The inevitability of speciesism

  • Posted on: 7 December 2012
  • By: benfell

I arrive at the perspective of a vegan and an anarchist from the recognition that human attitudes toward each other and toward nature are responsible for many, if not all, of the problems we face today. War can, in apparently all cases, be reduced to the violent manifestation of an ongoing dispute among elites over which of them may do what to whom and what where. These elites consistently act in self-serving ways, including through the imposition of political and socioeconomic systems, especially capitalism and “capitalist democracy,” to protect their own positions for themselves and the people nearest to them at the expense of the wider populations they rule, leading to poverty, hunger, and inadequate access to housing, health care, education, and employment, which may be understood as ongoing structural violence against billions of people. Further, this is a failed system of social organization, that even without environmental crisis, notably climate change, places humanity at risk of extermination due to nuclear weapons and problems of biosecurity. Problems of nuclear weapons and biosecurity are mostly, if not entirely, of elite creation, and elites have confessed that they are incapable of addressing climate change. At this writing, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists places the time on its doomsday clock at five minutes to midnight (Barash & Webel, 2002; Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, n.d.; Hayes, 2012; Kent, 2011; Lenski, 1966; Mills, 1958/2005; Prada & Volcovici, June 25, 2012; Weber, 1946/2010, 1978/2010). This system of social organization arises with a changing attitude toward nature, from that of Paleolithic humans living in small, stable, low-density population groups largely sustainably, largely in harmony with nature, to Neolithic and modern humans living in rapidly growing, increasingly dense population groups that can persist only through conquest and destruction of an ever-growing territory (Bodley, 2008; Burroughs, 2008; Oelschaeger, 1991). Domination is a common element underlying both our social problems and our environmental problems (Eisler, 1995, 2007; Slater, 2009) and so it follows, for me, that we should dominate neither each other nor nature—and nature for me includes non-human animals. The truth of this final proposition appears in the contribution of factory farming—cruel to animals and to the humans who work in them—to global warming (Carus, June 2, 2010; Grezo, November 20, 2012).

As such, there is much among the search results for “vegetarian ecofeminism” for me to appreciate. Greta Gaard (2002), in particular, has in a review essay assembled in greater detail much of the argument that I have marshalled. To summarize a portion of her summary, she notes the extensive documentation of animal suffering on a massive scale at the hands of humans; the environmental devastation caused by factory farms; the development of a concept of speciesism, to which I shall return; the omission of emotion, notably sympathy, as a legitimate basis for ethical conduct; the ability to feed vastly more people with a vegan rather than a meat-based diet; human physiological traits that seem best adapted to principally vegetarian diets; the association of killing animals with patriarchal violence, including war; and a common experience of domination, theorized as a system of value-hierarchy, that subjugates most anyone who is not wealthy, white, heterosexual, and male.

The last of these is grounded in a conflated series of ranked dualisms, such as good/evil, male/female, white/black, rich/poor, etc., which I first found in Lorraine Code's (1991) What Can She Know?, but which Cornel West (1990/2010) has also noted, and which Code associates historically with patriarchal domination. Vegetarian ecofeminists add human/non-human animal to the list, Patricia Denys (2011) makes the connection unmistakable by relating industrialized meat production practices—including “rape racks” and “iron maidens”—to male exploitation of female bodies, Karen Warren and Duane Cady (1994) make it poignant with a discussion of militaristic attitudes toward women and nature, and vegetarian ecofeminists generally have apparently been accused of essentialism for it, a charge Gaard (2011) defends against in a manner that Maria Pia Lara (1998) might, by recognizing diversity and affirming a common experience of oppression while denying the legitimacy of that oppression. One might add that these dualisms—and especially the valuations attached to them—are in significant part a self-serving construction, a facet of “the material-social relations in which all the parties are forced to participate,” of the ruling class (Hartsock, 1987/2010, p. 500); to hold such dualisms against ecofeminists (or other feminists or other critical theorists) seems misplaced.

