Debate On How Best To Explain What Veganism Is

I debated Vegan Footsoldier in the Arthuria discord on my claim that:

We should define veganism as “an animal products boycott” which is primarily against animal agriculture, and not “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals” which is vague and excludes people with other ethical systems.

Below is my before and after notes on the discussion:


Pre-Debate Notes

How to explain what veganism is

I define veganism as simply “an animal products boycott.”

I make the point of saying it’s one campaign tactic aimed primarily at acheiving the end of animal agriculture.

Personally I see it as being grounded in the animal rights movement, seeking legal habitat rights for animals to live without being subjected to human cruelty.

Finally as for why someone would arrive at that ethical conclusion, it could be a million ways, but the 3 main ethical schools of thought you can draw from are consequentialism, virtue ethics and deontology.


Why not use other definitions?

The reason I would encourage people use the definition “an animal products boycott” and not other definitions is it gets at the root motivation people have for being vegan without being divisive about which ethical system is best.

In 1944 those members of the vegetarian society who were avoiding all use of animal products, created their own vegan society and came up with the word vegan. They did this out of a concern that we should be advocating the boycott of the dairy and egg industries.

Now I acknowledge that one problem with defining veganism as an “animal products boycott” is people saying “well would you be okay with hunting wild animals yourself then?” But to that I would answer “implicit in the word boycott is an ethical judgement on the activity that creates the product.”

So, when I boycott products containing palm oil because of rainforest destruction needed to produce the product for example, it wouldn’t suddenly be okay for me to then go out and do that rainforest destruction myself just because I didn’t sell the palm oil on.

You can’t desire that all commercial use of animal products stop existing in the world through a commercial boycott and also do an action which through your boycotting hope to prevent the incentive for it ever happening.

Now, does this definition leave room for any exceptions to the rule? Well yes in a way, but I would say a positive one, in that it allows for waste animal products to be used if no profit finds it’s way back to the person who caused the harm. If you can get a supermarket to redirect it’s 1000 loaves of bread containing whey from going in the dumpster to a food bank, that can only be a benefit to the world.

Also, it doesn’t attempt to include animal entertainment boycotts in what it means to be vegan, and simply leaves that to be included in what it means to be an animal rights advocate. Although it’s so similar one can raise an eyebrow about why someone would boycott animal agriculture and not animal cruelty as entertainment. People already view veganism as simply abstaining from the use of animal products, so we just do have to contend with why awful people like some eco-fascists desire to be vegans and denounce them. To try and pretend that someone boycotting animal products can’t also be an awful person in other ways is wilfully ignorant. In the same way, claiming that ex-vegans could never have been vegan for not having understood the ethical arguments is fallacious and off-putting.


What specifically is wrong with other definitions?

Why not define veganism as reducing suffering which is the consequentialist reason for being vegan? Because ‘reducing suffering’ is too big, too abstract, too idealistic, beyond the capacity of one person to ever achieve, laudable but doomed to failure. Whereas ‘boycotting animal products’ is not. ‘Reducing suffering’ creates the impression of the martyr, the need to live a ridiculously puritan lifestyle, like Jain monks sweeping the floor everywhere they walk. And excludes all other ethical systems.

Why not define veganism as the rule that ‘man should not exploit animal’ which is the deontological reason for being vegan? Because it immediately brings to mind the plenty of ways we can pragmatically rescue animals and improve their circumstances while still less obviously exploitative-ly keeping them captive, e.g. rescuing dogs, chickens or horses. And excludes all other ethical systems.

The debates that lead up to the creation of the vegan society were about the dairy industry. They were raised equally from a concern about well-being and about rights:

Dr. Anna Bonus Kingsford, a member of the Vegetarian Society in 1944 argued for a total boycott of animal products, saying “[the dairy industry] must involve some slaughter I think and some suffering to the cows and calves.”

