The Ethical Vegan Versus a Plant-Based Diet: What Is the Difference

The animals don’t care why you aren’t eating them. But on a human level there are distinctions between people's motives for their behavior.

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Veganism has been growing significantly in the mainstream spotlight over the past few years.

While this is a major victory for animal rights advocates and the animal rights movement in general, the growing popularity of any subject will always lead to the spread of misinformation.

Something that seems to be confused regularly when it comes to veganism is the definition of the term.

By definition, a vegan is someone who follows 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; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.

Because of popular documentaries like Forks Over Knives, the term  ‘plant-based diet’ is now very common.

All vegans adhere to a plant-based diet but does that mean someone who follows a plant-based diet necessarily a vegan?

Some ethical vegans will say no.

Before jumping into the why that is, let’s take a look at how veganism has been growing.

Veganism Has Become Very Popular

veganism becoming more popular

It’s not just the vegan and animal rights sites that are talking about the rise of veganism.

Even Forbes wrote an article discussing the different reasons why veganism is becoming more widely accepted.

According to Michele Simon of the Plant Based Foods Association, they’ve “seen a huge spike in demand for plant-based meat and dairy alternatives as more and more consumers look to diversify their diet with plant-based foods or are moving to an entirely plant-based diet.”

There are many different reasons why people are looking away from animal products and turning to plants. From vegan health benefits, environmental benefits, and, most importantly to the ethical vegan, improvement to the lives and wellbeing of animals.

Because of the rise in popularity, more and more people are talking about veganism in general. And because of that, misinformation spreads easily.

Many people often confuse a plant-based diet as being vegan. While all vegans are on a plant-based diet, not all people on a plant-based diet are vegan.

Why Are People Becoming Vegan?

There are many answers to this question. But before we can answer that, it needs to be established that for some people the reason may vary.

An ethical vegan will argue this, though. There is only one reason to go vegan in the mind of many ethical vegans. That answer is “for the animals.”

And while it may be true that people across the vegan spectrum all love animals, the motivation to becoming vegan, can vary from person to person.

So what kind of vegans are there?

The Ethical Vegan

An ethical vegan is someone whose lifestyle and choices are shaped by their desire to avoid cruelty and suffering to animals at all practical costs.

Ethical veganism goes far beyond a plant-based diet. The limits an ethical vegan faces don’t just stop at their food choices.

While the extended benefits enjoyed by an ethical vegan surely go beyond their refusal to contribute to the suffering of animals, the choice to go vegan wasn’t motivated by those additional benefits.

Vegans for Personal Health

vegan for health reasons

With veganism becoming more popular, a lot of people are making the switch because of vegan health benefits.

It’s no secret that eating processed meats is detrimental to one’s health.

In fact, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (an agency of the World Health Organization), processed meats are listed alongside other group 1 carcinogens such as tobacco, alcohol, asbestos, and arsenic.

People who consume a lot of processed meats are at a much higher risk of suffering from preventable illnesses. Som of these include diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and certain types of cancer.

With so many new studies coming out that show the dangers of consuming meat, it makes sense that a lot of people are seeking new ways of living a healthier lifestyle.

And while a lot of the people going plant-based for health reasons likely care about animals, they differ from ethical vegans because they don’t necessarily cut out animal products from outside of their diets. That isn’t a bad thing, though. 

Health benefits can be a nice bonus for ethical vegans. And reducing the suffering of animals is a bonus for people looking to improve their health on a plant-based diet.

Vegan for the Environment

It’s no secret that the way animals are mass produced is bad for the environment.

In fact, factory farming is one of the biggest causes of pollution on a global scale. Factory farming not only pollutes the air but also the land and water from things like manure runoff, destruction of the soil, and poisoning of the water table.

To make matters worse, the mainstream media doesn’t like to discuss industrial animal agriculture and factory farming when it talks about climate change.

Kip Anderson brought this conversation to the water cooler with his groundbreaking documentary Cowspiracy.

Because of Cowspiracy’s success on Netflix, many people that care about the environment started to think more about their choices at the dinner table. While some may have already known about the environmental harms of factory farming, seeing stronger connections and arguments against a meat-heavy diet made it easier for them to make the switch to a plant-based diet.

Do All Vegans Have the Same Goals?

types of vegans

Usually not. And that is totally fine.

While some vegans might not consider someone a vegan if they are doing it for other reasons than the animals, that shouldn’t discourage you. There will always be people within the same community that try to set rules and guidelines for all to follow.

There will even be people within that community that shun our outcast others because they have different reasons for being there, even though the results of their actions are the same. You will see this is especially true if you follow any vegan groups on social media.

If someone became a vegan because of health or environmental issues and live the same lifestyle as an ethical vegan that stopped because of the animals, the end result is the same. Fewer animal-based products are purchased and less suffering is supported.

The goals of each individual might be different and the reasons they chose the vegan lifestyle might vary but it’s safe to say that the animals appreciate those choices regardless of the factors that motivated the change in the first place.

