Exploding the myth of the Moral Underclass

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Exploding the myth of the Moral Underclass

In my previous article for RVGN, I spoke of how there are many people throughout the world who are unable to immediately convert to vegan living. Such people include those living in; mental health facilities, prisons, food deserts*, and extreme climates where few edible plants grow. I have also, there as in nearly all of my works, expounded upon the importance of veganism in living a morally rich and coherent life.

So, if some people are unable to adhere to vegan living and veganism is morally superior to non-veganism, do those people inherently form a moral underclass? Are all those who live vegan ethically superior to all those who do not live vegan?

Before I address this question, allow me to unpack some of these terms. You may have noticed that I have spoken so far of individuals who cannot adhere to vegan living. I have not spoken of anyone who cannot adhere to veganism, because in my mind, no such person exists— or, at least, among those who can adhere to any moral philosophy. Anyone capable of comprehending a philosophical argument can adhere to veganism because veganism is first and foremost a philosophy. The philosophy of veganism rests on the pillars of respect and compassion for all sentient beings. The caveat here is that nonhuman animals are valuable in their own right, and not just in relation to how they can serve humans or make human lives easier.

Many vegans extend this belief to a position of anti-speciesism* , whereby they truly believe that a nonhuman animal’s life is equally valuable to that of a human. Most vegans, myself included, reject the concept of human supremacy from which we believe animal agriculture, circuses, zoos and other forms of oppression stem.

Vegan living is the lifestyle that typically results from long-term adherence to the vegan philosophy, which I’ve also referred to in past writings as the vegan ethos. While it could be argued that Donald Watson’s* definition of veganism in 1944 supports the definition of veganism as a lifestyle:

Veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

Upon further reading, one discovers that this ‘way of living’ was philosophically informed. He writes within that same newsletter*

We can see quite plainly that our present civilization is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilizations were built on the exploitation of slaves, and we believe the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals’ bodies.

I should note here that there are some people who identify as vegans and yet do NOT renounce speciesism altogether. Rather, these individuals adhere to vegan living in order to be compassionate and minimize suffering— without necessarily valuing human and nonhuman lives equally*

With this in mind, one can deduce that while people may disagree within vegan communities as to whether or not animals are equal to humans, the bottom line is that everyone agrees nonhuman animals should not be subjected to unnecessary suffering at the hands of humans .

Veganism in its truest sense* is synonymous with vegan philosophy or the vegan ethos. The need to append these other terms results from the common conflation of veganism with plant-based dieting, a dietary practice that may result from any of myriad factors, not all of which are philosophical* Due to this detrimental conflation, individuals who disregard the plight of humans while abstaining from nonhuman-derived products*, as well as those who abstain from eating animals while continuing to wear them or otherwise contribute to their exploitation, are often identified as vegans*.

Believing in the value of veganism, and the need for all humans to ultimately adopt it, does not create a moral underclass. Choices can only be judged on a moral continuum when people have made them freely* People of any class, in any climate, are capable of believing in respect and compassion for all sentient beings but the ability to which they can practice their beliefs may vary. This is one of the greatest challenges the Animal Liberation Movement faces today. Many in the movement are so concerned with spreading the message, that we often fail to consider the practical concerns regarding how people can live in keeping with their vegan values once they have adopted them*.

Personally I have a weird relationship with food deserts. I technically lived in one for a while after college, but I was privileged enough to get fresh produce anyway. I was living in Washington Heights a borough of northern Manhattan New York** and while there was at least one, maybe two grocery stores within walking distance of my place—which some may say is not really a food desert situation at all—they rarely had produce of any kind, and whenever they did have it, it was rotten, covered in flies and/or mold. There were more liquor stores and fast-food joints in my neighborhood than there were grocery stores. So, what did I do? I used my time privilege to travel for at least an hour, using my financial privilege to buy a Metrocard, to buy what I needed in more affluent neighbourhoods. Sometimes I even ventured further to get special treats like vegan ice cream.

I grumbled at the inconvenience of this to myself a couple of times before I figuratively slapped myself awake. How dare I?! At least I had money with which to take the subway once a week for groceries. At least I didn’t work 12-hour days, so I had time to travel for food while the grocery stores were still open. At least I only had to worry about getting enough produce for myself, not myself and a partner and several children and an elderly parent, as is the case for many residents of Washington Heights. At least I didn’t have to worry about whether or not a particular grocery store accepted food stamps.

