How the Health Argument Fails Animal Liberation

The vegan movement started in the 1940s as an effort of animal emancipation. 1 In 1979 the Vegan Society amended the vegan definition to include “…promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.” That caused a rift in the movement that we struggle with to this day. The health argument in particular has injected questionable science and practices. This continues to derail the movement and even hurt the people in it. Ginny Messina, The Vegan RD has been holding down the front line in the fight against the heath argument in particular. 2 She is well-armed to do so with her science-based nutrition expertise and passion for animal rights. In 2010 she laid it out on the table in her How the Health Argument Fails Veganism article. Several points were made as to how the popular health arguments were failing the vegan movement. I summarize here but please do read her article in full.

1) A restrictive health diet tends to get more restrictive.
2) The ethical argument is all-encompassing whereas the health argument is narrow and temporary
3) It is not foolproof and can disappoint people, turning them away.
4) It is not unique and can sway people away for more compelling claims.
5) It just isn’t true, there really isn’t any health argument for veganism.

Fast forward to 2017 and here we are again. A new movie touting the exaggerated health benefits of veganism is quickly going viral. Dismayed, Ginny vented first on Facebook. This time though, in a climate where science is under attack spawning a new movement to defend it, she received a ton of positive support. In years previous it was a lonely fight. She was inspired to follow up with a new article reaffirming once again that Science Matters – for Vegans and Everyone Else. Her latest book, Even Vegans Die, co-authored with Carol J. Adams and Patti Breitman is an amazing read. It deals with the realities of our bodies and what that means for the animal liberation movement. Required reading, seriously.

Now, in the spirit of Ginny’s 2010 article I would like to extend the scope. Knowing that there just isn’t a credible health argument for veganism, that opens up issues of justice we should seriously consider. The ramifications of this myth within our social justice movement, I feel, undermines us in the following ways:

1) It frames it as a personal choice. How often have we heard “I respect your choice to be vegan but please respect mine to not.” Being confronted with the ethical dilemma of animal rights is uncomfortable. There’s nothing more speciesism would like more than to avoid this cognitive dissonance and relegate the movement to a diet fad. We undermine veganism’s central tenet by evoking the personal choice framing. 3

2) It paints us as a strawperson. When these attached exaggerated health claims get debunked, it casts our movement in a negative light. Vegan detractors relish the opportunity to attack veganism through this conduit. Some science defenders have a more charitable view on veganism but are still compelled to critique heath claims which also offers up opportunity for vegan detractors. The two are hard to separate out in the public mind and in general people will remember the negative association. It’s important for vegans to be visibly proactive in our own critique so that detractors can’t exploit this weakness in our community.

3) It limits the work of our activists.  There is a rapidly growing sector of technologists, scientists, and activists working to create animal foods without the animal and disrupt animal agriculture. 4 Since then it has become substantially more real. Yes, we are going to replace animal products with the exact same (or better) things without having to steal another person’s life. This may not directly advocate against speciesism itself but it can lower the bar. As animal liberation activists it behooves us to benefit any doubt in the direction of progress. If there is any chance this may work and you have no significant evidence otherwise, please be an ally and don’t hinder possible progress. 5

4) It derails the struggle for the real victims. If you really believe that animal foods are toxic to humans as food then this would be an injustice. Because the struggles are overlapping you would be compelled to fight against animal foods whether they come from an animal or not. We know though, that animal foods are not inherently unhealthy towards those who consume them. It is though, for those who’s bodies were stolen. We should retain that focus. You have a decision to make here. If you believe the myth that food from animals are dangerous to humans you will find yourself fighting against fellow animal activist allies.

