I’ve written at length about the shortcomings of veganism: it promotes essentialist thinking; it’s prone to an arbitrary prohibition on truly cruelty-free animal products like cultured meat; it comes across as a purity contest; and it does not address non-vegan foods which nevertheless contribute to animal suffering, such as palm oil.
I’ve also written about sentientism — a movement dedicated to focusing on sentience as the criterion for moral consideration. That is, eating an oyster is vastly different from eating a hamburger, due to the stark differences between the former and a cow — the cow is sentient and an oyster is, by all appearances, not.
It may be helpful to reframe veganism as a boycott of suffering. This resolves several of the problems veganism runs into. The basic idea: do your best to purchase products which require comparatively less suffering than the alternatives. If your choice is between a Big Mac and an Impossible Burger (or, something I’d like to see: an Impossible Burger Big Mac), go for the Impossible Burger. That’s easy enough. What if your choice is between an almond butter with palm oil and an almond butter without palm oil? Go for the latter; it’s likely to have involved relatively less suffering.
This sort of calculation might break down at times in less obvious scenarios. Which vegetables do I buy knowing little to nothing about how those who picked them were treated? There might be a tie between two or more items, and it’s okay to not know; you may endeavor to learn more about the production of those items when you have an opportunity.
Veganism is a heuristic, and it’s a pretty good one: animal-free products are far more likely to have been manufactured with relatively less suffering than animal products. This isn’t always true, but it’s a useful guide.
As with all heuristics, they can be improved. If we are to interpret veganism as “plants yes, animals no” then we are prone to miscalculations in a world of cultured meat, lab-grown leather, cow-free cow’s milk, etc.
By reframing veganism as a boycott of suffering, we can add a layer to the “plants yes, animals no” heuristic in a world where ethical consumption and veganism are no longer the nearly-entirely-overlapping venn diagram that has historically been the case.
It also forces us to confront the idea that going vegan doesn’t let us off the hook. We still have to make ethical decisions day in and day out, insofar as we can, despite the temptation to brush off our transgressions with a reminder that we aren’t as cruel to animals as most other people are.
If veganism is a boycott of suffering then we cannot be accused of caring about animals over humans, so long as we are careful to select products from companies that treat their employees relatively well. We also cannot be accused of cult-like behavior — everyone can get on board with reducing suffering, so our reasons for adopting such a maxim will be obvious to all. Finally, we can acknowledge that it makes little sense to treat all animals with the same moral consideration as if they all have identical brains and central nervous systems capable of processing pain and experiencing suffering.
This is how veganism adapts to the future.
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