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.