Swayze Foster presents the popular ‘Unnatural Vegan’ YouTube channel where her goal is to provide ‘a well rounded intellectually honest view of veganism’. I was excited to chat with another vegan who values reason and evidence. I hoped to gain some insight into what she does, and ask her about her perspective on the wider vegan community.
Thanks Swayze for taking the time to answer my questions and, more importantly, thank you for the work you do promoting rationality to vegans.
One of the first videos I watched of yours is the one entitled ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong’* it caught my eye because it is so unusual to see someone in any area (let alone youtube) acknowledging a mistake and attempting to learn from it. I was touched by your humility and impressed by your obvious commitment to critical thinking.
I was not always vegan, and certainly not always the rigorous thinker I try to be today, so I’m curious to find out how you became both vegan and a critical thinker?
Thank you, Rebecca!
I started eating a vegan diet in 2006 because I wanted to eat healthier and lose weight. I knew fruits and vegetables were healthy so I searched for “fruit and vegetable diet book” on Amazon. Joel Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live* popped up so I bought it. About halfway through reading, I realized that he was essentially advocating for a vegan diet (or at least a plant-heavy one). I found his words and references very convincing so I began eating plant-based and eventually vegan.
It was years later that I really looked into the ethical side of veganism. My mom was vegetarian so I bought her the book Eating Animals* by Jonathan Safran Foer. She went vegan overnight. That really intrigued me so I began looking into factory farming conditions and whatnot. I rather quickly became vegan “for the animals” in addition to health.
I would like to say I’ve always been a critical thinker in all cases. That’s not really true, as evidenced by my “I’m sorry” video and the fact that I was once a staunch 100% raw vegan.
That said, I was raised without religion, which I think has made a difference in many areas of my life. I was never told what to think or to “just have faith.” At a very young age, God and the Easter Bunny were one in the same to me, i.e. nothing more than fun (horrifying?) fairy tales.
You have a background in philosophy and bring that expertise to discussion of vegan ethics. You’ve described your primary motivation for being vegan as a way to ‘reduce suffering’ – to my untrained eye that seems like a utilitarian approach to ethics.
Would you describe yourself as a utilitarian?* or is it, as I often find in the case of philosophy, a bit more complicated than that?
Yes, I would. I guess I’m just a dirty utilitarian welfarist.
In all seriousness, I believe consequences and context matter, not rules or concepts that mean nothing to creatures that do not have the intellectual capacity to understand them.
For instance, Gary Francione and other vegans would say that animal exploitation is wrong, regardless of the consequences. I would argue that exploitation only matters when it causes harm, in which case it is really the harm that matters.
An elephant cannot comprehend being used for our entertainment, but it may not appreciate the inability to roam.
Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer is entirely motivated by a desire to reduce suffering. This leads him to see no moral problem with ending the life of an animal if it could be achieved without that animal suffering, which he acknowledges is currently impossible*.
Do you see an inherent ‘harm’ in killing or do you subscribe to the position that suffering is the only morally relevant harm?
I agree with Singer. While I personally would not consume animals even if no suffering could be guaranteed, I would have no qualms with others choosing to do so.
As you said, this cannot be guaranteed, at least not at this time. This is why I promote eliminating or at least reducing animal consumption. As difficult as it may seem, it really is the best option in terms of reducing animal suffering. Buying chicken breasts with “humanely raised” on the label just does not cut it.
Speciesism* is a term that has become a focus for animal rights activists in the last few years. It describes the valuing of humans lives and experiences over all other animals and is seen by many as the ‘root’ of all animal exploitation.
I admit to valuing human life over animal life so I suppose I, like you, could describe myself as a ‘speciesist vegan’. Despite this I think that discussion of speciesism is useful to illustrate the dramatic disparity in our evaluations of human and animal life.
In your video ‘Why I am a Speciesist Vegan (and you can too!)’* you critique the concept but I am unsure if you think we should dismiss discussions of speciesm entirely or are advocating for a more nuanced perspective?
This is an excellent point and something I wish I had touched on in the video. I see a lot of value in discussing speciesism when comparing non-human species to one another. For example, pointing out that dogs and pigs really aren’t so different. It’s hypocritical to be outraged at some Koreans for eating dogs while at the same time seeing no problem with most Americans consuming pigs.
This is why I like videos like the one showing the chicken walking into the little boy’s arms* to be hugged or the numerous pet pig ones that demonstrate just how emotional and sensitive they are. Many people are just ignorant and these videos help to educate in a feel-good way. I suspect that emotional appeals like these are ultimately positive.
I am impressed with your commitment to honestly presenting rational arguments for and about veganism and I feel similarly about the importance of respecting and following evidence. For me this is part of a broader conviction that rational skepticism and integrity are vital in any attempt to change the world for the better.
That said, I have faced challenges from other vegan advocates who, relying on sound sociological studies, suggest that appealing to people’s emotions or interest in their own health or any number of other concerns are more effective advocacy strategies than rational arguments.
If we accept their claim that honesty is sometimes not the best policy, we have to weigh our commitment to truth against our commitment to reducing suffering. How do you negotiate this potential conflict of ideals?
