I’ll spare you the details of the various and recent instances where I’ve heard “the honey argument” come up in both vegan circles and pop culture, but suffice to say it has happened so often that I feel compelled to lay out my thoughts in an effort of finality on this matter. Where the conversation around vegans eating or not eating honey can rely on hyper-detailed concerns about the farming practice, complete subjectivity, or grey areas of concern, I will firmly undercut all the hemming and hawing by stating, HONEY IS NOT VEGAN.
“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
That is, by the parameters of the vegan definition listed above, the ingestion of a product created by animals and the relationship to those animals is in direct opposition to the very idea of “use”, encompassed in the terminology of “exploitation”. It is really, truly, that simple. With that said, my gripes surrounding this issue aren’t confined to justifications by non-vegans (and vegans) in order to use bees and eat honey, but also to vegans who frame their arguments against honey on both disingenuous and insufficient platforms. It is the latter which I intend to address in greater detail, with the hopes that drawing the philosophical line with this issue will help clarify the most powerful promise of veganism in general, no matter the issue or animal or product in question.
THE GROSS OUT FACTOR
In discussing any issue regarding animal products, not just honey, vegans often rely upon being persuasive by appealing to one’s sense of visceral disgust. They tend not to engage in the seemingly abstract and more intense philosophical considerations of the issue and instead play to the low brow dynamics of the “gross out factor”. I have certainly been guilty of this approach for longer than I’d like to admit. The gross out factor involves detailing the presence of “puss” in milk, calling eggs “chicken period”, highlighting traces of feces in meat, and defining honey as “bee vomit”. The idea is that getting one to accept animal products as “gross” or causing one to develop a visceral rejection of these products will undercut all the important and necessary work of changing one’s mind, of shaping an ethical framework, or slowly eroding ingrained traditions, religious beliefs or cultural values. It seems much easier to “lift the veil” and just get one to feel repulsed by animal products, to view them not as food, but on par with non-ingestible substances such as feces and poisons.
The fundamental problem of this approach is that it is entirely subjective. Not only does trying to convince someone that honey is viscerally repulsive because it is “bee puke” go against the visceral enjoyment of honey precisely because it is sweet sugar, it also demands that one immediately reshape all their positive associations with eating and enjoying honey for as long as they have been consuming it. There is no fundamental truth in the subjective response to honey as repulsive, because subjectivity is entirely personal. Just as other cultures might try to convince the Western world that eating crickets and grubs and worms is NOT repulsive, that doesn’t change one’s attitudes about these creatures being unappetizing. All the same, just as the more extreme health foodies (too many vegans included) might try to convince us that sugar is poison and food colorings are repulsive, it changes very few minds (not to mention ACTUALLY changes visceral responses to these ingredients) towards these subjective statements. Personally, I am not repulsed by the flavor of honey nor the way honey is created by bees, but of course, relying on these subjective statements is not my reason for avoiding honey or using bees.
I would argue that most vegans are actually not viscerally repulsed by the experience of eating animal products, even knowing how they are produced. I have never met a vegan who accidentally ingested animal products and burst into uncontrollable vomiting, myself included. In part, that’s because we recognize that most of our childhood involved eating animals and that in our current lives we watch the eating of animals as normalized. We watch other people eat animals every day without having to choke them down out of duty. Further, vegans acknowledge the (tenuous) notion of a “natural order”, that is to say, a biologically determined set of eating parameters defined as herbivorous, omnivorous and carnivorous. For this very reason, no vegan would ever tell a lion that eating a gazelle is “unnatural” or “repulsive” or somehow abhorrent. For most vegans, and pretty much everyone, we view animals in the wild as biologically determined, as following a set of dietary parameters shaped by evolution and not to be messed with. So to watch other omnivorous human animals eat animals or animal by-products and make a statement that it is fundamentally gross is disingenuous. It is a subjective statement that isn’t applied to animals in the wild and holds little argumentative water. If I’m being blunt, to say that eating honey is gross because a bee puked it or whatever…is just being flat out hypocritical.
Even acknowledging, however, that one may have psychologically shaped their perceptions to view eating animals as gross or repulsive, (admittedly, this is part of establishing culture and acceptable boundaries of behavior) suggesting this repulsion to others is not only ineffectual, but philosophically empty. It is empty because subjectivity loses any argument to experience. If the opposition concretely states that they are NOT repulsed by the way honey is produced by animals and that they enjoy the sensation of eating it, not to mention its’ benefits to their health, than one has completely lost the argument. There is nothing more to say. If, to your best efforts, you fail to convince someone that eating honey is viscerally repulsive, you have no other basis to convince them otherwise. Subjectivity loses the argument. Just as someone telling you how repulsive brussels sprouts are, if you experience otherwise, there is nothing left to be said. Just as someone telling you that there are chemicals in the ground and dead insects in the dirt and that eating anything grown from those elements is repulsive, if you don’t feel the same, the discussion is over.
