Veganism’s Shaky Pillars
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James McWilliams
August 2015

Ethical vegans thus have a responsibility to administer a thorough and sober intellectual self-examination if we ever hope to present to a mainstream audience a coherent, simple, and achievable vision of peace predicated on the ethical treatment of sentient animals.

It’s with this goal in mind that this essay grapples with two substantial obstacles—call them ethical veganism’s shakiest pillars. It does so with an eye toward reaching a solid pragmatic consensus requisite to moving a cohesive message into a brighter future, one where the virtuous potential of ethical veganism has a fighting chance of being realistically realized.

Note: I wrote the following essay at the invitation of a prominent vegan activist for a book of essays this person was editing. A month after turning it in, I received a note from the editor asking if I’d be willing to change the essay substantially or if I had another essay I could submit. Well, no and no, I answered, before explaining how the essay met the volume’s stated theme. The editor wrote back and said that, on second thought, everything was cool and that they’d publish the essay. Two weeks later the publisher contacted me asking for changes on the grounds that vegans don’t believe this or that tenet of my essay and would object. The publisher also added that there would be “criticism” if my essay ran. So it was rejected. I thus ask for your honest input. Is this an essay you think vegans need to read or not? I ask the question with genuine open-mindedness.

Harming animals is a culturally ubiquitous act tacitly and not-so-tacitly accepted by virtually every human being on earth. The overwhelming majority of contemporary consumers unthinkingly contribute to animal suffering when they get dressed, eat food, apply cosmetics, and pursue basic forms of entertainment and recreation. Immense animal suffering, in short, is integral to a perfectly “civilized life.

Although unnecessary animal abuse practically defines modern life, we rarely see it. This is usually by choice. The suffering around us can be so extensive, it’s nature so viscerally brutal, that we have unconsciously but successfully limited our moral gaze to our fellow humans. And, even on that score, we’ve hardly set a model example of enlightenment and compassion.

But there’s a catch to this limited moral vision. A related concern has nagged humanity for centuries: what if, in our unknowing perpetuation of animal suffering, we might also be harming ourselves? This self-interested possibility has preoccupied thinkers from Aristotle to Kant to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wisely wrote, “When a human kills an animal for food, he is neglecting his own hunger for justice.”Could this be?

Could our quest for the most delicious plate of barbeque be clipping the wings of our better angels? It is in the context of this age-old proposition—one that subversively connects the sacred and the profane–that this essay investigates the larger claim that ethical veganism can provide the key to a more just and equitable world.

. . . . . . .

One needn’t be a philosopher to offer an answer. Unhindered common sense dictates that extending toleration, empathy, and compassion to other species makes it extremely difficult for entrenched prejudices of tribalism to persist in human society. The heroic moral reach from the “in group” of humans to the “out group” of animals, if it took place in any meaningful way, would mark such a profound cross-cultural leap of empathy that the oxygen fueling human hatred would dissipate into insignificance.

The culmination of this process, at the very least, would be a more harmonious human relationship with humans and non-humans alike. For the idealistically inclined, you could even say that, with the onset of ethical veganism, we’d find ourselves on the path to World Peace. I’m not quite ready to go that far, but neither am I ready to rule out such a heady prospect.

Either way, it’s an inspiring hypothesis. And, despite the all-too-frequent venom spewed by ethical vegans against each other and non-vegans alike, I think it’s beyond safe to conclude that the idea is certainly an accurate one. Put it this way: I’d find it virtually impossible to argue that a mass embrace of ethical veganism would not lead to a more peaceful earthly existence.

So: just go vegan and save the world, right?


Well, not so fast. The premise here might be correct—that is, ending speciesism would help end prejudicial oppression of all sorts—but it doesn’t automatically follow that ethical veganism is, at this point in time, a readily achievable goal.

In my experience, many vegans don’t seem to appreciate this point. It’s never easy for an interest group to admit that its worldview isn’t ready for primetime. It’s difficult to recognize that an animating insight might lack traction in the court of public opinion. It’s never fun to confront the daunting reality that the pillars that support your ideals might need considerable strengthening.

