How would you define a “vegetarian”? A “vegan”? Animal rights scholars have not collectively provided clear definitions for these terms. I believe that it hurts the vegetarian and vegan advocacy efforts that these causes are not clearly defined.
For example, Peter Singer who advocates for vegetarianism describes avoiding eating meat or fish. Tom Regan describes vegetarianism embodying the belief that it is wrong to eat meat. Yet, Gary Francione, a vegan advocate, describes a “vegetarian” as basically one who does “not eat the flesh of cows, pigs, and birds, but who eats some other animal products, such as fish, dairy products and eggs” (see “The Abolition of the Property Status of Animals”). Combining these definitions vegetarians believe it is wrong to eat meat or fish but still eat fish. Not exactly a strong (or even logical) slogan for vegetarianism. While there are other terms defining different degrees to which people do not consume animal products, such as pescatarian (those who do not eat meat but eat fish), lacto-ovo vegetarian (vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy) lacto-vegetarian (vegetarians who eat dairy but not eggs) and ovo-vegetarian (vegetarians who eat eggs but not dairy) none of these additional terms lead to a simple definition of “vegetarian.”
Similar confusion exists over the term “veganism.” Brian Leiter, a legal scholar, recently conducted a poll on veganism and described vegans as “those whose dietary regimen excludes all animal products.” Gary Francione believes a vegan is one who excludes all animal products from their diet and lifestyle including the wearing or use of animal products. Leiter later noted that some people thought it was an error to portray veganism as just a dietary choice. Leiter may believe that veganism is a lifestyle, but his poll certainly did not reflect such a characterization.
Perhaps, the terms “vegetarian” and “vegan” are loosely defined because different people, including animal rights scholars, have different beliefs regarding the degree to which animal products should be excluded from one’s life. I am not proposing that animal rights scholars reconcile their beliefs but rather suggest that animal rights scholars should collectively adopt a clear definition of the terms “vegetarian” and “vegan.” By providing clear definitions scholars could more effectively debate and advocate for animal rights positions without distracting the audience by using ambiguous and confusing terms. A uniform definition would not hurt the scholars work or cause. For example, even if Leiter defined veganism as a lifestyle choice he could still poll public opinion on vegans. Additionally, Gary Francione’s vegan advocacy would not suffer by defining vegetarians as those who do not eat meat or fish. Finally, if animal rights scholars were to adopt uniform definitions these definitions would hopefully spread to the public, clarifying people’s general understanding of these terms.