Going vegan: WHY versus HOW

It seems quite natural for vegan advocates to mainly talk to people about the reasons to go vegan. Veg organizations devote quite some time and space in their outreach materials to vegan arguments and theory (mainly philosophical, but also some environmental and health info). Too often, I see the “how” being treated as some kind of afterthought. The message sounds like: here’s why, now you figure it out.

how to go vegan

That is, of course, a bit of a simplification, and there are many organizations that do a good job of explaining what people can do to apply the vegan idea in their life, and to actually stop consuming animal products and go vegan. Still, I believe that the “how” merits more attention in our outreach than it is getting.

Many non-vegans by now know about the reasons why they should eat less or no animal products. I often see vegans saying things like “oh, if everyone just knew, the world would go vegan in a heartbeat.” Or there’s the eternal “If slaughterhouses had glass walls” line.

I don’t believe that the main thing that’s stopping people from going vegan is a lack of information or insight into how problematic animal products are. Of course, we have to go on raising awareness, as we call it. But I believe the biggest part of the problem is that people don’t have an idea of how to do it, and that it is still not easy enough for them. From research on ex-vegs, we also know that many of them slid back because they had insufficient knowledge of veg nutrition.

One reason we’re often not focused enough on the how is that many vegans think that today going vegan is easy enough. This is a mistake that can be attributed to not sufficiently taking our target audience’s perspective. People lack cooking skills, product knowledge, nutritional information, etc. It’s this information that they are looking for most of all. Ask any webmaster of a vegan site what are the most visited pages, and they’ll tell you it’s the recipe section (if the site has a recipe section, of course). In my years working for an organization, I have always experienced that our practical materials, e.g., maps of cities, listings of veg friendly restaurants, and recipe booklets are way more popular than the “why” publications. One thing we did in subsequent editions of one of our booklets was to put recipes first  and only talked about the why later in the booklet. This also may avoid the impression that we are trying to convince people of something.

Another reason why we focus so much on the arguments for veganism rather than the how-to is that our movement wants people not just to do the right thing (being vegan), but to do the right thing for the right reason (for the animals). As regular readers of this blog may know, I don’t think we should require this, as attitude change can follow behavior change.

Finally, another reason that some advocates don’t focus enough on the how is that simply, to them, the how is not an issue: you just do it, right here, right now, and steps or strategies are not allowed. I believe that this is a mistake, and that the best thing we can do is to offer people programs, structures, and plans to change step by step. This is how change usually happens.

So, following my own advice: how can you focus more on the how? Here are some ideas:

  • check your materials and communication for how info: do you devote enough space and time to recipes, nutritional info, product info?
  • if you already provide this info, make sure it occupies a prominent place on your website and in your materials.
  • does your organization offer cooking courses, or provide information on where to find cooking courses?
  • temporary vegan pledges or challenges (21 or 30 days are typical) are great ways to send how-to information to people on a daily basis.
  • in one-on-one conversations, experiment with focusing on the how: tell people about the practical steps they can take, rather than overloading them with arguments. Invite people not just to read a book or brochure on the problems with animal products, but invite them to go shopping together, or to cook together.

Have other ideas for focusing on the how? Let me know!





Vegan Islands versus Infiltrators

Many producers of meat alternatives dream of occupying a place among animal products in the supermarket. I mean, literally. They want to be sold where the meat products are sold, instead of in a separate vegan section. Apparently, judging by this picture, Beyond Meat managed to get this coveted position with their Beyond Burger.

Beyond Meat products in the meat section
Beyond Meat products in the meat section

Not every vegan may agree that the meat section is the best place for vegan products. Out of a personal preference, vegans may want the vegan products to have their own separate shelf, aisle or island.

