Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, answers the question of whether everyone, from people with any disability to people belonging to any culture, can be vegan.
If like me, you have engaged in vegan outreach — via street activism or just talking to friends and family — you must have encountered this phrase: “I could never be vegan”.
We often brush away such a common statement when we remembered that this is what we used to say before we became vegan. However, is it right to assume that, if we could, everyone else must be able to as well? Are there people who cannot be vegan, and if so, why not?
To answer this question it would be good to remind ourselves what is the definition of veganism created by the Vegan Society: “Veganism is 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.”
A philosophy and a way of living. Two different things there. A philosophy — which is not quite the same as Philosophy, the branch of academia — is just a theory or reasoning that acts as a guiding principle for behavior. It’s not a behavior itself, but the organized thoughts and structured ideas people use to answer fundamental questions such as ‘who am I?’, ‘what is this?’, and ‘what should I do?’. If a philosophy answers the last question, now we can manifest such philosophy with a behavior. And if this philosophy affects a substantial part of our life, then the pattern of behaviors this would cause will constitute a way of living — or a lifestyle.
Therefore, in veganism, the lifestyle comes from the philosophy. It does not appear on its own. If it does, if someone behaves like a vegan by imitating the behavior of vegans without believing the philosophical principles of veganism, that person would be an actor, not a vegan.
When we ask the question ‘can anyone be vegan?’, we do not mean whether everyone can act as a vegan, eating what vegans eat, wearing what vegans wear, buying what vegans buy, or saying what vegans say. We mean ‘can anyone believe in the philosophy of veganism?’ Or, if we unpack this further, ‘can anyone believe that avoiding doing any harm to any sentient being is the right thing to do’, and therefore ‘can anyone believe in seeking to exclude all forms of exploitation and cruelty to animals is the right thing to do?’
Based on this, those who are capable to hold a philosophical belief could, in theory, be vegans, regardless of how they manifest this philosophy in the real world. But, can anyone hold a philosophical belief? Can anyone hold a philosophy?
The Puzzling Non-Vegan Vegans
If you think about it, some self-defined vegans may not be able to hold the philosophy of veganism all the time, and therefore they may have ceased to be vegans temporarily. For instance, a vegan in a comma. Or a vegan intoxicated with drugs or alcohol till the point of not being able to have coherent thoughts anymore. Perhaps someone undergoing a psychotic episode of some sort. Or a baby before it has grown the parts of the brain dealing with having philosophical thoughts. Even a vegan during deep sleep.
All these could behave as vegans do (while you sleep you are not supporting animal exploitation, you are not eating animal products, and, probably, you are not wearing any leather or wool), and yet, their temporary intellectual shutting down prevents them to hold the philosophy of veganism for a while. Therefore, they are either kind of non-vegan vegans if the behaviour is right but not the thought, or simply vegans who have temporarily disengaged their veganhood.
This is why I am an abstinent vegan, by the way. I don’t drink alcohol or take recreational drugs that temporarily disengage me from the active effort of avoiding animal exploitation. If I used these substances and I was still conscious, it is possible that I might behave like a carnist, without a mind alert enough capable to stop me. I wonder how many vegans have discovered the remnants of a lamb kebab in their clothes the morning after a regrettable drunken night. I rather don’t risk it.
What about nonhuman animals, then? If a person feeds their companion dogs or cats vegan food only, are these animals vegan now? What about natural herbivores who never fight with anyone in the wild? Well, they would only be if they hold the philosophy of veganism. Therefore, they may well fall into the same category as non-vegan vegans, as most people would think they are not clever enough to philosophise.
However, I am not so sure. How do we know if someone holds a philosophy or belief? Because such person will tell us. But what if there are no communication channels open (such as speaking a completely different language)? How do we know, then? We don’t. So, how do we know that non-human animals cannot hold any conviction or philosophical belief in their minds? There have different brains than us, and one may say that the parts of the brain scientist think are where philosophical thought reside, are either underdeveloped or not there at all.
But what about very simple philosophies, that do not require sophisticated mental rumination, abstract concepts, or complex reasoning? Maybe philosophies based on something very simple, such as avoiding harming anyone. I am not sure if we can be certain that only human brains can do that, and not the brains of a chimp, a dog, or a dolphin. I have seen anecdotal videos that show particular non-human animals going out of their way to help others in peril from other species, without any apparent potential reward for it. I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt and not deny them the possibility they may have some compassionate sense of right and wrong not too dissimilar to mine.
But back to humans, what about those people who have a physical or mental condition that prevents them to have a vegan diet (either because their doctors have told them or they believe this is the case), and yet they uphold the vegan philosophy, applying it everywhere else in their lives? Or people with any disability who think this prevents them from fully avoiding a type of animal exploitation, despite agreeing they would avoid it if they could? For me, they are still vegans, as is the philosophy that matters, not the behaviour. I could not possibly judge other vegans’ behaviour as “not vegan enough” without knowing what are the external and internal circumstances that affect their choices. Changes in lifestyle that were easy for me may be very difficult for others, so it would be prejudicial on my part to assume they are not vegan enough if they have not chosen the options I have.
There may be, of course, avid carnists or lazy vegetarians that simply use the term vegan wrongly when they use it to describe themselves, but this is another story about miscommunication and misunderstanding. I am talking about those who interpret veganism as I do, and yet their behaviour is not identical to mine. For me, if they hold the same philosophical belief as defined by the vegan society, they are also ethical vegans as I am.
