Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
‘Veganish’ or Vegan? An Animal Rights Perspective
Written by Kevin Watkinson
There is continual discussion around the nature of effectiveness within the vegan movement, and it is important to reflect [i] on our activity so that we can increase our effectiveness in different situations. However, over time it has become increasingly apparent that different ideas exist in regard to veganism, so in this article animal rights theory and the vegan ethos are aligned to explore some of those issues relating to the idea of ‘veganish’.
In order to begin to look at this issue, it is useful to present a couple of workable definitions to draw attention to the complementary aspects of animal rights theory and the vegan philosophy. The following is the generally accepted definition of veganism from The Vegan Society:
"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; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."
The following description is the one used when referring to animal rights:
This is the recognition that non-human animals are sentient beings that are subjects of a life, and have an interest in how they live their life. It is this interest that forms those intrinsic rights that we discuss in regard to animal rights, and that includes freedom from suffering at the hands of human beings. These interests are recognised when we consider that we do not need to use non-human animals, and where we seek alternatives to exploiting them. In this way we begin to respect the right to liberty of all non-human animals, a right we have taken away from them.
So given these two definitions, I think it is possible to draw the following distinctions with the ‘veganish’ approach to animal advocacy:
|Animal Rights||Animal Liberation (Singer’s anthropocentric utilitarianism)|
|A position overtly opposed to exploitation, discrimination, and oppression||An approach that can be consistent with exploitation, discrimination, and oppression|
|Reduce harm||Reduce harm|
|Ripened by human determination [ii] (Donald Watson)||Softened by a reduction in expectations|
|Doing the best we can||Doing less than we can|
|Emphasis on community||Individualistic|
The majority of vegans attempt to resolve those issues that challenge veganism from within the framework of veganism itself, rather than attempting to re-define veganism (lowering the bar) to advocate an approach that incorporates the exploitation of animals. Where we lower the bar, we accept a different criterion for our definition of veganism; and there are already ample definitions (if we require them) for different approaches toward reduction that can reflect our beliefs or consumption patterns. For instance, there is flexitarianism or reducetarianism to consider, and we could adopt those labels if we choose to do so, because they also include harm reduction toward non-human animals. In a slightly different way the arrival of ‘veganish’ has presented a challenge to the dietary implications of veganism, and consequently the overarching vegan philosophy.
The question then needs to be asked as to why there is such an interest in ‘veganish’. If people choose not to be vegan for whatever reasons, has it meant they instead consume non-human animals ‘all of the time’ or does it just mean they are not vegan? In terms of veganism it doesn’t really matter if you consume animals five times a year or five hundred; somebody who has taken veganism to heart is unlikely to want to cheat, or find loopholes where they can sometimes consume animal products. Whilst it is clearly less bad to consume five than five hundred animals, and few people would argue otherwise, it is better still to not exploit any animals as far as is possible and practicable. For the animals that are not being exploited it certainly is better.
It has also sometimes been suggested that vegans can cause people that reduce the number of animals they exploit to instead consume more animals, this is because of a reaction to the implied *demand* to adopt a vegan diet. However, it may be more reasonable to say that people continue to not be vegan, and those ‘principles’ that led to a marked reduction in animal consumption would likely remain, if indeed it were a principled decision and not merely social drift. It is difficult to identify that veganism itself would provide such an obstacle to an effective approach to animal liberation, instead the fact people merely consume animal products because they consume animal products is the central issue, and to challenge that assumption is integral to our discussion. In a speciesist society we cannot expect people to merely gravitate toward an animal rights approach, something more is required. So we should feel empowered to discuss the vegan philosophy and the consequent lifestyle even though it is something that people do not necessarily wish to hear. It can be difficult to speak about the issue of animal rights and veganism, and it can also be difficult to listen and engage with that discussion, yet we can learn and improve on how we do that, so that we can move forward advocating veganism more effectively.
