I want to briefly discuss my thoughts about a disturbing phrase I’ve been hearing far too frequently in conversations about veganism.
I’d like to see those on both sides of the conversation stop saying “putting ethics aside” when the primary and truly critical issue at hand is an ethical one. When used by vegans (probably at the point that they feel they are losing the ethical argument and need to hurriedly switch gears), this imprudent tactic derails any opportunity to drive home the only argument for veganism that truly matters – if one believes that non-human individuals matter morally and that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on them, then the only logical response is to start living vegan immediately. Once this primary area of concern has been temporarily dismissed so as to focus on secondary and tertiary matters (examples of which are named below), it is extremely difficult and highly unlikely that it can be revisited with the same power it would have had prior to it being, in effect, intentionally minimized. When used by non-vegans, it’s an indication that they are experiencing cognitive dissonance triggered by the ethical dilemma being brought to their attention – namely that their behaviors are incongruous with their beliefs – and it is employed as an avoidance mechanism. It is tantamount to saying, “I don’t want to look at that… so let’s look at this instead while I conveniently forget what it is we were looking at.”
When we “put ethics aside” in almost any situation, we open the door to a myriad of problems, and one need only look at modern political systems to see examples of this in abundance and to observe the negative consequences of taking such an action. The “putting ethics aside” point in the vegan conversation is usually followed by some discussion about diet, personal health and/or the environment. Specific to veganism and animal rights, “putting ethics aside” trivializes the injustices inherent in animal exploitation by intentionally overlooking them and starts to frame animal exploitation as a matter of personal choice, which it is not. Any choice ceases to be “personal” once that choice involves a victim. This is precisely why laws protect victims of crimes (ostensibly, anyway) and disallow “It was my personal choice to kill that guy, so I’m not guilty!” as a valid legal defense.
I couldn’t imagine, in situations where the victims were human, anyone saying, “Putting ethics aside, it’s better not to intentionally run someone over with your car because that would cause your insurance to go up and you’d have to pay for some costly auto repairs, not to mention the personal inconvenience of having to clean blood off your bumper. On the other hand, putting ethics aside again, you could always rob a bank to get the money to pay for all that, provided you don’t get caught, and maybe get rich in the process!” Such statements shift the focus from an examination of the harm that would befall the potential victim(s) in favor of focusing on the benefits that stand to be gained by the potential perpetrator (in this case, the benefits include the avoidance of negative consequences and a potential financial windfall at the expense of others). Sadly, when the victims are non-human individuals, speciesismtends to bethe default position. For those unfamiliar with the word, here’s a definition:
Speciesism (spe·cies·ism) – noun – by analogy with racism and sexism, an unjust double standard placing higher moral value on some individual animals over others, based solely on the morally irrelevant criterion of species membership.
For those of you who are vegan and choose the “putting ethics aside” angle in your advocacy, please ask yourself why you do that. Why would one make the choice to forego one powerful argument in favor of several weaker ones? My guess is it’s due to a lack of information, confidence or experience. I would like to offer the following suggestions to assist with these issues.
Since, as mentioned previously, the ethical argument is the only argument for veganism that truly matters, please doall you can to strengthen your working knowledge of the ethical reasons for living vegan. Join an upcoming online reading group offered by International Vegan Association, an invaluable resource for any vegan advocate of any experience level. Read abolitionist vegan essays here (and hereand here – if you need more and can’t find them, contact me and I’ll guide you), listen to abolitionist vegan podcasts and find other experienced abolitionists with whom you can share advocacy tips and ideas. This will strengthen your ability to confidently advocate in unequivocal terms for veganism, rather than having to sidetrack both yourself and the non-vegans to whom you’re speaking with tangential matters like diet, health and the environment. People who “go” vegan for dietary or health reasons tend to “go” back to their old eating habits once they’ve met their weight-loss goals or their health issues have resolved, while those who live vegan for ethical reasons tend to continue living vegan, as personal ethics are not normally subject to change on a whim. I can’t think of anyone I know who’s truly “vegan for the environment” (plant-based maybe, but not vegan by definition) and if I did, my guess is they’d cheerfully go back to consuming products of animal exploitation if there were a way to do so in an ecologically-conscious manner. George Carlin, not vegan but a person of masterful insight into human nature, spoke eloquently of such individuals: “I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists, these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is there aren’t enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world safe for their Volvos. Besides, environmentalists don’t give a shit about the planet. They don’t care about the planet. Not in the abstract they don’t. You know what they’re interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They’re worried that some day in the future, they might be personally inconvenienced. Narrow, unenlightened self-interest doesn’t impress me.”
