» May 4th, 2013

Are you still a vegan?

The question comes up a lot. It’s intended to be supportive, and could even be called a tacit expression of admiration. What it leaves me feeling, though, is frustrated by a common misconception of why people might choose not to eat animals. I’m not in any way criticizing those who ask the question. I’m only using it as a pretext for strategic thought about how to present our message. In any case, the question is, if you are vegan, one you’ve likely fielded. Happened to me on Thursday.

The immediate implication behind the question is that one would only become a vegan to serve ephemeral, human-centered goals such as weight loss or reduced cholesterol. While I realize that many people do become vegan for these reasons (and, in many cases, end up gaining weight), my sense is that they are the minority. Still, for those who become vegan because we’ve recognized, though whatever means, that the animals we currently eat have basic moral standing, these reasons are essentially irrelevant, if not sort of mildly insulting to the ethical mission we’re undertaking.

For what it’s worth, my answer to the question is invariably “why wouldn’t I be?”  And then I’ll say something to the effect of “I care too much about animals to eat them” or “the way we treat animals is awful.” The simplicity of this justification, I’ve noticed, can be disarming. Perhaps because I write about these issues a lot, or am employed as a professor, or occasionally toss off some fancy-pants language, there’s a sense that my choice, if it’s not for my health, must be for some obscure reason that my supposed access to some rare realm of expertise could only explain.  But it’s not. Even my nine-year old daughter gets it.  When her friends ask her why she doesn’t eat meat, she tells them, matter-of-factly, “I love animals.” And it’s true.

When we advocate for veganism, or when we have a chance to explain it to a non-vegan, we would be well advised to recall the elegant simplicity and intuitive truth of this justification. What amazes me when I encounter ethical arguments for eating animals is how utterly tortured they can be.  In light of the “animals matter” or the “I love animals” defense, the muddled nature of these defenses makes perfect sense.  Defending animal consumption, because the counter argument is so piercing in its clarity, requires some smoke and mirrors.

It seems that we could do a much better job sticking to our ethical guns (bad phrase), when the opportunity to do so presents itself. We have to take what we opportunities can without being an asshole about it. Advocating for a way of eating that runs counter to the roiling rapids of convention is hard enough work on it’s own terms. Nobody wants to be told that they’re doing it wrong.  Nobody likes to think you’re saying you’re more moral than they are. Nobody likes to be told that they have to give up grandma’s meatloaf.

But it they ask, we should at least give them the ethical meat of the matter.




25 Responses to Still?

  1. Paul Roppolo says:

    I am not sure you are correct. There are thousands of people who are plant based because of Forks Over Knives and the China Study, etc. I gave up animal products because nothing helped in improving my health until I went 100% plant based. My wife went vegan for the animals. We compliment each other.
    I am not a big animal person, but I hate to see them suffer. I like animals but never really had companion animals in my life unless my partner/wife had them. My wife and I have four cats and I enjoy their company.
    But one of the first things I did after going plant based was to read Eating Animals and watch Earthlings. I first went vegetarian for the environment after reading Diet for a small planet, but then strayed over time. I am now committed for life. My answer to anyone who asks me whether I am still eating vegan is – I can’t find a good reason not to eat a plant based diet. While I am not an ethical vegan…I cheer them on. I want to see them succeed. I think the growth of veganism is from the health side and I don’t think it is a bad thing. It will make the ethical argument more acceptable in time.

  2. Carrie Gobernatz says:

    I have a 10 year old daughter who is vegetarian like me her mom and she has no other kids in school that are vegetarians so it’s a little difficult for her. Wish I could get a club going where kid vegans and vegetarians could do things together, maybe something fun with animals ?
    I’m putting together a PET ED Class together to help teach kids how to treat all animals. I’m shocked to hear from her principle that there are no classes to teach kids about animals and pets. We need to educate kids and adults about what’s going on in the slaughter houses and the cruelty attached to what they are eating. AND how unhealthy it is.

    • 1848 says:

      Could you perhaps invite some of your daughter’s friends or classmates over to try some veg food and baked good samplings? It’s a lot of effort, I know, but I’ve often found that baking or cooking vegan with non-vegan friends makes it accessible to them. They’re often surprised at how non-dramatic it is, and the tasty results speak for themselves.

      It’s wonderful that you’re trying to get education going. If you reach out to just one or two other receptive classmates or parents, it could be a go. Good luck and keep us posted.

