Against vegan absolutism

See update and correction (two separate entries) for June 18, 2021, at end of post.

The anti-vaccination movement, it seems, has a new wrinkle for vegans:

There are, often, animal ingredients in vaccines. When I got my flu shot last year, my vegan doctor asked me about any allergies to eggs.

And it’s true that there is a dissonance there; this is why I remember her question and not whether I was asked a similar one when I went to a hospital clinic for my COVID-19 vaccine shots.


Indian religious tradition that stresses ASCETICISM and NONVIOLENCE. The sixth-century B.C.E. sage Vardhamana, called Mahavira (Great Hero), is traditionally regarded as the last in a line of 24 founder-prophets called tirthankaras (“pathmakers”) or jinas (“they who overcome,” from which the word “Jain” is derived). Jainism is thought to have begun as a reaction against the hierarchical CASTE system and animal sacrifice in HINDUISM, with which it still has much in common, as it does with BUDDHIST thought as well. The religion has about 3.5 million adherents, almost all of them in India. It is divided into two main sects, which formed from a schism in the first century B.C.E. and are known by the names that at that time distinguished their att tude toward dress, Shvetambara (“clad in white”) and Digambara (“clad in air,” i.e., nude).

Jains believe in samsara, the cycle of rebirth through which KARMA is worked out, and in the eventual liberation of the soul from earthly attachments. This is achieved through self-discipline and austere living, meditation, and the three “jewels” of right living: right belief, right knowledge, and right conduct. Jain monks are further required to adhere to five vows of abstention from violence, lying, theft, attachments, and sexual pleasure. Central to Jain practice is the concept of ahimsa (noninjury), based on the belief that violence produces bad karma, which may result in a soul’s returning to earth as an animal or insect; therefore violence must be absolutely avoided and all living creatures respected. Consequently, Jains are not only pacifistic but vegetarian, and some monastics wear nose masks and carry brooms to sweep the ground before them to avoid inhaling or treading on souls in their path. The doctrine of ahimsa influenced Mahatma GANDHI’s philosophy of nonviolence.


(Note: See correction, June 18, 2021) Vegans are not necessarily or even particularly often Jains. The religion certainly has its appeal, particularly for a no-longer-practicing naturist with the Digambara sect. And certainly some vegans object to harming insects; I wonder what they do about cockroaches or fleas, or about the fact, that even for vegans, the distribution system that brings fruits and vegetables to grocery stores inevitably smashes countless insects against truck grills and windshields.

I am not a Jain, nor am I likely to become one. Inevitably, a line must be drawn between the life you protect and the life you don’t. Jains draw that line as closely as possible to the distinction between plants and animals; it is my understanding that they are concerned even with bacteria. Most vegans draw the line at sentience, here understood as the ability to suffer pain.[2] Yeast, a bacteria in the animal kingdom, may be consumed. Lobsters, which lack the ability to go into shock, and may therefore suffer every last millisecond of their deaths in boiling water, absolutely may not.

I draw my line around insects, acknowledging the inconsistency that insects may in fact have more complex brains than shellfish. I can’t protect insects, especially those that wander into my home; I therefore do not try.

But there is an issue of absolutism which some vegans badger other vegans with. Some, neglecting, for example, that cats moved in with us,[3] insist that companion animals are inherently exploited. I wonder what they think of symbiotic relationships, in which each animal of a different species benefits from the other and what speciesist mental gymnastics they must endure to reject the possibility of such relationships between humans and nonhumans.

Similarly, so it would seem that some vegans are wielding an absolutist club on the subject of vaccines against COVID-19. I suspect that if we were to conduct an “absolutist” audit of these vegans’ lives, we would find that they throw their stones from glass houses. Animal products are ubiquitous; vegans can try, as much as practicable, to avoid them. We cannot succeed absolutely. And those who say that we must seem likely to me to have other issues than the protection of nonhuman animals.

Update, June 18, 2021:

Correction, June 18, 2021: I had understood Jainism as, in part, radical veganism. It appears this is not quite right.

There seems to be quite some controversy among Jains on this topic, certainly not limited to Gary Francione, as some argue that the situation in India is or was quite different from the factory farms and dairy operations in the U.S. (and presumably other developed societies) and therefore that eggs and dairy are Himsa (“harmful”).[4]

Animal rights activists and theorists would say that even the use made of animals under less developed circumstances, such as those Jains refer to,[5] infringes nonhuman animals’ personal sovereignty and is thus, certainly from an ethical perspective, a harm. It is certainly not “respectful” of those animals. I confess I am disappointed.

  1. [1]Chris Rohmann, A World of Ideas (1999), s.v. Jainism.
  2. [2]This is not the dictionary definition, which is, “able to perceive or feel things,” in Oxford Dictionary of English (2010), s.v. sentient.
  3. [3]John Bradshaw, Cat Sense (New York: Basic, 2013).
  4. [4]Jai Jinendra, “Jiva-Daya Seminar : Discussion on various issues,” Jainism Literature Center, n.d.,; Jainism: Know It, Understand It & Internalize It, “Jainism View on Dairy Products…” June 25, 2019,
  5. [5]Jainism: Know It, Understand It & Internalize It, “Jainism View on Dairy Products…” June 25, 2019,

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