Sunday, August 02, 2009

So, Tell Me...

What is veganism?


unpopular vegan essays said...

It is not a lifestyle.

It is not a diet.

It is not a choice of what to eat when one is not consuming animal products.

It is not defined in terms of what Peter Singer and Mark Bittman say or don't say.

It is the absolute and permanent refusal to participate in the exploitation of sentient beings, nonhuman sentient beings in particular. No more. No less.

wchanley said...

Veganism is the honest attempt to eliminate animal exploitation at the individual level. It encompasses diet and lifestyle choices as a matter of course, but it's not particularly a diet. It's a way of looking at the world that starts with "animals are not ours to use" and tries to put that ethic into practice.

gfrancione said...

Veganism means never having to say you're sorry--to a nonhuman animal.

BTW, is Ali McGraw still alive? Maybe we could make "Vegan Story."

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

wchanley said...


wchanley said...

According to Wikipedia, the verdict on Ali McGraw is: not dead.

Nathan Schneider said...

I completely agree with Dan. Here is another take:

Veganism is a straightforward moral commitment of an inherently political nature. It is a holistic ethic grounded in respect, and aimed at justice. It is externally focused on sentient nonhumans via the personal fulfillment of our baseline duties regarding them.

Vegans have strong ethical objections to the exploitation and murder of sentient beings for any purpose, including but not limited to: food, clothing, entertainment, transportation, and education. Accordingly, to the greatest extent possible, vegans do not participate in using or killing individuals who happen not to be human.

Veganism is categorically distinct from vegetarianism, which is a diet.

Veganism is consistent with the goal and theory of abolition.

Dave Langlois said...

Dan says: "It is the absolute and permanent refusal to participate in the exploitation of sentient beings, nonhuman sentient beings in particular."

1. That is too strong (unless you are happy with none of us being vegan). We all fail to refuse to participate in certain forms of human/nonhuman exploitation. None of us make an "absolute and permanent refusal", though that would be ideal.

2. Why "nonhuman sentient beings in particular"?


Nathan says: "Veganism is a straightforward moral commitment of an inherently political nature. It is a holistic ethic grounded in respect, and aimed at justice. It is externally focused on sentient nonhumans via the personal fulfillment of our baseline duties regarding them."

Why so jargony? I'm not even sure what some of this means. I would think that "veganism" has (and must have!) a meaning which is intelligible to most standard people. Otherwise, we're fucked.


I think that Babble's effort is the best so far (though I would suggest tweaking it a bit). I'll post again later, if I get a chance.

unpopular vegan essays said...

I like Nathan's better than any so far.

I will add "best efforts at" in front of absolute and permanent to address David's concern. With that addition, I don't think it is too strong.

M said...

I think that the danger in adding "best effort at" is that it leaves the sort of window open that allows people like PeTA vice-president Bruce Friedrich and "Vegan" Outreach's Matt Ball to chastise vegans for being rude in restaurants by asking too many questions about ingredients. I mean, we wouldn't want people to misinterpret "best effort" as meaning fanatical obsession, or anything, right? They'd think that we actually take the rights of nonhumans seriously, or something.

Nathan Schneider said...

"Why so jargony? I would think that "veganism" has (and must have!) a meaning which is intelligible to most standard people."

David, please note that I was not trying to set the new definition standard for use in communication with nonvegans. There are certainly different ways of describing veganism, with varying levels of intricacy, and this is probably for the best.

All of the 'jargon' I provided is there for one reason or another, mostly to counter the various ways utilitarianism/new welfarism has contorted many people's understanding of veganism (e.g. just a diet, do it for your health or environment, emphasis on 'cruelty', tool to reduce suffering, not obligatory, and so on).

Here is an excerpt from a poster I developed late last year:

"Veganism is a straightforward moral position. Vegans object to the murder, exploitation, enslavement, and use of nonhuman animals for food, clothing, entertainment, transportation, education, or any other purpose."

wchanley said...

