I have a handful of friends who are strictly vegan, and I talked with each of them before about their views. At least 3 of them have said to me that under no circumstance would they eat an animal or use an animal product (say, for clothing). This is nonsensical, right? There are no real justifications for this, as I understand it. Let's start from the beginning.

What is veganism?

In its most general and purest sense, it is the rejection of using any animal products for any purpose. Typically, you hear about it most in terms of diets (dietary vegans), i.e., what people choose to eat, although strictly speaking vegans should not wear fur or leather or really partake in any activity which involves the use of animals.

Why do people hold such a position?

  • Health reasons
    • unable to eat meat
    • health benefits
  • Ethical reasons
    • animal welfare
    • environmental sustenance

The Poverty of Veganism

It seems to me that veganism in its absolute form is an irrational position.

Health allergies

While theoretically you could have an adverse reaction to a component found in some meats, it's virtually unheard of to be unable to eat any kind of meat whatsoever. This, then, is not a real reason to be a vegan by itself; there must be some other reason why a person is vegan beyond this unless a person is literally unable to consume all meat.

Health Benefits

Humans have been eating meat far longer than the species we now call Homo sapiens even existed. Our bodies have evolved specifically to be able to digest a wide range of foods, meat among them. It has yet to be shown that a purely plant-based diet is healthier than a mixed diet; in fact, in many reports have suggested that purely vegan diets can be very low in iron, vitamin B12, and other crucial nutrients.


What I'm really interested in, however, are the ethical reasons behind going vegan. People who are vegans for ethical reasons are this way generally for two reasons:

Animal welfare

Some people are vegans because they are concerns about the welfare of animals. Animals which are raised in hellish conditions, with little room to move, subject to cruel containment practices (debeaking, electric prodding, etc), and slaughtered in an inhumane way. All of the above is absolutely true; animals are treated terribly, they lead short, painful lives, and a ruthlessly slaughtered day in and day out. It's not a great existence. However, people who are vegan for reasons of animal welfare should not participate or condone any activity which at some point along a chain of events has made the life of an animal suffer. Taken even one step back, this is impossible. What if someone's wheat and barely is sowed by an ox? It seems to me that a an ethical vegan should not eat that wheat, because an animal was forced into labor to harvest it.

What about animals who are treated nicely? What if that ox is only kindly guided along the field, with love and care, and leads a happy life. It should then be okay to eat the wheat. At the same time, what if that happy ox dies of natural causes; is it okay to eat its meat? It seems to me that in cases like this vegans should be okay with eating meat or wearing animal products because the welfare of the animal is not a concern. I can conceive of perhaps 1 reason why they would still not want to wear ox leather—because it might encourage others to do the same who otherwise wouldn't have the luxury of having an ox die peacefully in their backyard and made into a jacket. But still, eating it should not be a concern...

Environmental welfare

Environmental vegans reject the use of animal products on the premise that the industrial practice is environmentally damaging and unsustainable. Specifically, meat-based diets consume more resources and causes more environmental damage. This is not actually true (1)(2), but let's just say it is anyways for the sake of argument (it's irrelevant to my position).

Even if this is true, people who are vegans for either of the above ethical reasons should not do anything that involves the use of an animal. The iphone in their hand was made by a factory worker who probably had lamb chops or chicken noodle soup one of these nights. By purchasing the iphone, the vegan is contributing to that workers pay and therefore condoning his treatment of animals (i.e. his eating habits). It would be no different than directly paying the factory-farms which slaughter animals, in principle. My point here is that there seems to be an infinite web of interconnectedness among things involving the use of animals, and it is virtually impossible to do anything which wasn't in some way affected by animals. As an ethical practice, veganism seems to be impossible to follow.

Am I missing some reasoning here, or is absolute ethical veganism—as my 3 friends claimed above—an irrational position?