Why not define veganism as a hodge-podge of the two main ethical systems, consequentialism and deontology, as the modern vegan society tries to do? Because it’s far too convoluted and open to misinterpretation. You get into debates about what does “as far as is possible and practicable” mean, when you could just say veganism is a boycott. If you aren’t capable of participating for being eating disordered for example, that’s ok, you can be ethically on par with or more ethical than a vegan in your own way, but you just aren’t able to participate in the boycott.


Grey areas

With every definition there are a 1000 grey areas like oysters or backyard eggs. I would just direct the conversation back to the core of getting consensus first on the ethical issue of where the majority of people get their meat from. What’s important is this definition focus’s the conversation and is easily accessible.


Inherent in the word boycott is an ethical judgment on the act itself

The only reason to desire to boycott both animal food and clothing products is an ethical judgement on the process of obtaining animal products, so hoping to prevent the incentive for it ever happening through not supporting it.

People didn’t do a ‘South African products boycott’ because they were inherently against tropical fruits, they did it because of the method used to obtain the fruits through predominantly black laborers living under apartheid.

Veganism is ‘an animal products boycott’ in the same way the boycott against South Africa was ‘a South African products boycott’. It’s a boycott primarily against animal agriculture.


Easily comprehensible and accessible

A really important positive attribute to acknowledge about this lifestyle is it’s a broad food category that in its wholefood form is easy to distinguish on the shelf. Therefore experimenting with the diet doesn’t need to feel like a burden to take on board in the same way researching and seeking out conflict-free minerals in everything you buy can be for example.

All that appeal is lost if you try to include researching to boycott non-vegan parent companies in the same animal products boycott.


Focuses the conversation on it being a political tactic

It’s not the case that we need to win over everyone to veganism in order to make massive change, if a large enough minority can create breathing room for legislation and food co-ops on the way to a vegan world, I do think it’s both an obligation to attempt it and to make the transition easier saving humans and wildlife. As well as driving less, buying second hand, etc.


Immediately relatable to other boycotts people feel positively about

Boycotts have the effect of bringing communities together under a liberation politics. For example car-sharing during the Montgomery bus boycott, students leading the call to stop subsidising Israel and before that South Africa, the widespread boycotting of a reactionary tabloid newspaper in the UK that ran stories saying mass suffocation at a football stadium due to overcrowding and fences were the fans fault. So boycotting to show your real felt ties to the land you stand on as necessary optics for seriousness on the left.

Post-Debate Notes


The two issues I don’t think I addressed well enough were (1) That I don’t think everyone should have to accept a definition of veganism cashed out to exploitation, when for some philosophies it’s antithetical and (2) That it worked in favour of my argument that other boycotts don’t even have a word for the action, like the Montgomery bus boycott, it was simply done by people who were civil rights advocates, like veganism can be done by people who are animal rights advocates.


Transcript of the debate abbreviated down with notes added

Footsoldier: 1. The definition isn’t allowing us to understand a principle which guides our behaviour, you’re starting off with behaviour, which then you can infer a principle from and then infer more behaviour.

2. It doesn’t even get at what we mean by vegans in the first place because a zoo is not a boycott of animal products.

Theo: 1. Well I would appeal to other boycotts in the world that don’t need to narrow down to one philosophical reason [for example] why people boycotted South African products.

2. [I agree it doesn’t attempt to encompass what the vegan society definition does today, but..] The debates that led up to the creation of the vegan society were about the dairy industry, they were raised equally from a concern about well-being and about rights. [So it should only be considered a boycott and be left open to how people come to the conclusion.]

