Do Vegans Have the Moral High Ground?

By Chaya Benyamin
 unsplash / Sylvain Reygaerts
*Updated 2018
Few lifestyle choices straddle the realms of politics, health, and environment as effortlessly as veganism. The movement is aspirational, promising ethical, environmental and physical equilibrium in exchange for giving up meat and animal products. With the explosion of celebrity vegans and global interest on the rise, it’s time to ask whether the ethical promise of veganism will make it as enduring as the Enlightenment, or if it’s a moral lightweight with the staying power of the South Beach diet?
Below, we’ll explore three ways veganism holds the moral high ground, and three ways it falls short.


Vegans are not morally superior to the rest of us.


Veganism is an arbitrary expression of ethics.

Treating food consumption as an ethical matter suggests that Vegans will make all consumer choices through the anti-suffering lens of veganism.  But this is not always the case. Whereas we might give vegans a pass on using smart phones powered by conflict minerals or for unknowingly wearing garments sewn by child laborers, we cannot ignore that Vegans seem wholly unconcerned with crop production’s main victims: human beings. Agricultural slavery is a widespread practice – it’s even been reported in the US.

The vegan who praises herself for eating fresh tomatoes over chicken cutlets may not realize that her tomatoes were likely picked by a migrant worker with no social benefits, who may have received only a 50-cent-piece rate for 32 pounds of fruit, who may suffer exposure to pesticides that have been associated with deformities in farm workers’ offspring, and who may have been a victim of sexual harassment. If one considers the human toil involved in producing plant-based diets, veganism has its own unintentional claims to cruelty.


Meat consumption isn’t patently unethical.

Biology drives all creatures to ensure their survival and continuation. Just as chimpanzees use sticks to harvest army ants, humans use their intellect to domesticate animals and ensure continued access to meat, the availability of which has underscored the success of the human species. Although these processes transcend ethical questions (it’s not unethical for a bird to hunt a worm, right?), humans have created laws surrounding the welfare and slaughter of domestic livestock, and a fair amount of animal products induce no animal suffering whatsoever. Free range chickens will hardly be bothered by the removal of their unfertilized eggs from the fields they roam, and merino sheep, who cannot shed their wool, are doubtless relieved to be shorn each year.


Veganism is perceived as elitist.

Successful execution of a vegan diet requires year-round access to a wide variety of produce, grains, and legumes, and the ability to purchase them. Unsurprising, the world’s highest concentrations of vegans live in developed countries, where these items are imported from countries with far less nutritional variety. Vegans supplement their diets with “superfoods” like with coconut water and acai fruit, while the people living in the locales from which these items originate sometimes thrive mainly on bananas (but hey, at least it’s vegan, right?). For poor communities in developed and developing nations alike, animal products are important opportunities for vitamin and calorie intake – nutritional opportunities that the poor cannot afford to miss. Vegan claims to the moral high ground evaporate with the ideology’s inability to be universally applied.



Vegans have the moral high ground.


Animals have conscious lives that merit consideration.

Any pet owner can attest to their animals’ distinct personalities and preferences. And while we might expect intelligent animals like elephants or wolves to express complex emotions like empathy, science is helping us to understand that the animals we may have previously dismissed as dumb in fact have complex social and emotional lives, too. A study of dairy cows showed they excreted higher levels of stress hormone when surrounded by unfamiliar animals. Another experiment revealed that hens have some understanding of numbers and time. As science provides more evidence for animal cognition and consciousness, we must adjust our treatment toward them accordingly.


Veganism promotes conscious consumption.

At its core, veganism asks us to pause and evaluate the consequences of our purchases. More than highlighting the necessity to treat living creatures with respect, veganism is an exercise in reconnecting the consumer with the origins of their food. This is a practice which may well help humanity navigate an era in which consumerism is fast outpacing the rate at which the planet can sustainably meet demands for food and other goods. Even if veganism alone is unlikely to remedy the suffering of farm factory animals or significantly impact the demand for low-cost animal products, raising awareness of the lifecycle of a consumed product (including one’s wardrobe!) is a necessary step toward new practices.


Some industrial farming practices are truly cruel.

Industrial animal farming may involve varying degrees of unkindnesses to animals. Livestock are subject to a range of painful mutilations, from branding to horn and tail removal to castration (most of the time, without anesthetic). In many instances, livestock and poultry are kept in appalling conditions, in enclosed, confined spaces that atrophy the animals’ muscles and bones. Imagine never being able to stretch out your legs or arms. Never seeing the light of day, or being genetically bred to be so fat that your organs quickly deteriorate under your own mass. These are the conditions in which many industrial farming animals live, and one does not need to believe that animals possess a complex psyche in order to understand that such conditions would cause any living creature to suffer.


Bottom lines: As an ethical premise, veganism is not without its shortcomings; it’s lofty and ultimately unlikely to yield an animal-product free economy. However, veganism does articulate a response to the unjust suffering of animals, as well as to the precariousness of consumerism run amok. While you might not see it as a moral high ground, do you think such efforts are commendable or mostly self-righteous?

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