A question I often get asked is, something along the lines of, “Do you really think you will make a difference?” People are sceptical that someone changing their diet could have any impact on stopping the death machinery that is factory farming. I’ve often heard people say that me going vegan isn’t going to stop everyone buying and eating meat, so why should I even bother? This is known as the ‘individual impotence’ objection.
I believe there are two problems with this argument. First of all, it doesn’t take into account that a vegan diet, adopted by just one individual, can still make a difference in terms of preventing animals from facing abject torture and then a mechanical and horrible death. Secondly, even if it were true that adopting a vegan diet made no difference, this wouldn’t mean maintaining a vegan diet would be pointless. Let me expand on these two points.
With regards to the first, while it is difficult to give an exact figure of how many animals a vegan diet will prevent going to slaughter, a rough estimate is 100-200 animals every year. This is based on the number of animals we consume every year, divided by the population. Some animal advocacy groups say a vegetarian will prevent over 100 animals from facing exploitation and slaughter every year, so we can only assume a vegan diet will make an even bigger impact, considering that dairy cows and egg-laying hens face the same demise.
So if you’re coming at this question from a purely utilitarian point of view, then it makes perfect sense to adopt a vegan diet. Although it probably makes the most sense from a negative utilitarian outlook: “Do what minimises the most suffering for the most amount of sentient (not necessarily human) beings.” Or, if we want to be even more specific, act negative utilitarianism would say: “Stick to rules or principles (i.e. veganism) which minimise the most suffering for the most amount of sentient beings.”
100-200 animals may not seem like that many, especially in the context of a whole year, as well as relative to the billions that are killed in total each year, however, it is still significant. That is potentially 200 animals that will not have to be born into misery, live a ‘life’ of misery and then die in misery. Even if just one animal was prevented from this facing this ugly fate, it would still be worth it. Although the natural lifespan of these animals is cut off short, the years they are alive are spent suffering and there is no relief or hope for them. Take a dairy cow for example. The natural lifespan of these animals is about 20 years, but they are slaughtered (yes death is connected to milk and cheese too) when they are 5-7 years old. If you’ve ever seen footage of what a factory farm looks like, can you imagine spending 5-7 years in there? The suffering is unimaginable. So I’ll say it again. Even if only 1 less animal was bred to face this existence, it would still be worth it.
Now, to address the second point, even if we conceded that a vegan diet made no difference, it would still be worth it. I think it’s important to stick to moral principles, even in the face of social convention and cultural expectations. While reducing suffering is important and necessary, I do not think we should live our lives based solely on that assumption. If you know something is wrong, if your conscience tells you that is wrong, then to be involved with that wrong is unacceptable. So even if adopting a vegan diet prevented no animals from being bred for slaughter (which clearly makes no sense anyway) it would still be justified because it would reflect your moral character and display a moral consistency between how you think and how you act. Most people know how disgusting factory farming is, but continue to contribute towards it. There is, therefore, a disparity between what they know to be true and their actions. This disparity is widened even more when we consider how most people love certain animals (‘pets’) while consuming others which have been exploited.
When I tell people I’m vegan, many people will – first of all – want to test me, “But what about all the small animals that are killed when harvesting vegetables?” Or “What about honey?” Or “Would you eat an animal that died of old age?” Or “So you wouldn’t support animal testing to save human lives?” Or “Animal products are in everything you use!” And so on. A lot of people are more obsessed with trying to prove me to be a hypocrite or exaggerate minor issues than they are about addressing their own major moral inconsistencies. Maybe it’s a defence mechanism, I don’t know.
In any case, I think a vegan diet is worthwhile because it means you are no longer a part of what you see as a problem – you are no longer complicit in the on-going institutionalised abuse. You are intentionally avoiding products which depend on animal exploitation. This, I believe, is worthwhile because it shows a strong moral character, moral consistency and commitment. The added benefit, of course, is that a vegan diet does actually make positive contributions – to the animals, it prevents them from being bred into slavery, to the planet and to one’s own health.
Moreover, I disagree with the attitude behind questions such as “What’s the point?” or “Does it really make a difference?” It is an attitude of defeatism and moral laziness. As Western consumers, whose comfortable lifestyles often negatively impact animals, other humans and the planet, we have a responsibility to make choices which minimise or eliminate this impact. We should still be held accountable for our actions even if those actions are the norm in society.
When someone is horrified by the reality of factory farming but then says “But I could never go vegan”, to me this is similar to living under a corrupt and immoral political party, with everyone not only refusing to vote against such a party in an election but actually voting for them to stay in power. The reasoning is the same – “What’s the point in voting? My one vote won’t make a difference.” It is the same kind of defeatism. You can’t be like a herd animal and expect everyone else to change before you do. Social norms can be a powerful force in shaping how you think and behave, but don’t let that rob you of your individuality and conscience. And on that note, I’ll leave you with a quote from Gandhi, which lends great support to my belief that social transformation begins with individual transformation:
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him…We need not wait to see what others do.