Footsoldier: You’ve appealed to previous boycotts we can just think about what happened in india when Gandhi tried to boycott the British products and that wasn’t because the principle was to boycott british products, no the principle wasn’t to boycott anything, the principle was that there was like oppression…

Theo: I’m saying that it doesn’t attempt to encompass everything about you and by saying this is one tactic; it allows room for [people] thinking of you as someone who decides to join other boycotts. [I’m saying if there was a word for what Gandhi’s followers did, the definition would similarly be ‘a British products boycott’ primarily against British rule of India. By vegans being people who boycotts industries, it immediately has real world connotations for people of someone who takes ethical stances against a problem in the world, which they would like to end, rather than just an identity one takes on to look cool or something. The montgomery bus boycott was understood as a bus boycott, but the people who did it were civil rights advocates, like the people who do veganism can be animal rights advocates.]

Wanting the end of the animal agriculture industry is very similar to wanting the end of animal cruelty as entertainment and other things.

Footsoldier: Right so so you agree that the definition would be more suitable if it included something about ending animal exploitation rather than just saying about the behaviour we should engage in without actually informing us of the principle which is at work.

Theo: No because people are varied and the way to advocate to people is to appeal to their interests and appeal to whether they happen to be a consequentialist or happen to be a virtue ethicist, there’s loads of ways of of explaining how you came to the conclusion of veganism, I can list off a few for you if you like:

Consequentialism: The principle of not breeding sentient life into the world to kill when you know they will have interests to go on living longer than would be profitable.

Nihlist Ethics: The principle that you should be wary of in-authentically acting in a way you don’t believe due to outside social pressures, like that acting uncaring-ly is necessary to what it means to be a man.

Like these are things that we can explain after we have just explained that we’re doing a political campaign, we’re doing a tactic where we’re hoping to end the animal industry, dead simple, come on board.

You don’t need to like adopt this image of like what a vegan is in your mind, it’s for everyone. [ I mean to say an exclusive clique image where everyone needs to think almost exactly the same]

Footsoldier: You need to know that the principle of veganism has to do with the non-exploitation of animals and you can phrase that differently if you’re a consequentialist you might say I don’t want to fund a system which reduces or it causes suffering to animals. You can cash this out in so many different ways and it it’s perfectly compatible.

Theo: But not completely, not everyone wants to include the word exploitation in how they define their ethical system. To some people it’s completely antithetical to wanting to think about the being outcome orientated.

Footsoldier: You can just have a different interpretation of the word exploitation in that sentence for example you said about freegans, well we can say oh well is it financially exploiting animals…

Theo: I don’t disagree that you can, but I’m just saying the immediate image when you tell someone the definition is exploitation, a large section of people interested in one type of philosophy is going to be repulsed by that. You can hash it out to consequences, but immediately things are going to come to their mind, pets, anti-natalism, all these things, they’re gonna think, why would you seek to end every single exploitation, holding the door open for someone, obligating someone through social pressure to do that, it doesn’t seem like a pragmatic thing that you can just get someone on board with, this campaign tactic.

Footsoldier: I just don’t understand what you’re even trying to say now it just seems some sort of bizarre appeal to someone might be annoyed with the word exploitation.

Theo: We should define veganism by what is easiest to explain and what is easiest to get people on board with.

To boycott something is to have an ethical judgement against something, so it must contain ethics.

Footsoldier: No it’s not, I could just say; “boycott this and you could be like okay then” and have no reason why you’re doing it, you’re just following an order, following an instruction, whereas if I said don’t exploit animals or don’t abuse animals, don’t pay for animal suffering, don’t pay for animal abuse, then you know; “oh well I shouldn’t buy animal products then” and then it’s the same thing you’ve derived the boycott behaviour from the principal.

Whereas if you just say boycott, then that’s not giving a principle really, that’s just giving a behaviour you all follow, you’re laying down a rule which you all follow, but you don’t understand the principle behind the rule.

Theo: The colloquial understanding of a vegan is someone who abstains from all use of animal products, so food and clothing items like leather. So we just have to contend with that’s how people see veganism, that’s how they act in the world, it’s an action and then why someone does that, it’s a philosophy and it encompasses loads of people.

