FAQ for non-vegans

Q1.  What is a vegan?

A vegan is someone who refrains from using and consuming animals and animal products for any purpose, including food, clothing, and entertainment.

Q2.  Why should I be vegan?

Most people agree that it is wrong to cause unnecessary harm to animals.  However, most people behave in ways that cause animals unnecessary harm.  The only way to resolve this contradiction is to become vegan.

Q3.  Of course I agree that it is wrong to cause unnecessary harm to animals, but how can you say that am I causing them harm?

If you use or consume any nonhuman animals or their products, then you contribute to harming animals.  Here is just one brief example:

When you consume dairy products, you support the forced insemination of cows to keep them pregnant and lactating as much as possible.  Within about 24 hours of being born, calves are separated from their mothers, traumatizing both the cows and their offspring.  The calves will be slaughtered for veal at around 3–18 weeks of age, used to replace their mothers for dairy production, or simply killed shortly after birth.  This process is repeated over about 5 years, or 3–4 lactations, during which it is common for cows to develop osteoporosis, as most of their calcium goes into producing up to ten times the natural amount of milk.  It is also common for them to suffer painful mastitis in the udders.  Once their milk production declines and the cows are “spent,” they are trucked off to be slaughtered for consumption.  Many of them are pregnant at the time of slaughter.
The examples could continue on and on—the suffocation of fishes, the slaughter of animals used for clothing, the beating of trained animals for circuses, and so on—but the point is clear:  harms like these are essentially unavoidable when we use animals as mere resources or things.

Q4.  I don’t like that I’m contributing to those harms, but if we need to eat animal products in order to be healthy, then doesn’t that make it necessary to use them?

In order for it to be the case that a particular use of animals is more than trivial, there must be some need for it.  Certainly pleasure, convenience, and tradition do not constitute necessity.  Circuses, rodeos, marine parks, and other forms of animal-exploiting entertainment are transparently trivial uses of nonhuman animals.  And there are plenty of clothing options that do not involve animal use, from shoes and sweaters to coats and accessories, all made from synthetic or natural textiles such as cotton, canvas, hemp, plant-based leathers, and more, so we can’t say that it is necessary to use nonhumans for fashion.

Using animals for food may seem important in a way that these other uses are not, but even in terms of health it is unnecessary to use and consume nonhuman animals or their products.  The American Dietetic Association stated in its 2009 position paper that appropriately planned vegan diets are “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”  For more nutrition information, read the starter guide at bostonvegan.org/nutrition.

Simply put, animal use is unnecessary and it causes them harm.  Because causing unnecessary harm to animals is wrong, using animals is wrong.  Not using animals means becoming vegan.

Q5.  Back up.  I agree that unnecessarily harming animals is wrong.  And let’s say I agree with you that I am contributing to unnecessarily harming animals.  But cows, pigs, fish, and all the others are here for/bred for this purpose.  What’s wrong with using them?

We already recognize that certain nonhuman beings, like cats and dogs, share with us an important characteristic:  they are sentient.  They feel pleasure and pain, and they have interests, such as continuing to live and avoiding suffering.  It is unjustifiable to harm these animals merely to satisfy our comparatively trivial interests, such as pleasure and convenience.

But it’s not just those animals. Other sentient animals besides cats and dogs also have interests in continuing to live and in avoiding suffering.  Therefore, we have no justification for harming cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, fishes, deer, and other nonhumans, either.

Q6.  But I buy free-range, organic, and humane-labeled animal products.  If animals used by those sorts of operations are treated well, can’t I buy their products without causing unnecessary harm to animals?

The assumption that “free-range,” organically certified, and “humane”-labeled products come from animals who are treated well cannot be supported by fact.  These animals are used as a means to human ends and they are slaughtered to become products for consumption, both of which constitute harm to animals.  “Free-range,” organic, and “humane-raised” labels are attempts to make animal exploitation seem more acceptable and to help humans feel more comfortable using and consuming animals.  The only acceptable response to the fact that it is wrong to cause unnecessary harm to animals is to not use them at all, regardless of how they are treated.

