RAC member, Dr Stephen Cooke, explores the moral difficulties ethical vegans face when maintaining their friendships
A few years ago, a friend of mine announced that she had gone vegan. In a short space of time, she went from enthusiastic meat eater to ethical vegan. Some of the responses to her announcement were fascinating and upsetting. People she had considered friends reacted with extreme hostility and rudeness. My friend was forced to end several friendships and cut-off acquaintances. Sadly, her experience is not an isolated or unusual case. There is a certain kind of person who cannot bear the idea of veganism. Those people react to vegans with anger, sometimes rage and hatred. At the same time, being an ethical vegan in a world where using nonhuman animals for food and resources is considered normal and desirable can be a very isolating and alienating experience. It is hard to live amongst people who seem perfectly normal and good in all sorts of ways, but happily endorse, enjoy and celebrate what vegans regard as deeply morally wrong. I have often found myself being upset by friends or relatives enthusing about meat they’ve eaten or animal products they’ve purchased. In those moments I’ve sometimes wondered whether I ought to remain friends with non-vegans at all.
My own experiences, and those of my friends, caused me to look at the issue of vegan friendship with my philosopher’s hat on. Thinking carefully about the issue of friendship from an ethical perspective, and drawing upon evidence from social and political science, can help us to navigate difficult friendships, build richer and more rewarding relationships, and reduce the risk of isolation. All of these things are important because humans are, by nature, social beings. Without good quality relationships, most people cannot flourish. When we cannot enjoy good relationships, we suffer both physical and psychological harm. There are two key problems of friendship that philosophy can help us with. One is that forming and maintaining friendships as a vegan is more difficult. The other is that maintaining friendships with non-vegans can sometimes undermine our vegan values. As a result, it can feel like vegans face a choice between sacrificing their principles in order to maintain friendships and flourish, or sacrificing their friendships in order to stay true to their values.
In contemporary society, vegans, particularly those who endorse animal-rights-based veganism, are widely disliked. Vegans often face abuse and discrimination. Negative attitudes towards vegans are explainable in terms of wider responses towards individuals and groups whose values and practices deviate from cultural norms. For many people, their sense of identity is connected with membership in a community. Wanting to change dominant norms, as ethical vegans do, thus threatens the identity – the sense of self – of those who make up the majority. Some people respond to that perceived threat by stigmatising and shaming as a means of deterrence. There’s a psychological tendency in most of us to uphold the status quo, but this is even stronger in people who endorse more community-focussed or authoritarian values. Meanwhile, conservatives tend to view veganism as a threat to existing ways of living and thus a threat to the stability of the community. This helps explain why conservative and right-wing ideologies are more hostile towards veganism than left-wing and liberal ideologies. Conservative vegans face an even harder time sticking to veganism. These ideological and psychological tendencies are exacerbated by negative stereotypes about vegans. For example, vegans are often wrongly portrayed as oversensitive, puritanical, unreliable and hypocritical. Anti-vegan prejudice makes it harder for vegans to form friendships with non-vegans. Because there are so few vegans around, this means it can be hard for vegans to form friendships at all. Researchers working in this area found that animal rights activists ‘uniformly experienced feelings of social isolation’ and ‘often faced ostracism and scorn from family and friends.’
Reduced opportunities to make friends isn’t the only problem. Becoming vegan places a strain on existing relationships too. Not only do those prejudices sometimes surface amongst our friends, but they also result in frequent ethical dilemmas. Plenty of times, I’ve joined friends for a meal or a trip to the pub. When it comes to the end of the meal, the tendency is often to split the cost of the meal evenly. For vegans, this presents a problem. Often, our meals are cheaper than those of the meat eaters and this means that an equal split means contributing financially to the consumption of meat by our friends. Similarly, paying for a round of drinks at the bar often involves buying non-vegan drinks. Suddenly, we are faced with a choice of contributing to wrongdoing or putting a strain on our friendships. There’s a common joke that vegans are very vocal about their veganism: ‘How do you tell if someone’s a vegan?’ people ask, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.’ comes the reply. But the truth is that there’s a strong pressure to keep quiet about one’s ethical commitments for the sake of maintaining harmony and friendship. People especially dislike the so-called ‘preachy vegans’. Remaining silent about the ethics behind one’s veganism can, however, leave us feeling guilty and ashamed.
