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Vegan Is as Vegan Does

Please note that the following is based on a speech that I gave in San Francisco on March 30, 2002; therefore, it is both broader and shallower, as well as more repetitious, than the essays (Activism and Veganism Reconsidered, A Theory of Ethics, How Are We To Live? and The Future of Vegan Advocacy) from which much of this speech is derived.



I want to stress that these are my personal opinions; they are not meant to be a position statement for Vegan Outreach.

To begin, I would like to list the specific facts on which I base the rest of what I have to say.

  1. As revealed in the research of Dr. Donna Maurer, the percentage of the population who are true vegetarians in the U.S. has not changed significantly in decades.
  2. The average number of animals eaten per person each year in the U.S. is at or near its all-time high.
  3. The number of farmed animals killed in the U.S. increases by hundreds of millions each year. In 2002, nearly twice as many will be raised and slaughtered in this country as in 1980.

To me, these facts raise hard questions, the most obvious is: Why are things getting so much worse?

Since 1980, immense amounts of time and resources have been invested in working for the animals. There are many individuals who are extremely passionate about the issues, absolutely convinced that they are right, and totally committed to action.

And yet all these efforts have been a relative failure. Knowing that more and more animals continue to suffer, I feel morally compelled to question the premises of our work.

I don’t think that the answer is that we simply have to work harder. Having been an activist for more than a decade, I don't see any evidence to indicate that our current approach is lacking only in effort. I think that what is lacking, at least in part, is an elemental analysis, a fundamental grasp of goals and what it will take to achieve them.

No, I don’t think we need to work harder. I think we need to work smarter. To do so, we must discard our assumptions and find a basis for our work, a first principle on which to first focus. We need to build a ground-up approach based on a solid foundation. We need to understand the What before addressing How.



Most of us have been taught that ethics is about justice and fairness, rights and freedom However, from a universal perspective, it seems clear that “rights” and “justice” are not fundamental. One way to see this is to ask, “Why?” Instead of, "What do we want? " / ask, “Why do we want it?”

Doing so shows that justice, fairness, rights, etc. are all abstractions, relevant only as they affect suffering. We don't want rights as an end to themselves – we want them to prevent suffering. We don't want to prevent suffering for any more fundamental reason. Suffering is fundamental, irreducible. In a universal sense (which is the only means by which ethics can work) everything is irrelevant except in how it affects suffering. As Peter Singer writes in How Are We To Live?:

The perspective on ourselves that we get when we take the point of view of the universe yields as much objectivity as we need if we are to find a cause that is worthwhile in a way that is independent of our own desires. The most obvious such cause is the reduction of pain and suffering, wherever it is to be found. This may not be the only rationally grounded value, but it is the most immediate, pressing, and universally agreed upon one. We know from our experience that when pain and suffering are acute, all other values recede into the background. If we take the point of view of the universe, we can recognize the urgency of doing something about the pain and suffering of others, before we even consider promoting (for their own sake rather than as a means to reducing pain and suffering) other possible values like beauty, knowledge, autonomy, or happiness.

Ultimately, the bottom line is: Reduce Suffering. Everything has to answer to this. I can’t emphasize this enough: the only thing that matters is to reduce suffering.

If you accept this as the What, the next question is, How? At this time, in this country, we choose to promote veganism. However, veganism is not an end in and of itself. We don’t promote veganism because “veganism is good.” Veganism is merely a tool to reduce suffering. Promoting veganism is promoting universal compassion and mercy. Promoting veganism is stating opposition to suffering.


Defense of Dogma

And yet, many people get caught up in (their version of) veganism itself. They ask, “Is it vegan?” rather than “Does it reduce suffering?” For them, defending a certain (and yet ultimately arbitrary) definition of “vegan” from those who would “corrupt” it is more important than preventing exploitation. Purity and consistency are more important than results.

Furthermore, many vegans lose all skepticism and sense of perspective. They believe anything remotely pro-vegan, or even slightly anti-meat. Any health study is either proclaimed as showing that a vegan diet is the best, or else the researchers are condemned as anti-vegan mercenaries. Veganism will cure anything, and any speck of animal product is deadly poison. Any counterevidence is omitted; unknowns are dismissed; uncertainty is disregarded; grey areas are ignored.

I can’t help but envy the absolute moral certainty that many vegans possess. Yet the world is grey and unclear, and I can't ignore this.


Open Questions

When one replaces the question, “Is it vegan?” with “Does it reduce suffering?” the answers are not clear. Just a few examples:

What is the best way to spend money? For example, should you pay more for organic products, or save money and put it towards activism?

What is the best way to earn money? Should you work for an animal-protection group, or try to maximize your income to fund activism? Or should you work in a different field that could lead to a major payoff, such as perfecting the process for a cheaper meat substitute? Or growing animal-free meat? Etc.

