What Vegans Can Teach Us About Morality

This post is not about whether or not eating animal products is ethical. This information is relevant to you know matter what you think about eating animals. It's about the complex role of the individual and our expression of personal values in today's society, and why truly dedicated morality is so rare today.

Now more than ever, people face dramatic political turmoil and feel disempowered. Unless you are a politician or business person with far reaching power, it seems as though your opinions hold no real weight. With this in mind, is it worth the effort to engage ourselves in politics? When discussing this question, I like to refer to vegans as an example, because vegans embody several traits which I believe distinguish them in terms of true, effective dedication to their beliefs.

Ethical Decision Making is Complicated

Anybody who has taken a philosophy course is familiar with the challenges of ethics. I'm no expert, so I'm not going to dive into this in a nuanced manner. But, I'd like to explore things with our vegan friends. Let's dive quickly into some of the common reasons why a vegan chooses their diet.

But first, let's take a tangent to the topic of health. Health is an often-cited reason for a vegan diet. But, even this more simple question is quite complex: What is health? How do you measure it? Can you easily weigh the countless factors which contribute to health, and associate the vegan lifestyle with them? Although these questions take a lot of time and energy to answer, vegans take this challenge head-on, not only for their own wellbeing, but also to refute people who argue against them.

Health aside, vegans also cite the poor treatment of animals, and/or an absolute ethical obligation to avoid exploiting them altogether. Is it OK to eat eggs, if the animal wasn't fertile? What if a cow is raised in a loving manner? What about hunting for sport, is that wrong? Didn't cave men eat animals?

To each of these questions, the witty vegan has an answer. Whether or not they are right is not my point. My point is that vegans have a systematic, often evidence-based approach to discussing their beliefs. When facing an argument, they are armed and ready to stand up.

Vegans Dodge the 'False Choices' of Modern Capitalism

Although vegans have countless individual motivations for embracing their diet, it is most often associated with an ethical obligation toward animals. Many vegans believe that consuming animal products is unethical for a variety of reasons. This is where things start to become hazy.

Using a simplified debate as an example, let's say we have a vegan who believes that consuming animal products is wrong, due to the industrial manufacturing of such products - enslaving animals for their lifespan, inhumane conditions, terrifying slaughtering, and so on. For these reasons, they avoid all animal products, to be sure that they are making optimally ethical choices. On the other hand, we have a vegetarian who agrees with the wrongdoing of the animal product industry. However, they believe that they can still ethically consume animal products like eggs and milk, but only if they are careful about selecting the right products - perhaps from local farms who claim to treat the animals well.

In this debate, the vegan has a clear target of attack; what I refer to as 'the rise of false choices.' I first started thinking about this after reading Slavoj Zizek rant about a product called Ethos, which is bottled water sold at Starbucks. For each bottle of water, a percentage of the profits are donated to bring clean water where people are struggling. Zizek explains that large corporations have recently learned to cater to our supposed morality, by offering us products which might have some troublesome ramifications, but that have the 'solution' built in. Ethos bottled water is a great example: When I buy Ethos, I feel some joy in knowing I helped an African village dig a well; in the meantime, Starbucks expands its corporate empire with my money, and my bottle is added to the pile of innumerable plastic bottles polluting the ecosystem.

A vegan does not fall for this kind of trickery. A mere vegetarian can be easily duped into purchasing 'cage free' eggs which most often come from awful, crowded feed pens, and which pay no respect to the lives of baby male chickens, or to the life of the females after they finish their ovulation and become unprofitable. By abstaining completely from animal products, they can be substantially more confident about how their actions impact the lives of animals. By short-circuiting the 'false choices' grocery stores offer to us, vegans take a more effective stance.

However, such a stance is not easy, which brings me to my next point.

Being a Vegan is Not Easy - But They Do it Anyway

If you've ever known a vegan, you know the kinds of struggles they face. Eating food - which we have to do several times a day - is a relatively effortless task for most people. As a vegan, you are suddenly faced with challenge each and every time you try to find food. Checking labels, searching menus for creative options, and settling for food that often doesn't taste as good . . . this is the life of a vegan.

One of the toughest things is telling friends and family about your diet. Often, you have to turn down food your family or friends prepare. You are usually interrogated like some kind of terrorist for several minutes. After that, you get a list of jokes about vegans (which are the same every time). Finally, somebody will inevitably start an argument about your health. Again and again, and again . . . this is the life of a vegan.

Compound this with the complexity of managing your nutrition as a vegan, dealing with high food prices, and often facing the craving for meat, and all of this happening around the clock . . . you're looking at a pretty demanding lifestyle choice.

