Conflict Among Veg*ns: Ethics Vs. Health
Within the movement to reduce animal consumption, there are two main (non-exclusive) divisions that can be made. The first is based on motivation: some are motivated by health concerns, whereas others view it as a moral issue. Furthermore, in each group are vegetarians — those who abstain from meat only — and vegans, who abstain from all animal products. This study attempts to determine what each group thinks about the other.
Participants in the study were recruited from the Vegetarian Resource Group, a pro-vegetarian/vegan website. Among the participants, 83% were female, and 80% were from the U.S. The remainder were mostly from Canada or Australia, with all other countries comprising under 5% of the total. Most participants had attained an undergraduate degree, and nearly 40% having graduate degrees. Participants were divided into four groups: health vegans, health vegetarians, ethical vegans, and ethical vegetarians. “Ethical” in this instance refers to those who are motivated by concern for the environment and/or animal cruelty, while “health” refers to those who are motivated by personal wellness.
Two experiments were conducted: in one, the participants were asked to rank their favorability toward the three following groups from 1 to 7 (with 7 being the most favorable): health vegetarians, ethical vegetarians, and vegans (all motivations). The other experiment was identical, but the participants were first asked to rank their favorability toward omnivores. The former experiment is referred to as the low mainstream variance test, while the latter is the high mainstream variance test.
The authors hypothesized that the presence of a mainstream group (omnivores) would increase each minority group’s favorability toward each other, because the mainstream group is perceived as more of a threat. In addition, they hypothesized that ethical vegetarians would favor vegans over health vegetarians, but that ethical vegans would view ethical vegetarians less favorably than they would health vegetarians. The authors theorized that vegans would view ethical vegetarians as hypocrites or insufficiently radical.
The authors were correct in their belief that ethical vegetarians in both tests would view vegans more favorably than health vegetarians. However, ethical vegans viewed their vegetarian counterparts more favorably than health vegetarians — the opposite of what the authors expected. Health vegans made no such distinction. In the high mainstream salience test, ethical vegetarians viewed vegans more favorably than they did health vegetarians, but made no such distinction in the low mainstream salience test. It is worth mentioning that in neither test did any group rate any other group as “unfavorable.” The lowest average rating was slightly above 4.5, and the highest was just above 6.5. Vegans and vegetarians generally view each other favorably.
According to the authors, the results show that ethical vegetarians view themselves as more “radical” than health vegetarians, and that vegetarianism is about more than simply avoiding meat. Health vegetarians may be more likely to view their diet as a simple personal choice, rather than a matter of morality. Therefore, ethical vegetarians may view this as a threat to their objectives: namely, converting more omnivores to vegetarianism.
Interestingly, in the high mainstream salience test, vegans rated health and ethical vegetarians relatively equally; however, they made a distinction between the two in the low mainstream salience test. This suggests that vegans are willing to view vegetarians as part of their in-group when the group identity is threatened, but not in other circumstances. Overall, the authors note that motivation appears to be a much more important factor than action when it comes to favorability.
The authors note that recruiting from a vegetarian/vegan website may have tilted their subject pool toward people who place their diet at the center of their identity. It’s likely that there are many vegetarians and vegans who simply don’t identify as strongly with their diet, and this may affect their views of these groups. This could be a topic for further research.
For animal advocates, the study offers evidence that nuance is needed when discussing the vegetarian and vegan movement. While they have much in common, there are divisions that affect one group’s perception of other factions within the movement. The study also reminds us that motivation is an extremely important part of the vegan and vegetarian movement, and that actions alone are not the entire picture. Still, the study paints an optimistic picture of the movement as being generally tolerant of various motivations and actions among vegetarians and vegans.