5) It’s anthropocentric. We know through science that all life is related. It’s a beautiful truth that inspires me to fight for our non-human cousins. Species is an artificial construct with no moral significance. Personhood of the gaps arguments that justify human supremacy get smaller and smaller as the body of science grows. 6 We happen to share the same animal condition but the differences are worthy of validation. But to say eating other animal bodies is unsuitable for our physiology, without qualifying which animals, is speciesist AND pseudoscientific. It also centers the focus, again, on human bodies and issues. 7

6) It is pseudoscientific and unjust. Truth is a tenet of justice. Science, we must admit, got society some pretty great advances. With a renewed focus on this tool of truth in a modern age of social justice we have the opportunity to make even much greater strides. Science is becoming a movement in response to a hostile environment. As a movement it is realizing it suffers from the same problems and baggage that many other group suffer in today’s society. It marginalizes a lot of groups and it’s time to clean house. As we decolonize science and diversify the participants we will see a broader range of perspectives. The impact on uncovering truths will increase multifold. Mahatma Gandhi championed the spirit of science with his “experiments with truth”. He even started a movement coined Satyagraha which roughly translates to “holding fast onto truth”. We need to know what is real to know how to make impactful change for justice. The truth should be upheld as a standard to be insisted upon in anything we do.

7) It is uncaring. Movements require a beloved community that supports its members. We have the responsibility and gift of a vegan ethic of care. 8 Shoddy science and conspiracy theories about vaccines, medicine, or nutrition are not conducive to that support. The information for our minds needs to be just as healthful as the food for our bodies. Junk information has real deleterious effects. Allowing it to spread to spare personal conflict can cause detriment to the community. The beloved community should have conflict resolution and reconciliation as part of its inherent commitment to nonviolence. We should be able to resolve these conflicts within our community in a constructive way. This would further strengthen our culture and immunizes against threats, literally and figuratively.

8) It burdens the community. A community shares a common set of values and beliefs. This should be obvious. The vegan community suffers when we come together under a set of practices rather than beliefs. The foundation of our movement is based upon animal emancipation. By tricking people into the community we undermine this foundation. Existing community members become burdened with the labor of an influx of people claiming an unwarranted stake in the community. Eventually the people who realized they were conned into it leave anyway probably never to return. That’s not fair for anybody. It dilutes the glue that binds us together as the community we so desperately need for a movement.

9) It’s Eurocentric and white. Veganism was conceived in a time and place by people who may not have foreseen or understood the implications of a justice movement they were helping to reignite. It is up to us to decenter the Eurocentric roots that limits the vision of our movement. It is not a mere matter of making the “ethical argument” the main thrust of advocacy. It’s a revisualization of this as a social justice movement in a modern day context. Advocates need the right framework. The one we have today was founded upon white male supremacy and that needs to be reformed for us to move on. A “health argument” is ludicrous when applied in a context of social justice.

10) It is cynical and disrespectful. When talking to people about the issue of injustice we should do so with love. Martin Luther King Jr referred to this as agape: an all-embracing universal love inherent for others. With that we should give them the benefit of the doubt rather than misdirecting them with any selfish ploys. Perhaps when they hear the ethical argument they’ll curse you and run away. Maybe a few weeks later they’ll reflect and change their mind. Or, maybe if you scare them into being vegan with health arguments you’ll win them on the spot. Maybe a few weeks later they’ll learn the truth and feel cheated and never again trust another vegan. Maybe they will believe the food as medicine myth and delay science-based medical treatment and die from an otherwise treatable condition. Maybes aside, it’s just the right thing to to empower the people we talk to with the truth.

Common arguments I’ve heard for the health argument:

  • I started as a health vegan and now I’m all about ethics.
    Anecdotes are great but they aren’t necessarily great evidence for determining the right course of action. Steve-O went vegan because drug binge-induced voices in his head influenced him to do so. 9 We wouldn’t recommend drugs as vegan advocacy though.
  • Most people don’t care about ethics but they do care about getting skinny/health so we should appeal to that. Eventually they will pick up the ethical argument.
    People tend to confirm their bias and finding more reasons to support their veganism could be a real effect. But that is a tenuous approach with a bunch of pitfalls. Evidence points toward going with the ethical argument. It may not always feel like a home run but it’s the most honest and direct approach.
  • Animal foods are toxins and we must warn people for the sake of their health. 
    To believe that is to go against the consensus of nutrition science. What usually follows is a conspiracy theory that BigAg is colluding with BigPharma to keep people sick to sell them medical treatments. While there are valid criticisms of big industry, this conspiracy theory is a bit off the deep end.

