Is Veganism a Moral Baseline? Bigotry Wrapped in “New Welfarism” Accusations

By Christopher Sebastian McJetters

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Recently debates in animal rights circles have raised the question as to whether or not pro-intersectional vegan activists consider veganism to be a moral baseline. That’s a valid question. But in order to explore it, let’s imagine a few different scenarios.

Say you start a vegan organization that is dedicated to feeding the homeless exclusively vegan food. You start with noble intentions. But over time, the number of homeless people begins to increase and donations of vegan food become nonexistent. Local people want to help, but most local people aren’t vegan. Hence, they donate non-vegan food. Do you give the non-vegan food to the homeless people? Or do you throw it away? Do homeless people care that donated bread was made with eggs? Do homeless people even know what veganism is or why it’s important? Do they deserve to be further disenfranchised by a system that already persecutes both vulnerable humans and exploited animals?

Or imagine you run a dog rescue. A devastating economic emergency means you suddenly lack the financial resources to feed dozens (or hundreds) of hungry dogs in your care. But you are offered charitable donations of commercial dog food. Do you let your dogs starve? Send them to a kill shelter? Feed them what people donate although it compromises your values? Any of the above?

Or imagine you are a teenager who made the decision to go vegan. But your family doesn’t support you. Furthermore, you live in a low income situation where your primary source of nutrition comes from a school lunch mostly composed of animal products. Do you continue eating what you can until your circumstances change?

Sadly, you don’t have to imagine these examples. These real world situations are not rare isolated incidents. They’re happening right now. All the time.

Perhaps they’re not happening to you or me. But fortunately, we have the privilege to make decisions for ourselves that shelter us from realities that others routinely face in a disastrously non-vegan world.

For most of us reading this, veganism is indeed a moral baseline. And we have the capacity to live vegan every single day. But creating circumstances where veganism is accessible for others should be a part of our moral baseline too. And judging people for lacking similar emotional, physical, and financial resources reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how poverty and circumstance affect outcomes for communities who have a dramatically different context due to their lived experiences.

This is inherently classist and ableist. In fact, since the poverty which informs classism disproportionately impacts communities of color, it’s also indirectly racist. And for those of us who consider ourselves allies of such communities, that’s a hard truth to consider.

Just because we say we’re allies to underserved communities, doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes commit micro-aggressions against them. White people can have a superficial understanding that racism is wrong. But they can still unintentionally perpetuate a system that advantages whiteness. Likewise, men can understand that sexism hurts women. That doesn’t mean they suddenly stop enjoying male privilege in a society that rewards and validates toxic masculinity.

This is where intersectional justice comes in! Intersectional justice isn’t some “sect” of veganism. Framing it as such is reductive and overly simplistic. Intersectionality is an analytical approach that challenges the root causes of oppression through the lens of people who live daily with multiple intersecting oppressions…people who often lack the social, sexual, economic, and academic mobility of those who needlessly antagonize and harass them.

As such, pro-intersectional vegan activism compels us to think broadly. It requires us to seek solutions that make veganism possible for potential allies and remove obstacles that clutter the path to nonhuman and human liberation. Bearing this in mind, asking if veganism is a moral baseline is perhaps the wrong question. Such a question puts veganism into a very small box when it is so much more.

Veganism is a tool to mitigate our privilege in a human-centered society. Veganism is a context to decolonize black and brown bodies. Veganism is a radical socio-political statement that rejects violence. Veganism is a gift we give to our children who deserve clean water and fresh air. Specifically, veganism is living action!

In the words of Dr. Amie Breeze Harper, continuous veganism is part of your “who you are space.”

Vegan is not a title that we grant ourselves and wear forever more. Vegan is something that defines who we are every single time we look at a menu and every time we go to a retail store. Understood from this perspective, veganism becomes a verb, not a noun.

Regrettably, this also means that we sometimes make mistakes or compromised decisions that contribute to hierarchal oppression.

Concealing those occasions instead of candidly discussing them is a meaningful omission. But admitting those occasions empowers us to do better. Frank and open admission of your who you are space doesn’t negate your veganism. It reveals a courage of conviction to put yourself on public display with all the imperfections that make you a complete person. And misrepresenting such honesty in order to use it as a weapon in an unprovoked attack against allies is disingenuous, malicious, and abusive. Furthermore, encouraging others to treat moral baselines as dogma is the casus belli that results in precisely the bigotry and bullying that veganism is supposed to be against.

When intersectional veganism observes racist and sexist behaviors, it doesn’t diminish or reject the moral relevance of veganism. It just means that racism and sexism have no place in an inclusive movement. And when marginalized people express the pain and frustration that comes with a lifetime of erasure and abuse, it doesn’t mean they’re bigots.