What about legislative reform, such as those enacted in the European Union? Or corporate reform, such as those brought about from the outside (the PETA / McDonald's agreement) or the inside (the BK Veggie Burger)? Or industry reform from the inside?

In terms of activism, there are even more questions. Is it best to promote veganism or vegetarianism, assuming more people will respond to the latter? Or attempt to reduce the worst areas by focusing on pigs, poultry, and eggs?

Even if one decides that, given the distribution of efforts throughout society today, promoting veganism is the best approach, questions remain. For example, what is the best use of our limited time and resources? Leafleting? Building a FaunaVision van or Faunette? Seeking to get stories in the media?

After many years, I have no clear answers to these (or other) questions. In fact, I don’t even know how to go about approaching many of them, given the variables and uncertainties. However, I believe the best strategy is to be honest about the unknowns. I don’t know how anyone can believe they have all the answers, and I think that many people are distrustful of people who present themselves as omniscient. I think it is relatively easy for most to dismiss others trying to “convert” them to a rule-based dogma or religion, but if issues are presented as fundamentally about trying to prevent suffering, it is harder for people to ignore.


Why Care?

Given the vastness of the cruelties of the world and the lack of clear answers to How, it is understandable to fall back to asking, Why? Specifically: Why should we care about reducing suffering?

Obviously, it is not only possible, but common, to live with concern only for ourselves, and perhaps a select few around us. The question then becomes: Is living a life of self-interest the most fulfilling life we can expect?

Without reference to a specific religious (or even philosophical) doctrine, there may appear to be no basis by which to judge ways of living. A materialistic life is often thought of as the external embodiment of the pursuit of pleasure, and pleasure the ultimate “meaning” that life can have. With this in mind and a general understanding of our evolutionary heritage, one can better grasp the reasons why humans often attempt to derive their life's meaning from the pursuit of material goods.

Throughout the vast majority of evolution, those individuals who pursued and obtained the most (e.g., food and other signs of “wealth”) survived and reproduced the most. This connection between having and the continuation of one’s genes was not conscious, but rather was manifested in the individual’s drives and desires for things, a discontent with the status quo, and an envy of those with more.

These innate desires do not disappear once one has “enough” (when an individual is no longer in competition with others for limited resources or breeding rights). In fact, it would appear that in many, if not all cases, nothing satisfies the drive for accumulating more – there is always more to have, there are always those better off. In other words, materialism is the embodiment of the pursuit of happiness, but is ultimately incapable of arriving at happiness. More accurately, materialism is the attempt to satiate our insatiable unconscious desires.

If taking more cannot lead to meaning and happiness, one alternative would seem to be creating something – giving something. That is, making an impact with our limited time, having our life be one of positive construction; our existence a monument to something beyond our transient physical self – a better world.

Working together, working for something lasting, bigger than one’s self, can make life meaningful. Revisiting the myth of Sisyphus, condemned to roll a rock up a hill for eternity, Professor Singer argues that this ultimate torture can be made meaningful if Sisyphus is allowed to push different rocks up the hill, and use them to construct a monument. He also writes:

We have to take the first step. We must reinstate the idea of living an ethical life as a realistic and viable alternative to the present dominance of materialist self-interest.

Anyone can become part of the critical mass that offers us a chance of improving the world before it is too late.… One thing is certain: you will find plenty of worthwhile things to do. You will not be bored or lack fulfillment in your life.

Most important of all, you will know that you have not lived and died for nothing, because you will have become part of the great tradition of those who have responded to the amount of pain and suffering in the universe by trying to make the world a better place.


Reason for Optimism?

Some might contend that this sounds well and good, but the situation is ultimately hopeless. Thus it is a waste of time to bother with the fantasy of a “better world.” I don’t think this is true. As I’ve written elsewhere:

Anyone interested in creating a fundamental change for the future is advised to take the long view – at least longer than the next year, or even decade. While it is frustrating how slow (or even negative) progress has been during the career of activists, the rate of change amongst humanity has been shocking and unprecedented in the past century. As Bruce Friedrich points out:

  • 1633: Galileo tried for crime of heresy for proposing earth is not center of physical universe.
  • 1865: 13th amendment outlawing slavery in the U.S.
  • 1900: no country allowed all adult citizens to vote; now, more than 150 do.

Along with Martin Luther King’s dictum, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” the acceleration of change in human civilization makes it seem that there is reason for a great deal of optimism. We have the great and singular opportunity to make the Economist’s prediction come true: “Historically, man has expanded the reach of his ethical calculations, as ignorance and want have receded, first beyond family and tribe, later beyond religion, race, and nation. To bring other species more fully into the range of these decisions may seem unthinkable to moderate opinion now. One day, decades or centuries hence, it may seem no more than ‘civilized’ behavior requires.”