Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
A list of Frequently Asked Questions commonly heard by many vegans.
What is a vegan?
A vegan is one who fully respects the lives and well-being of others. A vegan strives to avoid harming others and does everything possible to avoid using any living being as a resource or a thing. A vegan doesn’t eat other animals and she does everything possible to avoid any product which contains anything made or derived from other animals. A vegan doesn’t wear clothing, shoes or accessories made or derived from other animals, as far as is possible. A vegan rejects the use of other animals as sources of entertainment in zoos, circuses, rodeos, aquariums and amusement parks. A vegan rejects the use of other animals in medical, commercial and scientific experimentation and testing.
Why is being vegan a good thing?
Being vegan is a good thing because most other animals are the sorts of beings who ought not to be harmed, used, or killed. Just like it is good to be respectful of other human beings, it is good to be respectful of all other animal beings as well.
What is sentience?
Sentience is usually defined as the ability to feel pain, but if sentience is to mean anything with respect to how we view our obligations to others, it must mean more than just a capacity to register painful stimuli. If we are to judge that it is wrong to cause a being pain, it isn’t enough simply to know that a being has the physical experience of pain, but we must also know that it matters to her that she is experiencing pain, and that she prefers not to experience pain. Sentience must mean that there is a “someone” who has experiences in and of the world, and who has at least some basic wants, needs, desires and preferences about themselves in the world.
Is being a vegan like a religion?
Being vegan is like being religious only insofar as both are concerned with ethics and morality. Vegans are trying to live their lives based on sound moral principles, just as are religious people. Being vegan is not like being religious because being vegan is not ultimately a question of faith, but it is a question of justice. Many vegans are religious people, there are people of every religious tradition who are vegan, and there are many vegans who adhere to no religion or faith at all.
Do vegans think animals are equal to humans?
No, and yes. None of us is equal to every other in every respect, but we are all equal in the basic way that matters.
Just as we don’t consider infants equal to normal adults when it comes to things such as whether they can drive a car, or enter college, we must recognize that human beings are not equal to nonhuman beings when it comes to living in the open ocean or flying through the skies without machinery. But simply because a being can’t drive a car, or know enough to enter college, or fly without machinery, no-one would think that such a being ought to be harmed, used or or killed to satisfy another. All living beings who experience their own lives in the world and who care about their experience in the world, are equal to each other when it comes to whether they ought to be left to live their lives as best they are able, as only they can see fit. Even if we are unequal in many ways, human and nonhuman beings are equal in this fundamental respect.
Where do you draw the line when it comes to which beings have rights?
Lines are difficult to draw. The well-known and respected philosopher and animal rights author Prof. Tom Regan has suggested that any lines be drawn in pencil, so that as our knowledge grows, we might expand the circle around the other animals we respect.
This much is clear: All the other animals that we think of when we normally refer to “animals” – dolphins, dogs, cats, kangaroos, eagles, elephants, mice, monkeys, sharks, salmon, chickens and chinchillas – all are the sorts of beings, just as we are the sorts of beings, who ought not to be harmed or killed for no good reason. Are jellyfish and oysters those sorts of beings too? We may never know, but since there’s really no good reason to harm or kill them anyway, better to let them be as well.
Are insects animals?
Insects are, without question, animals. Whether insects are the sorts of beings who experience their lives and who actually care about their experiences of life is more difficult to know. Most of us, most of the time, can avoid harming and killing insects without much, if any, cost to ourselves, and so, all other things being equal, it would be better to do them no harm and let them live.
Why is it okay to kill plants?
That depends on what we mean when we say it is okay to kill plants. Certainly most people would agree that it would be better to allow the giant sequoia and the old growth rain forests to live and thrive. Hopefully most people would agree that it would be better for the planet and everyone who inhabits it for as many plants to live in as much diversity as possible. But, plants are not the sorts of beings who experience the world and who care about that experience. Plants are not living beings at all, but are living things, and things cannot be harmed at all in the way that beings can be harmed. Plants never conceive of their experiences of the world, as if to say to themselves, “I am enjoying this” because plants are the sort of thing which does not conceive of anything at all. So, while we may have good reasons to not kill plants, plants cannot suffer any harm when killed. When we choose not to kill plants, we do so not in consideration of the plants interests - plants have no interests - we do so in consideration of other interests, such as protecting biodiversity or natural beauty, for the benefit of others.