The bottom line is that until we promote meaningful and significant justice that crosses between communities, veganism is just another single-issue campaign.

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Published by

Justin Van Kleeck

I am a vegan (since 1999), a curious skeptic, a bookworm, a nature lover, and your garden-variety neurotic. My wrestling with chaos manifests as writing and, with my wife, tending our friends the plants and spending quality time with our rescued furry kids. I am fun at parties (because I am never there) and so unique that I am easy to forget. So take that, modernity.

16 thoughts on “Is Veganism a Moral Baseline? Bigotry Wrapped in “New Welfarism” Accusations”

  1. Love it, love it, love it. I was just pondering veganism as a ‘moral baseline’ and the implications for intersectional veganism/justice. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Wow! Being in a privilaged community not being able to eat vegan is something I’ve never had to think about. Hopefully, vegan options get chosen more often and fruits, veggies, beans, rice, and pasta become more regularly available, even in low income communities.

  3. Wonderful essay. The first scenario you describe is exactly what I encountered while doing food justice work. If we truly want a vegan world, it’s not enough to talk about morals; we also need to address socioeconomic disparities that make it prohibitive for some people to live vegan.

    1. Very true; some homeless people do want to be vegan, and some succeed. When I volunteered with Food Not Bombs, two of the people who regularly helped us cook and serve food were homeless themselves. I’m not sure if they were vegan, but they were certainly aware that I was, as was the person leading our serving. I didn’t tell them that they should also be vegan though, because their main concerns were getting a bed for the night, not getting their belongings stolen, not being physically or sexually assaulted in a shelter or harassed by the police, etc.

      At our FNB serving the food we cooked was always vegan, but we often didn’t have enough. Sometimes we’d run out in as little as 15 minutes. So if someone brought a loaf of bread that contained dairy, we would put it to the side and let our guests know that it had milk in it. This was also important because the majority of people of color are lactose intolerant.

      Should we have thrown the non-vegan food away? I know that from a cow’s perspective, milk is no different from flesh; forced impregnation, dehorning and castration without anesthesia, and slaughter at a young age are standard procedures even on so-called “humane” farms. But I’m not going to take the time to explain that to someone who might be facing going to sleep on a dirty street corner with no food in their stomach. If homeless people are made aware of veganism through other avenues and choose to avoid non-vegan food for ethical reasons, I’m glad for them and for our fellow animals.

      1. Thanks for your comments, Pax. And thanks for all your work with FNB. Our local (Raleigh, NC) chapter shut down after the city tightened its laws about feeding homeless people. There sis not an active chapter in our area any longer.

      2. Pax, I am sure you are aware of the horrible homeless situation in the bay area, gentrification, the tech industry being influential in it…and the latest about the mayor of San Francisco wanting the homeless people to ‘go away’ during the super bowl. It’s really sick on many levels. Thanks for your activism. This article came my way this morning: http://missionlocal.org/2016/02/sf-drag-queens-react-to-homeless-sweeps-with-food-and-clothes/

  4. “The bottom line is that until we promote meaningful and significant justice that crosses between communities, veganism is just another single-issue campaign.”
    Priceless. Thanks Christopher.

    1. I wish I could reply on Francione’s page. I would write something like this:
      “No, Gary, we just think your rigid adherence to theoretical concepts is a result of your entitled and privileged position. Most moral dilemmas are chock full of contradictory scenarios.”

  5. Very good article. I see veganism as a framework for living a moral life. In that way, it’s not an endpoint, but a starting point for making focused conscious, moral decisions in a world full of distractions. Given that, we must remember that no one is perfect and many face challenges that may require a greater amount of empathy and understanding. However, morality, as viewed through the lens of a vegan, involves careful consideration of how our actions affect those who are most vulnerable among us. Honoring those vulnerable individuals, animals, factions provides the foundation of veganism. In that same way, when we summon vulnerable individuals to join us in this moral quest, we are not discriminating against them due to circumstance, but we are asking that they not participate in their own exploitation. In other words, the weak should not be made to prey upon the weaker…

    1. Fantastic article. Unsurprisingly, the most well-known proponent of the “moral baseline” has totally misrepresented this article. You say “For most of us reading this, veganism is indeed a moral baseline… ” and that is translated into the idea that you’re speciesist (the normal response to disagreement). Somehow promoting the idea that we should make it easier for others to make the same choices is wrong? In the words of the moral baseline-er, “It’s not about your journey,” yet he wants to dictate the perfect journey and criticize a journey that might look blacker or poorer or queerer or female-er than the journey he envisions from academia. With much discussion about whether you’re a “real” vegan. Anyway, I’m sorry for highlighting that when I am really awed by your post.

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