How can a highly intelligent person—who appears to have made a real ethical connection to the tenets 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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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?
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.
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