If you found a deer dead on the side of the road, would it be okay to eat it?
If you found a human being dead on the side of the road, would it be okay to eat it? In one sense it would be, the human corpse would be dead, and would not be harmed by someone eating it. But in a more important sense, it would be wrong, because generally we know that human beings are not the sort of being we eat. Out of respect for all human beings, we do not eat any human beings, even those we might find dead on the side of the road. If we respect all other beings, we generally ought not to eat any other beings, even those we might find dead on the side of the road.
People will NEVER stop animal exploitation all together and those who care about animal rights are vastly outnumbered; most people just don’t care enough to even think about changing, which means nothing will change – so why go to the bother of being vegan when you are fighting a losing battle?
All movements for social justice appear futile at the outset – if a majority of people agreed with the goals of such movements, there would be no need for those movements in the first place.
For example, the quest for equal rights for women has been a long and difficult struggle against formidable odds and an entrenched and unyielding power structure. In some ways, and in many places, the struggle is not yet over. But even though the odds against it are great, the cause is just and in the long run, people will listen and change will come. More importantly, whether a person chooses to do what is right should never depend on whether what is right is popular, or whether a person must act alone. In the case of the movement for justice for nonhuman beings, it is imperative that those who do have a voice speak out on behalf of those who voices cannot be heard.
What is the difference between animal welfare and animal rights?
Animal welfare is concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with how other animals are treated by humans when they are used by humans and ultimately animal welfare accepts that other animals may be killed to satisfy human wants. An animal rights based theory holds that, in almost case, other animals ought not to be used or killed by humans at all. Animal welfare advocates seek only to make better the conditions other animals face on farms, in slaughterhouses, in medical laboratories, in zoos and circuses and on racetracks and the rodeo circuit. Animal rights advocates seek to eliminate all those things. At the same time, many, if not most, animal rights advocates accept that eliminating all those things is a long term goal that may take decades, if not longer, to achieve. Therefore, many animal rights advocates also want to make better the conditions other animals live under, even while they work to liberate all other animals eventually.
Isn’t it a quite extreme/radical position to grant animals basic rights?
Compared to how other animals are considered by most people now, Yes, it would be an extreme and radical position to recognize the basic rights of other animals. Throughout our history though, every expansion of the recognition of rights of the many who have been denied them has appeared extreme and radical to the few and the powerful. But as US Senator Barry Goldwater famously said, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Moreover, it isn't necessary to present the case for animal rights to the general public in these terms. When surveyed, most respondents say that it would be wrong to cause unnecessary suffering to other animals. The task of advocates for other animals is to show the general public that all the ways in which we currently use and kill other animals necessarily involves incredible suffering. This need not be an abstract discussion about rights at all.
Isn’t it more important that animals have a good life while they are alive?
If the only choice we faced was whether to be cruel or be kind to other animals, then certainly it would be better to be kind. But we have another choice to make, and it is better still. We can choose to not use and kill other animals at all. Rather than act as if other animals were just things here for our purposes, we can respect them and let them be, to live their lives as only they can see fit.
Isn’t it true that humans have the right to use other animals because humans are more intelligent?
No. Consider what role intelligence plays in cases involving only humans. It isn’t true that more intelligent humans have the right to use severely mentally disabled human beings as if they were things. We don’t use other people against their will in medical experiments, no matter their IQ. Intelligence has nothing to do with whether it is right to use another as if they were just a ‘something’, and not a ‘someone’ with wants, desires and preferences of their own. Besides, why would it be right to think of intelligence only on human terms?
In the open ocean naked, with nothing but our intelligence to save us – no boat, no spear, no flare gun – who knows more, the human or the jelly fish? In those circumstances, the skills and knowledge needed for survival – the intelligence – of the jelly fish surely surpasses even the smartest human being. Intelligence is not just measured by tests in school, and it cannot be the basis on which to choose who lives or dies.
These animals have been born and raised explicitly for our use, so what’s wrong with it?