“Putting ethics aside” is a step onto a very slippery slope that inevitably leads to tragic ends. Let’s stay on solid ground and keep our ethics where they need to be – in front of our behaviors, not put aside where they can be mislaid or forgotten about altogether.
[I encourage all readers to click the blue links embedded in this essay and explore the information on those sites.]
Would those who argue against veganism (and therefore, by default, in favor of speciesism) be just as quick to argue in favor of racism, sexism, heterosexism or some other form of injustice involving human victims if perpetuating that particular form of injustice personally benefited them, as does continuing to consume products of animal exploitation?
Fighting against a moral and ethical stance that works toward ending the exploitation of a group, the abolition of which threatens one’s personal conveniences (said conveniences being always at the expense of the exploited group), exposes a perverse form of selfishness on the part of the defender(s) of the exploitation.
Cognitive dissonance(the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual when confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values) can make it difficult to accept certain truths, but denial of reality never actually changes reality. Rather, it creates a false premise upon which to predicate one’s behavior and takes one further from the truth of a situation, always with deleterious effects to oneself and others.
Personally, when I was presented with overwhelming evidence that my behavior as a non-vegan was directly contributing to a system of animal slavery, exploitation and needless death (in essence, an animal holocaust claiming billions, and possibly trillions, of sentient beings every year), I took an immediate and unequivocal stand against this injustice and started living vegan within the hour. It was the only direction that made sense to me, the only way of living I could live with and the single best decision I’ve ever made in my life. The “transition” was fairly simple and living vegan quickly became, as vegan educator Elena Brodskaya put it, “…not second or third nature, but just Nature”.
It would take far less time and energy – and save countless lives – if those who oppose veganism would cease their mental and ethical gymnastics and stop trying to find, in the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca, “a right way to do the wrong thing”.
Live vegan. Educate others. Start now, here’s how:
We atSouth Florida Vegan Education Group believe that clear, consistent, unequivocal vegan education is the only advocacy method that will successfully bring about the changes for the animals’ lives that we seek in the world. We believe in creating a peaceful, fair and just world for all beings, regardless of species, through veganism. We are passionate about empowering individuals with the knowledge that veganism is the primary means of dismantling speciesismand achieving the abolition of animal enslavement, exploitation and execution for human pleasure and convenience, and we do this in a unique way that challenges the status quo of the animal “welfare” movement (and the animal exploiters with whom they purposely partner) as it continues to focus oneverything but veganism in order to maximize each other’s profits and keep the wheels of animal agriculture turning.
For anyone who’s new to our page and our group (or for long-timers who haven’t read this yet), we ask that you please read the following:
Having been involved in numerous animal “rights” campaigns over the past decade or more, we find ourselves turned off by these money and membership-driven organizations promoting small “victories” while purposely not focusing on veganism, which is the key to addressing the root of the problem (as opposed to flailing away at the myriad branches of specific abuses growing in every direction). We can no longer support the big, donation-based, so-called Animal “Rights” organizations in good conscience (their idea of “rights” is actually welfare and “harm reduction”), as our blinders have been lifted and we can see clearly how ineffective their approaches are other than to maintain the status quo that allows – and demands – that non-human individuals be used as disposable, replaceable human property. The Single Issue Campaigns (SICs) promoted by every major animal welfare organization have not been effective in the past; in fact, they have been hurting the very movement they purport to be championing for over two hundred years!
