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What the Word 'Vegan' Really Means

There is a great deal of discussion about what “vegan” means.

“Veganism” means at the very least not eating any flesh, dairy, or other animal products. In this sense, “vegan” means “vegan diet.” Different people may have different reasons–ethical/spiritual, health, environmental–for eating a vegan diet. Those who pursue a vegan diet may also, and for various reasons, eschew the use of other animal products in contexts beyond diet.

For example, someone who pursues a vegan diet may also not wear animal products on her skin for health reasons–products applied to the skin get into the body. Someone who pursues a vegan diet for environmental reasons may also not wear a particular animal product because of the effect on the environment of the production of the product.

Those who pursue veganism for ethical/spiritual reasons may also fall into different groups. Some ethical vegans see their veganism as a way of reducing animal suffering. That is, they do not think that it is wrong in and of itself to kill animals for human use but that it is wrong to inflict suffering on animals and so they avoid eating or using animal products. If there were a painless way to raise and slaughter animals for human use, these ethical vegans would not object to animal use.

These vegans are not necessarily and usually are not committed to the abolition of animal exploitation and pursue regulatory reform that they believe, mistakenly in my view, will reduce animal suffering.

“Ethical veganism,” as I use that term, goes beyond a vegan diet and rejects direct animal consumption or use of any kind or use of any kind. An ethical vegan has a vegan diet and rejects consuming animal products but also does not wear or use any animal products. An ethical vegan rejects the commodification of nonhumans as property. An ethical vegan is committed to the abolition of animal exploitation. Moreover, ethical vegans recognize that an animal-based agriculture harms other humans as well as non-humans. Ethical veganism is the moral baseline of the animal rights movement. Ethical veganism represents a commitment to non-violence in one’s daily living.

In my experience, ethical veganism is the only sort of approach that results in consistent behavior. Vegans for health reasons alone often “cheat” just as those who are on any diet for heath reasons often do. Vegans for environmental reasons may not only lapse but may decide that an animal product has fewer adverse environmental consequences than non-animal products. A ethical vegan who sees veganism only as a way of reducing animal suffering may eat or use an animal product if she thinks that more suffering will be caused if she does not.

For example, some, such as Peter Singer and others, maintain that we ought to eat animal products if not to do so will cause others to think that veganism is too difficult and thereby be dissuaded from thinking about veganism. These vegans then become “flexible” vegans which, in my view, means that they are not really vegans. An ethical vegan sees veganism as a general approach to life–a philosophy of living–and not as merely a matter of lifestyle.

A final (for now) comment: health and environmental concerns may have a moral aspect. For example, those who pursue a vegan diet may do so because they believe that inflicting physical damage on their bodies by consuming animal products is a form of violence (harm to the the self) and is immoral.

Those who pursue a vegan diet or who eschew the use of animal products for environmental reasons may do so not because of a utilitarian concern to preserve the environment but because they believe that the environmental consequences directly affect sentient humans and nonhumans and violate the rights of these sentient beings. Moreover, an ethical vegan may also shun animal products for reasons of health and environment.

In sum, people may be vegans for different reasons. In my view, ethical veganism is the only approach that results in consistent behavior. We should, however, be clear that no form of veganism is consistent with the consumption of any animal products.

I will be writing at greater length about this topic soon.

If you are not vegan, go vegan. It is incredibly easy to be vegan. It is better for your health and for the planet. But, most importantly, it is the morally right thing to do.

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