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Originally posted on my blog

A very interesting discussion I came across online between Cosmicskeptic (Alex) and Earthlings Ed (Ed Winters) brought forth several points that I have wondered about in the past.  In one segment, Alex poses the following question:  knowing that plant-based foods also involve some harm in terms of crop deaths, isn’t it the case that anyone who consumes food over and beyond the bare minimum caloric requirement (including, and especially, vegans) is not leading a life conforming to ethical standards of veganism? Ed doesn’t give a straight answer and offers some generic caution against overconsumption. As though the question of consistency of this behavior under the puritanical requirements that most vegans insist on can be resolved with mere reference to a more general societal health problem about which vegans are nowhere as judgmental about.

This brings us of course to the question of who really counts as being vegan. In fact, that is something Alex raises too and Ed cites the standard Vegan society definition which holds that veganism is a lifestyle that “minimizes to the extent practical the usage of animal products”. The important word there is of course practical. Now what is considered practical to one person may not be so for another who is in a very different circumstance or for the same individual at a different point in life.


Definition (Vegan Society)


In fact, this is the definition according to the Vegan Society :

Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; 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.

As stated earlier, it is rather unclear what “as far as possible” means and why there should be a unanimous interpretation of it.  

To achieve a certain degree of avoidance of animal products, the effort required to do so could be vastly different depending on factors such as ease of access, socio-economic realities, familial situations, cultural expectations, food allergies, conditions of employment, etc. 

But even setting that aside, there is the question of second-order effects of our choices such as the inevitable crop deaths associated with agriculture. Why don’t vegans interpret “as far as possible” to include all the potential steps one can take to avoid crop deaths such as growing and harvesting one’s own food, identifying sources of plants that minimizes such deaths, etc? In much the same way, shouldn’t vegans also avoid buying or renting  property if, as is the case with most properties, it was developed on land that had once supported sentient wildlife that has now been disrupted owing to the development to serve human needs? 

There isn’t much discussion of such issues amongst vegans. And the reason for that lies in the fact that the de-facto understanding of veganism isn’t quite what is defined by Vegan Society. The default definition used by vegans eliminates the need for such ambiguity present in the official definition, and although it is rarely acknowledged as such, this default definition is the one that vegans adhere to, and it represents the bar for anyone who claims to be vegan needs to attain, and during advocacy, it is this definition that is implicitly invoked when urging people to go vegan and “cruelty-free”.

Conventional (or default) definition


Veganism involves elimination of all animal-derived or animal-tested ingredients in all products that are directly consumed - everything from food to shelter to shoes to camping gear to vehicles. In other words, it is 100% avoidance at the first order.

When I say first-order, I mean the products that are owned or used or consumed directly.  All the stuff a vegan purchases, her belongings  and the contents of her house for example will be free of animal ingredients. As I said, this is the definition (and not the official one) that vegans often mean both when they apply the vegan label to anyone and the adherence commitment required to be regarded as one. 

Of course, most vegans are aware of crop deaths and all the other ways in which animals are exploited that are indirectly - second order and beyond - the consequences of first-order choices they make. While this is acknowledged with some genuine regret, it is very rarely the case that someone is called out for not being vegan because they are not actively minimzing these indirect sources of harm. 

Ethically, I can understand that there is indeed some difference in culpability between harm that is caused based on the number of steps in the consequential chain separating the particular decision we make from the final act that deals the harm. One can imagine why eating chicken is ethically worse than, say, making a trade with someone who would invest the proceeds from it in a firm that exploits animals. 

