How to respond to those “what if” questions

Written by Kerri Newcomer

“What if you were stranded on an island and you had to eat animals to survive?”

“What if a chicken just ran up to you, laid an egg, then ran off? Would you be okay with eating the egg?”

“What if there was a cow that really needed to be milked? It would hurt the cow to not milk it. Would you drink milk then?”

If you’re a vegan, you’re likely to have been asked a question like this at some point in your life. When I first adopted a vegan lifestyle, I seemed to get several questions like these per day. Usually, they were fairly easy to answer: I would eat whatever the animals eat. I wouldn’t eat the egg. I would do what I could to help the cow, but still not drink the milk.

Over time, though, it can become annoying and tiresome to answer. Maybe it’s because of the absurdity of the scenarios these questions are constructed around, or maybe it’s because they are desperate to find a situation where the consumption of animal products is unquestionably okay. Either way, it’s always a good idea to avoid being outwardly frustrated when faced with these questions.

While it’s possible that the person asking you this may be trying to mess with you, it is also very possible that they are genuinely curious about the specifics of being vegan.

I’ve found that the best way to handle these questions is to recognize that all of these implausible situations ultimately have the same underlying question: “Is there any situation where you would eat meat or animal products?” or in other words, “How far does this ‘vegan’ thing really go?”

Depending on the context, this can sometimes seem mean spirited. These questions are designed to find a loophole or gap in ethical and moral beliefs. Essentially, they’re trying to ‘break the vegan.’

Instead of getting defensive, annoyed, or entertaining the ridiculous situation specific to the question, try to calmly answer that underlying question. The response I typically give is:

No. I would not eat or drink animal products under any feasible situation because I am morally against the exploitation of animals and I do not want to consume animal products.

Connecting to your ethical or other “why” helps reinforce your own personal answer to questions about how far your veganism goes. Find what your personal answer to that question might be and practice being confident in speaking it. This should hopefully provide an answer to any question in the “What if…” style.

And if you find yourself in the position of being asked a question like this by someone, consider whether or not it’s a situation where you might feel comfortable inviting the person to join you for a plant-based meal or activity. A little bit of conversation and community can go a long way in creating more understanding in friends and family about why living your lifestyle is important to you.

If you are someone, currently plant-based or not, who has asked this type of question in the past, don’t worry. It may have been a frustrating ask but it’s in the past. In the future, though, if you’re really wondering about the limits of someone’s lifestyle choices, just cut to the chase and ask, “Is there a situation where you would eat meat or animal products?” and they’ll tell you. No further questions needed.

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