I’m using the example of Beyond Meat’s product placement to illustrate the much broader idea of what I call Islands versus Infiltrators. A separate vegan section would be an example of an Island, while Beyond Meat’s burger patties in the meat section are Infiltrators. We can see many other examples – on similar and different levels – of this distinction:

  • vegan restaurants versus omnivore restaurants with vegan dishes
  • vegan shops versus general shops with vegan products
  • vegan cookbooks versus omnivore cookbooks with vegan recipes
  • vegan dating sites versus regular dating sites with the option to check “vegan”
  • vegan catering companies versus mixed catering companies
  • vegan cooking courses or a general course with vegan recipes

And there are many more examples  of exclusively vegan things. Vegan cruises, a vegan version of airbnb, vegan radio shows, vegan schools, etc.

You can ask yourself whether you are more pro-Island or pro-Infiltration. Let’s briefly look at some general advantages and disadvantages of both phenomena.

The advantage of Islands is clear. They are cosy and convenient for vegans. If we’re on a vegan cruise, we know we’ll get good vegan food, and everyone else on the cruise is vegan or at least veg-curious. Using a vegan cookbook, we are not confronted with pictures of recipes with dead animals in them (which, obviously, are also useless to us). Eating in a vegan restaurant, we know the chefs and waiters know what vegan is, and that there is no chance of anything “wrong” ending up in our food.

But the advantages of Infiltrators are just as clear. While Islands mainly benefit the vegans, Infiltrators are important for reaching new audiences and buyers. Infiltrators get much more exposure among omnivores, many of whom will never enter a vegan restaurant or specialty shop, and will never buy a vegan cookbook. They also will not go out of their way to find and stop by the vegan section in their supermarket.

When I asked on Facebook where the Beyond Beef (and other) products should be in the supermarket, many people answered they should be in both sections. Apart from this probably being difficult to realize (as far as I know, producers pay for shelf space), we also shouldn’t underestimate the impact of us going to the meat shelf and picking out a vegan product in front of other people. The best predictor that a beggar in the street will receive a gift from a passer-by is that the person walking ahead of them dropped something in their hat. The same applies here: the more people see other people picking up the vegan products, the more they might be more inclined to take a look, buy and taste them.

Maybe you’ve experienced how often omnivores seem to think that just because something is vegan, it is not for them (kind of like how ordinary vegans might be deterred from choosing a dish labeled “suitable for diabetics”). The problem today is still that vegan stuff is seen as stuff for vegans. So often, media articles, reviewing a new vegan restaurant, product or service, write something like: “Now, vegans can…” or “Now, there is x for vegans!”, as if it’s only vegans who can profit from it. We need to get rid of the idea that vegan is just for vegans. Infiltrators help counter this idea; Islands are often likely to confirm it.

If you are thinking of setting up some service or selling a product, you can consider whether you want to launch an Island or an Infiltrator. Chances are that as a vegan, you will feel much more comfortable with Island products and services, but the question is whether that is the most impactful.

But also as a consumer, you may consider what you want to spend most of your money on: the vegan restaurant or the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant, for instance. Again, eating at the vegan restaurant is more convenient. But ordering the vegan dish in the omnivore restaurant signals that there is a demand, offers opportunities for conversation, for critiquing the dish so that the chef can improve it, etc. You also help keep the dish on the menu, increasing the chances that more people will be exposed to it.

That is, of course, not to say we should stop visiting vegan restaurants or other vegan businesses. On the contrary, they deserve our support. Moreover, Islands may have a symbolic function. They say, “Look, we can do it without animal products and still be viable”. They also may have media value: they may be covered by journalists, because they are new and exciting.

At least for the time being, we’ll have both Islands and Infiltrators. You choose where your money goes. I hope to have given you some arguments to use to think about your options more thoroughly.

Phases in veganism and vegan advocacy

We all go through phases in our advocacy. Only a few people become activists overnight and never change their ideas or practises again for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, all of us are in motion, growing, acquiring new insights, and adapting our communication, ideologies and practises.

Here’s a brief attempt to describe the phases I myself more or less went through in the course of almost twenty years of animal advocacy and veganism. Maybe you will find it recognizeable, maybe not.