Scoop of honey vs owning personal vehicle

On the other hand, what should the ethical burdens be if it can be established that the second order harm from a certain action Y is 10 times worse that the first order harm from action X? For example, X represents having a scoop of honey once a month and Y the ownership of a personal vehicle. (To be clear, the harm arises with vehicle ownership when one considers the indirect harm caused to wildlife while constructing the highways and bridges the vehicle will be driven on, the responsibility for which surely is shared in some part by the future users of the roadways. Or, the contribution to habitat destruction induced by climate change which has been made ever so slightly worse by the emissions from that vehicle. Far-fetched? Not really. It’s all a marginal contribution isn’t it - what after all is the point of avoiding a piece of bacon when millions of pigs are going to be slaughtered every year for food any which way? Too tiny? Not really, especially when compared to a scoop of honey a month? )

In this scenario if it does turn out that the net harm from vehicle ownership over a lifetime is more than 10 times worse than that of having a scoop of honey a month, then how do we judge the ethics of the two actions?

Specifically, is it justified that vegans condemn enjoying that scoop of honey a month but are willing to condone vehicle ownership ? One might of course argue that owning a vehicle is necessary for all practical purposes but consuming honey isn’t.  But is that really the case? Is having a personal vehicle absolutely necessary? Can one not manage to lead a life without a personal vehicle and instead rely on public transport or use a cycle or ride along with others? Without doubt, there are plenty of situations where a personal vehicle is indispensable and this isn’t the point of debate. It is rather that the vegan community is typically willing to accept someone who owns a vehicle as not contradicting any vegan values (as long as the vehicle does not contain animal parts; again first-order considerations trumps everything else) without much inquiry into whether the vehicle is necessary or evaluating its fuel economy, manufacturing process and other parameters that would be of relevance.

Given that the difference in harm is a factor of 10, shouldn’t there be something more nuanced than holding that eating a little honey is strictly off-limits and ownership of vehicle is okay for vegans ? What if that factor was 100?

For this and similar reasons, the conventional definition of veganism is extremely arbitrary even though more than 90% (99%?) vegans subscribe to it.

What other definition can there be then? We can come up with a consequentialist definition that takes into account all of the resulting changes that follows from a particular action.

Consequentialist definition

Veganism is a philosophy and way of life that avoids all actions X such that the harm caused to sentient beings by the sum total of all the downstream consequences of that action is non-zero.  

The problem with this definition is immediate - how does one know all the downstream consequences of an action? In fact, given what we know of chaos theory, it is almost impossible to determine how a decision will play out if we took seriously all the consequences that flow from it. Even more problematically, why should almost unforeseen consequences or those that are well beyond one’s reasonable control be placed in the same category as direct harms that one can be held culpable for?  However, even if this definition were to be modified to take into account how many intermediate steps are involved in a consequential chain leading to the actual harm (through some discounting procedure) , it is still very impractical.  

Yet if ethical principles remain the primary motivation for veganism then this definition is useful in terms of the theoretical position that one aspires to when taking decisions related to animal welfare. 

Let’s summarize the three definitions: the first or what one may describe as the official definition requires vegans to avoid as much as possible cruelty and exploitation of animals; the second requires strict elimination of all animal ingredients in the products that are directly consumed ( this is typically what is implied and  understood in common parlance) and third requires avoidance of any action whose consequences involves some harm to sentient life. 

First definition is a little vague, the second is well-defined but philosophically questionable and arbitrary and the third is somewhat abstract and theoretical. 

While the original definition is imprecise it seems to be on the right track. Vegans will be the first to admit for example that eliminating all suffering is all but impossible. Therefore it makes sense that we can only go so far in terms of what we can accomplish in terms of reducing harm and suffering from our actions. 

But how far exactly should one go and is it really important that we have a single universal yardstick to judge and decide who should or should not be considered vegan? In fact, from a philosophical standpoint, harm reduction, just like most things in life, lies on a continuum, and any boundary that one sets to distinguish between a vegan and a non-vegan is going to be arbitrary. 

