Published December 2004, Animals' Agenda Online
By Will Tuttle, Ph.D.
There is a tendency in the animal rights movement to be wary of appearing confrontational, judgmental, or “holier than thou” and to thus avoid addressing the ethical component of animal abuse. Instead, we tend to appeal to people’s self-interest by, for example, emphasizing that a plant-based diet is healthier than an animal-based diet, or that an animal-based diet causes more rainforest destruction, which means we humans lose possible sources of botanical medicines. This approach is justified because it is thought to have broader mass appeal. The problem with it is that it never questions the underlying cultural orientation of exploitation and oppression that allows us to commodify animals in the first place. It does not address the disconnection and violence that flow from motivation that is basically self-centered. The heart and soul of the animal rights movement is that our motivation is not self-centered, but is truly based on caring and compassion for those who are vulnerable.
People who are uncomfortable with this other-oriented motivation predictably declare that words like “vegan” should be more loosely defined to include the choice of a plant-based diet for personal health reasons, and that veganism needn’t be a lifestyle choice, but can be limited to one’s diet. Animals are saved whether the motivation is personal health concerns or compassion, the thinking goes.
And yet the motivation behind an action is critically important, and when we look more deeply, we see that all our actions are ultimately vehicles of motivation, and motivation thus not only expresses consciousness, but also determines the underlying message of the action. We know, for example, that when we are sitting in a dentist’s chair, mouths open and vulnerable, and pain is being inflicted upon us, that the motivation behind the situation is to help us, and so our experience is entirely different than it would be if we were an animal on a factory farm or laboratory in a similarly vulnerable situation, and we were having pain inflicted on us. In this latter case, the motivation for inflicting the pain on us has nothing to do with our welfare, but is only furthering the agenda of the pain-inducer. This difference in motivation instantly turns the situation from one of being helped and cared for to one of being terribly abused and harmed.
This element of motivation was the key to the coining of the word “vegan” in 1944 by Donald Watson and is reflected in the Articles of Association of the Vegan Society in England, which was founded in that same year as a movement distinct from the Vegetarian Society by its emphasis on motivation and lifestyle. The definition reads, “Veganism denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, 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.”
Veganism, according to its founders, is clearly a philosophy and lifestyle that is motivated by the urge to free animals from exploitation and cruelty at the hands of humans. It was never limited only to the sphere of food choices, and the underlying motivation was never to improve human health. These are important elements in the idea of veganism. People in our movement who try to remove these elements from veganism are playing right into the hands of those immense forces that would continue enslaving animals. Since words are the tools we use to accurately express ideas, they have power to the degree that they point to something that is mutually agreed upon. If we dilute and create confusion about the words that are the pointers to the underlying ideas, the ideas become lost.
The idea behind the word “vegan” that emerged in 1944 is revolutionary, and is spreading through our culture. If this idea continues to be articulated, shared, understood, and lived in the daily lives of increasing numbers of people, it will eventually undo our culture’s fundamental orientation of domination and disconnectedness. There are clearly many powerful forces that do not want this word or the idea behind it articulated at all, anywhere. If they could ban it, they would. Next best would be to ridicule it, and next to that, water it down and confuse it. I believe it’s essential to preserve the integrity of the idea behind the word, since it is so healthy and transformative, and to do that, we must preserve the integrity of the word itself.
We in the animal rights movement are, whether we are willing to admit it or not, revolutionaries. The earth, the animals, and the humans are all crying out for a revolution in consciousness, and this revolution is precisely the revolution that is contained within the idea behind the word “vegan:” living lives motivated by compassion and awareness of our profound interconnectedness.
I have learned in 20 years of being an advocate for animals--and especially in the last five years, in which I have been speaking publicly to congregations primarily in progressive churches--that despite the initial resistance, many people are ready to hear the truth about animal exploitation. We should be wary, I believe, of watering this down too much with personal health motivations, for in the end, this does not serve the animals, the revolution, or ourselves. There are several more reasons for this.
