Flash Point: Conflating Ideas: Veganism and the Reduction of Suffering
A common phrase I come across is some variation of: ‘the point of veganism is to reduce suffering‘.
I find this frustrating, as the definition of vegan doesn’t mention suffering, and I believe this is intentional.
Utilitarian ideology has wedged itself into the vegan movement, often perpetuated by some of the bigger advocacy organizations, but it’s fundamentally incompatible in my belief (which I plan to dig into on another post). But on the surface, the fundamentals of utilitarianism are that suffering is bad, and we should all work to end it as much as possible. Part of this implies that ‘we know best’, and gives us ‘knowers’ the authority to make (at times) grand decisions that impact the lives (and very existence) of others.
So what does it mean to want to reduce or end suffering? A wolf causes a deer to suffer, so should wolves be prevented from hunting deer? (And then isn’t the wolf suffering, denied their own nature?) This is a more extreme example, but elevates relevant considerations in the conversation.
More towards the context of this article, I see this utilized to excuse abhorrent acts.
The animal testing by companies like Just Egg or Impossible Foods is commonly justified and rationalized in the vegan community with utilitarian arguments.
That belief excuses the killing (back up: the breeding, the buying from a lab animal company, the torture through isolation of social animals and bizarre feeding, and then killing) of 200 or so rats, in order to ‘save’ ‘millions of cows’.
In utilitarian terms, this is perfectly acceptable. (Although I doubt there are many lab rats who are open to utilitarian philosophy.) Another aspect of utilitarianism is tolerating a sacrifice of the few to save the many. (Has anyone asked the cows if they’re okay being an unwilling part of this exchange as well?)
For convenience let’s ignore the possibility the Impossible Burger could have been futile if not accepted by ‘the market’ and a total commercial flop. (Would it be okay at this point to condemn them as an animal testing company? Oh wait, that’s an uncomfortable question whilst sliding down a slippery slope…)
Does the commercial ‘success’ of Just Egg or Impossible Foods justify their animal testing? After all, thousands or millions of hens and cows have been spared.
On a utilitarian level, there’s an argument to be made, yes. But on a vegan or animal rights level, there has not. And this is where the conflation begins.
Besides the obvious betrayal of killing one animal to save another, how can this be called ‘vegan’?
Consider this: there are burger patties that are 50/50 animal flesh and plant-based – these certainly reduce suffering. Say it with me: animals are saved when these are eaten! (Barf.)
Does that make these burgers ‘vegan’? At the heart of this is the question: how do you decide when the sacrifice is worth the goal? And who gets to make that decision?
It suddenly becomes arbitrary, meaningless and uncomfortably transactional. A multitude of offenses can be justified with utilitarian arguments. This runs in direct conflict with veganism and the justice it seeks.
Let’s speak plainly: the 50/50 burger is clearly not vegan. Animals were exploited by the company in their production.
It also makes for quite the double-standard: a shaving razor or laundry soap tested on animals is commonly accepted as non-vegan. There are very few who would argue ‘animal tested dish soap is vegan’.
But when it comes to the Just Egg or Impossible Burgers, suddenly there’s cause for pause?
That’s why suffering as a metric fails, and isn’t a part of the definition of veganism.
Exploiting animals is anti-vegan, that’s very clear from the definition. There’s no special clause if animal testing is part of a ‘greater good’. It simply isn’t vegan.
Tolerating and promoting companies that exploit animals cannot result in the end of animal exploitation. If something is a product of animal exploitation, then by definition it’s not vegan, and is already a failed attempt at ending exploitation (again, the very definition of vegan.)
It’s honourable to want less suffering, but that shouldn’t be conflated with veganism, which has a very different intention. Suffering is a symptom of animal exploitation, and veganism wisely strikes at the root, aiming to bring an end to all practices that lead to the suffering we impose on others.
Dave Shishkoff, Editor