Let’s examine this from another lens. Taking the concept of marginal gains, we can consider the trade-off between effort and harm reduction. As much as some vegans would like you to believe, veganism is not “easy”; if it were, and further if the lifestyle entailed endless upsides and no downsides (another claim that is often glibly thrown around), then the entire world or most of it would have converted. No, the reality is that, even with the knowledge that veganism entails lesser harm in the world, the  reduced contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change together with the well-established health advantages that a (whole-food) plant based diet brings, there are several reasons ranging from convenience and taste to habits, cultural practices and social difficulties that prevent people from making the switch or to relapse to consuming animal products after experimenting for sometime. 

We can therefore unambiguously say that moving towards such a lifestyle entails some level of commitment, intention, planning and determination.  For simplicity let’s use the term effort to capture all dimensions of it, and the magnitude of the effort to indicate the extent or degree to which one is committing to such adherence. Not all aspects of veganism require the same effort. For example, giving up red meat is likely to be a lot easier than trying to find a high-quality waterproof hiking shoe that does not use any leather. And the relative impact of those two choices could be orders of magnitude different. The harm reduced in switching from a standard omnivorous diet to one that eliminates all red meat (assuming no greater intake of other meats or fish) is far higher than whatever is the contribution of a small leather detail in a shoe that is purchased one-off and will be worn for 5 more years. 

Let’s analyze this a little further.

Effort vs Harm Reduction


Let’s consider a typical individual in society who  follows a typical non-vegan lifestyle - both in terms of diet and other forms of consumption and activities. Now we rank every possible change that the individual could possibly do - everything from eliminating butter to not visiting zoos to choosing ethical alternatives for household products - in terms of their harm reduction towards animals.  We also consider the effort associated with each of these changes. At the top of such  ranking is likely to be giving up chicken (considering their relative mass, suffering, and consumption levels) and somewhere in the middle would be cutting out dairy and further down we’ll have things like avoiding grocery items that may contain traces of animal ingredients.  Concretely, a change c results in δ harm reduction and involves effort e. 

Suppose the individual started making changes in the descending order of the ranking. Let’s say the person did n such changes, and we determine the cumulative effort and harm reduced by those actions as a simple sum of the individual components:


  If we plot the point (E,δ ) on a two dimensional graph, and for n=1,2,3,.. , then we would get something that looks like what is shown below. 


Caption: The harm reduced by an individual as a function of the effort to eliminate animal products. Notice how the curve is steep initially and flattens out indicating that more and more effort is needed to further reduce the harm. The dotted line at the top represents all the harm the individual is responsible for.


Notice how the curve is steep at the beginning where a small increase in effort leads to a large reduction in harm.. As we move along it however, the effect is less pronounced and an equal effort yields lesser gains than earlier and if we continue along the right even further, the curve almost flattens. In other words, even a large amount of effort produces only minor benefits. In fact the dotted line at the top is an upper bound - it represents the sum total of  the possible harm the individual contributes to when starting off- direct and indirect, crop deaths and land-use changes -  by engaging in all their usual activities.  The curve tends towards that bound as we go further and further to the right, ie, as the effort increases to infinity!

If we acknowledge that complete harm reduction - attaining that bound - is next to impossible, then where along the curve should we set the boundary that defines when an individual should be deemed vegan? Is there is some ethical framework that can be used to justify such a choice? While I was deliberately vague about a “typical” individual in society, consider two individuals for whom the curves look like what is shown below (the differences being brought about by their circumstances, background, age, allergies, opportunities, etc) . Should we define the boundary for veganism based on effort or harm reduction (vertical or horizontal line parallel to the y and x axes respectively, see the plot below ) ? In other words, is a person’s claim to veganism based on the relative (subjective) effort associated with the changes they incorporate being higher than some threshold?  Or is it based on whether the harm reduced by those changes is greater than some minimum? If it is the latter, then isn’t that somewhat unfair? If it is the former, then can we really quantify the effort in a practical and meaningful way? I would think not.


