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I understand vegans don't use animal products for various (sometimes different) reasons but I actually fail to see what is the reason behind vegans refusing to use animal products at all for ethical reasons.

Let me explain: I see why a person would oppose to using animal products from places where animals are treated badly, but if the animals are treated well, what is the problem? Domesticated animals are so breaded that they produce much more of what they are kept for than they need, that is they are not being deprived of anything, the way I see it: dairy cows produce much more milk than their calf needs; sheep produce much more wool then they need (and some need to be shorn to be kept healthy); chicken lay more eggs than they need to reproduce (and they don't need to be fertilized either), etc.

Also, these animals can't survive without humans taking care of them, so they can't just be set free into the wild (of course, we can let the species go extinct, but I don't see any point in this).

So, the more precise question would be: what is the problem (from an ethical vegan's point of view) to consume the milk of a cow, or the eggs of a chicken, or the wool of a sheep, or the honey of bees, etc. that are taken good care of?

  • You should note that this may be closed as being primarily opinion-based which is discouraged in this Q&A format. – David S Jan 18 at 13:06
  • I agree with @DavidS in that this will probably invite many opinion-based answers, on the other hand, I think it would be nice to have some good quality answers to this on this site. – Alexander Rossa Jan 18 at 18:46
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Let me just clarify that the lack of citations here is because the question is about attitude rather than facts about animal agricultural practices

At the source of it, for many vegans the idea of using animals is flawed, it implies that they are our property do with what we like.

The situations you mention where they are taken good care of are rare, but let me address each one you mentioned.

Milk

Cows only produce milk after giving birth, so they are artificially inseminated (repeatedly) so as to keep producing it. That's not really avoidable even if you're taking care of them.

At this point you're getting lots of calves, females can become dairy cows, males are a burden because you can't send them for slaughter.

Over-production of milk is influenced by the use of things such as Bovine Somatotropin, so the excess you mention is artificially inflated.

Eggs

Chickens have a fairly even chance to be born male and in the industry those chicks have a bleak and short future ahead of them, however, if you have some chickens in your garden at home, and they lay eggs, they may as well be eaten rather than rot away on the ground.

Plenty of ethical vegans probably won't get too worked up about that, it's a drop in the ocean in terms of egg numbers, but they're not about to go out and get chickens for that purpose either because they won't want to eat chicken periods.

Wool

Sheep are bred for maximum wool production, so consequently they need to be sheared.

You have to look at it in the context of the whole system, those sheep exist to make a profit for the farmer, first to produce as much wool as possible, then to be sold as meat.

Honey

Honey isn't a by-product, bees collect pollen to make honey to feed themselves. Instead the honey taken has to be replaced with some other food source, that's usually sugar water which is a poor food source for bees.

There are some ways of catching the excess honey that drips out of the bottom of a hive and would otherwise end up on the floor, but that's not going to produce on a scale that makes it more than a fringe endeavour. Again many ethical vegans will not object to people eating that otherwise wasted honey.

So why not eats eggs and honey and wear wool?

First and foremost I don't feel like I'm missing out on this stuff, I don't think about it day to day unless someone asks me a question about it. It's not a problem to be solved, I solved it already for me.

But if you wanted to, the only way to ensure the wellbeing of all the animals involved would be to keep them yourself. At that point you're practically a farmer, that's just not going to make sense for a vegan because if you were going to be a farmer you'd grow kale.

Delicious kale.

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    When a hen lays unfertilized eggs, she will at some point eat them and recover the calcium. If you remove the eggs before that, the hen will just lay more and more eggs. Laying eggs continuously is unnatural and makes the hen prone to prolapses, infection, inflammation, egg binding or tumours. The industry doesn't care as they are killed young anyway, but as pets or in a sanctuary it means an almost certainly shorter and more painful lifespan. – istepaniuk Jun 20 at 12:08
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    @istepaniuk That's the first time I've heard that, thanks for bringing it up. – David S Jun 20 at 12:50
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I think the previous answers address some really important ideas. I just wanted to add onto those here.

