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Veganism as a Matter of Justice: A Short Reply to the Welfarists

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Guest Post by Gary L. Francione

When I promote the position that veganism is a moral imperative (veganism is something we are morally obligated to do) and that justice requires that we be vegan, some welfarists respond: “But you buy your vegan foods at a store that sells animal products and, therefore, you are being unjust so you can’t take the position that justice requires veganism.”

The idea here is that, by buying vegan food in the supermarket and thereby giving money to an animal exploiter, I am no different from those who consume “compassionately” and choose cage-free eggs or crate-free pork, or do “meatless Monday” or “vegan before 6,” or who cheat and eat animal foods “now and then” or who eat them all the time but eat “just a little.” The welfarists claim that I have no business saying that veganism is a matter of justice or is a moral imperative because I am being unjust and I am not recognizing veganism as an obligation.

But that argument does not work. It has no limiting principle and leads to an absurd conclusion.

All money is dirty. So even if I buy my vegan food in a vegan store and not in a general supermarket, if that store employs people who are not vegan, or if the vegan store gets deliveries from people who deliver animal products to other stores, or if the vegan foods sold in the vegan store are grown or produced by non-vegan farmers or producers, or by vegan farmers and vegan producers who employ non-vegan workers, I am, following the reasoning of the welfarists, supporting exploitation.

Therefore, the welfarists are committed to the position that until we have a vegan world, we can have no obligation to go vegan because as long as we don’t have a vegan world, no matter what we do, we will be giving money to animal exploiters.

But that is clearly absurd.

The welfarist position is no different from saying that we cannot promote the idea that sexism or racism is unjust if we patronize a business that is owned by people who are sexist or racist. Given that many businesses are owned by corporations, and corporations are owned by shareholders, and given the level of sexism and racism in the population, that means that 99.99% of the time, when we shop, we are patronizing a business that is owned by sexists or racists. And even if that business is not owned by racists or sexists, there are racists and sexists who have some connection to that business into whose pockets our money is going. Therefore, we cannot say that sexism or racism is unjust because we are always putting money in the pockets of racists or sexists somewhere along the way.

But no one would say that we should not talk about equality as a moral imperative because we have not yet achieved equality. Most people would see the complete absurdity of that position. But “animal people” promote this absurd position when it comes to animals. How very speciesist.

The welfarists also claim that we cannot be “100% vegan” because there are animal products in plastics, road surfaces, tires, and many other things with which we cannot avoid being in contact. Therefore, we cannot insist on veganism as a moral imperative and as a principle of justice because there is no difference between a person who has a cell phone that is made of plastic and contains some animal by-product, and a person who eats a bit of cheese, or free-range eggs, or has chicken stock in otherwise vegetable soup, etc.

Again, this position is absurd.

First of all, being vegan means not eating, wearing, or using animal products where practicable—where one has a meaningful choice. We can decide what to eat and wear, or what products to use. Justice requires that we not choose to consume things that contain the body parts of exploited persons—human or nonhuman—whenever we do have a choice. We do not have a choice about what is in road surfaces or how plastics, which are used for almost everything that exists, are made.

Second, the reason that there are animal by-products in everything is that we kill over a trillion animals worldwide on an annual basis. The by-products of slaughterhouses are cheap and readily available. And that will continue as long as we continue to consume animal products.

Third, we would never accept such an argument in the human context. Consider the following: in a racist and sexist society, white people and men benefit because racism and sexism effectively transfers wealth (money, job opportunities, etc.) away from the people who are discriminated against and to those who are in the classes or groups that are privileged. If we applied the welfarist argument to this context, we would have to conclude that white people cannot argue that racism is unjust because privileged white people have no choice but to benefit from racism (just as vegans have no choice but to use the roads provided). We would have to conclude that men cannot take the position that sexism and misogyny are unjust because men benefit from sexism and misogyny just by virtue of being men (just as vegans come into contact with plastics that are in everything).

But no one would take that position in the human context.

It gets worse. The welfarists claim that, because we cannot avoid animal by-products in everything around us, we cannot claim that it is unjust to choose to consume those products when there is a choice. The welfarist position is exactly like saying that, because white people benefit from racism, there is no difference between the white person who opposes racism and the white person who engages in “just a little” racist conduct. The welfarist position is exactly like saying that, because men benefit from sexism even when they oppose it, there is no difference between the man who opposes sexism and the man who actually assaults women now and then.

Again, no one would take these positions in the human context.

We should reject the welfarist position for the blatant speciesism it so clearly is.

If you are not vegan, please go vegan. It is a matter of a moral imperative. It is a matter of justice.

Gary L. Francione is Board of Governors Professor of Law at Rutgers University and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.