Caption: How do we determine the boundary for veganism? Both plots show harm-reduction vs effort curve for the same two individuals (green and orange curves). If we decide to set the boundary based on effort (represented by single red vertical line in the plot on the left) , then we naturally have two different outcomes for the two individuals in terms of harm reduced. On the other hand if we were to decide that on harm reduced (single dotted horizontal line intersecting the two curves in the plot on the right), we have two different effort levels for the two individuals.


We can now better appreciate where there isn’t a single satisfactory definition for veganism. We can either insist on the standard interpretation of first-order veganism but acknowledge that some have it a lot easier than others getting there. In that case, that cannot be the ethical minimum. On the other hand, going by the effort level alone, leads to different degrees of harm avoidance, and determining effort is vague and impractical. 

Unnatural rigidity of definitions

In some sense, none of this is unexpected. If anything, this fits neatly into the category of most things in life where an attribute of interest lies along a continuum with variations across individuals/units and insisting on sharp boundaries cannot be rigorously justified. 

At the same time, as I hinted earlier, it may be helpful not to hold on to these definitions too tightly in practice. We should be tolerant, and perhaps even encourage usage of terms like vegan-ish and “almost vegan” or their myriad variations. If we accept that a run-of-the-mill vegan whose adherence to the lifestyle is strict in terms of the second definition is still responsible for some harm to animals and indeed part of that harm can be avoided, why be opposed to recognizing that there can be a range of lifestyle options that are in the vicinity of it, some closer than others, and there is no reason why one is more acceptable than the other?

In my earlier discussion on this topic, I had recognized that one of the arguments to insist on adopting the conventional definition lies in the fact that there is a certain solidarity and uniformity amongst those representing the cause of animal advocacy. It represents a unified face of the community to the external world that involves a clear understanding of what is required to be a member of it. Most vegans will of course not admit to this and spelling it out that way suggests that despite some advantages to such uniformity, it limits intellectual freedom and demands a narrow conformity (while, ironically, protesting the conformity of others to the mainstream ethics of eating animals). 





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First of all, I think this is a fantastic article. It's very clear and brings some new, interesting points.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but here's my crude summary of what you're essentially trying to get at:

  • Diagnosis of a problem: The conventional definition of veganism—i.e. "Avoid all first-order consumption!"—overlooks other animal-harms caused by adherents of that definition, as well as harms prevented by actions that do not conform to that definition. And as I understand it, the reason why this is a problem (again, correct me if I'm wrong) is that, 1) it "limits intellectual freedom," and 2) pushing too hard on this definition might lead to a situation where the total man-made suffering of animals might be higher than otherwise could've been under a more flexible definition.
  • One possible solution to the problem: We shouldn't be so inflexible by demanding conformity to the conventional definition. We should allow some expansion/dilution of the definition, so that other ways/acts to reduce human-caused animal suffering (ex. reducing vehicle usage) can be welcomed/encouraged, even if the person performing such an act eats meat. This may lead to a state where the total man-made suffering of animals is lower than would've been under the world that demands conformity to the conventional definition.

If this is correct, then here's my take: if my goal were to minimize the total man-made suffering of animals, then I would demand conformity to the conventional definition, because I think—as you said—it brings "solidarity," "uniformity," and "a clear understanding of what is required." Without such a vigorous clarity, I don't think veganism could have grown to the current level.

If vegans were to start accepting meat-eaters so long as they perform other animal-benefiting acts, I have a feeling that the entire movement would eventually lose its identity, as second-order harms are not only harder to track but also do not motivate/confront people as much as first-order harms. Your solution would work if people actually started reducing vehicle usage for animals, etc. but my take is that such a thing wouldn't happen, precisely because of the diluted vigor of the veganism movement.

Thanks for the response. You've summarised the post very well except that, more than limiting intellectual freedom, the convention definition leads to excessive focus on purity at the first-order at the expense of broad utilitarian considerations (think of all the vitriol that vegans throw at deserters which is so irrational). 

