How can a highly intelligent person—who appears to have made a real ethical connection to the tenants of veganism—ever go back to consuming animals? What shifts in their intellect? Let’s explore how and why smart people can think their way out of veganism.
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When someone who demonstrates a high level of intelligence and reasoning—and appears to have made a real ethical connection—goes back to consuming animals, it can be very challenging for vegans to understand.
As a chronic over-thinker myself, prone to over-intellectualizing literally anything, I thought perhaps I could offer some input on how and why intelligent people can think their way out of veganism.
So let’s get to it: Why do smart people stop being vegan?
A note on tone: Within this article (and far more so in the video), I’m using a more informal, conversational—and, at times, admittedly snarky—delivery style than my more typical “academic presentation” approach.
This is not to be dismissive of questions, concerns, or challenges in regards to going or staying vegan. Rather, I’m highlighting the absurdity of rationalizations and justifications that lead to the “ethical acceptability” of using non-human animals.
For anyone struggling to go or stay vegan, or facing issues of access to plant-based food, please check out my How to Go Vegan guide.
Veganism Isn’t a Matter of Intelligence
First off, I think we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that intelligence and veganism are directly linked.
Being vegan doesn’t mean you’re more intelligent. Being intelligent doesn’t mean you’re more likely to go vegan.
How Intellectualizing Can Work Against Veganism
Sometimes, our intellect actually gets in the way of grasping the most basic core concepts of veganism.
Much of my job as a vegan activist is helping people remember fundamental truths we’ve all known since childhood—like it’s not okay to hurt others.
The individuality of non-human animals is not a deep intellectual concept. It doesn’t take scholarship, it doesn’t take research, it doesn’t take anything but just opening your eyes and looking at them.
You don’t need to have a high level of education. You don’t have to be a medical doctor. You don’t have to have any of that.
If you’ve watched my videos, and read my articles, you’ll know that I do greatly value solidly-sourced educational presentations. I do believe that facts, figures, logic, and transparency are vital in vegan outreach.
However—when we connect with the ethical concepts of veganism purely on an intellectual level, we risk reducing sentient beings to conceptual abstractions. Nonhuman animals can end up relegated to faceless data points just as much as they are within the animal products industries.
This is where intellect can become a problem by helping smart people think their way out of veganism.
The Mental Gymnastics of Justified Exploitation
Now, everyone—regardless of their intelligence or education—can find plenty of rationalizations for not being vegan.
But it’s all just the same mental gymnastics our intellects perform to justify what we know at an instinctive level is unacceptable.
If we set aside the tragic consequences, it’s actually quite amusing to observe how far we humans will bend over backward to justify our use of animals.
Take, for example, the PR disaster of male chicks being ground up alive in the egg industry. Every time an undercover video makes headlines, the public gets pretty pissed (though they don’t understand that grinding up babies is not only standard practice but is actually the animal-welfare-dictated method for chick “disposal”).1
Anyways, the egg industry knows this looks bad. So, governmental entities, universities, and tech startups banded together to find a way to sex eggs before they hatched into cute fluffy baby chicks that even the egg-eating public didn’t like seeing ground-up alive.2
(To be clear—despite this innovative idea, male chicks are still ground up alive in the egg industry to the tune of around 3.2 billion a year.)4
Just take a moment to imagine the brain trust roundtable discussion on the whole “chick-blending alternative” issue. In considering what to allocate an insane amount of money, governmental resources, time, effort, and technology to, I know one option that was never raised:
What if we just don’t eat what comes out of the back end of a chicken?
The Absurdity of Appropriate Exploitation
This is the absurdity that arises from simultaneously recognizing the sentience of nonhuman animals while also holding the necessity of their use as a foregone conclusion.
It’s the result of reducing living beings to data points, with their value calculated down to the cent.
It’s the exact driver of animal welfare and humane legislation.
It’s the very same abstraction of their individuality and inherent rights that can allow one’s intellect to shift from advocating for them to haggling over the “appropriate” terms of their exploitation.
I’ve spoken in great depth about how welfare regulations and the approach of “reducing suffering” are actually harmful to non-human animals. Please see the following speeches and posts:
- The Best We Have to Offer
(in-depth speech primarily for non-vegans)
- Are You Advocating Cruelty?
(In-depth speech primarily for vegans and activists)
- More on the humane myth
The Power of the Greatest Lie Ever Told
Still, I don’t think the intellectualization-to-the-point-of-abstraction fully addresses why smart people stop being vegan. Now stick with me on this, because I’m gonna get a bit existential myself here.
I think to truly understand how someone expressing firm ethical conviction can fall back into irrational justifications, we need to understand the sheer power of what I’ve long referred to as “the greatest lie ever told.” (I even made a slam poem about it.)
Think, for example, about how many well-educated, intelligent people make it into adulthood believing that cows spontaneously make milk.
Such a glaring blind spot in basic logic is not down to a lack of intelligence. It stems from something so deeply ingrained within us that it crosses all countries, cultures, social classes, and education levels. Something fixed into our psyche so early and so firmly that it easily overrides all reasoning.
