What Lies Between Almost Vegan and Vegan?

photo: Jon White

photo: Jon White

I meet a lot of people that are very close to being vegan (or at least that’s what they tell me). And I know many people as well that consider themselves mostly vegan in terms of their diet. It’s always very encouraging and commendable to see people standing up for what they believe in, even when the status quo isn’t on our team yet. Nonetheless, I find myself often asking, what keeps some from making the small leap to becoming a proud, confident and out vegan rather than one shyly hovering on the threshold?

First, I suspect that the reason that some might not be fully committing to a vegan diet is that they’re afraid to let go of a kind of psychological safety net. No one wants to fail or be perceived of as failing. Keeping the door slightly ajar prevents such an opportunity for failure.

Second, letting go of all the “dietary baggage” that we’ve been carrying is quite a feat for some more than others. Many people still want to hang on to some of it even after rejecting much of it as superstitions and myths. They might not be hoarders storing all of their past possessions in closets and basements, but there are still certain ideas they just have a hard time letting go of from their past. These could be past notions of health, family, social or cultural norms and fragments of their personal identity that are connected with certain foods.

Third, I think that being vegan is too often associated with moral perfection or purity rather than simply living your life according to a simple principle of nonviolence that is consistently carried out in your every day lives. As vegans, we need to work hard to dispel that myth of purity. We are not purists. We are moral realists using our forks and chops to oppose unnecessary violence to animals. In my humble opinion, it is not the most, but the least we can do for animals.

Fourth, we live in an age of moral relativity (unless the subject is violence to humans) which views any commitment to living on principle with suspicion. In fact, ethical vegans who claim to “eat on principle” are often viewed with contempt and / or dismissed as absolutists, extremists, zealots, etc. Could it be that the “almost-vegan” fears such social scrutiny and seeks to avoid it? And this question begs yet another: Is it worth abandoning our values to fit in or conform or pacify the interests of other non vegans in our life when the consequences of doing so are literally a matter of life and death?

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  1. Fair enough…I don’t take our exchange personally. Apologies if there was any appearance of an insult.

    Certainly domesticating horses causes them harm. That wasn’t my point. My point was concerning the language Francione uses (at least the proclamations he puts out daily on Facebook when I was interested in any theory changes to the animal rights movement).

    There is the point that animals shouldn’t have been domesticated in the first place, but the past is incorrigible. We have a present situation where we have an abundance of domesticated animals. Personally, I want no part of the torture/death business of the dairy and meat industries. This didn’t require a philosophical stance on my part, i.e. a rational foundation; I had a visceral response to the torture of animals. Are not our feelings the source for our conscience, or is Hume wrong about this?

    • Nicely put. I would only add that the solution to the problem we have created with domesticated animals will only be addressed when we stop breeding 60 billion land animals for food every year (not to mention the others used in many other industries, but the food animals represent the 99%). Those that are here now are our problem to deal with in the best way we can. I rescue chickens and seek to build awareness about their true complex nature because by focusing on chickens, I can help the greatest number of those who suffer. Anyway, I’m sorry if I turned you off earlier. I hope you will explore the site more.

      • …delayed response due to potty training my daughter lol. I’ll definitely explore the site more as in looking there is a lot of good information. I have great respect for you and anyone who rescues animals that others think of as food. It is easy for people to identify with rescued dogs and cats and consume meat/dairy without another thought. I always thought chickens, pigs, cows etc. have an intelligence and range of emotions most humans ignore. But I still ate meat, however, having what Carol Adams called “a psycho-social detachment between the consumer and the consumed.” I recently had video images of dairy farming and slaughterhouses seared into my mind and, more importantly, my heart; I converted to a vegan diet immediately thereafter.

  2. By the way, I did not state I understand Francione’s arguments so well; my comment was clearly about environmental ethics in general (that I am not a beginner), not Francione’s specifically. Given your initial response, I think my comment was warranted.

    I don’t really have much use for Francione or his writings. But I understand the sarcasm/mockery behind your statement, which came about by putting words in my mouth.