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    you might as well ask how one can claim to believe in individual rights and freedom when living in modern society inevitably supports totalitarian rulers in China. – so12311 Nov 17 '11 at 20:51
  • The idea is to minimize the suffering and killing of animals. I'm not going to stop diving my car because I might run over a squirrel. I'm not going to not eat plants because they might suffer because I'd die. That would be stupid. Minimize. – user4279 Aug 20 '13 at 3:07
  • Remember if you have proven it irrational you have not yet proven it false. – Neil Meyer Aug 20 '13 at 15:06
  • @so12311 I upvoted your comment, but it would fall to the person espousing such a position to explain their own actions. The OP asks how anyone could hold an extreme position and be consistent? It is one of the most pertinent questions I can imagine. This is perhaps why the Buddha did not give a reply when asked about "a great many things". – user16869 Jun 30 '16 at 18:56
  • Picky point: Your supporting links for claiming meat-based diets don't consume more resources or cause more environmental damage are not actually proving your point. Rice fields producing more methane than expected doesn't mean that, calorie for calorie, they cause more damage. From what I can find direct enteric livestock emissions match your article's claimed emissions for ricefields; 15% for livestock, vs. 6-29% for rice fields, and that's before manure decomposition emissions. Assuming the world gets more calories from rice than meat, mere parity still means meat is more damaging. – ShadowRanger May 2 at 4:08
up vote 20 down vote accepted

I think that one can find a rational justification for the position, if one is willing to accept certain basic principles.

Let us start from the standpoint of Kant's second formulation of the Categorical Imperative (from the Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals) which reads: Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

Let us then take the position that all sentient beings, by virtue of being capable of suffering are entitled to the same moral protections as humans (but not necessarily the same moral obligations).

From the combination of these two positions, it follows that to eat an animal (or use an animal product in any direct form) consists of treating said animal as a means to an end, and not as an end in itself.

Now, obviously, both of the premises of the above syllogism are open to debate, and I'm not particularly motivated to try to defend either of these premises from the variety of criticism they may be open to; but I don't think there is anything about these positions that puts them beyond the pale of reason.

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    It has always been a hazy line for me in determining what an end is versus what a means is. If the end is to enjoy delicious steak, is eating a cow an end or a means to an end? You could make it appear to be a means to an end if you suggest that the real end goal is merely to acquire sustenance; but who sets such standards? Perhaps the enjoyment of a steak is the end in itself. I doubt, however, my friends referred to Kant's Categorical Imperative when they decided they wanted to be vegans. :P +1 for a solid answer though :) – stoicfury Nov 8 '11 at 23:53
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    I think the argument would be that even if the end is one's enjoyment of a steak, the steak (and cow) are still a means to that end. I'm having trouble construing a case where the cow would be an end in itself to one consuming it. – Michael Dorfman Nov 9 '11 at 7:45
  • @MichaelDorfman: You could have the talking cow that wants to be eaten (from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe), but I don't think our genetic engineering has quite reached that level of crazy-awesome yet. – Kevin May 1 at 1:53

Disclaimer: Some (many?) of the things I wrote below may not reflect my personal views on the matter. However, I wrote all this thinking like the best vegan I could be.

under no circumstance would they eat an animal or use an animal product (say, for clothing). This is nonsensical, right?

I tend to think it is nonsensical, primarily because they can conceivably be provided circumstances under which they'd eat animals. (At gunpoint?)

There are no real justifications for this, as I understand it.

Barring extreme scenarios and unintentional ingestion of invisibly small animals, I think it's a perfectly achievable goal, for all the scenarios you mentioned. However, it would require people to educate themselves about everything they use. For example sugar and beer are not always vegan.

I don't know what "absolute" veganism means. I cannot address that, so I'll address your arguments.

Health allergies

Allergies to meat, eggs, and milk are uncommon, but quite well-known to the field of medicine.

Health benefits

Our bodies have evolved specifically to be able to digest a wide range of foods, meat among them.

This does not imply that we must continue to eat all kinds of foods.

It has yet to be shown that a purely plant-based diet is healthier than a mixed diet

I think it has been shown already, several times over. Dr. Gregor gave a whirlwind tour of the benefits of a plant-based diet, but for citations, you'll have to look at his shorter videos and articles that deal with just one aspect at a time.

in many reports have suggested that purely vegan diets can be very low in iron, vitamin B12, and other crucial nutrients.

Iron? Awfully unlikely, although meat has the largest amount of bio-available iron, iron deficiency is rare among vegans. B12 deficiency is a real phenomenon among many people, including meat-eaters. However, animal products seem to do more harm than good, and so, the best source seems to be B12 supplements. For health, animal-based food is the irrational choice. Also see Skeptics.SE: Is a vegetarian (vegan) diet more healthy?

For another broad overview with plenty of citations, see Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets.

Animal welfare

Now, ethics is usually a muddy and subjective topic, and that's why it's in my "ignored tags" list. However, I'll try to address what you wrote.

It seems to me that a an ethical vegan should not eat that wheat, because an animal was forced into labor to harvest it.

