Even those sympathetic to my veganism think I should make exceptions on rare occasions. What difference would it make, they ask, if I consumed a little dairy a few times a year, when travel, a family gathering, or other social events make sticking to my vegan guns inconvenient or awkward? Practically speaking, they may be right. A few spoonfuls of my aunt’s creamy soup won’t really contribute to the exploitation of animals. The crème fraîche has already been produced and bought and mixed in. The soup will be finished with or without my help. No harm done, they argue.
I think the difference between those who think little exceptions are fine and those who don’t is that the former see veganism primarily as a pursuit of practical goals while the latter also see veganism as the pursuit of moral integrity. It comes down to whether morality is about outcomes or intentions.
I think it’s about both. Of course veganism is about creating tangible change: The fewer animal products we buy, the fewer are produced, and the fewer animals suffer. But veganism, to me, is also about consistently living in line with my practical goals, even if my day-to-day „moral“ decisions don’t always contribute to attaining them. Had I eaten my aunt’s soup despite it containing dairy, I probably would not have harmed animals in any palpable way. But I want to live as though my actions always mattered, not least of all because I don’t want to miss the opportunities in which they actually do.
If you nevertheless think of morality and veganism as outcome-based, evidence suggests that not making exceptions to avoid discomfort or inconvenience does, in fact, help animals. Studies have shown that people who get to know members of groups they used to think of only in clichés view the whole group more positively as a result of contact with one of its members. There is also evidence that people’s short-term lashing out at vegans may inspire them to consider vegan arguments sometime down the road. So even if your rejection of non-vegan foods is annoying to others and uncomfortable to you, you are putting veganism on someone’s mind and showing her that vegans are not freaks, but pleasant people.
Like most people, I don’t like awkwardness, and sometimes I wish my veganism didn’t make me stand out in every event involving food. But as someone who values morality both for its potential for change and for its guarantee of integrity I know that consistency matters, and consistency lives not in grand actions—it lives in the small ones.