But I get it. I understand the urgency for which many animal liberation activists feel. I know the temptation to throw everything at the wall. I understand the cultural influences of the vegan movement. I’ve been plagued and victimized by the same myself. It is because I have been there and have the very same passion for justice that I write this. I’ve seen more than my fair share of vegans and animal justice advocates get sucked into the rabbit hole of junk information and ideas. It breaks my heart and I hope to spare others the same misfortune. If we continue forward in a more community-minded and constructive spirit of a justice movement 10, perhaps we can really do this thing. Fight on! ✊

–citations and asides–

  1. ‘An Address on Veganism’ (Donald Watson, 1947), contains phrases such as the following: ‘…the right approach to the problem of animal emancipation’ … ‘to be true emancipators of animals’ … ‘The vegan renounces the superstition that continued human existence depends upon the exploitation of these creatures,’ and ‘ The time has come for us boldly to renounce the idea that we have the right to exploit animals.‘” Leslie Cross. “In Search of Veganism” The Vegan Autumn 1949
  2. Messina is so committed to nutrition and justice that she resigned from PCRM’s advisory board over some controversial body shaming. I wrote about this in my 2012 blog post IntegRD.
  3. This pertains to the “environmental” argument as well.
  4.  I wrote about this tongue-in-cheek in my post: Real Vegan Food in 2014
  5. Examples include:

    •Real Vegan Cheese is creating milk proteins like casein from scratch without animal bodies. They would use this to create cheese identical to animal cheese without using animals. Dr. T. Colin Campbell of The China Study calls casein a carcinogen. Cheese is a huge comfort food that people hate giving up. We have an opportunity to have our animal and eat cheese too.

    •The vegan Impossible Burger of Impossible Foods utilizes heme iron to replicate an animal burger. Plant-based doctors like Dr.Michelle McMacken are calling this heme a toxin. “When you eat foods like beef or steak or a processed meat, a hot dog, you are not just getting saturated fat. You’re also getting other additional toxins that are in that food, there’s heme iron, carcinogen, processing chemicals…“, from “What the Health” movie. It really isn’t to any degree people should be worried about eating it. Animal flesh burgers otherwise are 100% unhealthy for the animal it came from.

  6. It’s not just a matter of species though. Oppression of people outside our species, and BTW, within our very own is justified under this term “animal”. The “we are all animals” ignores the problematic history of how that word has been used to justify human supremacy.
  7. How many times have I heard “But humans are animals too?” in response to defending anthropocentrism.
  8. a wonderful concept written about in Even Vegans Die “The vegan ethic of care, which derives from feminist theory and is built around inclusive activism, acceptance of grief and acceptance of our dependency on others (including animals)”
  9. Q&A: Steve-O Talks ‘Jackass,’ Veganism and Quitting Drugs, Rolling Stone interview:
    Switching gears a bit, what made you want to become a vegan?
    It started back before I got sober. I was doing so many drugs that I literally started hearing voices. I considered the voices my spirit friend, and they were telling me to kill myself. Some of them were nasty characters, but other ones told me they were worried about me and this and that.One of them told me I was going to have to answer for shit. One time I did something particularly nasty. I tried to really hurt someone’s feelings with a text message. I heard a voice in my right ear say, “You’re going to have to answer for that.” Later I came across a YouTube video where this Krishna consciousness guy in India was talking about how it’s difficult for Westerners to be saved because there’s such little respect for life on the planet. This guy said, “How can you expect to be saved if you eat meat?” I put that together with the voices I was hearing and I became afraid of having some kind of spiritual punishment”
  10. Historically I myself have not been a good example of this FWIW but I can strive to do better.

9 comments to How the Health Argument Fails Animal Liberation

  • Harris

    Aaaack! Overjoyed to see this ! Cant wait for a chunk of spare time to read. You are appreciated in sc. Harris

  • Rhys S

    Do you agree with the common interpretation of Kantianism that you should never lie, even when this requires telling the truth to a murderer?

    Arguably one of the major problems with the health argument lie is that it’s a lie that the vegans making that argument have fallen for themselves. Vegans who are self-aware of the health argument being a lie might be able use it more sparingly and more tactically. It seems correct to say that the health argument often backfires. But I doubt it always backfires, and it might be possible to discern in advance (in some cases) when it is more or less likely to backfire.