One is that self-centered motivation is not deep and lasting. While this is well understood, for example, by the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the narrowly individualistic and competitive framework of our culture tends to blind us to the understanding that, when the going gets tough, self-preoccupied motivation is weaker than motivation that is born of universal compassion and caring. So when people say that we would save more animals by getting a hundred people to halve their consumption of animal foods for health reasons than we would if we got only ten people to go vegan, they are neglecting that in three years, we’ll still have those vegans, and the hundred people who cut back for health reasons may easily have submitted to the culture’s relentless pressure and decided it’s healthier, or tastier, or more convenient to eat animal foods daily like they used to.
A second reason to emphasize compassion rather than self-interest as our motivation is that the more fully we live the ethic and idea that the word vegan points to, the more our presence and our words will carry weight with others. This is crucially important.
Another reason to be wary of the personal health motivation and to focus instead on the deeper motivation of compassion is that human health is exceedingly mysterious and complex, and the enormous power of the human mind vis a vis health is still almost completely unexplored by medical science. The power of human consciousness is not only underestimated, it is unrecognized because it doesn’t fit neatly into the materialistic and dualistic boxes of contemporary research methodologies. If we go down the vegetarianism for health road, we will need to rely, for “proof,” on the same materialistic and objectivist mythology called science, which is patriarchal to the core. I believe we will do better to focus on deeper universal truths, including the understanding that our physical bodies are strongly affected by thoughts, feelings, and aspirations, perhaps more than by food; and that we cannot reap happiness for ourselves by sowing seeds of misery for others, or be free while enslaving others. We are all connected.
The “save animals by getting people to be more health conscious” mentality will probably be a losing battle because health perceptions are based on scientific studies and science is a vehicle for those with money and influence. Scientific studies tend to “prove” conclusions that support the corporate agenda. With corporations now providing massive research funding to universities, and with the government’s industry-serving orientation, it is easy for the country’s two largest industries--food and medicine--to produce a steady stream of well-publicized articles, books, PR pieces, and scientific studies all distracting attention from the role of animal foods in disease etiology, or showing that animal foods contain vital nutrients. Behind these two huge industries lurks the banking industry that has invested billions of dollars to finance the massive high-tech meat/medical complex, and that requires a reliable and ample flood of demand for both animal foods and for medical treatment. Veganism is profoundly dangerous to both of these, and to this economic empire’s status quo.
Underlying this empire is the herding ethic, explained in Jim Mason’s book An Unnatural Order, that justifies self-centered exploitation and the commodification of others. This ethic is eaten with every bite of animal-based food, and it is this ethic, ultimately, that must be questioned and repudiated for the disastrous delusion that it is. The underlying self-preoccupied motivation is the problem, and it is evolving beyond this motivation to a consciousness of universal compassion that is the task of our movement.
This is not to say that it is not important to educate for health in order to counteract the misleading meat/medical complex propaganda. Also, if people reduce their intake of animal foods for health reasons, they may then be more open to the deeper motivations based on compassion and awareness of the unnecessary suffering their former habits required. They may continue on and go vegan.
Just as the abolitionist argument was based on the ethical issue of owning and exploiting humans, and not that the South would be economically healthier without slaves, so today, our message must be fundamentally an ethical one, based on our concern for the unjustifiable suffering involved in commodifying animals. When we purchase animal-based foods, we cause suffering not just to those close to us and ourselves (the health argument); we inflict unnecessary suffering on a vast network of others, both animal and human. It is this unnecessary infliction of suffering on other sentient beings that is at the core of the vegan and animal rights/welfare movements. While we need the health argument to remind people that the suffering is unnecessary, don’t we have a deeper purpose on this earth than just being healthy?
We can transform this culture we live in, and which lives in us, by transforming our own motivations and exemplifying this to others. We owe this to the animals. In the end, we are not separate from others, and we each have a critical piece to the great puzzle of cultural awakening to contribute, and our success and fulfillment depend on each of us discovering this piece and presenting it persistently. As Albert Schweitzer said, “One thing I know. The only ones among you who will find happiness are those who have sought, and found, how to serve.”
Will Tuttle, Ph.D., composer, pianist, Zen priest, and author of The World Peace Diet, is cofounder of Karuna Music & Art and of the Prayer Circle for Animals and Circle of Compassion ministry.