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What do you think? Is it possible to live as a vegan whilst eating other animals? This essay from Tim Gier may present a perspective many of us haven't considered before. I think he raises some difficult issues, and I invite ARZone members to discuss their thoughts, and consider some of the questions raised in this essay. 

possible and practicable veganism


The Vegan Society, in their Articles of Association, explains that “the word ‘veganism’ denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” They go on to say that “In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

One may choose to read these two statements as presenting something a conflicting message. The former clearly allows that veganism isn’t an absolutist position: that’s why it includes the emphasized caveat “as far as is possible and practicable.” The latter appears to ignore this caveat, claiming that veganism requires dispensing with “all products derived wholly or partly from animals;” this appears to be an absolutist position. However, given that the former statement is the more inclusive of the two, encompassing veganism in all its aspects, I believe that any fair reading of these two statements will acknowledge that the latter implicitly assumes the caveat of the former. In other words, I take it that the Vegan Society means to say, ”In dietary terms veganism denotes the practice of dispensing with – as far as is possible and practicable – all products derived wholly or partly from animals.” This makes sense and tracks well with what most vegans believe.

For example, I believe that most vegans would accept that, just in case the organic granola they might have eaten for breakfast contained some unintended and negligible amount of dead insect matter, they would still be vegan while eating it. Indeed, it’s commonly held within the vegan community that the unintended killing of field mice and other animals in the production of food crops doesn’t render those crops “non-vegan”. Given then that it’s not possible or practicable to remove every trace of every other animal from one’s diet – or to eliminate every instance of killing in the world – vegans accept that perfection isn’t possible or practicable. In terms of defining veganism then, so far is so good: Absolute perfection can’t be required. However, there is a problem that arises out of this line of reasoning; the following example should illustrate what that problem is.

Suppose that there is a young woman who fully understands and accepts the arguments made for veganism. She believes and wants to act on her belief that other animals should not be treated as mere commodities for human use and consumption. Unfortunately, she’s married to a man who is both physically and psychologically abusive to her. It just so happens that he is also an avid hunter who not only refuses to respect the woman’s beliefs, but who demands that the woman cook as well as eat the dead animals he brings into the home. On threat of torment and violence, the woman has little choice but to comply. As far as is possible and practicable for her, even though she identifies as a vegan and would abstain from all consumption of other animals if only she could, veganism for her includes the regular consumption of other animals.

Now, what are we to make of this?

On the one hand, given that she seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose, this woman is vegan. On the other hand, vegans are not likely to want to admit – because she regularly eats other animals – that this woman really is vegan. But then, what is the point of the definition of veganism including the caveat “as far as is possible and practicable”? If the definition is to mean what it says, then considering the circumstances this woman unfortunately finds herself in, she must be vegan. Otherwise the caveat doesn’t mean ”as far as is possible and practicable” but means little or nothing instead. That is, if in effect the definition means “as far as what other people determine is possible and practicable” then no one has the opportunity to live as a vegan on the terms that are possible for them, but only on the terms forced on them by others. But it must be the case that a person who lives in a city with no options to purchase 100% veganically grown plant-foods, for example, can’t be held to the same standards as one who lives in a self-supporting vegan commune. What is easily possible and practicable for the latter may not be at all possible or practicable for the former.  It must be the case, then, that each person must be able to claim – for themselves – what is possible and practicable for them in their practice of veganism.

Therefore, it must be the case – as it would be in the case of the abused young woman – that there are circumstances (however unlikely and infrequent they may be) in which a person can regularly consume other animals and yet correctly claim to practice veganism, as far as is possible and practicable for them. If it must not be the case, then the definition of veganism is meaningless.

tim gier

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If you eat an animal you're not vegan. You can dress it up, as you have in this example Tim, as domestic violence, but she has choices.

Hi Sandra,

It seems to me that, if our advocacy on behalf of other animals is going to be effective then we must come to terms with every argument that may point out the flaws and inconsistencies of our position.  Now, it may be that some people think that the arguments for veganism are airtight and without flaws or inconsistencies, but that simply isn't the case - no argument concerning moral and ethical behavior is without flaws and inconsistencies.  If we can't openly discuss these issues, in full view of every person who may be vegan or aspiring to be vegan, then what does that say about our position?  Is our position too fragile to withstand close scrutiny? I certainly hope not. I do believe that very many people have a fragile hold on and unclear ideas about the foundational aspects of veganism and animal rights.  I also believe that when people haven't got clear and distinct ideas that ground their actions it is very easy for them to act inconsistently - there are lots of people who try veganism only to abandon it. Perhaps, if our arguments were better formed, and our answers to the objections we commonly hear were more convincing, then more people would become vegan and more vegans would stay vegan.

