full story and comments:
At GentleWorld.org, we recently received a very thoughtful letter from a reader, echoing sentiments that we hear fairly frequently. In the hopes that our response might be helpful to others considering the finer points of veganism, we have reproduced both letter and response.
I'm a vegetarian who does consume eggs, cheese, and milk from farms where animals are raised humanely (or at least as far as I can tell they are raised humanely).
The whole issue of vegetarianism and veganism intrigues me because it kind of questions our whole sense of what it means to be ethical... I don't think even vegans can say that they don't contribute to the harm of other animals. What if you purchase clothing made in China/Bangladesh/Vietnam/India? You're supporting companies who employ terrible labor practices, effectively supporting sweatshop labor. What if you purchase virtually any electronic equipment? Almost all electronics are made in Asia, in factories with poor labor conditions.
What if you purchase bread? It was probably made from grain harvested by a huge industrial machine. That machine and others like it kill small animals such as rodents and rabbits that might not get out of the way of the machine in time.
I think there is a considerable point to be made regarding intention. That is, when buying a steak, you are well aware that an animal was killed to provide you said steak. However, when buying a vegan rye loaf, you know that it could have been made without any animals being harmed, and most people probably never consider that an animal could have been harmed in the making of vegan bread. They assume vegan bread could in no way involve the harming or killing of animals, even though it likely does. But because a vegan diet is intentionally doing as little harm to animals as possible, I think there is an ethical difference between a vegan and an omnivore, even if both end up harming animals in some way.
Part of my point is that if you want to live a relatively "normal" life where you participate in the mainstream economy, you buy food from a grocery store, you buy clothes from local super stores or the mall, you buy electronics at Best Buy or online -- you are at some point or another supporting a company or system which harms or violates another life. To truly do no harm, or very little harm to others, one would have to make one's own clothes, grow one's own food, eschew or make one's own electronics (even the production of electricity often does damage to animals -- eg, birds killed by wind turbines) … one would have to do nearly everything for themselves, or as part of a small, cooperative community.
Personally, I aim to be aware of how my actions and purchases affect other people and animals. I'm aware that my lifestyle in some small ways still supports and contributes to the harm of other beings, but I aim to minimize that harm while still living in mainstream society… So I think it should be a goal of vegans to make peaceful living mainstream, not just on the dinner table, but in the dresser and in all aspects of life.
Of course it's true that there is no way to completely eliminate the harm that one does just by being alive on this planet. It is an unfortunate fact that our society operates in such a way as to make it impossible for an individual to participate to any significant degree without, as a result, being implicit in harms against other animals, both human and non-human.
However, we don't feel that this fact should prohibit us from doing what we can to avoid participating in the most grievous harms. The worldwide enslavement of animals for human pleasure is an ethical atrocity, and we believe that eliminating one's support for animal-based industries is an essential first step in aligning oneself with the principles of justice and nonviolence. This is not limited simply to one's diet, but extends to all aspects of life (clothing, cosmetics, etc.) where animals are treated as commodities rather than as sentient beings with an interest in their own lives and freedom. Whether factory-farmed, free-range, cage-free, or raised on small family farms, there are no exceptions to this as long as animals are being bought, sold, and used as economic production units.
For more information about how animals are affected by small-scale production of dairy and eggs, please take a look at the following articles:
As you say though, veganism is simply a first step. But from that perspective, we are in a better position to look at other areas of life, to see where else we can minimize our contribution to other harmful industries, such as the production of clothing, electronics, etc. For instance, we believe in purchasing second-hand as much as possible, so as not to support other industries that ravage the planet. There are so many items of clothing already in existence that it's possible to eliminate one's dependency on clothing manufacturers without having to make our own. With regard to electronics, we do our best to buy them second-hand wherever possible, and to take excellent care of them so that we don't have to replace them too frequently.
Naturally we're in agreement with you that "it should be a goal of vegans to make peaceful living mainstream, not just on the dinner table, but in the dresser and in all aspects of life." That is what Gentle World is all about.
Thank you for your thoughtful and respectful letter, and we wish you the best in your pursuit of a life that is in alignment with your values.
"I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can
do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do
something that I can do." ~ Helen Keller (1880-1968)