An inside look into the moral dilemmas of veganism
I know I shouldn’t turn to Wikipedia when researching, but something I read on Wikipedia really made sense. Wikipedia says that guilt occurs when someone believes that they are in violation of their own moral standards, and damn, if that doesn’t capture my experience as a vegan, I don’t know what does.
I jumped into veganism. A few Philosophy 104 lectures on animal cruelty was all it took for me to rethink my responsibility for animal welfare. It was convenient to switch. The Uni hall I was staying at already made vegan meals, and if I’m being honest, it was an escape to the notoriously terrible meat FlameTree serves. I didn’t have to give it much thought. Going vegan was an individualistic decision: it didn’t impact anyone but me.
When I moved back in with my parents this year, it was a struggle. While my brother would joke about vegan extremists (like the vegan teacher) and my mom would nag me about getting all my nutrients, they were incredibly supportive, so long as I sorted my own meals out.
Unfortunately, I didn’t think things through, like what to say when I met my extended family next. I come from a very collectivist Indian family. To someone not very familiar with Indian families, it can be difficult to imagine how they could possibly have any influence on your lifestyle choices. For Indians, however, we grow up learning the phrase “what will people think?” Our culture involves thinking about others before ourselves. Ask your Indian friends whether they can leave their family Whatsapp group even if they get spammed with videos.
I was suddenly thrown into the deep end. I always felt guilty. What would I say when someone cooked non-vegan food for me? Indian families invite many people and cook many dishes.
Catering to a specific diet can be incredibly headache-inducing. Should I put others through that process? If I compromise, did that make me a fake vegan? Would it not go against everything I stood for? It became a hard reality, one that an 18-year-old vegan was not prepared to face by herself.
And then, the worst thing happened. I got sick. I knew I was much more tired, but I convinced myself that being tired was nothing compared to an animal dying. I upped my iron and planned my meals. Things got worse. My doctors convinced me to eat some red meat and an egg a day. How could I? It was impossible to pick what was more important: was my health superior to the death of animals? I decided to seek the advice of the vegan community to understand what other vegans do.
One of the first questions I asked was how they would navigate a situation where someone cooked for them without knowing their dietary requirements.
Edward, who eats a mix of vegan and vegetarian, claims that he would avoid meat dishes when possible. He claims that he would attempt to give the food to someone else. If that isn’t possible, he would inform the host to not do it again but would rather eat it instead of wasting it.
Sofi, who has been vegan for seven months, says that she will try her best to avoid it at all costs. For her, it’s a choice between eating a dead animal and a little embarrassment—the embarrassment is the clear answer.
Harry, her boyfriend, who has been vegan for about two and ½ years, says that he can’t imagine making exceptions. He believes that you can still be polite and explain. According to him, most people would understand.
Sam, a vegan for four years, says he used to make exceptions when eating at people’s houses. He claims, however, that now that his family and friends have become more aware, it hasn’t been an issue.
But none of these answers truly resonated with me. I come from a country where poverty is in your face. It would be more wrong to indicate to the host that I cannot eat their food. So maybe, it was not a question of what to do once the food was prepared but instead how to avoid the situation from arising.
Harry claims, “It’s more likely to come up if you’re not confident about being vegan, so if you’re a bit shy about it.” According to him, being open and letting people know beforehand is key.
This sounded like something I could agree with. Another thing about Indians is that we are so religiously diverse. We often have Muslim and Hindu friends over who can’t eat pork or beef or are vegetarian. Maybe my mum did have trouble thinking about what to cook, but she never complained.
But what if someone had a health issue that prevented them from going vegan? There are so many people who want to be vegan but worry about getting all their nutritions. I wanted to understand if it could be done.
According to Harry, when converting to veganism, many people don’t plan it well—simply removing animal products from their existing diets. Therefore, “It’s a diet that’s really centred around deprivation,” he claims. Therefore, he recommends that if you get the right medical help, overcoming issues will not be impossible.
Sofi agreed with him, saying that she goes to a dietician. She pointed out that doctors can’t guarantee the problems are linked to veganism. That when her blood test results indicated deficiencies, it was because she started eating 90% less than usual.
Edward and Sam agreed that you should always follow medical advice given—there are other ways to reduce environmental harm without following a strict vegan diet. After all, the definition of veganism states it is done “as far as it is possible and practical,” Sam exclaimed.
Finally, I asked what they thought of making exceptions to a fully vegan lifestyle.
Edward says that he eats cheese but doesn’t directly buy milk or eggs. Sofi, Harry and Sam claim that they still consume wool and honey. They also mentioned that they hadn’t thrown away leather products that they purchased before they decided to be vegan.
According to Sofi, ethical vegans, who are mainly concerned about animal cruelty, will always have exceptions, if the animal is looked after.
Sofi and Harry told me that while meat is a hard no, they do make exceptions for free-range eggs only when they have seen for themselves the farm and conditions of their lifestyle. In saying that, they didn’t believe that “flexitarian” or “part-time vegan” should be labelled. Sofi argues that while it was better than nothing, “They still are supporting all the unethical things.”
Sam disagreed, saying, “If people are enjoying eating less meat, I’m all for it. Just the normalisation of a less meat and dairy focused way of living is always beneficial, in my opinion.”
I started writing this article with the intention to help vegans navigate the moral dilemmas they face. But, after interviewing people, I realised something mind-blowing. Vegans weren’t some mythical ethical beings with the answers to the universe. There was no one right answer for everyone.
All the vegans I interviewed had completely different answers. Some people will never be able to compromise their diet. For others, it would be far more uncomfortable to reject hospitality. So, in that case, maybe Wikipedia’s definition has some deeper meaning. We can never make everyone happy, so perhaps the best way to avoid the guilt is to accept that guilt stems from believing we are in violation of our own moral standards.
So, if I can give any advice at all, it’s to figure out what you think is morally correct and listen to that. I am a vegan who eats red meat twice a week. I don’t consume milk or eggs. I don’t wear leather. You have every right to disagree with me and call me out for not being a real vegan. But I’ve never felt better. I’ve never been healthier. My lifestyle has made my carnivorous brother choose vegan patties over steak. My parents have been eating vegan meals when I cook them. I’m writing this article. These are things that wouldn’t have even happened if I wasn’t vegan. So despite what people say, I’ll keep listening to my own moral compass. After all, the voice that won’t shut up in my head is my own.