The pivotal moment in my journey to veganism, and later, animal rights activism, came in the Slow Train Café. It was in the midst of my first semester at Oberlin, and I was seated across the wooden table from my philosophy professor. In his introductory ethics course, we’d been discussing the rights of non-human animals.
The argument from class that I remember best had gone something like this: Freedom from suffering and serious harm is a major interest of non-human animals. Eating animal products is a minor interest of most humans (we do it because we like the taste, because it’s convenient, etc.). The minor interests of humans do not morally outweigh the major interests of animals. Therefore, under ordinary circumstances, we should not cause animals serious harm or suffering so that we can eat them (and we should not support those who cause animals serious harm or suffering for this purpose by buying the resultant products).
“What do you think of the arguments about the rights of non-human animals that we discussed in class?” my professor asked then, as we sat in the coffee shop.
“Well, I agree with the conclusion,” I answered. “But I’m not a vegan, or a vegetarian.”
“So, a weakness of will, you might say.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I guess so.”
A weakness of will. When I left the Slow Train that day, my professor’s words stuck with me, the memory of them as heavy as the scent of coffee had been in my nostrils. He was right; I was weak-willed. And my weakness was far from a mere character flaw; it funded horrendous suffering.
That night, at fourth meal, I picked at a plate of fruit. “I think I might be going vegetarian,” I confessed to my friends, surprised to hear my own words.
In bed that night, I tossed and turned, my dreams interspersed with images of the foods I’d have to give up—fried chicken!—and images of the animals who suffered to make those foods—dead chicken.
I became a vegetarian the next day, and I went vegan a few months later. With my change in diet came changes in my palate, as well as a heightened emotional sensitivity to animals. I began to salivate over tofu, and tears pricked my eyes at the first sight of suffering cows and cats, ducks and dogs.
I spent the summer after my sophomore year in the vegan haven of Tel Aviv, Israel, interning at a vegan bakery. I twisted croissants, strolled along the Mediterranean Sea, and (just once) laid eyes on the spot where it’s alleged that Jesus was born, while fueling myself with a diet of vegan shawarma, falafel, hummus, and ice cream.
My luxurious gustatory existence in Tel Aviv was valuable for establishing myself as a vegan in the wider world, but it left something missing: activism. I wasn’t doing enough to tell people what I knew about factory farming and the benefits of a vegan diet, and I wasn’t actively fighting for the animals who needed my help.
This summer, I’m changing that by working as an intern with The Humane League, an animal advocacy organization, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Each week, I hand out leaflets on the street to promote vegetarian living, staff the Humane League table at events and festivals, or write letters to the editor related to vegetarianism and animal cruelty.
My summer experiences have left me more passionate about advocating for animals than ever before, and it’s this passion that I’ll transplant into my academic work this fall, as I begin writing an Honors thesis in philosophy on animal ethics.
It is now nearly three years since that day when I sat across the table from my professor in the Slow Train. Yet, the outcome of our conversation is with me every time I go to the grocery store, talk to someone about animal agriculture, or hand out a leaflet. Lesson learned at Oberlin: Much as we may want to plug our ears when it happens, sometimes, we need someone to tell us about our weakness of will.