Consumer labels such as "free range" are very misleading. From Humane Farm Animal Care certification website: The USDA’s (and industry standard) definition for "Free Range" is that birds must have "outdoor access" or :access to the outdoors." In some cases, this can mean access only through a "pop hole," with no full-body access to the outdoors and no minimum space requirement. In practice this means that most chickens, for example, even though they are considered free range, will never actually go outdoors. There might be a tiny hold in the side of a shed housing 100,000 birds that leads to a small fenced area outdoors, so most of the chickens won't have access to it often or at all.

In addition, male chicks are ground up alive (macerated) upon being sexed. I know this sounds insane, but it's industry standard practice in the US, UK, and many other countries.

Regarding your comment about farmed animals being bred to produce large quantities of eggs, milk, wool, etc., I would counter that humans can simply breed fewer of these animals. After all, isn't it better not to have been born than to be born into a life of suffering? Cows used in the dairy industry must be constantly impregnated to keep producing milk, and this means that their calves are taken from them at a very young age so that humans can use the milk. Dairy cows and egg-laying chickens have also been bred to produce debilitating amounts of milk and eggs. In the case of cows, their grotesquely large and heavy udders often develop mastitis; and chickens lose bone mass and develop osteoporosis at a young age from the nutrient loss that accompanies such high egg production.

Even chickens not bred for egg-laying, but for meat consumption, often have ghastly health problems. They've been bred to grow so large so quickly that they develop heart, bone, and immune conditions; sometimes their legs will break under their own weight and they slowly die of dehydration or infection.

From https://academic.oup.com/ps/article/93/12/2970/2730506 : enter image description here

Regarding wool, sheep have been bred to have wrinkly skin in order to increase the surface area from which wool can grow. This greatly increases the chances of fly strike because the wool retains dirt and moisture in which blow flies can lay their eggs. The maggots then consume the sheep's flesh. In Australia, a practice called Mulesing is commonly used to prevent fly strike around the hindquarters of sheep. Strips of skin around the rump are cut away, often without the use of anesthetics.

Which brings me to my last point: tail docking and castration in pigs. Both of these procedures are performed on piglets without any anesthetics.

I hope these answers are helpful.

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Veganism is not about animal welfare it is about animal's right to life, to a free life and to not be treated as property. Regardless of how well an animal is treated, there's almost always some sort of subjugation of cruelty along the process of collecting animal products.

Instead of asking the question why shouldn't we use animal products if animals are treated well. We should ask, do we need to use animal products? In modern society, the answer is always "No", therefore there's no good reason for modern humans to use animals.

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Overview

David S already gave a a good answer on why the products might not be as ethical as they seem, so I'm giving an answer on why a vegan wouldn't consume/use animal products even if they are as ethical as they seem. While this is inherently opinionated and varies from vegan to vegan, I'm trying to include as broad a variety of reasons as I can so that at least one should apply to a given vegan who refuses to make a particular exception. These reasons broadly include practicality (1-5), human cognitive biases (6-10), and ethics (8-11).

Sorry for the lack of citations. I added parenthetical notes where I think they would be most useful if someone wants to edit them in.

Assumptions

First we need to assume that there's a particular ethical precept that on the surface compels eventual veganism, and then we need to assume the existence of animal-derived products which are on the surface compatible with the ethical precept.

  1. The ethical precept I'm assuming is that humans should not increase nonhuman animal suffering for the sake of human pleasure/profit. For example, it would be permissible to: kill an animal in self defense (animal suffers for human survival), forcibly vaccinate a dog against rabies (animal suffers to reduce their future suffering), and teach wild monkeys to bring difficult-to-harvest fruits to humans in exchange for relatively worthless trinkets (animal is exploited by humans without suffering). But it would not be permissible to: selectively breed sheep to produce excess wool at the expense of overall health, force a dog to stay inside for human convenience when the dog would rather run around outside, and to upset the monkeys that are being exploited at the end of the previous sentence.

  2. My other assumption is that animal-derived products have been acquired by humans in ways that don't increase animal suffering and are available for this ethical vegan. For example, this might include meat from cows that died of old age after living full lives in appropriate environments. But it would not include "free range" eggs where the hens roam around for all of 2 years before being killed for not laying fast enough, or where (non-laying) male chicks are killed as soon as they're sexed.

Answers

With these assumptions, here's why an animal welfare vegan might still decline to consume/use animal-derived products that came into human possession without causing animal suffering.

