Why veganism? This is a basic question, though for a vegan the answer may seem obvious. We should be vegan for the same reason we don’t treat others like objects. We don’t see a person with long hair that we like, and just walk up and cut their hair off, put it in a bag, and walk away, because we like their hair and want it. We don’t cut off the foot of someone to use as a humorous interesting door-stop. We don’t see a child and tie it up, thinking it could be useful later, and work on breeding imprisoned children to make them more useful and compliant. At least most of us don’t, and we see those who do as criminal, evil, warped.
Why not? Because we see other people as like us. From childhood, we grow in an environment where our mother, our family, treat us as people, as autonomous beings, and we treat them that way. It’s natural. It takes ideology, pathology, or an egocentric hardening of emotion to develop the callus to allow us to treat other people as if they don’t matter. Not only do we grow up with the notion that other people are beings like us, and so not to be treated as objects, but we also, in childhood, generally recognise that other animals are also like us. They respond to us. They may threaten. They may befriend. They generally have their own agendas, and our interactions are negotiated. We can develop trust for each other, ourselves and other animals, or develop fear, but clearly it is interaction, and there is a mutuality, at least with other mammals. Children know that there is a difference between a cat and a chair. It’s instinctive. We recognise one another on a basic biological level. We are all animals. It is likely that the recognition is evolutionary. A bonobo recognises that a lion, or a wildebeast, is someone that must be considered, respected, another active agent in the sphere of life.
Although individually our minds can help us see past this, as a species, our minds, our highly vaunted intellectual ability, seems to allow us to dissociate from the rest of life, and see ourselves as special and different, which of course makes everything else “other” to our “us”. We start to see “animals” and “humans” as if they are different things. To see nature and “civilisation” as different, and opposed, spheres. We find we can control and use, and we develop ideologies that justify and normalise control and use. But really, somewhere in our biological roots, we have the recognition that other animals are animals, like we are. There is an equivalence, an equity between us.
Veganism comes from that place. It is an evolved view, that recognises that we have no right to use each other, and that extends to our fellow animals. We don’t need to do so. There is no real excuse for ignoring their autonomy, their right to live their lives, to have their own agenda. Animals may sometimes kill one another, but we don’t need to kill, and have a sufficient ability to judge and choose, so that we have no real excuse to kill. We have no excuse for using them, as objects, as “resources”, as “property”.
It is possible to impose our will on other people. It is possible to create social structures where we can claim we own other people, and we have done so, compelling people to do this or that. But it is not, actually, possible to own another, to make their will completely subordinate. It is like the way using fear can stop people from speaking certain things in public, but cannot stop people from thinking or feeling those things in their own minds. Likewise, we can create social structures that let us “own” other animals, but ultimately, they belong only to themselves. We can force their actions, we can condition them, but ultimately we cannot make their will really subordinate to ours. We can only dominate by continuous efforts for control.
Veganism is the recognition that our fellow animals are autonomous, and that our attempts to control, use, dominate them is a form of violence. Veganism is the viewpoint that this is unethical, and abhorrent. It is, therefore, our decision not to use fellow animals for food, clothing, entertainment or any other purpose, and not to kill them as “pests” when their existence is in some way inconvenient. It is a way of seeing the world, where certain actions are just not contemplated. Not using or harming them is not denial, any more than we feel not robbing and killing our neighbours is a form of denial.
Becoming vegan, for most of us unlucky enough to have been raised in a speciesist world, is a slow process of accretive change in understanding, followed by a sudden moment of metanoia, change of mind, when our view alters, and everything lines up differently. The elements that build to that sudden change are different for each of us. They may involve experience of caring for a member of another species, they may involve eating certain diets, they may involve organisations, they may involve realisation of the immense cost animal industries impose on the planet, they may involve horror when we cause death to fellow animals and recognise that they are not unlike us. There can be many factors. none of them is sufficient in itself, or indespensibile. But becoming vegan is, ultimately, a sort of waking up.