We also need to be mindful that there are issues to critique in regard to veganism; where philosophy meets practise, and in particular how veganism relates to neo-colonialism / privilege / entitlement and ‘ease’. When we take a veganish perspective, we first neutralise the situation of non-human animals, and second we erase the experiences of people in regard to veganism. It becomes ok to consume animals rather than to challenge those systems that resist animal liberation. Making compassion easier allows for us to commit acts of violence with the aim to make our life and the lives of other humans easier; based upon the assumption that we can further reduce harm to non-human animals on a societal level. Yet whilst vegans are working hard to make change more appealing and ‘easier’, we are not interested in changing our message to suit the mainstream. A message of justice is not one that fits easily into a mainstream constructed upon injustice, and, our failure to examine the way veganism has gradually been undermined has arguably caused the original intent [iii] of veganism to become diminished.
So we need to look at how we can be effective within the definition of veganism and rights, rather than looking to promote those ideas (such as incrementalism) from outside that definition. In a social context we can identify how speciesism is constantly being reinforced, so we know how important it is to offer those alternative ideas that allow people to view the issues differently. Almost everyone believes in harm reduction in one form or another, people see this as a good thing, so we need to create a message that stands out from those others that incorporate animal exploitation in various ways.
Veganism not only inherently challenges speciesism in our society, but also challenges people who are vegan whilst reinforcing aspects of speciesism. So there is a degree of antagonism when advocating behaviours that are not consistent with veganism. It is also worth pointing out that no one seems to say that veganism cannot be promoted in an effective way, yet there is some disagreement over the best way to advocate for animal liberation, and that principally depends upon perspective. From a rights perspective there will always be issues with non-vegan approaches that are presented within the rights movement. To counter this issue we need to look at the definitions of veganism and rights to see how we can be effective and consistent, where we recognise that those terms are not mutually exclusive. We can direct our energy into working out how to promote veganism well, rather than looking at ways to change or ‘ish’ those definitions, so we can continue to advocate that different way of living in society. There are many other definitions that can describe different approaches, and they can be adopted if people wish to do so. Though we should bear in mind that the opportunity cost is not to be more ‘effective’, the opportunity cost is to de-centre the rights of animals from our campaigns.
It is possible for people to adopt a vegan lifestyle and locate themselves within the definition of flexitarianism, or adopt a vegan lifestyle and be a reducetarian or vegetarian. So it could be a better approach for some vegans to adopt those labels if they want to promote aspects of exploitation through welfare and reduction. Where people have thought that veganism is ‘too much’ it doesn’t mean to say they don’t continue to do the best they can in their lives, but when vegans say veganism is ‘extreme’ it reaffirms those ideas of difficulty, rather than addressing those issues and advocating veganism in a meaningful way. It may well turn out that people are close to that vegan lifestyle or not, yet it is the philosophy which is the central pillar of veganism; and there isn’t a discernible grey area when we adopt that philosophy.
The Vegan Society was founded with the intention to promote veganism and to make the vegan lifestyle easier. Over the past ten years in the UK we can see how the vegan lifestyle has become ‘easier’, especially for those people living with privilege. That work is clearly already happening as a consequence of people choosing to be vegan, accompanied by those people that are consuming more vegan products, which is a consequence of a mainstream message to reduce the consumption of non-human animals. The vegan message does not hinder that process, instead it helps people to understand the important issues of rights and justice, and we need more advocates to adopt this perspective in order to support people to contemplate and understand these issues.
From animals to anarchism by Kevin Watkinson and Donal O’Driscoll.
Occam’s Razor and Veganism by Benny Malone.
The Philosophy of Animal Rights by Tom Regan.
Veganism Defined by Leslie Cross.
[iii] See for instance. Cole, M. (2014) ‘‘The Greatest Cause on Earth’: The historical formation of veganism as an ethical practice’, in N. Taylor & R. Twine (eds) The Rise of Critical Animal Studies – From the Margins to the Centre, Routledge.
Kevin Watkinson is a vegan animal rights advocate in the UK, who maintains a successful blog titled Orcas and Animals. Kevin is also a moderator and administrator of ARZone.