Absolute Veganism vs Progressive Ahimsa

Image courtesy of Alan English, Flickr

What is the difference between an absolutist ideology like Veganism and the progressive implementation of a value like Ahimsa? Lets start with the Sanskrit word Ahimsa - meaning without harm A-himsa where Himsa means to strike in sanskrit. However, Ahimsa is a value whose spirit is not absolutist, but rather means do as little harm as possible. Jain monks have tried to adopt this value in an absolutist way and will walk down the road with a brush, brushing insects out of their path lest they tread on them and kill them. The reality of life on this planet is that a human kills millions of microbes with each breath that they take, and thus it is impossible to not do harm, since just by breathing you are doing some harm, and just by eating, your stomach is killing bacteria.

So the spirit of Ahimsa is to do as little harm as possible. That means, if you are stuck on a desert island and there is only a seagull to eat in order to survive, then eating the seagull would be doing the least amount of harm possible to maintain one's life. Eating that same seagull in an environment where there is an abundance of plant nutrition would not be causing the least amount of harm. Now, the question arises, whose life is more valuable, a human's or a seagull's (or a plant's). From the perspective of Ahimsa, we can see that while each being's life is equally precious to it, the more developed the nervous system and the mind, the greater will be the suffering when that being is killed, and so the least amount of suffering is caused by eating as low down the food-chain as possible.

Applying the principle of Ahimsa in a progressive way like this allows us to rationally decide on what foods are ethically best according to time, place and person.

If I contrast this to Veganism, I see what I believe to be the major flaw with this ideology. Veganism is absolutist - one should never eat animal products under any circumstances. This gives little scope of flexibility in exercising the principle of veganism. If we go back to our desert island, the human being would die and the seagull would live if we abide by the absolutist ideology. There would also be no circumstances under which drinking milk would be considered ethical, since it would always be considered non-vegan, even if a malnourished human baby whose mother could not breast-feed it were to take the milk. And then things get weird when we extend the ideology to the borders of what is animal - for a long time people have argued over whether we should eat honey - since it harms bees by depriving them of their natural food store. Yet, are bees animals? Should we apply this same principle to eating fungi and yeasts and extend it to plants? Where do we stop? Is it OK for humans to drink a toxin called alcohol, which clearly harms the most developed creatures on the planet?

Absolutist veganism ties me up in circles, but I support it as a movement, why? Essentially it is something that people can mentally grasp quite easily (whereas Ahimsa takes a little more thought and constant application). It is also the force behind mass movements, blossoming restaurant chains and a foodstuff industry that is far more ethical than anything we have had on the planet up till now. But under the skin - I am an Ahimsik who will constantly challenge myself to live with as little harm in my trail as I could muster.