why an arbitrary line is not necessarily a bad thing

Some non-vegans reject the harm reduction argument for veganism because they have a problem with the fact that veganism is an arbitrary line. They see this arbitrariness as a fatal flaw that justifies their rejection of veganism. And they’re right that veganism is an arbitrary line. There are many other places to draw a line in the sand.

On the “more harm than veganism” side (I’m painting in broad strokes here – I realize that there is much variation from one diet to the next in terms of harm caused), one could commit to only eating non-factory farmed meat, or being vegetarian, or only eating hunted game. On the “less harm than veganism” side, one could commit to full-fledged freeganism (vegan or not), locavore vegan, locavore freegan vegan, or a strict boycott of all animal-derived products and companies that profit in any way whatsoever from animal use (almost all vegans fall short of this mark, even if they like to think they don’t). Depending on your philosophy, these are all valid options and they all have their internal logic. Yet so many vegans insist that veganism is this absolutely logical place to draw the line and will argue that it’s not an arbitrary line. I am vegan (more or less), so I obviously find the argument for veganism compelling, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t admit it’s an arbitrary line in the sand. The eighteen locavore freegan vegans that exist in this world probably think that the average vegan is a poseur that doesn’t take the concept of harm reduction seriously enough. Damn vegans with their money and their packages of tofu!

There are many things in this life that are somewhat arbitrary, but still worth doing, many ideals that are still worth striving for. I only see the arbitrariness of that line as a problem when someone tells someone else that they have a moral obligation to be at or under that line. I don’t make that argument as a vegan. I believe that being vegan (or, really, doing anything that attempts to respect the lives of nonhuman animals and take their interests seriously) is a supererogatory act, not something that one must do out of moral obligation. If you tell someone that they have a moral obligation to do something, and that thing is an arbitrary line in the sand, THEN there definitely is a problem. I don’t fault non-vegans for taking umbrage at that. Not at all.

But even if all of these approaches are necessarily arbitrary, isn’t harm reduction still a good principle? If you reject it outright, aren’t you essentially saying that the amount of harm we cause through our diets/lifestyles is irrelevant? I’m really uncomfortable with that, and I don’t think that the people that reject the harm reduction argument (as a reason to be vegan) are truly comfortable with it either. So I find it disingenuous when non-vegans claim to reject it outright. I don’t think they actually believe that the relative amount of harm we cause is irrelevant. It can still be a valid principle even if you don’t buy into the “moral baseline” argument of self-righteous AR vegans.

So… I guess my overall point here is that vegans should own up to the fact that veganism is an arbitrary line and learn how to argue that that is not a fatal flaw, and not a valid reason to reject veganism. But then they’ll also likely have to get on board with veganism being supererogatory instead of a moral obligation, and I guess I don’t have a whole lot of hope for that. The “veganism as the moral baseline” idea is just too firmly rooted in the “movement” at this point. If you’re not willing to let go of it, don’t be surprised if people keep telling you that veganism is an arbitrary line and that they don’t want to listen to your overwrought explanation why it isn’t.

My other point is for non-vegans: the arbitrariness is not a problem unless someone tells you you’re failing by not being at that line. I’m not telling you that. Also, I think you should do some thinking about harm reduction and whether you think more harm or less harm is what we should strive for. I think any sane person will agree that less harm is better. So find ways to cause less harm through your lifestyle. Find an arbitrary line in the sand that YOU are comfortable with. Don’t trick yourself into believing that it’s a non-issue just because you’re not down with what some self-righteous vegans are spewing on the internetz.

Less harm is better. Find your own line.

– – thanks for reading – –


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10 Responses to why an arbitrary line is not necessarily a bad thing

  1. DaveD says:

    Right on! “Supererogatory”, good one! This is the type of arguments I’ve been looking for to help re-align the mission veganism originally promised. Thanks!

  2. Glad I could be of service.

    The difference between moral obligation and supererogation is one that I started pondering about a year ago and I’ve found it to be a really useful distinction to make, one that helps me explain my position. Thank Jeebus for hyperlinks and Wikipedia!

    • DaveD says:

      And speaking of Wikipedia, I went back to review the supererogation article and an interesting tidbit popped out:

      “In utilitarianism, an act can only be better because it would bring more good to a greater number, and in that case, becomes a duty, not a supererogatory act.”

      In my Women Utilified post I talk about the inherent utilitarian aspects of veganism so maybe that’s why veganism is often seen as a “moral duty”.

  3. Nicola says:

    Oh I loved this.

    I completely agree that less harm is better. I’ve been thinking about it lots the past few days since watching this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4O46T7GyE4Y
    And you make a very good point. I’ve been thinking that the line should be at a point where it is practical for each person, but then that doesn’t really make sense because sometimes it’s not practical at all for me to walk miles and spend twice as much at the vegan supply shop rather than buying from the big supermarkets, but I still do.

    Much better to admit that yes, it is arbitrary and can be drawn wherever, and we should be more flexible and open about moving the line, including meat eaters who I’d like to see shift it a bit to perhaps cut out one type of meat, or another similar small step to less harm.

    • Thanks for all of your replies, Nicola! They’re a good mix of encouragement and constructive criticism. I like that. I plan to respond to each of them in the coming days.

      BTW, all of your comments here should appear instantly from now on (I know it’s kind of frustrating to not see them right away).

    • Thank you.

