Veganism, Perfectionism, and Moral Scrupulosity

veganism perfectionism moral scrupulosity

The intersection between philosophy and mental health is a broad topic, and in one essay I gave some examples of how certain philosophical positions may impact mental health, as well as emphasised that this line of causality – adopting a worldview and then becoming depressed – is not so easy to establish (the direction of causality could be reversed, or they could both exist, reinforcing each other). Thinking about this topic again, veganism came to mind.

The Vegan Society defines 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.” Ethical vegans may be divided along welfarist and animal rights lines. The former want to improve conditions for non-human animals and minimise suffering, but allow for other species to be owned and used, so long as ‘humane’ guidelines are followed. 

The latter, on the other hand, argue that the abolition of animal exploitation is the only way forward and the only message worth promoting, given the wrongness of using, exploiting, and commodifying non-human animals, which amounts to violations of both positive rights (e.g. their right to life, liberty, and ability to express natural behaviours) and negative rights (e.g. freedom from torture, not to be harmed unnecessarily, and not to be treated as property and resources). Some ethical vegans may also believe in the abolitionist goal but support welfarist measures as stepping stones towards that goal (since stopping the most extreme forms of suffering is still considered a high-priority aim). 

Yet there can be a tendency amongst vegans of all philosophical bents – although, likely amongst animal rights advocates more so than welfarist vegans – to treat veganism as a matter of personal purity. The Vegan Society’s definition of veganism includes the phrase “as far as is possible and practicable” because this recognises that vegans live in a non-vegan world (making up only 1-2% of the UK population, for example). 

The terms ‘possible’ and ‘practicable’ may be somewhat ambiguous and deserve explaining, but they do not mean being vegan only if it is convenient. Many countries and cities are very vegan-friendly nowadays, so switching to a vegan lifestyle – while a major change in lifestyle – can seem relatively easy, and not much of a sacrifice at all. However, there are also many vegans who live in a non-vegan-friendly family, culture, or society, and they are not phased by the trouble or effort involved in maintaining a healthy vegan diet. This kind of commitment can be seen to be feasible, in line with the Vegan Society’s definition of veganism. 

Others, meanwhile, may find that there are some especially inconvenient or tricky circumstances which make being 100% vegan not practicable, sometimes because of purported costs to personal physical and mental health; although making use of technology (e.g. to find places to eat if abroad), being prepared, and planning a vegan diet well can often circumvent these issues.

There are many kinds of instances, nonetheless, in which an ethical vegan may feel they’ve betrayed the philosophy and failed to live up to a standard of personal purity. This can amount to a kind of perfectionism which, although resembling moral consistency, can entail mental health costs to the individual. Being consistent when it comes to veganism – making it a habit to avoid supporting animal suffering and exploitation wherever possible – is, clearly, what being a vegan is all about. This commitment may seem commendable to non-vegans but to vegans, it can seem like the bare minimum – the moral baseline – you would follow as someone who is morally opposed to animal exploitation. (Activism, outreach, campaigning, advocacy, volunteering, voting, charity work, and donating to relevant causes may also be seen by those in the vegan community as necessary for achieving desired aims.)

However, the decision to be consistent – and putting in the effort to be consistent – doesn’t mean mistakes, slip-ups, and accidents won’t occur, which can easily happen in a non-vegan world, no matter how careful a vegan is trying to be. Potential mental health costs come, though, when someone strongly attaches to veganism a personal identity and a need to be perfect in order to uphold that identity. 

Perfectionist Veganism

There will be times as a vegan when you are faced with tricky situations. These might include whether or not to buy non-vegan food a homeless person asks for; buying something non-vegan by accident and not being able to give it to a non-vegan (so do you eat it or throw it away?); being served something non-vegan at a restaurant by mistake, perhaps because you didn’t realise it was not entirely vegan or because of a slip-up at the restaurant (do you send it back, in which case it could be thrown away and wasted, do you eat it, or do you just try to avoid eating the non-vegan bits of the meal?); and whether or not eating food cross-contaminated with non-vegan food (i.e. when the same fryer or grill is used for meat and non-meat products). 

Vegans may be divided about what they do, or would do, in these kinds of situations. Some may not want to seem fussy, make a scene, or make veganism appear like a difficult diet to maintain, so if some non-vegan sauce came with a meal, it might not seem like a big deal (some may, just for personal reasons, be too disgusted by the sight of animal flesh or grease on their meal to go ahead and eat it). It’s also possible to become lactose intolerant after being vegan for a while, so someone may avoid eating anything that mistakenly came with dairy products or contained dairy just so they don’t feel unwell later. 

