[Commenting note: This one is for people who are basically on board with animal rights (whatever their personal dietary limits). If you personally believe that animal suffering is not something people in general should change their diets about, kindly don’t comment.]
I’ve noticed that there are basically two strains in vegan advocacy. One tends to be more consequentialist (“eating animals causes animal suffering, which is bad”); another tends to be deontologist (“we have a rule that says no eating animals and everyone should follow it”). In my opinion, consequentialist veganism is awesome, but deontologist veganism is legitimately harmful to the cause of animal rights.
First, it treats all animal products as if they are the same. For instance, some vegans say that honey is off-limits, while others insist that no true vegan eats bivalves. This is absurd. Harvesting honey does not usually involve harming bees, and from an ethical perspective, bivalves are basically a form of plant. A sensible consequentialist realizes that if we care about animal suffering, then you can slurp down oysters with a honey chaser to your heart’s content. But it violates the “no animal products!” rule, so a whole bunch of people have to give up tasty food for no reason.
Second, deontologist veganism is an all-or-nothing philosophy. In my experience, ex-vegans seem to go back to eating the standard American diet. Many people stop being vegan for sensible reasons: they were deficient in nutrients, they were fatigued and depressed while vegan, they moved back home with their parents who refuse to buy vegan food, or they were a guest in a culture in which refusing food causes great offense. But instead of experimenting to see how they can reduce their meat consumption and preserve their mental health or enjoying the meal their hosts offer and returning to veganism, they go back to having hamburgers for lunch and chicken salad for dinner. This is particularly bizarre, because you would think vegans had already done the hard part (overcoming omnivores’ resistance to the idea that their tasty food was produced in horrifyingly bad conditions).
The reason, I think, is that deontologist veganism doesn’t let people think in shades of gray. Because deontologist veganism involves a single rule– no animal products– people fail with abandon. Consequentialist veganism lends itself to a harm-reduction stance. It asks: can you be vegan at home, or until 7pm, or three days a week? Can you get your animal-product needs met with bivalves and dairy? Can you cut out chicken and eggs, which cause a disproportionate amount of harm? By meeting people where they’re at, consequentialist veganism can result in a much greater overall reduction of animal products.
Third, deontologist veganism involves making weak arguments. In general, consequentialist vegans tend to be opposed to animal suffering; conversely, deontologist veganism tends to be opposed to animal exploitation. Nearly everyone accepts that it is wrong to make animals suffer: they oppose starving cats, forcing dogs to fight each other, or pulling the wings off flies to see what will happen. Most people, however, do not accept that animal exploitation is wrong: they don’t agree that “animals exist for their own reasons and belong in their own habitat with other members of their species… animals themselves belong in their world, not ours, with the freedom to live as they choose.”
Personally, I think that factory farming maintains itself because of omnivores’ collective denial. If the vast majority of people genuinely understood, without flinching away because they don’t want to have to make personal sacrifices, what the animal that produced their chicken pot pie or omelet went through, they would become lacto vegetarian instantly. Attempting to break down this wall of denial is a difficult task. However, it is not helped by deontologist vegans complaining about domestication or using animals as a means rather than an end. We don’t want omnivores to think those silly vegans object to farming because the nice friendly family farmer they see on the egg carton doesn’t respect the animal’s autonomy and sexually assaults the cow by milking it, when in reality we are objecting to animals being tortured.
I don’t see deontologist veganism in the wild very much, because I am lucky enough to be surrounded by sensible consequentialists. But the general cultural idea of a vegan is still a deontologist, and this irks me. Deontology sucks.