In speaking with other vegans, I used to find that most had very different priorities to myself. The most common philosophy seems to me to be quite abstract, where the aim is to avoid consuming or interacting with animal products, regardless of how that’s achieved. So it makes no difference whether you bought a leather coat or were offered one as a gift, or whether you ordered a non-vegan meal intentionally or got one by mistake. This approach says that accidentally purchasing animal products is okay, because you didn’t realize you were doing it, but eating them afterwards isn’t, because now you do.
This is counter-intuitive to me. In my mind, the damage is already done – you’ve given your money to someone who mistreats animals. Whether you eat that product or throw it in the bin afterwards is entirely immaterial, because you’ve already supported the system which produced it. Likewise, continuing to wear a leather jacket I bought before I was vegan, or which was given to me by someone else, or which I bought second hand, is fine. As is freeganism – eating animal products which would have gone to waste otherwise. Again, the damage is already done, and can’t be compounded retrospectively.
One argument I’ve heard in response is that wearing leather or eating animal products normalises the exploitation of animals, and that by normalizing it, you hold some of the responsibility when someone else buys a leather jacket because they thought yours looked cool. I don’t accept that. I doubt any vegan would absolve me of responsibility for lapsing because I live in a non-vegan society. So if I’m responsible for my use of animal products, surely everybody else is responsible for theirs.
Returning to the damage being done, if your aim is to avoid supporting or interacting with systems which exploit animals, your task is substantially more complicated than simply avoiding the consumption of animal products. Even the task of minimizing your support is daunting. Shopping at supermarkets and eating at non-vegan restaurants supports businesses which contribute, substantially and directly, to animal exploitation. If Nike made one type of sneaker which was produced ethically, would you buy it, knowing that the rest of their business is built on exploitation?
Something which I rarely see addressed is that minimising your contribution to suffering is not the same as alleviating suffering. Denying money to producers simply means that fewer animals are born on their farms – it does nothing to improve the circumstances of those which have already been born, or will be born in future. 980 miserable chickens might be preferable to 1000 miserable chickens, but the circumstances of the remaining 980 have not improved at all.
The other question which interests me is how much effect an individual vegan has on any individual producer. For example, I’d estimate that I drink around 2 litres of milk a week, mostly in coffee which I buy from various places. Milk costs around $1.75 a litre, which means I spend around $180 a year on it. Let’s say that’s split between 3 different major producers – does denying them $60 a year have that much of an impact on any of them? Does it prevent a single cow being born? I doubt it.
People raise the objection that vegetarianism is about using collective action to reduce demand meaningfully. Clearly, at a collective scale, denying producers 2%* of their potential profit is significant in terms of animals which aren’t born, but again, that’s all it achieves. It does nothing to assist the animals which already exist.
The abolitionist argument that any engagement with producers undermines the abolitionist project requires an inversion of what I would consider reasonable priorities. Ideological purity is put above animal welfare, and apparently, 980 really miserable chickens are preferable to 1000 less miserable chickens. The argument is that the movement is playing the long game, and eventually, they’ll win. That may be so – but if it is, it will take a very, very long time. How many chickens will have terrible lives in the mean time, because fewer passionate people were engaging with the more moderate and widely-supported animal rights movement? Or, even if you want to stay hardcore and ideologically pure, the animal liberation movement? How many people weren’t truly engaging at all, because they felt that by walking past the deli section in the supermarket, they’d done their bit?
I never felt that way. Instead, I felt as though I were disrupting my life to a huge degree without achieving very much at all, and that I was still engaging with the same systems on a daily basis, just in a slightly less direct way. I acknowledge that many people seem to find veganism much easier than I did. They’re fortunate. I found it extremely hard, and extremely alienating, and I didn’t feel that it achieved enough to justify that, because I wasn’t actually helping any animals – I was simply preventing a small number from being born. I think there’s substantially more to be gained, at a much lower personal cost, by engaging with and supporting animal rights and liberation organisations, and improving the lives of animals which are already here.
I’m not saying being vegan isn’t worthwhile. If you find it easy enough and you’re happy with what it achieves, I tip my hat to you. And obviously, these options aren’t mutually exclusive – a huge proportion of the people involved in animals rights / liberation are vegan or vegetarian. I often get the impression, though, that it’s okay to be vegan without being involved in animal rights, but that anyone who’s involved in animal rights without being vegan is a hypocrite or a traitor to the cause. Obviously, I don’t think that’s true. My preference is for improving the lives of animals which already exist – not simply reducing the number of animals born into terrible conditions. If you think the latter is a more noble or important goal, that’s fair enough. I think the former is equally legitimate, and in my personal opinion, it’s far more urgent.
I realise that this post has only addressed veganism as a way of reducing cruelty to animals, rather than a solution to climate change / environmental degradation. Reducing the number of cows being born clearly has beneficial effects as far as that’s concerned.
*“Though 5% of people said they were vegetarian, only 2% actually ate a vegetarian diet. This may mean they ate a vegetarian diet most of the time, or that they have a misunderstanding of what a vegetarian is.”