“You eat honey! You’re not vegan.”
We’ve heard that before. Vegans debate if honey qualifies as being “vegan”. After all, honey comes from bees, and bees are animals, and vegans do not consume or wear anything that is, or comes from, animals. There is debate whether bees have rights and if eating honey is contributing to speciesism and enslavement, etc. It sounds crazy to non-vegans, but preferring honey to agave nectar can cause a vegan meltdown.
There are other kinds of vegans, too.
Some vegans eat bi-valve crustaceans such as oysters, mollusks, or clams. Are shellfish vegan? Are “Bi-Valve Vegans” vegan? This one is even more complicated than bees.
Vegans usually choose what is edible with a simple rule: “if it can suffer or feel pain, don’t eat it”. Bi-valve creatures do not have a high-functioning brain or central nervous system which makes it unlikely they can feel pain (at least in any human sense). It is also questionable if they experience suffering. We think of suffering as an emotional response to pain. To have emotions, you must have a (fairly complex) brain.
Still, crustaceans are clearly alive and avoid death. Clams, for example, flap their shells to escape predators. Mollusks detach themselves from their homes and reattach somewhere else to avoid danger. Should clams, oysters, and mollusks get a pass as being off-limits for vegans or be tossed in with other living, but edible, things that do not feel pain, such as yeast?
Here is another vegan moral conundrum… our vegan friends swat flies, squash spiders, and otherwise kill insects mercilessly. Nicole and I try to escort bugs off the premises but if pressed for time or facing a prolifically reproductive insect like a cockroach, or if caught by surprise, etc. I will make exceptions to the house “no kill” rule.
Yet, it is not an ethical quandary whether vegans should eat insects. Even despite the “yuck” factor, the answer is an unequivocal “No”. Insects are living, thinking creatures that feel pain, have brains, and avoid death.
We are not aware of any vegans who eat insects. BUT… what about lobsters?
Lobsters, it turns out, are essentially enormous ancient insects. In fact, a lobster has a little more brain power than an octopus and a little less brain power than a fruit fly, yet vegans cringe at the thought of boiling lobsters but do not hesitate to rid their households of pesky fruit flies.
Nature does not draw convenient and obvious boundaries between Class, Genus, or Species. Even the casual vegan murders millions of living creatures every day–dust mites, for example. Nicole and I have not met a vegan who would hesitate to rid their home of bed bugs or termites but we also do not know a vegan who would voluntarily eat dark-chocolate covered crickets.
And let’s not even get started on lab-grown meat…
Clearly, there are no easy answers when it comes to defining what it means to be vegan. The lines are blurred between animal and vegetable just as they are between land and ocean (at what which grain of sand does the beach stop and the water begin?).
As a 20-year veteran vegan, I do not fret about these things. After giving up meat and dairy, arguing over the last inch of being vegan could easily consume my life and I would die still having no conclusions. I find that newer vegans and the “PETA people” (meaning people who are vegan emotionally, irrationally, militantly, and judgmentally) try to make black-and-white arguments but the fact is no vegan is 100% vegan and no omnivore is 100% carnivore (or they would just be a carnivore).
The point, for me, is to move the needle toward ethical and conscious choices that align with our moral values.
Humans have done something unprecedented by removing ourselves from the food chain. We have no natural predator and we absolutely rule the entire planet. Nothing on this earth–including Earth itself–lives without our consent and approval. The only question, then, is what kind of rulers do we want to be? Kind and benevolent or cruel and merciless? (If you are inclined to choose the latter, let me just point out how well that has worked in the past with dictators, wars, slavery, feudal kingdoms, Rome, etc… it never ends well for the kings.)
I would not hate you for eating a lobster and I would not praise you for saving a mosquito, but I would definitely ask you to consider the morality and repercussions of both.
And if you want to know… Nicole and I do not eat oysters or lobsters, and try not to kill mosquitoes but I have no qualms about defending myself from them and I live in an apartment that sprays for bugs regularly. I guess no one is perfect.