This is a follow-up to my previous essay on universal veganism but should be perfectly comprehensible without having read my prior post. Additionally, I will solely be dealing with socioeconomic privilege (related: consumer power, privilege to choose) in this post, as I am not yet prepared to speak about sociocultural factors.
If you discuss the merits of veganism, it’s likely that someone will point out that it is a privilege to be able to go vegan.
In fact, it requires privilege in several areas: time, location and money. To sustain a healthy vegan lifestyle, it is usually recommended to cook for oneself – this allows for savings (compared to a diet with animal products) in money, but takes up time. On the other hand, buying processed vegan meals saves time, but tends to be much more expensive than the meat alternative.
While I completely accept the criticism of veganism requiring privilege as being true, I’m unconvinced by how constructive it can be. In this post, I will explore a) how this criticism can be intended, b) what this truth means for ‘the vegan position’, and c) what we can really take away from all this.
Why do people say this?
Usually? People bring out this argument when a vegan is being judgmental – or, at least, when a vegan is being perceived as such. I’ll break this down into two scenarios:
1. Tone-deaf condescencion
In this case, I think this criticism is not only valid but needed. I will skip past the response that veganism can be cheap because even the cheapest of meals may not be easily obtainable or occur to someone who is overworked and exhausted. As such, this response still assumes a degree of privilege that does not apply to everyone; even if there are those who persevere through extraordinary circumstances.
For militant vegans who show a temporary lapse in empathy, the reminder that people are not equally privileged helps keep their ego in check. As such, this criticism serves to bring awareness to tone-deafness or a lack of self-awareness. This is important because moral superiority can not only alienate potential supporters (who wants to be associated with a racist movement?) but can be downright offensive, if not harmful. Being incredibly privileged myself, I will let the voices of other fantastic writers demonstrate the importance of acknowledging one’s privilege:
“Assuming that everyone has access to the resources and support system needed to become vegan erases the lived realities of many marginalized folks and plays right into the oppressive trope that anyone can” pull themselves up by their bootstraps. — Mahealani Joy for Everyday Feminism
“[White veganism] ignores issues of food security and rights from the prevalence of Food Deserts in low-income, PoC communities to the mass exploitation of farm and food workers.” — Vegan Voices of Color
“Rather than blaming low-income communities or populations of color for their lack of access, we need to see this as indicative of the institutional influence of large agricultural corporations on national food policies.” — Marissa Landrigan for Paste Magazine
“[…] vegans must understand the animals are not the only ones that suffer. The structural and interactional process of “mindless eating” exploits both consumers and workers.” — Jessica Beth Greenebaum, ‘Questioning the Concept of Vegan Privilege’
However, it must be noted that criticism intended in this way is mainly valid for the specific vegan being addressed. It is constructive to the vegan position (as opposed to the vegan movement, which is arguably very white) but indirectly so. This form of criticism encourages self-growth by serving as a broader reminder to an individual that they are forgetting to be compassionate to those who have less privilege. This is important because promoting more awareness, kindness and understanding in humanity is something for which we should all strive.
2. Arguing against veganism
It is in the second case—when intended to counter the vegan position—that this criticism is flawed. To summarise my last post, veganism does not need to be universally feasible to be a morally good decision. This is because there are two types of moral goodness: that which is necessary (obligatory), and that which is not (supererogatory). Veganism falls under the latter and as such its aim is not to force people who cannot sustainably go vegan to become vegan, nor do vegans believe that anyone who is not vegan is automatically an immoral jerk.
Indeed, this would not even be an issue if one examines the definition of vegan in a context broader than diet:
Veganism is a 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. — The Vegan Society
This means that if “as far as possible” means not being able to cut down on animal products at all, then so be it. Veganism is simply not a feasible lifestyle for you and as such whether or not you practice veganism is morally irrelevant.
But it is undeniable that many of us do have the ability to choose, amongst other things, our diet. So why not promote veganism amongst those capable of sustaining such a lifestyle? This would still lead to decreased environmental impact and animal exploitation, which would be an improvement.
Additionally, some that criticise veganism in this way do not suggest alternatives, like voting greener or abstaining from factory-farm products. So what should be done in place of veganism? Considering that a vegan lifestyle is meant to reduce one’s negative impact, completely discounting veganism due to a barrier of entry leads nowhere. Not providing an alternative is worse because it takes away one possibility for improvement without replacing it. This would, frankly, make our world a little worse.
