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Veganism is a way of living.

The word vegan was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, founder of The Vegan Society. Being vegan is a "way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose."[1]

More simply put, veganism is a way of living that minimizes harm to animals.

This way of living manifests itself in our choices for food, clothing, and entertainment and any item that may involve harm to animals.

Concern for animals has a rich history.

The word vegan may be relatively new, but the idea isn't. We can see veganism as part of a continuum in the history of thinking about our concern for animals and our belief that animals are worthy of ethical consideration.

Long before and long after the term vegan was coined, a long list of notables were vocal on the topic. Only a few are mentioned here.

Pythagoras (570 BCE–490 BCE)

Pythagoras abstained from eating animals because he believed that humans have a special kinship with animals—not because of their intelligence, but because of their emotional capacity to feel pleasure and pain.[2]

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)

Leonardo da Vinci said he would not let his body become "a tomb for other animals, an inn of the dead."[6] He loved animals, refused to eat them, and abhorred the idea of causing pain to them.[7]

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)

Shelley, called the first celebrity vegan by one biographer,[8] expressed regret that "beings capable of the gentlest and most admirable sympathies, should take delight in the death-pangs and last convulsions of dying animals."[9] He wrote a book, A Vindication of Natural Diet, which draws on comparative anatomy to show that a vegetable diet is best suited to humans.[10]

Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910)

Tolstoy also wrote a book pertinent to veganism, titled The First Step: An Essay on the Morals of Diet, calling for abstinence from animal food as the first step toward moral perfection. He says that the use of animal food "is simply immoral, as it involves the performance of an act which is contrary to the moral feeling—killing; and is called forth only by greediness and the desire for tasty food."[11] He addresses attempts to deny harm to animals by saying, "we are not ostriches, and cannot believe that if we refuse to look at what we do not wish to see it will not exist."[12]

George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950)

Shaw was one of the many people who connected our slaughter of animals to the lack of world peace, saying, "While we ourselves are the living graves of murdered beasts, how can we expect any ideal conditions on this earth?" He is also responsible for the often repeated but rarely attributed quote, "Animals are my friends…and I don't eat my friends."[13]

Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948)

Gandhi believed that "the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man."[14]

As a young law student in London, he made the spread of vegetarianism (which then meant what veganism means today) his stated mission,[15] and he carried out the mission by writing essays and giving speeches on the topic.[16] It seems he honed his activist's skills on being a voice for animals and then used those skills later to change the course of human history.

The case for veganism is strong.

To go vegan, one need not believe that animals and humans deserve equal moral consideration—or that animals have rights.

Veganism is based on the belief that we should not unnecessarily harm animals. The case for veganism is built on the simple belief that one should not unnecessarily harm animals—a belief that virtually everyone holds, except psychopaths.

What we differ on is what is meant by harm and whether any harm inflicted is necessary. So let's look a little deeper into the ideas of harm and necessity.

Here we focus on the question of necessity and the harms that come about from using animals for food, because this is by far the most prevalent. At least fifty billion land animals[17] and more than a trillion sea animals[18] are slaughtered or killed every year for food, dwarfing all other methods of animal exploitation combined.

Using animals for food is not necessary. The most common attempt to justify the harm resulting from eating animal products is to say that it's necessary to consume animal products to be healthy. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that plant-based diets are nutritionally complete and healthy. Mayo Clinic,[19] Harvard Public Health,[20] Kaiser Permanente,[21] NewYork-Presbyterian,[22] and others have all said that a totally plant-based diet is not only sufficient but advantageous. Cleveland Clinic adds that "there really are no disadvantages to a herbivorous diet!"[23]

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is the largest nutrition-focused organization in the world, with over one hundred thousand credentialed professionals.[24] In an official position paper, they say that vegan diets "are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood and for athletes."[25]

The dietetic associations of other countries, including Canada,[26] England,[27] and Australia,[28] have also made pronouncements on the viability of a vegan diet.

When the major health organizations, the major research institutions, and the dietetic associations all say that there is no need to eat animals and animal products, that constitutes a scientific consensus on the topic.

We harm animals when we use them for food and other purposes. Farmed animals are subjected to confinement, crowding, mutilation, deprivation of natural behaviors, debilitating selective breeding, cruel treatment, separation from their offspring, slaughter, and other injustices.