All of this, while firmly grasping the true reality: That no matter whether or not I eat meat, the industry will still exist, the tragedy will still continue. How much of an impact do my choices have? It's impossible to know. For a vegan, any chance that they can help another being avoid suffering is enough to motivate them against all the challenges they face.

Recently, professional bodybuilder Marc Lobliner published a video called "What Vegans Can Teach Us About Making Gains." I was extremely impressed with Lobliner's discussion. Rather than attacking vegans (like most strength athletes do), he explains why people really ought to be looking up to them. Lobliner continues to discuss the daily struggles vegan bodybuilders face. Facing non-vegan food, day in and day out, and ALWAYS turning it down, is a challenge which is not to be underestimated. Accomplished bodybuilders like Marc (who isn't a vegan) know this feeling just as well. Bodybuilders, like vegans, have extremely organized diets which allow little room for mistake. It's rough. And yet, for the sake of their morality (or in Marc's case, athletic performance), these people do it anyway.

In contrast, many Americans don't register to vote. They struggle to get out of bed and make it to work on time, even with the help of cars which often operate over 65 miles per hour. Many of them suffer health consequences due to a lazy lifestyle and a long-term decision to avoid rigorous exercise. Many Americans don't even have the self control to eat a reasonable amount of healthy food. A quick search on Wikipedia leads me to believe that an average American reads at a 7th to 8th grade level. It's no wonder these people rely on others to dictate their beliefs down to them.

Who can blame them? In a society where work is mundane, time is expensive, and everybody is bombarding each other with deception in a conquest for profit . . . can we be expected to regularly interrogate our beliefs, adjust our lifestyles, and take action? I honestly don't it's realistic to think that most people can do this. But, vegans do it anyway.

While most people are busy sharing memes on Facebook, vegans are planning their next meal. They are signing petitions. They are talking to their friends and answering questions. They are doing research on nutrition. They are looking into where their food was grown, and how it was delivered. They are holding back the urge to punch your teeth out when you tell the joke about the vegan Crossfitter (personally, I sometimes think they should just clock you). And yes, they are also sharing memes on Facebook.

Extremists are Imperfect, But Better than Pushovers

As Marc mentions in his video, when most people go on a diet, they may be successful for a few months. But, all too often, they go back to their habitual way of eating and therefore face long term failure. Vegans, on the other hand, are so inspired by their beliefs that the temptations of food become meaningless. It's the lifestyle they've created; it's the habits they follow; it's the day-to-day decisions they make which allow them to continue forward.

Even the most diligent weight-loss dieter will cave at least sometimes to the urge to cheat. This is because they lack true motivation. They lack motivation because they don't experience any underlying moral urgency which dissuades them from guzzling a milkshake. Vegans on the other hand, everything is at stake each time they see a steak . . . pun intended.

My coach Nick told me a great analogy in this regard. Find a smoker struggling to quit. Most of the time, they will start smoking again. Take one of these people and put them in an extreme situation: stop smoking, or your mother is going to be tortured and killed. Suddenly, the game changes.

It is only by raising the lives of animals to such high importance that they are able to take their own diet seriously. Without an extreme ethical obligation, extreme action never gains momentum and moves forward. (Fun fact, the only vegan I've seen cheat was a vegan for health reasons).

The best athletes I've worked with aren't the people who go to the gym to stay healthy. They are the ones whose very identity is tied to their success in sport. A failure in competition represents a failure in themselves, in their entire lives. This is what gives them the drive to train harder than others and push their performance to elite levels.

People need radical motivations to take radical action. The 9/11/2001 attacks were certainly extreme, and this created justification for extreme action and radical political changes. For better or worse, extreme moral tragedy seems to be the motivating factor for most political change.

Becoming a Radical

My argument here is simple. If we want extreme political change (which is desperately needed today), we need to solidify the motivations for action. The challenges of terrorism, ecological disaster, and economic catastrophe have remained, for most of us, abstract concepts. Although this may make us feel uneasy, such a weak emotion is not powerful enough to force us to make the necessary, dramatic changes to our lifestyles. Modern capitalism and politicians across the globe want us to believe that we can buy our way out of this, that we can vote our way out of these problems. This is untrue. Radicals today should focus on creating propaganda which demonstrates the urgency of global crisis in a tangible manner. By appealing to deeply seated emotions, radicals can inspire action by framing global problems as a moral problem. Our planet is filled with catastrophe, and there is absolutely no need to create any more, despite what terrorist organizations might believe.

What does this really mean, in a practical sense? Stop being afraid to express your concerns. Take the time to develop a deep understanding of global problems and how they can be resolved. Be prepared to use this knowledge in an argument. Don't be intimidated by people who disagree with you. Instead, make it a point to talk to them, understand their moral framework, and try to show how your solutions are more relevant, even within their own belief systems. In short, treat your political views like a vegan treats their food.