Concepts that we take in as children are integrated very differently than things we learn later in life.
Think about a child who grows up multi-lingual. They aren’t consciously learning the grammar and declensions of the languages like an adult would have to. They likely won’t even remember the process of learning the languages at all.
Now, let’s consider something more tied to identity and sense of self—like a belief system, whether religious or not, that we are raised within. This belief system is integrated into not only our sense of self but our sense of reality itself.
When that belief system is later challenged—whether by other people, or even by our own doubts—it can feel like a threat to our very life. After all, what are we without our sense of self and understanding of reality?
The Drive to Preserve Sense of Self & Reality
So, what does this have to do with veganism and the “greatest lie ever told” concept I ominously dropped earlier with zero explanation?
Well, imagine that rather than a belief system taught and reinforced by your family, we are dealing with a belief system taught and reinforced by nearly the entirety of humanity.
This is what I mean by “the greatest lie ever told.”
If there is one thing that unites humanity, it is our collective non-questioning of the necessity of using non-human animals.
Sure, we may disagree about which animals we can do what to, and we certainly spend a lot of time on how we can do things to them.
But questioning their use at all—much less examining the reality of that use—that is a profound threat to our sense of self.
We like to think of ourselves as good and decent people—animal-lovers, even.
Most people don’t want to cause the suffering and death of innocent beings. Most people would not slit the throat of a pig or cow standing in front of them.
In fact, most people won’t even watch slaughterhouse footage. Yet, most of those very same people will passionately and vehemently defend their participation in the systematic brutalization of trillions of animals, justifying the very atrocities in the footage that they cannot bring themselves to watch.
There’s a reason that we keep our slaughterhouses so far from our tables and pay other people to kill on our behalf. The distance allows us to maintain our self-image of good, decent animal-lovers.
The drive to preserve this concept of ourselves is so strong, and the prospect of confronting the brutality we’ve actually been participating in is so horrifying, that we will use anything to defend ourselves—no matter how irrational.
But unlike less universal belief systems, our reasons don’t even have to be good for us to be in good company. Most of the world agrees with us, and we’re more than willing to reassure each other within our collective delusion.
I believe that the power of this collective belief—and the extreme threat posed by challenging it—may help explain how even profoundly intelligent people who have made an ethical connection to the tenets of veganism can be pulled right back into justifications and rationalizations.
In the end, rationalizations and justifications—no matter how eloquently stated—are just that.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If this has stimulated your intellect, please share it with others.
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— Emily Moran Barwick
Anesh Patel says
Emily, what an intellectually-stimulating yet also entertaining exploration on the interplay of intellect and ethics! As always, I greatly appreciate the care and depth you approach every topic with—even when adding in some sarcasm to punch it home. Really enjoyed this one…and it also helps me better understand why some people I’ve discussed vegan ethics with, though very intelligent themselves, present arguments that have no rational foundation. Think I’ll be giving this a few more watches and read-throughs!
Emily Moran Barwick says
Anesh, thank you as always for your thoughtful feedback and kind words. I’m glad that you found this helpful in potentially understanding some of the interactions you’ve had. I do hope it helps also highlight the true individuality and inherent rights on non-human animals. They are not conceptual abstractions, but rather living, sentient beings.
thank you for all you do for the animals!!!! you do make a difference, I promise :-)
Emily Moran Barwick says
Thank you so very much, Cathleen!
Daryl Denning says
Wonderful analysis. Thank you. Customs are planted within us from early ages and generations that perpetuate the cruelty of human beings, even to each other, as it is for other sentient beings.
My wife and I became vegetarian for 20 years and then transitioned to vegan over 13 years ago. I am 73 and she will be 68 in May. It started in an unusual way, She was preparing a meal with meat and suddenly said she could not do it any longer. This came out of nowhere as we had not discussed vegetarianism before. Growing up her mother used to remove bones from her meat for her, and she never liked chicken wings due to the skin and bones. Without even thinking about it, I quickly responded that she should not handle meat products any longer. We were getting closer to most vegan ways over the years, giving up eggs and most dairy products. Like many, cheese was a weakness, but compassion ruled the decision. At a meal we often say we are fed with no one dead. Like giving up the addiction to smoking, which is now impossible to believe we ever smoked, It is now impossible to believe we ever ate animals and animal products. For us, it is now part of our spiritual journey – almost a religion.
Emily Moran Barwick says
Thank you so much for the thoughtful reply, Daryl, and for sharing your and your wife’s journey. That’s very moving to hear your progression, and I think many people have that experience of finding it hard to fathom that we EVER consumed other beings! Thank you so much for sharing!
Thank you again, Emily for your clear, incisive commentary.
Knowing my “why” (do no harm), I cannot imagine a vegan reverting to consuming animals and their products.