Hence, the criticism that it requires privilege to be vegan and as such veganism should not be promoted is not constructive, because it is a dead-end.
What does this mean for vegans?
In case number one, it simply means that the person we are speaking to thinks we are being insensitive and thus, we need to check ourselves. Acknowledge that it is true that a degree of privilege is required to be vegan, but that this does not detract from the case to go vegan. This criticism is not directed to the vegan position but to you individually.
In case number two, the criticism is insignificant. It makes about as much sense to reject veganism solely due to the necessity of privilege as it does to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Those who argue against veganism in this scenario are not focusing on what really matters. The fact that veganism is not morally relevant to people for which it would not be feasible is not important.
What is important is that veganism becomes morally relevant when sustaining it would be feasible. The limits of feasibility are ill-defined, but healthy veganism isn’t terribly difficult to sustain so long as one has enough money for supplements, grains, legumes and so on. Note: I focus more on physical or financial limits than emotional ones simply because I don’t think veganism could ordinarily cause life-altering psychological harm. However, if one suffers mentally due to veganism, I would suggest that they prioritise their health over, say, a vegan diet.
For example, if someone only has enough money to live off of processed food, I’m not sure they could be sustainably vegan. If someone really likes chicken nuggets, however, I do think it could be feasible for them to be vegan. Do I think it is unfair to compare myself, someone who cares more about sweets than meat, with a meat-lover? Yes, I do. However, the fact that we both have enough privilege to consider going vegan is sufficient for being vegan to become morally relevant.
It is because I have more privilege that I should seriously consider going vegan. I have the time, money, peace of mind, and so forth that enables me to be vegan. As such, whether I am vegan does affect my moral character, because being vegan is feasible for me! The same goes for anyone who is similarly privileged.
Alternatively expressed, noblesse oblige—due to my belief in the social contract, I think that privilege includes responsibility to use that privilege wisely and compassionately. One such way is through a vegan lifestyle.
What can we do?
We must be more aware of how we portray veganism and be more inclusive. This means supporting and cheering on all kinds of vegans, not only spotlighting those who are privileged enough to spread delicious desserts on Instagram.
This also means that to help further our cause, we should aim to reduce income inequality and racial oppression. Those of us with privilege cannot justify the perpetuation of an unequal system simply because we have a responsibility to utilise our privilege in an ethical manner (i.e. veganism is not an excuse to not care about socioeconomic issues). These are all moral decisions that ultimately help further the goal of a cruelty-free society.
We need to develop empathetic attitudes and understand that the degree to which one can embrace veganism depends largely on external factors, such as class. As such, whatever steps one can take towards veganism should be praised. While it could be that those who are more privileged should be more accountable for not taking advantage of their privilege to move towards a more sustainable lifestyle, it is more pragmatic to accept that even minor emotional privileges (e.g. enjoying kale) can affect the likelihood of sustainable veganism. This might mean we should be less purist or pushy, and more open to the different balances individuals are open to at any one point in their lives.
Just because you’re not vegan doesn’t mean I am judging you for a lack of morals. Rather, whether you are vegan is simply one facet of your moral character. As pointed out above, there are many different moral acts that factor into moral judgment: striving to reduce income inequality might be one. In the case of an environmentalist who is not vegan, the impact of their non-veg diet could be mitigated—or even negated—by other factors, such as reducing food waste (although also going vegan would be even better). Sure, becoming vegan may per se be moral, but the morality of an act is not equivalent to the morality of your character.
Summary of takeaways:
- If someone brings up this argument to criticise veganism as a whole, redirect the conversation into a more productive one on what humankind can do to improve
- Acknowledge that veganism requires certain privileges and that since some of us have those privileges, we have the responsibility to use those privileges for good
- Pragmatic advocacy means not narrowly focusing on a single issue, but instead seeing that factors such as rampant consumerism, capitalism and inequality prevent our end goal from coming to pass
- For now, compromise (e.g. partial plant-based diets) might be the most effective way to bring about gradual change so long as everyone is doing their best
- Compassion, solidarity and a general striving to ‘be good’ is broader than just veganism, and is the real end goal
Tobias says it better,
P.S. – I’m wondering whether I should write more simply? I know that being concise and understandable is key to good communication, but it doesn’t come terribly naturally to me. It’s not like I’m aiming to produce educational resources for the masses (not yet!), but I feel like I could be more inclusive