“Vegetarian” & “Vegan”: How to Define A Cause

Katie Hance

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.

5 Responses

  1. I agree there needs to be more awareness of the vegan/vegetarian spectrum, but not all vegans and vegetarians are such for animal rights reasons.
    Some do so exclusively for health reasons, or to reduce their environmental impact (close, but not the same as taking an animal rights stance). Some are just following religious protocol. I know a pescatarian who simply does not like the taste of other meats.
    Not to say any or all of these reasons are mutually exclusive, but it would also be misleading to the public to leave it to one segment of the vegan/vegetarian population to define the terms.

  2. Katie & others out there

    I was wondering if any of these definitions go so far as to describe a vegan as one who does not even eat food with traces of animal products in them. A few years ago, I spent some time being a vegan for religious purposes and our rules were very strict in that we could not eat food that had traces of animal products (we’d check ingredients). For example, some of the veggie burgers contain traces of egg which for us was unacceptable.
    Another comment would be directed to you and anyone else out here on the world wide web who wants to have a voice:
    Should a vegan for religious purposes be considered on the same footing as one for animal purposes? If the end result is the same-less animal products used-does it matter what is the goal behind one’s veganism?
    I agree that more clearly defined definitions would help but I do wonder if the holier than thou attitude of who is more vegan than whom would increase or decrease as a result..ie vegan diet but leather shoes not good enough.

  3. Scholars could benefit from using uniform definitions, but I wonder if it might simultaneously hurt the animal rights movement.

    People have personal and individual bases for choosing to include or omit certain foods from their diets (I am referring to adults who have both the means & the opportunity to make these choices).

    Presently, some people consider vegans to be a homogenous group of holier-than-thou extremists. Since this is not a flattering stereotype, vegans might hesitate to include themselves in a singular definition promulgated by animal rights scholars. Not because the definition doesn’t have merit, but because the idea of identifying your lifestyle choice as one defined by the animal rights community (and all of the connotations of unreasonableness and radicalism that follow) might alienate some people. Might people be less inclined to identify with the movement? In turn, could animal rights causes lose support?

  4. Gary Francione recently posted a blog on the meaning of “vegan” where he describes a minimum definition for veganism, explains the different reasons for becoming a vegan, and then proceeds to advocate for his position. see
    http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/some-thoughts-on-the-meaning-of-vegan/

    As the comments have appropriately pointed out there are many reasons to choose to be a vegetarian, vegan, or omnivore, which makes it difficult to define the terms. I also see your point Sarah that it could be problematic to let animal right scholars define these terms. Yet despite these obstacles, I still believe it is beneficial to discuss what these currently ambiguous terms mean, especially when these terms are used in scholarly articles, animal rights movements, and other contexts. Thus, I was glad to see that Gary Francione directly addressed his thoughts on the meaning of veganism.

  5. Keep up the good work!.

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