1 – Interest and conversion

After what in my case was a long period of keeping it in the back of my mind, at some point, I got seriously interested in not eating animals and became really open to “going veg”. For me it was for animal reasons (in other people’s cases, it might have been about health, the environment, a vegan significant other…). I progressively left out animal products from my diet, and after two years, from 1998 on, when I was 24, I started calling myself a vegan.

2 – Activation

I read about what was going on and decided that I wanted to do something more than just “be a vegan”. I started to really believe in the cause and wanted to convince others to join me, or at least help them discover what I had discovered. By that point, I fully believed in the cause of animal liberation.

3 – Radicalization

After a while, I got slightly frustrated and sometimes angry with people’s lack of response in the face of so much injustice. I got to know different people in the vegan movement, and read articles and books by some people who presented a very black and white view. I decided that “there is no excuse for animal abuse” and that people should go vegan as soon as they knew the facts. I got critical of some animal rights organizations who took a pragmatic position, thought that many were selling out and were being “welfarist” and too soft, and I questioned their motives.

4 – Realization

After more reading, thinking and meeting people, I realized the approach I was taking was not the most effective one, and became more realistic and pragmatic, without changing or betraying any of my principles. I realized people needed more than just moral arguments, and that encouragement works better than guilt-tripping. I noticed, and kept noticing, how many people around me changed their eating habits without me preaching to them. I also realized that most animal rights organizations are indeed well-intentioned and doing important work.

5 – The post-vegan stage

This is my current phase. I call it the “post-vegan” stage (see this previous post), but I’m not wedded to the term and don’t want to make a big thing about it. I use the term to indicate a couple of shifts in my thinking about veganism. I talk about post-veganism, because to some extent how I feel in this phase is not entirely in line with orthodox veganism.

This phase for me is about realizing that I have to prioritize the impact I have on my environment over personal purity in my diet and other consumption habits. It’s also about the idea that I don’t really want to stick to principles for principles’ sake, and that I don’t want to follow an ideology out of groupthink or tribalism.

There is also a re-appreciation here of the importance of minimizing suffering and maximizing wellbeing, as opposed to just focusing on abolition and killing-or-not-killing.

In any case, I remain very much vegan, and I believe the concept of veganism is useful, especially when applied to products and meals (more so than when applied to people). The question “is it vegan?” remains an easy heuristic to determine what we should and should not eat, even though it is not perfect.

Maybe other stages will follow. We’ll see what the future holds. In any case, just like you, I’ll always have the interests of the animals at heart.

Related: I used to be a Francione fan

Is this big zoo better for animals than the wild?

On a visit to South Africa, where I was for a CEVA effective vegan advocacy training, I had a few days off and tried what was called a safari. It wasn’t that I really had to see lions and tigers and bears, but I believed the experience might give me some new ideas on the issue of wild animal suffering, on which I have written before. And it did.

What Aquila Safari offered cannot by any stretch be called an experience of the wild. After we reached it – it’s about two hours northeast of Cape Town – we had lunch and then departed on an open truck together with some six other passengers and a guide. The domain – which they call a “private game reserve” – is about 10.000 hectares in surface area. That may sound big, but it’s small compared to the two million hectares of the famous Kruger National Park in the same country.


As we drove around, I asked some questions, and it became clear that this was actually some kind of very big zoo. The animals present included the so called “big five”: the African lion (they had about seven), African elephant (two), buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. Flora catered to the majority of the animals’ diets, with about ten percent supplemented by the reserve. They had ample space, and not all animals could easily be found, but they obviously couldn’t leave the area because of fences. There was a vet on the property providing medical care when an animal got sick. Herbivores and carnivores were separated: the lions could not hunt the springbok, for instance, but were fed cow’s meat and antelope meat once a week.

Later, I asked where the animals came from: they had been bought and transported to the area. Some had been saved: lions from the horrible practice of “canned hunting”; a leopard from somewhere else. There was a rehabilitation center. So, I started to think of this venture more as a sanctuary.

