A Note on “I Can’t” vs. “I Choose”

Many vegans say, “It’s not that I can’t eat animal foods; I just choose not to.” They get concerned that it’s negative to say that there is something they “can’t” do.

Although I understand this, it really does not make much sense.

Yes, of course I could choose to eat, wear, or use animal products. But as a vegan, I choose not to do so. But that is because I believe that there are moral principles and rules that constrain my behavior and obligate me not to do so. For example, as I am a moral realist, I regard the principle, “it is morally wrong to kill another sentient being in the absence of a true conflict or compulsion,” as expressing a proposition that is true. So I really can’t choose to use animal products if I accept those moral principles (and the rules that I derive from them) as true and regard them as providing reasons for my actions.

I think that the root of the problem is that some vegans want to avoid the notion that there are moral truths that require that we act in certain ways. They want veganism to represent some non-binding expression of “compassion” or whatever. But as I see it, we are required morally to be vegan. It’s not a matter of choice in the sense of saying that there is no right answer and it’s a matter of individual option to choose to be “compassionate.” There is a right answer. Animal use is wrong morally. Therefore, I “can’t” choose to do it as long as I want to adhere to those moral principles.

Therefore, when I say I choose not to eat, wear, or use animals, that means that my choice is constrained by moral principles that rule out animal use. I choose not to do it because moral principles obligate me to do so. The choice to exploit is not an option because of other things I believe. If I care about morality, I can’t make the choice to exploit nonhumans.

Doing the right thing because one chooses to act in accordance with a moral principle that requires the right thing is consistent with saying “I choose to x” and “I can’t choose to do not-x.” My point is that either locution is fine. To the extent, however, that the distinction reflects a rejection of moral realism, which rejection is rampant in the “movement,” that troubles me. Whenever I am asked, I always say that I choose not to exploit because of my moral beliefs, that preclude me from acting differently. I always promote the notion that this is a matter of moral truth. Otherwise, it’s just dismissed as a mere opinion or an aesthetic judgment, which is, as far as I am concerned, not the case.

In sum, it appears to me that “don’t say can’t” is an attempt to market veganism as some sort of optional “compassionate” lifestyle rather than as a moral baseline. But if animals have moral value, then veganism is the only rational response to to respect that moral value and constitutes a moral obligation and not an optional lifestyle choice.

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

© 2013 Gary L. Francione