Most ethical vegans, and vegan organisations, don’t see an issue with food being fried in the same oil as meat, but there are animal rights advocates, such as philosopher Gary Francione, who are opposed to this morally (and not just because it’s perceived as gross). Menu items produced in commercial kitchens are not considered vegan if the item shares a grill or deep fryer used for animal products, which is why Burger King’s plant-based Whopper is considered not suitable for vegans, but this doesn’t mean ethical vegans believe producing and consuming this burger is harmful.

Then there’s also the issue of whether to waste non-vegan food or eat it. If the meal has already been prepared, then either decision won’t directly further fund non-animal humans to be exploited or killed, but what is worse, ethically: Food waste or being seen – as a vegan – consuming animal products? Some may argue that the latter promotes the idea that it is acceptable to sometimes consume animal products, thereby weakening the aim of achieving a world in which non-human animals are not seen as commodities, a world in which we don’t unnecessarily take and consume animal flesh and secretions. 

Finally, there will be times (more so in the early days of being vegan but perhaps at any time) that slip-ups may occur, in which a person decides to eat non-vegan food for the sake of convenience, social or cultural pressure, or just pleasure. Some define veganism in terms of intentions, so knowingly consuming vegan products is considered out of step with the vegan philosophy, whereas others prioritise not sponsoring animal exploitation and suffering, which is a more consequentialist stance. 

Regardless, every person, vegan or not, is susceptible to errors, or acting out of line with their beliefs and values (which may be deontological or consequentialist in nature). But many in the vegan community (and I’m guilty of this myself) adopt a perfectionist mindset, whereby any non-vegan action, or any action perceived to be misaligned with veganism, whether intentional or not, comes with intense and prolonged feelings of guilt, shame, and regret. There may be a sense in which one is no longer vegan, one’s vegan membership has been revoked, and one is now starting from day 1 as a vegan from then onwards (like how those in Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous track how many days they’ve been sober and if they relapse, start a new count). 

Treating veganism as a matter of personal purity or perfectionism, rather than just an effort or commitment to be consistent, can take a toll on your mental health. Perfectionism has been linked to a variety of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and several eating disorders. For instance, orthorexia nervosa (ON) is one type of eating disorder that is more prevalent in vegan populations. This is characterised by an obsessive focus on healthy eating, or an unhealthy obsession with eating only ‘pure’ foods and avoiding ‘impure’ foods, which is associated with restrictive dietary practices. Researchers have found that individuals with high levels of ON display low levels of self-compassion.

While orthorexia nervosa is still uncommon (albeit more prevalent) in vegan populations, something akin to an obsession with purity can still exist. In a previous post on the connection between the vegan diet and mental health, I cited a study that found vegans are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. However, while some might interpret this (in line with preconceived ideas) that vegan diets worsen many people’s mental health because they are nutritionally inadequate (which is misinformed), there are other potential reasons for this kind of result. It could be that many people experiencing a mental health problem will look for dietary changes – including adopting a vegan diet – that might help them. 

Another possibility, which I think is reasonable, is that people who are highly sensitive by nature are likely to both become ethical vegans (due to their higher sensitivity to animal suffering) and struggle with mental health issues. Hence, it may not be that adopting the philosophy of veganism turns you into a perfectionist – although, this is possible – but that someone already susceptible to perfectionism may either be more inclined towards veganism or, once they have become vegan, may find that their perfectionist tendency is brought to the surface. Indeed, as in my discussion on the link between philosophical beliefs and mental well-being, it may be that being a perfect vegan – which might feel expected – could exacerbate someone’s perfectionism and, in turn, their mental health.

Connected to perfectionist veganism is the clinging to a vegan identity. If there is a perceived imperfection, this can feel like an affront to someone’s identity, which may be a source of their self-esteem. If being vegan is associated with being a moral person, then a perfectionist may view a non-vegan action as indicative of being an immoral person. Some perfectionist veganism is very much based on egoic or hierarchical thinking (I’m purer than you), but a lot of it is also not wanting to feel like a bad person (more on this later in the next section). This egoic tendency may, nonetheless, also exist alongside the desire to not feel like an immoral person due to a perceived moral failing or weakness.

I support consistency, but not perfectionism – and while these may seem two ways of saying the same thing, really one is a rational ethic, whereas the other is a mindset that entails personal costs. One should strive for consistent veganism without suffering psychologically as a result of human and understandable mistakes.

