“Veganism is more than a diet, it is a social, political and ethical movement” (Gibert, 2015, p.158).
If you are the kind of person who would agree with Matthieu Ricard’ definition of altruism, you would also share the idea that altruism is a motivation to enhance the wellness of others through empathy. But to whom does one owe that altruism and how should one apply it? That question remained in the back of my mind for a while after we discussed altruism in some class I was taking last December. As a vegan I was wondering if I had a more altruistic lifestyle than my peers and if I did, to what extent. I wanted to explore the question of the altruistic impact that vegans have on society in general and the environment and also where the animals would be in that conception of altruism. Veganism is in definition a way of living, choosing and thinking that seeks to exclude as much as possible all form of exploitation and cruelty towards all animals in terms of products and by-products such as food, clothing, cosmetics and entertainment.
According to the Vegan Society, veganism is an old concept, but the word itself was only invented in 1944. Before that, no word could describe this lifestyle even if it had existed for far longer and people simply used the term vegetarianism to define diets and lifestyles that excluded animal flesh and, for some, animals by-products. Unfortunately, vegans can sometimes be viewed as marginal people who do not conform and disagree with the symbol meat represents. The representation of meat can even be perceived as the ideology that is called “carnism” which was first coined by Melany Joy, a social psychologist and vegan activist, in 2001. She defines carnism as the dominant and invisible ideology that explains how someone can feel empathy, love and compassion for certain non-human animals such as for pets, but at the same time can use others as food, clothing and entertainment.
Working hand in hand with carnism, cognitive dissonance allows humans not to think about the provenance of their food, to forget that their meat was a sentient animal. According to Martin Gibert in his book « Voir Son Steak Comme Un Animal Mort », the process of cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort one experiences when two of his or her beliefs, or one belief and one action, are contradictory. To resolve that contradiction, the human brain uses avoidance strategies, which are also part of carnism and people use the argument that it is natural, necessary and normal to eat certain non-human animals (Joy, 2015). As cited in Gary Francione’s book Animals as persons: essays on the abolition of animal exploitation, 2/3 of Americans claim that animals should have the same right to live free of suffering as a human and 50% Americans view animals just like humans in many important ways. And yet, simultaneously, the United States kill more than 8 billions of animals for food yearly to feed that same people.
As Jeremy Bentham, an utilitarian philosopher, once said, the question is not about their ability to talk, or their ability to reason, but about the non-human animals’ ability to suffer or what is called sentience. That ability is the only ground on which one should base the consideration they give to beings. Society already attributes that ability to pets because of the closeness, care and the relationship shared with them, but somehow the majority of people refuse to consider cows, pigs, and chicken’s interests. However, they, just as much as humans, have an interest to live and are self-aware (Francione, 2008, p.142). That is the reason why, according to veganism and the many schools of philosophy it can be linked to, human beings should recognize the non-human animals’ rights and thus not use them as property or food. Vegans do just that by not consuming animal products.
Once one agrees that veganism is altruistic towards animals, he or she has to understand that they do not only have a moral responsibility towards animals, but also towards other humans. Gibert explains how being vegan is not as misanthropic as it would sometimes seem. He mentions an Italian stufy done by Filippi, Riccitelli, Falini, Di Salle, Vuilleumier, Comi and Rocca in which they compared omnivores, vegetarians and vegan’s brain and their empathy quotient when showed images of both humans and non-human animals in situations of difficulty. The result was surprising, as vegetarians and vegans’ empathy related area of the brain was more activated than omnivores’ for both the human and non-human images. Are vegans and vegetarians more sensitive by nature to others or are they only more aware of their suffering resulting in more empathy for them? This study also shows that once one feels empathy for animals, it will reflect in his or her empathy for humans as well.
Veganism is also a solution to speciesism, which is the discrimination of others on the ground of their species. Speciesism is often compared to racism and sexism since they all reject a group of individuals from equal consideration (Gibert, 2015, p. 188). By including animals in the moral circle that already contains all humans, women and people of colour included, one does what Gibert calls inclusive humanism. By considering non-human animals, one gives justice and equality, the same that he or she gives humans.
Another benefit of veganism is environmental. With global warming becoming a threat to human and non-human lives across the world, the question can be asked to what can be done. It can be seen as altruistic to be concerned about daily habits and the impact it has on the environment such as water usage, recycling and fuel consumption, but what if the best individual practice was veganism ? Baroni, Cenci, Tettamanti and Berati did a study based on the environmental impact of the different types of diets. Their conclusion was that a vegan diet based on organic products had the smallest environmental impact. Also, using the same method of production, the more a diet contains meat, the greater the environmental impact. Beef has the greatest impact, followed by cheese, milk and fish.
The use of animals for food cannot be sustainable because of their very high consumption of ressources; one calorie of beef needs 40 calories of grains. Animals need also a lot of water, not only to drink, but also to grow their food, clean the stables, the milking halls and the slaughterhouses; according to World Watch, they are responsible for 70% of fresh water consumption whereas 8% is used for domestic purposes across the globe. In fact, not eating a pound of beef would be more effective than not showering for six months! According to Baroni and his peers’ study, because a vegetarian diet contains cheese and milk, which are second and third in the high impacting food, a vegan diet would be best to minimize one’s environmental impact. In sum, a vegan will a have environmental footprint more than two times less than a omnivore.
But, humans tend to do things for their own benefit. Thus, it is hard to tell someone to stop eating animals for the better good and for altruism. And people love their bacon, so that person will refuse to go vegan because that statement of altruism would shake his or her carnist beliefs. People learned to love meat, associate pleasant memories with it and learn to love pets at the same time. Unfortunately, in the North-American society, where veganism would be a solution for social and environmental problems, people are so deeply attached and used to eating meat that they prefer to keep their habits without really minding about the animals. It is somehow radical to refuse a diet that has been established for centuried and is shared by the vast majority of society. Also, one must not forget that eating meat is a social behaviour (Fidded, 1994). As soon as someone deviates from that norm, they are marginalized and perceived as different and people do not want to be marginalized. Humans like to belong and share a meal with family and friends. But when someone makes the choice to not consume animal products, they are separated of the group anymore and that is the problem with veganism.
But the good news is that veganism is gaining popularity and is less and less marginalized. Small and large companies create new interesting alternatives. For example, Ben and Jerry promised dairy free product in June 2015 for the following year. Vegetarians and vegans grow in number every year and more interestingly, 36% of the American population was open to plant-based diet, a major component of veganism. These omnivores still send a message to companies saying that they want more meat-alternatives and plant-based options and that is significant. The question now will be: why are you not vegan ? rather than: Why are you vegan ?
*I highly recommend Martin Gibert’s book “Voir son steak comme un animal”, Renan Larue’s book “ Le végétarisme et ses enemies” on vegetarian and vegan history.
*Article written in December 2015. This is only the short version. Sources available on demand.
*Special thanks to JF Tanguay and Marjolaine Rivard.