As for your view that without the solidarity, the veganism would not be what it is today, I am not entirely convinced. To be clear, the community of interest in this discussion is the animal advocacy one and not vegans per se (notwithstanding  the fact the two of them intersect almost completely). Here are some counter-arguments to consider:

  1. Animal advocates are likely to be first-order vegans or very close to it anyway. If one voluntarily chooses to make lifestyle changes based on concern for animal suffering, then one is likely to go to significant lengths to avoid animal products.  Not everyone may go  the same distance but that's okay (or so I think).  
  2. Peter Singer the philosopher who arguably has the greatest claim to influencing people on animal rights and liberation is not a strict vegan and in fact describes himself as being "flexible". Yuval Harari is another person who is passionate about ending industrial agriculture of animals but describes himself as "vegan-ish". If important thinkers who undoubtedly have a great influence on people refrain from using the word "vegan", then why do you  think that as a community animal advocates should not shed that label or loosen its definition?
  3. Conversely, taking vegan purity to the extreme, we have people like Gary Francione who are so opposed to any welfarist progress (regardless of its consequential value) and who insist that we should avoid meat alternatives because that normalizes the idea of consuming animals. I hope we can agree that that position is counterproductive.
  4. I may be extrapolating from personal experience but first-order veganism being as clearly defined (very arbitrary but very well-defined) gives adherents the sense that they are doing enough already and dilutes thinking along utilitarian lines (what if a vegan purist compares herself to someone who is 95% plant-based but convinces 3 people every month to reduce animal products by 50%).  
  5. While on the one hand, vegans could be admired for being very committed to the cause, and inspire others to do the same, they may seen too distant  which could work against people making changes that they otherwise may have been open to. Again, this is speculative and in general I think it cuts both ways. 

I didn't read your post in detail, but I think these kinds of discussions often miss considerations around fine-grained vs coarse decision criteria.

  • It's really hard to try to minimise animal deaths in whatever you do
  • It's also really hard to stick by 'I try to drive as little as possible, especially when it's raining, except in emergencies where considering whether to drive would cost precious time and worsen the outcome, or when, by refusing to drive, I would cause reputational harm to utilitarians by seeming too weird, or...'
  • It's (comparatively) really easy to stick by the rule 'I don't eat animal products.'

Sure, there are edge cases/confusing things e.g. cross-contamination, but there's a whole community of vegans who have thought about those cases, and have generally converged on some sensible-ish ways to handle them.

I think, in our moral decision-making, we should usually strive to find not-always-optimal-but-decent, relatively-easy-to-follow criteria, like:

  • Be kind
  • Be honest
  • Don't eat animal products
  • Donate ~10%

Thanks for the comment. I suspect there are a couple of distinct elements that have been conflated in your arguments that I will try to disentangle. 

As far as practical considerations in the context of personal changes to limit harm towards animals go, I not only agree with you that first-order veganism is sensible, it is also one of the key reasons why I am a 99% first-order vegan. Forget animals, I am just being kind to myself and eliminating decision fatigue by following a simple rule that says : animal products, no go.  It just makes things so much more convenient and I would certainly recommend that to others too.


However, practical strategies, mental tricks and hacks should not be mistaken for ethical principles. I am sure you will agree that the  latter requires reasoning and justification not subjected to the whims of mental hacks.  If the community reifies those practical steps as a core component of the ethical baseline to be considered an adequate supporter/defender of animal welfare,  then it is clearly drifting away from the primary considerations that brought it together in the first place.

Actually, I meant that as a matter of practical ethics, we may be better off in our attempts to do good if we use what you call 'mental hacks.'

For example, utilitarians have near-universally acknowledged that if we think in terms of heuristics and rules of thumb, we'll more reliably maximise utility than by trying to use the decision criterion, 'do what maximises utility.' See e.g. this page or any of the literature on two-level utilitarianism.

