Rethink Your Understanding of Veganism

Jonathan Dickstein
9 min readJul 15, 2017


Animal justice advocates can’t rely on veganism to communicate animal oppression as a social justice issue.

In 2009, Direct Action Everywhere co-founder Wayne Hsiung disseminated “Boycott veganism,” a provocative essay claiming that the prioritization of veganism in animal justice advocacy is harmful to the animal justice movement. The piece confronts not the practice of veganism but rather its centrality in outreach. Hsiung omits an interrogation of the concept of veganism itself, though he adds that veganism is “inherently confused,” with its “bewildering number of definitions and motivations” hindering the formulation of a unified “vegan message.” While Hsiung is correct that the lack of definitional unanimity is a problem, that’s not the inherent problem of veganism. The inherent problem, which only adds to public confusion, is veganism’s incoherence when trafficked as a philosophical theory, as a type of message transcending behavioral guidelines.

My point is that any presentation of veganism as a philosophical theory is excessively flawed and ultimately indefensible. For the animal justice movement, the term veganism is only productive as a description of how anti-speciesism manifests in daily life. By confining veganism to a conduct-descriptive role, advocates enhance the visibility of anti-speciesism and thereby work to rectify the routine marginalization and exclusion of animal justice from social justice discourse.

Defining Veganism

The competing definitions for veganism are numerous, at times seemingly innumerable. If they all confined themselves to behavior instead of philosophy then there would be little worry. But the fierce resistance of animal justice advocates to descriptions of veganism as a “way of living” or “lifestyle” indicates the prevalence of the assumption that veganism transcends ‘mere’ conduct. This assumption is visible is in The Vegan Society’s (TVS) most comprehensive definition, given in its Articles of Association,” which I focus on for the sake of this essay:

the word “veganism” denotes 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 humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

In other locations TVS surprisingly defines veganism solely in terms of a way of living, first as a “way of life” and then as a “lifestyle.” The latter word actually appears in a definition exclusively referring to consumer choice. However, in its most formal and comprehensive definition, TVS presents veganism as both a philosophy and a way of living. The introductory nod to a philosophical underpinning is, at the very minimum, logically necessary for the second clause of the definition; if veganism includes anything “by extension,” then some theory must explain that extension. Left unexplained is the identity of this “philosophy” that extends the vegan lifestyle into the realm of the active development of “animal-free alternatives” for the “benefit” of not only animals, but humans and “the environment” as well. So what is this philosophy of, or more specifically, that is veganism? Any generalized appeal to “nonviolence” or “anti-cruelty” or “anti-exploitation” fails to establish the particularity of a vegan philosophy and, grievously for animal justice, fails to isolate the oppression of nonhuman animals.

Alternatively, if “philosophy” functions non-technically as a loose reference to a basic attitude or disposition, then it may as well be discarded; “way of living” or “lifestyle” can carry the rest of the conduct-oriented definition. Such is also the case if the word implies the spectrum of motivations among vegans (e.g. animal rights, labor justice, sustainability, health), as motivation and philosophy are surely not one and the same. After all, a speciesist may have several reasons to adopt a vegan lifestyle even if not supportive of animal justice.

Good Intentions

With all this in mind, the conspicuous inclusion of “a philosophy” in TVS’ definition is curious. I claim that the phrase’s intentional insertion here, and in vegan discourse in general, works to position veganism alongside other social justice movements (e.g., feminism, anti-racism, anti-ableism) through a self-perception and representation as theory. Just as individual human justice movements encapsulate distinct forms of oppression and distinct oppressed groups, veganism hopes to accomplish the same for nonhuman animals. This slight but significant move prompts advocates to think and assert that veganism is an analogous social justice movement itself, rather than a tool for social justice.

But in its name veganism refers to neither the oppressed group nor the injustice that group suffers. Rather, it refers to a group of humans who live, and more specifically, consume in a particular exclusionary manner. Unfortunately this is not a mere superficial flaw. Its weakness is on full display every time the question, “Why don’t you eat animal products?” cannot satisfactorily be answered with, “Because veganism.” As a result, animal justice advocates typically tack on some version of, “Because animal oppression is wrong.” They recognize that their vegan way of living cannot explain itself, cannot explain why they do what they do.

Veganism can’t sub for Anti-speciesism

Veganism is an alien in the world of theory and justification. Think about it: Does any other social justice movement advertise a way of living in its title? Does feminism explicitly communicate anything about what a feminist will or will not buy? Does anti-racism explicitly communicate anything about what forms of entertainment an anti-racist will or will not enjoy? No. But no reflective individual regards anti-racism as an empty mental disposition, one with no impact on words and deeds, such that an anti-racist can willfully heave racist statements and commit racist acts without jeopardizing their position as “anti-racist.” Consistent behavior is only assumed.

As a signifier of human conduct, veganism’s play-acting as a theory of social justice is unnecessary, confusing, and counterproductive. Anti-speciesism is the suitable term and depreciating it due to a reflex fidelity to veganism is sheer obstinacy. Speciesism adequately expresses the discrimination of nonhuman animals much in the same manner as other social justice “ism”s. Anti-speciesism confronts speciesism head on, revealing the unjustifiability of human exceptionalist and interspecies bias according to irrelevant characteristics. Moreover, as Magnus Vinding rightly states: “Anti-speciesism implies veganism.” The anti-speciesist is necessarily vegan. Veganism is a, but not the, way of living of the anti-speciesist.