This is something I’m constantly wrestling with. I think ultimately, I’m okay with emotional appeals as long as they are not dishonest. For instance, sharing the boy hugging the chicken video with #govegan on Facebook or whatever. While this doesn’t even come close to explaining veganism or why someone should go vegan, it may get the conversation started.
But I don’t see how lying (e.g. exaggerating the health claims of vegan diets) could possibly be beneficial in the long-run. The number of people I’ve seen turn to veganism because they were told they WOULD lose weight, only to give it up because they did not is a no-win situation; it’s bad for people and it’s bad for the animals.
I agree, and I think the evidence supports the idea that people who adopt a plant based diet to attain exaggerated or fabricated health benefits often give up their diet when the benefits fail to materialise*.
However, your own story runs contrary to this narrative and makes me think of the research that suggests behaviour change can lead to attitude change* That is, if someone adopts a plant based diet for health reasons it becomes easier for them to consider the interests of animals since they are no longer actively participating in their abuse.
If a preponderance of evidence indicated that misrepresenting veganisms health benefits would make more people go vegan and stay vegan than a rational argument and therefore reduce more suffering, would your desire to reduce suffering outweigh your commitment to honesty?
I did initially go vegan for health reasons, but what convinced me was evidence pointing to more plants and less animal products. I wasn’t convinced by dishonesty or fear-mongering. In fact, I had no interest in veganism prior to reading Eat to Live. And I had no idea the book even advocated for a vegan diet, much less a plant-based one, when I bought it.
But with regard to your question, I would support lying to non-vegans if it were the most effective way to reduce suffering, assuming the lies did not harm said non-vegans. This “feels” very wrong to me, but I believe it is the only rational conclusion. If consequences are what really matter, then reducing suffering is what really matters. So dishonesty would be the best policy.
Luckily, the evidence doesn’t support this tactic. Even if bringing non-vegans into the fold for health rather than ethical reasons is more effective, I believe it can be done sans lying. Vegan diets aren’t perfect by any means, but when done correctly, they offer a lot of potential health benefits and are certainly much better than your standard Western diet.
There is a tendency to see emotion and reason as polar opposites – it’s sometimes referred to (at least by the kind of people I hang out with) as the Kirk/Spock dichotomy. But not all rationalists are as coldly logical as Mr. Spock and most of us acknowledge that emotions are an essential part of who we are and how we think.
Do you see your vegan advocacy as an entirely rational pursuit or is your work at least in part informed by your emotions?
I find myself becoming more emotional, honesty, and learning about factory farming is a good example of this. In the past, watching Earthlings* never affected me. I just didn’t view pigs or cows the same way I did cats and dogs. Today, knowing what I know about these animals, I can’t watch much of factory farming footage without tearing up. It’s really quite embarrassing.
But everyone is different. Many people come to veganism through appeals to emotion. Just look at the comments on some of my videos. Some really like my more analytical approach, while others find it negative and uninspiring.
There seems to be a marked distrust of science in the vegan community which has resulted in a proliferation of pseudo scientific misinformation. Do you think that this sort of ‘woo’ is more prevalent in vegan spaces than elsewhere and if so do you have any thoughts on why?
It certainly seems to be prevalent, but it could just be a vocal minority. And I don’t think it is more prevalent in the vegan movement than others. Just look at the paleo and Food Babe communities. Not vegan, but way too much woo.
But there’s no doubt that vegans promoting anti-science is a problem and one that seems to be having an impact outside of the vegan world. It seems many non-vegans equate veganism with anti-science and I have to say, I find it difficult to blame them.
Why do at least some vegans attach themselves to pseudo scientific rhetoric? I think it has to do with control. If we get cancer, we know the cause (diet) and we can do something about it (fast or take some combination of herbs). We don’t need doctors or expensive treatments. We can fix it ourselves. My friends on Facebook said so!
The voices of reasonable vegans seem to be getting louder and I hope we have the potential to influence the vegan movement as a whole. What are the most important areas that rational vegans should focus on, and do you have any suggestions for how we can address veganism’s image problem to create a stronger more coherent movement?
I think aligning ourselves with science is very important, especially when it comes to genetic modification*, vaccines* and medicine in general. It can be kind of scary to do this given the cult-like mentality of anti-gmo/vaccine movements (just look at the comments on my pro-gmo and vaccine videos), but it’s important for two reasons.
First, I think a lot of vegans are really on-the-fence about such issues. They’re actually ignorant on the topics, but they align themselves with anti-science notions because that’s what other vegans do. Making our voices heard will at least show them another side to the story.
Second, it sends a message to non-vegans that not all vegans are anti-science. That seems like it would be obvious to any rational thinker, vegan or not, but I’ve seen some really intelligent people throw all vegans under the bus because they equate veganism with anti-science. Let’s show them that veganism is a rational position, no different from supporting gm tech or vaccines.
Also, I think being honest about vegan diets is crucial. Too many vegan promoters equate veganism with weight loss and “perfect” health (e.g. if you go vegan, you’ll lose weight or if you go vegan, you’ll never get cancer).* On the flip side, too many vegans demonize eating animal products to an irrational degree and cherry-pick data to support their cause (e.g. you can’t be healthy and consume animal products or meat causes cancer).
Vegan diets can be very healthy and are almost always better than what the average American consumes, but they are by no means perfect. They’re also merely a tool for reducing suffering, not an end in themselves.
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