Pragmatics or Ethical Purism? What’s the best way to promote veganism?

In the discourse regarding veganism, the question of how we should advocate for and promote veganism is one that commonly presents itself. While some argue that we should cater to the self-interest of the public (such as by promoting the health benefits of veganism), others argue that we should focus only on the “animal aspect.” That is, some argue that we should focus on encouraging people to become vegan by reminding them that nonhuman animals demand our moral respect. I will refer to the former group as “pragmatic activists” and the latter group as “ethical purist activists.” healthy veganism The fundamental claim of the “ethical purist activists” is that it doesn’t matter that someone is vegan, it matters why they are vegan. And the “why” aspect essentially should pertain to an ethical concern for nonhuman animals themselves. The “pragmatic vegan activists” might question why one’s reason for becoming vegan matters. As they see it, the only thing that matters is that someone is vegan. This is because they believe the fundamental goal is to reduce the number of animals who are harmed and slaughtered in animal agriculture. If we can decrease the demand for meat and other animal products, why does it matter how we have reached this goal? I believe that the fundamental difference between these two approaches reflects one’s fundamental approach to ethics. Namely, it is consequentialists (those who are focused merely on the outcome of actions and policies, rather than on the intentions of the actors) who have a tendency to promote a “pragmatic” approach to veganism, whereby they find it perfectly acceptable to appeal to the health aspects of veganism so long as the outcome means that there will be more vegans in the world. Those who identify as deontologists, however, are concerned with encouraging moral actors to foster the right intentions in addition to performing the right act. Surprisingly, I think we can draw on Kant’s theory of ethics to make this clear, despite the fact that Kant is known for denying that animals are owed direct moral consideration. Kant’s claim is that genuine moral actions require more than just “performing the right act.” According to Kant, one should perform the right act from duty; that is, one should recognize that a certain act is demanded by the moral law and she should perform that act because of that recognition. On the other hand, Kant maintains that when a moral agent performs the “right action,” but she is motivated by self-interest, her act has no moral worth. This is because she lacks the right motivation. The right motivation + the right action, then, are the necessary ingredients for genuine morality. If you’re missing one of these, then your act lacks genuine moral worth. kant genuine morality It seems to me that “ethical purist activists” adopt an ethical framework similar to Kant’s. Namely, they do not believe that one’s decision to become vegan for health reasons is a genuine moral action because this act, however right it might be, lacks the right motivation. The right motivation, according to these individuals, is becoming vegan because they recognize that it is their moral obligation: because they realize that the moral law demands that we not use nonhuman animals as mere resources or tools for self-interested reasons. However, what “ethical purist activists” might be overlooking is that individuals also have duties to themselves, in addition to the duties they have to others. For instance, individuals have a duty to sustain their own health and to not consume animal products just because these products “taste good” when, in fact, they are detrimental to human health. In a sense, by consuming animal products, one uses one’s own body as a means for pleasure: one fails to respect one’s body as something that is inherently valuable and is more than just a receptacle for gustatory pleasures. Perhaps, then, one might argue that it is not so “consequential” to promote veganism by appealing to the health benefits, so long as one emphasizes that one has a duty to one’s self to not use one’s body as means for pleasurable experience and that one has a duty to keep one’s body in good health. While I think that we should in fact remind individuals of how they are failing to fulfill a duty that they have to themselves when they clog their arteries and increase their cholesterol level by consuming animal flesh, dairy, and egg, I don’t think that our activism should be limited to or focused on these sort of arguments which cater to one’s self-interest. Part of performing a genuine moral act is being cognizant of all the moral reasons that one has in favor of performing a particular action and one of the reasons one has for becoming vegan is that it is our moral duty to refuse to use animals as mere resources and tools. Furthermore, the duty not to participate in the atrocities that occur in animal agriculture is significantly more pressing than the duty that we have to ourselves to not clog our arteries. To focus on only “duties to the self,” without mentioning the duties we have to not contribute to animal pain, suffering, and death is to blatantly ignore the most pressing ethical concern in this particular discussion.Thus, in order for veganism to be a genuine moral choice, agents should not only recognize that they have a duty to themselves to become vegan, but they should also acknowledge that they have an even more pressing reason to become vegan: they have a duty to nonhuman animals to not use them as mere resources or tools and to not contribute to the tragic harms that nonhuman animals are forced to endure in argiculture. vegan What “ethical purists” are promoting, then, is a world in which people perform actions and make choices out of respect for the moral law. Ethical purists encourage moral agents to go beyond themselves, and to consider the Other. While it might be more “practical,” in the short term, to focus on promoting the health benefits of veganism, the world in which “ethical purists” prefer to live in is a world where moral agents perform genuine moral actions and abstain from eating the flesh of nonhuman animals because they recognize that indulging in animal flesh (or other animal product) is one of the most blatant forms of disrespect that one can show to a fellow morally important being.

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