If you try to close it down to deontology you’re gonna get… it causes all these debates that are unnecessary, people you meet in the street are going to be like; “oh well do you agree with anti-natalism then?” or “Do you not like keeping pets then because you think you might be exploiting them?”

If you can tailor why someone is vegan to the person that you’re talking to, then that’s brilliant, just “come on board with this action, it’s political, we just want the end of the animal agriculture industry, you can do other boycotts, we’re just looking for you to do this one thing and here are a bunch of reasons why you should do it.”

You can tailor it, you can use any argument you want, marginal cases it’s it’s completely tailor-able to what the person you’re standing in front of is thinking.

Footsoldier: Right well there’s one last point I want to cover before we wrap this up… it was part of your introductory speech, so even on a deontological view um under accounting of morality you can you can still have positive rights you can still say that I wouldn’t want to live in the world where um animals that come into my garden hungry aren’t fed or something this so you could still have some sort of duty that you see to yourself of being nice to animals caring for animals going out of your way to um improve the lives of animals you can still do that on earth and framework.

Theo: I don’t disagree I was saying that it leaves room to both view vegans as being against keeping any animals captive and for some minority of vegans to beat people over the head with the idea that they shouldn’t keeping animals captive, when that’s not the place we need to be in right now, for advancing veganism, advancing the boycott.

When Kat Von D came out as vegan on her social media, that was introducing loads of people to veganism, but then her whole feed was filled with anti-natalists just being like “oh you’re so terrible, you had a kid and that’s not vegan”

It just does this, with the definition so restricted to exploitation, it just breeds these people that think “oh yeah that that’s who I am, that defines everything about me.”

I’m saying a bunch of fringe groups, so anti-natalists, anti pragmatically keeping pets right now, people who spend all their life researching and boycotting parent companies and shaming other people for not being as well read on every company; they love that they think that the definition includes exploitation because it creates this incentive to live your life with zero exploitation to any animals or humans and if you’re not doing that we can shame you and I just don’t think that’s productive.

Footsoldier: Right so what you’re saying is because some fringe crazy people in some fringe subset of the movement are weird…

Theo: Well it’s not even that, it’s that plus people who you meet on the street, who you want to advocate to them, it’s the same with how you don’t like that people have in their mind that [veganism is about] it’s reducing suffering, I have the same issue with people having it in their mind that it’s about not exploiting, because it immediately comes to their mind all these separate issues with anti-natalists and stuff and think that that’s what they need to take on board to become a vegan.

Footsoldier: Well look I’ve got no problem if someone says I am vegan I believe that man should not exploit animals because exploiting animals causes suffering and reduces utility and reducing utility is bad well then what’s wrong with that?

Theo: I don’t see anything wrong with that either, I think we should, but it doesn’t have to [I got cut off, but was going to say it shouldn’t only be restricted to those reasons, I’m disturbed with how you’ve welcomed people who boycott animal products giving up the vegan label because you’ve argued them out of thinking of themselves fitting in the definition. But, I’m far more concerned with non-vegans who we advocate to getting turned off by this definition with the word exploitation in it, which is why I related it to you being concerned with people having in their mind that veganism is about wild animal suffering.]

Footsoldier: So why is your definition advantageous? Why should I adopt your new problematic definition which doesn’t describe veganism properly?

Theo: It does describe the action of being vegan, it infers an ethical stance and then it leaves room for you to explain why you have that ethical stance, why you came to the ethical conclusion and that’s very important to leave it open.

Footsoldier: Well do you want to do a closing statement?

Theo: I’ll see if I check my notes, yeah grey areas, with every definition there are 100 grey areas, like oysters or backyard eggs, I would just direct the conversation back to the core of getting consensus first on the ethical issue of where the majority of people get their meat from, what’s important is the definition focuses the conversation and is easily accessible. I think that’s what we need right now as a movement, maybe later we can merge other boycotts into this one, like animal cruelty and that can be our focus, but right now just the animal agriculture industry, not using leather, not using animal food as an ethical stance.

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