Hey Mylene,

(I'm being lazy - plz forgive missing accents. Heh. That was actually far more keystrokes...sigh)

"I mean, we wouldn't want people to misinterpret "best effort" as meaning fanatical obsession, or anything, right? They'd think that we actually take the rights of nonhumans seriously, or something."

...that's sort of what I was aiming for with "honest effort." If I make an *honest* effort to put my ethics in practice, that means not cutting corners in easy places, I think.

M said...

No worries about missing accents, Blabble!

I think that you're right in distinguishing between "best" and "honest", because heck knows that so very few people are honest about what they either suspect or (worse!) know is truly best.

unpopular vegan essays said...

Good points, Babble and Mylene (pronounced mee LENN [I don't know how to do the accent on my iPhone] :-P ). I'd be happy to go with honest efforts and agree that honesty is the problem. It goes back to self-interested, instrumental rationality resulting in obvious epistemic irrationality.

wchanley said...

Dan - completely off-topic: if you have iPhone OS 2.1 or 3.x installed, hold down on the e for a second. Accented, umlauted and a couple of other diacritical marks will show in a popup.

wchanley said...

(Still off topic) Works on U, N, A, etc.

unpopular vegan essays said...

Tries è. I tried that a few days ago and saw the pop up, but didn't realize that you have to just slide your finger onto the symbol you want; you can't just hit the symbol with the another finger (or it will just type an e). êëęėē wow, this is fun.

Dave Langlois said...

First, a quick note about the "honest"/"best" thing. I'm sure that plenty of welfarists (new and old) are quite "honest" in their efforts. So I'm not sure that "honest" is better than "best", in this case. In fact, "best" might be better, because it can refer to some non-psychological fact about one's efforts. Although people sometimes think that “doing one’s best” is a matter of trying as hard as one can, psychologically speaking, this is not correct.


Nathan: I appreciate that certain terms can be given more/less nuanced definitions. I happen to think that "vegan" is not a term that ever requires a particularly complicated definition, but I'm not concerned enough to argue the point. When I wrote my comment, I was more worried about the fact that *I* didn't know what you were talking about. I thought "Well, boy, if this definition isn't very useful for random people on the street, and it also isn't very useful for me, then who on earth could it be useful for?"

Here are some thoughts about what you wrote:

- "Veganism is a straightforward moral commitment…"

You're implicitly appealing to a distinction between straightforward and non-straightforward moral commitments. I'm unfamiliar with the distinction. What is a non-straightforward moral commitment? (Is whether a commitment is straightforward a function of the complexity of the proposition contained in its statement? That can't be right. But what else could it be?) Anyway, the 'straightforward' just seems like glitter.

- "... of an inherently political nature"

I don't know what it means for a moral commitment to be "inherently political". So, for example, some people have argued that Kantian ethics can only be understood in light of Kant's political philosophy, and so take his theory to be inherently political in some sense. But they mean this is a pretty technical way, and certainly not in any way that you might be sharing. There are other ways that one might spell out what it means for a moral theory/claim/commitment to be inherently political, but it would certainly need to be spelled out! Without a lot more said, the term is just a piece of glitter. (Besides, on a most natural reading of the terminology, I actually do not believe that veganism must be political, and so I do not believe that it is inherently so.)

- "It is a holistic ethic grounded in respect, and aimed at justice. It is externally focused on sentient nonhumans via the personal fulfillment of our baseline duties regarding them."

This is where I really start to get a bit more confused.

First of all, the terms "holistic ethic" and "ethical holism" are traditionally used when talking about (lunatic) theories in environmental ethics. Of course, I know that you must not mean “holistic ethics” this sense, but it is unhelpful to use the terminology. (You also don't make clear in what sense you *are* using the term, and so it remains, at best, a piece of glitter.)

Dave Langlois said...

(Continuing from above...)