There is one point, however, that can make the kind of vegan more impactful for the cause of helping animals.

And this is where the divide between ethical vegans and those who follow a plant-based diet typically originates.

Ethical Vegans Fight For Animals and Their Well Being

fighting for animal rights
Image via WeAnimals.org

Activism is an important role that many ethical vegans play. However, it is important to note that not all ethical vegans are activists.

There are plenty of ethical vegans out there that protest animal cruelty on their own with their own choices as consumers. And that is fine and should be respected.

However, it is more common for animal rights activists to be comprised of ethical vegans as they are fighting for the animals first.

If you’re familiar with internal bickering within the vegan movement, you’ll recognize the argument that ethical vegans use when claiming that a vegan for health or for the environment aren’t true vegans. That simply isn’t true.

Focusing on What’s Important

This kind of internal division is dangerous to the movement and should be avoided at all costs. A vegan is a vegan.

The main reason for this kind of division is misinformation in the media and from celebrities about people who are plant-based but called vegan.

When celebrities that use fur or leather and claim to be vegan because of their diet, certain factions within the animal rights movement take offense. And while it is important to be able to distinguish the different kinds of vegans from someone on a plant-based diet, it is even more important to accept that people on plant-based diets are still making a difference.

While some vegans make the switch overnight (typically the ethical vegan who is doing it for the animals first), that path isn’t the same for everyone.

And just because someone is on a different path doesn’t make their destination or journey any less impactful as long as they get there eventually.

Someone who starts a plant-based diet already plants the seed in the minds of those around them. That seed grows into other people doing their own research. They then learn about the realities of animal agriculture. From there, they can potentially draw their own conclusions that drive change.

Do You Really Want to Make a Difference?

Education is key.

This is especially true today with the spread of so much misinformation and the fact that so many people share content online without doing any research to see if what they share is actually factual.

An ethical vegan and someone on a plant-based diet both have the potential to drive significant change. However, that will only happen if they deliver their message in a way that is both meaningful and factual.

As mentioned before, the animals suffering on factory farms don’t care if you become vegan because of them or because of your health goals.

There are many kinds of activism and being active for the cause is important.

Joining an animal rights group that has a similar vision or mission is a great way to turn your passion into action. There is no prerequisite for joining and they won’t stop you from helping if you aren’t an ethical vegan. As long as you are passionate about animal rights and driving change you can get involved.

Educate Others About What It Really Means to be a Vegan

veganism through education

Whether you are an ethical vegan or simply follow a plant-based diet, you are bound to face criticism.

This will come from family and friends that aren’t familiar with the lifestyle and its benefits.

Sometimes it may seem necessary to get in arguments or try to shame them into understanding your point of view but that does far more harm than good.

Teaching them in a civil manner about your reasons and the benefits can go a long way. This is especially true if you can back up your claims with studies and literature.

Suggesting they watch documentaries can also go a long way as visual representations of your convictions can be extremely impactful. While documentaries like Dominion and Earthlings can be quite shocking and drive immediate change, most people aren’t ready to see those. Suggesting Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives, or What the Health can make it easier for people to start asking more questions.

Support Vegan Groups That Fight for Your Beliefs

It’s important to reiterate that all kinds of vegans and people on a plant-based diet can make a difference.

But real change will come when those people use their voices to educate and drive positive change.

Activism comes in all shapes and forms. The list is extensive of one can be active in driving change. You can join public protests, join animal rights organizations, blog about veganism and animal rights, volunteer at animal rescue sanctuaries, and much more.

The kinds of groups vary and make it easy to find one filled with people that share your convictions.

You will always encounter people within the movement that will make you feel as if you aren’t doing enough. There will be the people that say you aren’t vegan enough to make real change.

This is common across all causes, not just the animal rights movement. There will always be the more extreme people in all groups and causes. While it may seem discouraging to you, it is necessary to have people on board from across the spectrum. While they may seem too aggressive, they can inspire and motivate others looking for that kind of aggressive ally.

All movements are composed of diverse groups of people with similar motivations but different goals and voices. That combination can bring in the most amount of support as the variety will attract the most diverse audience.


In the first episode of Sentient Media’s video series Animal Matters, Glenn Greenwald and Grant Lingel discuss why they became vegan.

The animal rights movement is full of passionate and diverse people from all kinds of different backgrounds. The same is true for vegans.

Understanding that is important so you don’t feel overwhelmed by the differences in people you will come across.

Knowing that veganism and a plant-based diet are different is also important. Helping those outside the movement know that difference as well is key in helping to stop the spread of misinformation.

Should someone on a plant-based diet also avoid using leather and avoid products that are tested on animals? Of course. In an ideal world, everyone would.

But we aren’t there yet.

The only way we can get there is by educating people with factual information in a way that isn’t condescending. Shaming someone into change won’t work as well as engaging them in a diplomatic manner.

Again, the animals don’t care why you aren’t eating them. They appreciate anyone that is helping drive down the number of animals that are slaughtered for human consumption.

Does it matter to you what kind of vegan someone is?

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