But, for any social movement, it’s a necessary part of progress. Ethical vegans thus have a responsibility to administer a thorough and sober intellectual self-examination if we ever hope to present to a mainstream audience a coherent, simple, and achievable vision of peace predicated on the ethical treatment of sentient animals.

It’s with this goal in mind that this essay grapples with two substantial obstacles—call them ethical veganism’s shakiest pillars. It does so with an eye toward reaching a solid pragmatic consensus requisite to moving a cohesive message into a brighter future, one where the virtuous potential of ethical veganism has a fighting chance of being realistically realized.


One shaky pillar of ethical veganism is the problem of moral consistency. None of us can live our lives free of animal exploitation. If we eat only plants, we harm animals. If we drive a car, we harm animals. If we take the bus or subway, we harm animals. It’s a deeply unpleasant, and even metaphysically troubling, aspect of existence, but the fact remains: life is unavoidably imbricated with animal exploitation. Worse, there’s nothing we can do about it.

The inability to avoid harming animals can, if not handled tactfully, place ethical vegans in a bind. Take the seemingly morally benign act of driving a car. A skeptic of vegan ethics might note that driving leads to the mass slaughter of insects and, in some cases, kills larger animals such as squirrels, deer, and even dogs and cats.

One can, by way of retort, reasonably argue that driving a car is an act we cannot, for all intents and purposes, avoid. Likewise, the vegan can further point out that the vehicular death of animals is incidental to our need to propel ourselves through space—an unintended consequence of being mobile and modern and in a rush.

But does this answer suffice?

Not completely. Just as human life is not fundamentally dependent on eating animals, survival is not fundamentally dependent on driving. Neither driving nor eating animals is a do-or-die scenario. It could therefore be asked in response to our “it’s incidental” defense: what makes driving any more or less a justifiable competing moral consideration (vis-à-vis killing animals) than sheer gustatory pleasure? Neither, after all, is required for humans to live. So, when it comes to justifying the harm of animals, why should driving have the moral edge over taste or tradition?

Taking this objection further, I can easily imagine a realistic scenario in which the choice to eat an animal becomes more central to one’s deeper sense of humanity than driving.

Consider a Hmong citizen sacrificing a pig as part of a traditional spiritual ritual and a New Yorker who works within walking distance of his dwelling space but drives to work anyway. Neither action—ritualistic slaughter or driving to work—is required to live life. But the competing moral consideration in the former situation (religion) is far more consequential than in the latter (driving).

So, this is a tough problem—a weak pillar. But I think it can be resolved in a way that purifies the connection between reducing oppression and ending speciesism.

That resolution begins by pondering a sad statistic: 33,561 humans died in car accidents in 2012. A ubiquitous action (driving) that we allow to justify the unintentional killing of animals also justifies the unintentional killing of humans. In this respect, the incidental nature of death, which applies to all sentient beings, allows the ethical vegan to escape the charge of speciesism.

There is, in the end, neither selective moral consideration nor intentional death at work when we drive. Despite its inevitable harm to animal life, driving thus remains acceptable vis-à-vis the prospect of animal death. The unintended consequences, however horrific, still apply to humans as well.

By contrast, submit the other example–the religiously inspired sacrifice and consumption of animals– to the same test and everything falls apart. One might defend this practice by arguing not only from the perspective of tradition (a very weak move), but also from the platform of intention. Indeed, one might argue that an animal’s death is incidental to spiritual imperatives and, in that sense, no different than the death of animals being incidental to the need to drive the kids to soccer practice.

But, even so, the act does not pass the more critical test, the inclusion test. The inevitable harm done to animals does not equally apply to humans. Our species is spared ritualistic slaughter for spiritual fulfillment. The reason we are spared is the fact that we are human. And, therefore, no matter how deep the spiritualism at stake, the act of killing an animal for religious purposes is speciesist.