It seems that more and more advocates are focusing their time and energy on animal welfare and abuse “reduction” – while animals remain enslaved in a food/entertainment/fashion/science lab industry – rather than focusing on achieving animals rights through promoting veganism as the moral baseline for our treatment of individuals of other species. There is a huge difference between the two. Welfarists celebrate hollow “victories” like bigger cages or one species’ “retirement” from the circus (only to be replaced by another species) while the vegan movement seeks to focus on clear, consistent, unequivocal vegan education.
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On August 14, 2016 at the Fort Lauderdale Animal Adoption Fair, a young man named Celso approached me at the Vegan Education Station and asked,
“So, can you educate me?” I said, “Sure! What would you like me to educate you about?” He replied, “Dairy” and, rather than launching into a blood-and-guts crash course about the horrors of the dairy industry, I asked him, “Why don’t you tell me what you think you know about dairy production?” He began to explain to me, quite accurately, about some of those horrors, indicating he was already aware of the standard abuses inherent in dairy production and went on to tell me he was still unwilling to give up consuming dairy due to “personal pleasure preferences” (his term). This indicated to me that he was unmoved by what he already knew about the “cruelty” he was supporting and was able to compartmentalize this knowledge and justify that it wasn’t an important situation he needed to address and take a stand against – just as countless other non-vegans do every single day. Does this make him a “bad” person, a sociopath or a psychopath? No, at least not by that benchmark. This makes him “normal” by society’s standards… and it also makes him reachable.
This is the point in many conversations between vegans and non-vegans where vegans will dig their heels in and try to drive the “cruelty” argument deeper, sharing gory details and horrific stories, often backing these up with graphic images and terrifying videos while overlooking the reality that this person already knows and hasn’t stopped despitethat knowledge, so heading down that path will likely be ineffective. Many times in many conversations when I used the approach of, “I know you thinkyou know, but you really have no idea – here, let me show you what’s reallygoing on”, I’m met with a dismissive “I don’t wanna know” and it’s game over. It’s very hard to win someone back when they’ve been driven away, and I feel we need to engage, not outrage, those we wish to educate about veganism. Here’s how I reached Celso:
I validated that what he knew about dairy was accurate and briefly touched on a couple of pieces he didn’t know (the fate of dairy calves and their permanent separation from their mothers shortly after birth) but I quickly steered the conversation to animal userather than abuseto refocus on justice. I guided him to find his own answers by helping him make the ethical connection between veganism and fundamental justice. I could see the switches switch and the light go on when I pointed to a nearby person and asked Celso, “If that person had something you wanted because it would give you pleasure, would it be ok for you to just take it from her?” He answered, “No”. I asked whether it would be ok to take her children from her and he answered, “No” again. I explained that the only difference between the woman in question and a non-human individual is an arbitrary distinction based on species membership and that these situations represent equal injustices for both groups. By the end of our conversation (15 minutes or less), he had fist-bumped me twice and thanked me three times “for educating me and taking the time to give me information that is more valuable than I can tell you”. I gave him information to take with him that will help reinforce our conversation. Another new vegan is born through vegan education!
When we talk about “cruelty”, the conversation becomes about treatment and abuse, rather than use which ultimately is the issue that needs addressing. I stay away from the word “cruelty” in my vegan advocacy for the simple reason that people will define the word in whatever way they see fit in order to justify their continued use of products of animal exploitation. One person’s definition of “cruelty” often differs from the next, which leads to the ideas of “humane” treatment, “humane” slaughter, “free range” and other fantasies the animal agriculture marketing machine foists on the public as some sort of reality.
