While there are already a lot of anecdotes as to people’s conversions to the vegan lifestyle, there is a certain type of process, of which I am an example, that doesn’t get enough attention either in the mainstream media or in vegan circles.
I didn’t go vegan because of cute pictures of cuddly animals, or because I saw upsetting undercover footage of how factory farms and slaughterhouses really operate, or because a pet died. I changed my behaviour because I studied ethics academically for my university degree.
In that academic setting I learnt that very ordinary values logically entail that one should avoid causing the unnecessary killing or torture of animals. The arguments are water-tight, logically speaking.
However, one might claim that if the arguments really were that clear and compelling, more people would be persuaded by rational debate – which they clearly aren’t. The problem with this point is that, as empirical evidence shows, people don’t generally change their opinions just because of a rational criticism. I am no different from everybody else, so why was I able to see the arguments in an unbiased light and change my ways?
Normally, when a person is told they might be wrong, their gut instinct tells them to find a way to disagree: they use their intelligence not to find the truth, but to find a way of winning a debate so that they can claim their preconceived opinion was right all along. However, at the time I was studying ethics, I just didn’t care about leading a moral life. I suppose I was nihilistic, and felt no need to act according to airy-fairy principles. What this meant was that I could study ethics in a completely unbiased way. I treated it as a sort of game of logic, like playing sudoku. So when I came across the topic of animal rights, I had no gut reaction telling me that it must be wrong and that I must ignore the logic or twist the meaning – because the outcome of the arguments wouldn’t affect my lifestyle. I studied the issues, and with mild surprise discovered that actually, rather bland and universal values that almost everyone agrees with logically entail that we should be vegetarian.
I found this interesting, but carried on eating animals, as I didn’t care about principles – they seemed unreal and irrelevant to me. What changed all that was my realisation of my own hypocrisy: there were plenty of ethical issues I had a very strong opinion on. There were things in the world that I wanted stopped, that I felt were wrong. But you can’t pick and choose with morality – it’s utterly hypocritical to believe in morality when it affects other people but not when it affects yourself. If I want the Iranian regime to stop executing gay people, it makes me a hypocrite to then say I don’t believe in morality and feel no need to act in accordance with moral principles. It seemed to me that if I wanted to avoid hypocrisy, I either had to cease condemning the immoral acts of others, or start acting according to ethical principles myself, and I chose the latter.
From there, it was a fairly simple move from Vegetarianism to Veganism when I discovered the massive amount of suffering that the modern dairy and egg industry causes.
The mainstream attitude to vegans is that our values are weird and esoteric, and that our beliefs are based on too much sentimentality. But of course the reason that this is the mainstream attitude is because people don’t want to change their lifestyles and don’t want to be proven wrong.
People like me are the counter-examples to this simplistic argument. I once was the sort of man who laughed at vegetarians and complained about the “emotional blackmail” of charity adverts. What changed my mind was not sentimentality, or shocking images, but clear and honest thinking.