But, secondly, I'm lost in the metaphors. You say that veganism is "grounded in respect" and "aimed at justice". Now, since "respect" and "justice" are highly contentious philosophical terms, I don't have any idea what you mean. But I’ll put that to the side. The terms "grounded" and "aimed" are metaphors. (So far, no problem with the metaphors – I’m just pointing them out.) Then, you introduce a pair of new metaphors a moment later when you say that veganism is "externally focused on sentient nonhuman animals". So, veganism is now a commitment (and an ethic) with both internal and external dimensions, with groundings, aims, foci, and so forth. Now I am left wondering whether the "grounding" and "aiming" in the previous sentence are relative to the now-introduced internal or external dimensions of the commitment/ethic. Since there is already some external "focusing" going on, and since aiming and focusing are similar, I'm going to assume that the "aiming" at justice is... internal? (I'm joking here, because I don't even know what that would mean. I'm just pointing out how beholden your definition becomes to imprecise metaphors.)

Anyway, this is all just to say that when I read your explanation of what "veganism" means, I came away with almost nothing. I sincerely didn’t (and don’t) know what you're talking about. I just have a bunch of questions about what your jargon means. I can't help but think that your definition would be a whole lot more useful if it was just stripped of some of the glitter and filled in with simpler stuff. I don't think that any of this AR/abolitionism/veganism stuff is particularly complicated, and I think that we do everyone a disservice when make it seem like it is complicated.

I'm afraid that I get this “why-the-heck-is-person-X-making-this-stuff-so-complicated-sounding-and-what-are-they-talking-about-anyway?!’ feeling pretty often when I read the writings of abolitionists besides Gary. I think that we’d all do very well to observe and attempt to imitate Gary’s incredibly simple (but never simplistic), clear and down-to-earth approach to this stuff.

wchanley said...

I dunno that there's a better way to communicate what I'm after *other* than "honest" or "best." If someone is eating a cheese pizza and telling themselves they're doing "the best they can" because they've omitted pepperoni, I would disagree.

That's (more or less) the kind of thing I was thinking about when I posted originally.

I'm not sure there's a bulletproof way to really articulate this particular side of the larger idea.

gfrancione said...

Dear Mylène

Let us hope that Virginia Messina does not read your comments about "Vegan" Outreach or she launch a nasty Tweet about you and then refuse to engage you on substance.

You do not seem to understand that accurate characterization of welfarists is not permitted. The whole thing falls apart the moment that anyone starts to analyze.

I worry for you.


Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

wchanley said...

If you're logged into your Gmail account, it will use whatever you've got as your FIRST name, or whatever you're using as your Nickname. (Which reminds me, I need to go edit my nickname on my OTHER Google account for the handful of posts here that are just "Ward."

Anyway. Short answer: go to and click on Edit Personal Info and fill in whatever you want in the Nickname field and it should do first and last name. (Let me go double check to make sure.)

gfrancione said...

Dear All:

My 2 cents:

Ethical veganism, which extends not only to matters of food but also to the wearing or use of animal products, is a moral and political commitment to the abolition of animal exploitation by the individual.

Ethical veganism involves the rejection of the commodity status of nonhuman animals, the notion that animals have only external value, and the notion that animals have less moral value than do humans.

Ethical veganism is a recognition of the moral personhood of animals.

(This is from my forthcoming book with Garner and has appeared in different formulations elsewhere.)

Gary L. Francione
Professor, Rutgers University

wchanley said...

Hey Prof. Francione,

All of which *I* get, because I already think that recognizing the moral personhood of animals is a good idea. I keep trying to angle for something that's clear for non-vegans to grasp in as bite-sized a chunk as possible (though, I know, slicing complex ideas into tweet-sized bites inevitably misses some important elements).

M said...

Let us hope that Virginia Messina does not read your comments about "Vegan" Outreach or she launch a nasty Tweet about you and then refuse to engage you on substance.