The Persistent ‘Inuit Rationalization’
Sometimes we hear a variation of the “I could never be vegan” statement. Something like “they could never be vegan”. And that “they” may be, for instance, members of another culture, race, or community. I have heard this in the context of some overzealous ideologues criticising vegans for trying to impose western values on marginalised indigenous communities. Let’s talk about this for a moment.
I label this anti-vegan cliché the “Inuit rationalisation.” In short, it claims that the Inuit communities of the Arctic depend exclusively on fishing and hunting seals, whales, and other animals to survive, and therefore could never be vegan. This reasoning (applicable to any indigenous community, but is stronger when used with Inuit, since the geographical extremes of their land are used to justify their cultural obstacles), is based on the claim that, because of their inability to grow plants, it would be totally inappropriate, colonialist and even racist to try to convince them to adopt veganism.
It is true that, when approaching other cultures, the veganism conversation is altogether different. It should be a different conversation for each culture, group, or person, anyway. Because it is a two-way dialogue, and it not only depends on the messengers but also on the receivers — and the language they understand. Having a respectful intersectional approach would help to maximise the conversation’s communication value and prevent premature shutdowns due to sensitive triggering concepts.
However, the idea that these conversations should never take place because some communities have neither the intellect nor the will to have them with other communities is a simplistic idea of the dominant cultures. It is a way of denigrating members of other cultures by insinuating that they cannot be vegan because this concept is too complicated for them. I think the attitude that only “modern” Westerners can be vegan is arrogant, ignorant, xenophobic and racist.
All cultures, and all individuals in any community, can embrace veganism if they so wish. Veganism is not a set of behaviours based on a series of actions that depend on certain circumstances linked to geography or culture. It is a universal philosophy based on the ancestral concept of ahimsa, the Sanskrit term that means not harming others (other people, other animals or the environment). It is not a modern western concept, but a philosophy that also developed millennia ago in the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, and in the Orient, at least. Denying someone a philosophy is like telling them they don’t have the mental capacity to think. Anyone can believe their own philosophies and incorporate into them the concept of doing no harm to others. How they will manifest them will vary as the circumstances of each person or community vary, but the philosophy is the same.
Does this mean that different cultures that share the vegan philosophy could manifest it differently and even allow the consumption of some animal products? Does this mean vegans in the arctic may still be allowed to hunt and fish? Not necessarily, since no culture is static. There is no community, not even the Inuit, that does the same now as it did 10,000 years ago. They all changed their activities and traditions with the new information, technology, and resources that they acquired over time.
In fact, the Inuit also come from Africa, like the rest of us. All humans come from African communities. At one point, such Africans ended up in the Arctic. Why didn’t they keep all the African traditions and instead change them to the traditions we associate with the Inuit today? It was a gradual but radical change. From Africa going north to Eurasia and then going west to America, constantly evolving. Culturally, and even physically. That means it is still happening now.
We must be tolerant and allow any community to choose how to interpret veganism in its own way, providing that in the end, it leads to the same result: minimizing the harm caused to sentient beings as much as possible. And if such a possibility is limited in some communities due to lack of resources, helping them by sharing knowledge, technology and resources is the most respectful way to spread veganism beyond our cultures.
The Annoying Pseudo-Vegans
If you meet a Native American with what appears to be traditional Inuit clothes, and then someone who looks like you, wearing a cotton T-shirt with a vegan slogan and a hemp bag with lots of vegan pins, you may conclude that only the second person is vegan. That could have been a premature prejudgement because of having looked at their appearance, not at the philosophy they hold. Perhaps if you got to know them better you would have discovered that the fur of the Inuit’s gear is synthetic and that the T-shirted person just ate an Impossible Burger from a Burger King without even having any concern about the vivisection connection. Perhaps the former has held the philosophy of veganism for decades and manifested it in a very peaceful and considerate way for all sentient beings, while the latter just stopped using animal products a few months ago and, feeling misanthropic, spends far too long shouting at others during aggressive militant activism.
The right philosophy will tend to produce the right behaviour, but the right behaviour can easily become corrupted if not sustained by the right philosophy.
There may be interesting flips to the sentence “not anyone can be vegan”. For instance, “not all those who say they are vegan actually are”. Think about all those health vegan influencers who after a few months of fame posted the classic “why I am no longer vegan” videos. Think about learning vegans, new vegans, vegan-curious, apprentice vegans, experimenting vegans, pseudo-vegans, pre-vegans, corrupted vegans, and post-vegans. I am not going to define all these terms (some of which I just made up), but rather I mention them because, based on how you interpret veganism, there may be a bunch of other vegans you would not consider vegan.
As we have an official definition of veganism, we can compare that with whatever definition other vegans use. You may easily find that many vegans only adhere to a vegan diet but ignore the rest of the definition. You can either choose to deny their vegan status or give them the status of dietary vegans, while you give yourself the status of ethical vegan to mark the difference (as I do). But what matters is that, for any self-defined identity, there will be a variation of interpretation, so the question “can anyone be vegan” will mean different things to different people.
For some, you can only be vegan if you regularly engage in vegan activism. For others, only if you don’t drink alcohol or take drugs. For others, only if you show equal consideration to farm and wild animals. For others, only if you openly challenge oppressive behaviour towards marginalised communities. The narrower the definition you use, the more people out there would answer “no” to the question “can you be vegan?”.
This is why I prefer to use the most inclusive definition there is. Because I dream of a vegan world where everyone holds the same simple philosophy of seeking not to harm anyone or anything that can be harmed, and everyone helps each other to uphold it.
Everyone can be vegan if you let them.