    The approach you’re advocating here rules out the possibility of vegans manipulating the public through sophisticated use of fake news. Some people think fake news helped throw the election for Donald Trump. If fake news could help reduce animal suffering, this might be something vegans will want to take advantage of. (Again there is the risk of that backfiring, but also again, there might be cases in which fake news would seem more likely to be effective than to backfire.)

    To some people, the ethical case for veganism is obvious – it’s right almost instinctively. And yet, amongst those who do think there is something wrong with any form of animal farming, there is very little agreement on what the specific ethical case against animal farming is. And no ethical approach that a vegan advocate might settle on is free from problems.

    “If there is ANY doubt we may be wrong we must prioritize the information we are absolutely sure is not wrong: animals deserve their lives.” What does it mean to say that animals deserve their lives? Does this mean they have a right to life? Does this right to or deservingness of life include wild and liminal animals as well? Does it only confer a protection from intentional killing for the sake of exploitation? Or does it confer a protection against unintentional but foreseen killing, and killing that is not for the sake of exploitation but is for other human or non-human animal ends?

    Jeff McMahan is a vegetarian philosopher who has previously written against “humane animal farming,” and seemingly was absolutely sure there could be no good argument for meat eating. Even now he says he does not want meat eating to be right, and yet he’s started to wonder if there might be a case for eating animals who are given good lives before being killed. (I included a link to McMahan’s talk in my original attempt to post this comment, but the comment didn’t post. Search for “Might We Benefit Animals by Eating Them?” and you’ll find it.)

    What makes you absolutely sure about the ethical arguments for veganism?

    • Hello Rhys my friend!

      Few know the ins and outs of veganism more than you with your blog at Let Them Eat Meat.You know I’m grateful for the work you do there that keeps veganism accountable and intellectually honest. I’m afraid my answers will not be very satisfying but I can try maybe for old times sake. 🙂

      By paragraph:

      1) I would lie to save a person’s life, yes. In general would not lie at all. Veganism doesn’t save lives IMHO.

      2) Vegans who believe the pseudoscience myths are victims. The community needs to do better by them and fix the culture that allows this injustice to fester and infect. I totally understand how there could be a Kantian way of justifying lies when lives are on the line. Some vegans believe veganism IS the thing you do and that it directly saves lives. I do not subscribe to this opinion so I do not feel the urgency to lie to save a life. Tactically I believe a bigger movement needs to inspired, not individual opt-outs, votes with dollars, or other such distractions that’s been plaguing veganism.

      3) Fake news is manipulative and unethical. I can’t see a place for that in constructing a lasting movement.

      4) You can’t approach a kale sandwich without some kinda problem. My ethics probably stem from a house blend that suits my tastes. Not sure about others. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      5) I mean that animals deserve bodily autonomy the same as we (try) to champion it for our own species. As we are entangled we should strive to look after each other I think. Messina’s book mentions the “vegan ethic of care” that was inspiring. It may include some ideas of care that seem right now insurmountable or absurd but it’s important enough to consider. The animal rights community is talking about how to care for animals once they are recognized and liberated. Great questions with answers that are being worked on by people above my pay grade.

      6) I watched McMahan’s talk today, thanks. I don’t think we have an obligation to create existence for others. I don’t think raising an animal with a life suited for their interests and stealing that away for our own selfish reasons is justifiable. Raising headless bodies or a clone of myself for spare parts later may be a fun thought experiment but I’d still probably skip that on my Netflix queue.

      7) We know, scientifically, that we are organisms like any other. That all life on Earth is related and all life shares the same genetic language. There’s no reason to think that our particular location on the phylogenetic tree makes us exceptional particularly to the detriment of the others. The interests of each leaf may be unique but are still worthy of consideration. What these interests are, exist on a spectrum of human ignorance and imagination. But on the end of that spectrum where we are less ignorant, and can better imagine, lie the interests of the genomes more closely related to us.

      Hope that helps. Dang, it wiped me out! Thanks for your visit, nice seeing your name pop up. I’ll have to catch back up on your blog. Hope you are well.

  • Belinda

    Thank you for this. This is excellent and I hope it gets shared and read and understood.

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