    No need to post this. As I already stated, I’ll look elsewhere for conversation and information.

    • Jeff, I think you’re taking my response too personally. If I let my ego get in the way with the insults I get from people, I would shut down. There would be no Free from Harm. And that would not help animals or the vegan movement too much.

    • I don’t see how environmentalism and animal ethics can be mutually exclusive. I thought I responded to your question fairly.

  3. Robert,

    Francione wrote this, I didn’t: “All use is exploitative. All use is unjust. All use is abuse. All use involves discrimination in the form of speciesism. All use involves violence.” I merely provided a counter-example to show the absurdity of his statements.

    My conversion to veganism was through Gary Yourofsky, and my own immediate experience with animals and the earth.

    I wasn’t aware Francione held any views that could be considered based on a utilitarian approach to veganism, and many of his proclamations sound rather utopian to my ears.

    • Jeff, I’m not necessarily defending Francione, but my understanding of his work is a bit different than yours. He actually has termed his abolitionist approach “moral realism” based on the one negative right for animals not to be used as a resource. If we don’t apply this principle universally (with the exceptional cases of necessity), then what exceptions do we make and do we make the same for human use when we deem it, albeit arbitrarily, morally defensible? It’s a slippery slope to me to make exceptions to something as fundamental as one’s own sovereignty from which al other thoughts and actions emerge. I wouldn’t say that horseback riding is in itself an act of violence, but the necessary act of domesticating horses or any other animal for that matter requires a significant amount of violence, doesn’t it? Capturing animals in the wild and then bending them to our will so we can artificially breed them for purposes of entertainment because we enjoy a horseback ride (an act that seems benign enough), is actually built upon a long tradition of exploiting animals that were, only 10,000 yeas ago, living just fine without human interference in their lives.

  4. I am very aware of the arguments against speciesism. But you failed to offer any answer as to why the article states “I think that being vegan is too often associated with moral perfection or purity rather than simply living your life according to a simple principle of nonviolence that is consistently carried out in your every day lives” when in fact, as whoever wrote this response claims, ethical vegans do in fact take an “absolutist” position concerning animals (as one would expect from anyone who despises slavery of any kind).

    Given what Francione states (see quote above), ANY use constitutes an act of violence against another sentient being without exception. So, according to his view, horseback riding is an act of violence against the horse; I doubt many people would agree with this definition of violence, which begs the question What does the word “violence” mean to someone such as Francione?

    Given any use of animals constitutes “violence” and animals as property is slavery, then why does the author even distinguish between “moral perfection” and carrying out non-violence in our everyday lives? Surely a deontological position on animal rights isn’t going to allow for a Paris exception; thus, moral perfection, though not actually attainable, should be the goal of any ethical vegan (of the rights camp). So then again what is the point of the author claiming, “I think that being vegan is too often associated with moral perfection or purity”?

    Having studied philosophy for nine years (including environmental ethics) with an MA and a BA in analytical philosophy, to be quite frank, I am not looking for a response that picks out just one sentence (about Francione’s pets) out of context and then goes on to use a human slavery analogy. Obviously, my comment about pets was not even close to the point of my response, though that was the only thing you addressed. I’ve already thought through all of those issues some time ago and I was not looking for an environmental ethics 101 conversation.

    I must assume the author of the article is too busy to respond and you are either not equipped to respond to what I have stated or have intentionally side-stepped my concerns. I’ll look elsewhere. Thanks.

    • Jeff,

      This is Robert Grillo, by the way. I am the founder and editor of FFH. To answer your question, moral purity or perfection is impossible as a vegan or non vegan, as I stated here. That is not the goal of a vegan nor should it be. Harm to other sentient beings on some level is inevitable simply by living our lives even in the most conscious manner. Non vegans often hold vegans to an impossible standard of perfection which misses the point. The principle of “most good, least harm” is the utilitarian application of veganism, the “moral realist” side of veganism, if you’d like.