Again, this is not “the wild”, and I’m sure many people would not feel entirely happy with such a situation. They would probably prefer an environment for the animals in which they had full autonomy and life was as close to natural as possible. I think, however, that an important, or the most important, question here is: what would the animals prefer: this big zoo-slash-sanctuary or the wild? I believe that if we answer the latter, we might  inadvertently be thinking in an anthropocentric way. There might be less autonomy, for sure, but on the other side, there seemed, at first sight, to be less suffering. Read my previous article on wild animal suffering (and watch the video), if you are convinced that life in nature is idyllic for most animals. Here are some examples where life in Aquila game reserve might be better than in the wild.

  • Animals didn’t have to worry about food. If their environment didn’t provide enough, the humans would supply additional food.
  • Animals, like I said, didn’t have to worry about being eaten. The guide estimated that of the 24 young an ostrich mother had just brought into the world, about twenty would survive – much more than in the wild.
  • A newborn rhino was rejected by her mother. In the wild, if no one else adopted it, this animal would die a pretty miserable death. At the Aquila game reserve, the animal was put in the rehabilitation center where it was fed and cared for, and became good friends with a goat. It will be released into the domain later.
  • Lions normally have a fifteen year lifespan in the wild. Here, the guide told us, they live up to twenty. Of course, this doesn’t tell us anything about how happy these animals are, but it may give us an indication about their physical thriving.
  • Elephants normally die after having gone through their sixth set of teeth, when they cannot chew food anymore. Here, if the animals are still be around at that age, they receive liquid food.

It wasn’t that there were no problems at all. We saw a few springboks that seemed to be a bit misshapen (one of their horns had grown completely askew), which the guide told us was the result of inbreeding (which obviously can also happen in the wild). I’m also not sure if the compounds were large enough for all the animals we saw there. They definitely had a lot more space than in the biggest zoo, but my guess is that migratory animals, like the buffaloes, may not find all their needs met there.
Lions cannot hunt here, but do they need to? Does this need trump the need of a springbok to stay alive? Of course, the lions were fed meat from other animals, whose needs weren’t met by being killed. But in this case, I can imagine that clean meat (cultured meat) could bring a solution. I can even imagine future technology where this kind of meat would grow on some kind of artificial tree in the wild. Or maybe these things can even be fast moving robots, which can actually be chased by predators.
I also wondered about overpopulation. If there are no natural predators, and if the animals get enough food, how long before there are too many of one species or another. When I asked this question, the guide didn’t see the problem and said: “more animals is good for business” (cause yes, this was a business).

It’s not that I think this big reserve/zoo/sanctuary is a complete solution for the problem of wild animal suffering. Most importantly, I’m just talking about a few dozen animals (the lions, buffaloes, giraffes, springbok, oryx, rhinos, etc. that we saw). These numbers probably pale in comparison with other wildlife who were present on the domain, but which were so small as to be invisible for us. These other animals basically still experience pretty much a wild situation, as they are not getting fed or cared for, and aren’t free of predators.

Still, for the larger fauna, the animals whom people actually come to see, this game reserve to me offered a glimpse of what some day could be a reality for many other wild animals: a controlled environment that is so big that animals experience (enough) freedom, and live their lives in relative peace and harmony. The lion does not exactly lie down with the lamb, but at least doesn’t have a chance to gobble it down.
Moreover, at least with these kind of animals (with farmed animal sanctuaries, it’s much more of a challenge) this situation is economically viable; so, that continuation can be guaranteed.

I know the objections many readers will make: that this is another hubris-like attempt of humankind to regulate nature, that it is unnatural, it’s not real, that the animals have no autonomy, that we are infringing on their rights, etc. Many of these objections can be partly true, but again I would like to ask the question: what do the animals prefer and care about?

We should be wary of assuming too quickly that we know what that is.

Go post-vegan!

