I Just Don’t Understand Veganism

05 Jun

Maybe it’s just because I have never had this explained to me properly, but where is the line drawn between what can and what cannot be eaten by vegans, and what is the reasoning behind the placement of said line?

As far as I understand, vegans do not consume any animal products (meat, eggs, milk, etc.). Ethical vegans are a subset that practice veganism for (obviously) ethical reasons. Among those are the fact that humans are in no way superior to non-human animals as, as such, are not subject to our whim. Ethical vegans see veganism as a philosophy, lifestyle, and set of principles, and not simply a diet.

If life is important to vegans, then why are plants not subject to the overall ban? Why is it OK to consume plants, which are also a form of life? Do vegans not believe plants to be a form of life at all?

I ask because I just don’t understand why animals are off-limits, but plants are. The distinction seems pretty arbitrary to me. Non-vegans (and non-vegetarians) eat meats and dairy product, often because they don’t consider animals to be on the same level as we are. They are not humans — they are sources of food, among other things. But for vegans, it is OK to eat plant life. Why is that? Is it because they are not animals? Is it because they are sources of food, among other things? How is that any different?

The difference between humans and non-human animals is just as arbitrary as that between animals and plants. All that separates humans and non-human animals are an unspecified level of advancement, measured only by human understanding and intellect. I understand that humans are no more advanced than animals except in such a manner that is measurable only by humans. But, on the other hand, all that separates animals and plant life are the ability to process thought and physically move around. Why should that be the defining characteristic that makes it OK to eat plant life, but not OK to eat animal products? What is the reasoning behind such a definition?

Please, I would honestly appreciate any vegans to chime in on this. I find it hard to understand why a group of people would deem it wrong to consume animal products, while not extending the same “rights” to plant life.


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  1. twocents

    October 14, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    For many vegans, it comes down to sentience. There are a lot of other reasons too (health and environmental) not to eat animal products. All you have to do is check Google. There are some great books out there and documentaries as well.

  2. oambitiousone

    November 1, 2011 at 7:03 am

    I teach yoga, and as part of my training we read some of the Vedic (ancient Indian) philosophy.

    It is believed that we–all living things– are all connected and hence animals are just souls a bit further down on the enlightenment train. What separates plants is their being less conscious or lacking consciousness.

    To kill an animal (or to advocate killing one by being a consumer) is to thwart that soul’s evolution. It also makes you responsible for another being’s death, which goes against the “do no harm” aspect of this philosophy.

    Further, it is believed that eating an animal is to integrate its fear with one’s body, assuming the animal pumps “fear hormones” through the body upon dying.

    I was vegetarian for many years but gradually made way to emphasizing local (whenever possible)–including meat. I never went all the way to vegan.

    It was a losing battle to train my family’s tastebuds to enjoy quinoa and nutritional yeast over the school’s mac and cheese.

  3. Agrajag

    November 3, 2011 at 5:57 am

    It’s an interesting question, larger than the narrow issue of veganism.

    Yet, most of us agree we want -some- distinction. The border between plants and animals, is fairly clear, but the question remains *why* it’s the correct border. Higher animals have a nervous-system and perhaps even a brain, and as such are capable of suffering and experiencing emotion on a level that plants cannot.

    But one-celled animals, such as bacteria, have less advanced responses to external stimuli than does complex multi-celled plants such as trees. Furthermore, vegans do eat bacteria (it’s not practically possible to avoid it, and I don’t know if they’d want to avoid it if they could)

    You could draw the line at “human”, but it’s not nessecarily easier to defend logically. Sentience and self-awareness, you might say – but some animals are self-aware. (for example bottle-nosed dolphins can recognize *themselves* in a tv-monitor whereas dogs cannot)

    And what about humans who for some reason are no longer sentient or self-aware, say ones who has suffered permanent brain-damage – would you say we could or should eat em ? If not, why not ?