      • Carrie Gobernatz says:

        Great idea, I love entertaining my daughters friends. I have had her friends over and always have fun fooling them when they are eating SMARTDOGS instead of real hotdogs and they are all saying ” Oh these are good ” then I tell them that they are not eating meat at all. I did the same thing when I gave them burgers, they were woofing down these vegie burgers and were so surprised they were not meat. They do not seem to connect meat with the animals. We were all raised eating meat. After I educated myself while trying to stop horse slaughter here in Illinois I saw the inside of slaughter houses and what was really happening to our animals. I was so disappointed and MAD at our government for allowing the animals to be abused for our plates.

    • Karen Orr says:


      I learned about 12 year old animal advocate Thomas Ponce on the Our Hen House blog. Perhaps Thomas has some useful tips for your daughter.

      Pint-Sized Visionary: 12-Year-Old Activist Wants Us to Lobby for Animals

      “12-year-old Thomas Ponce doesn’t want us to just hope for change, he wants us to lobby for it. Those are the first words you see when you visit the website for the organization that this child visionary has co-founded, Lobby for Animals. The mission of this group is to encourage those who care about animals to get involved on a legislative level, by reaching out to policymakers and creating much-needed laws that reflect the values that most people have anyway.”

      Read the story at the link below and watch young Ponce’s video on lobbying tips.

  3. Charlie Talbert says:

    I like the simplicity and completeness of “I love animals”, but it doesn’t work for me.

    I don’t love animals generally, or for that matter, people either. My advocacy for both stems from the values of fairness and justice.

    So I say some version of “When I learned how unnecessary it is to harm and kill animals for food, I could no longer support it.”

  4. You have just reminded me of a situation I had with my best friend from high school and her children. One day, her daughter and oldest son (who were about 8 and 9 years old) asked me “Aunti Rye, why don’t you like meat?” At first I thought she said “why don’t you like me?” And I was mortified that she could possibly think I felt anything less than absolute adoration for her and expressed how much I loved her. Then she clarified, “Not me! MEAT!”. To my relief, the emotional roller coaster I had just experienced was suddenly facing a new curve, and the answer I gave was “Because I love animals.” It was the only thing I felt I could say. And even that was met with sharp rebuke from my best friend whose words I’ll never forget; “Don’t talk to my kids about that! I have to be able to feed my kids!”

    It remains a very painful memory, because this is my best friend and she loves dogs and cats and will not acknowledge this disconnect.

  5. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    I became a vegetarian the MOMENT I became AWARE that animals suffered and died so that they would be consumed by human beings. Before that realization, I never thought about this tragic fact. This was many years ago. Now I am vegan and am so pleased that this mode of eating is not unusual in my circle of friends and aquaintances, while still an anomaly in most of our country. I yearn to learn more and am grateful for all nutritional advice. The ethical/moral reason is the principal reason for my being vegan.

  6. Layne says:

    When my grand-daughter became vegetarian at age 13, we discussed how she explains it to those who ask why. She said “I just tell them ‘I feel bad for the animals’ and that’s all.”

  7. John t maher says:

    Loving animals or feeling bad for them or baristtic concerns for overly adipose humans are not the same as taking an ethical position that humans should not eat other animals. No comment do far has engaged with this ultimate issue in a decisive manner although carrie’s comes closest.

  8. John t maher says:

    “Bariatric” the auto correct feature caused that typos which I recently was amused to hear is called a Cupertino

    • CQ says:

      I always learn new words from you, John. Today I learned that BARIATRICS (thanks for correcting the spelling so I could look it up) is the branch of medicine that deals with the causes, prevention, and treatment of obesity. And that ADIPOSE means of, related to, or composed of animal fat.

      So what you’re saying, in plain English (for people like me) is: “… obesity concerns for overly fat humans…” Hm, I sure made that sound redundant, didn’t I? :-)

      My fallback answer to the question of why I’m vegan, when nothing original comes to mind, is this George Bernard Shaw quip: “Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends.”

      That said, I’m finding that more and more I’m introducing the “justice” perspective John mentioned. I see being “just” and “fair” as ways of “loving” (being kind to, having compassion for, treating generously) our nonhuman neighbors as ourselves.

      I think the motive behind our response can be “read” by the other person. We invariably sound inoffensive when we’re simply speaking our own truth with honesty and humility. But we may come across as preachy if our aim in answering the question is to persuade the listener to agree with us. I’ve done the latter too many times to count, and always regretted it. (That’s a distinction I probably picked up from a Colleen Patrick-Goudreau podcast or video.)