Let’s see if you can make sense of these ramblings…

Whenever there’s an issue of some complexity, there is, so to speak, a pre-consideration stage and a post-consideration stage. For instance, the issue of animal rights: in the pre-consideration stage, you probably will eat meat. In the post-consideration stage (at least if you put your conclusions into practice), you might be a vegan.

Often, or even most of the time, the beliefs in the pre-consideration and the post-consideration stages will look radically different. But sometimes, interestingly, they are or appear the same. A person may be in the post-consideration stage on some issue, but to you their actions and beliefs look like those of someone in the pre-consideration stage.* Usually, our little egos will tell us that if someone differs from us in opinion on an issue that we have given a lot of thought to, we will assume that they have not given it enough thought. But obviously, that’s not necessarily the case.


Let’s look at an example to see this more clearly. Imagine that you are someone who is very skeptical about GMOs (you’re boycotting GMO products, maybe attend anti-GMO protests, etc). When you meet a person who’s not bothering about GMOs at all, you may assume that they are in the pre-consideration stage: you believe they don’t know much about the GMO issue, don’t know about the supposed dangers of it, haven’t educated themselves about it, and therefore are just eating and buying anything, independent of whether the product has GMO ingredients or not. This person, however, may be doing what they are doing (which is being indiscriminate and indifferent about GMOs), because they are well informed about it and have given the issue a lot of thought. In other words, they are in the post-consideration stage (who knew?!). Their behavior looks the same, but their beliefs and intentions are entirely different.

What this means, in short, is that we may easily mistake someone who’s in the post-consideration stage (on a certain issue) for someone who’s in the pre-consideration stage. While we think they are behind us in their thinking, they may actually be ahead of us – meaning they have thought about and researched the issue more than we have (without this implying that they are necessarily right and we are wrong).

Now, let’s look at how this applies to veganism and vegan advocacy. Here too, we can find statements, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs… that at first sight seem to be part of the pre-consideration stage, but could as well be demonstrated or voiced by people in the post-consideration stage.

Take, for instance, many of the objections from omnivores that vegans usually refer to as unthoughtful (to use a polite term). You’ve heard them all before:

– “Isn’t being 100% vegan extreme?”
– “What would you do if someone offered you a lot of money to eat a steak?”
– “What if plants feel pain?”
– “In the wild, animals kill each other, too.”

Boring and exhausting, right? But can you imagine that these statements actually could come from thoughtful people, including vegans, who have given serious consideration to these issues? Let’s re-interpret them in that way:

“Isn’t being 100% vegan extreme?”
A person in a post-consideration stage may say this to voice their concern that being one hundred percent pure, always and everywhere, is not necessary or productive: they would believe that avoiding tiny ingredients publicly is not the best advertisement for the vegan lifestyle and may have a net negative effect.

“What would you do if someone offered you a lot of money to eat a steak?”
A person in a post-consideration stage may say this to show that following vegan rules is not all that matters, but that actual impact and consequences may at times be more important than sticking to one’s principles. This is from a thought experiment I raised myself, where I suggest that you can donate the money you get to an an animal rights group and, thus, have much more impact.

“What if plants feel pain?”
Again, we usually think this is a stupid gotcha, but at the same time, it’s a perfectly sensible question. We’ve been wrong about the cognitive capacities of other species before; so, is it not at least possible that we are wrong in the case of plants, too? If we are wrong, what are the consequences? (It’s definitely an interesting question to ponder.)

“In the wild, animals kill each other, too.”
Rather than using this as a “gotcha” the way people in the pre-consideration stage may do, a person who has thought about this issue more deeply might take this argument very seriously and might raise this issue, not to apologize for meat eating, but to relativize the impact of veganism (which is focused on avoiding human-caused animal suffering) and emphasize that we indeed should also care about the suffering of animals in the wild. Indeed, the new field of wild animal suffering deals with this and takes this issue very seriously (as do I).