Our values form an important element of who we are. When we think of ourselves, and when others think of us, it’s often in terms of what kind of person we are. Are we kind, compassionate, miserly, honest, cowardly, generous, hard-hearted, etc.? There is a strong connection between identity and values. One consequence of this is that ethical dilemmas can strain our sense of self. When we are asked to betray our core values it can feel like our sense of self is being put under strain. It is at moments like this that our conscience is pricked. To maintain our friendships we let wrongdoing go unremarked and endure negative emotions as a result. Fortunately, thinking philosophically about the nature of friendship can help overcome such guilt and provide some guidance about the kind of friendships we ought to maintain. This is important because sticking to veganism is more difficult without the support of friends and loved ones. Being a friend to someone is about more than merely enjoying their company, especially when it comes to close friends. Part of what it means to be a good or close friend to someone involves being supportive of their projects and invested in how well their lives go. At first glance, this looks like it might cause problems for vegans remaining friends with non-vegans. However, part of being a good friend also involves sometimes overlooking bad behaviour. Someone whose friendship depends upon close moral evaluation of one’s every action is a strange kind of friend. Disapproving of someone’s ethical choices doesn’t require cutting off the friendship. Indeed, one thing we might hope of our friends is that one day they will change some of their beliefs. It is the nature of friendships that endure over time and even as people change. The support our friends have for us has the power to bring about a re-evaluation of their own ethical commitments.
Nevertheless, overlooking a friend’s wrongdoing can only go so far. There is a point at which supporting a friend’s projects would involve complete abandonment of one’s ethical commitments. If those ethical commitments are the correct ones, and I think the case for animal rights is extremely strong, then we ought not to abandon those for the sake of friendship with a bad person. We should not, for example, assist our friends in murder or racist endeavours. One way to think about this is to ask whether our friend’s most important projects and interests depend upon serious harm to nonhuman animals. For example, if our friend’s projects are tied-up in running an abattoir, or becoming a butcher then it is hard to see how a vegan can remain a good friend to them without sacrificing their integrity. We must ask ourselves whether we would be prepared to support their business or career plans if they asked for our help. If the answer is no, then we are not a true friend, and if the answer is yes, then we are not truly committed to our ethical principles.
Friendship, of course, is a two-way relationship. Part of that relationship involves being attentive to our friends. Meat-eaters and vegetarians who are friends with vegans ought to be more sensitive and respectful to that when veganism is a core moral commitment. Such sensitivity might be as simple as remembering to filter a vegan out of a Facebook post about a beef dinner, or thinking carefully about the options available when booking a restaurant. Importantly, being a good friend to a vegan involves remembering that often our veganism is an important ethical commitment and not merely a simple food preference we can set aside at little cost to ourselves.
The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.
 The arguments here form part of a section of a book I’m writing on the ethics of animal rights activism.
 Matthew D. Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (Oxford, United Kingdom: OUP Oxford, 2013), 45–47.
 Mark R. Hoffarth, Flávio Azevedo, and John T. Jost, ‘Political Conservatism and the Exploitation of Nonhuman Animals: An Application of System Justification Theory’, Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 22, no. 6 (1 September 2019): 860, https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430219843183.
 Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan, ‘Vegaphobia: Derogatory Discourses of Veganism and the Reproduction of Speciesism in UK National Newspapers1’, The British Journal of Sociology 62, no. 1 (2011): 134–53, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-4446.2010.01348.x.
 Wesley Jamison, James Parker, and Caspar Wenk, ‘Every Sparrow That Falls: Understanding Animal Rights Activism as Functional Religion’, Society & Animals 8, no. 3 (1 January 2000): 312, https://doi.org/10.1163/156853000511140.
 Richard Twine, ‘Vegan Killjoys at the Table—Contesting Happiness and Negotiating Relationships with Food Practices’, Societies 4, no. 4 (December 2014): 623–39, https://doi.org/10.3390/soc4040623.
 One thing to be wary of here, however, is maintaining a friendship in order to change someone’s beliefs. Using friendship as a means to bring about some good is the wrong way to think about friendship and its value. We are not a good friend to someone if we are merely using our friendship as a vehicle for some other purpose however noble that purpose may seem.