Well, I seem to remember her asserting in her (now unfortunately deleted) responses to you here that she doesn't generally read other abolitionists' blogs, so I guess that I'm safe. Thank you for your concern, however.

M said...

Other than your own, that is.

wchanley said...

Re: other than your own...

Yeah, I know. I'm inevitably going to weight bit x over bit y in any given "easy" definition, for any of a number of reasons. Talking through these kinds of things is important (for me, anyway), because I want to make sure I'm not glossing over something *really* important.

Speaking for myself, I wouldn't use moral personhood in a bite-sized definition, because when I've done similar things in the past, folks' eyes glaze over.

Thanks for posting this, actually. I think it's not a bad idea to really work through some of these things in order to be able to be effective when we're "out in the world."

M said...

Babble, just to avoid (my) confusion, you do know that I mean my "other than your own" comment in response to Prof. Francione re: Ginny's (now deleted) having stated that she doesn't read other abolitionists' blogs, right?

I think it's good to be discussing this thing called veganism, too, both because it's just beginning to be co-opted like mad in mainstream media, but also because I've been interacting with far too many vegans over the past while who still seem convinced that veganism is indeed a "personal" choice and that it's ideal (as some of the welfarists like to promote) for vegans to focus on their own consumerism but to mind their "manners" and shut up about it and hope that somehow everyone else catches on. I have a hard time accepting veganism as not including education and outreach.

wchanley said...

Yeah, I totally misread that (Re: Other than your own). What, you mean the universe *doesn't* revolve around me? Hehe.

unpopular vegan essays said...


Although I agree that Nathan's definition could be trimmed in some of the ways you suggest without losing much meaning, and even helping more people understand it, I found it quite easy to understand as he wrote it.

It's pretty easy to pick out words and take an uncharitable reading of them, providing many different possible interpretations of the words and throw up our hands in despair that it's all too confusing and meannglss. I more charitable approach would be to assume the meaning that makes the most sense given the author's general outlook. Then, if something still seems amiss, ask the author for clarification or make a suggestion for improvement.

On best v honest, I agree that best has the advantage of removing psychological factors. I do question the honesty of many welfarists, however, in the sense that epistemic rationality often (usually?) takes a back seat to instrumental rationality. I think such dishonesty is quite common, even if such dishonesty is barely noticed by those who engage in it (ie people often unwittingly decide what they want to believe and go backwards to construct premises to support the desired belief).

Dave Langlois said...


I'm not being uncharitable. I genuinely don't know what it means. Now, because I know that he identifies as an abolitionist, I can read meanings into his words. But I could do the same for virtually any 'definition' provided by a self-identified abolitionist. That wouldn't make the definition, itself, helpful or good.

Simplicity and clarity are more important to our movement than (I think) most people think. And, unfortunately, I think that they're both too often absent from abolitionist writing.

Dave Langlois said...

Oh, and, yes, of course I agree that many welfarists are dishonest. (I wasn't suggesting otherwise. All I said is that I'm sure that "plenty" are honest, as well.)

unpopular vegan essays said...


What do think of the clarity and simplicity of Heidegger's Being and Time? Do you think he could have cut out some jargon?


M said...


Dave Langlois said...

Hahahah. Actually, my disdain for (avoidably) complicated writing extends to my philosophical interests. So you'll never catch me reading Heidegger. :-0

Elizabeth Collins said...

Veganism is EASY! Especially nowadays. It is a decision that can be made RIGHT THIS MINUTE and last for the rest of your life! The actual implementation takes a little research and help from other vegans, but it is something we all can decide to do, instantly.

James Crump said...

Singer's claim that we can be flexible vegans is a sophistical absurdity. Similarly, when Mark Bittman claims that he is vegan for only part of the day, he self-evidently violates the conditions of that concept's intelligible application. It's as absurd as saying that a racist is anti-racist when he isn't telling racist jokes. Or, that a racist who tells racist jokes, but who opposes lynching, is anti-racist regarding lynching.