Another example: when someone is vegetarian but not vegan, you may think that they are in the pre-consideration stage regarding veganism. But can you imagine other, post-consideration factors that contribute to this behavior? For instance, I recently read how one vegan was considering becoming a lacto-vegetarian in public settings because it’s way easier and, therefore, easier to spread as a behavior than veganism. (I’m not ready to take this step myself, but I can’t say it doesn’t at least make some sense to me).

All this leads me to think about something that we could call post-veganism: a more rational version of veganism, that is the result not of excuses, callousness or laziness, but is a consequence of giving the issue some serious critical thought. In my mind, post-veganism is still veganism (though it won’t be so for people sticking to the original definition, obviously). A post-vegan may seem similar to a non-vegan at times, but is actually entirely different.

Post-veganism, in my mind, goes back to the roots of veganism, which is a concern with reducing suffering, abuse and killing. It re-appraises this concern and looks at our actions in that light. Post-veganism, thus, does not prioritize rules and labels (the way “classical” veganism often seems to do), but rather focuses on impact and consequences. Post-veganism is not a mere ideology or a belief system, but something that makes actual sense in the real world.

Here are some things that could be part of a “post-vegan manifesto”, if there were such a thing:

– a re-evaluation of objectives and a confirmation of the fact that veganism is not, in the final analysis, about sticking to rules but about having a real impact for animals
– distinguishing exactly between when we’re doing something just to stick to rules and doing something to make an impact
– realizing that being 100% vegan is often not necessary
– realizing that being 100% vegan is, at the same time, not enough: that there are other things that we are affecting by eating our food
– a return to the idea of reducing suffering and killing would imply that we’re also going to take seriously the problem of wild animal suffering
– the realization that changing our own consumption is not the only and not even the most important thing we can do, and that our advocacy and our money can have a bigger impact for the animals.

It’s just an idea. What do you think?

(* I’m borrowing from the American philosopher Ken Wilber, who, in this context, talks about the pre/trans fallacy, in the context of rationality.)

Would you press the button to make humanity go extinct?

Warning: this post contains ideas that some people may find irritatingly optimistic, as well as some big, long-term ideas that some may find ludicrous. Please set your mind to “open” before reading further 🙂

I often hear people entertaining the thought of making humanity disappear from the universe because, as a species, we are causing a lot of suffering, to ourselves and other sentient beings and the planet. One thought experiment goes like this: if you could make humanity painlessly disappear with the pressing of a button, would you press it? Or, slightly reframing the experiment so that you can make an abstraction of your own responsibility: would you stop someone else from pressing the button?


In the animal rights/vegan movement, more people seem to be in favor of human extinction than among the general population (just my anecdotal experience). That’s not hard to understand. People become animal rights activists and/or vegans because they have learned about the horrible suffering humans inflict on animals, for food, clothing, research or entertainment. It is tempting to think that the planet would be a better place without Homo sapiens, and given that in our thought experiment, no humans would really suffer (it’s just a matter of an instant, and no humans are left to deplore the new situation), we might say: where’s the harm?

Now, from the viewpoint of the notoriously tricky field of population ethics, there’s a lot of stuff to say here. Apart from the consequences for other species and the environment, we could talk about whether the universe in general is a worse or a better place with humans gone. If there is, on average, more value than disvalue in humans’ lives, it might seem that the net result is negative. But if there’s more misery than happiness, this could be good. We could also think about the value of future people being born. They will obviously not be born if we let humanity go extinct. I won’t go into this minefield here, because I do not have strong opinions about these issues, because I can’t seem to wrap my head around them, and mainly because here I want to touch on some other factors.

These are the reasons why I would not press the button.