Q7.  Well, those operations may not be so humane now, but can’t welfare reforms eventually eliminate the unnecessary harms that we cause to farmed animals?

There are two myths at work here in this sort of thinking.  The first is the notion that welfare reforms will meaningfully improve the treatment of exploited nonhuman animals.  But countless reforms over the past two centuries have failed to improve conditions for them.  On the contrary, tens of billions of nonhumans suffer today in more unimaginable ways than ever before.

Because nonhuman animals are human property, welfare reforms cannot provide meaningful protection for animals’ interests.  This is because any attempt to ensure that nonhumans’ interests are better protected must attempt to balance those interests against the economic and institutional interests of their human owners.  But because nonhumans are property, even their most significant interests can be (and are) trumped by the comparatively trivial human interests in profit and efficiency.  Attempting to “balance” the interests of a piece of property against the interests of a property owner is like trying to deal a fair hand of cards with a rigged deck—it simply can’t be done, because the mechanisms in place are fundamentally unfair.

Demonstrating this point, Professor Gary Francione’s long-term research has shown that because animals are human property, the only institutional reforms adopted are those that allow property owners to continue exploiting animals in economically efficient ways.  As a 2005 USDA Livestock Slaughter Inspection Training module puts it:

Prior to [the passage of The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act of] 1958 there were no laws in the United States governing humane slaughter practices.  The majority of the meat industry recognized the benefits of humane slaughter practices and their use was widely accepted.  Primarily there were economic incentives; humane treatment generally resulted in less bruising and therefore less trimming of the dressed carcass.
The Humane Slaughter Act of 1978 added some other handling requirements:

[…] “downers” cannot be dragged while conscious, workers are not allowed to physically retaliate against animals, water must be provided to animals at all times, and cattle prods connected to AC house current must be reduced by a transformer to the lowest effective voltage not to exceed 50 volts.
Putting aside the fact that these requirements are routinely ignored, as evidenced by videos widely available on the Internet, these minor adjustments to treatment still primarily benefit those that stand to gain from animals undamaged by handling.  For example, beating or dragging a pig or cow increases the likelihood of carcass bruising and reduced meat quality, which was the primary concern of the legislation to begin with.

Recent “humane” reform campaigns highlight this dynamic.  “Cage-free” eggs are still produced by birds who have had up to one-half of their beaks amputated without anesthetic.  Hens, though “free” from cages, are hardly free:  they are usually crammed into large sheds with tens of thousands of other birds, where they live in their own waste and suffer from a variety of painful ailments related to intensive egg-laying and confinement, even cannibalism, until they are slaughtered to be incorporated into processed foods.  And what happens to male chicks in the egg industry?  Because they are not bred for meat and are unable to lay eggs, over 200 million male chicks are ground up alive, gassed, electrocuted, or suffocated each year in the U.S. alone.

Keep in mind that it is not just how we treat nonhuman animals that harms them.  Even if it were possible to somehow eliminate the suffering inflicted on animals through the course of their use, there is still the second myth at work in the notion of reforming animal use:  that there is some way of using and killing nonhumans that is morally acceptable in the first place.  But using animals as our resources puts their interests below ours, and that in itself is a harm to them because some of their most important interests, including their interest in continued existence, are denied in favor of our trivial interests.  So, because using animals as our things and depriving them of their lives are harms to them, and because unnecessarily harming animals is wrong, we should not use them at all, even if they could be exploited in the gentlest of ways.

Q8.  But veganism seems so extreme.  Why can’t I just become a vegetarian?

Unlike veganism, vegetarianism contributes directly to animal use.  As previously established, using animals for our purposes is harmful to them and it is unnecessary.  For example, milk and egg production are directly harmful to animals, as observed above, and we do not need to consume dairy or egg products.  In order to avoid causing unnecessary harm to animals, we must avoid those products, as well as other products vegetarians tend to consume, like wool.

