Vegans are often criticized as dogmatic and rule-oriented. We are imagined opposing cultured meat, interrogating waiters, and researching trace food ingredients with a fervor that would make a kashrut-obsessed rabbi jealous. There is a widespread perception that vegans are deontologists—drawing hard and fast rules based on a disgust with animal agriculture.
I’d be lying if I said this didn’t exist, but in fact, my experience has been that few ethical movements are more attached to consequentialism than veganism. Even PETA, reputed to be the most radical bastion of vegan dogmatism, advises taking a chill pill on such matters. Vegans have been the butt of jokes long enough to realize that we have a serious image problem. By making a scene at a restaurant, we turn others off to the vegan lifestyle. That hurts animals more than the bit of dairy in your salad dressing ever will.
Consequentialism not only encourages us to think critically about how we represent the movement, it also changes our focus from what passes our lips to what makes us pull out our credit cards. Ethical vegans should never forget that we are a boycott movement. This is about money. Just like the Montgomery bus boycotts during the Civil rights movement or the Ghandi-led Indian boycott of British products, boycott movements work because industries lose money. There may be a great ethical case to be made behind the boycott movement, but it doesn’t matter until a balance sheet shows that immorality is unprofitable.
Consequentialism constantly runs through vegan thinking. Going vegan is like taking a primer on the subject. Take a classic question that fellow Reasoned Vegan Evan has written about: is it vegan to wear your old leather belt? The deontological answer is no, but many sources embrace the idea that the harm has already been done, the money has already been spent, and there is no sense in throwing a perfectly good belt away. Still, this answer always seems to come with the caveat that your leather belt might look good on you, thereby inspiring others to buy leather belts of their own, continuing the cycle of animal exploitation. While it’s a point worth noticing, this is a highly unlikely outcome. It goes to show the weird things that consequentialism gets vegans to thinking about.
Take an even weirder case: Gary L Franscione’s opposition to freeganism, the practice of dumpster diving to eat cosmetically damaged foods otherwise destined for the nearest landfill. Many freegans will eat animal products, reasoning that eating those products doesn’t help animal agriculture’s bottom line. Deontological vegans wouldn’t recognize this distinction, since they only care about what passes your lips. Franscione often takes this line, but instead offers a utilitarian case against freeganism: “to the extent that anybody sees you eat [animal products], you certainly are increasing demand because you’re reinforcing the idea that animal foods are things to eat.” Youtuber Unnatural Vegan has responded to this video and noted the strangeness of this reasoning. Are non-vegans really further emboldened to eat animal products because they’ve seen someone take an animal product out of a dumpster and eat it? If anything that could make onlookers lose their appetite!
There is some research to suggest that ethical veganism encourages us to develop attitudes that make us look like deontologists. Paul Rozin published a study showing that ethical vegetarians are more likely to find meat disgusting than health vegetarians. Moral psychologists like Joshua Greene and Jonathon Haidt have made a compelling argument that the brain’s circuitry for moral condemnation is intertwined with the circuitry for disgust. Although this sense of disgust may be advantageous in keeping people vegan, it should never cloud our ethical calculus.
The idea that vegans are deontologists is at the heart of so many of our image issues. Veganism needs to shed the deontological baggage that so often makes it look like a quest for personal purity or religious absolution. In fact, our Utilitarian credentials run deep, with Peter Singer, the philosophy’s contemporary poster child, championing the movement as it got off the ground. We need to embrace Singer’s view of veganism as a political tool, an eminently practical means of reducing suffering by reducing the profits of the animal agriculture industry.
“…but it doesn’t matter until a balance sheet shows that immortality is unprofitable.”
Should be ‘immorality’, right?
Fantastic post though 🙂
Whoops! You’re quite right. Thanks for catching that. I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂
This clarifies why I was arguing with my girlfriend on what it means to be vegan. Thanks!
It turns out I’m a consequentialist. If I accidentally buy a product that contains animal products I feel it’s perfectly fine to eat it because the harm has already been done and I’m not reducing suffering in any way by throwing it away. I also think it’s fine to wear old leather boots and eat a milk chocolate that I received as a gift. My girlfriend on the other hand is a deontologist. She asks: But why would you want to eat the animal product in the first place? You have a choice to eat the product or throw it away and you choose to eat it therefore showing a desire to eat animals. In any other field or practice (working out, studying, business) not making any exceptions to a moral value is appreciated, only when it comes to veganism is purity viewed as weird. If I say “I never skip a workout” or “I make sure to read at least one page every day no matter what” people shower me with praise. But if I say “I never eat any animal products no matter what because I believe animals shouldn’t be raised for food” people look at me like a weirdo and call me dogmatic.
I honestly don’t know who’s right. But at least now I have the terms to identify our belief systems.
Thanks for your post. I have found it very helpful to have that lens of utilitarian vs deontological reasoning running in the background when thinking about ethical problems. Of course, these frames have their limitations and most people are a mix of both. One of the things I might discount a bit too strongly in this article is the value of being creative in thinking about the consequences of your actions. Accepting milk chocolate gifts may seem harmless, but it could run into ethically dangerous territory for many vegans. How often is this person buying milk chocolate gifts for you? Will your gratitude and acceptance mean that they will be encouraged to buy others more non-vegan gifts? Is your enjoyment of milk chocolate connecting enjoyment with the suffering that comes along with dairy? The longer I’m consequentialist the more I think about the thorny issues it can raise. The subject of receiving non-vegan gifts as a vegan is really tricky because the other person only means well and you can easily come out of the situation looking ungracious if you voice any concern over the ethics of the gift.
As for your last point, you’re right that vegans get it bad for rigidity. Some of that is deserved because there are vegans that treat it as a religion, but as I express, that may be exaggerated. I suspect that it’s just a red herring, a reason to dismiss us so they don’t have to think about these issues. What they really want is to find vegans being rigid in a case where it doesn’t make sense so that they can laugh about it and eat meat and dairy without a second thought. Of course, self improvement regimens are different than ethical codes. If other people could point out a good reason to distinguish why it makes sense to be rigid in self-improvement and flexible in ethics, then they might have a point. I think I agree that I can’t in principle see any great difference though.