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The reference to 'philosophy' in several definitions for veganism (notably that of The Vegan Society) is curious.
Commonly the word functions to position veganism alongside other social justice movements. Just as human justice movements encapsulate distinct forms of oppression and distinct oppressed groups, veganism hopes to accomplish the same for nonhuman animals.
This slight but significant move prompts advocates to think and assert that veganism is an analogous social justice movement itself, rather than a tool for social justice.
But what is this theory or philosophy of, or more specifically, that is veganism?
Generalized and oft-unexplained appeals to 'nonviolence' or 'anti-cruelty' or 'anti-exploitation' fail to pinpoint the particularity of a vegan philosophy and, grievously for animal justice, fail to isolate nonhuman animal oppression.
Such is also the case when veganism is boldly repackaged as a philosophy of total liberation, of justice for all persons. Once again nonhuman animals are obscured as a specific group tied to a specific form of oppression.
In its name veganism refers to neither the oppressed group nor the injustice that group suffers. It refers to a group of humans who live, and more specifically, consume in an exclusionary manner.
Unfortunately this is not a mere superficial flaw. Its weakness is on full display every time the question, 'why don’t you eat animal products?' cannot satisfactorily be answered with, 'because veganism'.
As a result, animal justice advocates typically tack on some version of, 'because animal oppression is wrong'.
They recognize that their vegan way of living cannot explain itself, cannot explain why they do what they do. In short, veganism inevitably fails wherever and whenever presented as a type of philosophical theory.
Does any other social justice movement advertise a way of living in its title?
Does feminism explicitly communicate anything about what a feminist will or will not buy?
Does anti-racism explicitly communicate anything about what forms of entertainment an anti-racist will or will not enjoy? No.
But no reflective individual regards anti-racism as an empty mental disposition. Corresponding and consistent behavior is only assumed.
For animal justice advocacy, anti-speciesism is the suitable term and depreciating it due to a reflex fidelity to veganism is sheer obstinacy.
Speciesism adequately expresses the discrimination of nonhuman animals much in the same manner as other social justice 'ism's. Anti-speciesism confronts the unjustifiability of both human exceptionalist and interspecies bias according to irrelevant characteristics.
It also handles topics such as predation and starvation among 'wild' animals. Perhaps most significantly, as Magnus Vinding rightly states: "Anti-speciesism implies veganism."
The anti-speciesist is necessarily vegan. Veganism is a, but not the, way of living of the anti-speciesist.
A working definition for veganism may read: "Veganism is a way of living that excludes, as far as is practicable, all use and consumption of animals and animal products."
This definition represents not only veganism 'at its very least,' but also veganism at its very most. Only conduct. No philosophy. No theory. Any wider definition that transcends general parameters for behavior and assumes an explanatory theory eventually falls apart.
Veganism ought be taught constantly, but only for what it is and not what it isn’t.
Will this definition also cover palm oil? Eating at nonvegan restaurants? Using conventional bike tires? As a description with hazy borders and not a theory of justice … it doesn’t matter.
Answering the 'is it vegan?' question is not a magic formula that guarantees ethical accuracy in every conceivable situation. Often overlooked is the fact that the vegan choice is not always the ethical choice, even if almost always so.
The central question is thus not 'is it vegan?' but, 'is it right?'.
The theoretical mess of veganism has facilitated the consistent exclusion of animals, in themselves, from social justice discourse The primary work of animal justice advocacy is to reveal, reject, and remedy this unjustifiable omission.
So why cling to veganism as the rallying 'ism' of animal justice when its definition as conduct is the only feasible one?
Veganism can retain its practical prominence within the animal justice movement (and have value for human justice movements) without shouldering a definition it ultimately cannot defend.
Let us bury debates about whether or not a diet is vegan or a cupcake is vegan, because 'no, only people can be vegan!'
A diet can be vegan. A cupcake can be vegan. Both are consistent with the vegan way of living.
Let us not squander veganism’s descriptive utility and concentrate on the fight worth fighting, the one against speciesism, the one for justice.
This is a modified version of a longer essay. The original can be read here.
Jonathan Dickstein is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara. His work focuses on South Asian religions, Animals and Religion, and Comparative Ethics.
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