When strangers ask me why I don't eat certain animal foods, I usually say I'm a vegetarian. When it concerns dairy products, I usually add that I'm an extra 'consistent' vegetarian, which is also called a vegan. I do indeed feel I'm a kind of vegetarian where it concerns these matters. Yet from an ethical point of view there are differences between veganism and other types of vegetarianism. In this article I want to explore briefly if those differences are essential.
The use of animals
Of all ethical vegetarians can be said that, in principle, we don't want to kill animals for food. People who eat regular cheese while there are vegetarian alternatives without animal rennet, are no vegetarians in this respect.
An important difference between vegans and other vegetarians is, however, that the former reject all types of (physically) avoidable use of animals. 'Moderate' vegetarians only remove products of dead animals from their menu, as is well-known, and in addition sometimes even wear leather shoes or clothing. They usually justify this by saying that the production of dairy does not necessarily involve animal suffering and therefore it can go hand in hand with a fundamental respect for the life and well-being of the animals involved. In this way, leather might come from animals that have died a natural death.
According to some, this combination of animal use with a vegetarian respect for animals is socially much more viable and in this way would contribute more to animal well-being than veganism. As it happens, refraining as much as possible from all use of animals is much more complicated than a lacto-ovo-vegetarian way of life. Moreover there are no 'sinister' associations with extremism, so that you can expect fewer negative reactions from your acquaintances.
Ethical vegetarianism is usually defined by the desire to prevent as much animal suffering as possible. The vegetarian concept of animal use implicates that you can use animals in a morally justified way, i.e. without causing the animals in question any harm that is worth mentioning. Is this a realistic impression of things? I can certainly imagine that certain uses of animal products have nothing to do with the animals being exploited. Think, for example, of chickens from factory farming that have found a safe haven with committed animal lovers. It is absurd to speak of 'animal suffering' when the people who care for such birds eat their unfertilized eggs. Something similar is true for using the remains of animals who have died a completely natural death.
The question is now whether or not the products used by lacto-ovo-vegetarians usually come from such sources. Of course this is definitely not the case. In most cases they will buy so-called 'animal friendly' milk and eggs, from ecological or biodynamic farms. Unfortunately these farms in reality always depend in part on the killing of surplus animals. For example, new calves and chicks have to be born all the time and only the female ones are commercially important, except for a few males used for breeding. If all animals were to be kept alive, this would surely mean the bankruptcy of farmers in no time at all.
I was insufficiently aware of this while doing the research for this article. I actually believed it was financially achievable to commercially produce dairy without killing the males, who are (practically) useless from an economic point of view. This would not be necessary indeed in the case of small-scale personal use, but this is different from cattle breeding as a source of income. Since most vegetarians can't afford to keep farm animals, dairy production would in most cases be dependent on commercial companies and therefore on the killing of animals.
By the way, Hindus have found an official solution for the surplus of male animals in dairy farming. Bulls, usually as oxen, are used for labor, keeping their lives 'profitable' form an economic point of view. Cows are impregnated only once every three or four years, keeping the number of male calves limited. Obviously there's a price tag to this practice: the website The Sacred Cow mentions for example over £1.5 per liter as a reasonable price.
This system may work in India, in the West these days it isn't an option to keep all bulls alive on a large scale for insemination and agriculture. The relatively non-violent consumption of dairy that is the effect of this policy would be reserved for the rich.
In a country like the Netherlands, therefore, the production of affordable dairy without a link to the killing of male animals would, in reality, never be sufficient.
Naturally this is even more true for leather and other products of dead animals. The percentage of leather from animals that have died a natural death is almost zero and the chances that leather products have nothing at all to do with slaughter is negligible.
A technological way out?
It is sometimes said that animal products will be produced completely artificially in the future. This means they are cultivated from cells outside the bodies of living animals. It will, however, take quite a while before this is reality and then it will remain less cost-effective than the present-day cattle breeding for a long time. On top of that, many consumers will for a long time protest these hyper-technological developments from a concept of naturalness. In addition many animal experiments will probably be necessary in which many animals will no doubt be sacrificed.
But in principle it is actually conceivable that most animal products in supermarkets someday will have nothing to do with the slaughter or captivity of animals. It is even possible that in the long term they will be cheaper than traditional meat or dairy.
The acceptability of animal use
Unfortunately many vegetarians realize insufficiently that consumption of dairy in the Western world is almost always connected to the slaughter of male animals. Starting from the technological developments mentioned above, the barely avoidable, evil link might one day be broken, but when this happens we are faced with a more fundamental question: how acceptable is it to use animals when it is not strictly necessary? Animals can't chose to produce certain foods and intentional interference in their lives takes place, even though this would, in specific cases, not involve much animal suffering.
To me, the most important problem is that the concept that it is acceptable to use animals to a certain degree for your own pleasure when this is not physically necessary for your health lies at the basis of all forms of unjustified animal use. The specific vegetarian effects of this concept, in the form of animal use in an animal friendly way, is still rooted in a speciesistic view of animals.
Note, I do not detract from the value of lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, which is an incredible improvement in comparison with the 'normal' way of things anyhow. Vegans will always be a kind of vegetarians and not opponents of vegetarianism. But from a philosophical point of view only a consistent rejection of the unnecessary use of animals is, in the end, truly credible.