      I think that admitting that the line is arbitrary can be an eye-opening experience for people, especially vegans. Once we can admit this, it can also make us see that if we argue for veganism as a moral obligation, what’s to stop someone else from arguing that we, as vegans, have a moral obligation to be freegans, or locavores, or to completely give up certain consumer goods that definitely have a negative impact on animals (toilet paper, books, fruit from (sub)tropical climates etc.)? I think making these realizations can do a lot do add some humility to a person’s outlook. I think being able to admit these things can also have a disarming effect on people that you’re arguing with. It’s like “hey, man, I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m just saying that I wish to do less harm and these are the things that I do to try to achieve that.”

      And as far as something being practical – that’s obviously a personal thing. You don’t mind the extra walk, but for some people it would ruin their whole day to do that. I don’t think of the vegan call to go as far as you find “reasonable and practical” in a day-to-day kind of way. Yeah, sometimes, it would be WAY more practical for me to just grab a burger and then go about my day rather than driving or walking 10-15 minutes out of my way to get some good vegan food. But it’s what I do. There are certain lines that I don’t cross, or that I won’t cross for mere convenience, and that is definitely one of them. Like I said in the post – everyone has to find their own line. I just think it’s important that people be aware that they have options for doing less harm and that they start thinking about how they can start making different, better choices.

      And, wow, that is a surprisingly funny video for being essentially an explanation of a logical fallacy.

  4. Nicola says:

    I was having a conversation with my dad a few nights ago when this came up, he was saying, ”well where will it end?? If you’re doing this, shouldn’t you do such and such too”. I admitted that yes, the line I’ve drawn is arbitrary and I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I am having a good go at causing less suffering. He really opened up once I said I’m not saying I’m perfect, I literally seen him back down and immediately become less defensive – genius!!

    • Wow, very cool, Nicola!

      A little humility can go a long way, right? Once people realize that you don’t see these things in black and white terms, they can become much more open to discussing issues. He will also hopefully be less likely to see things that you do (or don’t do) as hypocritical or inconsistent.

      This is a good development.

  5. Tarek says:

    Hey, i certainly agree in some respects. I just started reading this blog because ive been reading about the arguments against moral obligations.

    I agree that the fact that there are degrees of more or less harm means there is no one line in the sand where stepping across that line is good and anything else is bad. This is a problem for any ethical theory including for human ethics (maybe not a problem, but it does make apathy easier). With human stuff however, humans can exert their interests easier (not that animals don’t “show” us that they dont wan’t to be enslaved), and be heard. Animals cannot, therefore need people to show the majority that animals do in fact have an interest not to be harmed, and can suffer meaningfully.

    The problem that i have with arguments against the moral obligations of veganism is that it walks hand in hand with anti-animal rights activism sentiments. In every movement we now think were good (anti slavery, women’s rights, gay right’s etc) the status quo will not be changed unless people are informed and made aware of the issue. I think there is nothing wrong with activism. As many know, almost everyone is against what is done in factory farms to animals. Activism’s main point is to inform people so that they can make their own choice. Activism is NOT about forcing people (some extremists act this way simply because it gets frustrating to know what happens to animals day after day, not to say that its right to act uppity).

    Informing and showing people so that they can make their own choice is a slow process though and honestly many movements have used coercion and violence to get what they (and now all of us) deem to be right. The methodology can be wrong though so we shouldn’t use it (i am simply saying that the idea that something is a moral obligation is a strong argument and can lead to change).

    Back to the point. If we truly are to accept that any activism shouldn’t be done because it assumes moral superiority (when in fact it is, or should be, an informative process), then from a practical standpoint nothing will change. Well i suppose it isn’t right to say that it would be impossible to change anything. There are two ways besides activism that I can see to stop the industry which I do think most humans would not agree with if they saw it first hand.

    1) Technology- By this i mean first off completely documenting nutrients of meat, and by creating cultured “lab” meat with the exact same nutrients (or better ones). This way could possibly be the best method, as long as it could be economically feasible and competitive.

    2) Legal stuff- Most people that I have talked to have agreed with the premise that farm animals be treated much better. Baby steps in this direction could also be useful (even in the directions of attacking subsidies of meat so that economically it isn’t as feasible).

    One last thing, sorry about the long post, that I wanted to adress was the idea of practicality of veganism. The reason most vegans believe that vegetarianism is at least a moral obligation is because it is practical for most people. This cannot be proven philosophically, but when you examine the normal human’s life in America say, it may be able to be shown, economically and nutritionally, that a vegetarian diet (or even a vegan diet) is practical.

    Some things that could be examined:
    -Cost per certain essential nutrients
    -Cost per daily calorie needs
    -Amount of certain vegan staples in average supermarkets
    -Vegetarian options in restaurants (definitely could be an issue)

    If you had any ideas to add to what makes something practical as far as food goes i would definitely like to know. I think this angle could be what shows whether something is more “obligatory” vs supererogatory for certain people.

    Freegan is obviously not practical for most people (it would ONLY be possible for a small percentage of people anyway)
    Locavore vegan also is harder for most people to do and probably is impossible in certain places.
    Growing ones own crops also is a vast change in lifestyle.

    Vegetarianism or even partial veganism (maybe only eat meat when one eats out at a place with no veg options) would IMO not be impractical of a change for most people (and could probably be shown, not proven, to be so). This also goes back to the point I made about technology, the more we learn about taste, nutrition, and the like, the easier it will be to be vegan in many places in the world. If it ever became as easy to be vegan, then maybe it could be argued as obligatory, though i agree that there are issues arguing that something is obligatory.

  6. Patrick says:

    This made my day. I think I view veganism exactly as you do, and have actually been feeling kind of down about the pure, doctrinal, basically religious tone and rhetoric adopted by many vegans. I don’t want to eat animals or eggs or dairy for a number of reasons, but I also don’t really want to self-describe as a vegan because of what’s out there under the banner of veganism. So, thanks for deciding to write these posts and for making me feel less alone.


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