Sunday, September 15, 2013

Moral Purity?

A big thing that vegans and animal rights people always seem to be talking about is moral purity (also known as "personal purity"). In this case, it refers to the question of how meticulous you should be when making sure that the products (food, clothing, toiletries, etc.) you buy are completely vegan. For example, sometimes sugar is refined using animal bone char, which isn't listed on the ingredients list because it's not an actual ingredient-- it's just something that's been used in the process of producing the sugar, even though it isn't actually in the finished product. Another example is when you buy foods with extra-long ingredient names on the label, and you don't know if those trace ingredients are vegan. The question is, how far do you go? Is it realistic to be "morally pure"?
Different people and organizations have different opinions of this. Here are the opinions of some of them.

On the "Don't worry about it" side:
PETA has made the following statement regarding trace ingredients in otherwise vegan foods:
"Some packaged foods have a long list of ingredients. The farther an ingredient is down the list, the less of that ingredient is in the food. People who have made the compassionate decision to stop eating animal flesh, eggs, and dairy products may wonder if they need to read every ingredient to check for tiny amounts of obscure animal products. Our general advice is not to worry too much about doing this. The goal of sticking to a vegetarian or vegan diet is to help animals and reduce suffering; this is done by choosing a bean burrito or a veggie burger over chicken flesh, or choosing tofu scramble over eggs, not by refusing to eat an otherwise vegan food because it has 0.001 grams of monoglycerides that may possibly be animal-derived.
We discourage vegetarians from grilling waiters at restaurants about micro-ingredients in vegetarian foods (e.g., a tiny bit of a dairy product in the bun of a veggie burger). Doing so makes sticking to a vegetarian diet seem difficult and dogmatic to your friends and to restaurant staff, thus discouraging them from giving a vegetarian diet a try (which really hurts animals). And we urge vegetarians not to insist that their food be cooked on equipment separate from that used to cook meat; doing so doesn’t help any additional animals, and it only makes restaurants less inclined to offer vegetarian choices (which, again, hurts animals)."
In fact, PETA's "Accidentally Vegan" list of processed foods isn't actually 100% vegan. PETA does point this out at the bottom of the page, and they provide a link to the above quote to explain why.

Vegan Outreach, another organization, says that personal purity is impossible, since many everyday objects contain animal products:
"When you first discover the reality of modern ani-
mal agriculture, you might feel compelled to try
to root out every single product associated with
animal suffering. Unfortunately, personal purity is impossible.
All around us are items connected in some
way to animal exploitation: organic foods (animal
manure used as fertilizer), cotton (animal products
in the bleaching process), bicycles (animal fat used
in the vulcanization of tires), books (hooves and
bones in binding glue), roads and buildings (animal
products used in curing concrete), water (tested
with animal products, often filtered through bone
char), etc. Even many vegan foods result in killing
some animals during planting and harvesting.
We believe that framing veganism as the avoid-
ance of a specific list of “bad” ingredients is not
the best way to achieve results. When looked at
closely, any ingredients-based definition of vegan
collapses into inconsistencies. This is why we
stress that
the essence of being vegan is working
to end cruelty to animals."
They go on to say that "our time and energy are most likely better spent focused on spreading vegetarianism than on shunning minor ingredients." In one of their booklets, "Compassionate Choices", they even go so far as to advise, "Years of eating less meat and eggs will prevent more suffering than a brief stint on a vegan diet, so it’s more important to take an approach you can sustain. If you make exceptions, such as eating meat on certain occasions, you’ll still make a big difference by eating vegetarian the rest of the time." (Note: I don't agree with this latter statement!)