      Carrie, I hope your PET ED class idea is launched with great fanfare, builds momentum fast, and becomes a raging success.

      • markgil says:

        “We invariably sound inoffensive when we’re simply speaking our own truth with honesty and humility. But we may come across as preachy if our aim in answering the question is to persuade the listener to agree with us”

        although i agree with you CQ, this is just another case of speciesism as no one would ever consider you preachy if you were speaking out against dog fighting, rape, murder or any other kind of violence against humans.

        • CQ says:

          Yes, I definitely see your point, markgil.

          I imagine that as society continues to evolve ethically, we’ll one day reach the point where no one will be accused of being preachy on the subject of eating animals. Whether it be dogs or pigs or chickens or humans, forcing them to fight, killing them, consuming them, wearing them, experimenting on them, and otherwise violating them will all be anathema — and illegal.

          It helps me not worry about how listeners react when I remember that, whether they acknowledge it or not, they don’t really want to be “for” violence toward any one of any species for any reason.

          In other words, violence is never truly “palatable” to the moral man,* who is created to love (see above definition), not to fear or abuse or ignore or neglect or hate.

          *By “man” I mean both genders and all ages; I hope I’m not guilty of speciesism, sexism, and ageism here! :-)

          • markgil says:

            lol! thanks for your thoughts CQ. i agree that it the disconnect between what is on their plate and how it (formerly “they”) got there which allows many people to contribute to violence without being aware of doing so. then there are others who are so disconnected and apathetic that they do not even acknowledge the violence and suffering when they are directly causing it (hunters, backyard butchers, owners and workers in slaughterhouses & farms).

  9. Nick Pokoluk says:

    I just wish people would ask me more often.????

  10. Claire Charlton says:

    At the heart of this matter is the assumption that people simply do not care enough. On the one hand, they do not care enough about their own health to make the choice that is backed by more than 40 years of scientific study. On the other hand, they do not care enough about the lives of other sentient beings to cease the practice of growing solely for the slaughterhouse. To care about one creates automatic caring for the other. We need to put the two hands together, rather than part them forever. Each achieves the same in the end.

  11. J.B. Bird says:

    As a non-vegan looking in and experimenting (and sort of a good test audience for this question therefore), I really like all the answers here that seem to come from the heart, as most of them do, but particularly this answer from Charlie Talbert:

    “When I learned how unnecessary it is to harm and kill animals for food, I could no longer support it.”

    This is heartfelt, and for me it opens a door.

    • markgil says:

      thanks for caring enough to look into these issues yourself J.B.

      if you are interested in a great documentary on this subject, please check this out:

      • CQ says:

        Yes, I don’t know anyone who isn’t touched by this transformational little film. It’s got all the “heart” you’re seeking, J.B.

        Please keep offering your comments as our “test audience,” J.B. We need and appreciate your from-the-heart feedback!

  12. Bea Elliott says:

    When I first broke the news that I was vegan I was reminded about past hobbies like quilting and dabbling with exotic orchids and such… Using those examples of course was to berate my decision and trivialize the merit of my choice (read: hobby). I think it was intended to “jinx” me from the git-go.

    Well… Not only am I “still” vegan – But this life-affirming choice has renewed in me all sorts of pleasures and passions that were dormant before! I can’t explain it… There’s something about valuing the lives of others that makes your own that much more enriched and rewarding. Still vegan? Might as well ask “still breathing?”.

  13. When asked by fellow evo-bio students or professors/scientists, I usually give the following answer, and it always seems to get them thinking:

    “Suffering in conserved in vertebrates, and I don’t see the point in contributing to it.”

    • CQ says:

      I don’t understand. Even if you intended to type “Suffering IS conserved in vertebrates,” what does that mean, please? Thanks in advance for your explanation, Humane Hominid.

  14. Oops, sorry. Yeah, I meant suffering IS conserved.

    It means that the neurological basis for suffering has been inherited by all modern vertebrate animals from a common ancestor. Thus, we know that a cow’s or a chicken’s experience of suffering is very similar to our own (and this has, sadly, been verified by experiment), because the experience stimulates the same parts of their brains and the production of the same bio-chemicals.

    In short, evolution predicts that animals suffer very much like we do, for the same reasons and under the same circumstances.

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