Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, defends the daring statement that veganism is the only ethical choice for people to choose.
Some true sentences sound false.
In September 2021 I received an invitation to participate in a public debate at the prestigious Oxford Union on the following motion: This House Believes We Should Move Beyond Meat. I replied the following: “Although it is certainly an honour, I am afraid I must decline, as I don’t think I would be the right person to defend this motion. This subject is about vegetarianism, but I am an ethical vegan and, therefore I am against the consumption of all animal products, not only meat. In consequence, I am against both meat-eating and vegetarianism. As an ethical vegan, my arguments would primarily be based on ethics and animal rights, not climate change. So, they would not fit well your premise. A few months ago, I was invited by your Union to participate in a debate that was indeed about veganism, and I did accept that one. However, I never received any confirmation for it.”
This debate happened on 25th November 2021. The proposition team included Heather Mills, Professor Jeff McMahan, and Carol Adams, while the opposition team included Mikhaila Peterson, Peter Stevenson OBE, and Louise Grey. I thought the pro-vegetarian team was a good choice. Professor McMahan, professor of moral philosophy at the University of Oxford, had been one of my witnesses in the hearing at Norwich Employment Tribunal when ethical veganism was ruled to be a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010. Carol Adams is a well-known intersectional vegan author of the influential book “The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory”. Heather Mills is a businesswoman who launched the vegan company Vbites, and who often give inspirational speeches on veganism.
However, as you could see in my reply to the invitation, I had been invited before to a similar debate, which ended up not happening because of COVID. The motion of the first event was: This House Believes Veganism Is the Only Ethical Choice. Before replying to that one I had to think about it, as it looked to me it could be a trap. This motion felt right but it sounded false. Carnists often accuse us, vegans, to try to push our beliefs into their throats. To narrow-mindedly think that only we are right and everyone else is blatantly wrong. To be absolutist-thought-Nazis who dictate to others what to do. I thought the motion was worded in such a way (“the only ethical choice”) to expose us as intransigent, intolerant and navel-gazing. I considered declining because it did not feel quite right, and I wasn’t sure what was the intention of the organisers (who I believed came from a traditionalist part of society that has not been too gracious with progressive vegans like me).
But then I thought deeper, and I realise I could actually defend that motion, and do it well. I could show how it is essentially true, without coming from a self-centred arrogant perspective. Now that the Oxford Union debate has already happened, it may be a good time to write an article defending this audacious proposition — in line with what I was planning to say had the original debate gone ahead.
I could give it a go, anyway.
Veganism Is an Ethical Choice
For veganism to be considered as the only ethical choice, we first need to prove that it is indeed an ethical choice. That will be easy.
“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.” I haven’t created this definition. This is the official definition finalised by the Vegan Society in 1988, as the organisation which, when it was formed in 1944 as a splinter group from the Vegetarian Society, created the term “vegan”.
A philosophy AND a way of living. Not “OR” a way of living. Veganism is a philosophy, and its power resides in its simplicity. This definition could be simplified even further in four words: “against all animal exploitation.” Even to a single word: ahimsa.
Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that means “do no harm”. Hims means to strike, Himsa harming (or the wish to harm), and ahimsa is the opposite of this. Sometimes it’s translated to mean the principle of “non-violence”. But not harming what? Again, simple. At least, all beings who can suffer. All sentient beings. And we scientists have a name for the living beings that are sentient, as opposed to those that are not. We call them “animals”. Because animals have senses to perceive the world, nervous systems to translate their perceptions into experiences, and the capacity to move so they can behave either getting away from negative situations or closer to positive ones, animals can suffer. If we harm them, they will suffer. If we harm their bodies, they will suffer. If we harm their minds, they will suffer. If we harm their homes and their environment, they will suffer.
Ahimsa is not a new concept. It was often used five centuries before the Common Era, in the Kingdom of Magadha in Northern India, by several important teachers who ended up creating long-lasting religions partially based on this idea. For instance, it was used by Mahavira, the 24th teacher of the Jain religion. And by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Different manifestations of this concept can be found in other parts of the ancient world. In the Taoists in the far East, in the Essenes in the Middle East, in the Pythagoreans in the West. We often see it manifested first by the abstinence of consuming animal flesh, and then evolving to extend the circle of kindness to more and more sentient beings and to increase the scope of abstinence to more products and behaviours. This idea is not modern. It’s not Western. It has been reappearing and evolving all over the globe for millennia. The term “veganism” is just its latest incarnation. The incarnation that made the concept universal. No longer tied to any particular religion or culture. No longer connected with any country or class. Veganism is for everyone, everywhere.