On the "You should be true to your values" side:
A blog post by Reverence Lily on Vegan FAQs ( tells another story. She points out that a product is vegan if it contains NO animal products. If it does contain animal products, it's not vegan. Commenting about PETA's note at the bottom of its "Accidentally Vegan" page, she says that:
"PETA (regardless of their other sins/accomplishments) is trying to make vegans into non-vegans. [...] the second part of that second sentence. "Personal purity." Ouch. So my wanting to eschew all animal products is about "personal purity"? Okay, I'll give you some of that - it can make and has made me feel extremely guilty to accidentally eat an animal product [...], and I don't like to do it at all. But accusations of not caring about animals and just being squeamish to actual vegans? With friends like these, who needs enemies? [...]
Y'see, the reason I'm vegan is not just because of "personal purity". It's not just because I don't want to be a part of the commodification and suffering - it's because I want the commodification and suffering to stop. It's because I know that, even though I'm just one person, many vegans would be a force to deal with. You know. "Together, we are strong." Call it following the herd, I don't care - I'm pushing the inevitable revolution rather than resisting it. And I wouldn't want it any other way.
So save your money, and go buy a can of chickpeas and make hummus rather than serve us (processed) non-vegan crap - which, if we're knowledgeable, we'll end up turning down, and make you feel bad. Veganism is easy! - it's just that there's a lot of people spreading misinformation about how not everything has to be vegan to, um, be vegan. "
I feel tempted to say "Hear, hear!" right now. But then, how can you say that it's okay to buy bicycle tires (which might have been made using animal products) yet you can't eat anything that's been made using small amounts of animal products? Where do you draw the line?
How does one decide this? Does one eschew all foods that have been processed using animal products and refuse to use obviously animal-derived goods (such as a wool sweater, for example)? This is what I do. I don't eat refined sugar of dubious origins, for instance, yet I do buy books once in a while, even though I know that they might have been made with animal-derived glue. Hypocritical, perhaps, but it's the only realistic way to survive in society, it seems. Still, is there a way to stop being a hypocrite?
Keep reading, because this is the really cool part...
There is a way to stop being a hypocrite. It's to reach outside yourself and your own personal boundaries and to become a world-changer, instead of only avoiding hurting others. Through your diet, you're already avoiding hurting others (if you are a strict vegan, that is-- which is very important, since only reducing your intake of meat still means that your lifestyle hurts animals). Instead of only focusing on the negatives, however, focus on the positives as well! This way, any minute negative impact that you may have by buying a book, for example, will be offset by all the positive impact you're having.
Photo sourced from Vegan Rabbit blog

Another thing to remember is that animal rights isn't the only issue in the world. There's also human rights issues and environmental issues. These matter, too! When you buy anything for yourself, you should also keep in mind whether or not it was manufactured sustainably, and whether or not the laborers' rights were protected, among other things. While it may be an impossible goal to find a morally "perfect" book/T-shirt/bicycle, you can still do your best to find animal-friendly, environmentally-friendly, human-friendly ones. And you can simply buy less stuff! After all, who needs a Smartphone, Blackberry touch, and a laptop all at the same time? Do you really need a new pair of jeans, or is that tear reparable? Will you ever actually use that dollar-store mini camera stand, or can you just leave it on the store shelf? That sort of thing. And when you do need to buy things, you could always try thrift stores, consignment shops, and online second-hand trading sites (such as or ebay) before going to actual stores. Even then, you may still have the choice of going to small, independently-owned stores before making your way to the dreaded big-box stores.

When it comes to focusing on the positives, here are some ways you can do just that:

  1. Join/volunteer with your local vegetarian/vegan association or animal rights group; you can also join larger organizations, such as the Vegan Society in the UK.
  2. Hand out booklets, pamphlets, or brochures educating people on animal rights issues and veganism.
  3. Go to events, protests, rallies, VegFests, conferences, and more!
  4. Start a blog or a website-- be an online activist! (If you have never made a blog before, trust me-- it's easy.)
  5. Write letters to the editor and newspaper articles on veganism and animal rights.
  6. Set a good example of veganism for other people. Live by your values, and be happy and responsible!
  7. Join the activist world for other causes (if you're interested in other causes besides animal rights) and bring your vegan values into new places. Once other activists become educated on AR issues, they might become AR activists and vegans, too!
  8. Give speeches, workshops, and/or presentations.
  9. Share vegan recipes with vegans and non-vegans alike.
  10. Hold "bake sales" for free-- let people taste free vegan food, and then hand out literature! (You may want to fundraise for this, or get other people to help cover the baking expenses.)
  11. Become a "foster parent" for a rabbit or a dog or a cat or a gerbil, etc.
 There are many ways to change the world. Remember...

"Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies." Mother Teresa

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