Is Veganism a Social Justice Issue?

Saryta Rodriguez


Our use of nonhuman animals is fundamentally an issue of social justice. It has long been demonstrated that nonhuman animals are sentient beings with the capacity for emotion, sensation and, to varying degrees, consciousness. The property status of sentient beings ensures that they will not have justice and their interests will always come last. Veganism— the ethic of ending animal use in all of its forms (food, clothing, entertainment, research, etc.)— most completely and effectively promotes justice for nonhumans.

One prevalent camp in the nonhuman animal advocacy realm does not treat veganism as a social justice issue, and, alarmingly, this camp is quickly gaining steam. I am referring to the recent emergence of Reducetarians. They argue that rather than encourage others to reject animal exploitation altogether, we should be encouraging everyone to reduce their engagement in nonhuman animal cruelty. They are often motivated not by actual concern for nonhumans but instead, by concern for themselves: for their own health, and for the protection of the environment on which they inevitably rely. Even among those who purport to reduce their meat consumption, for example, out of concern for animals, they still adhere to the Myth of Human Supremacy: That humans are superior to all other species, and therefore are entitled to exploit them.

Reducetarians claim that the best way to help nonhuman animals is not to fight for justice, but rather to simply ask folks to “cut back” on their participation in injustice against nonhumans— to minimize the number of nonhumans they consume or exploit without challenging the notion that they should be exploiting or consuming anyone in the first place. Their position is one of harm reduction, rather than justice as a deontological notion. Independent of whether or not it will lead to veganism, they believe we have a responsibility to reduce harm, and that this is the best way to go about that.

Reducetarianism has been presented, over and over again, as an effective form of animal advocacydespite a lack of any evidence for such claims. More importantly with respect to effectiveness, this philosophy makes no effort to revolutionize cultural norms. The issue at hand is not simply behavior— what people eat or don’t eat, what they wear or don’t wear— but fundamentally, our perception: the way society regards nonhumans. Asking people to reduce their meat consumption does nothing to challenge the social norm of exploiting nonhumans. What does this do, for example, for animals used in circuses? What does it do for those whose skins are used to make handbags and shoes?

Every social justice movement you can name has relied heavily on the disruption of cultural norms, and a radical change in perspective on how we regard members of our society: women, people of color, non-straight people, trans people, etc. A “reducetarian” approach to violence against women, for instance, might read something like: “I have a right to hit my wife when she makes me angry, but I feel sorry for her when she cries, so I’ll limit the number of times I commit violence against her from now on instead of just doing so whenever I feel like it.” Women in this scenario are still viewed as inferior to men, and therefore as valid targets for abuse, which ensures that we will not see an end to patriarchy and violence towards women.

Reducetarianism fails to challenge the Myth of Human Supremacy on which nonhuman animal exploitation relies. The liberation of all sentient beings from under Human’s heel is reliant on the destruction of this myth. This emergent strategy would have us believe that the best way to get justice for nonhumans is…not to request justice for nonhumans. This is completely illogical when one frames, as one should, commitment to veganism not as a dietary choice or personal preference but as the foundation of a social justice movement committed to ending the harm we cause to nonhumans. The victim’s perspective is entirely lost in the shuffle, as consumers are urged to minimize the quantity of their victims without ever challenging the notion that they are entitled to victims at all.

Why are so many animal advocates turning away from presenting veganism as a philosophy bound to social justice and focusing instead on this notion of “cutting back?” Is this yet another iteration of the decades-long battle vegans have waged with pessimism? At best, yes; at worst, our movement is growing even more fearful. We’ve now gone from asking people to go vegan for justice, to asking them to go vegan for health, to asking them to go vegetarian for health, to asking them to just cut back.

What does cut back look like? It is in the eye of the beholder. Someone who eats five steaks a week can now eat four, and voilà! A reducetarian is born. Rejoice! For the nonhumans this person won’t eat— and don’t worry about the ones they will. This “effective form of advocacy” stands among the biggest challenges nonhuman animal advocacy has ever faced.