If someone consumes animal products, no matter in what quantity and no matter at what time of the day, they are not a vegan in any coherent, non-sophistical sense of that notion. I think that Singer and Bittman have coopted the concept of veganism for political purposes.

I think that we should interpret the concept of veganism as Gary does, namely, as a rejection of the consumption and use of animals based on a recognition of their inherent value; as an application of the principle of abolition to the life of the individual; and as a general commitment to ahimsa or nonviolence.

Amy said...

It is a moral imperative.

It is the elimination of slavery.

It is necessary.

Nathan Schneider said...

David, I'll assent that the first paragraph of my description might try to do too much with too few words. I agree that Gary is an excellent communicator and educator. Emulating his efforts at simplicity and clarity is definitely important. The abolitionist approach is still very young, and I think our future is bright.

As for the paragraph in question, I suspect many "standard people", who lack your knowledge of philosophy, would simply skim over it and come away with key words like: moral, political, respect, justice, sentient, and duties. Not a bad primer for the second, fairly standard paragraph. Seems perhaps a bit much debate for one paragraph of a blog post comment, but here are replies to issues you raised...

I mean 'straightforward' in the sense of "uncomplicated and easy to do or understand". Perhaps every moral commitment could be described as straightforward. Even assuming this is true, emphasizing it seems worthwhile.

By 'political' I am referring to what it means to embrace the ethical substance of veganism in a society overwhelmingly permeated by speciesism. The ethic demands a dramatic restructuring of all social relations, including economic and cultural matters. The daily practice is a political act by virtue of embodying our rejection of exploitation, and inevitably violating the norms and expectations held by those around us. [continued...]

Nathan Schneider said...

I am using a very rudimentary sense of the term 'holistic'. The ethical substance of veganism has implications for the entirety of human/nonhuman relations. Veganism is not a diet, and is not even just about consumption. These points can be relayed without the word holistic, and though I don't think confusion with "ethical holism" is a serious danger for most, I'll consider dropping the term.

'Grounded in' is used in the sense of giving something "a firm theoretical or practical basis". 'Respect' references the feeling associated with granting someone due regard, or the act of seriously considering someone's interests. Amorphous, yes, but it helps frame the issue in terms of what is owed to sentient someones (i.e. helps place the locus of concern outside of ourselves, which is essential to countering humanocentrism).

Framing the issue as a matter of justice helps align veganism with movements against human oppression, and is foil to the problematic emphasis on 'cruelty', 'compassion', 'mercy', and so on. I can see how 'aimed at' might cause confusion when juxtaposed with 'externally focused', which, again, I am using, to push the locus of veganism from human to nonhuman. It's a compressed way of saying that veganism isn't about benefiting us (our health, conscience, or environment), but doing what is right by not exploiting persons who aren't homo sapiens.

Dave Langlois said...


My point wasn't that you couldn't go through and explain what all of the terms meant to you when you wrote them. Assuming that you weren't just whipping words off without much thought, you can of course do that. (The fact that many of the words/turns of phrase are unnecessary glitter remains, though.)

My point was that the paragraph was pretty meaningless to someone in my position and, as I think you acknowledged earlier, not super helpful to a nonvegan. I'm not sure what your intended audience is, then.

But, in any case, you seem to think that it is fine that you don't define your terms. That seems a bit odd to me, since most people (vegan and nonvegan) have pretty twisted understandings of the relevant issues. (Many people think you can show "respect" for a nonhuman animal by using all of her/his body parts after you've killed her/him. Many people think that "justice" demands that we do science experiments on nonhuman animals.) The terms you've used, by themselves, are unlikely to be helpful to most people.

I agree that it isn't worth arguing over your particular comments. But, in my view, there is a broader tendency toward unnecessarily complicated and "philosophical" writing in the developing abolitionist online community. I think it is a bad thing, so I thought I'd point it out in this case.

Unknown said...