  1. Ethical verification is expensive in terms of time and effort. Maybe it takes 5 hours of focused research to verify that wool from a particular alpaca shepherd is ethical because it comes from a legitimately symbiotic relationship between farmer and animals, but it only takes 5 minutes to choose a good plant-based or synthetic alternative.

  2. It's a "needle in a haystack" problem to find the ethical products. For example, there might be several dozen "free range" egg businesses, but 95% of them do things like killing hens when they stop laying as frequently and killing the non-laying male half of the chicks immediately after sexing. Even if it takes only 10 minutes to check if a given "free range" egg distributor is ethical by the vegan's standard, odds are it would be faster for them to learn how to make/use vegan alternatives like flax eggs.

  3. Ethical animal products are too expensive. By the "humans not causing animal suffering" standard, a fully ethical egg farm would have to let all hatched chicks live their full natural lifespans in good environments with plenty of food, space, shelter, and appropriate veterinary care. Just hens laying less frequently as they age could increase the human effort per egg by 2-5x (citation and exact range needed). Then double that due to not killing the entire male half of the population. Then throw in a bit more expense due to roosters being larger and more likely to be territorial. By this point, the fully ethical egg might cost 5-15 times as much as a factory farmed egg, at which point it might be cheaper to just buy a commercial vegan alternative.

  4. The vegan's body might have lost its capacity to properly digest animal matter. Anecdotally (specific citation needed), I've heard that this is a thing that happens after a couple of years of not processing an entire category of proteins/fats/chemicals. I imagine this is similar to the experience of someone suddenly jumping from a dietary fiber deficit to a surplus.

  5. The easiest way to avoid unethical animal products is to avoid all animal products. Between the mental cost of finding/verifying ethical animal products and the financial cost of buying them, it could be easier and cheaper to spend 3x as much (relative to factory farmed animal products) on vegan alternatives. A practiced vegan would likely have also have figured out different cooking styles that are even easier/cheaper by simply not calling for animal products in the first place.

  6. The question in the vegan's mind is "Why would I use/consume an animal product?". By the time someone becomes a vegan, they've already figured out their own reasons why they wouldn't use animal products. So there has to be a solid reason why they would make an exception. Even if there's a clear and solid quickly-verifiable explanation for why it's ethically permissible by the vegan's standard and it's as cheap as whatever the vegan's already eating/drinking/wearing/using, what's the vegan's incentive to try the animal-derived product that they've long ago stopped thinking of as food/drink/clothing?

  7. The vegan is too proud of their "vegan" label to give it up for a measly [specific animal product]. In much of the world avoiding animal products takes some serious effort, especially when lots of packaged foods that look vegan from the picture and product name turn out to have random filler animal products in the ingredients. After spending so much effort learning how to avoid certain products and ingredients, it's easy to lose sight of the original reason (avoiding human-caused animal suffering) and start seeing "being vegan" as more of a personal accomplishment than an effort to reduce suffering.

  8. The vegan is too cynical about supposedly ethical animal products. After seeing too many "free range", "grass fed", etc products still causing animal suffering for the sake of human pleasure, a vegan could believe that all supposedly ethical animal products are similarly bad for the animals that the products are derived from.

  9. The vegan doesn't want to change ethically-decided habits unless there's an ethics reason to do so. They've likely spent a lot of ethical reflection deciding to become veg*n and even more time thinking thru each personal use of animal products to reach the point of veganism. By that point, unless there's an ethical reason to not only permit but obligate using the animal product, why make the exception?

  10. The vegan is concerned that consuming an ethical animal product will weaken their willpower to resist unethical animal products later. For example, if an almost-vegan is used to eating an (ethical) egg with their breakfast each morning, would they be more or less likely than a vegan to order a (likely unethical) poached egg at a lunch meeting?

  11. The vegan is concerned about what moral message their consumption of an (ethical) animal product will send to people who consume (unethical) animal products. For example, wearing an ethical wool hat makes wool hats in general (regardless of ethical status) more fashionable, increasing demand.

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The use of anything an animal produces is not vegan even if it is free range. An animal cannot give consent to use using excess they may produce. The conditions and manner animals are handled is not kind, compassionate, or for the sake of the animals. Even small farms view animals as what can they produce and how can I profit from this animal.

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