      Francione also recognizes this fact of living throughout much of his writing. He points out, for example, that if we were truly purists or perfectionists, then we wouldn’t drive on streets paved with animal by-product ingredients. But all of our use, 99% is attributable to slaughtering them for food, so if slaughterhouses didn’t exist then neither would all of the other by-products that are used so ubiquitously in our modern world.

      The issue of horsebacking riding seems to be rather innocuous in light of the fact that we kill 40 billion baby chicks at six weeks of age every year on this planet, 300 per second in the US alone. If one focuses on horsebackriding as a way of pointing out flaws in absolutist arguments when such an atrocity is going on every second right under our noses, we are missing the bigger picture reality of the harm we are capable of and just as capable of eliminating. That’s not purism or perfection. Closing slaughterhouses would reduce 99% of our harm to animals. That would be a morally realistic step in the right direction without causing us too much pain.

      We can have this intellectual conversation about moral purism, yet as we speak I have a 12-week old “broiler” hen curled up in my lap like a kitten who was found in a trash bag outside of a live poultry market two weeks ago. Perhaps she is the best reason for being vegan and not the absolutist arguments?

    • By the way, Francione’s exception would be based on necessity. That is to say, killing or violence in self defense or by those living on subsistence hunting and gathering is morally defensible. But you said you already understood his arguments so well. I’m surprised you left this point out.

  5. “Third, I think that being vegan is too often associated with moral perfection or purity rather than simply living your life according to a simple principle of nonviolence that is consistently carried out in your every day lives.”

    The idea of moral perfection or purity in part comes from within the vegan community. For example, Francione goes to great pains to present an absolutist position. This quote comes from his facebook page: “All use is exploitative. All use is unjust. All use is abuse. All use involves discrimination in the form of speciesism. All use involves violence.”

    He himself has pets that he has rescued and their only protection is that they are his property. Likewise, suppose someone rescues a horse; according, to Francione’s dictates, horseback riding is use and therefore abuse and involves violence. Francione does not show any nuances to his thoughts. Again, he is absolutist in his approach. This leads me to reflect upon the idea that many vegans (or vegans who are followers of Francione and his ilk) are themselves the very ones who ask for perfection and purity (from others).

    There seems to be a certain amount of hypocrisy in Westerners co-opting the use of words associated with Jainism. Francione in his personal behavior and lifestyle has very little in common with the way actual Jains live. It is an easy trick to separate the philosophy from the culture of Jainism (or any other “Eastern” religion/philosophy). Self-help gurus have been throwing bits of ancient wisdom into their contemporary self-help books for some time now. It eventually appears as nothing more than a language game where fashionable terms such as “ahimsa” are used when terms such as nonviolence do the same job, though in the case of Francione, he has stretched the meaning of violence to include human actions that would not normally be considered violent. I tend to be skeptical of the philosopher’s trick of coining new terms or using ordinary words, but stretching or changing their meanings beyond what we commonly accept that they mean.

    • Hi Jeff,

      Someone who acts as the guardian of an animal that would otherwise be doomed to a kill shelter does not constitute use in the manner in which Francione defines use. A domesticated animal that is already bred into this world for no other reason than to provide us with companionship and who is completely dependent on us for his welfare is a “dependent” for whom we are 100% responsible. Domesticated animals are designed by humans to be completely submissive and even genetically ewngineered for certain traits that we deem desirable.

      We don’t accept, at least on principle, human use or slavery, so why should animal slavery be made an exception? Animals were designed by nature to be autonomous as we are and share the same basic set of interests that can only be carried out as autonomous individuals. Why is species a justification to exploit someone when we already reject exploitation based on race, color, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Species is just not a plausible reason. One could smear this as an “absolutist” position but then so would be the position on the abolition of human slavery and we don’t see too many people calling for a return to the African slave trade.

