Intention Plus Action: A Working Definition of Veganism

I’ve written at some length about how we define what it means to be vegan. In a world where we will soon have animal products — such as clean meat — that do not contribute to animal suffering, our definition of veganism is almost certain to change, particularly if we want a vegan lifestyle to be synonymous with ethical (or at least less unethical) eating.

That big question will be confronted in time. For now, I want to offer a working definition of what it means to be vegan. This might seem unnecessary — everyone knows that a vegan is someone who does not consume animal products, or someone that avoids contributing to the exploitation of animals as far as is practicable. But these definitions are insufficient.

If a vegan is simply someone that does not consume animal products, we are missing the ethical imperative of veganism. If someone consumes absolutely no animal products except whatever they may find in a dumpster behind a Trader Joe’s — including, say, a carton of milk — then they aren’t vegan according to this definition, even though they have not contributed to animal suffering. We would accurately refer to such a person as a “freegan.”

So a strict prohibition on the consumption of animal products misses the point. What about a definition that hinders on the avoidance of contributing to animal suffering?

This is much closer, but if we want to categorize people as “vegan” or “not vegan,” here, too, we will miss some that we could arguably consider vegan.

It’s perfectly practicable for me to consume gum that does not contain gelatin, and yet I’ve more than once made the mistake of purchasing the wrong pack. Do I lose my vegan status whenever I make such an error? Despite the mix-up, describing me as a vegan is still the most accurate label out there.

But let’s go even further. Let’s say I intentionally eat a steak once a year on my birthday. (The thought nauseates me, but bear with me.) Other than that, I am entirely vegan. Do I lose my membership card? Calling me vegan remains the most accurate descriptor; it’s just one non-vegan meal a year out of more than a thousand. Referring to such a person as a vegan is upwards of 99.9% accurate.

Why does this make us — including me — so uncomfortable? One word: contamination. When it comes to morality it’s incredibly difficult to think in these terms. Would we refer to a convicted murderer as a “non-murderer” simply because he only killed one person out of the thousands of people he knows? No. But that doesn’t render such a formulation incorrect.

This may sound like apologism, but I assure you it’s not. I think of each decision to purchase and consume a product borne of animal suffering as a moral violation. I also see the importance in avoiding being too gatekeepy, so that we can make the vegan community more accessible to those who are mostly on the right track but don’t quite fit the usual definitions of what it means to be vegan.

My working definition of veganism adds two considerations to the Vegan Society’s “practicable” definition. One is intention.

If we don’t take intention into consideration, then we lose our vegan status when we accidentally purchase non-vegan products. Moreover, nobody can simply declare themselves vegan after watching Dominion, they would have to actually consume some arbitrary number of vegan meals before becoming officially vegan. If we want to be open and welcoming, we don’t want that. We want our definition of veganism to be inclusive here.

Of course, intention isn’t sufficient either. We can imagine someone who, after each and every non-vegan meal, says “I’m vegan now.” Even if their intention is somehow genuine, no sane definition of veganism would be inclusive of such a person who consistently consumes animal products. So we need to consider action.

So now we have a definition of veganism that dictates a person is vegan if they, as much as is possible and practicable, avoid contributing to the suffering and exploitation of animals, taking into consideration their intentions (if they accidentally purchased a non-vegan item, was it by accident?) and their actions (do they still purchase and consume animal products?).

It’s still not perfect, and doesn’t address all of the issues, but I think it’s a start. One major issue that remains is the binary nature of vegan/non-vegan. We may have to eventually move to a continuous spectrum of sorts, with non-vegan on one end and vegan on the other. But that’s a discussion for another day.

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