Ahimsa is an ethical statement as it dictates what people should do — or not do — at all times based on what it considers right and wrong. It states that harming those who can be harmed is wrong, so to live in harmony with each other, we must avoid harming. It’s all about ethics, the moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity. And if Ahimsa is an ethical statement, veganism, a secular modern interpretation of ahimsa, also is. People can either agree with it and control their behaviour based on it, or they don’t. It’s their choice. They either believe in veganism or they don’t. They either believe that all animals are sentient beings whose exploitation made them suffer, or they don’t. It’s an intellectual choice they have to make, consciously and under a state of free thought. Becoming vegan is an ethical choice for them. Living trying to follow the ahimsa principle is an ethical choice everyone can take, and therefore veganism is an ethical choice too. And that’s why there are vegans and non-vegans, and you cannot tell which of these two groups people belong to until you ask them.
Veganism Is the Best Ethical Choice
Broadly speaking, there are other ethical choices besides veganism. Some good and some bad. Some good and some better. In addition to good and bad ethical choices for individual people for each situation, some philosophies and ideologies suggest how people should generally behave based on concepts of right and wrong shared by the community. Many of these, though, are generally rejected by societies for being “bad”, as their idea of what is right is not in alignment with what most people in most modern democratic progressive societies believe. For instance, racism, imperialism, ethnic cleansing, nihilism, absolutism, slavery, hedonism, homophobia, Nazism, despotism, sexism, egoism, etc. These, although are technically ethical choices people, institutions or even nations can choose, we do not consider them “acceptable” choices for the purpose of this article.
There are other ethical choices which, depending on the society you ask, you may find different significant degrees of acceptance, such as atheism, secularism, anarchism, antinatalism, socialism, humanism, capitalism, communism, asceticism, idealism, utilitarianism, intersectionalism, etc. These may either be emerging philosophies that are still trying to find their feet or philosophies associated with political conflicts still unresolved. As they are not universally accepted, although they may be “acceptable” choices we will not consider them good enough to be candidates for “the best” choice.
However, many ethical choices based on philosophies could be classed as “good choices” generally accepted by most people of most communities to be beneficial for the world and positive for society. Philosophies (and their respective ideologies and social movements under specific terms ending with “ism”) that, at the very least, are accepted as worthy of respect in a democratic society, that are not incompatible with human dignity and that do not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
For instance, Feminism. This is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes. It postulates that discriminating against women is wrong, a problem created by institutions and policies of patriarchal societies that have been based on inequality for centuries. Both men and women can choose to be feminists. It’s an ethical choice for them.
Another one is Environmentalism. This is the belief that damaging the environment is ethically wrong, so people should stop doing it and we should enact environment protection policies. In other words, the philosophy, ideology, and social movement regarding concerns for environmental protection. People can choose to be an environmentalist, or not.
Another one is Egalitarianism. This is the political philosophy that focuses on human rights. It is the ideology that states that discriminating against any human on the grounds of their race, sexual orientation, gender, disability, ethnicity, religion, belief or other agreed key characteristics is ethically wrong, and equality policies should be developed to stop such discrimination. You can choose to care about human rights, or not.
Another is Pacifism. This is the ethical belief that war and violence are unjustifiable and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means. In times of war involving conscription, pacifists often become objectors of conscience. It’s an ethical choice for them, which nevertheless could lead them to imprisonment.
Teetotalism is an interesting one. This is the practice or promotion of total personal abstinence from alcoholic beverages, developed by Temperance Societies which considered drinking alcohol is wrong. Although at first glance it may look like a personal choice that should not require social validation, the essence of this ideology goes beyond individual health problems into the damage drunk people inflict on others and society. Unless one is already an alcoholic or live in a country where alcohol is banned, being teetotal should be a choice.
Empiricism is another one. This is the view that all concepts are about or applicable to things that can be experienced, or that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience. Empiricists believe in science and place a lot of importance on evidence and proven facts. Although it’s tempting to believe that, in modern societies, most people are empiricists, in fact, many people still choose superstition over science.
