Elisa Aaltola - Profile by Celine Yarde

 “Adopting Veganism: A Profile of Philosopher Elisa Aaltola”
             By Celine Yarde

“If we are to be moral, our aim must be to respect the value of other subjects, and this includes treating them in ways that minimize harm and support their flourishing.” -Dr. Elisa Aaltola 

photo credit, Terike Haapoja

Dr. Aaltola grew up in the countryside of Finland in a small village, surrounded by forests and farms. Living in a rural setting allowed her to explore and observe wild animals as a child. She had such a love for animals that she yearned even to see wolves and bears. Aaltola mentions that living a rural lifestyle comes with the hunting and death of animals, to which she bore witness. She states, “I felt horror at it all: how can these people, who surround me, kill and eat creatures, who are so like us? It seemed obvious to me that nonhuman animals had minds and perspectives – that they were “persons” rather than ‘things.’” Aaltola found comfort in the forest and animals when the human world began to feel cold and distant to her due to the violence and egoism embedded in humanity.

With her love for animals and her concern for the way they are treated, Aaltola became a vegetarian when she was a teenager. She took care of injured pets and wrote pieces for her local newspaper about animal agriculture and challenged the idea of hunting animals. She went to university to study Film Studies but changed her study to philosophy once her philosophy professor used battery hens to show immorality. Aaltola says, “A professor in a university thinks it obvious that hens should not be kept in cages! I had been told time and again that there is something wrong with me for being so concerned for other animals. I would never have guessed that such views could be aired by ‘respectable others’ in ‘respectable places’ like the university.” She then became intrigued by this topic and did research on it which resulted in her becoming a philosopher.

Aaltola remained vegetarian to not appear “too extreme.” However, she was motivated to become vegan when she was twenty-six. While studying for her PhD in The United Kingdom, she came across “justifications” for not becoming vegan that were based on denial and moral psychological slips. Aaltola’s vegan journey began when a philosophy student convinced her, highlighting the topic of morality between humanity and animals. She says, “All it took was for him to remind me of the way they rip calves away from the cows. I had seen it, I knew of it, and yet my mind had managed to avoid the information on the level that affects actions.”

Interested in the moral psychology and philosophy of how humanity treats animals and nature, Aaltola chose veganism because she does not believe there is a justification for humanity to use animals “primarily as instruments.” Along with her devotion to moral philosophy, emotivity is also related to her decision to become vegan. She finds immense importance in moral relevance and empathy. She notes, “It is my felt, affective concern for the wellbeing of and resonation with other animals, which motivates my veganism more than rational arguments.” According to Aaltola, her transition from vegetarian to vegan was quite easy. Living in The United Kingdom, she expresses that it was the mecca of vegan products, making vegan food more accessible and easier to find. She highlights the importance of having a support system since she was surrounded by vegan friends who accepted and encouraged her veganism.

When asked about what she would tell others about the vegan choice and the ethics of her decison, Aaltola emphasizes that animals deserve proper and moral care. “They are subjects who belong to the moral sphere. How we treat them matters to them (it makes them suffer or extends their joy, or simply leaves them be as they are), and because of this, it should also matter to us.” She stresses the importance of getting to know animals to deepen the moral concern for them and stepping away from egoism. However, Aaltola mentions that if empathy is not one’s stronghold, using reason as a guide is also effective to see how important it is to “respect the value of other subjects.” She says, “When it comes to the latter, we should treat all those, who have inner lives, and who can experience the consequences of our actions, with care.”

Discussing the larger implications of veganism, Aaltola brings up the fact that veganism challenges how we perceive the world and ourselves. She mentions that deep ecology argues that ontology is before ethics, meaning how we define things comes before how we value them. However, this is debatable because how we value things can influence how we define them. Despite this, Aaltola sees truth in the deep ecology claim, stating that it needs more focus on animal ethics and studies. “Definitions of what other animals are, what our factual relation to them is, and who we as human beings are, have an enormous impact on how we value and treat other animals and nature,” she says. Aaltola believes that the veganism movement can challenge existing definitions and affect social and cultural beliefs fundamentally. She shares that it should be common knowledge that animals have minds of their own and that humans are causing them harm and suffering. With this common knowledge, Aaltola believes that the definition of “human-nonhuman relations becomes more nuanced and truthful – in all of the current, egoistic violence.”

Aaltola finds the definition of Homo sapiens interesting since it influences animal ethical values. She questions how humans should define themselves, wondering if humans should deem themselves more intelligent than other creatures or if humans should realize that they are one species of animals among many others with several similarities. She ends this statement with, “Do we acknowledge that we are in no way perfect, and that our intelligence is not hierarchically higher than that of other creatures (if we define intelligence as a capacity to modify one’s behavior to suit one’s environment)? Might we notice that intelligence does not matter in our self-depiction, and that other traits, such as empathy, playfulness, care, and loyalty to one’s fellow-beings are of more relevance?” With this, Aaltola feels that there needs to be more articles and books that acknowledge how humans and animals are similar instead of trying to set them apart. Once this is realized, a new era will begin, one where there is no harm done unto animals, explains Aaltola. Harm such as animal agriculture, sport fighting and hunting or mass extinction. She adds, “I see it as the dawn of also a wholly new human culture – or rather, a new culture for people of the industrialized age.”

These principles that Aaltola believes make her resolution to be vegan “far from a personal choice” due to its impact on other minded beings. Veganism is something that she believes should be endorsed and legally enforced. Aaltola practices veganism in the larger world by only eating plant-based foods for the past eighteen years. Along with this, her online animal advocacy work in both Finnish and English and her academic work on the moral philosophy of how humanity treats the nonhuman world is another part of her veganism. On top of this, she maintains a close relationship with animals by spending time in the wild to enhance her veganism emotionally and intellectually. On a more personal level, she expresses that her rescue dogs from Romania, Ida, Siiri, and Darla are a part of her veganism practices. She shares that she loves dogs and considers them her home, pack, and family. She finds it important to adopt them instead of breeding them, “I believe we should adopt rather than breed more dogs, and hence I – like many others – have wanted to offer a home to discarded bundles of mix-breed joy.” Finally, she adds that her dogs are almost vegan as well!

Aaltola asserts that although veganism has gained popularity due to social media, that social media did not have an influence on her choice to become vegan. When she became vegan in 2002, social media did not exist. However, she does take into consideration the effect social media has had on her in today’s climate regarding veganism, “I do benefit from the suggestions that some vegan groups offer, mainly on new products, cafes, restaurants, etc. So practical tips on where to get good vegan food is something that social media helps with. I run and help moderate some vegan / animal ethics online pages, so in that sense social media does have a constant presence in my veganism.”

Making some of her final points, Aaltola is pleased to know that more pro-animal choices are being made and a lot of change has occurred over the years. She remains hopeful but is not ignoring the fact that there is much work to be done to battle the powerful human forces that harm animals and the planet. Aaltola finishes with, “There is work to be done, and each new person taking part in that work is a piece of moral gold!”

For more information, visit Dr. Elisa Aaltola’s website.

Copyright©2020 by Celine Yarde. All Rights Reserved.