  4. michael brice

    December 29, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    here is a simple experiental test for you Terran, maybe it will help you to understand the reasoning behind the ‘line of veganism’ you inquired about in your post and the definition of life.

    First take your cat (or dog) and a large carrot, then, with a large sharp knife cut the carrot in half, then cut your cat in half.

    Let me know if your understanding of vegetarian or vegan lifestyles has been impacted by this simple experiment.

  5. Drew M.

    January 22, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    A vegan friend once told me that her “line” was whether or not the organism has a central nervous system. If it has a CNS, it can feel pain and she had no wish to cause that.

    It was good enough of an explanation for me.

  6. Jim Strauss

    January 23, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    As an atheist and a vegan here’s what I believe. We should avoid unnecessary pain. Animals feel pain, plants do not.

    It may interest you to know that a great number of atheists are vegans (I meet many in freethought conferences). And it makes sense. People who are independent enough to reject religion are also those who can reject established diet to adopt a path of cruelty-free diet.

  7. Richard Brum

    January 30, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Thank you all for your responses. I think I understand veganism a lot better now, thanks to your analogies and examples. However, I guess I fail to see how not eating animal meat causes less pain, when animals are still killed.

    I guess I just see it from a rather selfish point of view: the meat is already there, and it’s delicious, so I eat it. But at least I understand ethical veganism much better, as it is clear to me now.

    I recognize that a lot of atheists are vegans, and the arguments for veganism are compelling… but for some reason I just can’t give up meat and animal products for those reasons alone. It’s something of a battle going on inside my head that I need to resolve before I settle one way or the other on this issue, personally.

  8. maddy jones

    January 31, 2012 at 7:16 am

    You’ve had some very good responses to your questions. Regarding your last question, why not eat meat when animals are being killed anyway?

    The answer for some people is classic capitalism – take away (some of ) the demand and that will have an impact on supply. Ultimately of enough when the demand goes down, supply will cease.

    The other more personal, short term, view is that one is not participating in creating the suffering that goes along inevitably with western / all mass market / arguable all meat production.

    Not everyone will find either of those ideas convincing of course.

  9. maddy jones

    January 31, 2012 at 7:25 am

    And, (sorry) Peter Singer might argue that eating a non-sentient human could be ethically unproblematic under very specific circumstances. Prof Singer and Assoc Prof Helga Kuhse co-authored a book called “Should the baby live?”. It’s a work that is usually badly miss-interpreted by disability advocates, which is a shame because it appears to have some useful approaches.

  10. Richard Brum

    February 10, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately… is it possible to kill an animal without it suffering at all? If so, would that be moral justification for consuming meat? If the pain aspect is entirely eliminated, what is left to which to object?

  11. Joe

    February 26, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    This is what makes the subject quite a bit more complicated than it initially seems. Realize that all of the questions you’ve asked have been asked before. The utter simplicity of most of the arguments both for and against meat-eating points to a deeper complexity when talking about moral issues, and simply jumping on a bandwagon and becoming intellectually lazy on either side is not the answer.

    On the one hand, you’ve got vegans who object to killing animals because “they feel pain”. If you kill an animal without causing pain, you’ve avoided this problem.

    On the other hand you have vegans who object on some other basis, perhaps simply because they are “life”, or because they are “life + sentience”. Of course, animals being life raises your initial question of the difference between animals and plants, and “life + sentience” raises the questions of why sentience means it’s wrong to kill them, how much sentience is required, and countless other questions.

    You have to respond to the many types of ethical vegans separately, but of course in arguments like this even if you defeat one argument, they’ll just adopt another.

    I don’t think that the objectivity of morality is exactly apparent, and that’s really the first hurdle in arguments like these. I think it’s hard enough to establish that it’s immoral to kill another human being. I believe it is immoral, but when you get into deep discussions of morality, it’s not exactly cut-and-dry.