And we should not forget religions and cults. Jainism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and any other religion, with their different schools and denominations, have specific ethical frameworks set up by scriptures, prophets, spiritual leaders and traditions, that people followed either by force (when doctrines become canonical law), by custom (when people are born in places where everyone follows the same religion), but also by choice (by those who choose to convert to one religion as adults in countries with freedom of religion).
Some of these ethical choices are not independent of each other. Many are related hierarchically. For instance, anti-ableism, the ethical stand against discrimination in favour of able-bodied people, is a type of egalitarianism. So is feminism, in fact. The ethics of Seventh-Day Adventists are a subcategory of Cristian ethics. Others may be the result of combining different ethical beliefs at equal footings, such as Sentientism, being a kind of combination of Veganism and Empiricism.
Some of these ethical choices affect a different number of entities in different ways. Success in feminism may indeed directly help half of the human population, but success in egalitarianism may directly impact all of it. Conservationists may be interested in protecting natural ecosystems to exploit natural resources sustainably (therefore ultimately aiming to benefit some species more than others), while the wider philosophy of environmentalists seeks such protection for the sake of the environment and the planet, looking more at the preservation of all biological and non-biological components of Nature.
However, two organised coherent ethical choices try to benefit most entities in the world: Veganism and Environmentalism. Both positively impact more beings (including all humans, not just some) and their beneficial effects are more widespread, lasting, and universal. Because of that, I think these two are the best choices.
However, I think that veganism is the better choice of the two because it emphasises the importance of the individual sentient being, which is the one more likely to suffer when exploited, discriminated against, or harmed. Traditional environmentalism has often focused on abstract concepts (such as species or ecosystems), or on non-sentient entities more difficult to identify harm (such as atmosphere or river).
Old-fashioned conservationists have become too obsessed with protecting species from extinction completely ignoring that species are just artificial classifications of individual organisms with similar traits, and what matter are the individuals themselves, not how they are classified — a typical blind response of some conservationists is advocating for capturing wild animals and placing them in captivity for life in zoos claiming they are doing it to save the species. Compassionate Vegan Environmentalism does not suffer from this ineffective abstractionism.
Veganism pays a lot of attention to real sentient beings, without negating the environment and its importance. This emphasis on the individual is what defines the animal rights philosophy (as the human rights philosophy also does) so intimately linked to veganism. In addition to ahimsa, three other important philosophical beliefs underpin veganism: 1) the belief that all individuals of all species of animals are sentient beings; 2) the belief that all human exploitation of animals (using animals without their informed consent violating their body autonomy) is harmful to them, and; 3) the avoidance of speciesism (the discrimination against individuals because of the species they belong to). By the virtue of the third principle, veganism would consider the rights of all individuals of any species more than environmentalism does (which may prioritise systems other than individuals, and some ecologically key species over others).
Because veganism does include the environment, an ethical vegan has chosen the two best ethical choices, while a non-vegan environmentalist may have fallen short. In consequence, I think veganism is the best ethical choice there is, because it benefits more entities in an indiscriminative way.
Veganism Is the Only Ethical Choice
One interesting thing about the ethical choices that people can choose is that they may become something different once they have been chosen. They may become ethical imperatives. This is precisely why religion and philosophical beliefs are included as protected characteristics in many equality laws. People who firmly and sincerely hold such beliefs do no longer have a choice as their conviction in them has transformed them into imperatives. And if people have no longer a choice, it is up to Society to accommodate their distinctiveness, not up to them to adapt to Society. Equality policies do that. Recognise that people cannot help to be of a particular gender, be attracted to a particular type of people, or believe in a particular religion or philosophy. Once an organise set of ideas becomes a firm conviction, the person holding them may not have any other choice than to behave according to them. And if Society has accepted this particular set of ideas as worthy of protection, then those following them should not be discriminated against because they may no longer have a choice.
Note that the belief or religion must be recognised by society to be protected, and normally the judiciary is in charge to establish such recognition. For instance, in the UK, the Equality Act 2010 states that philosophical beliefs are protected, but then any of such beliefs need to be confirmed as protected by an employment judge based on a series of conditions set up by the Employment Appeals Tribunal — known as the Grainger test — to ensure only “good” beliefs qualify.
