why I became vegan

Here’s the second in a series of posts on vegetarianism & animal welfare.

If you spend any time at all in the veg*n (vegetarian and/or vegan) areas of the internet (websites, blogs, message boards), you learn the ideological territory pretty quickly. For people who recognize and take seriously the ethical problems surrounding food animal production, there are four basic possible positions to take.

First, there are two vegetarian positions (I use “vegetarian” to refer to lacto- and/or ovo-vegetarians, who do not eat animal flesh but do eat dairy and/or eggs).

A: You can be a vegetarian because you think that animals have rights against being killed.

B: You can be a vegetarian because you wish to decrease the amount of animal suffering involved in producing meat.

Second, there are two vegan positions (Vegans eat no animal foods of any kind. Strictly speaking, vegans are a subset of vegetarians, but usually “vegetarian” is used to mean non-vegan vegetarians).

C: You can be vegan because you think that animals have rights against being used for human purposes.

D: You can be vegan because you wish to decrease the amount of animal suffering involved in producing all animal foods.

(Disclaimer: I am simplifying a little here. Some people become veg*n for health or religious reasons, for example)

There are convincing arguments available for persuading type A vegetarians to change into type C vegans, and type B vegetarians into type D vegans.

On the rights-based (A & C) front, it seems ludicrous to think that whatever it is about animals which gives them rights against being killed does not also give them rights against being caused to suffer. If it is wrong to kill a cow, for instance, because cows are fairly intelligent and sensitive creatures, then it is hard to see why that same intelligence and sensitivity does not prohibit forcibly and repeatedly impregnating female cows and then separating them from their newborn calves in order to produce milk. So there is some pressure to think either that animals have a more inclusive bundle of rights or no rights at all. If you are vegetarian already because you believe animals have some rights, then on this fork you are forced to the former conclusion: that animals have more rights than you previously judged. They have rights not to be treated in ways to which they would not consent, or for human ends, or whatever. And, this more inclusive set of rights prohibits not only the consumption of animal flesh but of all animal products. Which is just to say that if you’re vegetarian because you think animals have rights, you have generally the right thought process but the wrong conclusion, and the proper conclusion to draw is actually to become vegan.

However, I never really thought that animals had rights, against being killed or anything else. By summer of 2008, I had become a type B vegetarian, or a “welfarist” vegetarian.  I was newly sensitive to the amount of suffering that is routinely inflicted upon food animals, and I disapproved of it. However, the move from welfarist vegetarianism to welfarist (type D) veganism is an even quicker one than the rights-based argument above. Basically, all you have to do is observe that the empirical facts of animal food production are such that there is at least as much suffering involved in the dairy and egg industries as there is in the meat industry. I don’t need to rehearse the particulars of this claim (just see PETA videos if you want the dirty details), but it is obviously true (if not necessarily true, at least true in the case of current animal production methods). That means that, from a welfarist perspective, dairy & eggs are at least as morally bad as meat, and you should stop eating and buying all of it.

So, after a month or two, I decided that it was not rationally defensible to be merely vegetarian on welfarist grounds, and I became vegan. I spent about 9 months eating vegan, and it was not too difficult for me. But, ultimately, I switched back to a semi-vegetarian or “flexitarian” diet. I’ll explain the reasons for that switch in the next installment of this series of posts.

Comments from veggies and non-veggies welcome :-)


  • If you hold B or D couldn’t you simply eat animal products from humanely treated animals, assuming that the foods are accurately labeled? It seems extreme to me to go from B or D to cannot eat animal products. Obviously if you hold A you cannot eat meat. And obviously if you hold C you cannot eat animal products. But B and D seem to be weaker in those regards.

  • Hey Robert, sorry for the huge delay, I have been slacking off. You’re right that B & D are weaker, and veganism doesn’t really logically follow from the arguments as given. But there a few things vegans usually say in response to the suggestion that we just buy humanely treated animal products. First of all, there is the accurate labeling issue, which is huge. But even if you assume that away, there are still some welfare problems inherent to animal production, particularly on a large scale. For instance, dairy cows must be impregnated in order to lactate, but then the baby cows are taken away from them so they don’t drink the milk that is to be sold. This is quite distressing to both mother and baby. When the baby is female, she might go on to be a dairy cow, but there are not enough resources to keep all the male babies around too. There are similar problems with producing eggs (unwanted male chicks). And while it might be possible to raise cows, pigs and chickens for meat humanely, it is even more grossly inefficient than factory farming in terms of feed/land/water required per calorie of meat produced. This introduces issues of social justice: so only rich people can have animal foods? Why try to shame poor people out of buying animal products they want and can afford? So at this point, many vegans (who also believe that being vegan is nutritionally adequate and that animal foods are only for taste) draw their conclusion that purchasing/consuming all animal foods is morally unacceptable. So basically, you’re right, but the matter is more complicated than it might appear.


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