Veganism and conscience

Image by We Animals Media is of a snake rescued from research in a university

I recently did a post on social media where I mentioned a number of subjects which I have observed over the years to be less popular with page followers than others. I can’t remember having posted that type of observation before but many engaged with the post and the responses were interesting and helpful. Some also made it clear that The Elephant will likely lose followers as a result of this blog but so be it. I am nothing if not sincere and I’m not doing this to be popular.

I found myself reflecting on the fact that my writing centres mainly on these areas of exploitation that affect the majority of us, namely consumption, clothing, testing and entertainment and decided that this was a conscious choice on my part. Not only are these areas common to us all, but in terms of sheer victim numbers, if we were to bring these horrors to an end, then massive strides would have been made towards a vegan world. 


There were comments regarding the many minefields that can trigger defensive and hostile responses. Hostility can quickly divert the focus from the subject of a post and the message becomes lost in mudslinging and recriminations. A topic that was mentioned as particularly contentious by one advocate, was why humans riding on the backs of horses is not vegan.

This made me consider other similar trigger subjects that incite fury every time they’re mentioned – like the use of members of other species as ‘service animals’. We have all heard of individuals, usually dogs, used as guides, or used as assistants to humans with various medical conditions, used to detect drugs, firearms, money or explosives; I’ve read of dolphins and sea lions used to detect mines, pigeons used to carry messages even in this day and age, horses used for various purposes in the military. We hear of individuals of various species used as ‘therapy animals’ for humans. Nonhuman body parts are even used as spare parts for certain human medical procedures.

Vegans who are forced by health and circumstance to take life preserving medications, is another thorny subject. All medications will have been tested on nonhumans because that’s currently the law. Many contain milk, gelatine and/or various other derivatives from the bodies of others and there are no vegan alternatives. I would never presume to judge anyone for what they do on that score. In what are literally life or death situations, it’s purely for the individual to decide, but I know from personal experience that they are unlikely to get a free ride from their conscience on that subject.

And the topic of ‘pet ownership’ in itself is a massive minefield. Ranging from the terminology, the legal standing of other lives as our ‘property’ and the logistics of caring for other individuals of many different species, the pitfalls are many.  In the past I have touched lightly on the topic and have made no secret of my views on the domestication of species to act as companions and accessories for humans; views which I have held only since veganism opened my eyes to the fundamental human self interest of the practice. 

My recent post was pounced on almost immediately with a demand to know what I feed to the cats in my care, and the accumulation of all these thoughts and opinions led me down the path of considering the role of conscience in our veganism. 

What is veganism?

To recall the definition by the Vegan Society:

“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

The phrase within this definition that lights the way for each of us down the avenue of conscience is ‘as far as is possible and practicable’. 

Does ‘as far as is possible and practicable’ let us off the hook?

However, far from being a license to be lax about our interpretation of veganism, I have always found the phrase to be something of a goad that results in continuous self examination; constantly questioning whether I’m really doing my absolute best. I came to the conclusion long ago that a constant feeling of guilt is probably more to do with my own upbringing and personality than anything else, but maybe others can relate. No one else in the world knows the unique combination of circumstances that each of us faces and there’s no flow chart that gives us black and white instructions for any and every eventuality.

Caring for others

Going back to the topic of feeding those in our care, it is certainly one aspect of life where we may be forced to make choices based on our personal circumstances, the species, the health and the medical needs of those whom we care for, along with any other considerations that we must weigh in the balance.  And feeding isn’t the end of it. Should we confine our nonhuman family members to our houses to safeguard them from nonhuman and human predators, as well as to prevent them from following their instincts to prey on other creatures if allowed to roam free?

What do we do when those we look after have ticks or fleas, worms, nits or other lice, mites or even maggots? If we follow through with our examination of our own speciesism, these tiny creatures too have lives that they may or may not value. Common sense tells me they probably do. Nevertheless I have yet to read a vegan argument for allowing infestations of those whom we regard as parasites to remain unchecked within and upon our own bodies or those whom we care for. To leave parasites unharmed is to actively permit harm to the host creature. We may not treat our decisions on the subject lightly but in the end of the day it presents us with a dilemma and we all make judgement calls about the matter. We must. But in no way does that let us off the hook as far as conscience is concerned.

Conflicts and conscience

I know I am not alone in being conflicted. I have spoken to other vegans who are similarly pained by the compromises forced on them by circumstance, illness, poverty, or simply the fact of trying to live vegan in a nonvegan world. Some rescues are unwilling to take on individuals of species that are not by nature vegetarian, preferring instead to seek adoptive homes for them. It’s not my place to judge or even hold an opinion about that. I must simply understand, trusting their integrity and empathising from experience with the sleepless nights that I know these decisions will have caused. 

At the end of the day, veganism is a principle that provides a template to guide our decision making. It can never be absolute, because we are not all the same. I’m the first person to hold up my hand about my many failings and have done so often in a very public way. That has been a conscious choice, however none of us is obliged to explain or justify ourselves in order to satisfy the random judgements of those who don’t know anything about us. For each of us, what keeps us awake at night are not the opinions of strangers, but our own conscience; considering and squaring our own behaviour and decisions with it. It can give us a really hard time and sometimes our relationship with it is, at best, an uneasy truce.

But in the end, that unique and highly individual conscience is our guide to the very best vegan life we can manage.  For some of us that just has to be enough.


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4 Responses to Veganism and conscience

  1. Dee Weaver says:

    I’m so with you on this. To me, ‘as far as is possible and practicable’ is a goal to aim for, and I constantly evaluate my lifestyle. I was heartbroken when my last cat died after 22 years as a member of the family, but there was also a tiny measure of relief that we no longer had to bring an animal product into the house. And that is one major reason (there are others) why I won’t have another cat. The pleasure I get from their company can in no way override the horrors of where their food comes from.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dylan Barsby says:

    So important. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

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