These abuses are well documented in animal agriculture websites, documentary movies, and videos of undercover investigations, some at "certified humane" facilities. That they occur, and that they occur at certified humane facilities, cannot be plausibly denied.

But even if we treated them well up until the time of slaughter, there is no way to humanely slaughter someone who does not want to die. And there is no way to humanely exploit the reproductive systems of birds for eggs or mammals for milk and cheese, whose lives are also taken when they are no longer profitable.

The central issue is that in using animals for our own purposes, we are depriving them of their freedom and their lives—the only lives they have, and lives that are valued by each of them. And we are doing this unnecessarily.

Whether we eat animal products, use them for entertainment, hunt them for sport, wear them for clothing, or do research on them, we are harming them. Vegans seek to eliminate their participation in all forms of animal exploitation and harm.

The benefits of veganism to humans are substantial.

Veganism is first and foremost a way of living that is fair and just to animals. That said, the bonus benefits of sustainability, social justice, and health are substantial and should not be ignored.

Some people become vegan, or at least adopt a vegan diet, for one of these other reasons. They often come to appreciate and embrace all of veganism's implications and benefits as they become more aware.

Better health.

Research vetted by the major medical and nutrition-focused organizations mentioned earlier shows that adopting a vegan diet will reduce your risks of the chronic diseases that plague modern meat-eating societies, including heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cancer, high cholesterol, high blood-pressure levels, obesity, and poor bone health.[29] [30] [31] [32]

Kaiser Permanente, a nonprofit insurer and medical provider with over eleven million members,[33] even asks their physicians to recommend a plant-based diet to their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity. They go on to say that research shows plant-based diets "may also reduce the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases and lower ischemic heart disease mortality rates."[34]

Environmental concerns.

An article in Georgetown Environmental Law Review sums it up nicely, calling animal agriculture the "one industry that is destroying our planet and our ability to thrive on it."[35]

Animal agriculture is responsible for up to 51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions,[36] accounts for 80 percent of deforestation rates in the Amazon,[37] and is a major contributor to species extinction,[38] ocean dead zones,[39] depletion of fish,[40] runoff and water pollution,[41] and water wastage.[42][43]

The extreme devastation of the planet caused by animal agriculture prompted Howard Lyman, a former cattle rancher, to say, "You can't be an environmentalist and eat animal products"[44] and that "to consider yourself an environmentalist and still eat meat is like saying you're a philanthropist who doesn't give to charity."[45]

Human social justice.

In developing countries, almost five million children under the age of five die of malnutrition-related causes every year,[46] and another eight hundred million are unable to lead a normal life because of chronic hunger.[47]

It seems almost criminal that 80 percent of the world's starving children live in countries where food is given to livestock that will then be shipped to and eaten in more affluent countries.[48]

Studies show we could feed many times more people if we grew human food instead of growing animal food and feeding animals.[49] [50] [51] This is because animals are very inefficient at converting animal feed into animal products.

The inefficiency is because most of the calories fed to an animal go to basic metabolism for daily living and for producing body parts that are not eaten, such as bones, rather than for producing the flesh and secretions that we eat.

According to a peer-reviewed study published by the World Resources Institute in 2014, titled "Creating a Sustainable Food Future," it takes on average 24 calories of plant feed to produce one calorie of food from animals.[52]

Animal rights philosophy strengthens the case for veganism.

As mentioned earlier, the validity of veganism does not depend on believing that animals have rights. Nevertheless, the philosophy of animal rights strengthens the rational foundation of veganism.

According to philosopher Tom Regan, author of The Case for Animal Rights, "the philosophy of animal rights stands for, not against, justice. We are not to violate the rights of the few so that the many might benefit. Slavery allows this, child labor allows this, all unjust social institutions allow this…but not the philosophy of animal rights, whose highest principle is justice.”[53]

Whether or not you identify as vegan, embodying the ideas behind veganism is to live in a way that exemplifies the fairness and justice for animals that Regan is addressing. The idea of animal rights may seem odd at first, but it's actually well grounded.

The objections to veganism are weak.

After reading some of this material, you may have questions and concerns about veganism and animal rights. The In Reply to articles on this site addresses your concerns, objections, doubts, questions, and, yes, sometimes excuses.