Sandra Higgins said:

Hello Tim,

I find the argument strange to be honest.  It is more like the arguments I see presented on forums by those who are anti animal rights and hence anti veganism.

I suppose that everyone consumes or otherwise uses other animals at least some of the time, somehow. Therefore, no one is vegan.  But people are vegan, so then it can't be the case that what makes a person vegan is that they never consume other animals or the products derived from other animals.

Sharron Woodward said:

If you eat an animal you're not vegan. You can dress it up, as you have in this example Tim, as domestic violence, but she has choices.

Hi Sandra, 

I suppose that the world would be a better place if all people took the time to study philosophy and to learn to think philosophically, but that's a discussion for another time and place.  ;-)

In terms of this discussion, I believe that one of the reasons that opposition to veganism is so strong is that most people reject two things: 1) being told to act differently because their current actions are immoral and 2) any suggestion that there are moral absolutes.  Therefore, when the discourse surrounding veganism and animals rights includes one or both of those things (which it very often does), then people reject veganism almost automatically.

It is the case that we teach our children to "Never lie" but it is also the case that once children are old enough to think for themselves they realize that there are times when lying is justifiable, excusable or even the morally correct thing to do.  Therefore, when, as adults, people hear another person say "You must never do X", I believe that most people automatically think that there's something wrong with such a command. That's not to say that many people would claim to not agree that "You must never kill another person" but it is to say that, upon reflection, most people will realize that there are times when killing another person may be the only morally correct thing to do (for example, to stop a deranged man from raping and strangling an 8 yr-old child when there's absolutely no other way to stop him).  

So, I think that part of the very reason that so few people become vegan is that they sense that veganism requires adherence to an unattainable ideal, and they intuitively grasp that no one really adheres to unattainable ideals. Another part of the reason is that many people believe that veganism is based on almost religious claims of morality. It seems to me then, that by pointing out that veganism allows for the attainable in a non-ideal world and that people who fall short of the ideal can still be acting morally, we increase the changes that people adopt veganism, not decrease the chances that they do.


Sandra Higgins said:

Hi Tim,

I see the discussion as entertaining in a philosophy or ethics class, but not practical for the aims that I understand of this animal rights forum.  


Hi Tim, You said this : So, I think that part of the very reason that so few people become vegan is that they sense that veganism requires adherence to an unattainable ideal, and they intuitively grasp that no one really adheres to unattainable ideals. Another part of the reason is that many people believe that veganism is based on almost religious claims of morality.  Yes, I completely agree with you. As a recently 'converted' vegan, I am acutely aware of the reactions of my friends and family, and whether my arguments in favour of veganism are 'putting them off'.  I have been accused of joining a religion, and trying to convert people (because I post vegan links on my FB wall). I end up in discussions about screaming hazelnut trees (when we steal their nuts) or sentient prawns.  The main issue (for me) of the billions of animals trapped in the vicious farm and slaughterhouse system seems to get too easily lost. I questioned once in the ARZone what I would do if my elderly unwell  relative presented me with a jar of honey from his bees. He's a farmer's son, but that doesn't mean he would be immune to understanding about animal suffering. I think he could take on board the idea of  renouncing eating meat and dairy, but the idea that his bees suffer - well he would just ROTFL - and then there's another person who thinks vegans are bonkers. I tend to keep the face-to-face discussions with people firmly on factory farming and slaughterhouses - as a direct result of this one of my daughters has given up meat and is thinking about dairy, and my husband ( previously a rampant carnist) is about to launch a blog advocating a vegan+fish only diet, with the main argument that the vegetarian diet causes probably more suffering than the carnist one, and a veggie would cause less suffering by giving up dairy and eating fish. Not perfect, but hey the deaths of field mice in the vegan cornfield isn't perfect either.

It cannot be defined as someone who eats meat because her violent partner makes her.

What if you were on a deserted island.........

Hi Madeleine,

I think that it's too easy for vegans who talk so much and so often with other vegans and advocates to forget that the "normal" folks out in the world see and react to us and our arguments in the ways you've described.  It's as though we really do operate in a vegan bubble.  Thanks for adding a different perspective!

Madeleine Longhurst said:

As a recently 'converted' vegan, I am acutely aware of the reactions of my friends and family, and whether my arguments in favour of veganism are 'putting them off'.  