If a person said that the only reason they had their children was so that they could force those children to work forever as if they were slaves, would anyone think that was right? We should hope not. So, when human beings have bred other human beings as slaves it was seen by some as the injustice it was and good people spoke and acted against it.
Other animals are not the sorts of beings who ought to be forced to be born and bred solely to serve our needs, as if they were things, to die for us to eat, or wear or experiment on. It would be better that they not be born at all, than to face a world of confinement, injury and slaughter.
If using animals is so bad, then why is it legal?
Laws do not create morality and societies often fail to recognize what is right. Only when a significant number of people come to see other animals as the sorts of beings who are worthy of respect will our laws ever change. The laws cannot change before we change our hearts and minds.
Are vegans morally superior to others?
No-one is morally superior to another. We are all equally capable of making sound moral judgments once we carefully consider the issues. When you carefully considered the issues, and have made the sound moral judgment that it is better to not steal from or cheat another, does that make you morally superior to others, or does it just mean that you have thought through the issues and have accepted what is right? We can all accept what is right when it comes to how we relate to and interact with others - nonhumans as well as humans.
Shouldn’t people be able to make their own choices in life?
Yes, and no. All people should be free to live their own lives as best they are able, as only they can see fit. But, at the same time, no-one, in normal circumstances, has the right to harm or kill another. As US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes put it "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." So, people are free to make their own choices in life, but they are not free to choose to cause unnecessary harm to innocent others. No-one is free to steal, or cheat, or kidnap. No-one should be free to kill other animals.
Do vegans care more about animals than people?
Not at all. Most vegans are just like everyone else; they care very deeply for other human beings. After all, humans are animals too! Also, many vegans understand that justice is yet within the grasp of every human being and so many vegans are active in a variety of social justice movements.
Why do all the vegans try to persuade me of their way of life, whereas non-vegans don’t?
Imagine that it is 600 years ago, and almost everyone in the world thinks that the Earth is the center of the Universe and that the Sun, the stars, the planets and everything else revolves around the Earth. Would anyone then have to try to persuade others that that was true, or would everyone just accept it because that was how things were thought to be? No-one then would have to tried to persuade anyone that the Sun and the stars revolved around the Earth, because everyone would already accept that to be the case. It is only when a few people realized that the Earth is not the center of the Universe, and that the Sun and the stars do not revolve around it, that they began the difficult task of trying to persuade others to change their minds. Now, we just accept that view.
So it is when it comes to how vegans see the world. Vegans think the current way of looking at the world, the way which almost everyone accepts, needs to change. The universe does not revolve around the wants, needs and desires of human beings, and the wants, needs and desires of other animals matter too. Vegans try to persuade others to accept that view.
Who are you to compare the needs and interests, the pain and suffering of a pig to those of a human?
No-one needs to compare the needs, interests, pain and suffering of a pig to a human in order to see that a pig has needs and interests, and that a pig feels pain and suffering. In fact, it is almost certainly true that humans and pigs experience the world in different ways. For example, just as a 70 year old man who has fought in war knows suffering as something different than does a 15 year old boy who has lived a pampered life, so too would a pig understand pain as different from a human. But, both the old man and the young boy know what suffering means to them, and neither of them wants to suffer, nor should anyone cause them to. In the same way then, pigs knows what suffering means to them, they don’t want to suffer and no-one should deliberately cause pain to pigs.
Is killing animals okay for people whose culture is based on it? The Inuit have hunted seals for hundreds, even thousands of year, do they have to stop?
Cultural traditions are deeply held and powerfully meaningful to a people. These things are not quick or easy to change and we, in the modern and industrialized world should not be quick to judge others. However, all people have the capacity to look beyond the physical and material symbols of their culture and religion, and to find the timeless truths that give those symbols their meaning. For example, traditional cultures around the world and throughout history have adapted to industrial and technological progress, finding ways to incorporate the modern world into their most cherished beliefs. There is no reason why they cannot eventually incorporate respect for the lives of all other animals into their traditions as well.
There are lots of human problems in the world, like child slavery and poverty, why don’t you do something about those before you worry about animals?