It is, however, the question of speciesism in the form vegans condemn, “defined as discrimination against all other species deriving from the superiority of one's own” (Mika, 2006, p. 917)—or, more generally for purposes of this essay, the duality between life forms whose exploitation vegans accept and those whose exploitation they reject—that this essay will turn. Dualities are ubiquitous in this area of inquiry: human/non-human animals, domesticated/wild animals, companion/farmed animals, and animals/plants. But veganism cannot be reduced to the ethical issue posed by vegetarian ecofeminists, that is, the consumption of plants in concert with the avoidance of the consumption or exploitation of animals or to the Vegan Society's (n.d.) “Guide to Vegan Living” web site, featuring on its front page offering a simple decision tree indicating that no animal products should be used. Vegans accept the use of yeast—a microbial animal, not a plant. The vast majority eat produce from farms that have harmed innumerable creatures through tilling of the soil; that unless organic, may have used pesticides; that shipped via trucks, possibly over long distances, possibly to distribution centers and then to markets, colliding with innumerable insects along the way (a sample can be seen on any car's windshield after a drive in the country in the summer). Fruits have likely been pollinated by “enslaved” honeybees, whose hives, we are to understand, humans violently “invade” for honey that the bees need to survive winter—beekeepers apparently substitute sugar water for the “stolen” honey (Lewis, n.d.)—even if we do not, ourselves, eat honey.

Veganism would seem to be a compromised ethical position that aspires to some beliefs of Jainism but falls far short of its edicts:

Regardless of how careful we are, it is impossible to live a totally harm-free life. All animate sentient beings inflict some form of injury or death to others simply by their existence. Humans displace or destroy large and small life forms whenever we erect buildings, plant seeds, dig crops, burn wood, fly airplanes, drive cars, operate factories, walk on grass, or bat our eyes. This is simply an aspect of being alive.

The difference between vegans and nonvegans, however, is the element of intent. Vegans consciously strive to do no harm to any sentient life, including insects. This does not mean that vegans do not hurt others inadvertently, but that it is never their aim to do so. (Stepaniak, n.d.)

This is not a defensible position. Were vegans to “consciously strive to do no harm to any sentient life, including insects,” we would not consciously “erect buildings, plant seeds, dig crops, burn wood, fly airplanes, drive cars, operate factories, walk on grass, or bat our eyes.” Yet we cannot plausibly claim to be “unconscious” in these actions. That we engage in them regardless, knowing that these consequences are likely to occur, means that we are knowingly culpable, a single level of culpability below that of intent (Reiman, 2004). Nor, even if we do not personally engage in these activities, are we likely to be able to claim innocence of complicity—we eat food from seeds that were planted and crops that were dug, we live in buildings that were built, we may ride on a bus or a train that will collide with insects, and we may have friends who use motorized transport. Were we to cause such harms to humans, we would be subject to prosecution. That we do not prosecute ourselves accordingly is speciesist.

Vegans, therefore, are speciesist, just as surely as their omnivorous fellows, but at a different level. And while vegetarian ecofeminists may reject some value hierarchies, they implicitly accept others through their existence as “animate sentient beings.” To wit,

In discussions such as these, hunting advocates often ask why it is not equally iniquitous to consume plants as to consume animals. “But everything needs to eat something,” rejoins the hunters’ apologist to the antihunting critic, “and you are thereby being inconsistent to your own espoused reverence for life to state that the taking of animal life is wrong while you accept and even rejoice in the destruction of defenseless, living, plants.” The attempt here is to turn the vegetarian’s argument into a reductio ad absurdum, but is itself founded on the fallacy that all ways of getting something to eat possess moral parity; that gardening and hunting are the same sort of thing. The proper response to this, in my view, consists in recognizing that unless one wants to argue that human beings are completely unjustified in continuing to live upon the earth (a point I presume few would want to defend), then it is necessary for humans to use and consume members of the natural world. In other words, eating is a biological necessity, and cannot be foregone, even if someone suggests that a squash plant is being held in a state of bondage by the practice of gardening (unless one is literally willing to give up one’s own life). Fortunately, however, having a proper relationship with the land does not seem to require that one relinquish one’s right to eat anything; it merely suggests that some ways of “getting a living”—eating, dwelling, working, recreating, becoming edified, and so forth—are better than others. In other words, we ought to pursue the course of action which inflicts the least amount of suffering and damage upon natural creatures and systems, and ought significantly interfere with the more-than-human world only after its interests have been given proper consideration. (Mallory, 2001, pp. 75-76)

This entails qualitative judgments but nonetheless binary ones. Do I build the building? Do I go for a drive? Do I swat the mosquito? Do I eat? Even the phrasing that “some ways of 'getting a living' . . . are better than others” engages a value hierarchy, albeit one that chooses a path “which inflicts the least amount of suffering and damage upon natural creatures and systems, and ought significantly interfere with the more-than-human world only after its interests have been given proper consideration” (Mallory, 2001, p. 76).