  6. Hi there, I just registered to comment on this thread (my user name seems to have been locked as my email so I don’t think I’ll be posting much). But I want to commend Gaby for his reasonable remarks, and I do want to challenge the Free From Harm staff writers on their response. In my opinion, if humans and animals have a mutualistic relationship without any undue exploitation, then I’m not sure there is an ethical absolute which can be posited to discredit that relationship (and I’m sure many vegan pet guardians would agree). I want to point out a single dairy, the Ahimsa Dairy in the UK, as an example of, in my mind, an ethically defensible dairy. I do want to note that this is the single example of an ethical dairy operation that I’m aware of, so in general, I believe that the staff writer’s comments are absolutely valid. However, in the example of the Ahimsa dairy, all the animals are treated with compassion regardless of sex, and all are guaranteed sustenance, shelter, medical care and affection for their entire natural lives. Also the calves receive their preferential allotment of milk, it is only the excess that the humans collect. I’m just saying that interspecial relationships have an ancient and honourable root that has been disgustingly perverted by modern humans, but that a harmonious relationship is in theory possible (I would also argue that wool could be a similarly ethically pure product), and there does seem to be a working model. Of course I realize that, statistically speaking, the Ahimsa Dairy is a negligible anomaly, but I want vegans to expand their thinking on this subject and allow for novel theories. Ultimately we are organisms which must live in symbiosis with unicellular organisms, so why must we close the door an the possibility of meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with the beautiful large animals in our world? Anyway, Free From Harm, keep up the good work- Zack

    • Hi Zack, There are certainly a variety of relationships we can have with animals that honor Ahimsa and a respect for animals. It is at the same time tenuous I think to suggest that breeding and raising animals (even if not slaughtered) for a food source that is not necessary for our survival, as in the case of dairy, is not a form of exploitation. Your position also focuses just on animal treatment rather than the use issue. Let’s imagine for a moment if the subject in question were humans. Would we advocate that some forms of slavery were acceptable, provided that the subjects used as slaves had some level of complicity in being property or benefited in some way that only the master assumed was a benefit? I think the issue of using animals as a resource is at the core of this discussion. And I believe that if we are going to uphold a justice for all position for humans, then we must also apply the same principle to other species who have interests in not suffering as well. We cannot pretend to know that animals are complicit in some form of agriculture. We can only assume that, being born into this world as free agents like us, that any form of “domestication” is going to limit or worse deny their most basic interests. They were free agents for millions of years prior to human domestication which began some 10,000 years ago, so to suggest that history somehow legitimizes these practices seems problematic, given that this period of domestication is just a drop in time in the evolution of these species.

  7. I am one of these “almost Vegan”. For several years I was raw food low fat vegan (talking about a commitment). For living in a place where that was not sustainable I returned to cooked food and follow an ayurvedic diet. Living in a country (the only one) where over 30% of the (large) population is vegetarian, I can tell you no one here consider this lightly. It is matter of faith. In the ethical tradition that underlines this behavior, nothing says you should be vegetarian or vegan. The ethical principle number one is “non-violence”. This principle should apply to all part of your life and should be meditated upon until you can debunk violence in avery corner of your life, in your actions of course but also your words and your thoughts. But at the same time the tradition is not blind to the point to ignore that complete non-violence is impossible for in nature living organism are co-dependant and all living being organism lives at the expenses of others. So no one can say they are 100% non-violent, but everyone should try his best in that direction. A great master was asked once by a beginner how far he had walked on his path and the master replied modestly: “I am still struggling to achieve the first step, to be completely non-violent”.

    When I was a kid I would spend week-end at the farm, with goats, pigs, chicken and cows. While taking the cows to the field after milking, each cow woud be called by its name. The cow were never milked fully and the rest was left for the calf. The love of the farmer for the animal and his respect for nature was obvious. He knew he was part of a bigger scheme. Where I live now, the ayurvedic culinary tradition makes ample use of milk and ghee (refined butter) etc, but they used to consider cows as God and would never kill one. My father was a beekeeper, and I know he would feed the bees when there was nothing for the bee to harvest, he would spend long hours repairing the hives, being aware of what had to be done to support the environment and not just take from it, sparing no efforts and definitely with a lot of Love.