Beyond the connections between the industrialized mass confinement and slaughter of other animals and world food shortages and environmental damage, there is a connection between the ideology of the domination of other animals and the ideologies which perpetuate the domination of human beings. When people realize that those who are least able to defend themselves are those most deserving of justice and respect, it is natural for them to see that it is not just the nonhuman beings who are caught in a machine of subjugation and exploitation. Human beings are caught in the same machine. By educating other about the rights of nonhumans, vegans promote the respect for humans. By working to dismantle the vast systems which process other animals as nothing but resources, vegans work to free up the desperately needed resources to make the lives of other humans better as well.
Everything alive has to die, vegans are just drawing an arbitrary line, why not include bacteria and molds in the group of things that have a right to life?
On the one hand there are beings who have complex nervous systems, who interact in and with the world, who seek pleasure and avoid pain, who care about the experiences they have in the world. On the other hand there are life forms who operate as bio-electro-mechanical systems, reacting and responding to stimuli. Is it arbitrary to recognize the difference between the two? It is not. One is the sort of being who cares about the experiences of their lives, and the other is not. That is not to say that we can always know for sure which is which. Lines must be drawn. Can we know what oysters and worms think, or if they even do think? I cannot say. But I can say that even though some other animals may not think and feel, most other animals are the sorts of beings who ought not to be harmed or killed, and so I can say that it would be better to not harm or kill them.
If your house is in the city, and the city destroyed the natural environment where animals used to live, aren’t you benefiting from animals dying in that way?
Yes, I am. Since I live in the Southern United States, I also am the beneficiary of slave labor and prison labor as well. I am also the beneficiary of the policies of past governments which displaced indigenous peoples from their lands. I cannot go back and undue all the injustices which have been done. All I am able to do, all that anyone is able to do, is to try to do the best that is possible going forward. Even though we are where we are because of the suffering and deaths of others, we should do everything within our power to avoid causing suffering and deaths in the future. Recognizing that past practices caused harms requires that we do better in the future to avoid causing more harm.
What about the deliberate use of pesticide or predators (to control ‘pests’), or of poison used to protect harvests?
As currently practiced, agriculture harms and kills many animals, including insects, worms, birds, lizard, frogs, field mice and countless others. It is a huge problem. As more and more people become vegan and demand products from the market which avoid that problem, the more the market will find creative solutions to it, for example, hydroponic or aeroponic gardening. The real answer is for more people to become vegan.
What about invasive potato beetles? They are hand-picked off the plants and drowned in buckets of soapy water.
A technological solution, such as carefully controlled indoor gardening may be the best answer to this kind of problem. But we ought not to lose sight of the real problem. Whatever our response to drowned potato beetles may be, we can respond easily and simply to vast majority of harm committed against other animals by adopting a vegan philosophy and practice.
Doesn’t farming machinery kills lots of small animals?
Yes, it does. But in a world where more than 100 billion nonhuman animals are deliberately slaughtered each and every year, it should come as no surprise that we have not taken the time or care to develop farming techniques which avoid other unintended harm and killing. Before we can solve a problem we must admit that there is a problem, and only then will we commit the resources necessary to solve it.
You kill bugs when you drive….is that okay?
No, it’s not okay and, all other things being equal, it would be better that others not be killed. But, causing some harm or killing may ultimately be unavoidable. Still, we ought to do everything practical and reasonable to avoid causing harm or death. The use of public mass transportation, the careful planning of trips, the minimization of the use of personal automobiles and the maximization of the use of alternatives such as walking and bicycling are all ways in which we can reduce our impact on other beings and reap environmental and ecological benefits as well. None of this will happen overnight and as we re-imagine our relationships with other animals, we may continually find new ways to lessen the harms we do.
What about animals used in research?
Nonhuman individuals are the sorts of beings who ought not to be used as medical, commercial or scientific test subjects, models or analogues.
Aren’t those synthetic vegan materials made with petroleum?
Many of the products all people use contain petroleum and petroleum derivatives. We ought to reduce our dependence on them. But, our need to reduce our use of petroleum products cannot be an excuse to harm or kill those who ought not to be harmed or killed.
Wouldn’t animals go extinct, if we didn’t eat them?