The end of that passage, that valorizes concern for animal and environmental considerations is laudable except that in calling for “inflict[ion of] the least amount of suffering and damage” (Mallory, 2001, p. 76), it seems to invoke a utilitarian approach. Martha Nussbaum (2011) critiques utilitarianism for attempting quantitative evaluations of qualitative goods. And in this case, as it is in Nussbaum's human (and nonhuman animal) development project, some values—like suffering are difficult to quantify. How do I weigh a mosquito's life against several days of itching or the risk that it might carry disease (California Department of Public Health, 2010)? What about that scar I still carry from an insect bite—I would surely have swatted that insect had I noticed it at the time—several years ago in the Santa Cruz Mountains that still causes me discomfort? How can I evaluate the sentience of a housefly whose course is apparently random except that it refuses to leave? These are examples where fulfillment of the insect's “desires,” assuming they can be regarded as such, come at some cost to me, even if that cost may only be annoyance, but it also happens that I have needs and desires that come at ultimate cost to insects: I need to go for an occasional drive to clear my head in order to do the writing I need to do for my doctoral program. Borrowing from Nussbaum's capabilities approach, valuing the potential of living creatures in our environments and arguing that we have the “right” to develop those capabilities, how do I weigh the capabilities of the insects who will smash into the front of my pickup truck or the carbon footprint of that drive against my own capabilities?

There is, in the vegetarian ecofeminist literature, surprisingly little attention paid to such questions. The case for veganism is powerful, so powerful that Matthew Cole and Karen Morgan (2011) pronounce that it may be beyond debate. But this is a case largely about food choices and their entailments for the environment, for animals, and indeed our dominator style of social organization, the latter perhaps being the reason Cole and Morgan found it necessary to focus instead on the ways in which our society reproduces non-vegan values. Stepaniak (n.d.) acknowledges that “the issue of honey,” which we might at least tentatively employ as a proxy for vegan view of insects generally, “is not deemed the most pressing concern of many vegans.” Yet the recognition that vegans are in fact at some level speciesist demands some accounting for how we determine which species do or do not possess moral standing and indeed for a claim to a right to even make that determination.

The principle of non-violence—ahimsa—is very stong in Jain teachings, and through Jainism it also influence Mahatma Gandhi. Jains believe that every centimeter of the universe is filled with living beings, some of them minute. A single drop of water contains 3,000 living beings. All of them want to live. Humans have no special right to supremacy; all things deserve to live and evolve as they can. To kill any living being has negative karmic effects.

It is difficult not to do violence to other creatures. As we walk, we squash insects unknowingly. Even in breathing, Jains feel, we inhale tiny organisms and kill them. Jains avoid eating after sunset, so as not to inadvertently eat unseen insects that might have landed on the food, and some Jain ascetics wear a cloth over their mouth to avoid inhaling any living organisms. (Fisher, 2002, p. 131)

Vegans claim to choose which species we will consume on the basis of sentience, usually understood—if not in the dictionary—as the capacity to feel pain. In Bob Mottram's (September 23, 2012) view, this really amounts to a “self-model,” that is, a self-image of one's physical body with a particular form that, if changed, is noticed by that self. Some months later, my thought is to simplify this further, to associate sentience with a consciousness of oneself, an affirmation along the lines of “I exist, therefore I am sentient.” But where Mottram is able to suspect that flying insects may possess an “internal self-model above the level of immune response,” it is difficult for me to be so certain that a housefly bouncing off the walls of my room with no apparent intention has any such concept. I perceive it as behaving mindlessly, robotically, certainly not efficiently. Mottram, if he were vegan (to my knowledge, he is not), might extend protection to at least some flying insects. I would probably not. He attributes to bees the capacity “solve the traveling salesman problem and navigate visually using remembered landmarks;” cognizant of Google's self-driving automobiles, whose performance seems to exceed that of houseflies (and probably honeybees) by several criteria, I think computers can be very cleverly programmed without necessarily possessing a self-awareness that we recognize as such. That lack of recognition is dubious; the Jain approach of recognizing all living things as sentient offers a certain virtue that it avoids this dilemma. Vegans, if we were indeed serious about, as Stepaniak (n.d.) put it, “consciously striv[ing] to do no harm to any sentient life, including insects,” would probably do well to adopt the Jains' approach, with all the consequences—including an ascetic life—that entails (Fisher, 2002).

