Veganism: History, Contemporary Views, and Common Objections

This brief essay, translated into Spanish, will be included in the new edition of the Diccionario de Filosophía (J. Ferrater Mora):

VEGANISM. Veganism, as a matter of diet that may reflect broader ethical concerns, refers to the practice of not consuming meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and other foods, such as honey. Veganism as a general philosophy of animal ethics refers to the practice of not eating, wearing or using any animal products, or participating in or supporting any animal exploitation, to the extent practicable.  This entry will discuss the history of veganism and its general conceptual position, and then discuss contemporary views about veganism and some common objections to veganism.

History: Although the word “vegan” was not coined until 1944, the idea of abjuring dairy and eggs, in addition to animal flesh, can be traced back at least 35 years earlier in Great Britain (and even earlier if one considers Lewis Gompertz (1783/84—1861), a vegan who was a founding member of what later became the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). Starting in 1909, some within the British Vegetarian Society, which had formed in 1847, began to question whether, on grounds of morality and, to a lesser degree, health, a rejection of flesh foods could be reconciled with the continued consumption of dairy and eggs. The debate continued on and off from 1909 until 1944 when the Vegetarian Society declined a request to devote a section of its magazine, The Vegetarian Messenger, to those within the Society who rejected dairy and eggs.

In 1944, Donald Watson, who had been Secretary of the Leicester Vegetarian Society, and several other vegetarians decided to start a group—The Vegan Society—to oppose the consumption of dairy and eggs. The group tentatively used the word “vegan,” which Watson later stated represented the beginning (“veg”) and end (“an”) of “vegetarian,” reflecting that veganism was the natural end point of a vegetarian diet. They continued to use “vegan.” The group started a quarterly magazine called The Vegan News, which later became The Vegan.

The early vegans believed that their diet was not only sustainable, but was more healthy than one that included dairy or eggs. It was, however, clear that they were also motivated by at least three ethical concerns. First, they were concerned about the effect that eating animals had on the moral and spiritual development of humans. In the first issue of The Vegan News, Watson and his colleagues explained that vegetarianism “is but a half-way house between flesh-eating and a truly humane, civilised diet, and we think, therefore, that during our life on earth we should try to evolve” to a diet that excludes all animal products. They claimed to “suspect that the great impediment to man’s moral development may be that he is a parasite of lower forms of animal life” and expressed the view that “the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals’ bodies.”

Second, the vegans, like the vegetarians, were concerned about the killing and cruelty inherent in the production of animal foods. Vegetarians abjured meat because animals had to be killed in order to be eaten. But, the vegans argued, dairy involved killing the male calves born to dairy cows, who were themselves killed after their milk production slowed. Moreover, the separation of dairy cows from their calves itself caused tremendous distress to both mother and baby. Egg production required the killing of the male chicks, and of the hens themselves after they became less productive. The battery system was just beginning to appear in Britain in the mid-1940s and intensification supported the cruelty argument.

Third, and perhaps most interestingly, vegans from the outset expressed a general concern about the exploitation of animals that went beyond the cruel treatment and slaughter of animals and that rejected animal use altogether. In 1944, The Vegan Society recognized that “our present civilisation is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilisations were built on the exploitation of slaves.” In 1945, the Society stated, in the context of rejecting all animal use, including for honey: “The object of The Vegan Society is to oppose the exploitation of sentient life whether it is profitable to do so or not.” They maintained that the mutilation and slaughter of animals “presents us with a grave responsibility, for morally there seems to be no difference between such behaviour and similar behaviour to human beings.”

In 1949, Leslie J. Cross, an early and influential vice-president of The Vegan Society, wrote that veganism was about “the abolition of the exploitation of animals by man” and offered a definition of veganism: “the principle of the emancipation of the animals from exploitation by man.” He made clear that “emancipation” meant the end of domestication. He argued that animals had “rights relatively equal to” human rights and said that all animal exploitation per se, irrespective of treatment, violated those rights.

In 1950, The Vegan Society pledged “to seek to end the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man.” Cross wrote that “[o]ur aim is not to make the present relationship between man and animal (which if honestly viewed is mostly one of master and slave) more tolerable, but to abolish it . . . .”