We agree with Donald Watson, who, at the age of 92, said that veganism is "meeting every reasonable criticism that anyone can level against it."[54] The case for veganism is strong, while the objections to veganism are weak.

Veganism is on the rise.

According to the high-dollar market research firm Global Data, the number of people who identify as vegan in the U.S. has grown five-fold, or 500%, in three recent years (2014 to 2017).[55]

This is reflected in the rapidly growing number of vegan choices in restaurants and grocery stores, as well as the proliferation of vegan celebrities, vegan public figures, and vegan professional athletes.[56] Veganism is going mainstream.[57]

Getting started is an adventure.

Many have found leaving animals off their plate to be an adventure, discovering new foods, recipes, and tastes they had never before experienced. Like many changes, being vegan will soon be second nature. See our Getting Started with Going Vegan article in the Basics Section of this website.

You can be on the right side of history.

There may be nothing else you could do that would have such positive consequences on so many fronts, to the benefit of both humans and animals, than going vegan and leaving animals and animal products off your plate.

Being vegan will prevent the suffering of many innocent lives who would have otherwise been born or hatched into a system of brutality, and being vegan will give you the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’re no longer using your purchasing power for products made with violence.

In addition, the other benefits to humans are substantial. The science is clear that it will lower your risk of chronic disease, diminish your footprint on the planet, and promote a more efficient food system better capable of feeding the world’s starving, hungry, and impoverished.

Henry David Thoreau said he had no doubt that it’s the “destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals.”[58] This is your chance to be on the right side of history before it becomes the norm.