But taking twisted understandings of issues (like respect or justice) for granted, we also have to assume that very few will exactly get what we mean when we use terms like unnecessary, exploitative, or even painful. So, which words do remain for describing veganism in a truly objective way?

wchanley said...

Hey Martin,

I'm aware that folks will often try to wiggle around terms like "exploitation" (i.e. "as long as they're raised humanely, it's not exploitation, right?"), which is why I specifically make a claim that I *start from* the position that animals are not ours to use *at all*, and I work from that.

Nathan Schneider said...

David, I'll just make a quick point about context. The second paragraph of the description I offered obviates the possibility of respect and justice (mentioned in the 1st paragraph) taking on the "twisted understandings" you rightly suggest some readers will bring to the table (that is, unless they never look past the 1st paragraph).

So *whatever* readers believe respect and justice mean in the context of veganism, according to my description, it will at least be obvious they aren't consistent with the "exploitation and murder of sentient beings for any purpose" or "participat[ing] in using or killing individuals who happen not to be human".

Moreover, given this context, many readers should be about to work out that justice for nonhumans means not being subjugated, and respect for nonhumans means the reverence/regard sufficient to rule out being exploited or murdered.

Dave Langlois said...


Oh come on, now. If you're going to respond, please at least respond to points that I actually made! I never suggested that someone would read through your entire statement believing that you meant "respect" or "justice" (or whatever) in the particular twisted ways I mentioned. Did you read what I wrote?

The point was that most people have skewed understandings of the terminology and so, as I wrote, "[t]he terms you've used, by themselves, are unlikely to be helpful to most people." My parenthetical examples were just that -- examples of some common misunderstandings. Nowhere did I suggest that your writing was consistent with those particular misunderstandings. The point was just that (to repeat myself again), the terminology is, in itself, unhelpful. So no need to make your "point about context".

I do *completely* disagree, though, that a reader could learn something substantive about the meanings of 'respect' and 'justice' by reading what you wrote in your definition. Nothing you wrote is helpful in that regard. For instance, everything you wrote in your original definition is consistent with (multiple) consequentialist, contractualist, standard deontological, etc., readings of "respect", "justice", the foundation for veganism, and so forth. It is just plain incorrect to suggest that a reader would somehow learn that "justice for nonhumans means not being subjugated, and respect for nonhumans means the reverence/regard sufficient to rule out being exploited or murdered." No one could learn any such thing, because your definition blatantly leaves open plenty of other possibilities. It should be obvious why this is so. If it is not, let me know -- I can explain it to you.

So my point remains. The terms you use are unhelpful in themselves, and no reader could learn anything substantive about the terminology from what you've written.

(For the record, I don't think that a definition of 'veganism' needs to do as much as you're trying to make it do. So I'm not faulting you for defining 'veganism' in a way that leaves open certain questions. Instead, I'm just pointing out that it is useless -- and potentially very confusing -- to lean on all of this glitter, unexplained baggage and unnecessary complexity.)

I've got very little interest in continuing this particular discussion. But if you'd like to continue it, I suggest e-mailing me. I'll continue it here if you'd like, but I don't see the point.

Elizabeth Collins said...

Veganism is the rejection of violence!

Unknown said...

Animals are not ours to use *at all*. That's indeed very plausible, thank you. I read your first comment to this blog post again, and yes, it's all there.

Charley said...

Veganism is an easy way to live with a clear conscience; that of respecting all life and acting in a non-violent way towards our fellow Earthlings and refusing to support those industries that do. It's about not participating in the rape of the seas and land, and protecting all species.

I like your blog... it is very thought provoking for a newbie like me. x

Vera said...

Veganism is the only decent and effective way to really end animal exploitation. The rest is babbling!

Ken Hopes said...

Veganism is a morally consistent commitment to nonviolence and nondiscrimination.

The Vegan Version said...

For me it is an expression of non violence and respect for all living beings.