Jains are therefore strict vegetarians, and they treat everything with great care. In Delhi, Jain benefactors have established a unique hospital for sick and wounded birds. Great attention is paid to their every need, and their living quarters are air-conditioned in the summer. Jains also go to markets where live animals are usually bound with wire, packed into hot trucks, and driven long distances without water, to be killed for meat. Jains buy the animals at any price and raise them in comfort. Even to kick a stone while walking is to injure a living being. (Fisher, 2002, p. 131)

The right to determine which species we will consume, I would argue, is borne from necessity. If indeed, as Mallory (2001) suggests, we accept that humans have value and should continue to exist, it follows that their needs must be met. This includes a need for food, which regrettably entails the taking of other life. The choice here becomes first, whether we make a choice or simply accept what our culture accepts as food and as an appropriate relationship between humans and animals (Cole & Morgan, 2011); and second how we will make that choice—in fact, the very question that is at the core of veganism. I agree with vegans that I should not eat cows, pigs, and chickens. I am less certain about honey, which is explicitly forbidden on the Vegan Society's (2012) web site, but find alternatives such as agave nectar sufficient that I do not need to press the point. Where I find myself at odds is with the regard that vegans are supposed to hold for insect life.

The Vegan Society (November 18, 2010) is unspecific on these questions. They speak only of consumption and exploitation. However, their (2012) prohibition on honey indicates that some insects fall into a protected class and raises the apparently unexplored possibility that all insects are protected, including cockroaches, termites, flies, and biting insects. That some insects threaten shelter necessary for life, and some serve as vectors for illness that may threaten health of humans or other animals puts vegans in another dilemma of weighing life against life—we cannot protect all life, so we must choose which lives we will protect.

All this means that veganism is an imprecise label and it has caught my attention that vegetarian ecofeminists have not adopted the label vegan. There is no obvious reason for this. The label vegan has existed since 1944, when the Vegan Society (n.d.) was founded, leading many vegans to treat the Society as authoritative on vegan practice. Vegetarian ecofeminists seem to be acquainted with the term (Cole & Morgan, 2011; Gaard, 2011, 2012; Lucas, 2005; myers-spiers, 1999).

It is possible that publicity campaigns by PETA, which appear to exploit female bodies even if the models are willing participants, that aim to persuade viewers to adopt a vegan diet (Glasser, 2011; Mika, 2006) dissuade many vegetarian ecofeminists from adopting the term vegan. As a vegan, I do not condone PETA campaigns and have criticized the organization not only for its campaigns but the high euthanasia rates among animals that come into its care (Benfell, March 30, 2009). Particularly because of the latter—I cannot conceive that any solution for homeless humans would involve euthanasia as PETA employs even for adoptable homeless companion animals—I will not participate in or support any PETA-organized activities. But for PETA's behaviors to dissuade vegetarian ecofeminists from adopting the term vegan would be to allow one highly controversial organization, however prominent, to represent all vegans.

