When vegans try to talk to non-vegans about animal ethics, we are often dismissed as being preachy; we are asked not to impose “our” morality on others, as if morality is something personal that certain individuals can have a claim to. The more consistent we are about not participating in animal exploitation, and the more we speak out on the issue – no matter how politely – the more we are denigrated as being ‘absolutist’, ‘intolerant’, ‘vegangelical’, etc. We are lecture on the alleged need for moderation on the animal issue.
But why shouldn’t vegans discuss with non-vegans the latter group’s participation in something that may very well be wrong? Animal ethics, after all, is no different from any other fundamental aspect of morality – using non-humans as means to our ends is either right or wrong. It cannot be a matter of personal or cultural preference any more than basic issues involving humans. After all, no one thinks that human slavery, rape, child molestation, or spousal abuse are matters of personal opinion of preference. To treat the animal issue differently is simply speciesist.
The fact that humans have been exploiting non-humans for a long time – so very long, in fact, that we take it granted as being in the “natural” order of things – does not excuse our continuing to do it. Like scientific truth, our understanding of moral truth is constantly evolving. New evidence and considerations are brought to our attention, calling on us to re-evaluate our assumptions about ourselves and the world we live in. We now know, for instance, that humans can thrive on a plant-based diet, and we have developed acceptable alternatives to animal clothing and fabrics. So to continue to exploit animals is, at this point, to inflict needless violence on animals – something that any reasonable person will agree is undesirable. The onus is on those who participate in senseless violence to justify why they are doing it. We don’t ask non-rapists to explain why they’re abstaining from senseless violence; we shouldn’t ask it of vegans, either.
To frame the discussion in terms of vegans being ‘dogmatic’, ‘fundamentalist’, or ‘vegangelicals’ is to overlook the fact that, unlike religious dogma, veganism – and animal rights – can be defended on rational grounds. And if animal use is unjust, then it would be quite irresponsible for us not to speak out. Those who decry vegans “imposing our morals” on non-vegans rarely stop to think about how their own day-to-day actions impose extreme suffering and death on animals, and extreme degredation on the environment.
Given the pervasiveness of speciesism in our society, and the fact that most people have not had a chance to consider the need for veganism as minimal standard of decency, vegans should avoid judging non-vegans personally. But judging actions is not the same thing as judging people. The whole “please don’t judge me” way of looking at this is a thinly-veiled, narcissistic attempt to divert attention from what’s really at stake in the issue – massive violence being inflicted on vulnerable, non-human individuals who, like us, will never know or experience anything more precious than this life, here and now.