  12. reguired name

    March 14, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    because it is not only about life. it is about suffering, exploitation and being consistent. i am against human trafficking, exploitation of women, homophobia, racism, ageism… i can not be a speciesist when i am against other kinds of exploitation and suffering. the species is not important because it is very hard to draw a line. for example, you may have a child 1 year old, or a man 99 years old with big health problems. you will not kill any of them for food, and yet, you have a pig 1 year old that is much more a person than any of the mentioned and you kill him/her. why is that? did you know that pigs mourn their dead? did you know that they go to a slaughter house as a family, they refuse to leave their close ones in trouble so they are killed together as a family? did you know that a mother pig has a spectrum of different voices to communicate with her children? they are very much like us. we, humans, didn’t just happen out of nothing and became like this…

  13. Ashley

    July 5, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    Some food for thought… fungus are closer in relation to animals than plants.

  14. guest101

    September 9, 2013 at 2:38 am

    It’s obvious that plants do NOT have a nervous system to feel any pain! They have done many studies on this.

  15. Joseph

    March 16, 2014 at 3:02 am

    Vegetables and fruits do not die when you eat them. A banana, apple, grape, or a carrot, lettuce, cabbage, kale, dried beans, ect., all absolutely have a healthy reason to be eaten unlike meat that is murdered and the dead animal products and by-products that lead to serious health issues. Take for instance a common farm pig could provide you with its organs all the way up to its lungs including a blood transfusion. An insect is also an animal and the insects couldn’t provide you with organ transplants so even less could a cabbage or a bean give you a lung because it doesn’t have one. A common farm pig is basicly completely human and does die the same as human to sleep unlike lettuce or a carrot waiting for you to gobble it down before it whithers away.
    Take some healthy moral advice. Listen to Jesus the vegan.

  16. Harish

    May 9, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    Joseph is right. Our food should not involve killing any animal or plant. Fruits, nuts, and vegetables are the eco-friendly food that we are naturally meant to consume. We are not carnivores, not omnivores, no, we certainly are not herbivores. We are frugivores. (

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  18. Sonia

    February 25, 2015 at 9:17 am

    It all comes down to a central nervous system.
    It’s what makes a living organism feel pain. Plants don’t have a central nervous system.

  19. Heather

    July 21, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    For those of you who think plants lack awareness, you clearly haven’t studied plants.

  20. Gerry

    August 13, 2015 at 12:53 am

    Heather, awareness and the ability to feel pain are two completely different things. Moreover, I’m sure your definition of plant “awareness” is very much a semantics argument. I would be hard pressed to accept a plant has “awareness” in the nominal use of the word. Nevertheless, the issue is pain. And we have very good evidence to suggest that something without a CNS does not experience pain as such.

  21. Em

    September 16, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Hi, I’m a vegan, but it’s complicated (for me I am not a vegan completely by choice, I will explain later)

    Vegans generally used to be vegetarian – no meat, nothing with a face, including fish, bizarrely some people believe vegetarians eat fish, they don’t.

    Veganism is the next step up – no meat, no animal products or by products, nothing from any living creature – ie no leather items, no feathers, no fur, no honey, no milk and other dairy products, no gelatin, no e120, as well as nothing with a face. Often this is for love of animals, but for me it is for health reasons (I choose not to have leather/fur etc as I think it is unfair to have an animal killed to look good, same as being against animal testing for cosmetic purposes) – however, I am not opposed to animal testing for medical purposes (others are)

    I am vegetarian by choice, vegan due to allergies to milk /dairy and believe me it creates so much hassle trying to explain to people you cant eat something rather than choosing not to eat something on principle!!!

    In my opinion, plants are grown specifically to be eaten, and are not forced into cruel conditions just so I can eat – which is often what happens to animals, like battery farming – also the other reason I prefer to be vegetarian, is because the same size field that holds 5 cows can feed hundreds of people, it makes more sense to me logically, that more people can be fed with less space.