One’s compassion for non-human animals does not mean that we deserve a lack of self-compassion in our efforts to be vegan, nor should it mean a lack of compassion for others also trying their best. The latter often amounts to the narcissism of small differences: this is a term from psychoanalysis, coined by Sigmund Freud in 1917, which refers to the idea that the more a community shares commonalities, the more likely people in it are to engage in interpersonal feuds because of hypersensitivity to minor differences perceived in each other. To the vegans who feel the purest, anyone who doesn’t meet that mark is not considered part of the tribe, or on the right side. But rather than focusing on excluding or arguing against ‘imperfect’ vegans, animal advocates will achieve much more by engaging with the much larger and more important differences that exist between vegans and those who continue to see no issue in consuming and using animal products.

Veganism and Moral Scrupulosity

Moral scrupulosity is the obsessive concern with whether or not you are being moral or immoral; it is the fear of being ‘contaminated’ by one’s immoral thoughts or actions, such as having bad motives, treating others unfairly, or lying. It is a form or sub-type of OCD and is therefore unhealthy because it is associated with psychological distress. The fear may be related to acting in ways inconsistent with one’s personal moral compass or what is deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by society’s standards. 

Those who struggle with moral scrupulosity, while often concluding that they are bad people, are likely to be amongst the kindest and most caring types of people (precisely because of their hyper-vigilance surrounding ethics, which is, unfortunately, detrimental to their mental health). The uncertainty surrounding whether one is moral or not becomes a source of deep anxiety, and it can make navigating everyday choices emotionally taxing. I covered this presentation of OCD in my essay on how philosophical beliefs and mental health are related, noting how those prone to OCD may turn the study of ethics into an unhealthy obsession.

Veganism, too, can veer into the realm of moral scrupulosity. There are many moral grey areas related to what vegans should oppose, some of which were highlighted above, and these may feel exhausting to consider for someone who is obsessed about being a morally upright person and not being guilty of any moral blunders or hypocrisies. This again ties into the issues of perfectionism, personal purity, and being strongly attached to the vegan identity. There is the sense that failing to meet some perfect standard of veganism – which doesn’t exist, because everyone contributes to animal suffering to some extent – means that one’s whole identity and sense of self-respect has gone down the drain (cue excessive guilt). 

Accepting Imperfections and Moving Past Mistakes

Following on from the last point, and re-emphasising an earlier point, veganism should not require an individual to become overly stressed, guilty, or harsh on themselves for the sake of maintaining a vegan lifestyle. If veganism has become a factor in emotional distress, this is not a problem inherent in veganism; it is a reflection of a psychological tendency that needs addressing. Guilt is useful to an extent. It helps us avoid making mistakes again in the future. But when it, or other negative emotions, becomes excessive, then we are only increasing our own suffering, which doesn’t help non-human animals in any way. 

Let’s say you didn’t check a food label for animal ingredients and just assumed it was vegan and had been eating that product for months. This is an invitation to be more aware and careful next time, not a reason to feel like you’re a ‘bad vegan’. And for those who want to be gatekeepers in the vegan community and say that vegans are only those who intentionally avoid consuming animal products, this would imply that there is plausible deniability involved in not checking labels or with restaurant staff for animal ingredients since you wouldn’t, technically, be knowingly consuming animal products. But this lack of awareness or care would certainly increase animal suffering more than someone who knowingly consumed a tiny amount of non-vegan sauce in their food just because they didn’t want to waste the meal (this wouldn’t create a demand for animal products whatsoever). So, as we can see, promoting one kind of perfectionist veganism may not actually be as morally righteous as some may think.

On the perceived issue of not being vegan anymore following a slip-up, I think it’s useful to use an analogy here. We wouldn’t say that someone isn’t a religious or ethical person just because they have committed a sin or unethical action – or many such actions – in their lifetime. One can still maintain a religious identity (e.g. being a Christian) or a moral identity (e.g. being a virtuous person) even if some actions are not aligned with, say, Christianity or moral virtues that one values. 

We can think of veganism in the same vein. We should commit ourselves to consistency, but non-vegan actions – which are hard to agree upon, in any case – do not suddenly strip someone of a vegan identity. What matters most is not losing sight of the philosophy and goal of veganism, which is to respect the interests of all sentient beings. And we do this effectively by showing compassion and encouragement to ourselves and others who hold this belief, rather than giving in to condemnation when mistakes are made. Vegans, like anyone else, are morally imperfect. Being able to accept and move past our mistakes, while still wanting to avoid making them again, is necessary for living a moral life that is healthy and personally fulfilling.

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