“We tend to only talk about ‘humane’ in relation to humans when we talk about imprisonment, euthanasia, solitary confinement, detention, or killing people. When we hear the word ‘humane’, we should expect that the outcome for those involved will, no matter what transpires, be less than desirable and will involve some suffering and injustice at best. In the case of sentient animals, our application of what we believe is ‘humane’ for them, if applied to humans, would be considered torture. In other words, any time that word humane is uttered, it’s almost always the case that something morally questionable and possibly unjust is going to follow, whether it’s execution, refugees, interrogation techniques, asylum seeker detention centres, industrial prisons, or in this case, the animal industry and regulation of animal exploitation. We know that it will ultimately mean suffering for someone.”
I can’t count the number of times people have said to me, “As long as the animals are slaughtered ‘humanely’, I have no problem eating them, but some of what I’ve seen in those videos is reallycruel, so we should at least stop that“, strongly indicating they believe there are acceptable levels of what some might call “cruelty”. This plays directly into animal welfare campaigns such as Whole Foods’ “5-STEP® ANIMAL WELFARE RATING – Your way of knowing how the animals were raised for the meat you are buying”, which reinforces the “acceptable cruelty” idea and the myth that there is such a thing as “humane” slaughter. When I make the statement to a non-vegan that it is morally unjustifiable to use any sentient individual, be they human or non-human, as a disposable, replaceable commodity/thing/resource for someone else’s pleasure, entertainment or convenience, (which covers about 99.9% of all animal use by humans) and show that this is analogous to racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression in which one group dominates, devalues and disenfranchises another to the benefit of the victimizers and the detriment of the victims, they seem to grasp and understand the idea quickly and clearly. When I further explain to non-vegans that if they believe these forms of oppression are wrong and don’t support them when the victims are humans, they are demonstrating a lack of integrity by supporting the same oppression when the victims are non-human, they begin to understand that to live in integrity is to live vegan.
I believe the word “cruelty” is too broad and subjective a word to use in a vegan advocacy context and therefore causes unnecessary confusion. When lives are at stake, which they are here by the trillions, I feel we all need to be as clear and consistent as possible in conveying the message of veganism so we maximize the impact we desire to make while using the least amount of time, energy and resources as possible.
“Talking about cruelty in one’s advocacy is irrelevant because it is synced to emotion, a dangerous territory evoking words like ‘compassion’ and ‘kindness’ in its wake. An emotional approach has never helped the animals (nor people, for that matter) and never turned anyone vegan, including myself. Animal rights are about justice, not compassion. Compassionate people who oppose cruelty are the ones who will sooner donate to a welfare organization than make the connection and change their belief system. ‘Cruelty’ implies that we ‘need to do something’ to better the industry practices and not go vegan in order to abolish the industry altogether. Just yesterday I was witness to someone who said he will never, ever go vegan because it’s not a moral issue, however he agrees that we shouldn’t treat animals with cruelty. Such a backward stance in one’s morals indicates that as Animal Rights Advocates we are not focused on full abolition, but just on eliminating cruelty, thus subliminally giving a green light to everyone to still kill and eat flesh and rape juice. Abolition seeks to eliminate the use of animals, not to treat them nicely until they are killed.“
The operative words in unequivocal vegan advocacy should not be “cruel” and “cruelty” but “unjust” and “injustice”. Even if the non-consensual uses of vulnerable individuals in question were devoid of discomfort and injury, they remain unjust. This is why veganism is indeed a social justice movement and not, as it is often mislabeled, a diet, lifestyle or cult.
Drawing from my own experiences, I will say that it was a combination of logic and emotion that compelled me to start living vegan: I saw horrific atrocities in a semi-graphic video depicting animal abuse on factory farms —> I realized my complicity in said atrocities —> I realized that I don’t support human slavery, so it makes no sense for me to continue supporting non-human slavery now that I know this is what I’m doing, and I began living vegan right then and there. This experience occurred over 70 minutes, but the logical piece took mere seconds: “This is slavery… I don’t support slavery… I’m done.”
From there, I firmly believed that any and every person to whom I showed the same video would begin living vegan immediately afterward, just as I had, because they would have the same emotional/logical response to the information that I had. I mean, how couldn’tthey, right?
