For the past few decades we have been seeing a shift of what “vegan” means, in much the same way how the term “vegetarian” changed over time. The term “vegetarian” was, according to research in the earliest published texts in which the word first appeared, first coined by the Alcott House, a boarding school near London on Ham Common, which opened in 1838. Later called the Concordium, the Alcott House was named in honor of American education and food reform advocate Amos Bronson Alcott. The Alcott House was a working mixed cooperative community and a progressive school for children. The students and members followed a diet completely free of any animal products, including eggs and dairy, and objected to the use and killing of animals on ethical grounds. They objected to the use of animals for labor, entertainment, or any other reason. They grew crops on the grounds surrounding the house but refused to use horses for the heavy farm work. Their teachings included that the “same divine law by which a man claims a right to live, equally extends to every sentient being” and “man loses his purity, his real manhood, when he descends to the degraded work of oppression and death, whether inflicted upon a fly, an animal, or a man.” Had members of the Alcott House existed today, they would be known as what we would now call “vegans.”
The community came to an end in 1848, but members helped establish the Vegetarian Society in 1847 along with the Salford Bible Christian Church. By this time the community was struggling; meanwhile the BCC had considerable political and financial influence, therefore one of their members was elected as the first President of the new Society. The BCC had never used the word “vegetarian” in their own teachings (they preached the health “benefits” of eggs and dairy), and imposed their own definition of the new society: “The objects of the Society are, to induce habits of abstinence from the flesh of animals as food,” which left a lot of things that were not “flesh,” such as eggs and dairy. They didn’t specifically set out to re-define the word “vegetarian,” but the name of the society combined with that objective, as well as publication of some cookbooks that strongly favored eggs and dairy, caused endless confusion from that point onwards.
In 1850, just three years after the formation of the Vegetarian Society, a London medical journal (The British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review or Quarterly Journal of Practical Medicine and Surgery) did a 22-page analysis of the typical meat diet in comparison to the recipes which heavily favored eggs and dairy in the new Vegetarian Society cookbook (Recipes of Vegetarian Diet; with Suggestions for the Formation of a Dietary, from which the Flesh of Animals is excluded), and made the following conclusions: “… it is not merely the presence, but the predominance of eggs, that strikes us as strangely inconsistent with the Vegetarian professions…we find that the so called vegetarian positively consumes, according to his own diet-scale, as much animal food as the avowed flesh eater… it is not true Vegetarianism, being nothing else than the substitution of one form of Animal food for another.”
The confusion remained unresolved well into the rest of the 19th century. In 1886, Dr. Anna Kingsford, a noted English anti-vivisection and women’s rights campaigner — who was one of the first English women to obtain a degree in medicine, and the only medical student at the time to graduate without having experimented on a single animal — wrote in the preface of her book Dreams and Dreams Stories, “For the past fifteen years I have been an abstainer from flesh-meats. Not a vegetarian, because during the whole of that period I have used such animal produce as butter, cheese, eggs, and milk.”
For the rest of the 19th century, the Vegetarian Society debated changing its name — “VEM Society” (for vegetables, eggs and milk) and “Food Reform Society” were among the names considered but no changes were adopted.
From the founding of the community that originally coined the term “vegetarian” to the present day, the definition has completely shifted away from the absolute refusal of the use of animals for any human purpose; people who now identify themselves as “vegetarian” continue to eat eggs and cheese, wear animal skins, use animal-tested products, and in a further dilution of the definition, even eat fish and chickens.
In 1944, citing concerns about the continued lapse of the original definition, members of the Leicester Vegetarian Society decided to form a separate group to re-establish the original principle of the non-use of animals. The new group was called the Vegan Society; co-founder Donald Watson coined the term “vegan” as “the beginning and end of vegetarian.” The Vegan Society defined veganism as “a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals” and wrote that veganism is a principle “not so much about welfare [of animals] as liberation.” The society pledged to “seek to end the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection and all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man.” Members were expected to declare their support of these principles, and to live as closely to the ideal as they could.
