What's Wrong with Veganism? An exploration of the differing ethical projects of mainstream vegan and radical animal rights activists in Bristol, UK.

  • Therese Kelly

Student thesis: Phd


Vegan activism has taken hold in the UK and other European countries with some momentum during the last ten years or so. This activism is concerned with revealing to a consumer public the nature of the industries they support in consuming meat and dairy among other animal based products. There is a strong passion and a sense of moral fervour that comes with this. At the same time, radical animal rights activists (RARs), who have a history of activism that is tied in with anarchist/anti-capitalist praxis find vegan activism, to varying degrees, problematic. In this thesis I consider how both groups see the nature of the problem they face in their activisms towards saving animals and how this leads to differing forms of activisms. I frame these through a lens of ethical projects and use an anthropology of morality and ethics to explore these differing ethical projects. Finally, I discuss the extent to which a movement for the animals is possible with both projects coming together, in some way, when I look at the work of strategists who are actively seeking to draw both sides together. I conducted fieldwork in Bristol, UK between January 2017 and February 2018 following a group of vegan activists from the Save Movement. In Bristol a local chapter of the Save Movement, Bristol Animal Save (BAS), like all Save activists around the world, attend abattoirs to undertake vigils. The purpose of these vigils is to bear witness to the animals as they enter the abattoirs in order to show compassion for the animals and to take pictures to share on social media. The personhood of the animals they bear witness to is central to the morality of the vegan activist ethical project, where being vegan and encouraging others to be vegan rests on recognising that the animals we eat are persons and this is morally wrong. I also spent time with RARs in Bristol who also practise veganism but see it not as a moral imperative, but a tactic to use within the wider fight for both animal and human liberation. I contribute within this thesis to the literature that considers how ethical subjects see themselves and perform ethics by widening the frame to include animals as subjects too. The vegan activist project, concerned with self-transformation into a morally consistent vegan, extends the framework of liberal democracy to animals asking that they be recognised as persons with rights in law, just like human persons. The RARs focus on transforming social relations through prefigurative politics that seeks to challenge capitalism, which they see is the source of both animal and human oppression. I show how an anthropology of morality and ethics can be applied specifically to these political projects of activists pointing out where the reformist and radical projects converge and diverge.
Date of Award1 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorKaren Sykes (Supervisor) & Katherine Smith (Supervisor)


  • prefiguration
  • morality and ethics
  • ethical projects
  • veganism
  • activism
  • radical animal rights

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