    I believe there is way you can live in harmony with the animal kingdom and still eat some animal products. I eat almost none, and definitely nothing that has led to the slaughtering of an animal. But I am just “almost vegan”.

  8. That is true. Doesn’t it make you want to throw up! the idea that anyone would use an innocent creature for such things. But the one thing we can do is make sure that where we can purchase those items that don’t have animal byproducts we do. And the same with testing.

    • Elizabeth, the one point you can make to those who try to hold you to some standard of vegan perfection is that the use of animal by products for such things as construction materials would not be possible if it were not for the slaughterhouses. These by products are the non flesh body parts that cannot be sold as meat so they are sold as by products to a number of industries. When we are not consuming flesh and secretions, we are therefore not contributing to the slaughterhouse industry and therefore not supporting the sale of these by products.

      • Is that what the industry means when they say a “downed” animal will be sent for “rendering”? I keep hearing that term a lot lately.

  9. I think one thing that keeps people from being totally, absolutely vegan is how difficult it is to find foods (or medications, etc.) that have no animal-related products whatsoever. Reading over ingredients with a dictionary in hand reveals how many of the contents can be traced back to something derived at some time from animals. For example, sugar may be refined with bone char made from cattle in Afghanistan, Argentina, India, and Pakistan. Just seeing “sugar” in the ingredient list doesn’t tell us about the processing. It can be hard to avoid every possible animal connection. The important thing is to choose the most harm-free we can find, change eating habits, etc. Contributing to sanctuaries that save farmed animals from slaughter is another good vegan activity.

    As for vegans’ being zealots, we should not be ashamed of that. As Cesar Chavez noted: “There’s nothing wrong with being a fanatic. Those are the only ones that get things done.”

    • I recently learned that there are animal by-products in the tires so basically my car isn’t even vegan!

      • Yes, even asphalt has animal by-products in it so the roads we drive on are animal-based. But these are factors we cannot necessarily control as opposed to dietary choices which we are fully in control of. Important distinction. As Francione says, we don’t stop drinking water when we find out that child labor might be used at the water processing plant. We can still oppose exploitation and violence on all levels but cannot necessarily control the outcome of those things. That partly why I wrote this: http://freefromharm.org/veganism/imperfect-but-vegan-dispelling-the-utopian-myth/.

  10. Let me make one point here (if I can just stay with one point 🙂
    Vegan is not just what you eat, it is a life style. That means nothing comes into my home that was tested on any little creature. I don’t wear anything that was alive. I don’t wear any makeup that was tested on them, and I don’t use any cleaning products that had anything to do with animal byproducts or was tested on them. To many people think being vegan is just what you eat but that is far from the truth. Don’t get me wrong, it is great to see another person who doesn’t eat any form of flesh or fish, but if I were to ask you, do you use any thing that was once a little creature (byproducts), or do you use anything that was tested on them, can you say no to that?

    • I have to agree with you. I am becoming weary with those vegans who refuse to look at the big picture. How you eat is only a small part of the vegan ideology.
      I am also growing weary of vegans who refuse to acknowledge the dark side of animal exploitation (as I mentioned in Robert’s post from 3/20/2013 “The Story of One Pig…” It would seem, many vegans prefer to recilne back into a velvety world of rose colored glasses where they talk about organic locally grown foods, the awesome meals they make for the family, their juicing regime, the organic cruelty-free sheets they purchased for their bed and yet refuse to acknowledge cruelty exists and speak out against it. I’m not asking them to become full-on in-your-face activists (which truth be told is how I lead, sometimes) but at the very least ACKNOWLEDGE it does exist and give these poor animals a voice.

      • To be fair, what we eat constitutes roughly 98 to 99% of ALL of our animal use. The other 1 to 2 % covers animals used in labs, circus, etc. So that’s why I focused this article on food choices since the impact from our food choices is by far the greatest.

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