I am a vegan, only for ethical reasons. It is something I'm very willing to discuss. I have deliberated about it very carefully, for a long time, and have read papers and text books on the philosophy of ethics on my spare time in order to help me get my bearing on this issue. So, I'm very happy to discuss the reasoning process that has led me to where I am, as long as the person is willing to engage in a careful one-on-one discussion that isn't emotionally charged or defensive, with the intent of truly hearing me out, and vice versa. I'm also happy to debate it in the same kind of manner. But I don't go around looking for that debate; I only have it if it's clear that the other person is willing and eager to do so.
Of course, that is not often the environment in which I'm asked about my eating habit. It's usually in a casual conversation, with others present, wherein typically a quick one sentence answer is desired. My answer is usually "ethical reasons".
I notice, often, people get defensive when I say this. They will try to justify their eating habits. Or they will make tongue-in-cheek comments like "you must think I'm awful for eating this burger, haha." Some of them (in the case of family members) hold on to their opinions, but lash out at me at a later time. (This leads me to believe that others, who are not in my family but are saying nothing, also must resent me but just don't want to be confrontational.) From experience I have found that simply expressing that I'm vegan for ethical reasons prompts lashing out, resentment, and passive aggression, without me ever explicitly judging them. It gets exhausting, and it erodes my relationships. It makes it so that I now fear this question, and am now intentionally discreet about what I order at restaurants.
I understand why the person asking the question might perceive that I'm implicitly judging them. After all, we can say, of things like a diet or artistic preference, that something is "just my preference, and it's okay if you think differently". But that's not usually true of moral claims. If one firmly believes that something is a moral obligation, they believe it of a person regardless of whether or not that person believes it themselves. For example, we wouldn't accept it if a psychopath says "you feel it's wrong to kill, and I don't. That's just my preference." Nor does anybody today think it was okay for people to own slaves in the past, simply because society treated it as an acceptable practice back then. (Note, I am not saying that these things are morally equivalent to eating meat. I'm simply using examples to illustrate the point that difference in moral code, unlike difference in taste in art, is not something that can be dismissed as "just a personal preference that we must accept".)
So I might want to fall back on "I didn't judge you in any way". However, given the above paragraph, I can't escape the fact that there's a perceived intrinsic judgement I am making simply by justifying my eating preference.
I understand that my position is very much in the minority. I still want to have a real social life, though. I have longstanding friends, and a family that I love. I don't want to alienate everybody because they think that I'm a sanctimonious asshole. But, at the same time, I don't want to compromise my ethics, or be dishonest about them.
I have considered being dishonest, in response to the question, and saying something like "well, it's just something I'm trying", or "I think this is the healthiest option". (I actually don't think that being vegan is the healthiest option.) It is a compromise. I hate being dishonest, but I also hate eroding my relationships. However, if possible, I want to avoid being dishonest.
How do I answer the question "why are you vegan?" honestly, without making people resent me?
- I'm a Canadian, from Toronto.
- I'm usually asked about my veganism during mealtimes, or when jointly ordering food.
- I've never given a more thorough answer, but I do clarify when asked a question.
Let me answer a couple of popular questions that seem to be coming up in answers and comments.
"Why are you vegan, more specifically?"
I could write a lot on this, though I don't think my exact reasoning process is very relevant for this question. So I'll just say that it's primarily related to animal welfare, and secondarily related to the environment. Both of these fit under the umbrella of "ethical reasons", which is a response that's simply meant to contrast it from the other popular reasons for being vegan. (Namely, health reasons, personal taste in food, or physical revulsion. None of these three apply to me.)
"Are you judging them?"
Another way of asking this is, "do you think that they are worthy of moral judgement?" Well... to be perfectly honest, yes. I hate that this is the answer, because everybody I love does it. But I cannot find another answer that's consistent with my beliefs, no matter how much I want to do so. I usually don't express this. And, as a caveat, I think that those who understand the situation are more worthy of judgement than those who don't. Most people don't. I spent a long time eating meat while believing what I currently believe which, I think, makes me worse than most meat eaters. I don't mean for that to be condescending. It's not a matter of stupidity, but simply of what you happen to know and be exposed to. It's very likely that I am funding other immoral practices of which I'm ignorant, and for which I'm worthy of moral judgement. Nor do I expect anybody (including myself) to be perfect paragons of moral virtue. I understand that it's very hard to do so when it comes to a practice that might be morally wrong, but is considered by society to be entirely acceptable.
Now, while I don't want to be dishonest about my reason for being vegan, the question of whether they are worthy of moral judgement is something that I am willing to, and have been dishonest about (on the rare occasion that this actually comes up). Only because I know how socially volatile it could be to tell the truth in this case. (And I don't want to live up to my namesake on this site.)