No. While it is true that we would no longer force-breed many species of nonhuman animals and raise them by the billions, there is no reason to assume that any species would necessarily become extinct if all people were to stop eating or using other animals. We currently take great pains to maintain and protect threatened populations of many species of other animals, we can do the same for those other animals we are now using for food and clothing.
However, many of the nonhumans used for food are genetically modified organisms, altered so dramatically from their ancestral forms so as to be both unrecognizable and not viable in their current state. Because they have been created through forced artificial insemination and kept alive through extraordinary regimes including high doses of unnatural supplements and chemical treatments, it is possible that these mutant creations would not survive in a world where they were left alone. But, it would be better for a species to go extinct than for individual members of that species be bred and raised solely for slaughter.
If you’re vegan, that must mean you’re anti-abortion, right?
Vegans are not a monolithic group of people who all share the same views on every issue facing humankind. Some vegans, just like some non-vegans, are supportive of a woman’s right to make her own decisions about all matters of reproduction. Some vegans believe that human life begins at conception and that abortion is always wrong. Still other vegans view human development in the womb as occurring along a continuum where before a certain point a woman has a right to choose and after which an abortion would be wrong.
Isn’t vegetarianism a good way to reduce suffering? After all, isn’t eating a little honey better than a muesli bar where insects and other animals may have been killed? Isn’t the same true for milk?
Other animals are necessarily harmed and killed as a result of dairy and egg production. Dairy cows live unnaturally short lives, are forcibly kept pregnant and lactating their entire lives and are slaughtered when they can longer meet the demands of production. Male calves of dairy cows are slaughtered, usually within 6 months of birth, and their flesh is sold as veal. Egg-laying chickens are forced to produce an unnaturally high number of eggs, have their beaks cut off to prevent them pecking each other to death, and are killed well before their lives would naturally end. At the hatcheries where egg-layers are produced, the male chicks (who are, of course, useless as egg-layers) are routinely killed within hours of birth, usually by being ground up alive (for use as feed for other animals), suffocated in piles of other chicks, or gassed to death. Whatever unintentional harm may come to other animals in the production of vegan muesli bars cannot match the intentional harm and killing that dairy and egg production necessarily entails. Honey is produced by bees for their own purposes, they don’t produce honey for humans to use. Whether bees are the sort of being who care about the experience of their own lives we may never know. But honey isn’t necessary for us, and it is for them; it is easy enough for us to just let the bees be left alone.
Even if we do kill them, at least we care for our animals and protect them from diseases and predators, their life in the wild would be horrible. Isn't what we're doing now in their best interests?
When we stop purposefully breeding and raising other animals by the billions each and every year for food, clothing and other uses, most of these other animals will not then roam free; they simply will not be brought into existence at all. In any case, most people who advocate that we continue to slaughter other animals by the billions do not suggest that we also somehow eliminate disease and predation among the currently free-living animals. The lives of these free-living animals isn’t thought by most people to be horrible. Most people think their lives are natural.
Suppose there is a farmer who opposes factory farms and therefore raises his own meat on his farm. He feels the animals have a great life and they are then “killed humanely”. Where is the harm in his method?
Even if we assume that such a farmer does not have to send the other animals from his farm to large scale feed lots for the last few months of their lives, and even if we assume that there are some special slaughterhouses which do not operate under the same conditions as every other slaughterhouse, is not death itself a harm to a being who cares about her experience of life? It is a harm.
No-one would suggest that it would be right to kill a normal healthy 15 year old human being, even if she had lived a pampered life and was killed painlessly in her sleep. Death itself would harm her. Why would we think that death would not harm another animal? Other animals are the sorts of beings who experience their lives and who care about that experience. They ought to be left to live their lives.
I’ve cut back on how much meat I eat, isn’t that a good thing?
Any reduction in the amount of harm or killing we cause is better than no reduction, so cutting back on the amount of other animals one eats is better than not. But better doesn’t mean good. Please let me explain.
Suppose a person who had been breaking into other people’s homes 8 times per month reduced the number of break-ins to 4 times per month, would anyone say that that person was doing good? No, we would say that that person was doing less harm, or that they were doing better than before, but as long as they were still breaking into other people’s homes, we would not say they were doing good. It is the same thing when a person reduces the number of other animals killed in their name. It is better to be killing less, but to still be killing isn’t good.
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