The most prominent difference between vegetarians and vegans in the common usage of the terms is that vegans may be viewed as a subset of vegetarians who do not consume eggs or dairy products. Vegetarian ecofeminists, however, are very clear in their condemnation of the egg and dairy industries (Adams, 1991; Curtin, 1991; Gaard, 2002, 2012; Lucas, 2005). Gaard writes,

Dairy cows are regularly separated from newborn calves so that their milk can go to humans while their infants are chained in tightly fitting crates for four months and fed an iron-deficient diet until they are slaughtered. Chickens are debeaked and crowded five to each sixteen-by-eighteen-inch cage, their natural life spans of fifteen to twenty years shortened to two. (Gaard, 2002, p. 119)

Vegetarian ecofeminists specifically link the abuses of the egg and dairy industries to patriarchal manipulation of women's reproductive capacity and sexual crimes—including rape—against women (Gaard, 2002, 2010). This is a position that values personal autonomy, not just for women, but for factory-farmed animals as well. Further, it appears to hold the rights of “host” animals over the rights of “parasites” and diseases; all of these are life forms, but some life forms are seen as having a right to personal autonomy and other life forms—so-called “parasites” and diseases—may be seen as intruding upon that personal autonomy and are accordingly stigmatized as undesirable:

Evidence continues to mount linking meat-eating with serious health problems, and vegetarian diets with better health and greater longevity (Jethalal 1994; Melina, Davis, and Harrison 1994).1 People tend to think of animal fat as the major issue here, but numerous other risk factors are associated with eating meat. These include the presence in it of parasites (such as microorganisms of many sorts, roundworms, and tapeworms) that cause trichinellosis, toxoplasmosis, helminthic diseases (anemia, infections, cysts, etc.), Legionnaires’s disease, salmonellosis, mad cow disease, Hong Kong bird flu, and other food borne illnesses; hormone and antibiotic additives; and toxins (such as pesticides and herbicides, which concentrate as they move up the food chain).2 (Fox, 2000, p. 164)

Parasites, microorganisms and other life forms, some of which are clearly animals, are listed here, but clearly not placed morally on par with their host/victims. Rather, they are listed along with toxins and antibiotics as threats to human health. This is surely speciesism of a sort; roundworms, tapeworms, and other parasites are simply seeking an environment in which to feed, live, and reproduce—that we prefer their hosts to them is surely, from their perspective, arbitrary and capricious, difficult to distinguish ethically from the dubious preference for a sheep over a wolf. And we might say the same about the animals—including the insects which some vegans choose to recognize as “sentient”—that carry these stigmatized lifeforms.

My point is that it cannot just be women and factory-farmed animals who enjoy a right to personal autonomy. My (I say “my,” but the relation of possession is rather the other way around) cat, for example, would prefer to remain at home and vigorously asserts her personal autonomy any time I take her anywhere, including to the veterinarian, so much so that I do so only as a last resort. I cannot administer the veterinarian-recommended anti-parasitics on a monthly basis, as she quite clearly regards this as a form of assault. I stopped routinely forcing them upon her when the length of time she would avoid me after each such dose grew to two weeks.

And I would suggest, it cannot just be women, factory-farmed animals, and my cat who enjoy a right to personal autonomy. I claim this right as well. In defense of that right, I swat mosquitoes. Further, insects that come into my home without an invitation are intruders potentially carrying disease or parasites who threaten my—and my cat's—health; if I cannot easily evict them, I will kill them as well.

This suggests that a proper line for vegans to draw between protected and unprotected species depends upon which species we consider to have moral value and thus acknowledge to possess a right of personal autonomy. A fly, by the act of flying in through an open door and then refusing to leave, does not gain this right—it only achieves this right if we—apparently arbitrarily both in the sense of who is making the decision and in the sense of who we decide to protect—grant it that right.

Further, in what is apparently inevitably circular reasoning, we humans must make these decisions—however arbitrary they might seem to members of some species—because we have the power to make the decisions that will guide our own conduct and thus we have a duty to attempt to choose and thus act ethically, minimizing altruism failures so as to live in the greatest possible harmony with the lifeforms around us (Kitcher, 2011; Mallory, 2001). Our ability to choose ethically is constrained by 1) conflicting claims to capabilities that force us to choose not only between “desirable” and “undesirable” capabilities (Nussbaum, 2011) but the species whose capabilities we accept as “good;” 2) our environmental and social location, that is, the location recognizable by extending standpoint theory beyond its social context into a fully ecological context (Morin, 2008); and 3) our ethical understanding as an evolving work in progress (Kitcher, 2011). That these choices are inevitably speciesist cannot dissuade us from choosing unless we so devalue our own existence that we choose not to act at all, that is, not to consume, not to move, not to live (Mallory, 2001).



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