Veganism, as an ethical precept, is something that creates a certain mindset. It changes our relationship with our fellow animals. It makes us aware of many of the things humans do to our fellow animals: the way we distort their lives; the way we don’t consider our actions where their lives and well being are concerned; the way we put our trivial wants above their lives. And in separating from this violence, it lets us live in a different peace, with a loving and harmonious attitude towards other animals, human or non-human. We become part of a greater community, as when we go beyond the divisions that separate people; race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality; and see that we are all essentially the same. Vegans see that all we animals are essentially the same. It is a harmony with the world.
The practice of veganism, as a way of life, also has an impact. Thinking about what we eat, caring about what we use and do, taking care to drive so that we don’t hit animals, saving a fly, helping them return outside when they are trapped in the house, all these ways of acting and seeing change our consciousness. We become more aware of ourselves, and of the life around us. We pay attention. We live a positive attitude toward other life.
Very simply, veganism is a way of seeing and acting. It is a way that values our fellow animals. It is a way that seeks to avoid harm. Put as a formula for others to understand, it is a decision “not to use other animals for food, clothing, entertainment, or any other purpose.” It also generally means making efforts not to harm, and to avoid doing things that will cause harm to fellow animals.
People sometimes wonder about phrasing; “Other animals”, “non-human animals”, etc. Why not just use “animals”? The reason is that we are conditioned to think animals are “other” and we are something different. “Non-human animals” is used to remind us that we are animals, human animals. “Other animals” is also used that way, without the division human/non-human. Instead it is “us-animals/other-animals”. Personally, I think I like “fellow animals” – more unitive than divisive. But I may use any of the terms, for variety, nuance, or flow of language.
What veganism is NOT is a diet. Vegans eat a plant-based diet, and might use language casually, “Is that curry vegan?” But veganism is an ethic, not a diet. Precisely speaking, the curry is “OK for vegans”, it is not “a vegan curry”. “The curry is vegan” is just a short, imprecise way of speaking. It’s something I try to watch, since talking about a “vegan curry” reinforces the notion that veganism is a diet, and that’s not what veganism is.
Veganism is first, a recognition that all our fellow animals have as much right to be here, and to have autonomy, as we do, and that it is wrong to use them, or harm them. They are not “ours” and can never be, any more than a child is “ours” in some sense of property or something to be completely controlled. Beyond that, veganism is the essence of Ahimsa. It is a deep respect for non-harm in all our actions. Ultimately, it is a position that embraces unity and harmony with all other animals.
Veganism is often conflated with diet. This is because our biggest use of our fellow animals is as food, not because we need to eat them, but today, purely as stimulants to taste, for our sensory pleasure. But using them as food is not our only violation of animals. We also wear their skins, their hair, on our bodies. Again, there is no need to do so, especially today. And there is no real difference between wearing someone’s scraped skin (leather), someone’s unscraped skin (fur), or someone’s hair (wool). It all comes from a disregard of others, it all comes from practices that involve imprisoning our fellow animals, controlling their lives, breeding them to distort their forms in ways making our use easier, or “better” (for us) in some way. It all involves killing, at some stage. Vegans don’t wear other people’s body parts. We don’t imprison our fellow animals, forcing them to do “tricks” for our amusement. Vegans don’t use our fellow animals as living lawnmowers, we don’t make them aggressive, as “guards”. Vegans don’t divide up the world into “useful” animals, “pests” we try to destroy, and “wild” animals that are mostly irrelevant, but of a small value to some of us because they are attractive or interesting in some way.
Vegans know we are animals, and have no more right to be in the world, or control others, than any other animal. We try to live at peace with each other, because we can. It’s a better way to live, and living as if we are separate, and lords of creation, and everything else is ours to use creates huge harm. We don’t believe we can cause such harm and continue to call ourselves ethical beings. That’s why we’re vegan. That’s what being vegan means.