Why Vegan?

I normally try to avoid talking about “why vegan” … but some people are very insistent in asking. All in all, it is an uncomfortable topic: for me, because it highlights yet another “deviation” from the norm in my behaviour (and being the defendant in those cases, putting up “excuses” for your non-standard behaviour, is very unpleasant). For the other side because it challenges their established beliefs (the very fact that they insist in getting a justification for someone being a vegan betrays a sort of insecurity). Anyway, sometimes the discussion cannot be (easily) avoided. Since it comes up somewhat regularly, I decided to write down how I feel about the entire thing.

Why not?

First of all, I assert that the question is not “why vegan” but “why not” – at least for anyone who seeks a consistent set of rules as a basis for their morality. Implying, naturally, that you are trying to live morally (for whatever your notion of morality is). Moreover, as most people will agree, I will assume that your morality decrees that killing, abusing or torturing animals is not OK (if you are not sure, imagine your favourite pet animal as a stand-in for the generic animal; if that doesn’t seem wrong, you are just sick and there’s no reason for us to even talk to each other). Finally, most reasonable systems of morality will judge an abhorrent behaviour equally bad regardless of whether you do it personally or pay a third party to do it (there might be finer distinctions for cases where you were honestly unaware of bad things being done by proxy as the means of some end you were paying for; such exceptions, however, rarely apply in cases of willful ignorance).

For many people, different animals fall into different moral categories – sometimes, this might be justified: the nervous systems of insects are much simpler than the nervous systems of mammals, for example. It is hard to judge what is the capacity for suffering in insects: nevertheless, we will still frown upon people tearing off wings from domestic flies for amusement. It is just mean, and in some sense it violates our sense of morality, which penalizes torture very harshly (usually more so than a swift painless killing). So even though we can give fairly solid evidence that flies have very limited capacity for suffering, we still afford them a fairly high moral status. The status of vertebrates, then, and especially mammals, should be proportionally higher. In other words, torturing a mammal would be, by default, an inexcusable offence.

Nevertheless, the majority of people will have special moral categories for some species of mammals and a few other vertebrates, in which such protections simply do not apply, for no particular reason. It seems that the existence of such special categories is a matter of religion, so to speak: it has no scientific justification, is passed from parents to their children and carries over to adulthood as a firm, almost unquestionable belief. Of course, those special categories are the “food animals”: in our local religious (cultural) practice, those are predominantly cows, pigs and chickens.

As I said earlier, for someone who seeks consistent, reasonable rules for their moral system, arbitrary and groundless rules like “cows have no moral status by fiat” are simply not acceptable. On the other hand, giving up the moral protection of all animals (and it is surprisingly hard to exclude humans here, although with some mental gymnastics you could probably justify that) is a rather unappealing option… it would strip you, after all, of any right to be offended by people buying the cutest of puppies to beat them to pulp for entertainment. In fact, there isn’t much maneuvering space in between. Allow a little abuse and a whole lot of it pours in (unless you make up arbitrary exceptions based on existing practice, but that defies the idea of a consistent moral system).

Gray Areas

Now of course, any practical system of morality cannot be entirely black and white. Obviously, there is black, and all sorts of gray (you could argue there’s never anything really white). Any rule will have to admit exceptions sometimes: if for nothing else, then because there will be times where all the choice you have is breaking one rule or another. Of course, there will be more mundane considerations: some actions are more costly than others, some are more inconvenient, etc. If you save money or labour by breaking a rule, you could spend those on actions that create well-being in the world that outweighs the suffering your transgression caused. And on and on and on. Nevertheless, breaking your moral rules always requires a justification. As such, being a vegan is neutral: it breaks the fewest rules possible, among all otherwise equivalent options. Not being a vegan is what requires a justification. QED.

Now to spice things up, I posit that not all justifications are equally good. Namely, “but it tastes so good” is an awful reason to break moral rules (figuring out why is left as an exercise for the reader). So is “but everyone is doing it” (a.k.a. social conformity) – all sorts of atrocities were committed under this excuse, and no-one in their right mind would now say that abuse perpetrated by (or with the support of) a large group of people is okay. (And as a sidenote, neither is health a good reason – this has been thoroughly debunked in relevant scientific literature).


Finally, people will sometimes convince themselves that the atrocities of animal industry (and factory farming in particular) do not exist. Unfortunately for them, what really happens on farms is very well documented and if you think about it, is basically unavoidable. Even small-scale animal farming is very hard to justify morally: you will hurt the animals whether you want to or not, as long as you intend to derive any non-trivial benefit from the practice. Especially city dwellers have a tendency to idealize the rustical life in “harmony” with nature and farm animals. Based on this, they will construct a case where animals live happy lives and are mercifully slaughtered, a delightful experience in itself. Then, in a rare display of mathematical thinking, those people conclude that since this is possible, replacing the entire horrific machinery of factory farming with bucolic pastures full of happy cows is a trivial exercise and not worth of further consideration (or worry). Such are the wonders of the mind that is trying to resolve cognitive dissonance.

(In theory, it is possible to make – for example – cruelty-free milk and milk products. The cost is, however, staggering. If we assume that a single lactating cow could spare enough milk for an entire human family in addition to its own calf and that a natural lactation period is about a year, this means that each family would need to support a herd of around 20 cows. One of those would be lactating at any given time – the others will be either old no-longer-lactating cows, or the calves responsible for previous lactations; they would also need to be sterilised, a morally dubious action in itself… now, supporting 20 cows requires about a square kilometer of pasture, give or take – hence, providing such cruelty-free, free-range milk for the population of Prague would require pasture area larger than Italy, or about 4 times the size of Czech Republic… considering that you can buy “organic” milk in a supermarket, we have to conclude that the “organic” standard is extremely far from what could be, with a little lenience, called cruelty-free…).

– 4.10.2014