Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, looks at the practicability issue in veganism as in the “as far as practicable and possible” part of the official definition
I walk as much as I can.
Unless I must carry lots of stuff or I may be late, I would try to walk to anywhere I go at least within an hour’s walk — and often two. I find it healthier (this is my most common method of exercise), nicer (I don’t have to submit to the caprices of traffic), safer (less chance of causing a catastrophic accident) and kinder (lower carbon footprint). But, above all, I found that it allows me to fine-tune my philosophy of veganism and gives me an extra moral boost as an ethical vegan for having optimised my transport choices selecting the one with the lowest blood footprint.
When in early 2020 I managed to secure the legal protection of ethical vegans in Great Britain through two years of litigation that led to a judge ruling that ethical veganism is a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010, I had the attention of many journalists all over the world. You would expect that many would ask me about the legal implications of my victory, but instead many asked me questions about whether I take buses as a form of transport. Some had read my lengthy witness statement to the tribunal, and they noticed this paragraph:
“(65 vii) If my destination is within an hour’s walking distance, I would walk there to do some exercise and to avoid accidental crashes with insects or birds that may occur when taking a bus. This is not always possible: sometimes I need to arrive at my destination quicker than I can on foot. If I have to take public transport, all things being equal I will consciously take the tube [metro or subway] in preference to the bus because there are fewer insects underground on the tube network and therefore the tube is less likely to kill insects. I don’t own a car.”
Some journalists wrote articles about my case with headlines such as “The ethical vegan who walks instead of taking the bus to avoid squashing insects”, and afterwards many decided to ask me why “I boycott buses.” Naturally, they were trying to portray me as some sort of extreme “nutter”, but when I explain the logic behind my choices, they felt disappointed about how much sense they made. I explain that, as an ethical vegan, I try to follow the definition of veganism of the Vegan Society to the full, which is the following:
“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; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
I explained it would be cruel on my part to get any animal injured or killed because of my actions if I could avoid it within my possibilities, and that includes insects and other small animals (all of them sentient beings who can suffer) who could be accidentally killed during transport. I told them that, if it was within my power and it was practicable to me, I would like to reduce as much as possible my chances to contribute to such unfortunate accidents. And I could do that by thinking about all my transport options and choosing the one that, in each situation, I believe would have the fewer chances. Often there will be several choices, so choosing the one that will get me there on time within my means, but that I think will have less chance to injure or kill another sentient being (low blood footprint) as well as damage less the environment (low carbon footprint), is the responsible thing to do — nothing extreme about that.
This brings me to the subject of this article. I make my choices guided by the definition of veganism, and in particular the clause that says, “as far as is possible and practicable.” Other vegans may choose similarly to me because what may be impossible to me is likely to be impossible to everyone else, but other vegans may choose differently than me because what is practicable to me may not be practicable to them.
Where should we draw the line? In veganism, is everything “subjective” and we cannot judge other vegans’ choices without knowing their circumstances, or there are choices that would never be aligned with the philosophy of veganism?
Do all vegans interpret the term “practicable” correctly, or do they use it as a carte blanche to relax their commitment to the vegan cause? Do some vegans reject the definition of the Vegan Society because they think this term dilutes the philosophy too much? I think it’s all a matter of finding the right balance and knowing the exact meaning of words, but I believe there are indeed lines we should not cross. In this article, I will show some examples.
Practical vs. Practicable
What prompted me to write this article was a recent video I watched from the excellent Youtuber Mic the Vegan titled “The Definition of Veganism has a Practical Problem.” He rightly points out that the definition of veganism uses the term “practicable”, not “practical”, and they are different concepts. He says this about “practical”:
“Let’s do ‘practical’. From Cambridge University there are a ton of different definitions but the sub-definition that is most relevant here is ‘fitting the needs of a particular situation in a helpful way’ — with the example of, ‘we didn’t want to spend the night at the motel, but it just wasn’t practical to do the trip in one day.’ In other words, a lot of times it’s basically synonymous with convenient, and, of course, the definition of convenient is ‘fitting in well with a person’s needs, activities, or plans.’ So, you can see how when you’re thinking of it in terms of convenience, ‘practical’ can really loosen the definition of veganism.”