Here’s the empirical evidence from my experience: not oneperson I showed the video to (without any accompanying education) decided to live vegan. Not one. In fact, to my knowledge, none of them have changed anythingabout their attitudes and habits when it comes to animal exploitation. The appeal to emotion simply didn’t cut it, as each person comes from their own perspective on what’s “cruel” and what’s “not so bad”, and what’s unacceptable to one person is acceptable to another.
[A brief side note on the use of graphic imagery in vegan advocacy: “Cruelty” videos and images are certainly compelling and can drive people to action, but humans have built-in forgetters for trauma, so those images and the feelings they elicit in those moments can and often do fade… and when they fade, there’s not much to stop them from going back to consuming non-human animals and their secretions unless they’ve come to believe that it is fundamentally morally unjust to use non-human animals for one’s pleasure. Once a person understands that it’s our moral obligation to not treat individuals of other species as human property and that to do so is to engage in and support slavery, there’s an internal shift that generally doesn’t un-shift. Conversely, when people convince themselves that somehow, somewhere, things in the animal agriculture industry are nicer than the graphic images they’ve been shown (which they may believe are anomalies at the extreme end of the “cruelty spectrum”), they will seek out “humane” animal products. “The reason that cruelty videos can be detrimental to an animal rights organization’s mission is that such videos inherently focus on treatment, not use, even though the cruel treatment is an inevitable symptom of the disease of use. By focusing on treatment, such videos do not suggest that use ought to end, but that use ought to be regulated.” – UVE Archives, On Cruelty Videos]
In my experience, the logical appeal is a different story with a different ending . Most people have at least a rudimentary understanding (if not more) that something horrific has to happen for a vibrant, living individual to end up drained of blood and life and cut into pieces, and yet they continue to consume these individuals with no apparent emotional distress (when confronted with this in my pre-vegan days, I used to rationalize “This cow’s already dead, so what’s the problem?” and devour my steak, etc.). When individuals are presented with the simple, logical question “Do you believe it’s wrong to cause unnecessary suffering and death to animals for reasons of pleasure, entertainment or convenience?” (almost all will agree that this is wrong) and then informed that these uses, which are tantamount to slavery (something they would never support were the enslaved individuals human), account for nearly 100% of our society’s animal use, they get the point fairly quickly and start to understand the issue on a level deeper than fleeting emotion.
One need only look at the past 200+ years of animal welfare and the infinitesimal “gains” that have been made at that glacial pace (if the fact that more animals are dying in more horrific ways at the hands of humans than ever before in human history can be called a “gain”) to see that the welfare approach to harm reduction simply isn’t going to achieve the goal of ending animal use. One need only look at the large, donation-based animal welfare organizations and the verbiage they use, even in their names – mercy, compassion, treatment, cruelty, humane – to see how such words again lead down the road to welfare and harm reduction rather than to justice and an end to use.
All of these organizations appeal to emotions with undercover videos, exposes of cruelty and so on, and claim “victory” whenever they and some animal exploiters join forces to compromise on a supposed “improvement” in conditions for those they enslave, i.e.: going “cage-free” nine years down the road. That may arguably reduce the “cruelty”, but it doesn’t lead toward the necessary paradigm shift. Rather, the idea that it’s ok to use animals so long as it’s done “less cruelly” is reinforced and driven deeper into the public psyche.
If the change we wish to see is merely harm reduction, then appeals to emotion will certainly achieve that limited goal, as history has taught us since this has been the case for as long as animal welfare campaigns have been happening (two centuries and counting is a long time to keep advocating for incremental changes).
If our goal is to change the current paradigm so that non-humans cease to be treated as disposable objects for humans to use, then we must appeal to people’s sense of justice through clear, consistent education focusing on veganism as the moral baseline for our treatment of individuals of other species.
Tugging at heartstrings, while effective on some levels, is ultimately a manipulative device. Solid, direct vegan education is a much more honest approach that leads to a deep and lasting change.