If veganism seems extreme, remember that this is only because we live in a society that considers it acceptable to exploit and slaughter nonhuman animals for trivial purposes.  Surely what is extreme here is the annual slaughter of billions of land animals and trillions of aquatic animals to satisfy our trivial interests in pleasure and convenience.

Q9.  Isn’t being vegan difficult?

There is no difficulty encountered by vegans that compares with the difficulties imposed on nonhumans exploited for our benefit.  As author Gary Francione has put it:  “If you think it is difficult to be vegan, think how difficult it is for the animals that you are not vegan.”

From a practical standpoint, the common perception of difficulty is simply incorrect.  Vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, and seeds can be found almost anywhere you go, and convenience foods are more common than ever.  We can clothe ourselves without using nonhuman skins, silk, or hair.  And we do not need to use personal care items—soap, shampoo, and so on—that use animal ingredients or that have been tested on animals.

From a social standpoint, while it might be awkward or uncomfortable at first to make such a major change in your life that others may not understand right away, this discomfort can be minimized or even eliminated.  Respectfully educate your colleagues and peers, plan ahead for events and meals with others, take charge of menus for social events, and so on.  Over time, experience will guide you through these situations.

Ultimately, even if a situation does feel burdensome, we should remember that this is a privileged viewpoint to take.  Surely we can manage these relatively small burdens in order to stand in solidarity with our fellow animals.

Q10.  I’m more concerned about human issues.  Why do you want me to put nonhumans first?

Justice does not require an either/or approach.  We must respect the interests of all animals, human and nonhuman.  Keep working on human issues, but there’s no reason to harm animals while you do so.  Refraining from using and consuming animals and their products will not prevent you from helping humans, and it doesn’t put one species ahead of another.  It is simply a matter of avoiding causing animals unnecessary harm.  Being vegan is the bare minimum we can to do to achieve this goal.

This isn’t to say that you should stop there.  Though veganism will bring your behavior into alignment with your beliefs about animals, all of us should be giving greater priority to justice for nonhuman animals than we currently do.  Their plight is urgent—56 billion land animals are killed every year for trivial purposes, along with trillions of aquatic animals—but few people give meaningful consideration to the most fundamental interests of nonhuman animals.  A widespread social movement that holds veganism as a moral baseline is the only avenue to encourage other people to take other animals’ interests more seriously and to become vegan.

When you participate in and help grow this movement by talking with others about veganism, you play an important role in ending the unnecessary harm caused to animals when they are used as resources.  This is something you can do in any walk of life, without detracting from your other work.  Just speak up!

Q11.  Okay, I can integrate veganism into my life, but I can’t do it overnight.  Is there another way?

Upon recognizing that using nonhuman animals harms them, many people do become vegan immediately.  When it comes to clothing and entertainment, this is simply a matter of no longer purchasing materials made from animals or animal products, and no longer supporting rodeos, circuses, and so on.

When it comes to food, don’t just cut the animal products out of your diet.  You’ll need to gain an understanding of a healthy plant-only diet so that you can make an “overnight” switch responsibly and sustainably.  Be mindful of how to source various key nutrients while eating a plant-only diet.  Plan for the shift in where your calories will come from so that you are still consuming the proper amount per day for your sex, age, activity level, and stage in the life cycle.  You may find it helpful to read the nutrition guide at bostonvegan.org/nutrition.  Search the web, borrow or buy some cookbooks, and choose some recipes that look satisfying, delicious, and fairly easy to prepare.

For those who simply cannot bring themselves to become vegan immediately for whatever reason, but who want to start moving as quickly and consistently as possible in that direction, the goal should be to remove all animal products from the diet in stages.  This is a true incremental approach that recognizes veganism as the goal, rather than cutting arbitrarily chosen animal products out of the diet one at a time.

For example, for cereal eaters, one approach would be to start by switching breakfast every day to plant-only meals.  Replace cows’ milk with almond, rice, or soy milk (whichever has the taste you prefer).  Choose cereals without dairy products (milk, whey, etc.), honey, and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol)—all derived from animal use.  Also, regular sugar is typically refined through the charred bones of animals.  Organic sugar, beet sugar, and evaporated cane juice do not involve the use of animal-derived charcoal filtering processes.

