Why I’m a selfish vegan
I have a big problem with self-sacrifice. It started back when I was young kid attending a fundamentalist church where everyone loved making themselves out to be martyrs. Our youth group focused on instilling the twin values of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Ever a rebel, I found the concept morally bankrupt. If you really believe in something, than how is living according to your principles a “sacrifice”? I guess I just enjoy feeling like I’m in control of my life, but I prefer to view my decisions (like going vegan) as emanating from a position of moral choice, rather than one of sacrifice.
In fact, I consider living according to one’s ethics as selfish, in the best possible way (bear with me). Nothing is as gratifying to me as following my moral principles. If I engage in actions that cause others to suffer needlessly, I suffer as well. Since I’m not a psychopath, I find it unbearable to witness – let alone participate in – the senseless exploitation and suffering of others. I basically follow the golden rule for selfish reasons, and I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which everyone slavishly followed their own desires at the expense of others. Living in such a way is not really selfish, it’s foolish and short-sighted. Mistreating people, animals, and the environment simply because they lack the power to fight back is the surest way to a nasty, short and brutish life that few of us would find pleasant if we paused to consider the impact of our actions.
Last night, my husband and I were watching Episode 5 of Ken Burns’ Roosevelt family documentary. I was deeply struck by the fact that, during the Great Depression, African Americans suffered on a level so much greater than that of whites that it beggars belief. Entire communities lived on the brink of starvation and received little help from the Federal Government because politicians didn’t want to be seen as helping black people while there still whites living in poverty. If you think for a moment about the Great Depression, most of the images that come to mind are of poor whites. This is because, even though the experience of African-Americans was devastating, the public distanced themselves so that pain so effectively that it has been erased from our collective memory.
Today many groups continue to endure suffering that goes unnoticed by our broader society. We downplay the suffering of children, women and minorities and expect their gratitude for whatever small concessions we have made in their favour. Factory farms torture, maim and kill animals every day, and immigrant slaughterhouse workers are forced to endure horrific working conditions.
When activists ask us to change our behaviour – to stop eating animals or to support environmental legislation – the response is often couched in the suggestion that these issues are inherently selfish. Millions of people, we are told, suffer and die each day, and we should take care of that before worrying about small fry like animals or pollution. Veganism is dismissed as a first-world conceit.
There are a great many injustices in this world about which I can do precious little. I cannot single-handedly force an African dictator to stop starving his people or give women in Afghanistan the ability to go to school in safety. I cannot stop many of these abuses, but I can refuse to contribute. And there is one decision I make each time I sit down to eat that can save lives and reduce the suffering of others. Eating vegan for one day saves approximately 1100 gallons of water, 35 square feet of land, one land or sea animal’s life, 20 lbs of CO2 and 45 pounds of grain (source: conspiracy.com/facts). That makes this yuppie feel pretty good.
Injustice endures, not because people are selfish, but because they sacrifice their own values in exchange for a life of brutish ignorance. For a moral, self-actualized individual it is by no means a “sacrifice” to call attention to the suffering of others and join the fight for justice. Consider this: was it a “sacrifice” for Gandhi or Martin Luther King to lead their people to freedom? Far from it. I believe that the real sacrifice would have been for them to stay at home and live in obedient fear of people they could not respect, while those same people continued to systematically exploit their people.
Anyway, since I was a kid, I’ve found the language of self-sacrifice cringe-inducing. I’m probably damaged, but I go out of my way to avoid anything that strikes me as mindless altruism or self-denial. I expect eating to be a hedonistic experience, and I don’t do cleanses. I even avoid smoothies (I like to chew my food). If you catch me fasting, it’s for a medical test. When it comes to “working out” (I don’t even like the phrase) I engage only in recreational exercise, primarily long distance running, because I enjoy it immensely, and I don’t really think of it as exercise since I’m usually doing it with friends and we spend the whole time chatting.
When ethically motivated people talk about “giving up” cheese or “giving up” meat, I find it odd. Being a vegan is one of the most selfish decisions I have ever made. When I permitted myself to risk offending others and stand up for my own values, it was one of the most liberating and gratifying moments in my life. Being vegan allows me to live my values every day in the knowledge that I am saving other creatures from senseless death, torture, rape and life imprisonment. If that’s was a “sacrifice” for me, I’d need to reconsider my principles. And maybe see a shrink.
My favourite quote about veganism is from Gary Francione: “veganism is not a sacrifice, it’s a joy.” Living your values is a privilege and an act of forward looking self-interest with a better world as the end goal.
Be selfish. Try eating vegan. And in the process, make the world a better place for yourself and those who come after you.