Abolitionist Veganism’s Puritan Problem Pt. 1

It’s fair to say Professor Gary Francione, the father of “Abolitionist Veganism”. Francione contends that “veganism is a matter of fundamental justice, not harm reduction”. And I agree. As vegans, we should work to end the use and exploitation of animals. What we should not be doing is using puritan vegan dogma to save us from facing reality.

The Definition of Veganism

In 1949, the Vegan Society defined Veganism as:

A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

In 1979, the Vegan Society updated this definition to add the following phrases:

…and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.

Practically speaking, it’s important to realize veganism has already been defined. Thus, professor Francione’s comments should be understood as relating to his particular brand of “Abolitionist Veganism”, rather than veganism as a whole.

“Just a little bit”

gary francione

In a video released on January 25, Professor Francione condemned eating fries prepared in oil also used for cooking chicken and other meat products. He contends that the oil “contains animal fat” and therefore should not be used.

I have several objections this argument.

Firstly, fried foods absorb far more oil than they release. Particularly breaded foods, like fried fish and chicken. The amount of fish or chicken fat released into the oil is so negligible as to be ignored completely, unless you have a severe allergy.

At this point professor Francione invokes a slippery slope argument. How do we define “‘just a little bit,” he asks?

He goes on to argue that if we permit trace amounts of chicken fat in our fries, what is to prevent us from eating a dish sprinkled with cheese or ground beef?

Are the fries vegan? According to Francione, “absolutely not” since “vegans don’t eat, wear or otherwise use animal products. It’s really that simple.”

This is About Purity

But eating a potato that has touched an animal product is not “eating” animal products. And it’s certainly not about paying for exploitation.

I am loathe to get into these sorts of arguments, because I am brutally aware of how omnipresent animal products are in our lives. By Francione’s logic (as presented in this video), I would not be able to use money as a Canadian, because our money contains tallow. I wouldn’t be able to eat any food that had been stored in plastic, because plastic manufacturers also use tallow as a slip agent to allow it to glide through machinery. Goodbye waxed paper and plastic wrap! Neither are vegan, as waxed paper contains animal fat, and plastic wrap uses tallow as a slip agent.

Now, in terms of practicability, waxed paper actually is one item I probably won’t buy anymore.  It’s unnecessary and does contribute to animal use. But I would still eat something at a restaurant that had come into contact with waxed paper, because I’m not a puritan.

Francione is a Puritan

I’m not a Francione “hater”. In fact, I think he’s done a great deal for the modern vegan movement. I deeply respect his arguments against speciesism, and particularly his contention that sentience alone, rather than intelligence, should merit moral consideration.

But Francione has a puritan streak that is counterproductive to the movement. As I’ve mentioned previously, his blind condemnation of all single-issue campaigns can seriously hamper attempts at legislative action on behalf of animals.

Consequences Matter

Eating fries that get touched by oil that has touched chicken flesh might be gross (and clearly produces a disgust response in Francione), but it is not immoral. Eating those fries in no way contributes to the exploitation, use, or abuse of animals, so it’s up to the individual whether it grosses them out or not.

I take Francione’s position on fries to mean that he also doesn’t eat anything “produced in a factory that also processes milk products” or that “may contain milk”. Because it’s exactly the same problem. Yes, you might become somehow “tainted” with animal products (and obviously, if you had a severe allergy, you’d want to avoid these foods. But for a normal person without allergies, this is a degree of puritanism that is counterproductive. It does nothing to help the animals. Eating those fries in no way contributes to the use or abuse of animals. Ultimately, it is only you who has somehow become “unclean”.

If Francione’s puritan pride prevents him from eating food that may have come into contact with animal products, fine. But he’s wrong. And he needs to tell his followers it is simply his own squeamishness.

Francione often likes to compare veganism with the abolitionist anti-slavery movement in the United States. I would argue that Francione’s puritan stance on this issue is no different than refusing to set foot on any land that had once been worked by slaves. His position is naive, and almost a denial of the suffering that animals face every day. Is he really so pure that he can’t even touch anything that has touched their suffering?

I think consequences matter. It’s the reason I’m vegan. I believe eating, wearing and using animals is wrong. I don’t do those things, because they directly and indirectly contribute to animal use and abuse. But I also realize that animal products are everywhere, and that we live in a world built on their exploitation. To demand all evidence of that fact be wiped away is a denial of the reality all vegans want to change. We can’t hid from the evils of the world. But we can refuse to contribute to them, and we can also encourage others to join us.

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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