Defining veganism: a quick history

This was delicious. How exactly have people defined the term “vegan”? Let’s start with the end result, or rather, two end results: two definitions of “vegan,” one from the Vegan Society and the other from the American Vegan Society (AVS).

Donald Watson and his wife Dorothy coined the term “vegan” and presented it to the world in 1944. In The Vegan News of November 1944, the very first newsletter of the Vegan Society [Update 1/16/2020: this website no longer exists] Donald Watson referred to “non-dairy vegetarians,” and said this:

We can see quite plainly that our present civilisation is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilisations were built on the exploitation of slaves, and we believe the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals’ bodies.

However, the newsletter did not have an official definition of veganism. In fact, there was no formal definition until nearly seven years later, in 1951. Twenty-eight years after that (1979) the definition provided by the Vegan Society had gone through several permutations and had solidified into what we have today:

Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

This definition excludes all animal exploitation, with the only the qualifying factor being the ability of the individual vegan to carry this out.

The American Vegan Society, founded in 1960 by Jay and Freya Dinshah, has a quite lengthy definition [Update 1/16/2020: this web page no longer exists] that takes a more pragmatic turn; it spells out the criteria of veganism.

VEGANS (pronounced VEE-guns) live on products of the plant kingdom. Veganism is compassion in action. It is a philosophy, diet, and lifestyle.

Veganism is an advanced way of living in accordance with Reverence for Life, recognizing the rights of all living creatures, and extending to them the compassion, kindness, and justice exemplified in the Golden Rule.

Vegans eat solely from the plant kingdom: vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. Vegans express nonviolence towards animals and the Earth.

AVS promotes good health practices and harmonious living.

Vegans exclude flesh, fish, fowl, dairy products (animal milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, etc.), eggs, honey, animal gelatin, and all other foods of animal origin.

Veganism also excludes animal products such as leather, wool, fur, and silk in clothing, upholstery, etc. Vegans usually make efforts to avoid the less-than-obvious animal oils, secretions, etc., in many products such as soaps, cosmetics, toiletries, household goods and other common commodities.

So what’s the difference? Well, here’s one obvious difference between these two definitions: the Vegan Society’s definition is a lot shorter. The AVS definition is much longer, in fact much too long ever to be put in a dictionary. But the AVS definition is also much more specific — you immediately have a list of things which are, or are not, vegan.

Let’s think about all the ambiguous cases mentioned in my previous blog: eating roadkill, the homeless scavenging discarded animal products from a dumpster, eating (possibly nonsentient) oysters, eating honey, and eating animals not specifically bought by you or killed for you. With the Vegan Society definition, you might be able to argue that these are not exploitation or cruelty, or that avoiding them was not possible or practical. But the AVS definition specifically excludes all of them. Meat, dairy, honey, and so forth are not vegan because, by definition, they are not vegan.

The much more compact Vegan Society definition isn’t nearly this specific, but just says that all forms of exploitation (however manifested) should be excluded, “as far as is possible and practicable.” If you look at the rest of the web page giving this definition, though, they mention many of the same forms of animal exploitation that the AVS mentions should be shunned, and others besides — honey, leather, animal experiments, and so forth. The difference is that the Vegan Society presents these implications as consequences of their definition (with the caveat that it is “as far as possible and practicable”), whereas in the AVS definition, these implications are part of the definition itself. The price of their more compact definition is a very slight increase in potential ambiguity; you need an argument to get from the definition to the application of the definition.

There is a second interesting feature of these contrasting definitions: the introduction of other motivations for veganism, other than the ethical motivation not to harm animals. It appears that part of the motivation behind veganism is now health and the environment as well. The AVS definition specifically mentions “good health practices,” “philosophy,” and “nonviolence towards animals and the Earth.” If you look at the Vegan Society magazines from 1944 forward, you see a similar progress, as the motivations for veganism are expanded to include “nutrition” and “vegan methods in agriculture.” No one is renouncing the nonviolence component, but now they have added other motivations as well.

The vegan idea has changed since 1944. Generally, the criteria of veganism have become more specific, but the motivations for veganism have become more diffuse. In 1944, we knew why we wanted to be vegan; it was about nonviolence towards animals. But we didn’t quite know what exactly that entailed; in fact, for about seven years there was no definition of “vegan” at all. By contrast, today we have a much better idea of what veganism entails — it’s an all plant-food diet which avoids (as much as possible) obvious activities or products that require animal suffering — but we have developed a different narrative of why we’re doing it. Or, to be more correct, we have started to add other motivations; we’re still sure about nonviolence, but are beginning to find other reasons as well.

In the case of veganism, the practice of veganism and the arguments for veganism appear to be evolving simultaneously. This is what is so mind-bending about trying to get hold of the history of veganism. Veganism is an ethical concept, but it is no longer “just” an ethical concept. The most important change was that health and environmental ideas were added, pinning the concept to an all plant food diet in addition to a diet and lifestyle which doesn’t harm animals. In short, the meaning of the term changed, even though its applicability stayed pretty much the same. The compact formal definition of the Vegan Society leaves room for argument, but as they are actually using the term, it is very close in intent to the AVS definition.

This change in meaning has been shaped very much by activists trying to spread the idea. Just saying “we don’t want to exploit animals” is nice, but is that all? In the case of veganism, the answer is “no, wait, there’s more.”

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