The perennial debate, it seems, among vegans, concerns the question: Where do we draw the line? The ideal of compassion toward all life, nonhuman as well as human, greatly increases the complexity of our ethical decision-making. To include nonhuman life, and indeed the Earth as a whole in our ethical calculus is to exponentially increase the number of factors taken into consideration in calculating moral good and harm.
We're making a run for breakfast bagels, or lunchtime burritos. Do we buy the cream cheese spread that the others want on their bagels? Do we even pick it up, even if someone else is paying for it? Do we refuse to pick up anything that isn't a vegan burrito? Or do we consider it rude to inconvenience the co-worker who doesn't share our views? Where is the line drawn between personal practice and imposition on others?
Here the "correct" answers will vary widely among vegans. Ask five vegans; get seven different answers! Our concern for courtesy and our recognition that we cannot make others' choices for them must be weighed against the degree to which we do not wish to be associated with the animal industries. Some vegans will work at omnivorous restaurants; others will not even eat in them.
A manufacturer of vegan-ingredient burgers is bought out by a tobacco giant. Said tobacco company conducts a great detail of animal testing, not out of even the slightest hint of "necessity" or "greater good," but in an attempt to shore up their crumbling public relations by "proving" that tobacco products are really not all that bad for your health, after all. Should a vegan boycott this brand of burgers because of the Big Tobacco connection, or continue to support a vegan-ingredient product because almost all of the major food manufacturers have dubious ethical connections of one sort or another?
For many vegans, the connection with unethical practice is just too strong and direct and consistent to ignore, and not only on account of the animal testing. On the other hand, for some vegans these burgers may be the only frozen veggie burger available in their town's lone grocery store, and such vegans may have a schedule that ensures that some kind of convenience food will inevitably be part of their diet. It may be better to at least buy a vegan-ingredient product, however horrible the corporate connection, than to succumb to a fit of, "Oh, the hell with it," and buying whatever's convenient, and likely produced by just as dubious a corporate conglomerate. Those of us who live in urban areas with multiple cooperatives and Whole Foods Market stores and the like may tend to take for granted how easy it is for us to find vegan convenience foods when time is tight and we're just too damn exhausted to cook. Those of us living in such areas might also have a harder time justifying a decision to buy something ethically questionable when we have a number of options that are probably, if not certainly, on firmer ethical ground.
However, even the "better" products found in our Whole Foods Markets and co-ops prove to have plenty of gray area in the realm of conscientious decision making. A prominent and popular company in natural-foods and vegan circles manufactures nutritional snack bars that consist of wholly vegan ingredients. The bars targeted toward women also bear the announcement that a portion of the profits are being donated to breast cancer research. Further inquiry uncovers that the recipient institute has conducted a couple of tests on animals, though the majority of their research seems to be animal-free. Do we boycott the nutritional bars because we insist upon a zero-tolerance policy on any and all connections to animal testing? Or do we purchase the bars because we want to support such good as the company is doing by creating an animal-free product? Do we regard the company as contributing to cruelty in giving money to a charity that has conducted any animal tests at all, or do we consider them compassionate, at least in motivation, in donating to a charity concerned with reducing suffering and death among women of our own species?
Who takes priority in our moral calculus: the animal victims of research or the human victims of breast cancer? Can we honestly say it is an easy choice in favor of one or the other? And can we honestly say that the slight connection between the bar manufacturer and two animal tests in medical research outweighs the amount of good being done by avoiding animal products in the manufacture of hundreds of thousands of nutritional bars per year?
Some people, vegans, will say, "The animals! Absolutely!" Others, not vegan, will say, "The humans! Absolutely!" The rest of us are left with the realistic complexities of weighing the relative harm and good of all of the involved factors, and of being assured that whatever we decide we will draw fire from both sides of absolutism.
Does a company have to be doing *everything* right in order for us to support them, or is it enough that they are doing *some* things right, and moving in the right direction? If I saw veganism as an exclusive clique of The Few Enlightened Souls, then perhaps I could live with the no-compromise purism of the first position. That, however, is not my vision of veganism. The world doesn't need another pat-ourselves-on-the-back superiority-dancing ideological clique. The world needs a long-term transformation toward nonviolence. In order to see that transformation take root, I believe that we would do better to recognize that few choices are pure and perfect choices, and that almost every product we encounter has a connection at some point with the exploitation and suffering of animals. Such is the reality of living in a culture steeped in a long history of taking animals for granted as things for human use. If we insist on having everything or nothing, we may very well end up with nothing.
Till Utopia, I will strive to affirm progress wherever I may find it, even if that progress falls short of the fully-realized vision of a vegan world.
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