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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Great post 😁
This article makes some great points. I really enjoyed reading it. The only place I feel a little bit uncomfortable is with your last sentence:
“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.”
There is a lot we don’t know about the natural world, and this logic would seem to operate on an assumption that because of our framework of understanding, some organisms seem less capable of suffering (i.e. Oysters), therefore it’s fine if we consume them. If we don’t need to, why would we consume something because it seems less sentient from what we can currently understand?
I suppose this is a rabbit hole, because a person could argue that plants, too, have some ability to communicate with other plants and have shown even defensive abilities against their destruction and infestation, so maybe this is a moot point. But it left me thinking, so I thought I’d discuss.
Thanks for an insightful post.
“If we don’t need to, why would we consume something because it seems less sentient from what we can currently understand?”
That is a good point. I’m certainly not advocating that we go around killing creatures just because the current state of our scientific knowledge dictates that they don’t suffer. I agree that it is better to not kill things. But yes, this does turn into a rabbit hole. My basic point is that there are animals that we know can suffer — like cows, pigs, chickens and fish — and then there are those that we do not know whether they can suffer, many of which probably cannot. I will certainly applaud those who consume animals that are unlikely to suffer rather than those that definitely can. The alternative is eating 100% plants, which may or may not be better than having some proportion of your diet consist of animals that are unlikely to suffer. Because we don’t know, I think it’s fair to put veganism and sentientism on one side and omnivorism on the other.
I studied nutrition and had every intention of helping others to be “healthy” until I realized that we are a thriving species depleting the oceans and negatively impacting our planet…
I am a vegan not because of the way that it necessarily makes me feel physically (I feel great) but because I want to contribute to a more sustainable way of living. I also want to teach my son to be progressive and compassionate. I don’t know about you but I’d like to know that I’m helping to leave our our planet in a better place for our children…