As vegans, our ethical obligations toward animals are perfectly clear. As animal rights advocates, we know where our solidarity resides. Or do we? Please join me in exploring our conflicting ethical struggles.
Don’t Eat the Animals
In November of 1944, London Vegetarian Society member Donald Watson and a few friends founded the Vegan Society for folks who abstained from consuming all animal products. That definition was subsequently expanded to oppose all forms of animal exploitation. Today, most, but not all, vegans embrace the expanded definition.
As vegans, our key ethical obligation toward animals is clearly not to eat them. But, do we also have an ethical duty to stop others from eating them? And, if so, how? This is where our ethical duty devolves into three principal and mutually exclusive strategies:
- Save and nurture a few or a few hundred animals
- Persuade other people to go vegan
- Transform the national food system through plant-based options
It is in the pursuit of the last, and arguably the most effective, strategy for saving animal lives that most of our ethical conflicts arise.
Working With The Enemy
Transforming the national food system involves working closely with the very people responsible for the abuse and slaughter of billions of animals annually. Fortunately, whereas our mission is to save animal lives, theirs is to make a profit in the food system, currently by killing animals, but not necessarily. With the rapid growth and acceptance of plant-based meat and dairy products, there is certainly room for growth, transformation, and saving animal lives.
Adopting transformation of our national food system as a strategy to save animal lives is likely to place us in some of these ethically uncomfortable circumstances:
- Promoting vegan offerings at McDonald’s or Burger King
- Promoting plant-based meat and dairy products manufactured by meat packing companies
- Seeing plant-based food ingredients mixed with animal-based ingredients to reduce the volume of the latter
- Seeing plant-based food products on grocery shelves next to animal products and without the welcome to us, but off-putting to some, “vegan” label
- Seeing plant-based food products on restaurant menus listed alongside animal-based products
- Viewing adoption of a Meatless Monday option by our school or work cafeteria as a major win for animals.
The ethical discomfort becomes nearly unbearable in the extreme circumstances of infiltrating, documenting, and exposing factory farm or slaughterhouse practices. Here, we are compelled to not only lie about our identity and purpose, but to actually participate in the very animal abuse and slaughter that we so viscerally oppose.
And, There’s More
The ethical dilemmas in our relationship with animals don’t end at the dinner table, or even at the laboratory bench.
- Can we justify killing termites, cockroaches, or other animals that we are unable to stop from invading our home?
- Can we justify killing mosquitoes, ticks, and other parasites when they attack us?
- Can we justify killing a dog, bear, or other animal that pose a threat of serious injury?
- Can we justify killing “invasive” species that threaten “native” animal populations?
- Can we justify killing a predator about to kill and devour their prey?
- Can we justify killing birds by supporting feral cat colonies?
- Can we justify killing a dog/cat because they are “unadoptable”?
Although these questions may not have definitive answers, they are useful in exploring our ethical obligations toward animals.
Checking Our Solidarity
In addition to adopting the vegan lifestyle, many of us consider ourselves members of the animal rights movement. In this capacity, we need to also consider our ethical obligations to one another, commonly referred to as solidarity.
Solidarity is not just the name of a 1980 Polish labor liberation movement. It’s one of the qualities that literally defines a movement, along with unity of purpose and campaigns. It’s what confers a special status on and engenders a special sentiment for other members of a movement. It’s what enables members of a movement vastly to transcend the efforts of a group of strangers.
Our movement’s sense of solidarity was what made these mass events possible:
- In 1982 and 1983, a national coalition of 80 groups produced thousands of participants for massive antivivisection rallies at four national primate research centers, as well as in New York and Washington
- On the morning of July 15th 1985, PeTA recruited a hundred of our movement’s leaders to occupy the National Institutes of Health offices funding baboon head bashing experiments at the University of Pennsylvania
- Beginning in 1986, hundreds of animal activists showed up each year to protest the Hegins (PA) pigeon shoot, peaking at 1500 in 1992
- The June 10th 1990 March On Washington brought 25,000 participants to the nation’s capital.
As nearly as I can tell, that sense of solidarity in our movement is missing in action.
Beginning about four years ago, it has been replaced by something loosely referred to as intersectionality, namely solidarity with other movements, like feminism, civil rights, and, more recently, Covid compliance. Of course, most of us believe in and support these positions, but whatever successes the animal rights movement has claimed over the past four decades have been possible only because some of us determined that animal rights would take precedence over our other social concerns.
A Closing Note
Veganism offers a good start, but does not fully define our ethical obligations toward animals. Even if we extend our definition to opposing animal exploitation for science, fashion, and entertainment, we still need to define our position on animal homelessness and potential animal threats to our safety and well-being.
Finally, if we consider ourselves members of the animal rights movement, we need to be willing to make animal rights the top priority among our other social concerns. No one else will.
The views expressed here are of the author and do not necessarily
represent the views of the Farm Animal Rights Movement