There seems to be some confusion about what I mean when I say that veganism is an arbitrary line. Some people are understanding “arbitrary” to mean “poorly-defined” and it’s causing them to misunderstand what I’m saying. But it’s not entirely unreasonable why they think this. If we look at the five definitions given here, I think #5 bears this out:
5. undetermined; not assigned a specific value
So let me just clarify what I’m saying. I’m not saying that what vegans propose is random or poorly-defined. Most vegans are pretty clear that what they do and what they support is eliminating animal products from one’s life as much as is practical and reasonable. Even though the last part (practical and reasonable) is a bit fuzzy, I think the overall intent of vegans is pretty clear.
So, the reason I say that veganism is an arbitrary line is not because I think it’s poorly-defined. Veganism, which is just a response to a problem, is arbitrary because it is just one of many choices one could make along a continuum of dietary/lifestyle behaviors.
To illustrate this, let’s remember that veganism is NOT a “cruelty-free” diet as so many uninformed vegans (usually newbies) are wont to claim. There is still animal death and suffering involved with our food choices. Every consumer product you buy (food or not) comes at an environmental price and at a price to animals. Animals are displaced by agriculture. Animals are killed in the planting, harvesting and transportation of vegan goods. The packaging that the food comes in has its environmental and animal costs.
And let’s also not forget that, if we were so inclined, it’s in our power to go further than veganism. We could buy more (or all) of our food locally, thereby decreasing our contribution to environmental degradation. We could take greater pains to make sure that the vegan food we do eat comes from companies that have farming/sourcing methods that take care of the land rather than destroy it. We could take greater pains to make sure that the food we buy comes from companies that do NOT profit from animal exploitation (be honest – do you really KNOW that all of the companies you buy food from do not exploit animals?). We could decide that we’re going to get over ourselves and eat non-vegan freegan food (NVFF) when possible, thereby reducing our need to buy our neatly packaged vegan food (that has a higher animal and environmental cost than most vegans like to admit). We could become as close to fully freegan as possible. These are all options. Veganism, defined simply as “I don’t eat food that comes from animals,” is just one way to address the problems we see. It works well in some ways and falls short in others. It’s not an end in itself. It’s just a lived response to an ethical problem.
In short, there is a lot of gray area between paleo/Standard American Diet and full on freeganism, and veganism is in that gray area. A lot of vegans like to think that since their diet is well-defined (don’t eat food that comes from animals), there is no way someone could accurately call their dietary choice arbitrary. But it is. And as I’ve explained before, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s only a problem when you can’t admit it and you try to tell other people that they have a moral obligation to be vegan.
One other point that I would like to bring up is that the arbitrary nature of veganism applies regardless of one’s motivation to be vegan. Some people say things like “if you take the rights/interests of animals seriously, then you do NOT use them as food or consider them property.” They think that this somehow gets around the fact that production of vegan food causes animal suffering and death. It doesn’t. This applies to all people that practice veganism as a way to eat in this world. Your lofty intentions don’t change this fact.
I’m not trying to make an argument against veganism. I am a vegan. For me, consumer veganism mixed with a little freeganism here and there is the easiest way that I know of to address a lot of the problems I see in modern food production. But I have to stress that, compared to what it would require of someone to really, really take these things seriously and live their lives accordingly, veganism is pretty easy. It’s a well-defined way to make an easily-executed commitment to an arbitrary amount of self-denial, hopefully with the result of decreased animal suffering and death. We’d do well to keep this in mind.