Going from the S.A.D. diet to a raw diet would make anyone revert, I suppose (says someone who had an entire bag of chips with Kite dip and G&Ts for dinner…
Right now my biggest struggle is the predictable barrage of “But what about… ” rhetorical questions (from friends, family, co-workers, etc.)
Although rationalizations are an obvious cover for discomfort, addressing them is baffling and tiring. I’d ask them to read “Eat Like You Care: An Examination of the Morality of Eating Animals” by Francione (where the most common “excuses” are put to rest), but they won’t. :/
Emily Moran Barwick says
Oh I can very much identify with the exhaustion of trying to address every objection, question, etc. Especially if you want to do so with grounding and thoroughness. It is much quicker and easier to toss out such a question/objection than it is to take the time to respond with a comprehensive answer. (Story of my activism!) That’s a big part of why I created Bite Size Vegan was to try and help provide such answers. But I too am limited in time and being “one person”…but I still hope that over time I’m able to provide and more and more such resources that can be sent to answer such queries. However, as you’ve aptly pointed out…doesn’t mean they will actually read or watch. I think that itself can be an indication that the question was meant as a deflection more than a genuine request for information, unfortunately.
Deflection, yes! Usually unintentional (sometimes disingenuous).
Listening to a Viva podcast of Dr. Melanie Joy, I am reminded that facts don’t work (if people don’t want to hear them), but striving for mutual understanding rather than trying to win an argument (15:30).
She counsels “practice integrity and honor dignity” in communication: you are an exemplar of this. I have directed more people to your welcoming and informative site than all other educational sites about veganism combined.
Thank you for your work!
Emily Moran Barwick says
Wow thank you so much for sharing my website with others! Striking that balance with my educational outreach is precisely what I aim for. Approachability without compromising ethics or integrity. Again, I’m honored by your words about my work.
Sally Anne Hubbard says
So very informative. I did not know about Ella the egg-sexing machine; I did know what happens to male chicks. That was a good point about slaughter houses being far from out tables. One of my vegan friends is in her late 70’s and told me she became a vegan at a very early age because as a child she had to walk past a slaughter house and was so emotionally effected by the sounds. Your YouTube shorts are great especially How not to make someone a vegan; straight to the point.
Emily Moran Barwick says
Thank you so much for commenting, Sally. Always love hearing from you! That’s so moving about your friend—I think that would be true for so many people if they were so close to it. And yes, the egg-sexing machine is a project I’ve been aware of for many years. I’ve referenced it a number of times, but never so overtly. Before, actually, they didn’t have the name or prototypes or the machine. It was just Project In Ovo working towards such a thing. But it always struck me as such a strong example of the lengths we go to to “improve” our exploitation of non-human animals—rather than reconsider whether we should be doing so in the first place!
I’m glad you enjoyed the shorts. I’ll see how often I can put those out. Even though “short” they still take some time :) But I think it’s maybe a nice way to pull parts of longer content out. Will keep playing with them!
Thanks for exposing the essential causes that led to the Animal Holocaust.
People who has power use their power to do evil things upon the weak is the most evil.
Anything involves ruthless and tyrannical should be destroyed. Vanity people can never understand the inside of a simple people since their mind has been covered with dust and greed.
People’s karma is the deepest in Dharma-Ending (Degenerate) Age. But fortunately we have the dharma and the sangha to follow. I should share them in the future to let more people know about the wisdom of Buddha and Real Sangha.
Thank you for such a good article on a subject that has perplexed me for years. It does help me understand the behavior of others more though i’m still at a loss for how to shift their position. How can you profess to love animals and go out of your way to rescue them including insects but then eat meat. And why do people continue to shame vegans for choosing to live more compassionate lives? I would of thought that was understandable to all descent people regardless of intelligence.
Emily Moran Barwick says
Jacquie, I’m so glad to hear that this was helpful for you. I totally understand being at a loss for understanding. It’s an extremely powerful dissonance. And yes, it can be profoundly challenging to wrap our heads around how non-vegans don’t “get it”. I delve into this more in my speech A Wake Up Call for Vegans (though I’m the first to admit it’s a little hard to follow at times!)
As for shifting their position—I don’t think anyone has the ability to shift anyone’s positions. In my speeches, I generally say to the non-vegans I’m addressing that I’m not there to make them vegan. I’m simply there to present information, allowing them to evaluate whether the reality of what they are supporting is truly in line with their values. I talk about that approach as well in speeches I gave to activists. This one and this one.
Lastly, I also have some content from the other side of things…meaning trying to explain to non-vegans why we vegans get “so upset” about things. (So the mirror of why the heck non-vegans don’t seem to have issues with what is so obviously horrific to us). Not sure if those may be helpful to you (or at least something you can identify with). There’s one called “What Vegans See” and another “Why Vegans Flip Out.” (Note that these are older videos and I’ve not had a chance to properly format their corresponding articles to have better structuring, so they are likely better viewed than read).
I wish I could offer you a simple concise answer to the nature of the human psyche. Thank you for taking the time to comment, and know you are not alone.