For a more balanced meal, consider oatmeal with walnuts, fresh or dried fruit, and ground flax seeds.  If you prefer a little sweetener, try brown rice syrup or agave nectar.

The following week, institute a vegan-only lunch menu.  Then, after two weeks of incorporating vegan meals into the rotation, eating plant-only dinners won’t seem daunting.

Q12.  Are there non-animal-derived alternatives to common animal products I currently use?

Yes.  It is important to remember that products simulating flesh, eggs, dairy, honey, and other substances are not necessary to human health or pleasure.  However, alternatives to animal products both eaten individually and used as ingredients are now widely available.

  • Flesh
    • Replacements for animal flesh range from deli slices and sausages to faux chicken and pepperoni.  Also consider less processed foods prepared similarly to animal products, such as orange sesame tofu or fried chicken-style seitan (“wheat meat”), many of which you can make at home with the help of recipes.
  • Dairy
    • Numerous milk alternatives have arrived on the market in recent decades.  Soy milk is available at most grocery stores.  For those who prefer to minimize their soy intake or who are allergic, alternative milks are made from almonds, rice, coconuts, hazelnuts, hemp, and oats.  You can even find soy and coconut milk coffee creamers, yogurt, and other products at natural food and specialty stores.
    • Cheese alternatives have made great strides as well, with Daiya being the newest entry.  It is soy-free, melts, and comes in cheddar and mozzarella.  Other brands can also be found at whole foods stores, including single slices and blocks.  But consider alternatives to using faux cheese on certain foods as well, such as guacamole or Red Star nutritional yeast on tacos.
    • A variety of frozen desserts are made from rice milk, hemp milk, soy milk, and even coconut milk.
  • Eggs
    • Creative chefs have written recipes that use tofu to create delicious omelets, scrambles, and even quiches.  Search the web or try out some cookbooks.
    • For baking, substituting eggs is simply a matter of using a replacement that provides the recipe with the same sorts of properties.  You’re not replacing eggs; you’re replacing what eggs do in the recipe.  Some of the many alternatives include ground flax seeds whipped with water (1 Tbsp:2 Tbsp), silken tofu, applesauce, banana, and Ener-G Egg Replacer, a product you can buy online or at local health food stores.
    • Instead of mayonnaise, look for Vegenaise at your local health food store, or find a recipe online.

A list of common hidden animal ingredients can be found here and here.  <http://www.happycow.net/health-animal-ingredients.html&gt;, <http://www.vegansociety.com/lifestyle/animal-substances.aspx&gt;

Q13.  This all seems doable.  But doesn’t becoming vegan mean I have to become one of those radical activists who pickets outside fast food restaurants?

Simply by becoming vegan you will play a direct role in abolishing the use of nonhuman animals as our resources.  You will also contribute to the goal of ensuring that no sentient being is ever harmed merely to satisfy our trivial interests.  But becoming vegan is only the bare minimum we can do individually to achieve this goal.

In order to abolish animal exploitation—thereby ensuring that no sentient being is ever again harmed merely to satisfy our trivial interests—many others like you will need to become vegan as well.  Only then can a strong social justice movement emerge on behalf of the right of animals not to be used as our resources.  To grow this movement, to accelerate the adoption of veganism, we must talk to others about veganism, too.

Promoting veganism doesn’t require supporting ineffectual welfare measures that actually reinforce the property status of animals, or picketing arbitrarily-chosen animal exploiting businesses.  It simply requires spreading the word about veganism at every opportunity.  Over time we can effect the sort of broad-based shift in thought that will grow the requisite support for abolishing animal exploitation.  Bear in mind that laws and legal systems are typically conservative, tending to follow social change rather than lead it.  Real change starts with us.  You can contribute to this revolution of the heart today by going vegan.

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