He says this regarding “practicable”:
“Let’s get into the word that is actually in the definition: ‘practicable’. And the definition of that is ‘capable of being put into practice or of being done or accomplished.’ A simple way to delineate these two is that practicable can just be thought of as practice-able, and some other good synonyms for it include ‘feasible’, ‘doable’, ‘realistic’, and you also have ‘possible’ — which is funny because it’s kind of redundant in terms of the definition of veganism.”
I agree. I must confess that in the past I have sometimes used “practical” when I should have used “practicable” (you may even find some of my writings making that mistake), but the difference is clear. Confusing their meaning in the veganism context is similar to another confusion I have also found, specifically concerning what I achieved with my legal case: confusing the noun “belief” (which means a “conviction”, to be certain about something), with the verb “believe” (which means to have an opinion about something, or to think that something is true). Both overlap, but “belief” is much stronger not leaving room for doubt, because the conviction may well have been achieved through evidence and facts (as is the case of the philosophical belief in veganism), while “believe” is more subjective and weaker. Equally, “practicable” and “practical” overlap, but the former is stronger getting closer to meaning “possible”, while the latter is more subjective and weaker.
With his characteristic humour, Mic the Vegan gives a couple of useful examples of the difference between these two words in the vegan context:
“It is practicable, you can in practice, spend an extra ten minutes looking at labels to figure out whether or not there is milk powder in a product, or just quickly if the allergen is there and bold. Or to go further, maybe you’re travelling and it would take you quite a bit of extra effort, it would be an inconvenience and not as practical to spend extra time searching for vegan options in a foreign city, but it is still practicable in that you are capable of doing that in practice — so you have to do it, otherwise the vegan Gods will be mad at you.”
In the spirit of Mic’s video, I thought I would find more examples of my own of cases where an exception of avoiding animal exploitation is excusable for not being practicable, and other examples where is inexcusable for not being practical but still being practicable.
One of the reasons I think the definition of veganism has both the term “possible” and “practicable” is because, although I think the latter may also mean “possible” in a given situation, the former means “possible” in all situations. One person may not be able to do something because the situation makes it impossible for that person to do it, while another person could do it. For instance, it would be impossible for a blind person to read a billboard if that person is alone and does not have any device that could help, whilst for a non-blind person reading the billboard is possible. In this example, I think the term “practicable” could be used instead of “possible” because it means the same. However, it would not be possible for anyone to teleport instantaneously to the moon as this is, literally, impossible with the technology humanity has (or is developing). In that case, I think it would be better to use “possible” instead of “practicable”.
Professor Gary L. Francione (vegan since 1982) has a good article showing the differences between acts that are morally justifiable and those that are morally excusable. He says, “I want to make a distinction between actions that are morally justifiable and those that are morally excusable. The former are acts that are morally good acts or are at least not morally objectionable. The latter are acts that are morally objectionable but where circumstances mitigate the culpability of engaging in the act.”
Based on this, here are some examples of what I believe could be excusable exceptions to the rule of avoiding animal exploitation and cruelty at all times, which ethical vegans should follow if they want to be accepted as vegans by the rest of the vegan community:
Use of necessary medicines tested on animals. Most medicines and drugs are tested on animals because, currently, this is a requirement that most jurisdictions impose for their authorisation for public use. If a vegan is ill and needs such medicines to recover, using them would be an excusable exception to the basic principle of veganism that dictates products tested on animals should be avoided. In this case, it would not be practicable to avoid them (as in this example there are no vegan alternatives to be used instead).
Consuming animal products to avoid starvation. If one finds oneself in the unfortunate situation of not being able to find any non-animal food for a sufficiently long time which could lead to starvation, I believe consuming animal products to survive would be temporarily excusable until the situation improves. I am not talking about struggling economically to buy food because in most places — perhaps except very severe “food deserts” — vegan food (as for vegetables, grains, etc.) is cheaper than non-vegan food. I am talking about being stranded somewhere when travelling, and after having tried to find vegan alternatives for a long time and failing, signs of starvation begin to show up. Although you may be thinking about the unlikely event of being stranded on a desert island with a pig — a favourite conundrum of vegandeniers — I am thinking of much more realistic situations, such as being detained or jailed for some time and only offered animal products to eat, or being lost in the wilderness and only have non-vegan provisions in an environment where you don’t know how to forage.
Feeding animal products to rescued carnivore animals. While working in an animal sanctuary, or a wildlife rehabilitation centre, one may need to feed animal products to animals who, for being obligatory carnivores, would not be practicable for them to eat plant-based food. Not feeding an animal under your care species-appropriate nutritionally complete food for that animal is an act of neglect that will cause the animal suffering, so the principles of veganism direct you to avoid that. But using animals to feed other animals also causes suffering to the former. In this case, then, you will have a genuine dilemma, and if it cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of both parties, feeding the animal under your care food containing the flesh of an animal who has already been killed would be an excusable way to resolve the conflict. However, this only applies to genuine obligate carnivores (not what people assume are obligate carnivores), and when a vegan version of food specifically formulated for the animals in question by reputable companies is not available.
Using products only remotely connected to animal exploitation. If we dig deep enough, any product or company we may want to use will have some connection with animal exploitation. For instance, they may rely on technologies that were once developed with such exploitation or they may have been produced with the support of non-vegan companies (such as transport companies), or other indirect remote connections. If the connections are distant enough, though, I think it would be excusable for vegans to use such products, if they need them and if there are no better alternatives available to them. This exemption may be quite subjective as there is no rule about what is considered remote enough, or which sort of connections are still important. Borderline cases may be buying in a non-vegan supermarket a vegan product from a vegan company. If a vegan lives in an isolated location and the only shop from where to buy vegan-friendly products is a supermarket that sells meat, dairy, and eggs, I think it would be excusable to buy vegan products there if there are no other practicable alternatives to get vegan food.
Using unethical financial services. Although some people do not need to use any financial service and they just keep cash under the bed, for many the use of credit cards, banks, mortgages, or insurance has become a necessity in their life and work. In most places, it would be practically impossible to find such services run by vegan companies or run by companies which do not invest in animal exploitation and other unethical activities. However, some financial services, such as pension funds, may now have ethical versions that do not invest in animal agriculture or companies that test on animals (requesting my former employer to use these as the default pension fund was the basis of my litigation that led to ethical veganism becoming protected in Great Britain), but others, such as banks or credit card providers, may not yet. Until they all are, I believe that vegans who need such services can excusably use them. In the case of banknotes in the UK, when the current notes that contain plastic processed with animal products started to circulate a few years ago, I was able to avoid the new ones for a while by changing them as soon as I got them, but this is no longer possible as all the notes contain the plastic now (so, in this case, what was initially practicable it has become impracticable).
I have met vegans who behave in a way I would not, but I believe that is not because their circumstances are different than mine — which make some of my choices unpracticable to them — but because they think the definition of veganism uses the term “practical”, and therefore they think it means“convenient”. In many of these cases, I cannot be sure 100% this is why they behave differently, because there may well be exceptional circumstances I am not aware of (like, for instance, related to mental health). However, although it would be prudent to avoid sweeping generalisations and we should try to deal with each situation on a case-by-case basis, I think there are examples of inexcusable exemptions to the veganism principles applicable in most situations. For instance…
Consuming oysters and mussels. I believe that those who consider themselves vegan (or call themselves ostreovegans) and eat bivalves (oysters and mussels) because they do not consider them to be sentient (rather than because they have been stranded on a desert island and this is the only food they can get), are in breach of veganism principles because the definition of veganism refers to animals, not sentient beings, and bivalves are animals. Even if it said “sentient beings” instead of “animals” there is no evidence that bivalves are not sentient (I am a zoologist and I am convinced they are). Sponges (animal members of the phylum Porifera) may not be sentient, but bivalves have senses, a nervous system, and move according to positive or negative experiences they have. As animal products are not needed to thrive and be healthy there is no justification for consuming them as food if there are plant, fungi, algae, or bacteria-based products available, which don’t come from animals or sentient beings.
Consuming honey and beeswax. Honey is an animal product, and the Vegan Society has said since its creation that consuming honey or beeswax (or beekeeping to produce them) is not compatible with veganism. Even the 11th century’ Syrian poet Abul ala Al-Ma’arri, one of the great vegans of history, talked about why we should not use it. As honey is a luxury and is not really needed for nutrition, there is no “survival” justification for consuming it. One can get through life fine without consuming honey as this is not an ingredient indispensable for any food, as it is just concentrated plant sugars which can be obtained without using bees (such as the case of maple or agave syrup, for instance).
Using unnecessary drugs and cosmetics tested on animals. Some drugs are sold not to cure a disease or to improve a health problem, but just to enhance a natural faculty or to make people feel better. Non-prescription drugs cunningly sold by the pharmaceutical industry to address either fabricated ailments, or to palliate minor physical inconveniences that would be resolved on their own, could fall into what I would call “unnecessary medication” (and many cosmetic products would fall into this category). In such cases, if they have been tested on animals, I think an ethical vegan who chooses to take them would be in breach of the basic principles of veganism because it would be practicable not to take them without significantly compromising one’s health. The issue you may face is how to differentiate a necessary medicine from an unnecessary drug, but that problem could be solved by consulting a qualified physician who has examined you and is aware of your medical history. Following medical advice could justify an exemption from the principles of veganism, whilst self-medication may not.
Consuming animal products because there are no vegan restaurants in your area. I am aware that not everyone is as lucky as me and lives in very vegan-friendly cities where there are many vegan restaurants. However, not having any vegan restaurant where you are — or not been able to afford them — is not a valid justification for consuming animal products, because it’s difficult to find a non-vegan restaurant where no vegan-friendly food can be served after discussing your needs with the waiter or chef — and if unfortunately, that is the case, there is always the option to buy vegan food in shops and avoid all restaurants. In the modern world — especially in developed nations — I don’t think there may be many places where food can only be bought in restaurants which refuse to serve you only the vegetables, rice, or pasta they normally cook without any of the animal products they add to it, but if that is the case and moving to a better place is not an option, I suppose we could be falling into the “starvation” exemption mentioned in the previous chapter.
Visiting zoos, circuses with animals, animal races, or animal rides for leisure. By definition, the things people do for leisure are not necessities of life, but just activities chosen to pass the time, have fun or break one’s monotony. Therefore, if an ethical vegan chooses to visit zoos, animal rides, animal races or any other leisure activity involving the exploitation of animals, this is a choice not made out of necessity. As there are many vegan-friendly alternatives for leisure activities — in fact, most leisure activities are, such as walking, reading, gardening, jogging, rambling, birdwatching, playing games, painting, sport, knitting, visiting museums, singing, or cinema — there would be no justification for an ethical vegan to say they do not have practicable alternatives to visiting a zoo or a circus with animals, or going for a horse ride.
Wearing leather, silk, wool, or other animal fibres. Although some transitioning ethical vegans begin stopping using animal products for food but it takes them longer to get rid of all animal products for clothes (such as wool or leather), after the transition is over (so, after a year or so have passed from the moment they decided to become vegan) there is very little justification to continue wearing them. These days, there are plenty of alternative vegan fibres (and not all are synthetic, many come from plants, such as hemp, cotton, linen, bamboo, coconut, etc.) that are even cheaper than the animal versions, so there is little excuse. Some say that they want to wear them out and then will replace them with vegan versions, but they could wait to call themselves vegan until have done so. Alternatively, they could give the non-vegan clothes to non-vegans so they can wear them out without breaking any of their principles (preventing the non-vegans to buy new ones, which means less money going to animal exploitation). In the past, finding durable alternatives to leather might have been more difficult, but now many are available (when it may not have been practicable to replace all the animal fibres at once decades ago, for many people it is now).
Buying pedigree dogs to keep as pets. Because many vegans care about animals, they live with companion rescued dogs or cats, and this is perfectly compatible with veganism — especially if they feed them nutritionally complete plant-based food, increasingly available and now proven to be healthy. If they do not treat them as property or toys but as equal sentient beings, they can develop very respectful vegan-friendly relationships. However, those vegans who treat them as subservient inferior “pets” instead, and buy them from breeders who exploit them by creating artificial pedigree breeds, rather than rescuing them from the many shelters full of abandoned dogs and cats, they have crossed the line because they have deliberately not avoided animal exploitation (and they may directly be exploiting the animals because of the way they treat them or the work they train them to do). The option of rescuing instead of buying is always available, as many animals end up being put down because nobody adopted them.
Consuming animal products to fit in. Some people say they are vegan but abandon this philosophy in social situations where they would feel awkward holding it. Not to make a fuss, they may consume animal products during an office party, or when they go out with friends “to fit in”. To avoid the possibility of being fired (something that would now be unlawful in Great Britain because of my legal case), they may even accept a uniform containing leather or wool given by their employer without even asking to provide a vegan-friendly version for them. Although fitting in and having positive working relationships may be very important for many people, if they are more important than sticking to the core principles of veganism this suggests that they do not have the necessary conviction to define themselves as vegans yet (something that may change with time). Whether these cases fall better within the concept of practicable or convenient may depend more on psychological factors than logistics.
Supporting the driving companies of animal exploitation industries. The main reason vegans avoid buying products from animal exploitation is not really because they don’t want to use them, but because they don’t want to participate in the exploitation by giving money to those who produced the products, and therefore encourage them to produce even more. The “demand” argument to justify the boycotting aspect of veganism (if the demand falls the offer will fall too) only works if using fewer animal products is not combined with giving money to the animal exploitation industries for them to produce both animal and non-animal products, instead of giving this money to vegan companies producing vegan products. There are major fast-food chains whose business model is to profit by rearing and killing millions of chickens, cows, bulls, and pigs, and they are the drivers of the animal agriculture industry. Therefore, there is very little justification for an ethical vegan to buy plant-based products from them (as now they are producing some to get cash from vegans and disrupt the growth of vegan businesses) when they can get them from vegan restaurants instead. If the local McDonald’s or Burger King happens to be closer than the local vegan burger place, choosing the former is only a matter of convenience, not practicability.
I like to see most non-vegans as pre-vegans. I like to hope that, given the right information, stability, and time, the vegan seeds that have been planted in them via outreach will eventually germinate and they will become fully vegans. In this regard, I like to see those who define themselves as vegans, but regularly and willingly make inexcusable acts against the core principles of veganism as the ones I describe above, as “students” of veganism yet to be graduated. I hope they keep studying and trying, and one day they will be accepted by their peers. Those who don’t, though, and try to justify the inexcusable, may get stuck outside the gate of the vegan mansion and miss the cosiness and splendour of its many rooms. They may become perpetual paravegans, as some paralegals or paramedics who do not wish to become lawyers or doctors (there is nothing wrong with that, by the way).
Those “vegans” who choose convenience over principles and make no effort to overcome the obstacles to live as a vegan in a carnist world are not that different from carnist. They too choose convenience over morals. They seek to exclude only the forms of animal exploitation and cruelty that are convenient to them. They may not be cruel to “their pets” but they are cruel to pigs and chickens. They may not want to exploit factory-farmed animals but don’t care to exploit farm animals in the so-called free-rage organic farms. They may be supporters of animal welfare but not of animal rights, with its inconvenient abolitionism. But any carnist, as I once was, may at one point awake and become vegan, so any paravegan is even more likely to make the step, and we should not judge them with contempt, but encourage them to make it with compassion and support.
Impossible is stronger than impracticable, which is stronger than impractical, which is stronger than inconvenient. We all are excused not to do the impossible, and we all should be excused not to do what is impracticable to us even if it is practicable to others. But we all should avoid diluting our morals with practicalities and betraying our principles for convenience. It requires a constant effort to do that for the rest of one’s life, but it is a good price to pay for enjoying the benefits of veganism.
I try to do this as much as I can.