Hi Sharron:

Try writing things such as I write and you might wish that you were on a deserted island!! ;-)

I am not defining a vegan as a person who, because her violent partner makes her, cooks and eats other animals. What I am saying is that all vegans abstain from consuming other animals "as far as is possible and practicable" and that "as far as is possible and practicable" varies from person to person. Therefore, we ought to be very reluctant to conclude that another isn't vegan just in case what isn't possible and practicable for them would be possible and practicable for us.

Sharron Woodward said:

It cannot be defined as someone who eats meat because her violent partner makes her.

What if you were on a deserted island.........


Perhaps some, or most, of the people you talk to find veganism not to be a radical idea - perhaps they do find it logical but frankly, based on the fact that so many intelligent, well-informed and well-intentioned people aren't vegans, not to mention the absurdly low percentage of people who are vegans, I find your experience with non-vegans astounding. I don't doubt what you say, but I would be astounded to have the same experience.  

In my experience, most non-vegans think that vegans hold ideas that are radical, if not crazy; that's not astounding. In fact, Roger Yates likes to say that vegans ought to embrace the idea that we are "vegan freaks" in the eyes of most other people - he likens us to "vegan pioneers" who must normalize our radical ideas so that those who come after us aren't seen as the freaks we are seen as.

Some vegan advocates realize that a very good way to reach people who think we are radical is by trying to gain agreement first where we can, so that we hopefully will be able to build on any initial agreements towards greater agreements later; that's not astounding, that's just a tactical decision. Given that it appears to be the case that very many vegans become vegan only after having been vegetarian first, it would appear to be a sound tactical decision as well. 

In any case, what is obvious to you about bees and fishes appears to be not so obvious to most of the people who have spent a good part of their lives studying the minds of other animals.  Here is what Mark Bekoff and Colin Allen have to say about sentience in nonhumans (from their article Animal Consciousness appearing in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness, 2007, pp 58-72):

"Phenomenal consciousness refers to the qualitative, subjective, experiential, or phenomenological aspects of conscious experience, sometimes identified with qualia. (In this chapter we also use the term 'sentience' to refer to phenomenal consciousness.) To contemplate animal consciousness in this sense is to consider the possibility that, in Nagel's (1974) phrase, there might be “something it is like” to be a member of another species. Nagel disputes our capacity to know, imagine, or describe in scientific (objective) terms what it is like to be a bat, but he assumes that there is something it is like. There are those, however, who would challenge this assumption directly. Others would less directly challenge the possibility of scientifically investigating its truth. Nevertheless, there is broad commonsense agreement that phenomenal consciousness is more likely in mammals and birds than it is in invertebrates, such as insects, crustaceans or molluscs (with the possible exception of some cephalopods), while reptiles, amphibians, and fish constitute an enormous grey area for most scientists and philosophers."(emphasis added)

So, perhaps bees and fishes are sentient (and the case for sentience in fishes is perhaps stronger because fishes are vertebrates) but it is far from being a settled question.  Neither Francione, Regan, nor Singer claim that insects are sentient (as far as my reading indicates anyway) and I know of no other serious theorist who makes a credible case for the sentience of insects. (Joan Dunayer makes a case, but it's not a credible case by any means.)

What most of us vegans will claim is that, even if we don't know whether insects are sentient, we will give them the benefit of the doubt - that's usually what I claim anyway. However, that sort of "least harm/benefit of the doubt" argument leads to absurd conclusions and isn't defensible in any rigorous way. Bees and honey pose quite a problem for a reasonable vegan position, even though most vegans would be reluctant to acknowledge that fact.

Sandra Higgins said:

Am I alone in being totally astounded by the points being put forward here? I used to be one of those 'normal' folks but once I examined the arguments (i.e. became intellectually enlightened and emotionally connected) I could not live any other way.  Bees are sentient others too and they make honey to provide food for themselves. I would suffer if someone stole my supply of food.  What is so difficult to understand once you think about it?  Fishes are also sentient others.  I do not see the difference between killing a fish and killing a cow.  If someone eats fish they are not vegan plus anything, they are simply not vegan.  The people I speak to about veganism do not think it is crazy - they see it as logical and the right thing to do, but they are reluctant to give up their current way of living and refuse to examine evidence of the suffering of other animals in case that viewing might be reason enough to force the inconvenience of change.\