Photo from PSMAG

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  • Pilau Papaochau

    Hello and greeting too.
    My name Pilau Papaochau. I now not eat animals food only in past. I have warn to you of not eat it reparhtakat cricket. If eat it bad to smell gas happen. One time I eat it reparhtakat cricket and bad to smell gas happen for 3.5 day. For this time lady friend Smupa not have good times. Not good. Vegan foods better health. Thank you.

  • NCIMVegan

    An(other) excellent article/commentary by Professor Francione.

  • stewart lands

    You are kidding yourself if you believe that there is any such thing as a cruelty-free diet. To grow any food by agricultural means requires the destruction of every major life form on the land converted to that purpose. No animal can live without habitat, and barren mono-cultures of broccoli and beans serve no species besides man.

    While veganism decries the consumption of meat–any meat–the ironic fact is that an animal hunted is a far less destructive source of food. An animal removed from healthy habitat is immediately replaced by another that would have perished if not for the resources freed by the removal of the first. Nature always breeds more animals than habitat can support and the excess perish of starvation and disease. To consume the excess has no impact on animal populations or the habitat upon which both game and non-game species depend. Most people don’t realize that agriculture is the foremost cause of extinction, world-wide, as well as the single greatest source of greenhouse gases destined to alter our environment for millennia. To the extent that we may consume, in a sustainable manner, the wild game that grows in abundance on wild lands, we should, in order to avoid that greater destruction that results from agriculture.

    Ordinarily, I give vegans a lot of credit for their efforts to protect our environment, but criticisms of well-regulated hunting and fishing are a mistake, given our stated goal of preserving animal life. Better solutions require greater nuance than allowed by the current vegan mantra.

    • Ahimsa42

      “While it’s true that many animals are killed due to conventional agriculture techniques, it’s quite clear that being vegan reduces the amount of land used, habitat destroyed, and wildlife displaced. It’s also clear that vegans aren’t intentionally killing animals for unnecessary reasons, such as our palate pleasure or our culinary traditions. And that’s an important distinction. Just because we can’t avoid all harms to others (given institutional circumstances beyond our individual control), that doesn’t give us permission to participate in intentional and unnecessary violence and killing. For example, we know from statistical analysis that when we build roads, many people will die on those roads, but we don’t use that as an excuse to intentionally drive over pedestrians. If animals die incidentally in the production of vegan foods, then the proper solution is to improve the production processes—not to go kill animals intentionally.”-Timothy Putnam

      • stewart lands

        This response displays the lack of nuance of which I write, and also the tendency of many advocates to repeat without due consideration the untested assertions of others. Certainly, plants require less land and resources (read “lives lost”) to grow than does meat when the source of meat is agriculturally grown. But this fails to address my post, which specifically mentions “wild” fish and game, neither of which require the destruction of habitat and therefore result in much less loss of life than does plant agriculture.

        Furthermore, when the first action taken by any farmer in preparing land for cultivation is to poison and plow under every living thing on the land converted to that purpose, one can hardly suggest with a straight face that the act of destruction is “unintentional.” In fact, it is purposeful, predictable and unavoidable. The fact that it is also regrettable does not alter the fact that it is intentional. Clearly, to cultivate crops, the farmer must eliminate every other creature on the landscape–and he enters that landscape with the intention of doing so.

        “It’s also clear that vegans aren’t intentionally killing animals for unnecessary reasons, such as our palate pleasure or our culinary traditions.” Considering the point made in the preceding paragraph, then I hope that there will be no further discussion of “vegan” beer, wine, etc. Do these foods (which undeniably result in animal death) rise to the lofty ideal you have set forth?

        By consuming some part of what nature provides on unaltered lands we may avoid the much greater destruction of agriculture, but the closed-minded mindset dominating the vegan movement today prohibits better solutions by the insistence on simple rules rather than well-considered solutions.

    • VirtualAlex

      This article isn’t about “cruelty free” it’s about justice and a moral imperative. The idea that incidental deaths caused by animal agriculture is a shot against the vegan position isn’t rational. Killing a person with a gun for fun is immoral, unethical and unjust. However millions of people die every year in car accidents. If you drive a car you contribute to the deaths of many people. Therefore, driving a car is actually worse than shooting someone directly? You must see how wrong that is.

      Regardless, I don’t understand your argument. 98% of consumed animals are not hunted, they are farmed. Are you suggesting we stop farming animals at hunt them instead? You must know how completely unsustainable that is, there aren’t even close to enough animals in the wild to sustain our level of consumption. Even if, removed from ethics, killing a wild boar is less “destruction” than growing a pig on a farm… How does that refute anything? By the same rational, you could simply eat wild berries and nuts and not kill the boar.

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