Arbitrary Does Not Mean Poorly-defined

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.

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9 Responses to Arbitrary Does Not Mean Poorly-defined

  1. Quiescer says:

    “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 beg to differ. I do think that intentions are important and morally significant. In law and many other areas of life we do consider peoples’ intentions and not just the outcomes of their actions.

    For example, if one knocks another person’s vase from a table by accident, smashing it, one is likely to be dealt with less severely than if one were to pick it up and throw it on the ground in plain view of the owner.

    This doesn’t excuse vegans from considering the harm done to animals in producing their food and other products, of course. Perhaps, as you seem to suggest, vegan advocates should promote veganism positively, as a way to reduce animal suffering, rather than advocate it as the only reasonable response.

    • Yeah, intentions matter for sure. But I don’t really see what that has to do with the passage you quoted. Maybe I’m missing something.

      What I’m saying is that your reasons for being vegan (environmental, health, viewing it as a supererogatory act, viewing it as a moral obligation, doing it because you believe in animal rights etc.) doesn’t change the fact that veganism is still just one point along a continuum. Rhys at Let Them Eat Meat skewers this belief that veganism is this magical line here (scroll down to the graphic) when he says that consumer veganism is “the exact spot where human decency starts.”

      It just isn’t that simple. We can have a conversation about whether Diet A is better than Diet B. That’s fine. I’m vegan, so I obviously find something compelling in the idea. I just reject this idea that being a consumer vegan is “the moral baseline.” It’s fine to have the personal feeling that there is just no reason to ever eat an animal or animal product, but to hold out veganism as the moral baseline for behavior is myopic. What if being a freegan is the moral baseline? It certainly causes less harm to animals and takes their interests more seriously.

      And I definitely agree with your last paragraph. I’ve become really annoyed by guilt manipulation based on the idea that veganism is moral and anything less is immoral. There is nothing wrong with trying to get people to see why purchasing certain foods is ethically problematic and holding out veganism as a viable way to address that problem. I just don’t like the “go vegan or you’re immoral” shit. It turns me off big time and I think it’s fair to assume that most non-vegans don’t like it either.

      Thanks for you comment.

      • Quiescer says:

        “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.”

        The part of your post that I quoted which dealt with intentions I’ve re-pasted above. It’s the latter half of the part I earlier quoted. My point was, that we should give some lee-way for peoples’ intentions.

        And I know only too well that veganism is only one point on a continuum. I’ve often asked vegans why they are not fruitarian, for example, given the probability that fewer animals would be harmed that way. And I am the author of this blog posting, which was a response to some vegans who criticised my eating of dumpstered meat: http://thoughtnature.blogspot.com/2008/01/freeganism-and-its-discontents-in-2005.html

        Re the ‘moral baseline’ and Freeganism, clearly *universal* freeganism is simply not viable in that there is simply not enough food wasted to feed everybody. And of course it’s distasteful for many, potentially risky, and to make matters worse, usually illegal. So whilst a few could do it, it’s not something that we could ever promote to the masses as a means of reducing suffering.

        I agree that vegans have to watch their rhetoric, but the case for veganism as an effective response to the problems of animal agriculture in the developed world shouldn’t be dismissed too lightly.

  2. Dude, that’s so cool. I just read that article yesterday after finding it at LTEM. It’s very well-written. Why did you stop blogging? Are you still doing the freegan exception thing?

    I hear you about intentions. They matter. My only point here is that intentions don’t change the fact that veganism is only one point on a continuum. I think we’re on the same page with that.

    True, universal freeganism is, by definition, not possible. Universal veganism is technically possible, although I have essentially zero hope that it will ever happen. I don’t see either of these facts or opinions as reasons not to promote veganism or freeganism. And I reject the idea that freeganism not being universally possible is a good reason for vegans not to make freegan exceptions. They don’t have to if they don’t want to (I don’t think they have a moral obligation to eat NVFF), but I’m not going to pretend freeganism not being universalizeable (is that a word?) is a valid excuse. It isn’t. In the same way that saying “but everyone else eats meat” isn’t an acceptable reason to eat meat.

    As for dumpsters: no one NEEDS to go rooting in dumpsters to make freegan exceptions. I find opportunities to eat vegetarian food bound for the trash pretty regularly because I live in a particularly wasteful society. If I expanded my palate to be able to eat meat again, I would have even more opportunities to eat food that would otherwise be wasted. Anyone that’s ever worked in a restaurant can speak to this.