Further, relying upon the argumentation that eating an animal is gross or eating honey is gross is a purely selfish, human-centric perspective. In no part of that argument does it recognize the animal’s role in the experience, except as physical body. The argument essentially states that if one doesn’t see eating the animal as gross or doesn’t view the creation of the product by the animal as gross, then there is no problem. As in all issues related to veganism, by definition, the primary problem involves the exploitation of the animal. To rely on personal subjectivity is to completely ignore the perspective of the animal, which is central to our ethical framework. To say that one should not drink milk or eat honey or eat meat or wear leather because one doesn’t enjoy the experience plays into the anthropocentric perspective that puts human animals’ needs above all other needs, be they non-human animal or environmental. It reestablishes the hierarchy of importance wherein humans are on top and all others are subservient. Although tactically simplistic, the appeal to human experience when it comes to eating animals and animal products is deeply flawed in philosophy and just as selfish. As vegans, let us do away with trying to convince others that their eating habits are “gross” and rather appeal to a more fundamental and universal ethic.
VEGANISM AS CONSENSUAL RELATIONSHIP
What the definition of veganism intricately describes is a RELATIONSHIP. It acknowledges the “other” – all non-human animals – and then establishes parameters of behavior regarding those others. It, above all else, recognizes a relationship. In terms of relationships and acceptable behaviors for relationships, humans rely on an idea of agency, free-will, and most importantly, CONSENT. Between human animals, the parameters of consent essentially define all the ways in which we interact with each other and in which they shape the restrictions we place upon our interactions. We ask for consent in the physical realm and the psychological realm. Breaking these parameters of consent amount to rape and abuse. In an act of incredible hypocrisy or willful blindness, we have broken the sacred notion of consent when it comes to non-human animals. It is this acknowledgment of the agency of the “others” (non-human animals) and their emotional and physical well-being that comprises the vegan ethic and which lays bare all the weak and ineffectual arguments for not eating animals and their products (honey in this case).
Where all the subjective arguments against eating honey (and all animal products) fall short, it is the essential definition of veganism predicated on the relationships of consent that is inarguable. This idea of veganism as a relationship dynamic is what seems to get lost on most non-vegans (and vegans too). The value of veganism is often lost in the absurd discussions of plant-based diets (“dietary veganism”…blech) and nit-picky details about the treatment of animals, of which I’ll discuss in a bit, instead of the fundamental idea of an ethical relationship with animals predicated upon consent, of which we equally establish as our guide for relating to other humans. So when opponents start throwing around details about how bees are treated, or how they are “free”, or the health benefits of honey, or how bees aren’t killed, this matters nothing to veganism as an ethic, as a definition of a relationship predicated upon consent. In almost no producing relationship with animals do we establish a basis of consent, or assumption of consent in regards to a communication barrier. In all our conversations regarding animals, we must continue to cut through the “buts” and “what ifs” and reaching details with the unmovable foundation of consent.
To get into the specifics of consent itself, it is ultimately about allowing an individual to establish their own needs for the goal of personal safety, comfort, appeasement and agency. To be self-directed, whether human or non-human, is a right born through existence. To take away from one’s consent (grey areas of protection exempted) is to step immediately into exploitation and oppression. Veganism then, simply extends this consent to creatures also of consciousness and sentience. Whether it is males, females, cows, birds, spiders or bees, veganism demands an assumption of consent before proceeding with a relationship, and it is this consent that is the barrier to exploitation.