The bottom line needs to be that if we believe it’s wrong/morally unjustifiable to cause unnecessary suffering and death to non-humans for reasons of pleasure, amusement and convenience (I frequently make the comparison to human slavery and remind non-vegans that even the “kindest” slave owner is still a slave owner), then the right thing to do – the morally just thing to do – is to start living vegan and stop being complicit in allforms of animal exploitation, not just the ones some people define as “cruel”. Not everyone agrees on what constitutes cruelty and many people see it as a matter of degrees (horribly cruel, really cruel, somewhat cruel, kinda cruel, not all that cruel so therefore acceptable), and this leads to “humane” this and “cage-free” that and we’re right back to the counterproductive 19th-century animal welfare model.
Humans have an uncanny ability to turn off and/or compartmentalize their emotions whenever those emotions run counter to them getting their desires met, whether it be in the consumption of animal products, or rape, or war, or most any violent act. Unless one is socio- or psychopathic (or severely cognitively impaired), everyone knows all those acts of violence constitute “cruelty”, and yet they continue to happen because humans find ways to minimize, justify, rationalize and deny the consequences of their actions to suit their perceived “needs”.
Here’s an unflinchingly honest account of one person’s commitment to the ethical principles of veganism, from my friend and vegan advocate Andy Williams:
“Emotions are fickle things. If one bases their actions on an emotion, those actions will change when the the emotion fades. Think back to your first love. Think of how strong those emotions were. Are you still in love with that person? How many people stay with their first love their entire lives?
Sadly, I’ve seen so many people enter into the world of veganism all fired up and filled with enthusiasm. These people had a true feeling of concern, based on their emotional reaction to the plight of animals. They were charged up. They were going to change the world! However, once the practical implications set in, many found it difficult to maintain their original vigor. Eventually, one discovers that you actually have to exert a small amount of effort in the process of obtaining your daily food. One discovers that you can no longer purchase your favorite and familiar products. One discovers that friends and family will do everything possible to shun you and discourage your actions. These setbacks have an enormous emotional impact, and many times this is where the cracks start to form.
A person beset with a whirlwind of mixed emotion has no choice but to start bargaining. Something inevitably has to go. Will it be the comfort of friends and family? Will it be the convenience of brain-dead living? Or will it be this new flame? In far too many cases, I’ve seen an untempered leap into veganism eventually melt into mere welfarism. “I really care about these animals, so I’m only going to eat cage free eggs” and “it’s a step in the right direction at least”, and all of the other rationalizations that I’m sure you’ve heard countless times. People can satisfy their cloying emotional states by taking actions that offer little to no material relief to the animals that they claim to carry so much concern for.
Without the clear understanding of basic concepts like justice and autonomy, then anything goes. Conversely, when one internalizes the fact that any and all use of animals by humans is wrong, then nothing can shake that foundation.
I myself suffered enormously when first going vegan. I was still living at home. My parents saw my decision as a fundamental attack against everything they believed in. One day, I came home to find the locks changed and all of my possessions on the porch. I was shocked. I really had nowhere to go. I had nowhere to store my belongings. I lost everything. I had to drop out of school. I became homeless. This was an extremely emotionally devastating experience, but even then, I knew that our actions toward non-human animals should not be based on emotion, but on logical principles. Animals deserve justice regardless of how it affects us emotionally, and regardless of how difficult it may be. I was looking at death straight in the face and never compromised an inch. I can’t say the same for all the sad souls who have come and gone because they did not understand that all use is abuse and our own personal circumstances should not dictate our actions toward animals.”
Like it or not, each of us has a finite amount of time, energy and resources to spend on our advocacy efforts. Let’s employ those resources in the most effective way we can by engaging in direct, honest vegan education focusing on the fact that all animal use for human gain is exploitative no matter the perceived level of “cruelty” in any particular form of use. Let’s stay away from confusing words like “cruelty”, “humane”, “treatment” and “abuse” and remember that what we’re working for are justice and an end to use.
Live vegan. Educate others. Start now, here’s how: