Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, looks at the intersection between veganism and animal rights, today and in the past.
It’s easy for me to say I am a vegan.
From all the identities I have been accumulating over the years, the identity of vegan is one that I feel closest to, and wear more explicitly. I have been proudly parading it for 21 years now, with my many sloganeer T-shirts, my assorted colourful pins, and my unequivocally labelled hats.
However, like everyone else, I have had many more identities. I have also been a Catalan, a male, an atheist, an animalist, a zoologist, a waspman, a scientist, a lefty, a European, an ethologist, a monkeyman, a Briton, an anti, a writer, an author, an antitaurino, an investigator, an environmentalist, an activist, an animal rights person, an intellectual, a Londoner, and a Tofu-Eating Wokerati, but some of these identities feel a little less “me”, not because I am distancing from all of them (I am of some), but because they do not feel that much of a pure identity to me. Not everything that is culturally significant or biologically distinctive qualifies as an off-the-rack identity. You can indeed make an identity of anything you want to (and younger generations are very good at it), but some seem more ready to be used in a less tailored way.
For instance, look at the identity of an animal rights person. I am certainly one of them, and I was probably an animal rights person before I became vegan, but if you think about it, one fits better the concept of identity than the other. For starters, we need to use this cumbersome three-word animal-rights-person to make it sound like an identity, while with veganism we only need to say “vegan”. Even the term “animal rights person” doesn’t ring completely right — as the term “human rights person” either. “Animal rights activist” yes, but “person”? But in the case of veganism, we can say one can be a vegan who is not a vegan activist, and everyone will understand what we mean. Identity plays differently in both concepts because we are looking at two different things. Like with gender and sexuality, there is a lot of overlap, but they are not the same.
In the last decade or so, the identity of vegan and animal rights persons have overlapped a lot, to the point many may assume they are the same. In the past, though, they were more clearly separate. Especially for those who have recently acquired either of them, it may be worth looking at their similarities and differences to see how they intersect. I am both, so although I am not a scholar, sociologist, philosopher, or historian, I have done a bit of research about this because of my book “Ethical Vegan”, so I can give it a go and try to explain what, in my view, these two distinctive mutually reinforcing identity-forming philosophies are all about.
Let’s see what I come up with.
Veganism and animal rights are indeed philosophies, in the sense they are particular systems of thought relating to the understanding of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. Also, they are both non-religious philosophical beliefs in the sense they do not go into metaphysics or cosmology of a religious nature. They are both key philosophies followed by people who care about non-human animals and try to respect them, and animal protection organisations involved in advocating for them and helping them. However, I believe they focus on different subjects and belong to different philosophical disciplines.
The philosophy of animal rights focuses on non-human animals, which is to say, all individuals of all the species in the Animal Kingdom except Homo sapiens. It looks at them and considers whether they have intrinsic rights which justify being treated by humans in a different way than they had been traditionally treated. This philosophy concludes that they indeed have basic rights because they have moral worth, and if humans want to live in a law-based society of rights, they must also consider the rights of non-human animals, as well as their interests (such as avoiding suffering). These rights include the right to life, body autonomy, liberty, and freedom from torture. In other words, it challenges the notion that non-human animals are objects, property, goods, or commodities, and ultimately aims to acknowledge all their moral and legal “personhood”.
This philosophy focuses on non-human animals because it looks at who they are, what they do, how they behave, and how they think, and, accordingly, assigns them attributes related to sentience, conscience, moral agency, and legal rights.
In this regard, I think the animal rights philosophy belongs more to the epistemology discipline (the theory of knowledge) or the axiology discipline (the theory of value), than the ethics discipline (the moral principles that govern people’s behaviour). It does not focus on non-human animals to tell them how they should behave, or how right or wrong is what they do. It focuses on them to understand who they are and speculate about their minds. How do we know they are different from us so we can justify treating them differently? For me, that is more of an epistemological approach than an ethical approach. And how do we value non-human animals to give them the rights they deserve? For me, this sounds like part of axiology.
However, although many people may assume that veganism also focuses on non-human animals, I do not believe this is the case. I believe veganism focuses on humans, and in particular, how they behave with “others” (regardless of who these others are). The fundamental principle of veganism has been known for millennia as ahimsa, the Sanskrit term meaning “do no harm” which is sometimes translated as “non-violence”. This has become an important tenet of many religions (such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism), but also of non-religious philosophies and movements (such as pacifism, vegetarianism, and veganism).
Veganism asks humans not to harm others (apply ahimsa to all sentient beings), and although such others are often thought of as being non-human animals, it does not limit its scope to these. The first part of the official definition of veganism of the Vegan Society says that 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.” It does not use the term “non-human animals”, which was already widely used in 1988 when this definition was finalised, because it does not exclude humans from the exploitation and cruelty requirements. Being non-human animals the most numerous victims of humanity’s misbehaviour, it is easy to understand why many people would consider the focus of veganism is on them. It may be in practical terms, but philosophically, I think it goes further.
For instance, if you deconstruct the philosophy of veganism, you will be able to identify that one of its three main axioms is that vegans are anti-speciesists, meaning they do not discriminate against anyone according to species membership. Excluding the species Homo sapiens from the scope of ahimsa would be speciesist. The key to the “do no harm” meaning of ahimsa is the word “harm”, which can be interpreted as causing distress, pain, injury, or death. It would not make sense that such a fundamental principle would be only directed to particular sentient beings who could be harmed, not to all. And veganism fully understands that, and this is why its two other main axioms are 2) all animals should be regarded as sentient beings who can suffer, and 3) any exploitation of animals should be avoided because it can make them suffer. In other words, veganism is against the exploitation of any sentient being.
Regarding philosophical disciplines, veganism clearly falls into ethics, as it is focused on humans (specifically on humans’ relationships with others) and does tell them how they should behave (do no harm). Veganism is not concerned about whether one particular animal has a conscience or moral agency. It considers all animals (including humans) as beings capable of being harmed (as they are sentient beings), and therefore it aims to protect them by asking humans not to harm them. Indeed, harming them would be considered “wrong”, and changing one’s behaviour by excluding all forms of animal exploitation (the vegan lifestyle) would be considered “right”. Veganism is an ethical philosophy. It’s all about the rights and wrongs of human behaviour.
Both philosophies of veganism and animal rights can also be seen as part of social justice movements which sprang from the recognition of one injustice: the way people treat non-human animals is unjust and must change. The Animal Rights philosophy says it is unjust because non-human animals have intrinsic rights most humans violate, while the veganism philosophy says it is unjust because people do not follow ahimsa when they behave toward non-human animals, deliberately harming them. Both look at non-human animals as victims of humanity and conclude that humanity should change its relationship with other animals to make it fairer. So, both led to two social movements, the Animal Rights Movement (sometimes referred to as AR Movement) and the Veganism Movement (normally referred to as the Vegan Movement), which overlap greatly because they broadly aim for the same outcome.
The difference, though, is that the animal rights philosophy aims to make this change through the legal system (granting recognised legal rights to non-human animals), while the veganism philosophy aims to make it through individuals’ change (helping people to become vegans who can then change institutions and policies). Therefore, it seems to me that veganism fits better the description of a transformative socio-political movement and animal rights fits better the description of a justice movement (although both descriptions can apply to both movements).
Veganism has a very well-defined future paradigm it calls “the vegan world”, and the veganism movement has been put in charge — by itself — to create it. By veganising every possible product and situation vegans are building the vegan world one step at a time, and once it is built, they will have to maintain it forever. This is a very specific idealistic final goal.
On the other side, the final goal of the animal rights movement is animal liberation, which should be the consequence of granting legal rights to all non-human animals and applying them. If this happens, if such rights make it into the statutes of all jurisdictions (like human rights are getting closer to being) and are enforced, the AR movement’s role would be limited to ensuring such rights are properly considered and those breaching them appropriately punished. But it would leave to the “system”, not the AR people, to implement the newly expanded rights. There is no “animal rights world” to build and protect by the AR people.
Because it focuses on animals rather than on human society, I think the scope and scale of the animal rights movement are smaller and less defined than the ones of veganism. And it does not end to completely revolutionise humanity but to use the current world with its current legal rights system and expand it to the rest of animals. Animal liberation will indeed be achieved if the vegan movement achieves its final goal, but we will not have a vegan world yet if the AR movement achieves its final goal first.
To me, veganism seems far more ambitious and revolutionary, as the vegan world would need to have a very different political and economic makeup if it is to stop the “harming of others” — which is what vegans are concerned about. This is why veganism and environmentalism overlap very smoothly, and this is why veganism has become more multi-dimensional than animal rights.
Another difference I found is that the association with a lifestyle seems stronger in veganism than in animal rights. The very official definition of the Vegan Society says that veganism is “a philosophy and a way of living.” It does not say OR a way of living, but AND a way of living, as the lifestyle directly comes from the philosophy, which dictates how vegans should behave. We do not see that strong connection in the Animal Rights philosophy because it focuses more on animals than on people, so it is not telling people how they should behave, but is saying how animals deserve to be treated. Believing in animal rights should lead to a change of behaviour, but the philosophy is too removed from humans to make such change a clear-cut imperative. Veganism demands such a change in a much more straightforward way, as it talks directly to people saying, “do no harm”.
The Brief History of Veganism
I think the Vegan Movement aims wider and further than the AR Movement because it also has more momentum accumulated over the years. I believe the philosophy behind it has existed in one form or another (not always using the term vegan, of course) for longer.
If we look at veganism as a modern secular incarnation of ahimsa, this is a very ancient concept that was already used by various religions many centuries before the Common Era. In different cultures and religions across the ages, the subjects to avoid harming have been varying. Sometimes they have been mainly humans (such as in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), while in others some non-human animals too (such as in Buddhism and Hinduism), or all sentient beings (such as in Jainism). Indeed, the teachings of Mahavira, the 24th supreme preacher of Jainism, give a lot of emphasis on ahimsa meaning not harming any sentient being, and this is why many Jain monks and nuns wear mouth masks in case they accidentally swallow any insect (although they still consumed dairy).
Ahimsa-based approaches were not confined to any specific region of the world. Although many of the religions mentioned started in the sub-continent we call today India, I am convinced the ahimsa idea was also operating millennia ago in the far orient via religions such as Taoism, in Europe via cults such as the Pythagoreans, and in the Middle East via sects such as the Essenes — and most likely in ancient Africa, Oceania, and the Americas too, although colonialist historians may not have recorded it. One of the clearest ways to see ahimsa’s influence in ancient cultures is when we discover that vegetarianism was promoted in some, and rules were set up to avoid eating meat. Sometimes such rules had to do more with purity, health, or fitness, but sometimes they had to do with avoiding harming other beings, recognising they are not just objects, but creatures with the capacity to suffer.
I would say that the concept of veganism as we understand it today was already fully formed (although without using this term) in the Middle Ages, because we have records of some non-religious vegans who did not consume animal products for the sake of animals. For instance, Abul ‘ala Al-Ma’arri was one of the greatest non-religious poets of the early 11th century (the Golden Era of Islam), who ended up living a fully vegan lifestyle — and writing about it — in what we know today as Syria.
Then, in 1847, the Vegetarian Society was created in England, effectively secularising ahimsa. However, the scope of sentient beings this society avoided harming had not expanded fully yet as cows, bees, goats, chickens, and ducks were still allowed to be harmed by allowing the consumption of honey, dairy and eggs. We had to wait until 1944, when the Vegan Society was formed from a splinter group of the Vegetarian Society, to see the “do no harm” cover all animals, and the word “vegan” becoming the modern manifestation of ahimsa.
Then was when veganism became a global socio-political movement. It was born at the time of the second world war, advocating for a peaceful alternative. Veganism as a movement was a way to stop human violence against other animals, the planet, and each other. In 1945, Donald Watson, one of the most well-known founders of this new vegan social movement, said that veganism was about ”opposing the exploitation of sentient life”, and this movement was “the greatest cause on Earth.” Therefore, almost 80 years ago, the principle of ahimsa, married with the three axioms of veganism described earlier, gave birth to the revolutionary social movement we know today, which is gradually building the vegan world of the future — aiming to save the planet and all its inhabitants.
The Brief History of Animal Rights
On the other hand, although the history of the animal rights philosophy could be traced back to ahimsa too, I believe it is more recent. While ahimsa was growing and expanding in the Classical Era, still focusing on humans telling them not to harm others, but often interpreted as only protecting humans because they were seen as more important than other sentient beings, the idea of animals having rights was practically inexistent because even the idea of humans having rights had not been fully developed yet. It was not until the Middle Ages that we start seeing laws being passed with a clear human rights flavour. For instance, the famous Magna Carta is an English charter originally issued in 1215 which already talked about the rights of “some” humans (mainly the barons of England). Later, this influenced the 1689 English Bill of Rights, the 1789 United States Constitution, and the 1791 United States Bill of Rights. Eventually, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, France, and human rights became enshrined in most jurisdictions after the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) were adopted by the United Nations in 1966. The legal framework for human rights was finalised, but non-human animals had a long way to go.
It was probably in the 17th century when the animal rights notion began to be formed. The English philosopher John Locke identified natural rights as being “life, liberty, and estate (property)” for people, but he also believed animals have feelings and unnecessary cruelty towards them was morally wrong. He was probably influenced by Pierre Gassendi a century earlier, who was in turn influenced by Porphyry and Plutarch from the Middle Ages — already talking about animals. About a century later, other philosophers started to contribute to the birth of the animal rights philosophy. For instance, Jeremy Bentham (who argued it was the ability to suffer that should be the benchmark of how we treat other beings) or Margaret Cavendish (who condemned humans for believing all animals were made specifically for their benefit). However, I think it was Henry Stephens Salt who, in 1892, finally crystallised the essence of the philosophy when he wrote a book titled “Animals’ Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress”.
I believe that it was in the 1970s, after the major international human rights treaties had been signed and were beginning to be applied in national legislation, that the animal rights philosophy generated the AR Movement, which was aiming to replicate this international legal process for the rights of non-human animals. The idea was to create an international animal rights declaration that, like in the human rights case, would end up becoming animal rights legislation in every country banning the exploitation of animals for food, research, fashion, sport, or any other purpose. To achieve this, the anti-vivisection movement, the anti-hunting movement, the anti-bullfighting movement, the anti-fur movement and the anti-captivity movement were developed among others as subgroups of the AR movement.
However, it turned out not to be that straightforward. Although if you google it, you will find many references to a Universal Declaration of Animal Rights approved by the UN, this is actually an urban myth (which surprisingly has made it into the preambles of laws in some countries) as such UN declaration does not exist. There was an organisation that drafted a document with it, and it was sent to the UN in 1978 (and to UNESCO in 1990), but it was never discussed, let alone vote it or approved — I know this because I contacted the UN directly when I was the campaign coordinator of the Dutch anti-bullfighting organisation CAS-International as I came across many references to it while trying to draft bullfighting bans for several countries.
Therefore, as far as social movements are concerned, I think the birth of the vegan movement precedes the AR movement by at least 30 years. In the late 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, the two movements run in parallel, and you could find animal protection activists who would be part of only one or both. For instance, you could see animal rights activists engaged in hunt sabotage but not being vegan, and you could see vegans not involved in any animal protection activity and being expressive in their lack of belief in animal rights.
In those decades, we can also see the creation of animal welfare organisations that did not belong to either movement, some that belonged to one, but also animal rights organisations that belonged to both (such as Animal Aid founded by Jean Pink in the UK in 1977, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals founded by Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco in the US in 1980). And as the goals of the AR movement did not seem close to being achieved when using the legal route, unlawful direct action to liberate oppressed animals became an option for some militant activists since the creation of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) in 1976.
When both movements were running together in organisations and people, they reinforced each other, so those who followed both gained cohesion and built more confidence. Veganism become more powerful when embracing animal rights more openly, as it acquired legal credibility and recruited many activists who had more social influence across generations. The reverse is also true, as I think the AR movement also benefited because the animal rights philosophy does not have the “as far as practicable and possible” clause of the definition of veganism, so it could be seen as more idealistic and theoretical. Because of this clause, I think it could be easier to commit animal rights violations than to breach veganism principles, so when combined with veganism, animal rights could be seen as more realistic and actionable through lifestyle choices. This led to getting away from the shadows of the fringes of society and beginning to enjoy the sunshine of mainstreamness — which has its problems, by the way.
In the late 1990s, with their mutual reinforcement, veganism and animal-rights philosophies became more popular. But with growth, diversity comes, so they also diversified themselves into distinctive factions often driven by different schools of ethics. On one side, “deontological ethics” represented by the American philosopher Tom Regan (who argued animals possess value as “subjects-of-a-life” because they have beliefs, desires, memory, and the ability to initiate action in pursuit of goals) and on the other side “utilitarian ethics” represented by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer (who argues the principle “the greatest good of the greatest number” should be applied to other animals, as the boundary between human and “animal” is arbitrary). From the two, only Tom Regan advocated for veganism as a moral baseline, becoming the archetypal philosopher where animal rights and veganism meet.
In the 2000s, we see the term “animal protection organisation” appearing to bypass the infighting between animal welfare groups (that did not advocate for veganism and only sought reforms) and animal rights groups (that promoted veganism and sought the abolition of animal exploitation). The “abolitionist approach” promoted by the American legal scholar Professor Gary L. Francione took a life of its own transcending animal protection and going back to basics on the view of veganism as a moral baseline.
But it was not until the 2010s that, for many people, being vegan and being an animal rights person were seen as synonymous. Up until then, even the animal rights organisations we associate more with veganism today — including PETA — would sometimes advocate for vegetarian diets to be able to reach more people. The vegan sociologist Dr Roger Yates was the press officer of the Animal Liberation Front — you can’t get a more animal rights person than him — and in 2016 he said the following in a Vegfest talk: “Throughout the 1980s, we were all vegans as individuals, and we would talk about veganism, but it wasn’t central to our campaigning in the way that it is now. So, in Francione’s terms, it was never the moral baseline. So, we all did single issues. We campaigned against fur, we were hunt saboteurs, and everything else, but we didn’t talk much about veganism. I did hundreds of radio and some TV interviews, but we didn’t talk about veganism. It wasn’t the way it is right now…vegan campaigning is a new thing.”
Animal Rights and Veganism Today
In the 2020s, the AR and vegan movements do not operate in two completely different separate social spheres. You see both in the same spaces. There is not an Animal Rights Society to rival the Vegan Society. There are no vegan marches that animal rights people do not attend. Vegans and animal rights people get together to participate in both animal rights activism and vegan outreach. Although there may have different social media pages for different aspects and sub-divisions of the movements, they tend to be shared. Even Ronnie Lee, one of the founders of the Animal Liberation Front, now spends most of his activism doing vegan outreach. For an outsider, it would be difficult to find the difference between the two movements — even for an insider who has never analysed the philosophies too closely.
However, despite the current strong intersection and overlapping between animal rights and veganism we find, there is evidence that both philosophies are still separate, and what we see is an increase in the number of people who hold them both at the same time, rather than a complete merge of the two philosophies.
I often say one can enter veganism via five different gateways: the animals, the environment, social justice, health, and spirituality. Those like me who entered via the animals’ gateway, and it is the dimension they feel closer to (even after having explored the other four), are what I call “animal rights vegans”. An animal rights vegan is the typical ethical vegan, avoiding all animal exploitation mainly for ahimsa reasons and believing all animals have the right not to be exploited. We, animal rights vegans, firmly hold both the philosophy of veganism and animal rights, and for some of us, the overlapping is so extensive that we do not always recognise them as separate philosophies. However, for those vegans who prefer other of the five dimensions of veganism, the distinction may be clearer.
I call eco-vegans those who follow the veganism and environmentalism philosophies at the same time. Those who, together with veganism, also follow feminism, lptq+ ism (I am sure there may be a better word but you know what I mean), or other human equality philosophies, I call social justice vegans, overlapping vegans, or intersectional vegans. Those who follow veganism and religions (or pseudo-religions) which reinforce it, I call them spiritual vegans. Finally, those who follow the vegan philosophy but also believe in health-fitness-centred philosophies/ideologies I call them health vegans. But if they do not follow veganism to the full, then I would call all these differently (for instance, the health people who only apply veganism in their diet, and not as a transition onto the rest of the philosophy, would be better called plant-based people).
Sometimes, some animal rights vegans who just entered veganism and have not explored its other four dimensions yet would brand others who entered via other gateways as “non-vegans”. They will say that you cannot be vegan for the environment or for health, just for the animals, and may also claim veganism as their property, exercising what I call the wrong type of Vegan Gatekeeping. I think this is a sign they are not aware that the animal rights philosophy and the veganism philosophy are separate, and they are speaking with their animal rights hat on, without realising that other vegans do not have that hat yet (they may acquire it later).
It cannot be denied that people can wear different identities at the same time and can hold different philosophies simultaneously, as many are not mutually exclusive. None of the five dimensions of veganism is mutually exclusive from any of the others, they are just different dimensions of the same thing.
Although one can argue that, in the second decade of the 21st century, most animal rights people are now vegan, the reverse is not true. I think that, probably, the majority of vegans are not animal rights people yet (but eco-vegans, health vegans and social justice vegans). One can seek to exclude all animal exploitation and cruelty to all animals (hence, be an ethical vegan) without believing that non-human animals deserve rights that are not legally recognised yet. They may still be supremacists who believe their respect for animals comes from their “generosity” and “compassion” as superior human beings, as opposed to believing all animals (including humans) are essentially the same and deserve equal basic rights appropriate to their species. They may behave in line with veganism (trying not to harm other sentient beings), but they may still believe that humans are superior. They may not discriminate against any species (they may be anti-speciesist), but not because they think all species are equally worthy or deserve the same, but because they believe they are superior beings whose role is to look after inferior beings in a fair and magnanimous way.
I am not one of these vegans. I truly embrace equally both the philosophy of veganism and the philosophy of animal rights, and I do not believe humans, vegans, or ethical vegans are superior to any other “group”. I believe non-human animals deserved the same moral rights before humans even existed, so their natural rights and intrinsic worth have nothing to do with us. We are treating them as if they do not have them, but it is not up to us to “grant” them such moral rights as a token of our generosity. They already had them before we can along and ignored them. We just need to stop ignoring them and treat them with respect.
And I do my best to try not to hurt anyone regardless of which group they have been classed into, because I do believe the concept of ahimsa is the most important principle on which to base one’s behaviour. Holding both philosophies at the same time makes me focus more on non-human animals but not limit my scope of interest and concern to them. This is the approach I hope all vegans and animal rights people will eventually take because I think we need it to build the vegan world and liberate all animals from their oppression.
I don’t know if my assessment of the two philosophies is right and whether my interpretation of the history behind both is correct — as I said, I am not a scholar on this subject. But I feel strongly that we need animal rights veganism (or vegan animal rights) because both philosophies together reinforce each other, and this is a good thing. If we can get most people following them, we could get to real positive change for everyone, and sooner.
However, I still see the two philosophies are separate. Overlapping, intersecting, synergetic, mutually reinforcing, but separate.
Two powerful revolutionary philosophies I hold with pride.