Book review: A Vegan Ethic

A Vegan Ethic by Mark Hawthorne, Changemakers Books, 174pp, pbk; ISBN 978-1-78535-402-1, £9-99

The Vegan Society, in its Articles of Association, defines “veganism” as “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 humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

Thus, veganism and the vegan diet relate solely to the use, or rather the non-use, of animals by humans. But should a ‘vegan ethic’ go further than this and extend into the realms of human rights? According to the author and vegan activist Mark Hawthorne the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. In the introduction to A Vegan Ethic, Hawthorne asserts that “if veganism is about doing your best to not harm any sentient life, we must logically extend that circle of compassion to human animals as well”, warning that “in our struggle to liberate animals from farms, research, and captivity, we seldom see the connection between the exploitation of animals and the oppression of humans”. In the following chapters, the author outlines the case for animal rights, veganism, human rights, and what we might term ‘environmental rights’, ending with a plea for a more compassionate world in which he urges animal rights groups to “include as an active part of their agenda the struggle for gay rights, women’s rights, or civil rights – or, better yet, all of them”, just as “an organization working to dismantle human rights abuses ought to be fighting speciesism as well”.

This is all very desirable, of course, but hardly practical. Campaign groups that spread their message, and their resources, too thinly risk confusing and ultimately alienating the general public, who will begin to wonder exactly what they stand for. Put another way, can animal rights groups afford to shun those whose views on race, gender issues and sexuality are not in accordance with what they would wish to see in an enlightened society? Frustrating as it is for vegans to be faced with human rights and environmental activists who see nothing wrong with consuming animal products, we must accept that they have different priorities in their efforts to create a better world. This is not to say that we shouldn’t take every opportunity to argue the case for veganism and animal rights with whoever is willing to listen, but sometimes it’s better to acknowledge our differences and hope that they will eventually accept our point of view.

Mark Hawthorne is right to point out that “going vegan is a great first step, but it’s only the beginning”, urging readers “to take into account the lives of everyone, regardless of their species, race, colour, gender, sexual identity, or other social construct (and to) make choices that benefit not only ourselves, but those with whom we share this planet”, identifying this as “what it means to live a vegan ethic”. Although the author’s vision of “a vegan ecosystem in which we can grow a thriving new world” may be hopelessly idealistic, we should appreciate his reminding us that animal rights isn’t the only cause worth striving for. Despite an obvious North American bias and some surprising omissions (for example, sheep are overlooked in the section on ‘Animals Used for Food’, and the UK Vegan Society – the first of its kind – is inexplicably relegated to the ‘Additional Online Resources’ section of Appendix F), the six chapters and six appendices of A Vegan Ethic provide the reader with much food for thought.

Paul Appleby

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