In 1979, when The Vegan Society became a registered charity, it adopted as a definition of veganism: “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose . . . . In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

Although there were certainly strains of dissent and disagreement within the early vegan movement, it is clear that, in certain respects, it anticipated the animal rights movement by several decades in that at least some of the key vegan pioneers were calling for the elimination of all animal exploitation. They were promoting veganism not merely as a diet and as a way of reducing cruelty to animals, but as a clear and unequivocal moral imperative reflecting the abolition of all animal exploitation in one’s life and as a necessary part of abolishing animal use by society.

Contemporary views: In the 1970s and 1980s, the animal rights movement emerged in the West and challenged the animal welfare movement, which accepted the use of animals by humans, but which promoted more “humane” treatment. The early rights movement embraced the idea of abolition, but, by the mid-1990s, had taken the position that, although abolition was the goal, welfare reform and conventional advocacy were appropriate means to achieve that goal. This position was taken by all of the large corporate charities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, and was explicitly promoted even by rights theorist Tom Regan.

Although veganism as a moral imperative was promoted by at least some segments of the early animal rights movement that embraced abolition, the contemporary animal movement can no longer be characterized as a rights/abolitionist movement and is dominated by the utilitarian thinking of Peter Singer. Singer, who claims to be a “flexible vegan,” promotes dietary veganism as a way of reducing suffering and not as a moral imperative. None of the large corporate charities in the United States or Europe promotes veganism as a moral imperative. Many of these groups, like Singer, promote dietary veganism as a way of reducing suffering, along with other measures that supposedly reduce suffering, including reduced consumption, the consumption of what they claim is more “humanely” produced animal food, etc. Even The Vegan Society has, in recent years, taken positions that are actually hostile to veganism as a moral imperative. Many of the more traditional animal welfare groups do not promote veganism at all.

Dietary veganism is also promoted as a way of achieving or improving human health. There is no evidence that animal foods are needed for optimal human health and an increasing number of mainstream medical and health authorities maintain that animal foods are detrimental to human health. Given that animal agriculture accounts for more greenhouse gases than does the burning of fossil fuel for transportation purposes, and possibly at least as much as 51% of all greenhouses gases, some argue for dietary veganism as a way of addressing environmental issues.

There is a grassroots abolitionist movement, which maintains that veganism is a matter of justice and reflects a moral imperative that we not eat, wear or otherwise use animals for human purposes. The abolitionist movement promotes the idea that the goal is to end animal use, including domestication, and not to make animal exploitation more “humane.” This movement also embraces the principle of nonviolence, and maintains that the rejection of animal exploitation is part of a struggle to reject all forms of objectification and discrimination, including those directed at humans.

It should be noted that veganism was a primary focus of two conferences organized in 1990 and 1991 by José Ferrater Mora at Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

Arguments against Veganism: In addition to arguments based on health, which were debunked long ago but which continue to have considerable force, and the argument that animals simply do not matter morally, which is a position that is denied even by conventional morality, there are two primary arguments against veganism. The first is that, because all human activity, including growing crops to produce food or to use in the manufacture of clothing, results in harm to animals through cultivation and processing, we cannot abolish animal exploitation and, therefore, veganism is an impossible ideal. That argument fails for the same reason that we would not argue that, because we cannot eliminate all unintended and incidental injury to human beings, the abolition of slavery or the prohibition of murder is an impossible ideal. Such an argument ignores that completely excluding beings—human or animals—from the moral community by treating them as things that have no inherent or intrinsic value is qualitatively different from unintentional and incidental harm that may result to those beings. Building a road that we will know will result in traffic deaths is not the same as enslaving humans or murdering them.

The second argument is that the world will not go vegan overnight so advocacy of welfare reform, reduced consumption, etc., is a practical necessity. That argument fails for the same reason that we would never promote similar arguments in the context of fundamental human rights violations. For example, the world is not going to stop engaging is misogynistic violence against women overnight but we would not promote “humane rape,” or “reduced rape.” Such an argument, applied to animals, begs the question against the inherent value of animals and of their right not to be exploited as commodities.

Gary L. Francione & Anna Charlton

© 2017 Gary L. Francione and Anna Charlton