Recently I’ve become vegan. It was a gradual change, starting with the desire to eat less meat, fueled by a discomfort towards opaque corporate practices; more specifically, towards the lack of transparency regarding food. I found out one of my friends had gone vegan, too. His passion spoke loudly to me. He was willing to change his life around, wasn’t afraid of hurting people’s feelings for expressing himself. I thought that was awesome.
So after three weeks or so, it’s become official. After fleshing out my own feelings about veganism, I’ve found it aligns with a new rule I’ve been trying to live by, a new perspective: the mandate to “do no harm.” This is the mindset and attitude I am currently exploring, and I want to share my thoughts on it with you and talk a little philosophy regarding my motivations.
What does it mean to “do no harm?” Simply: never act on an impulse or intention that arises within you that is a desire to do harm to another being. When someone sets you off with a particular insult, and have the perfect jab in mind to get them back, when you know just the right thing to say—don’t do it. When you get angry with someone, check yourself before you act. This is the same path, these the same impulses towards action, that lead to violent behavior. Nip it in the bud; do no harm.
I’m not saying you have to be dishonest with your feelings. Honesty is important, even in a scenario when “the truth hurts,” but first you have to divest your emotions from a situation. Share that burning truth without including harmful personal emotions. There are some tough examples, like if someone you love is addicted to drugs, when it is actually beneficial to express your rage, or shame to someone; you have to get through, in a way, and sharing your hurt and anger may actually be beneficial in the long run. You must weigh these things out depending on the individual situation. The guiding rule: choose the path of least harm.
Doing no harm means not being intentionally violent, or destroying things out of malevolent intent (animate or inanimate), or contributing to or encouraging violent behavior, or systematic practices based on violent behavior. To me, this means not killing animals. This means not supporting the meat or dairy industries.
As it stands today the meat industry is a violent and wasteful entity, a clandestine operation engendered by the societally-induced desire for comfort and commodity. The meat industry, for our convenience, hides and downplays the suffering of other sentient beings in order to extort us and take advantage of our desire for comfort and satisfaction. Their reward is profit, and we are being duped.
They “do harm.”
This clashes with my ideals, and there is no way around it. This is a practice that deserves to be changed.
There are some common arguments I’ve heard, and I’d like to run through them and offer my response.
The first: “It is impossible to exist without doing harm. The very act of existence necessitates some level of violence and selfishness. By being alive, I take up resources that others could use, I emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and I breathe air that others could be breathing right now. Someone else could live in my home. The way to do the least possible amount of harm would be to kill myself. It’s not an overextension that some animals must die in order to nourish me.”
The first problem with this argument is that it neglects the possibility of doing actual good in the world, that you can offset the cost of your basic needs by virtuous acts. You can build someone a home, if you’d like. You can establish a commune that showcases what you perceive to be the ideal way of living and co-existing. Your actions and your example both have the power to overcome the harm of your footprint. More good than bad; the path of least harm. This actually necessitates a paradigm shift; you must actively pursue good instead of seeking to mitigate bad, but I will further discuss this later.
The second problem with this argument is in its implication that since it is technically impossible to do no harm whatsoever, it is therefore useless to try to reduce the amount of harm you bring into the world. In vegan terms, this is the argument: “Well, you’re still killing animals when insects fly into the harvesting machines for corn or soy, so isn’t that the same thing?” And I think this is completely asinine; of course it isn’t the same thing, you ass. There are huge payoffs to trying to reduce the amount of suffering you cause going through life.
If a bear were to attack you in the forest, and if it was truly a life-or-death situation, you would be justified in killing the bear to preserve yourself. But that doesn’t mean that you should go into the forest with a gun and kill every bear you can find. Or, for a more practical example, it’s not unreasonable to slap at a mosquito that’s bitten you, but it would seem awfully weird to know a guy who pulls the wings off of and dismembers every single insect he comes across, right? These moral arguments towards violence exist on a spectrum; shades of grey, because black-and-white is unattainable for us. Although the complete elimination of violence is impossible, the minimization of its effects is still a very practical, admirable, and attainable goal.
But there are definitely problems with this attitude, with being vegan too. They too tend to line up.
The first: it takes a lot of effort, and requires personal sacrifice. It’s harder to be vegan; it’s less convenient to come by vegan food, at least for now. It seems to be less nourishing, because plant-based foods are less calorically dense than meat or other food with animal products. For the overweight this may be a godsend; for me, it entails simply eating more. Eating more often means more effort.
My energy levels have felt substantially lower, and I’m hoping that this won’t be the case forever. I’ve heard that people generally feel better, full of energy after the period of initial adjustment. I want this to happen to me, already, so I’m sticking it out; presumably, as I learn more recipes and “get better” at this thing, I’ll have a better time.
In the sense of everyday ethics, “do no harm” means that you have to swallow your emotions a lot, and this sucks. You have to take the piss every once in awhile. If someone insults you, you have to hold that L in yo chest. In the end, this becomes a minor thing, but it is a hassle. This attitude has become so far ingrained in the way that I deal with people, after customer service jobs and just trying to be nicer in general, that I hardly notice it anymore. And really, I think it’s for the best. Overall, it’s the extension of this ideal into your own behavior that really kills; I have a guilty conscience about animal products now, and that does feel like a legitimate burden. I’ve had dreams about eating tacos with meat in them, and then I get pissed off in my dream. Damn.
A bigger problem in my opinion is that “do no harm” doesn’t always equate to “do good,” if you follow the strictest reading. “Do no harm” can often leave you just slightly above neutral with a lot of people, and you watching events and opportunities pass you by. Hey, you didn’t hurt them after all, did you?
There’s a kind of spiritual dullness that I’ve come to associate with the bare-minimum approach of not inflicting hurt on other people. Ultimately, spiritual enrichment does involve actively doing good, and putting in superhuman amounts of effort when an opportunity to enrich your life or the lives of others presents itself—NOT just avoiding a knee-jerk reaction when someone calls you a dickwad. And this, as I was alluding to earlier, has got to be the biggest issue with “do no harm” as a behavioral law; a particular self-denial, a passing-over of your own power and enthusiasm, replaced with benevolent meekness. But I’m sure, too, that this can change. I think it’s always better to have a positive (additive or affirmative) way of thinking and perceiving, as opposed to a negative (prescriptive/critical) way of thinking. That’s the shift.
Radical enrichment is the goal, but in the meantime, I think “do no harm” provides a great baseline. For its part, it does a lot of good.
I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this. I am exploring veganism as well as this new mindset in the attempts to evaluate it; I’m a mutable creature and as new evidence comes along, I’m open to it as well. So please, leave me with your thoughts and any info you think I’d like to know about.