Defining veganism: is veganism ambiguous?

This was delicious.
This was delicious (at “Modern Love”)

Veganism could be an ambiguous concept. Is this a problem?

The original basic idea of veganism is the principle of ahimsa, or not harming sentient creatures. In the overwhelming majority of cases it is perfectly obvious (both to vegans and nonvegans) what is, or is not, vegan. But at the edges of the concept, there are ambiguities, and sometimes disagreements; different people use the term “vegan” in slightly different ways. Why do these and other ambiguities arise, how important are they, and what (if anything) should we do?

Here are some examples of products or activities that are typically regarded as not vegan: eating roadkill, scavenging discarded animal products from a dumpster, eating oysters, eating honey, and eating animals not specifically bought by you or killed for you. The problem starts when you begin to ask why these aren’t vegan.

Do these activities (or products) violate the principle of ahimsa? It’s not clear. Obviously roadkill itself is the product of a violent act, a car hitting an animal. But what if I, an innocent bystander, find this dead animal? Is my taking the already-dead animal, not killed through any fault of mine, and eating it, a violent act? You could argue this either way, but it’s not intuitively obvious.

If this example isn’t ambiguous enough, let’s take the case of scavenging. Suppose I’m  vegan, homeless, and hungry, wandering the streets. I peer into a dumpster behind a grocery store and find some discarded bakery goods. Looking at the ingredient list, I find that some bread rolls have “nonfat milk,” “whey,” and “egg whites.” In the old days, when I had an actual job and a place to stay, I would never have bought this. But I’m hungry, and in any event I didn’t buy this, and thus didn’t cause or reward the suffering of any innocent dairy cows or egg-laying chickens.

Could I eat this and still call myself vegan? Would it be unethical to do so? What about if I’m not homeless, but just frugal and “dumpster diving”? These kinds of “borderline cases” can be multiplied considerably. People will also debate whether bees, other insects, or oysters are sentient, and therefore whether killing them causes pain. My “compromise” solution would be to say that scavenging nonvegan bread rolls would be ethical, but not vegan. But this opinion is subject to change without notice, and others would say that it is definitely vegan and ethical, or possibly that it is neither vegan nor ethical.

The basic concept of ahimsa is pretty clear, but we don’t always know how to apply it in every case, nor do we necessarily understand how to build a movement or a new social consciousness that embodies the concept. This can’t be an insurmountable obstacle; there are other important terms like “justice” or “beauty” that are even more ambiguous. If we cannot all agree on whether the death penalty should be applied in the case of the Aurora theater shootings, for example, does that mean that there is no such thing as “justice”? Just because we can’t all agree on what “justice” is in every case, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t advocate justice or that people don’t understand what we are talking about when we use the term “justice.”

We could short-circuit the discussion by stipulating, by definition, what “justice” is — such as the whole justice system, the laws passed by the legislatures and the rulings of the courts. But then it makes sense to ask whether the “justice system” actually served “justice,” and the question is never completely settled. The same basic principle applies to the idea of “vegan.” We can stipulate that bread rolls with whey and eggs are not vegan by definition, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether the homeless eating scavenged bread rolls observes the basic vegan principle of ahimsa.

Incidentally, these ambiguities cut both ways. There are other activities which are typically regarded as acceptable for vegans, which arguably seem to violate the principle of ahimsa. These include such activities as driving cars (which kills insects and kills animals in the road), eating nonorganic plant food (because pesticides kill massive numbers of insects), or buying meat for your cat (which obviously rewards the meat industry). There are counter-arguments available in all of these cases, but it is not intuitively obvious.

We should be watchful, but not overly concerned, about misuse of the term vegan. Obviously, if someone is saying that buying fur is vegan, then that’s a problem, but most people understand this issue. In the overwhelming majority of the really important cases of animal abuse (mostly in grocery stores), it’s blazingly obvious whether something is, or is not, vegan. How we think of veganism matters because the concept of “vegan” is quite useful. The vegan idea has cachet and followers. Veganism is a movement.

The ambiguities here don’t form an insurmountable obstacle to the concept of veganism or the vegan movement. They arise because the meaning of the term “vegan” has evolved and become more complex over the years. In future posts I will look at some definitions of veganism over the course of the history of the vegan movement.


17 Replies to “Defining veganism: is veganism ambiguous?”

  1. Your premise in the above, seems to ignore the concept that being vegan, is also defined as not consuming animal flesh or animal products – sustaining oneself on a plant-based diet. On this basis, some of your examples lose all abiguity. I don’t see the need to confuse things. We are either concerned with respecting and caring for other creatures and our planet or we are content to stay unconnected to creation, living in the ‘Matrix’.

      1. No, not if he isn’t really vegan, homelessness does not change ones faith, morality, ethics, only choices do. It is like saying you are a Christian or a Muslim, but when times get difficult you turn your back on that faith and become an atheist. I think the person you are describing is not concerned with being vegan or have any notions of ahimsa at that point, and so the scenario becomes irrelevant!

        1. I’m trying to agree with you, but you’re resisting.

          Scavenging in this case clearly doesn’t harm animals, whereas going hungry would harm at least one animal — the homeless human. The definition of “vegan,” as it is actually used, is slightly ambiguous. In most cases the ambiguity doesn’t matter; in this case, it does.