The understandable problem with relationships between humans and non-humans is the barrier of communication, and it is this communication obstacle that leads to relationships of great exploitation. It is often the justification for using and blatantly abusing non-human animals at all levels of engagement, leading to ideas of animals as machines and insentient physical bodies. Unable to communicate their desires explicitly, we write the stories for them and place them in our narratives as means to our own ends. Animals were “put here for us”. But this is just mental appeasement to do what we wish with others, as we all recognize animals as being able to communicate needs. They feel physically and emotionally and their communications with us are broken only by the specificities of human language. They are able to communicate pain, joy, fear, sadness and the full experience of self-directed existence. Although the experience of sentience and communication is grounds for an application of consent, even the areas of communication that lead us into confusion and doubt do not justify exploitation. Where doubt of sentience (or degree of) exists, our safest route for respect of one’s agency and experience is within consent. To use an exaggerated sexual analogy, we don’t assume a passed out inebriated individual is offering themselves for sexual use. We utilize the measurement of consent, of which non-communication establishes NO CONSENT, to leave the individual alone…anything else is sexual assault. In the case of bees, where our understanding of their emotional and intellectual experience is not as defined as, say, a dog’s, the value of consent inherent in the vegan ethic will still define our actions. Even excepting the very knowable sensory experience of bees in this consideration, the vegan ethic of consent can not be discounted. It is no matter that we choose not to recognize a bee’s attempt to communicate towards us (if they even do that), it is our responsibility to establish consent with all relationships, and in that responsibility we are to leave bees to their own activities. We are to let them create their own products and use them for their own purposes while we are to let the process take place and carry out our own activities for ourselves.
CONSENT AS A BRIDGE TO SOCIAL JUSTICE
Beyond the issue of honey, consent is our connection and bridge to all other issues, predominantly human-centric issues. Consent in all acknowledged and respected concerns of social justice (race, gender, etc.) is inarguable, and it is our responsibility as vegans to highlight our conjoining ethic. The terminology of consent is, unfortunately, tied into specific issues of social justice instead of applied throughout all campaigns for equality and a fundamental respect for other’s agency. It is rightfully applied directly to the issue of sexual assault for obvious reasons, but consent shouldn’t be viewed as a momentary application and rather as a consistent, all-encompassing ethic. Veganism as an ethic is predicated on this idea of consent and it should always be the first and fundamental consideration in all discussions and behaviors, but also as a connection to the many social justice issues that fail to embrace the agency of animals in their practice and perspective. When vegans rely upon relationship consent as our driving force, we immediately build bridges to other movements seeking a sense of equality, freedom, and social justice. Where consent is fundamental to an ethic, veganism can not be disregarded by other movements and individuals. Consent as an ethic is outside the parameter of species specificity, and exists as an ideal itself, therefore can and must be applied to all beings where applicable.
Consent as an ideal is fundamental to egalitarian relationships, and therefore also acts as a force of power on the side of the oppressed. Where one is gaining an advantage or forcing an advantage at the expense of another, consent is the force that not only establishes the disparity, but also levels the playing field. Viewing relationship dynamics throughout the looking glass of consent helps define where disparities lie and which player in the relationship is in need of assistance. This necessary exposure of power dynamics is critical when it comes to our relationships with non-human animals and consent tends to be an underutilized concept in our strivings for social justice for animals.
THE GREY AREAS
To bring this discussion back to the intricacies of the honey issue, it is worth acknowledging some of the absurd “grey areas” posed by the critics (proponents as well), while continuing to base our responses upon the ethic of veganism as a relationship. Next to the subjective “gross factor” argument by vegans, the TREATMENT of animals is often central to discussions around animal use, again both by vegans and non-vegans. The obvious problem with focusing our arguments for veganism solely upon the treatment of animals is that it has a limited endpoint. For instance, the argument posed by critics for honey is that the bees “aren’t killed for their honey” and are even perceived as being free and wild, left to fly and return at will. In that limited, uninformed argument it is worth pointing out that there is a degree of domestication and manipulation of bees for their honey, but also a necessity of killing in order to continue hive population and production. Beyond that obvious problem with honey production, for vegans, to concede to the idea that it is ok to consume honey because “they aren’t killed for their honey” leads to the necessary acceptance that it is ok to consume milk because the cows “aren’t killed for their milk”. If one accepts A then they also accept B, or if one rejects B then they must also reject A. But the bigger problem with relying SOLELY upon the treatment of animals to make one’s argument, whether they are cows or bees, is that the solution then falls upon rectifying the treatment of the animals. In these parameters, bees can still be used and their honey can still be consumed if we find a way to treat them well. Expanding this argument, we then begin to justify backyard chickens, free-range cows, anesthetized killings, etc., all under the umbrella that their treatment up to the point of death was acceptable. Veganism, however, doesn’t allow for acceptable treatments, because treatment itself is a negation of consent. It assumes the needs and desires of the animals, while veiling the end benefit for the human animals, instead of presupposing that an animal’s existence is to be conducted by it’s own agency, in it’s own environment free from imposed restriction. In the acknowledgement we give to our own agency and desires to live by our own accord, it only follows the same for all other animals, despite fair treatment, despite allowing bees to fly away and return on their own accord. Veganism demands not a kind life or an appeal to welfare on behalf of animals, but an ultimately liberated existence without our interruption.