This is what happened with veganism in 2020. When I was fired by a former employer because I was an ethical vegan, I decided to start litigation at the Employment Tribunal, which had to set a hearing to determine if ethical veganism is indeed a protected philosophical belief (i.e. whether it would pass the Grainger test). On 3rd January 2020, in Norwich Magistrate Court in the East of England, Employment Judge Postle ruled that it was. Thus, my case continued successfully and from then on ethical veganism has been accepted as one of those beliefs which, if you sincerely hold it, it would be unlawful to be discriminated against for holding it. Some “bad” beliefs went through the same system and failed, such as Homophobia or Neo-Nazism. Other “good” beliefs succeeded too, such as Teetotalism, Environmentalism, and Self-determinism. And interestingly, others failed when they could have been successful, such as Vegetarianism.
All this means that, although all ethical choices are, by themselves, available to everyone and free to be chosen, once people chose them, they may stick to you for life. I guess it may be something like choosing to have your leg amputated to avoid chronic pain. That may be a medical choice for you, but once made it cannot be unmade. Being that the case, we may find that some of the ethical choices that we want to choose are mutually exclusive to others or incompatible with each other. Perhaps unbeknown to us at first, choosing one means that you will not be able to be coherent anymore if you also choose the other. If that is the case, we should be very careful about which ones we choose. We should choose wisely and make the choice that is less likely to be incompatible with any other. The ethical choice most likely to encompass all the others. The choice that works at all levels consistently and clearly. That ethical choice is Veganism.
Veganism is the only ethical choice compatible with all the other good choices because it includes them all (if you click on the hyperlinks of the “good” philosophies mentioned above, you will be taken to pages where this is discussed). If interpreted correctly as a manifestation of ahimsa, the “do no harm” ethical principle works everywhere. There is no limit to what ahimsa refers to. It is not talking about not harming yourself only. Or about not harming your family only. Or about not harming any human only. Or even about not harming any animal only. There is no limit. Ahimsa aims to not harm anyone or anything that can be harmed. So, ahimsa aims to protect women, the environment, society, your health, farm animals, people with disabilities, domestic animals, people with any sexual orientation, wildlife, ethnic groups, people of any race, ecosystems, people of any nation, or even nations within any nation. And if this is what ahimsa aims to, this is what veganism aims to as well.
And the anti-speciesism principle of veganism goes beyond the species itself. In essence, it means not to discriminate against the “other” who is different from you, whether that difference is a matter of species, race, ethnic group, nationality, or gender. It does not mean you should not discriminate because of species’ membership but you can discriminate because of race’s membership, for instance. It widens the scope of non-discrimination, advocating that we should not see anyone morally more important than anyone else, no matter who they are, or which box they can be classified into. It completely breaks the supremacism paradigm.
A true ethical vegan cannot be racist, misogynist, warmonger, speciesists, ableists, climate crises denier, homophobe, islamophobe, hunter, vivisectionist, or transphobe. By adopting veganism, you adopt all the other “good” ethical choices. By being a true ethical vegan you are also a social justice advocate. You are also an environmental campaigner. You are also a feminist and anti-racist activist. I am an abstinent empirical intersectional WFPB ethical eco vegan, but this is just a deconstructive way to unpack my vegan identity. Saying that I am Vegan covers it all.
And by becoming vegan you also follow the basic religious principle that all religions have in common, the Golden Rule: Don’t do onto others what you don’t want others to do onto you (or its positive form: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you). The golden rule of religions falls within ahimsa in such a way, that we could say that ahimsa is the “Platinum Rule”, higher and more overreaching.
If you think about it, the golden rule is still very much focused on a selfish act. It’s all about what others may do — or not do — to YOU. Is self-centred. Ahimsa is not. “Do no harm” is about others, not about you. Some religions, such as Jainism or Buddhism, may still interpret it as a tenet to help you, as they have the concept of Karma, and harming will bring you bad Karma. But ahimsa as the principle of veganism, its modern secular universal form, does not need Karma anymore. You should not harm for the sake of those who can be harmed, not for your sake. As such, ahimsa is the platinum rule of all religions and all ethical philosophies that aim to do good.
Veganism is the only ethical choice that embraces the concept of ahimsa to its fullest expression. The one that trumps all the others competing for attention. The one that includes all the others that have some positive value for society. The only one you can choose without fear of falling short of another important worthy cause. The only one that offers you a simple, coherent, cogent, and complete way to behave in all circumstances.
Veganism is the One; the one and only that is good enough.
The one and only ethical choice for everyone.