In its Articles of Association, the legal documents of the Society, a slightly modified version is given: “Veganism denotes a philosophy and way of living which 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; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals, and the environment.”
Both interpretations start off by defining veganism as a “philosophy” and “a way of living.” It wasn’t just a diet, it was a complete moral framework. The founders included the critical point about practicality, recognizing that by living in the modern (and non-vegan) world, it was impossible to completely divest oneself of all animal products and derivatives. They recognized its importance in having practitioners understand that veganism is not about “purity” or personal perfection, but rather the avoidance and elimination of exploitation and cruelty.
Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to solidify and strengthen the concept of veganism as a philosophy, principle, and practice rejecting the commodification of animals for any use — as well as attempts to make the definition more fluid. Tom Regan is perhaps the first philosopher to argue that human desires and interests do not override animals’ inherent moral rights (in his 1983 book Making the Case for Animal Rights), and other right-theorists such as Gary L. Francione and Joan Dunayer later have refined those arguments, concluding that veganism is the moral baseline in the pursuit of shifting the social, cultural, and political paradigm of respecting animals’ inherent rights. Alternately, philosophers such as Peter Singer have taken a consequentialist (or utilitarian) approach, stating that killing animals is not wrong in principle, but it should be rejected unless necessary for survival. He supports what is known as the “Paris exemption” — if you find yourself in a fine restaurant or in a foreign country, allow yourself to eat what you want. Similarly, well-known groups like Vegan Outreach and PETA have adopted consequentialist positions, making the argument that eating non-vegan foods in certain social situations is better than absolutely adhering to a vegan principle in order to make veganism seem more approachable in the eyes of others.
It is exactly the consequentialist approach that is causing a continual degradation in the definition of veganism. In allowing more and more exceptions, we get further and further away from the ethics of not using animals, and thus the term “vegan” is becoming as meaningless as what “vegetarian” had become. For instance, by failing to ask a server whether something contains animal products in order to avoid a fuss, we reinforce the idea that the moral rights of animals are a matter of mere convenience. Over the years, plenty of anecdotal evidence has shown that many people who self-identify as “vegans” continue to eat dairy products and even animal flesh, as well as purchase products made from animal skins, patronize zoos and circuses, or make the argument that the use of animals is acceptable as long as they “have a good life.” Former president Bill Clinton was described as having adopted a “vegan” diet after cardiac surgery in 2010 even though he still regularly consumed fish. Labels such as “lacto-vegan” and “semi-vegan” have been seen being used.
There are some groups who are attempting to bring back the original definition of “vegetarian,” but in light of the current commonly-held view of the distinction between “vegetarian” and “vegan,” that would only serve to create even further confusion and blurring of differences. The definition of “vegetarian” has been rooted in its current incarnation for many decades, while “vegan” still has a chance to revert back to its original definition as an ethical distinction to what’s currently known as “vegetarian.”
If we are truly serious about veganism, animal rights and liberation, we should not support or passively allow what happened to the term “vegetarian” happen to the meaning of “vegan.” Otherwise we weaken our message and continue to spread confusion about what veganism truly stands for. We cannot allow the continued compromise of the ethical principles against the exploitation of animals for the sake of “convenience,” otherwise people will think veganism means whatever they want in order to allow certain personally favored behaviors that ultimately exploit animals. If we lower our ethical standards, we then cease in challenging people to do better in their own lives.
There is nothing wrong with the original meaning and concept – it is clear, consistent, and morally and rationally defensible. It is inspirational and speaks to the potential of humanity to become more conscious and compassionate beings. It is the vision of the first organization to practice a lifestyle based on those ethical principles that caused them to grow from a small group of individuals to a world-wide community today. That clarity is worth defending and needs to be upheld. We need more ethical vegans now.