Veganism deserves the same protection against discrimination as religion, say philosophers

Don’t discriminate,
Don’t discriminate,
Image: Reuters/ Heinz-Peter Bader
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Imagine there’s a boss who truly despises vegans. He eats red meat every day, wants all his employees to eat steaks, and refuses to hire any vegan employees. (Someone, perhaps, a bit like the former Waitrose magazine editor, who was successfully pressured to resign after making an offensive “joke” about force-feeding vegans red meat.) Such a person would clearly be a jerk, but would they be discriminatory?

The question will be answered by a UK employment tribunal, which will hear a case in March 2019 brought by a man who claims he was fired for his vegan beliefs and, as such, was discriminated against. To decide whether his case has grounding, the tribunal must first resolve whether veganism constitutes a “philosophical belief” under UK law, and so deserves the same protections as religious beliefs.

To qualify as a “belief” according to UK law veganism must:

  • Be genuinely held.
  • Attain a certain level of cogency and seriousness.
  • Be worthy of respect in a democratic society. That means it cannot be incompatible with human dignity and must not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
  • Must be a belief, rather than an “an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.” (In other words, an opinion is relatively temporal compared to a belief.)

Quartz spoke with three philosophers—Peter Singer, utilitarian philosopher at Princeton University; Oxford University moral philosopher Jeff McMahan; Brian Earp, research fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics—who all thought veganism deserved the same legal protection as religion. Three more (Charles Taliaferro, philosophy of religion professor at St. Olaf College in Minnesota; Josh Milburn, lecturer in political philosophy at the University of York; and Dominic Wilkinson, professor of medical ethics at Oxford University), emailled to say they agreed.

“I think it’s a sounder belief than any of the religions,” said Singer. “I think veganism rests on a strong moral foundation. It’s clearly a deep belief, it affects your life and the way you behave and outlook on the world, and I think should count as philosophical belief.”

McMahan agreed that vegan is “indisputably” a philosophical belief. He pointed out that the subject is extensively debated by moral philosophers, showing that veganism is “recognized by philosophers as a highly important moral issue.”

However, if someone is a vegan for reasons that are not based in moral or ethical concerns—Earp offered the examples of someone who is vegan because their friends were vegan, or because they thought it was healthy—that would not constitute a philosophical belief. But, when the practice is motivated by a concern for animal welfare or the environmental impact of eating meat, it does indeed form a philosophical belief system.

Both Singer and McMahan said they found the legal distinction between a “belief” and an “opinion” to be strange. McMahan, for example, suggested his view that human action contributes to climate change constitutes both a belief and an opinion. “I don’t see the contrast,” he said.

“It would be crazy,” Singer added, “to hold any belief impervious to the present state of information.” For example, if there was definitive proof that Jesus never existed, it would make little sense to continue to be Christian. Similarly, veganism wouldn’t be warranted if it turned out that animals could not suffer and the science on climate change was all fake. “Veganism is based on the present state of information, but only in the same sense that any religious belief is based on the present state of information,” said Singer.

Overall, the philosophers said that not only does veganism meet the requirements of “philosophical belief” under UK law, but, broadly speaking, it deserves the same protections against discrimination as religious beliefs. If such reasoning convinces UK’s employment tribunal, then vegans will have legal standing to demand an end to any discrimination.