    I’m also a vegetarian because I prefer the taste of fruits, vegetables and pulses (beans etc) – I genuinely prefer a bean stew to a steak which I know some people don’t understand, but it’s the same as people preferring coffee over tea etc.

    Also, what would people eat if not plants?

    I think for a lot of vegans / veggys, the fact that animals can love, have families, thoughts etc. is a reason not to eat them.

    This is just my opinion on it anyway, hope that helps.

  22. Melbourne Vegan

    November 2, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Instead of saying, “if you don’t eat animals, why eat plants?” we can reverse this. If we exploit non-human animals, why not exploit humans? Why not have slavery? Isn’t the line between humans and non-humans arbitrary? All ethical decisions are arbitrary. However, if we do away with arbitrary ethical standards, we have legitimized rape, murder, slavery, human trafficking, etc.

    “I guess I fail to see how not eating animal meat causes less pain, when animals are still killed.”

    It’s about trying to reduce the demand for animal slaughter. Most slaughterhouse workers I see don’t like killing animals. They they forced to kill animals very fast. Mistakes are made and corners are cut. But they do it to meet the demand for meat. Ultimately the consumer’s wallet dictates everything.

    “I recognize that a lot of atheists are vegans, and the arguments for veganism are compelling… but for some reason I just can’t give up meat and animal products for those reasons alone. It’s something of a battle going on inside my head that I need to resolve before I settle one way or the other on this issue, personally.”

    Of course, I understand. I am exactly like you. I loved meat and cheese. It’s human nature to follow your desires and rationalize away. If you were the beneficiary of slavery and earned millions from it, you’d rationalize it. If you were a human traffickers who trafficked little girls into prostitution and earned millions from it, you’d rationalize it. You’d argue that you’re providing jobs to these girls who would otherwise not have jobs. You’d maybe even argue that it is the law of nature that the strong exploit the weak and hence the pimp/prostitute or slave/master relationships are just a reflection of the laws of nature. The exploitation of animals by humans is the same. It is exploitation of weak being by stronger beings.

    At the end of the day, as I said, it’s about the consumer’s wallet. When you spend, you’re shaping the world. When you buy eggs, male baby chicken are macerated in blenders. When you buy dairy milk, female cows are literally raped multiple times to produce milk. They are injected with antibiotics and growth hormones. Their babies are taken away from them. The females are led to be fattened and raped. The males are slaughtered and discarded.

    Are these actions even wrong? Are they morally wrong?

    There is no such thing as objective morality. There is only power.

    There are strong people who believe that the strong should exploit the weak. This can be called social darwinism or fascism. And then there are strong people who believe that the strong should not exploit the weak and that the weak should be protected against the strong. This is republicanism, democracy, human rights, animal rights, etc. There is no right or wrong. We all have some power via our wallets to add to one of these sides, so it’s not a question or what is right or wrong. The question is which side are you on?

  23. Cathleen

    December 3, 2015 at 7:26 am

    Good discussion. If this has already been said, apologies, but wanted to say two things. One is that we can survive w/o eating animals but cannot survive w/o eating plants. The second is that we eat many many more plants than necessary by cycling them through animals (then eating the animals) than if we simply eat plants directly.

  24. Na

    January 17, 2018 at 3:37 pm

    That’s not the right question, the question should be, if vegans care about the cruelty to animal life then why they would ok with human suffering? Why is it ok that Vegans don’t mind the death of humans and animals would happen in a vegan world as long as it was apart of the natural process? Scientist have already run simulations of what would happen if we stopped eating animal byproducts, and it leads to allot of malnutrition, (not enough calcium, vitamin A, and B12) that’s why their has NEVER been a successful vegan society, and some babies died and children have had the bones of an 80 on vegan diet. We could become a Vegetarian society but this would also mean the eradication of carnivores ( pets and Zoo animals) since if we let them survive we would 1. Be eaten by them ( which is ok because allot of vegans hate humans) 2. We can’t feed them. But it is possible