Such vegans may, indeed, refuse to eat such food. However, in most developed countries, animals have been completely replaced with machinery.

What about animals who are treated nicely?

Eating an animal that died of natural causes does not seem so bad... to the animal. How about what it does to the psyche of the eater? For example, would you eat a pet, or another human being, or a family member who happened to have died of a natural cause? Health risks from eating humans can usually be mitigated by cooking well. Empathy (human or animal) seems to have some kind of a neurological basis. I know people who raise a few farm animals at home. These people eat meat, but they can't bring themselves to slaughter or eat the animals they raised themselves, and so, prefer to give the animals away to others when the animals "come of age". There are all kinds of people, on one end of the spectrum, there are some who can eat other human beings. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who can't eat animals. Is any person acting irrationally simply because they happen to be at one part of the spectrum, rather than at another?

Environmental welfare

Specifically, meat-based diets consume more resources and causes more environmental damage.

It is actually true. Methane from rice vs cattle is one of a huge list of factors. Refer to the UN report called Livestock's Long Shadow. For the environmental welfare, animal-based food is the irrational choice. Also see Skeptics.SE: Is being a vegan more environmentally friendly than otherwise?

By purchasing the iphone, the vegan is contributing to that workers pay and therefore condoning his treatment of animals...

Many people in PETA, for example, have taken a stance that I think could fairly express as "I'm not going to directly use animal products, and I'm going to do all I can to dissuade you from doing so as well." You could be dead-set against wife-beating [or, insert your favourite no-no], but how do you know the man who assembled your iPhone was not a wife-beater? By purchasing your iPhone without first ensuring that such people were not involved in its manufacture, aren't you being a hypocrite?

1) As a practicing lacto vegetarian for 35 years (no animal flesh or eggs but dairy OK) I believe there is no way one can be totally "pure", if that is the end in mind. One can look at the Jain sect in India; they sweep the sidewalk in front of them before walking and strain their water before drinking lest the injure even the tiniest life.

I find these kinds of quests impractical. I don't believe human life is meant to be lived walking on egg shells for fear of taking life. For the poster above who talked about man being thought of as a special animal, I think that is an avenue to be explored. We WANT to do things for moral reasons; that in and of itself makes us pretty special, although not unique. Witness the YouTube videos of a animals acting in totally altruistic ways. We are not TOTALLY UNIQUE in that regard.

I think each person should act with AWARENESS of the consequences of their actions, such as their food source. It is often a living thing, something that has the same desire to experience aliveness as you and I. You should make your choice based on how you feel about taking a life just for the taste. I am not here to condemn anyone, I think it is a personal decision...but decisions require pondering the alternatives too.

Just to end, the single best way I think I can answer explain the morality of eating animals is the same one that works for green or enviro causes.

If you are going to have an animal killed so that you can live, you damn well better make sure YOUR life is providing the world more value than that of the animal who died. If you're a slug with no purpose, no pride, no commitment to help others, you have acted immorally in preserving your life of low value by killing. Just like with a beautiful tree: If you have that tree cut down and make a musical instrument from it, take years to perfect your playing and bring joy to others with your music, the tree "died" to a higher purpose. If you use it to make throw-away chop sticks, you are morally wrong to have ended that great life.

So it's not so much in the killing as in the outcome of the action. Is you life worth killing an animal for? It may be and if so, I have no argument with you. If you're just shoveling burgers down your throat and diving back into gamer oblivion with no greater value to your world, you have committed an immoral act, IMHO.

  • A interesting view and enjoyable read, thank you. :) – stoicfury Aug 1 '13 at 8:56
  • Seems to substitute one form of judgement for another. I don't think that anyone's life is worth killing for, but then the animals do it all the time, so what the hell. – user16869 Jun 30 '16 at 19:01

Almost every choice you make could have some "irrational" part to it since not all causes and effects can be understood completely.

There are arguments today for rejecting any animal food source that are rational for the pressure they put on producers.

Your position could be motivated by pure empathy, physical or mental experience or even offensive denial.

All of these we should consider rational.