It is worth pointing out here, as an aside, that in this discussion there is sometimes an interplay between the context of civilization and wilderness. It is a legitimate consideration to view veganism in the context of both, but I admit to working from the context of civilization, the dynamics of that context and the way it necessitates relationships with animals. There is an obvious sort of contradiction in dealing with animals in this context, namely via pets, domesticated animals, and similar situations, but in regards to veganism, we always seek to remove animals from our domesticated relationships while re-building and expanding the context of wilderness and/or wildness. I say this to keep focus upon the agency of animals when they are left to their own devices, in environments they have developed within throughout the processes of evolution, and not in forced confinement and alternative environments created by humans for human benefit. Specifically, in regards to honey and bees, there is absolutely no compelling reason to have a continuous relationship with them or use the products they create for their own benefit, lest that relationship is creating habitat that multiplies their populations against the concerns of colony collapse and other die-offs.
THE HIERARCHY OF CONCERN
Among the other reaching reasons for justifying the consumption of honey, by vegans as well, is an unstated recognition of bees as “lesser” creatures. In a very simplistic perspective, there is an understood emotional disconnect and hierarchy of care when it comes to animals of varying species. Probably due to evolutionary reasons, humans tend to favor human animals, and even humans of similar appearance (tribalism / neo-tribalism?), then non-human animals of close association (pets), those in close genetic approximation (primates), animals of intellect (dolphins, horses, etc.), animals of size (elephants, lions, etc.), and then the dissolution grows from smaller animals (squirrels, birds, etc.) to less attractive animals (snakes, moles, etc.) then into plentiful, nuisance creatures (wasps, mosquitoes, etc.) all the way to creatures so small as to be impossible to acknowledge (mites, bacteria, etc.). This sort of hierarchy is both understandable in evolutionary terms and practicality terms. I get this, and I do think it informs the care (or lack of) towards bees and honey. The sort of inherent apathy humans feel towards insects and bees, creatures they struggle to relate to, will drive a lack of motivation to consider them within their spheres of relationships, and bring them to discard any ideas of consent. This may be a sort of biological and psychological reality – to feel little empathy or concern – but by the ethical mandate of veganism there is no sort of loophole or tendency to accept this hypocrisy. The practicality of not consuming honey and / or not establishing a direct relationship with bees is so simple and easy as to be almost inherent. It takes more of an effort to become a “beekeeper” than it does to just let them exist. And to come back to our premise, the mandate of consent will still drive the relationship between humans and bees, of which that mandate is to allow them an existence free of our intrusion in any way possible.
HONEY IS NOT CONSENSUAL. VEGANISM IS.
While we should continue to assert, without reservation, that honey is simply NOT VEGAN, we should also continue to follow that assertion up with the explanation that veganism is about a consensual relationship with non-human animals and therefore there is no need to measure the treatment of the animals, no need to recognize the benefits to our health, no need to debate the subjective nature of how honey is produced, but to rather state that the relationship is fundamentally exploitive because it is fundamentally not consensual. In the majority of discussions I have about veganism, or hear about veganism, there is a shocking lack of consideration of the animals themselves. With the rise in plant-based diets and health conscious vegans, a confusion has developed which has muddied the conversation. This confusion is based in an anthropocentric consideration of veganism, of the intricacies of the lifestyle only in how they apply to humans. Considerations of veganism are subject to how the non-vegans feel, how veganism fits into cultural sensitivity, how veganism affects one’s health, instead of how veganism applies to the relationship between both humans AND animals.
In discussing veganism as an ethic of relationships, as a premise of consent, the animal is not made invisible or even secondary to the conversation, but is primary to the considerations. A relationship is not a relationship if there is only one individual involved. Veganism mandates at least two players in the discussion, dictating an admission of consent and so it establishes a baseline of understanding and acknowledgment for all creatures. Veganism doesn’t confine itself to subjective interpretations of what is gross or not gross. It doesn’t confine itself to the limitations of welfare. It doesn’t confine itself solely to the interests of human animals. Veganism demands a relationship of non-exploitation between humans and cows, humans and cats, humans and, yes, even bees.
It’s right to say honey is not vegan. It’s also right to say honey is not consensual. Veganism, fundamentally, IS about consent.