Dynamic Harmlessness: More than the Absence of Suffering

When H. Jay Dinshah founded the American Vegan Society in 1960 he interpreted the vegan ideal of non-exploitation as ahimsa, or "dynamic harmlessness." This parallels Barbara Smith and Keith Tudor when they write that "'non exploitation' may be viewed as a part of the ... commitment to 'non maleficence' or doing no harm."

Dynamic harmlessness is more than "reducing suffering," because suffering is only a symptom of harm. A painkiller will reduce suffering, but it will not set a broken bone, nor, more importantly, will it do anything about what maybe causing broken bones.

So dynamic harmlessness should seek to abolish the conditions at the root of suffering. Thus, the American Vegan Society proclaimed in its booklet "Veganism: Getting Started":

Vegan aims are much more than just "animal welfare", with a bit more feed for the slaves, cleaner cages for the vivisected, or another box of bandages to plaster over the terminal cancer that is animal slavery and exploitation. In short we are abolitionists, though non-violent ones, for how we accomplish something is every bit as important as that it is done (and often more so).

And Leslie Cross, a vice-president of The Vegan Society, wrote that "veganism is not so much welfare as liberation, for the creatures and for the mind and heart of [humanity]; not so much an effort to make the present relationship bearable, as an uncompromising recognition that because it is in the main one of master and slave, it has to be abolished before something better and finer can be built."

As Cross noted veganism is "not so much an effort to make the present relationship bearable." Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said something along these lines with regard to the oppression of Blacks in the U.S. noting, "White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap — essentially, it seeks only to make it less painful and less obvious."

Harms of institutional exploitation can be overt, or they can be covert and silent. These harms are more easily identifiable — that is, more overt — when physical or biological signs of suffering are obvious. (For instance, providing nonhuman animals with a few additional inches of space can obscure the physical signs of harm. And providing nonhuman animals with access to water can obscure the biological signs of harm.) However, while the obvious signs of harm (i.e. suffering) are obscured, the actual harm (i.e. exploitation) can remain intact — just more covert and silent. Just because suffering is ostensibly reduced does not mean that the harm done to the oppressed any less real.

What is needed is not a reduction in suffering, but the elimination of systemic and institutional harms directed at oppressed groups.