The foundations of ethical veganism

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Jordi Casamitjana—the zoologist who secured the legal protection of vegans—summarises some of the contents of his new book Ethical Vegan. Here, he explores the foundations of ethical veganism from a biological, philosophical, and historical perspective.

Veganism is much more than a consumer choice. It is much deeper, more profound and fundamental. What are its foundations? To find them, we will need to look past the behaviour of self-defined vegans and investigate the biology, philosophy, history, politics and sociology behind this multidimensional concept.

The Definition

The Vegan Society defines veganism as “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”. Yet, there are those who only follow the diet aspect of veganism, by having a plant-based diet without animal products. They are known as ‘dietary vegans’ (or simply ‘plant-based’) and when they choose this diet for health reasons alone, they are known as ‘health vegans’. Moreover, those who follow The Vegan Society’s full definition, to encompass lifestyle alternatives (such as clothes, entertainment, household products, cosmetics, hobbies, etc.)—not primarily for their health, but for the animals, the environment or social justice—are known as ‘ethical vegans’. I am one of them and, like many, I entered veganism by the ‘animal rights’ gateway, but now embrace all the other reasons too.  

Biology

When I started writing my new book Ethical Vegan: A personal and political journey to change the world, I was aiming to explore the foundations of ethical veganism. As a zoologist, I started looking at the biology of our species, to see if I could uncover the bases of veganism. It was here that I found the concept of ‘biological altruism’, which we see in different levels of organisation:

  • Genes beginning to cooperate with each other—rather than only competing for reproductive supremacy—working together to make the organism they were building fit and adaptative enough to survive to breeding age. 
  • Developments of higher levels of organisation we know as ‘societies’, in which individuals avoid harming each other as they all have many genes in common. 
  • Organisms avoiding conflict with members of other populations/species to prevent mutual harm and even helping each other, in the hope that respect and favour may be returned in the future (known as ‘reciprocal altruism’).

These biological adaptations toward avoiding harming ‘the other‘ are present (in one degree or another) in most animals. But especially social species like ours.

Philosophy

The biological response of ‘doing no harm‘ became a powerful idea that humans passed from generation to generation until it was articulated into philosophies. The first time we find it clearly expressed is with the term ahimsa. It comes from the Sanskrit root hiṃs, which means ‘to strike’. Hiṃsā means ‘wish to injure or harm’ and a-hiṃsā is the opposite of this. As far as we know, this word was already in use in the ancient kingdom of Magadha, in Northern India, around three millennia ago.

Championed by spiritual revolutionaries who did not accept the status quo of animal sacrifices and violence, it was around 500 years before the Common Era that this concept matured enough in the Indian continent to become an important tenant of several major religions, such as Hinduism, Jainism, Ajivikanism and Buddhism. It manifested by not only avoiding harming other humans but also other sentient beings, in particular killing non-human animals for food. In other parts of the world the same idea was becoming important in societies such as the Pythagoreans (and later the Epicureans) in ancient Greece who also abstained from ‘meat’, or the Taoist in the Far East—with their Ying and Yang concepts—who believe in the harmony of all things. 

History

Throughout the centuries, the idea of ‘do no harm’ manifested in different ways. Initially, we often find it associated with religious communities, such as those mentioned above, in the form of advocating for abstinence of flesh. Later, others can be found in the Vaishna Hindus, the Manicheans, the Jewish Essenes and Therapeutae, the Christians Ebionites, Bogomils and Cathars as well as the Islamic Sufis. 

At one point it began to detach itself from religion, such as with the unequivocal vegan Syrian poet Abu’l-‘Ala’ Al-Ma’arri in the 11th century CE, or the French philosophers Pierre Gassendi in the 17th Century and Bernadin Saint-Pierre a century later (supported by British philosophers such as Margaret Cavendish, John Locke and Jeremy Bentham). 

Strict vegetarian (and even vegan) Christian communities such as the Dorrelites, the Grahamites or the Concordites proliferated in the West at the turn of the 19th century, when brave social activists such as Frances Power Cobbe, Dr Anna Kingsford, Annie Besant or Henry Stephens Salt pioneered the anti-vivisection and animal rights movements developing the concept of ahimsa beyond food consumption. 

Politics

This idea then merged with other social and political movements creating the ’health-oriented’ Lebensreformism in German-speaking countries and the anarchist Vegetelianism in France. The separation from religion was consolidated with the creation of the first Vegetarian Society in 1847, the Fruitarian Society in 1902 and The Vegan Society in 1944 (where the term ’vegan’ was first coined by Dorothy Morgan, Donald Watson and Sally Shrigley). These societies opened the concept of ’doing no harm’ to many more people, making it accessible to anyone from any race, culture, class or faith. 

In the mid-20th century, philosophers such as Tom Regan, Peter Singer and Richard Ryder spelt out the different ethical approaches to veganism and animal protection as well as key fundamental concepts such as ’speciesism’ and ’sentience’, weaving their position into the fabric of the vegan philosophical belief. When environmentalism, animal welferalism, vegananarchism, abolitionism and intersectionalism were added to the socio-political mix, we ended up with the current diversity of the vegan kind. I discovered at least thirty types of veggie-related identities! Finally, in 2020 ‘ethical veganism’ was recognised as a legally protected philosophical belief in Great Britain due to a two-year-long litigation I initiated, which I write about in detail in my book.

Social movement

Considering the current human-made world crises (global heating, pandemics, systemic racism, mass extinction, world hunger, etc.), ethical veganism may now become the intelligent answer we need to save the planet and its inhabitants. A philosophy which created a lifestyle underpinning a transformative socio-political movement capable of becoming humanity’s last hope. As I write in my book, it is “A 21st-century revolution that started more than 20 centuries ago”. 

If you are a vegan of any kind, learning about the foundations of veganism by reading books, talking to experienced vegans or discussing veganism with expert scholars, will reinforce your beliefs and not only help you to stay vegan for longer but will also make you feel proud to be part of such a crucial international movement.  

Jordi Casamitjana

Jordi Casamitjana is an independent vegan zoologist, animal protectionist and author. His latest book Ethical Vegan was published by September Publishing.
 

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