See Also

Getting Started with Going Vegan

Helpful Resources

Replies Listing: Answers to common objections


  1. “History | Vegan Society.” The Vegan Society. Accessed October 13, 2017.
  2. Huffman, Carl. “Pythagoras.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2014. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2014.
  3. Magee, Bryan. The Story of Philosophy. DK Pub., 1998. 15
  4. Porphyry, “Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras Translated by Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie,” 1920,
  5. Zaraska, Marta. Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat. 1 edition. New York: Basic Books, 2016. 119-120
  6. White, Michael. Leonardo: The First Scientist. 1st edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, 131
  7. Horowitz, David. “History of Vegetarianism - Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519).” International Vegetarian Union, July 19, 2002.
  8. Davis, John. “Shelley—The First Celebrity Vegan.”, January 5, 2011.
  9. Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Vindication of Natural Diet. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Kindle e-Book, A public domain book. Vegetarian Society, 1884., location 271
  10. Ibid.
  11. Tolstoy, Leo. 1900. The First Step: An Essay on the Morals of Diet, to Which Are Added Two Stories. Albert Broadbent. 61, 6
  12. Ibid., 58-59.
  13. Richards, Jennie. “George Bernard Shaw Poem, ‘We Are The Living Graves of Murdered Beasts.’” Humane Decisions, January 15, 2015.
  14. Gandhi, Mahatma. Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Courier Corporation, 1948, 208
  15. Gandhi, Mahatma. “Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth.” Accessed February 3, 2018., 52
  16. “Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948).” International Vegetarian Union. Accessed October 16, 2017.
  17. “Meat Production Continues to Rise.” Worldwatch Institute, September 29, 2017.
  18. Mood, A, and P Brooke. “Estimate of Fish Numbers.”, July 2010.
  19. “Vegetarian Diet: How to Get the Best Nutrition.” Mayo Clinic. Accessed August 2, 2017.
  20. “Becoming a Vegetarian.” Harvard Health Publications Harvard Medical School, March 18, 2016.
  21. Phillip J Tuso, MD, Mohamed H Ismail, MD, Benjamin P Ha, MD, and Carole Bartolotto, MD, RD. “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets.” The Permanente Journal - The Permanente Press - Kaiser Permanente - Permanente Medical Groups, 2013.
  22. Ask A Nutritionist: Plant-Based Diets.” NewYork-Presbyterian, March 30, 2017.
  23. “Understanding Vegetarianism & Heart Health.” Cleveland Clinic, December 2013.
  24. “About Us.” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Accessed August 2, 2017.
  25. “Vegetarian Diets.” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. December 2016.
  26. “Healthy Eating Guidelines for Vegans.” Dietitians of Canada, November 2017.
  27. “British Dietetic Association.” The Vegan Society. Accessed August 3, 2017.
  28. “Vegan Diets: Everything You Need to Know – Dietitians Association of Australia.” Dietitians Association of Australia. Accessed August 3, 2017.
  29. “Becoming a Vegetarian.” Harvard Health Publications Harvard Medical School, March 18, 2016.
  30. “Vegetarian Diets.” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. December 2016.
  31. “Understanding Vegetarianism; Heart Health.” Cleveland Clinic, December 2013.
  32. Ask A Nutritionist: Plant-Based Diets.” NewYork-Presbyterian, March 30, 2017.
  33. “Fast Facts About Kaiser Permanente.” Kaiser Permanente Share, 2017.
  34. Phillip J Tuso, MD, Mohamed H Ismail, MD, Benjamin P Ha, MD, and Carole Bartolotto, MD, RD. “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets.” The Permanente Journal - The Permanente Press - Kaiser Permanente - Permanente Medical Groups, 2013.
  35. Christopher Hyner. “A Leading Cause of Everything: One Industry That Is Destroying Our Planet and Our Ability to Thrive on It.” Georgetown Environmental Law Review, October 23, 2015.
  36. Goodland, Robert, and Jeff Anhang. “Livestock and Climate Change.” Worldwatch Institute. Accessed April 4, 2018.
  37. Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “Cattle Ranching in the Amazon Region.” Global Forest Atlas, June 6, 2014.
  38. “Evidence of Species Loss in Amazon Caused by Deforestation.” ScienceDaily. Accessed June 8, 2017.
  39. Victor Paine. “What Causes Ocean ‘Dead Zones’?” Scientific American. Accessed June 8, 2017.
  40. “FAO Statistical Yearbook 2012.” United Nations FAO. Accessed April 4, 2018.
  41. Bhanoo, Sindya N. “Amish Farming Draws Rare Government Scrutiny.” The New York Times, June 8, 2010, sec. Environment.
  42. “Water Footprint.” Accessed November 28, 2017.
  43. “Water Footprint Assessment Manual - The Global Standard.” Accessed November 28, 2017.
  44. Quotes from “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.” Accessed May 25, 2018.
  45. “Cowspiracy – Encore | Animal Liberation Victoria.” Accessed May 25, 2018.
  46. Richard Oppenlander. “The World Hunger-Food Choice Connection: A Summary.” Comfortably Unaware, 2012.
  47. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “Hunger Facts,” 2014.
  48. Richard Oppenlander. “The World Hunger-Food Choice Connection: A Summary.” Comfortably Unaware, 2012.
  49. Cassidy, Emily S., Paul C. West, James S. Gerber, and Jonathan A. Foley. “Redefining Agricultural Yields: From Tonnes to People Nourished per Hectare.” Environmental Research Letters 8, no. 3 (2013): 034015. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/3/034015
  50. Jason Gavericy Matheny, “Least Harm: A Defense of Vegetarianism From Steven Davis’s Omnivorous Proposal,” January 30, 2003,
  51. “U.S. Could Feed 800 Million People with Grain That Livestock Eat, Cornell Ecologist Advises Animal Scientists,” Cornell Chronicle, August 7, 1997,
  52. An average of the figures for various farmed animals from this study: World Resources Institute. “Creating a Sustainable Food Future.” World Resources Institute, 2014.
  53. “Archive:Tom Regan Speech at the Royal Institute of Great Britain in 1989.” The Justice for Animals (JFA) Wiki. Accessed August 28, 2019.
  54. George D Rodger, “Donald Watson: In His Own Words: Part Two,” The Veggie Blog (blog), December 15, 2002,
  55. “Top Trends in Prepared Foods 2017: Exploring Trends in Meat, Fish and Seafood; Pasta, Noodles and Rice; Prepared Meals; Savory Deli Food; Soup; and Meat Substitutes.” Accessed November 15, 2017. 
  56. VeganRevolution. It’s a New Era of Veganism— Game Changers First Trailer. Accessed May 27, 2018.
  57. “Vegan Is Going Mainstream, Trend Data Suggests.” Accessed November 15, 2017.
  58. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017. 118


This article was originally authored by Greg Fuller and copyedited by Isaac Nickerson. The contents may have been edited since that time by others.