“Being vegan is not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end. And for me that end is unconditional compassion: doing everything we can to make choices that cause the least amount of harm – both to ourselves and others.”
Colleen Patrick Goudreau, The 30 Day Vegan Challenge
Chapter 2 – Definitions
I thought this would be the quick and easy chapter, but instead I got side tracked reading up on Pythagoras and Buddha (more on that later).
In Chapter Two Colleen defines ‘vegan’, giving her readers a clear understanding of what she means when she uses the word. Definitions can be slippery. It is all too easy to assume everyone will understand the meanings of words in exactly the same way you do.
Until I started thinking about and reading further on some of the references in the chapter, I hadn’t really clicked to how important figuring out what ‘vegan’ (as a label or as a word) really means to the process I am now involved with.
An obvious place to start is with the man who coined the word in 1944 – Donald Watson. He wanted a word the would more clearly define and and incorporate the ethical component of vegetarianism.
“by taking the first three and last two letters of ‘vegetarian’, because, as Watson explained, “veganism starts with vegetarian and carries it through to its logical conclusion”
Colleen quotes Watson’s definition from an interview he gave to the Vegan Society in 2003 a couple of years before he died. I would highly recommend reading the full article, as it gives a great insight into this delightful guy and his approach to life.
” … a philosophy and a way of living, which seeks to exclude – as far as possible and practical – all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose … ”
Donald Watson, 2003
I find this definition interesting. For Watson, you have to live life in a way that is consistent with what you believe. A philosophy is a belief system, but it is one that can be coherently articulated, is internally consistent and well-thought out, arrived at by the application of reason , not just instinct and mindless cultural conditioning. Veganism is an approach that frees me to live my life more in line with the things I believe – my ideals and morality – my core understandings of right and wrong. It challenges me to figure out for myself what it is that I truly do believe and how committed I am to my moral code.
If I believe it is wrong to kill and abuse for pleasure then how can I justify eating products made from the breast milk of other animals? I know that in order for me to have cheese, milk is taken away from a baby, who is then either slaughtered as by-product or raised to go through the same cycle of abuse as her mother. Worse, this baby was brought into the world for only one reason, so we could take its mother’s milk. This is both exploitation and cruelty. We know that cows are sentient, that they feel both emotional and physical pain. Anything that can apply to dogs, cats or humans can apply to all mammals. We like to believe that we are somehow fundamentally different from other mammals, but our differences are more variation than fundamental; at least in terms of our ability to feel pain, form strong attachments, respond emotionally, and possibly even act intentionally.
An aspect I like about Watson’s definition is its pragmatism. This is an imperfect world, and each of us has our own set of challenges. In this view, the intention is what matters. We endeavour to live our lives in ways that as far as “practical and possible” do not involve exploitation and cruelty. Eating a plant-based diet is one of the simplest and fastest ways I can think of to start doing this (where I am currently at in my vegan ‘journey’). It costs me nothing, or at least nothing that has any value. It doesn’t matter how much this time last year I loved cheese, eggs, salmon and sushi, when measured against the cruelty, exploitation and environmental destruction carried out so I could ‘enjoy’ this so-called food, I am disgusted with myself.
I know that a lot of people define ‘vegan’ as simply behaviour – what you do or do not eat, but it is the ethical dimension that gives veganism its power and relevance. A vegan diet may make me healthier and hopefully live longer, but I think it has the power to make me a better person. As I start to calm down from the emotional upheaval of the past few months, as I work through the sadness and self-disgust, the anger and frustration of biting my tongue, as I learn more and see terrible, terrible things more clearly, I am starting to feel more connected to who I really am. I am starting to live more consciously. What I eat matters. I care about where my food comes from. I care about what is in it, and the conditions under which it was made. I have long loved food and cooking, but what I used to experience was superficial and selfish. The food on my plate and the way I spend my money is not all about me.
I didn’t start out to explore veganism motivated by an interest in health and nutrition, but I am developing one! I have read plenty of blogs by people who started out wanting to improve their own health and have ended up passionate about animal welfare, animal rights, environmental issues and/or human exploitation issues. Veganism enables me to step outside a conditioned cultural paradigm that I previously had a personal and vested interest in maintaining. I was part of the problem. I am starting to break the indoctrination that had held me captive for over 40 years. Ironically, veganism, by exposing me to the true horror that underpins our society, may also give me the power to take back control of my health – something I never expected.
Not that all vegans agree with each other – not even close. Some truly are only concerned with human health and nutrition. Others are very concerned with how farm and domestic animals are treated; they do not necessarily believe it is wrong to use animals, just that we cause them no physical harm, abuse or neglect. Then there are those who view this as a paternalistic relationship in which humans still try to assert dominance; they believe that all beings have a right to autonomy – to live free from all human interference. Others seem to fall somewhere between these two positions depending on species and/or situation. [This is my impression from reading vegan blogs over the past few months – am not entirely sure this is an accurate assessment.]
I am, as yet, uncertain what our relationship to other animals should be. I would definitely reject religious ideologies like Christianity that not only see us as dominant, but also somehow fundamentally different to other species. In fact, we share common ancestors with many different species. We all evolved together as part of the same ecosystem. According to the religion I was raised in, Christianity, human specialness and superiority is stated explicitly in the Bible. In the first book of that text, Genesis, the world is created for man. Even the first woman is created for man. All the beasts and the plants are created for man. This, the church teaches, is the will and desire of the one who made everything – God. In other words, God said the world was man’s property to use however he wants. [Europeans decided to narrow this to all ‘white men’ and to define people in places like Australia, the Pacific and Africa as part of the fauna, which gave them licence to take what they wanted. The humans living in those places were either property or vermin and like the rest of the land treated accordingly. Google the word ‘blackbirding’ and ‘Lang Hancock Aboriginal problem‘ if you don’t believe me.]
Interestingly, not all religions are rooted in ideologies of nature as property, which brings me back to my sudden interest in Pythagoras and Buddha. Certain religious philosophers based around the Mediterranean world and modern day India developed ideologies of purity and the rejection of violence, some of which like Jainism are still alive and well today. Not that they necessarily make complete sense in today’s scientific world view, but from the perspective of ancient times they do. People in the ancient world (and a lot of people even today) believed that there was some other non-material force driving or inhabiting the physical world.
In a world without scientific instruments to measure physical reality outside the scope of our five limited senses, the idea that spirits or souls reside within bodies of meat makes sense. Even today, millions of people still believe that we have a ‘self’ that can somehow exist beyond our biological brains.
I’m not sure how relevant or accurate this is, but those sects that practised non violence also seem to have practised greater gender equality than was typical for the society at large. I have also been surprised to learn how prevalent and important vegetarianism was to many of the leading suffragettes and early 19th century feminists. Susan B. Anthony was a vegetarian. Rosa Parks was a vegetarian.
“For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.” Pythagoras
“All beings tremble before violence. All fear death, all love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?” Buddha
“There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties . . . The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness, and misery.” Charles Darwin
I found this quote by Pythagoras has a lot of relevance to me right now:
“Concern should drive us into action and not into a depression.” Pythagoras