This is a new type of post we’re trying out. The idea is that a question is posed to us, and the three of us answer it separately. This provides a glimpse into not only how much the three of us overlap in our views, but also where they differ.
Are Vegans Morally Superior?
All other things being equal, yes, but we should keep quiet about it. Veganism is almost exclusively a normative claim. I believe that we ought to refrain from causing the suffering of animals or provide economic incentive to those that do. It isn’t a non-normative preference, like your favorite flavor of (coconut milk!) ice cream. However, vegans are stereotyped as smug and elitist as it is. Making claims of moral superiority is bad PR.
The idea that you can quantify a person’s moral worth with a single scale is likely only coherent to utilitarians anyway. If you are a utilitarian, than it seems fair to say that not putting money into factory farming or leather gives you moral brownie points. And I doubt that the compassionate choices vegans make for animals contributes to lack of morality in other areas.
But no what your moral foundation there is great difficulty in comparing and quantifying the moral difference between apples and oranges. People are complex and so is morality. To some ethical theorists I can imagine the question falling somewhere in between “what color is Tuesday” and “how many hairs are on your entire body”? It might strike some as entirely incoherent and others as hopelessly complex and ultimately trivial moral bookkeeping.
The subject is a bit like IQ. Very Bad Wizards had a podcast about the subject and one of the hosts, Tamler Sommers, said he never had any real interest in IQ—neither his own nor the subject in the abstract. The other host, Dave Pizarro pointed out that this spoke well of him as most intelligent people find the subject unsavory; it’s usually assholes that brag about their IQ.
So in short, yes I think veganism shows up in your favor on a moral balance sheet, but for the love of tofu, please don’t brag about it.
Are vegans morally superior? The quick answer: yes, but let’s reframe it and humble ourselves.
The way I say it is that vegans are more moral than nonvegans, and that nonvegans are less moral. So sure, one might also say vegans are morally superior, but “superior” is such a condescending and arrogant term. It indicates too stark of a difference between vegans and nonvegans, that they belong in different moral classes (this is a complaint Waka Flocka Flame expressed when he renounced veganism). That is not the impression we should be giving because it is exaggerated and tactless. It both undermines and underestimates the moral worth of nonvegans and creates barriers for them to consider adopting a vegan life. The dual goals I think everyone should follow is (a) to tell the truth about animal exploitation and veganism, and (b) to be open to people who are interested in veganism and respectful of those who aren’t. Part of that openness is tailoring the message to be inclusive and encouraging of others to begin thinking about the problems and wrongness of animal exploitation today, which means not putting anyone off with your words if it can be helped. Because, at the same time, we must also be honest about the moral difference between the two lifestyles, which means we have to do more tailoring to make the message powerful and fact-based. That is why I use the language I do: that veganism is a more moral lifestyle choice.
With that context in mind, let me explain why vegans are more moral. There are arguments having to do with what I call the two virtues and others having to do with rationalism. I’ve discussed the two virtues in an early post, they’re the rightness and the goodness of veganism. These two virtues revolve around strong ethical values and positions, such as not being complicit in the unconscionable violence and slaughter of innumerable animals for meat and textiles, not purchasing goods and services that involve their exploitation and subjugation (with the exception of legitimate medical and scientific experiments and practices), or not contributing to the resource depletion that is disproportionately a result of the animal agriculture industry. Veganism has positive implications for so many ethical issues in today’s world, partly because of this globally destructive industry. Therefore, going vegan and living out the two virtues ensures that one lives a life with more ethical consciousness and action.
The two virtues also revolve around rationalism, including that veganism is a direct and comprehensive solution to mitigate the damage caused by the animal agriculture industry, it is easier than ever before and getting even easier, and it encourages sustainability and responsible stewardship of the environment. Another rational argument for veganism gets closer to the line of arrogance than I prefer, but it still is a strong argument because it is quite objectively laid-out.
When determining if someone is moral, it is necessary to evaluate their ethical character and particularly, ethical merit. Fundamentally, this inquiry can be assessed by quantifying the number of ethical actions one makes and qualifying the ethical value of such actions. In simpler terms, think of it like having a checklist of generally agreed-upon moral actions, the more times one can check off an action and the greater the ethical impact, the more moral he or she is. Now let’s put living a vegan life on that list: vegans have concern and compassion for animals and the planet (check and check), they tend to be focused on conservation and sustainability (check), and they act upon their convictions by separating themselves from animal exploitation as much as possible (check). Those four check marks are more than what nonvegans can check off and they have comparatively wonderful positive effects. This analysis demonstrates the ethical merit of a vegan life in a way that really isn’t controversial or debatable; in fact, it plainly shows that vegans are more moral.
Keeping superiority out of the discourse and using more open terms like “more” or “less” achieves that dual goal of telling the truth and being open to everyone. And essentially, the same point is being emphasized that vegans live more morally than nonvegans.
My gripe with this is that it is really two questions:
- Are vegans, as people, more moral than nonvegans?
- Is veganism more moral than nonveganism?
If this seems pedantic to you, let me introduce you to a topic that I’ve frequently brought up: essentialism. It’s a way of thinking that is all too black-and-white and good versus evil. It is also the foundation for stereotypes, which are often bad when applied to people. We should avoid such categorical thinking, and instead address the (im)morality of actions.
So I’ll start with the second question, since it’s a million times easier. Yes, veganism is morally superior to nonveganism. While it’s theoretically possible that someone could adhere to a diet that consists of foods that are “vegan” in that they aren’t animal products, but not really vegan in that they actually result in animal suffering and/or death beyond that inherent in harvesting crops (e.g. palm oil), and that such a diet could be arguably worse than one that includes animal products with little animal suffering or death (think backyard hens), such diets would be extraordinarily difficult to adhere to. There’s simply no question that, pragmatically, veganism is morally superior.
But are vegans, as people, morally superior to nonvegans? I agree with Scout and Mike that “superior” carries a smug connotation, something that vegans are stereotyped for (not altogether unfairly, I should add). To say that vegans are more moral than nonvegans is to suggest that there’s nothing a vegan can do that would make him or her a monster relative to the average person. But it’s not out of the question that vegans can be killers – in fact, many movies have an odd trope where the villain is vegetarian, and Hitler may have been one himself. It’s also conceivable that a particularly philanthropic nonvegan who saves thousands of lives per year through donations to charity could edge out a vegan who doesn’t practice effective altruism.
However, that’s pretty clearly not the question we’re asking here. As we’ve established, a vegan diet is more ethically sound than a nonvegan diet. Therefore, if all other variables are held constant, vegans are morally superior. But we should probably avoid flaunting that; it is far better to focus on actions than groups of people. Has anyone ever changed their mind in response to their opposition informing them “we’re better than you”? Probably not.