The goal is to do the least amount of harm possible. The notion that if you cannot save everyone, you should save no one is ridiculous. The mere fact of you existing will cause someone else to suffer somehow, but intentionally causing suffering is completely different. Yes, a rabbit may have been killed by mistake in harvesting the crops to feed a vegan, but that is along way away from a person choosing to make a pig suffer by ordering extra bacon. If you think those two examples are the same, then you are just trying to convince yourself that it is okay for you not to do the right thing. Cause as little harm as possible. Eating the egg of a chicken that you treat well, and has a great "chicken" life, causes no harm to the chicken, and as a vegan I would eat it. Eating the egg of a chicken that was cramed into a battery cage and tortured to produce that egg, no. I may lose the label of "vgean" but I am not concerned with labels and still believe that the action of eating the egg from the happy chicken is true to the core value of veganism. IMHO, if all chicken and cows were treated well and lived happy, full lives, vgeans would eta eggs and milk and turn into vegetarians. That is at least what 99% of my vegan friends agree with.

The irrationality stems from the fact that veganism both claims that all sentient animals should be accorded the same respect, yet it wishes to deny that man has just as much a right to eat meat than any other omnivore or carnivore does. Or in other words, they both claim that all animals are created equal, and that man is a "special" kind of animal that should be treated different.

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    This does not even touch upon the biological or psychological questions. – Captain Kenpachi Aug 1 '13 at 16:04

No, It is not irrational for someone to push to TRY and be pure vegan.

Lets take it from this situation. What is there end game?

Are they trying to make a political statement?

If that is the case in the eyes of the world watching. If a famous musician misses a note, no one notices, except other musicians (which is negligible). The only ones that would know the person in question wasn't pure is other vegans.

In this regard the person would make her statement quite strongly.

It would also go for this question: Is the person trying to change peoples or a persons view(s)?

Is this person TRYING to be pure vegan?

This would be rational also. As they are just trying to be as close as they can possibly be. Knowing that it cannot be 100% is all the person needs to know. If they call themselves pure they are lying. If they are not lying then they are in the next question. Denial. No more explanation needed.

Is this person going to be pure vegan and is in denial of being 100%?

This is when it would be irrational. Being irrational usually stems from denial, I would say. So anyone calling themselves pure or in denial of it is being irrational, unless the first question applies.

  • It's not clear what you mean by "pure vegan", but if you mean someone who would not use animal products under any circumstance, then you still don't address how such a position is wholly rational (based on reason in the moral climate of today). It is unreasonable, for example, to let a child die in a blizzard because you refused to let them wear a bear-skin coat. B/C in order to be "pure vegan" you could never allow them to. My argument is that there is no rational reasoning that accords with our present moral climate which allows someone to never use animal products in all cases. – stoicfury Jul 16 '14 at 16:22
  • I am sorry I should have been more explanitory. Pure Vegan would be the in my definition what you were referring to as absolute ethical vegan. Someone who uses no animal products in any way and does not use products that deals with animals within any amount of degrees of separation. Also if I misread it please let me know. Like I said the rationalism is mostly based on what they are trying to accomplish. In general it is irrational to think you could be absolute ethical vegan. – Draco Jul 16 '14 at 16:50
  • I ran out of space. In the same case my wife is vegan and I support her ethically, based on how animals are treated, but I take different steps to try and alleviate the situation. Just like you said with the boy ethically could or would you use a dead human to save the boy? If I could I would but thats my ethical views. – Draco Jul 16 '14 at 16:56
  • Understood. So being a "pure vegan" / "absolute ethical vegan" is irrational, but TRYING to be one is not? I guess I'm just confused about what that means. Why, if you thought being pure vegan is an irrational position, would it suddenly be rational to try to be pure vegan? As I see it, it is not rational by our standards of sanity today to try to be something that you know is not rational... – stoicfury Jul 17 '14 at 2:23
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    Mainly if you know you are trying, then you know you are not. However actually being is impossible and should be known by the person, if it is then it is rational to try and be as close as possible; Whilst also knowing you will never quite be. In the same way it is rational for people to practice certain religious beliefs while knowing it would be irrational to practice all the ones in certain religions, e.g. stoning. – Draco Jul 18 '14 at 0:13

In the purest sense you cannot be both a capitalist and an ethical vegan.

As stated by your "one step back" thought, eventually, and sometimes rather quickly, the money on any item can quickly make it to somewhere where cruelty to animals happens.

But then again, in an extreme sense you cannot be an fully ethical vegan and live on soil as it would contain elements of previously cruelly treated animals.

Therefore, as the sake of argument goes, rationally in a capitalistic society, as you cannot truly be a completely ethical vegan, you have to allow for give an take.

Now, based on the reasons of the vegan, their actions should fall in line with this. A rational person would have to adjust their life to meet their reasoning. For instance, if cruelty was the reason, cruelty-free animals would be fair game, and so-on.

