Several years ago, the term plant-based started being bandied around in place of the term vegan. I primarily saw this in the medical community as a way for those people promoting health to distance themselves from activists who were promoting vegan as an ethical stance. It was during a time when saying “vegan” got you a sideways look from most people, so in a way, it was perfectly understandable. Not too long after, many vegans also adopted this term to distance themselves from the healthy eating crowd that didn’t much care about the plight of animals. Again, understandable since vegan entails a strong moral stance and if someone doesn’t care about animals, they can’t rightly claim the word associated with that moral stance. A definition of the two terms may help elucidate the issue.
Vegan – A way of living meant to avoid causing harm to animals by abstaining from eating animal-derived products and from using animal-derived products, such as in clothing, detergents, etc.
Plant-based – A diet that focuses on eating foods derived from plants and not animals, almost always for health or environmental reasons.
Notice that plant-based has nothing to do with causing harm to animals. Sort of. What about those people that did it for environmental reasons? That could be from a motive of self-preservation and/or a motive of social responsibility. If it’s the latter, it is clearly an ethical stance, even though it’s different from not wanting to cause harm to other animals. Sort of. Where is the line drawn here?
The important question for me, though, is that distinction useful or harmful? I can be pedantic at times and I am fairly exacting when I define terms, but there was always something that didn’t sit quite right with me about the use of plant-based versus vegan, despite them being denotatively accurate. Even though they clearly reference the same dietary choice and are differentiated by motivation (one for animals, the other for health), I always preferred the term “vegan” to be inclusive, rather than exclusive. Plant-based, I felt, treated vegan like it was a dirty word and vegan became scornful of plant-based. Neither of those is good for the animals, or people for that matter. That’s why I use the word vegan even for people that are just doing it for health. It may not be an accurate description of their motivation for their dietary choice, but it goes a long way to making everyone feel included and when people feel included, they are more likely to stick with their dietary choice. That, to me, is far more important than dividing people.
I’ve noticed a slow move away from plant-based recently. The fact that PCRM calls their kickstart program the 21 Day VEGAN Kickstart is a great move in the right direction and I hope we see more of that. Of course, every time I see someone calling themselves vegan and buying a leather purse or wallet, I grit my teeth, but I use that as an opportunity to educate people towards more compassionate choices as opposed to dividing them through linguistic terms.
What do you think? Do you think plant-based/vegan dichotomy should be used or do you think we should expand the term vegan to be more inclusive?
If vegan is defined as an ethical term and one is a utilitarian, as several of the leaders in the vegan community are, is the motivation of a dietary lifestyle relevant? Since only the consequences of an action matter in utilitarianism, should vegan only be defined by the results of the action and not its motivation?