I think that to argue that the suffering of a bee who's honey is stolen (given that beekeepers do replace the honey  with other food) is on a par with the suffering of a cow in the slaughterline seems to me to be absurd. I doubt they 'suffer' in any meaningful way at all. I think the mashing up of field mice by a combine harvester is much more problematic, and there is a parallel there with the treatment of male chicks that wouldn't escape an intelligent sceptic.  Perhaps a true vegan would eat only food sown and gathered by hand...  But the point is surely to figure out the best possible way/ways to stop people buying the products of the imprisonment, torture and murder of sentient beings in their billions.  I think most people would say that a dairy cow suffers a lot more and for a lot longer than a non-farmed fish, that's why vegetarians who say they are veggie for ethical reasons have got things a bit topsy turvy IMO. My husband (who's advocating 'vegan' + fish) is a psychology grad with a special interest in evolution, and he is advocating fish instead of dairy because he doesn't think fish are sentient. If he finds out he is wrong he'll stop eating them (I think he might be wrong BTW).  I've obviously got the wrong end of the stick with my definition of 'a vegan' - I thought he/she was someone who didn't cause suffering to animals.

I think there were some important issues raised in this essay. One issue in particular that I'm grateful to Tim for raising is the significance and implications of the term "as far as practical and possible". This has always been an issue for me because I believe it allows for those who wish to, the opportunity to claim their moral superiority over other vegans. For example, that which is practical and possible for a single person living in a vegan-friendly city (like Portland, in the United States, for example) will find that which is practical and possible for them, is not for me. That which is practical and possible for someone living in a vegan commune is not practical and possible for me. That which is practical and possible for me is not practical and possible for a woman who is oppressed and exploited whilst being forced to submit to her husband's will and obey his instructions every day of her life. I have no right to determine what is practical and possible for another individual, nor do they have the right to do so for me. 

I agree that eating another individual may exclude a person from being considered vegan, but, in terms of what is possible and practical to some, so would driving a car, consuming palm oil, using a computer, benefiting from the death and mutilation of field mouses, along with so many more practices that may well be, and are, regarded by some as non-vegan. 

I believe that these are issues that deserve our consideration as advocates for other animals and vegan advocates, and I believe that to disregard such issues because they may make us uncomfortable in assessing them, and not  reflecting on how we feel about such issues would be making a mistake. 

Interesting discussion.

I believe that getting caught up on a definition that is decades old is not very productive. If the Vegan Society's definition is a problem, let's posit a new, better definition of what it means to be vegan. In my view, a vegan is someone who does not consume knowingly or who has knowingly removed her/himself from complicity in the  intentional exploitation or demise of members of the animal kingdom.

In the hypothetical story of the woman subjugated by her husband, though I have great sympathy for her, I would not consider her a vegan.

I believe insects and fish are most definitely sentient. I define sentient as to have the capacity of subjective conscious experiences under normal and natural circumstances. I believe that sentience requires a brain (or a complex nerve ganglia)  to perceive or make sense of signals sent to it from sensory organs connected to it. In that way, I believe only single, intact organisms can posses sentience as opposed to individual parts of an organism that receive and transmit stimuli.

To the best of my knowledge, all animals (including insects and fish) that have a brain or complex nerve ganglia also have nerves. The main function of nerves is to be a medium through which signals (generally from noxious stimuli) are carried to the complex nerve ganglia or brain for processing. There are many examples of behavior that I have witnessed in films on animals and in person which leads me to be convinced fully that  insects and fish can feel pain and can experience the world around them subjectively and consciously. Insects attack other insects and reactions (behavior) includes distress which results in fleeing or fighting. Insect behavior can also be altered by plants releasing chemicals which affect insect nervous systems. In fact, most insecticides used by humans are designed to affect the nervous system of insects ( ). I think the evidence of the ability to feel pain and sentience is even more clear when it comes to fish. This is just one of numerous articles and references on this specific matter:

There's absolutely no logical reason for me to believe that bees do not get stressed, hurt, and killed even in the most careful handling of the honey trays found in apiaries. In fact it was testified to me by someone who has first hand experience working in an apiary, that it is virtually impossible to avoid harming bees inadvertently in honey collecting. Even if somehow you could avoid causing distress and harm to bees, there's still the matter of unnecessary exploitation of the bees for human profit / gain.

It seems rather suspiciously to claim that fish and bees are somehow radically different from frogs, cows, and chimps.  If we start to arbitrarily or suspiciously exclude bees and fish from similar considerations we extend to other animals because we may benefit from the purloin of their honey or the killing of them, what's to stop the next person from excluding lobsters, pigs, or dogs?

Thank you for taking time to read my brief comments.

Warmly, Louie

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