Now, suppose my vegan self had been less privileged. Suppose I had been working that many hours every day. Suppose I didn’t have the time or the money to stop somewhere on my subway ride home (assuming I was still well-off enough to take the subway in the first place.) Suppose the only thing open near me by the time I got home was a fast-food joint, and the closest thing to vegan that they had to offer were French fries which may or may not have been cooked in the same oil as chicken or a burger? If I eat said fries, am I no longer vegan? Am I part of some moral underclass?

Of course not. I am, rather, a victim of food distribution and city planning processes that prioritize the installation of fresh and affordable produce-selling markets in affluent, mostly-white neighborhoods while communities of color are disproportionately lacking these amenities*. In fact, studies show that in America, wealthy districts have three times as many grocery stores as poor ones do*, while grocery stores in predominantly African-American neighborhoods are smaller and have less selection* This not only highlights the inevitable relationship between nonhuman animal liberation and human liberation but also should emphasize the difference between plant-based dieting and veganism. My theoretical, less-privileged vegan self still cares about animals. I still want to work towards creating a world in which they are not exploited. Yet, because the world hasn’t caught up to my personal beliefs yet, and because I can’t afford to pay rent in a non-food-desert neighborhood, I must occasionally violate my principles to feed myself.

Herein also lies an important distinction between a ‘true vegan’ and people who are often misidentified as ‘vegan recidivists’ or ‘former vegans.’ I say mislabeled because such persons, in my view, were never vegan to begin with; they were in all likelihood simply plant-based dieters* A plant-based dieter may ‘cheat’ one day, as with any diet, and then decide, ‘Ah, what the hell, might as well just go back to normal.’* My conviction is that a philosophical vegan will recommit to living vegan even after a lapse. It was never their veganism that lapsed— only their ability to fulfill vegan living.

Once you decide to have respect and compassion for all sentient beings, it’s kind of hard to un-decide that, isn’t it?

What is needed, then, is an unwavering commitment within the vegan community to making veganism more accessible, while maintaining a position of non-judgment against vegans who are currently unable to sustain vegan living. I think one reason some people shy away from talking about ‘accessibility’ to the vegan lifestyle is that it is commonly used as an insincere excuse amongst meat- and dairy-consumers who ultimately just don’t want to give up the food they’ve come to love. ‘Oh, I wish I could go vegan,’ they say, ‘But my kids… (as though a child’s cravings for sugar and grease, induced by a combination of media efforts and unsophisticated palates, should serve as ethical guidelines) or ‘But my partner… (as though anyone should stay in a relationship which will deteriorate when one partner adopts a new ethical philosophy and subsequently changing their lifestyle to match), or ‘But my job… (as though bringing food to work or simply refusing office snacks are both out of the question), etc. Even among those who are definitely privileged enough to eat consistently plant-based food if they so chose, a common excuse is, ‘I wish I could go vegan, but I can’t afford it!* (in a neighborhood where bananas cost 50 cents each and a pound of pasta costs a dollar).

Despite the many people who use accessibility or finances as an insincere excuse not to undergo a serious life change at the moment, there are some person who genuinely inhibited by these concerns. Rather than designating such individuals as a moral underclass, we need to empower them with our social and political capital. We need to draw attention to areas of scarcity and support initiatives aimed to alleviate such conditions.

With respect to ‘vegan living,’ there are also ways in which those who believe themselves to be engaged in this process actually aren’t—and here the divide between veganism and plant-based dieting becomes more poignant. Many plant-based foods, such as chocolate, coffee and even tomatoes, are produced via human rights abuses. To a plant-based dieter, this means nothing*. To a philosophical vegan, this means everything. We must consider underprivileged humans not simply as parties to be ‘converted’ to the cause but also parties whom we must consistently protect, in keeping with the philosophical tradition we have adopted.

The good news is, though, while some people can’t convert to vegan living right away, veganism itself is open to everyone. It is absolutely inclusive. You don’t need to be a certain race, have a certain income or have an exceptionally high IQ to go vegan. You need only open your eyes—and your heart.

Saryta Rodriguez is a writer, editor, animal liberationist and social justice advocate. Her first book, Until Every Animal is Free, is published by Vegan Publishers. She is is the Founding Editor of her manuscript-editing and submission-consulting firm, Brave New Publishing. Saryta is a renowned baker who values empathy, honesty, and above all, warm weather.

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