The Old Attachment

Sensing the inability of veganism to satisfy the demands of theory and irrationally fearing its minimization, advocates often slap together a hodgepodge of animal rights, environmental, and health defenses under the misconception that their joint persuasiveness will forge a viable vegan philosophy. The more skillful advocates, recognizing the limitations of environmental and health appeals (as not all animal use is environmentally disastrous and not all animal “products” are unhealthy), swiftly defer to the language of anti-speciesism. This is the appropriate move but completely backwards. Anti-speciesism is what generates the moral imperative of veganism, not the other way around. Additionally, the exclusionary focus of vegan living is incapable of addressing highly pertinent animal justice issues such as positive duties to protect and save. It is no wonder that when asked about predation, starvation, and other predicaments of “wild” animals, veganism-focused advocates frequently don’t know what to say.

Other animal justice advocates, similarly unwilling to abandon the notion of a vegan philosophy, have responded by repackaging veganism as a philosophy of total liberation, of justice for all persons and not only nonhuman persons. Through this bold identification of veganism with the entirety of social justice, they hope to salvage vegan philosophy from its most severe criticisms. The major defect of this well-intentioned framing is its total erasure of nonhuman animals as a specific group linked to a specific oppression. While a broad intersectional understanding and approach to social justice is the only legitimate framework for social justice, this certainly does not necessitate or encourage a theoretical hyperextension that obliterates distinct fronts of social resistance.

Responding to the pitfall of overgeneralization, still other advocates have proposed refined phrases such as ethical veganism to underscore the animal justice component. But does this clarify or only further confound the issue? Is an environmental vegan also not motivated by ethics? Does a health vegan not view physical well-being as an ethical issue? Even with the recognition that these issues too have moral significance, ethical veganism is a vague and weak label and only further advertises the inability of veganism to satisfy theoretical demands. Can’t we just release our stubborn grip on the term when it comes to theory? There is nothing valuable lost by confining veganism to the network of exclusionary behaviors concerning animals and animal products, no matter an individual’s motivations. Whether or not the vegan individual is also an anti-speciesist is a separate, though relevant, concern.

Veganism’s Descriptive Power

Hsiung is on the right track with: “Granted, ‘veganism’ would not be problematic if it were a mere dietary description, removed of its significance as a movement objective.” This aligns with Gary Francione’s statement that “‘Veganism’ means at the very least not eating any flesh, dairy, or other animal products.” The salient feature of both statements is not the reference to diet but rather the plausible restriction of veganism to conduct. I not only agree that veganism can successfully function (and only so) as a description of conduct, but also add that animal justice advocates should maximize this descriptive, agent-oriented meaning. Veganism should be taught constantly, but only for what it is and not what it isn’t.

I differ slightly from Francione and Hsiung that the discrete term veganism can ever satisfactorily apply to diet alone, even if I support the adjectival use of vegan (e.g., vegan diet) and admit that dietary veganism is probably here to stay. I also acknoweledge that both Francione and Hsiung advise against framing veganism solely in dietary terms. But my emphasis is that order for the stand-alone term veganism to be at all tenable, it must always implicate a broader field of customary activity, such as decisions regarding clothing, medicine, cosmetics, and entertainment. After all, there is no logical distinction between what we buy to eat and what we buy to wear. A concise definition may read:

Veganism is a way of living that excludes, as far as is practicable, all use and consumption of animals and animal products.

Significantly, this definition represents not only veganism “at its very least,” but also veganism at its very most. Any definition that transcends general parameters for conduct and assumes an explanatory theory eventually falls apart.

Will the definition also cover palm oil? Eating at nonvegan restaurants? Using conventional bike tires? As a description with hazy borders and not a theory of justice … it doesn’t matter. Answering the “Is it vegan?” question is not a magic formula that guarantees ethical accuracy in every conceivable situation. Often overlooked is the fact that the vegan choice is not always the ethical choice, even if virtually always so. On the contrary, the anti-speciesist choice is always the ethical choice. The central question is thus not “Is it vegan?” but, “Is it right?”

Moving Forward

Veganism is publicly confusing due to its many interpretations and presentations. It is internally incoherent when conceived as a philosophical theory. If we are to “boycott veganism,” let us restrict the boycott to the incoherent framing of veganism as a theory and retain the term as a powerful tool for describing a bedrock practice of anti-speciesism. This will clarify animal justice outreach for both advocates and audiences.

Hsiung doubts that “such a narrow use of the term would be possible, given its prominence in the animal rights movement.” I disagree. The theoretical mess that is veganism’s wide use, with its dizzying vacillations between animal rights, human rights, human health, and environmental justifications, has only hindered the clear communication of speciesism as a social justice issue. Its incoherence has facilitated the consistent exclusion of animals, in themselves, from social justice discourse. The primary work of animal justice advocacy is to reveal, reject, and remedy this unjustifiable omission. So why cling to veganism as the rallying “ism” of animal justice when its definition as conduct is the only feasible one? Veganism can retain its practical prominence within the animal justice movement (and have value for human justice movements) without shouldering a definition it ultimately cannot defend. Veganism is simply the way of living of vegans, what they do and how they do it, but not why they do it.

Anti-speciesism implies veganism. It also implies the recognition of interlocking oppressions. This in turn implies inclusive campaigns for environmental justice, food justice, and health justice. The links come into view through anti-speciesism, not veganism. Let us bury the debates about whether or not a diet is vegan or a cupcake is vegan, because “No! Only people can be vegan!” Put it to rest. A diet can be vegan. A cupcake can be vegan. Both are consistent with the vegan way of living. Let us not squander veganism’s descriptive utility and concentrate on the fight worth fighting, the one against speciesism, the one for justice.