) to do so. This is why we don’t shove people out of our way when we want to get to the front of a long checkout queue, even though it could save us time to do so.

Further, we bring nonhuman animals into the world with the express purpose of exploiting and killing them. When we become vegan, we acknowledge that there is no good reason for us to do so, and that we are personally going to abstain from those rights violations because they run counter to the principles on which we have based our lives. When we go vegan, we are refusing to act against the precepts of justice, fairness, and nonviolence that we perceive to be central to good moral behavior. When we stop using animals, we are acting in a way that demonstrates that we respect the rights of others not to be treated as things that exist for us to use.

Just as we would never use the existence of indirect harm as a justification for directly and deliberately harming humans, so too must we apply this moral congruity to nonhumans. If we truly uphold the principles to which we claim to subscribe, we can and must refuse to participate in that system that directly exploits nonhuman beings by treating them solely as a means to our ends; this refusal is veganism (for more on the topic of incidental harm, see here and here).

The second objection I hear to the moral imperative of veganism is that there are so many other issues to tackle. While this is true, we can address those issues while wearing synthetic shoes, eating plants, and not attending animal shows. Veganism is not an obstacle to us participating in other forms of pro-justice work; in fact, for many (including me), it is a gateway to other areas of social justice. Veganism doesn’t require anyone to sacrifice their human rights work in order to pursue animal advocacy; it merely requires that at the very minimum one stops eating, wearing and otherwise using animals. As Francione and Charlton write in Eat Like You Care, “How does eating, for example, tofu instead of steak impede your ability to fight for human rights causes? It doesn’t. If anything, a healthy vegan diet will give you more energy to pursue those causes.”

The third objection is not particular to veganism, but is also heard among those who are reluctant to get involved in social justice issues because they are not sure that they can have any impact: “what difference can one person make?” As a matter of justice, this is a nonsensical question. We would never continue to participate in rights violations in the human context because we thought that our opting out wouldn’t make a difference to those whose rights are being violated if we stopped. If we acknowledge the wrongness of our actions, and we persist in those actions, then we are acting against our own consciences and principles, and this is not something we can ever justify to ourselves, as hard as we might try.

Putting aside the fact that animal agriculture exists only because there is a demand for it, and that everyone who refuses to participate in that system is helping to drive down demand, we have to take responsibility for our own behaviour and should use our own consciences as a touchstone for morality. In a world full of harm, be just, be fair, and be respectful of the rights of all beings—human and nonhuman; otherwise, you’re choosing to say “I knew, and I did nothing.”

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