However, as history has shown us from civil rights to freedom, extremism in one area can change the majority to a more central position. Johnny Depp said it best in an interview on a talk show about Pirates of the Caribbean, that he showed up with at least twice as much stuff on for the first day of filming, and that allowed him to "negotiate" away about 1/2 of what he had. Thus, he was left with the decoration that he actually wanted.

So, taking the long look at things, using a position of ethical veganism in a capitalistic society as a means to change an industry cannot result in removal from that society, but rather existence within it as a vocal minority dedicated to bringing the issue into the light.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • I'm not sure this is sufficiently NPOV -- is there any chance I might persuade to you back up some of your argument here with citations? – Joseph Weissman Nov 4 '11 at 21:40
  • @James For some reason it made me laugh when I read "But then again, in an extreme sense you cannot be an fully ethical vegan and live on soil as it would contain elements of previously cruelly treated animals." hahaha... I'm not sure I'd take it to that extreme but it's amusing to think about nonetheless. :P – stoicfury Nov 4 '11 at 23:44

Regarding the ethical reasons stated, you need to take a step back and look at the underlying assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as good and evil, or right and wrong. The "welfare of animals" has no meaning unless you are working in a framework of "right and wrong" or "justice and injustice". There can be no concern for welfare without the possibility of mistreatment. There can be no such thing as mistreatment without some concept of "treating something or someone badly". There can be no concept of "bad" without some conception of "good".

Taking a step back from that, the conception of "good vs. bad" or "justice vs. injustice" in this particular matter seems to only be relevant if there is a God. If there is no God, then it seems like the only logical order in nature is Darwinian. That being the case, eating animals is probably considered "good" or "the natural course of life preservation and continuation and evolution..." If you believe in God, then the question is settled if your God has anything to say about eating animals. If you believe in God but do not know which God is true, then He should be able to let you know directly what is true in this regard simply by the definition of what it means to be a God.

  • I disagree that "the conception of "good vs. bad" or "justice vs. injustice" … seems to only be relevant if there is a God." I am non-religious and I'm sure my friends would agree that I am quite morally sound; in fact I am L6 on the Kohlbergian scale whereas most religious people in the US are between 3 and 5. I'm sure virtually all atheists believe in justice, and in kindness and love over harm. The only difference is that we believe in these things because we've concluded through our own reasoning that these are the right things to value; not merely because a book told us so. – stoicfury Jun 4 '14 at 15:19
  • You also write, "If there is no God, then it seems like the only logical order in nature is Darwinian." I've seen this a lot, but I'm not sure what people mean by it. Could you elaborate on it? Also, the statement "eating animals is probably considered "good" or "the natural course of life preservation and continuation and evolution..." demonstrates at best a crude understanding of natural selection; evolution has no "end state" or "goal" it is reaching, and there is no more connection between our diet and evolution than there is our video gaming habits and our evolution. – stoicfury Jun 4 '14 at 15:25
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    @stoicfury I think you might be overreacting a little to this answer. I agree it's poor, but I think there are two points where you're not reading charitably. First, the without-God-no-morality line is best understood as saying without God ordering a universe morally, there's no foundation for morality. It's poorly worded here and I don't really think it fits for this question at all. Second, there is a end goal for population genetics (i.e. contemporary theory on evolution) -- each gene is trying to survive. Nutrition is pretty strongly connected to that, so it seems more related than games – virmaior Jun 4 '14 at 15:29
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    @virmaior - I understood his point, I simply believe otherwise — that the foundation for morality comes from not an external source but from within us. Religious people can believe all they want that they are kind because a God provided the foundation to make it so, but presuming they are wrong that God exists (as I of course do) I also then presume that religious people — who are in general quite nice no doubt — have arrived that way without God, through their own thinking (just with a book and relatives and their community strongly "guiding" them to think it came from somewhere else). – stoicfury Jun 5 '14 at 18:20
  • You also write though that survival is an end-goal for genetics. I think I understand what you are trying to suggest but I think it's misleading to word it that way. Richard Dawkins wrote a book (The Selfish Gene) that described it best for me: the universe simply prefers order (in the most non-conscious way possible) in that molecules that band together and multiply will be more plentiful than those that don't. More plentiful = more likely to survive, and since we judge the success of an organism by whether it exists or not, I can see why you say that. (1/2) – stoicfury Jun 5 '14 at 18:34

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