Can Vegans Believe People Are Good?

A common feature of dogma is a belief that people are inherently bad and must redeem themselves by adopting the dogma and following its tenets. As Christopher Hitchens characterized the concept of original sin in Christianity, “we are created sick and commanded to be well.” The idea of the inherent badness of humans, taken to the extreme, can result in atrocity. But there is an argument to be made that it is based in some truth — we all have had amoral, even immoral, desires.

Some belief systems take the opposite approach, positing that people are inherently good. This is a bit more rosy than original sin, but it is also based in some truth — we all have a desire to be good people.

I think both are incorrect, but I’m interested in whether vegans might be more likely to fall into one camp or the other. Our decision to abstain from the exploitation of animals is an example of good human behavior; we are motivated to help make the world a better place, even going against typical human behavior in order to make it happen. That might lead us to emphasize innate goodness; then again, it might not — if the good behavior we’re engaging in runs contrary to society at large, we’re an anomaly.

There’s a messy tension here. Innate goodness leads us to go vegan, but the fact that vegans are only a tiny fraction of the population hints at innate badness, with a sort of pathway toward redemption through veganism. This might make a form of original sin attractive to vegans, but we should resist it. The reality is that pointing out our injustices toward animals prompted many of us to go vegan in the first place, and is a source of discomfort and guilt for non-vegans. Characterizing people as innately good or innately bad prematurely dismisses the nuance. If we were innately good, we’d all be vegan; if we were innately bad, none of us would be, and no one would feel guilty about it. We can hop this unhelpful binary by thinking of non-vegans instead as vegans-to-be, and (most) vegans as former-non-vegans.

We’re born and raised with all sorts of tendencies. We are emotional creatures with needs, who usually have a good understanding of right and wrong but don’t always shy away from harming others to get what we want. We’re complex, with characteristics both good and bad. We have a moral code, but it is sometimes employed merely in service of justifying amoral — even immoral — desires. And sometimes it helps tip the scales toward prosocial behavior when norms and selfish desires are in conflict.

We aren’t inherently bad and we aren’t inherently good. We’re inherently complex. So the notion of innate badness isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s only half the picture. Vegans can recognize the characteristics of humans that are good — our sense of justice, fairness, and compassion — particularly as strings to pull on in promoting a vegan lifestyle. We should also acknowledge the less flattering aspects of human behavior — our selfishness, our rage, our desire for revenge — while resisting the temptation to paint all humans as innately evil.

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