          1. Keith, I realise now that this post was purely an academic exercise to encourage a debate on semantics. I agree with you, where you state, “scavenging non-vegan bread rolls would be ethical, but not vegan” as the individuals ethics may allow them to make such a choice. The hypothetical scenario assumes that the scene is devoid of all other human involvement, no-one for him to turn to to ask for help, no alternative, just a dumpster in it’s own separate universe. No other possible source of any kind of nutrient. Thankfully, such a place does not exist.

            What this does make me realise, is that I should no longer call myself ‘vegan’, especially if others, have their own meaning for the label. The first of our ‘modern day’ vegetarians, abstained from all animal products, though they later had to coin the term ‘vegan’ because others of their company desired eggs and dairy on their menu. So, maybe I will have to resort to ‘strict vegetarian’ from now on.

            Though I should add, diet is not the main inspiration for what I consume, wear and choose to possess. Foremost is my faith which demands respect for all sentient beings, starting with myself, and the desire to treat all others as I would like to be treated. This is why I no longer call myself Christian, because this is such an ambiguous term. As we know, one can worship the man Jesus, yet choose to ignore the message he brought. A number of people have told me that they are 90%, 80% etc. vegan, wanting the label without full commitment.

            So what is the value of a label or movement if it is so ambiguous? It seems the way of people is to use language how it suits them regardless of original meanings, though I appreciate that this is how language evolves in the long term. So in the end, it is not what one calls oneself, but what one does, and the reasons they do it. We are not here to judge.

          2. Mark,

            To fully respond to you would require another post, or several posts — I am planning at least one additional post, just on this subject.

            Yes, this discussion is academic and semantic, but it’s not just about words; it’s about how our brains process information and how this causes us to act in the world. When we realize that our brains are processing information in an odd way, it produces confusion and bewilderment. We try to “straighten out” the concept, but it is more difficult than we thought.

            That doesn’t mean that animals aren’t suffering and that we shouldn’t do something about it. Sometimes labels, even ambiguous labels, are quite useful; think of “justice” and “beauty,” for example. But what label shall we use? “Vegan,” “vegetarian,” or something else? This is not just a semantic question, but a social and political one as well.

            Actually, yes, sometimes semantics DOES matter, and in future posts I hope to discuss some cases where it has changed the history of religion — in the case of Buddhism and the first precept, and in Christianity in the case of meat sacrificed to idols. In these cases a semantic problem later became solidified into a culture and a social movement. That, rather than the actual semantic issue, is the real problem.

            I agree with you about the term “Christian,” though. It now sends the wrong message to EVERYBODY. “Oh, no, you’re one of them,” they think, and I want to respond, “No! No! You’ve got the wrong idea totally.”

  2. I’ll go with the original meaning of the word.
    Donald Watson who coined the word described it as TRYING not to hurt animals in any way.

    1. James, if that really is the case, then most folk on the street could be called vegan. How many people, if asked whether they loved animals and if they would do all they think they could to avoid hurting them, would say no? From experience, not many I reckon. So your choice of a definition that is purely relative, is virtually meaningless as such. If I go into a restaurant and tell the staff I am vegan, I would be quite upset if they then suggested their home raised and butchered pork. They could well say that they were vegan too, as the pig had a good life, and was slaughtered lovingly, as they “try” not to hurt animals. Maybe those who desire to stop all animal suffering and abuse therefore, need to coin a new term, one that is not so “ambiguous”?

  3. Keith, I loved this post. When there are so many people getting stuck on the definition of vegan, when ethics is as important an issue as being a ‘pure’ vegan. Being obsessive about never allowing a molecule of animal to pass your lips is fine, but if that effort takes up all your energy and time, the animals dying by the billions aren’t being helped. Pretty sure the animals on death row would prefer an activist who ate a dumpster dived non-vegan muffin either protesting or doing some kind of activism which would directly help (be their voice, rescue, perhaps) their plight than obsessing about how pure that human’s diet is.

  4. What strikes me is that Mark considers being a vegan a religion. Keith seems to consider it an ethical stance (a personal philosophy?), which I think from observation he takes as seriously as if it were a religion, but processes more cognitively. Neither position is right nor wrong. To me wasting an already sacrificed animal or food gained from an animal like milk or eggs is worse than taking it from the dumpster and using it.

    1. That seems a fair observation but actually being ‘strict vegetarian’ is one part of my walk of faith, not a religion in it’s own right. Your last point, taken to a logical conclusion implies (because, like so many of us in the overfed West) that dead animal or animal excretions must equate to food! Though promoted through tradition and culture, this is still a false and extremely unhealthy belief. So if we stumble across a dead animal or person, it could be argued, more moral to consume it than to let it’s death go to waste. If you see the animal products or their flesh as sacrificed, would it not follow that you should go to the butchers and buy ‘meat’ so as to avoid lives being wasted?

  5. I do not like that the real meaning of veganism has been twisted so much to the point to where we are arguing over semantics. My being vegan in my perspective is doing what I possibly can to avoid harm to ALL animals and taking a stance that I’m against everything that is abusing the animals, harming animals, torturing animals, depriving animal from their natural habitat, isolating animals, murdering animals etc and avoiding in all possible ways anything that contributes to a cause that does any of those things to animals. Such as buying food or leather furniture or Colgate brand or a wool coat etc is a contribution to an industry that does all kinds of harm to animals including of course murder the animals and so I do not buy anything that contributes to that.

    1. Not everyone needs to understand the history of veganism or the nuances of different definitions. But vegan intellectuals should be aware of these so that the word will not be misused in dangerous ways.

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