The beauty of this distinction is that is allows vegans to admit that we harm animals daily without being speciesist, thereby preserving the very quality that will help ensure a less oppressive world


The next pillar is shakier, as is my proposed solution. It centers on the classic problem of where to draw the line when it comes to granting equal moral consideration to animals.

Ethical vegans routinely confront this question. We do so because it’s an excellent question. Regrettably, too many vegan advocates choose to dismiss it, or reach for unrealistic platitudes (“all animals should be treated with equal consideration”), rather than seek a workable stance (compromise) on the matter.

Fortunately, the billions of animals that we eat, wear, and exploit for research and entertainment are situated well above the line. For these creatures, the ethical implications of their intentional exploitation are conspicuously evident to anyone willing to look: it’s obviously wrong.

Endowed with complex nervous systems, a conscious sense of self, and possibly even a theory of mind, these animals—pigs, cows, fowl, most fish, primates, rats, etc.—warrant our moral consideration and, in turn, our compassion. To cause intentional harm to these animals and deem such an act morally inconsequential is to accept the fiction that they are automatons. Aristotle and Descartes might have seen them in such terms. But Darwin rendered that view appropriately obsolete, if not ludicrous.

But what about animals that are less “complex”—that is, critters that do not seem to have comparatively sophisticated nervous systems or an obvious sense of self, much less a theory of mind or a comparatively long life-cycle? Although convenient, it’s intellectually inadequate to state that, “all animals deserve equal moral consideration” and leave matters at that. For one, as already shown, we cannot realistically live by such a maxim.

But more importantly, animal species differ in morally significant ways. These differences, in turn, warrant varying intensities of moral consideration. There’s a qualitative distinction between torturing primates in a lab and swatting a fly buzzing around the kitchen. This is not to say that we should swat the fly. We shouldn’t. But it’s to acknowledge that torturing (and killing) primates clearly has more severe moral consequence than killing the fly.

Failure to grant these differences leads one by the nose into the trap of “plant intelligence.” That is, if we cannot highlight morally relevant distinctions among animals, ethical vegans will have a hard time drawing morally relevant distinctions between plants and animals. And if we cannot draw that line, all bets are off. The vegan argument collapses.

Ethical vegans thus need to accept the position that it is never justifiable to unnecessarily harm life—plants or animals included. But it may be excusable. This distinction enables us to engage in the unintentional death of animals while still preserving the non-speciesism central to the idea of a more peaceful future.

Needless to say, the lines we draw cannot be determined on the basis of arbitrary basis of “cuteness” or familiarity. Instead, we must look to more substantial and less subjective indicators such as the length and quality of an animal’s natural life-cycle under optimal conditions (a couple of weeks for a mosquito, 80 years for an orca), the neurological basis of sentience, a theory of mind, and the nature of suffering for that animal. Only then can ethical vegans insure that increasing revelations of plant intelligence do not become a pretext (however disingenuously presented) for justifiably slaughtering a pig.

Fortunately, at least in terms of eliminating speciesism through lifestyle changes, the “drawing the line” issue rarely comes into play. By choosing to avoid animal products in general, we make substantial progress toward living according to enlightened values—values integral to creating a more just society.

By limiting our exploitation of animals to incidental circumstances in which the harm is excusable but not justifiable, we simultaneously acknowledge the presence of “the line” without clearly identifying it, all the while focusing our behavior on achievable and meaningful reductions in animal abuse


It seems perfectly obvious that eliminating speciesism would help end other forms of prejudicial oppression. But it’s by no means obvious that such an axiom will, by sheer force of its exciting potential, break into a mainstream culture of carnism.

In order for this to happen, a daunting number of factors will have to fall into place. As they do, it is absolutely critical that the pillars supporting ethical veganism have as much intellectual integrity as we can possibly give them. Ensuring that unintended harm to animals avoids speciesism, and making critical distinctions between unjustifiable and excusable unintentional death, are challenges that are easy to avoid. But they are critical to our mission of seeking peace through the better treatment of animals. 

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