    I don’t dismiss veganism as an effective response to the problems of animal agriculture in the developed world. I’m vegan, and I try to hold out veganism as a viable response to these problems. In fact, I’m trying to put forth a version of veganism (which allows for freegan exceptions) that can actually appeal to a wider variety of people simply because I’m trying to reject dogma. I just reject the idea veganism is the only response that makes one moral or ethical and that people who fall short of it are not meeting a moral obligation. In truth, I think it’s probably the easiest way to do something about these problems. But it isn’t the best way (we could do more, of course) and not everyone is like me, so not everyone will find it to be the easiest.

    • Quiescer says:

      > Dude, that’s so cool. I just read that article yesterday after finding it at LTEM. It’s very well-written. Why did you stop blogging? Are you still doing the freegan exception thing?

      I stopped blogging because I got busy with other stuff and/or became slack. It seems that whenever I have these ‘big thinks’ that seem to want to be shared with the world, I have to get them written down somewhere or they slip away. Also, I tend to write only if I feel I have something that is genuinely new or at least uncommon to say. I remain open to eating freegan food, but where I’m living now it’s not so easy to find, or I need to spend more time seeking out its sources.

      > I hear you about intentions. They matter. My only point here is that intentions don’t change the fact that veganism is only one point on a continuum. I think we’re on the same page with that.

      Yes. Vegans’ intentions are good, but they could do more and so cannot claim to be presenting a solid ‘moral baseline’, as you put it.

      > True, universal freeganism is, by definition, not possible. Universal veganism is technically possible, although I have essentially zero hope that it will ever happen. I don’t see either of these facts or opinions as reasons not to promote veganism or freeganism. And I reject the idea that freeganism not being universally possible is a good reason for vegans not to make freegan exceptions. They don’t have to if they don’t want to (I don’t think they have a moral obligation to eat NVFF), but I’m not going to pretend freeganism not being universalizeable (is that a word?) is a valid excuse. It isn’t. In the same way that saying “but everyone else eats meat” isn’t an acceptable reason to eat meat.

      Personally, I feel that if we manage to avoid a collapse of civilisation, it’s quite possible veganism will grow more mainstream. Perhaps ultimately 20-50% of the population. A lot can change in a generation or two. Like you, I don’t expect it to ever become universal, and if veganism remained dependent on the industrialised global civilisation that is choking the planet, I’m not sure I’d want that outcome, in any case.

      > As for dumpsters: no one NEEDS to go rooting in dumpsters to make freegan exceptions. I find opportunities to eat vegetarian food bound for the trash pretty regularly because I live in a particularly wasteful society. If I expanded my palate to be able to eat meat again, I would have even more opportunities to eat food that would otherwise be wasted. Anyone that’s ever worked in a restaurant can speak to this.

      Absolutely, and I guess it’s up to you to decide if your starting to eat freegan animal flesh would be a positive thing or not. In my case, I deemed that to eat the food was better than to unnecessarily spend my money and buy new food whilst letting it rot.

      > I don’t dismiss veganism as an effective response to the problems of animal agriculture in the developed world. I’m vegan, and I try to hold out veganism as a viable response to these problems. In fact, I’m trying to put forth a version of veganism (which allows for freegan exceptions) that can actually appeal to a wider variety of people simply because I’m trying to reject dogma. I just reject the idea veganism is the only response that makes one moral or ethical and that people who fall short of it are not meeting a moral obligation. In truth, I think it’s probably the easiest way to do something about these problems. But it isn’t the best way (we could do more, of course) and not everyone is like me, so not everyone will find it to be the easiest.

      I agree with everything you say here. Keep doing what you’re doing with this blog; there is value in pushing the envelope of veganism to see in which ways it can develop and increase its appeal. Killing the stereotypes and addressing the valid critiques presented by sites such as LTEM is important work.

    • how can here be universal veganism when most regions of the planet can’t produce the foods needed to be halfway healthy as a vegan. they should all rely on imports and have even less food security than they do now? livestock is vitally important for the rural poor , in many places , especially arid ones.

  3. anarcho-Nihilist chilean-vegan says:

    what have to do ecology or Environmentalism with animal rights? I Don’t get it. can you explain that?

  4. as nice as the idea is you can’t be a healthy vegan and locavore in many/most places on this planet for the simple reason that most don’t support much crop growing due to climate, soil, topography. here in ireland for instance it would translate to a starving peasants diet consisting of root veg, cabbage and leeks with a few berries and the occasional nut. vegetarian at least though there’s always left over meat in the lacto-ovo situation and traditional food [according to climate, before invasions,imports and globalisation would include hunting and fishing].
    i’m german and used to very lush gardens and fields. coming here was quite a shock. the things that won’t grow here!
    obviously the same applies to many regions of the usa and the planet.

holler!

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