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.