Is there any empirical evidence to back up the claim that following the conventional definition of veganism leads to greater overall harm reduction rather than thinking in more consequential terms ? Also, unless I am mistaken, the utilitarian argument for rule-of-thumb applies in a context where we are either faced with an inability to determine the right course of action (owing to uncertainties in estimates of potential outcomes, say) or when the decision that emerges from such a calculation runs strongly counter to common sense.

I don’t believe either is the case with the definition of veganism. It is not common-sensical to avoid products with trace elements of animal ingredients for example.

I think vagueness isn't that much of a problem. Many useful categories are vague. Even murder and rape are vague. People can say "we don't know the exact point where harm to animals becomes unacceptable. But morality is very difficult. That's to be expected. We know some actions(such as eating animal products) are definitely too bad, for that reason we can confidently claim they are non-vegan."

I think bigger problems with the consistency of veganism are:

-Some obviously vegan actions harm more animals than some obviously non-vegan actions.

-Some vegans cause more animal killings than some non-vegans.

-Veganism itself optimises for minimising animal product consumption. It doesn't optimise for minimising killings caused or minimising harm caused or minimising the suffering in the world.

I think what happens is that human brain finds it much easier to attribute moral emotions like disgust and shame to physical objects. So our emotional reactions track "can I sustainably disgust this physical object" rather than "is this action causing the least harm possible". If something can be completely eliminated it gets tabooed. On the other hand it's unstable to wear clothes but also feel disgusted when someone buys way too many clothes. So you can't create a taboo over clothing or vehicle use. I wrote more about this topic here.

I am NOT disputing the harm to animals from eating or consuming animal products in any-way nor do I believe that the harm itself in some sense vague or poorly defined (on the contrary, there are very few things that stand out as clearly as that).


 The distinction I am trying to draw is between first-order or direct harm from a given action and the multiple indirect - second-order and beyond - ways in which that action can lead to suffering. In the conventional definition of veganism, the focus is almost entirely on the first-order effects especially when it relates to personal identification with the term "vegan". This asymmetric focus happens at the expense of consequentialist considerations of our actions. 

I believe we're in agreement that the official definition of veganism is vague as you also use words like "ambiguity" or "unclear" while describing it. In my comment I'm stating that vagueness of that definition isn't that much of a problem.

I'm also curious why do you think animal tested ingredient consumption is first-order harm whereas crop deaths are a second-order harm. I can see how tractors crushing animals might be accidental instead of intentional. But when I compare pesticides to animal testing, both of them seem to be instances of intentionally exposing animals to harmful chemicals to improve product quality.

You may be slightly mistaken about what I am stating: the ambiguity is in the official definition even if it a sensible sounding one whereas the conventional definition is well-defined ('no first-order consumption') but arbitrary. The problem arises not so much from arbitrariness in and of itself, but rather demanding strict adherence to (and unwarranted focus on) something that isn't well-justified to begin with.  That leads to all sorts of contradictions.


On the second point, I agree that the distinctions between the two examples are somewhat arbitrary. One may argue that perhaps animal-testing in many instances is unnecessary (turns out several are based on methods and assumptions that have been around for a century and have persisted more out of inertia despite no clear evaluation of their effectiveness) but conventional agriculture depends on pesticides but I wouldn't find that argument very convincing. 

Executive summary: The definition of veganism is ambiguous and arbitrary, and a more nuanced view is needed that recognizes the continuum of harm reduction and the varying levels of effort required by individuals in different circumstances.

Key points:

  1. The Vegan Society's definition of veganism as avoiding animal exploitation "as far as is possible and practicable" is vague and open to interpretation.
  2. The conventional definition used by most vegans, which requires 100% avoidance of animal products, is philosophically questionable and arbitrary.
  3. A consequentialist definition that considers all downstream effects of actions is impractical and problematic.
  4. Harm reduction lies on a continuum, and the effort required to reduce harm varies for individuals based on their circumstances.
  5. Insisting on rigid definitions of veganism is unhelpful, and a range of "almost vegan" lifestyles should be recognized and encouraged.



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