In the last few days, Gary Francione released a video entitled, Some Thoughts on the Meaning of “Vegan” (see below).
While the video is generally helpful, Gary makes a startling claim*: that you can be vegan without being concerned about moral issues (which isn’t straightforward, since as Gary has suggested, concerns over things like health and the environment can be moral – only they don’t include animal use in their limited morality):
It is not necessary for someone to be a vegan that they do it for only moral reasons… can somebody be a vegan – that is, someone who does not eat, wear or otherwise use animal products to the extent practicable – for reasons of the environment or health, the answer is “Sure.” It’s not just the case that the person can do it only for moral reasons. [Fillers etc omitted.]
Startling, because while Gary is aware that in the past, one of the founders of veganism, Donald Watson used the term vegan to refer to people’s diets distinct from whether or not they were vegan, he completely disregards the moral basis of veganism, evident from the beginning.
Even more startling because he’s apparently aware of this, given the Donald Watson material he’s reproduced.
In the fourth paragraph of the very first issue of The Vegan News (November 1944), for instance, Donald Watson raises it when he says:
We can see quite plainly that our present civilisation is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilisations were built on the exploitation of slaves, and we believe the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals’ bodies. Even though the scientific evidence may be lacking, we shrewdly suspect that the great impediment to man’s moral development may be that he is a parasite of lower forms of animal life.
A little later in the very same newsletter, Donald explains:
The object of our Group [The Vegan Society] is to state a case for a reform that we think is moral, safe and logical.
Later again, Donald makes the assessment that:
We are not by any means ignorant of orthodox dietetic theories, and in exercising our moral conviction we find we must refute some of these theories. We do so without fear because we feel that a moral philosophy combined with a dash of common sense is a more rational guide than theories hatched in vivisection laboratories.
While, as Gary has argued, the moral compass of The Vegan Society today is drifting, that’s a different issue to whether whether veganism has a moral base.
Even so, The Vegan Society’s 1979 Memorandum of Association describes veganism as:
a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
While this doesn’t explicitly say what the philosophy actually is, the history of The Vegan Society and the wording used clearly infer it’s a moral philosophy opposed to animal use.
Gary’s claim is also logically strange, since he presents veganism as a behaviour set, devoid of any fixed reasoning (with some similarity to the flexitarianism he so readily criticizes), as if it was created for no purpose other than to fashion a new trend.
Whatever Gary’s thinking behind his claim, it’s mistaken. If he wants to reserve the moral aspect of veganism exclusively for abolition, he’s appropriating it in a similar way to mainstream ‘vegans’ who have taken veganism from its rights based history to the utilitarian mishmash of today.
* While i call the claim startling, it’s not new: Gary has been making it for several years. Being confronted with it again, though, startled me all over.