Relative Eating: The Pragmatics of Vegan Ethics

When confronting vegans, omnivores will frequently appeal to tolerance. Not tolerance for animals, but tolerance for personal dietary preference. In essence, the omnivore will say something to the effect of “I’ll eat what I want, you eat what you want; I’ll respect you, you respect me.” Every vegan has heard this line. And every vegan has likely been annoyed by it.

Although veiled in a spirit of compromise, this approach is rhetorically insidious. Intentionally or not, it places the ethical vegan on the defensive, casting her in the role of a stubborn dogmatist before the argument even starts. I want to explore (briefly) what this “personal preference” argument means, why it’s so often used, and how vegans should respond to it.

It’s important to understand that this tactic works especially well because the framework in which the herbivore-omnivore conversation occurs has been defined by omnivores. Eating animals is normative behavior. It’s as unquestioned as breathing and as automatic as scratching an itch. And, at this very moment, there’s nothing we can really do to alter this unfortunate reality.  An ethical vegan is, therefore, ipso facto an outsider. A radical one at that. We’d best get comfortable in this position.

Of course, being an outsider isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Democratic society not only tends to accommodate outsiders, but at times to root for them.  Our culture warms to David and Goliath narratives. However, underdog sympathy wanes when the outsider refuses to endorse the status quo or, even worse, deems it inherently flawed. It’s then that the tyranny of the majority hovers like a guillotine. An ethical vegan is transformed from an outsider into a threat.

Uncomfortable as this stance may be, it’s part of a necessary evolution. Become enough of a threat, get enough people on edge, and soon they’ll roll away the guillotine and start taking your claim seriously, discussing your views in books, forums, documentaries, blogs, and opinion pages. Make some headway in these venues, get some big shot sponsors on board, and in no time you’ll have omnivores engaged, appealing to enlightened open-mindedness, and wondering why we can’t all just get along. Compare the frequency of the word “vegan” today compared to ten years ago.

In this sense, for a vegan to be hit with the omnivore’s claim that “I respect your choice if you respect mine” is something of a victory. It’s an implicit legitimization, an acknowledgement that the vegan stance is a little less peripheral than it once was, a sign of movement in the right direction. Call it progress. (But don’t get too excited about it.)

In the end, though, if vegans wish to honor the ethical foundation of veganism, our ultimate position must be to reject any appeal to dietary relativism. The “you go your way I’ll go mine” plea for tolerance is fine if we’re talking about morally neutral preferences, but when it comes to food, nothing is morally neutral.  We’re talking, after all, about the perpetuation of unfathomable and totally unnecessary suffering. In any context that involves the question of eating animals, so-called tolerance is nothing more than a proxy for unspeakable cruelty. Cruelty that no civilized culture should ever allow.  On this point there’s no budging. Absolutely none.

Still, vegans must be willing to flex in other ways. The fact that vegans must make an ethical  case is undeniable, but how we make it is just as important. There’s no need to be brash or arrogant or self-righteous about our advocacy. It’s important, as we attempt to brawl (metaphorically speaking) our way out of the corner that our inherited culture has packed us into, that we avoid all claims to utopianism, moral perfection, or the elimination of animal suffering altogether (producing food will always cause suffering for animals). Such assertions can undermine the virtue of our cause, alienate potential omnivore converts and, at times, make us look, well, sort of goofy.

By rejecting the neutrality of culinary relativism, vegans need only embrace the common-sensical mantra that we’re doing what we can–realistically speaking–to reduce unnecessary animal suffering. To overstate matters, or to appeal to some unattainable goal, sets a standard against which our own behavior will inevitably fall short.  When vegans fail to live up to their own standards, they become less persuasive to potential omnivore converts.

Like it or not, pragmatism and a willingness to see matters from the omnivore’s perspective are thus critical in the collective effort to promote mass veganism. I’m aware that many ethical vegans don’t like these concepts, but two concluding points illustrate (I think) why they matter.

First, in an effort to reduce animal suffering as much as I’m reasonably able to do so, I tell omnivores that I actively avoid eating and wearing animal products, as well as buying goods tested on animals. These choices seem both ethical and pragmatic. However, as I will fully admit, I won’t completely stop driving my car, even though driving will kill animals. As a result, I have no choice but to be pragmatic on the issue of reducing suffering. My sense is that omnivores are more appreciative of this stance (and thus possibly more receptive to veganism) than any trumped-up claim to unachievable ethical purity.

Second, when I discuss veganism with omnivores, I try to start the discussion on a different common ground than the “you do your thing, I’ll do mine” position.  One area where a vegan and an omnivore can always agree (unless the omnivore is a psychopath), is that it would be wrong for me to walk outside and kick a dog in the head because, for whatever reason, it gives me a thrill to do so. Get an omnivore to agree on this point and you’ve set the stage not only for rejecting the relativist-tolerance ploy he once used against you, but you’ve taken a critical step in helping that omnivore recognize–both emotionally and intellectually–that if it’s morally abhorrent to kick a dog it’s also morally abhorrent, alas, to eat an animal.

This isn’t to say that the omnivore will connect the dots, but at least the dots will be in place. Call it progress. (But don’t get too excited about it . . . .)


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

8 Responses to Relative Eating: The Pragmatics of Vegan Ethics

  1. jcberger13 says:

    Great post; thanks for the advice. Interacting with omnivores has been a big challenge for me, especially when I’m asked why I don’t eat meat. I’d really appreciate any more advice you (or other readers!) have about this. Perhaps you could post an example conversation illustrating a good way to answer that question. Should I turn it around and ask why he or she eats meat? Do you have any ideas about how to phrase the ethical argument most concisely and convincingly without sounding accusing or, as you put it, goofy? I always feel like the minute I start talking about animal sentience and capacity for suffering, etc. I’m immediately labeled as “one of those crazy animal rights/PETA people.” This stigma is not as strong as it used to be but still prevalent. I actually haven’t gotten the “personal preference” response yet but I know it’s only a matter of time.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      I think if people look at you goofy for caring about farm animals, it’s really their problem, not yours.

      If someone asks why you don’t eat meat, and you turn the question around, I wouldn’t be surprised if this person answered “because meat tastes good”. Then you might respond that if you cook them right, so do vegetables 🙂 Or if this person answers you that meat is important for health, you might explain that a nutritious plant food diet is just as healthy, or even healthier than an omnivorous one.

      There’s also nothing wrong with recognizing that farm animals can think, and feel, and experience emotions. I won’t discuss why I’m vegan with people who aren’t also willing to have a thoughtful conversation. If they scoffed at my choice, I wouldn’t want to waste my time, or invest in their friendship either.

  2. susafras says:

    Thanks for this post! It is difficult indeed to make your point without being pointy. 🙂 Your good advice is much appreciated.

  3. VeganGod says:

    ‘unachievable ethical purity’ – that is so very important for all vegans to understand. That no matter what, we will never reach purity. Great post.

  4. Ellie Maldonado says:

    James, thanks for another great article. I agree we shouldn’t be pushy, but we should stand our ground. As vegans, we don’t make excuses for killing animals to please our palates, and neither can we respect the choice of those who do.

  5. brian lindberg says:

    Lead by example and answer honest questions….proselytizing from a higher moral ground just creates resistance and makes your a persona non gratis. You can lead a horse to water…..

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      I agree with leading by example and answering honest questions, but as long as there are viable alternatives to animal products, I don’t see how we can avoid the immorality of killing animals for food.

  6. Omnivores get angry at us, and we are condemned for getting angry at the widespread animal abuse that we know exists. And that they know too! The world is upside down.

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