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 how strange 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.