1. Humans may do a lot of damage, but they’re also wonderful.

We all know the horrors that we cause in the world: to other people and annually to 65 billion farmed animals (excluding fish). We screw up our environment and use a lot of finite natural resources. There’s no need to write a long and depressing list here. However, we can also focus on all the good that we do. Never in the history of our planet – or, as far as we know, the universe – has there been a species that invests so much time in making things better for others. Look at the millions of people active in the non-profit sector. Look at those trying to help the weakest and the poorest. Look at all the beautiful things we do. Seeing Homo sapiens in this light, it becomes really problematic and unfair to just call us a shipwreck of a species that only does damage.

2. Humans still have a lot of potential to improve.

In many ways our history is just beginning. Moments ago we were mere apes in trees. We developed culture, learning and education only recently. We – in the richer countries at least – only recently managed to create comfortable environments where we no longer need to worry about food and shelter, so that we can spend more time on other things. Violence is declining and this era is, counterintuitively to some, the most peaceful era in history (read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature). We’re still expanding the circle of our moral concern. We’ll probably have to work less in the future and will devote even more time to creating change for ourselves and others. And there is the promise (at least for techno-optimists) of future technological advancements that can help us have a huge positive impact on ourselves and our planet.

3. Humans might be able to help other species further down the road.

In the future, given more moral growth and technological improvements, rather than having a net negative impact on other species, our impact could become net positive. Arguably the biggest source of suffering for animals is nature/the natural condition. Animals die by the billions because of hunger, disease, parasitism, the climate, predation (see my post The extremely inconvenient truth of wild animal suffering). Maybe in the future, we can limit some of this suffering. The same applies if at some point in our more distant future, we bump into sentient life on other planets. Chances are there is suffering there, and if by that time we have advanced enough morally and technologically, we may be able to help. Of course there is the chance that some other species in our corner of the universe is already at that level, thus making our own progress less important. But certainly in the event that we’re the only “advanced” ones around (in this region of the universe), it becomes very important that we survive and grow to help. It would be a pity if everything we have and everything we are was lost, and the universe would need to restart with another species to reach our level of development. Lots of time and lives lost.

As you see, I’m thinking a bit ahead. And why not? Some will believe this is speculation and science fiction that has no relevance for the problems and suffering at hand. But if we don’t destroy ourselves, we have to assume we’re going to be here for a long, long time still. And in that time, a lot is possible.

We’re on our way. We’re children still, growing up, getting better. It’s going to take ages or millennia, but we humans might just turn out to be the best thing for the universe. Let’s not press that button just yet.

Banning bullfighting: does the motivation matter?

Catalonia, a so called “automous region” in Spain, banned bullfighting in 2010. “Torture is no culture” was the argument offered by animal rights organizations. Catalonians didn’t want bullfighting on their grounds. Now, the Spanish national government has overturned Catalonia’s decision, saying it is the responsibility of the regions to conserve national heritage.

I felt outrage when I read this. Bullfighting is one of those things where you wonder how it can still be going on, how it can not be, at this point, utterly, terribly illegal. Fortunately, the overturning of the ban doesn’t necessarily mean bullfights will be reintroduced in Catalonia.

Catalonians against bullfighting: what are their real reasons, and does it matter?

If you wonder how the Catalonian ban against bullfighting came to exist in the first place, you might think that it was this very same outrage, in collective form, that led to it. Undoubtedly, moral outrage did play a part, but it was not the only thing that drove Catalonia to impose the ban.

First of all, an important factor was that in Catalonia, the bullfighting arenas were already quite empty, and it was mainly an older population that still seemed to enjoy them. The fact that people stayed away may have been for moral reasons, but it could also have been that they had other, more interesting things to do. You can imagine that in such a context, it’s a lot easier to abolish something (kind of like how some countries have prohibited circuses with wild animals, but where there never were such circuses in the first place).

Secondly, the motivation to ban bullfighting was in part political. Many Catalonian nationalists were all too happy to see something that they considered as typically and traditionally Spanish disappear forever. Banning bullfighting was a statement of independence, a symbol of a breach with the Spanish culture and customs. These sentiments helped many Catalonians to vote in favor of the ban.

I wrote on many occasions that in our movement, we often attach too much importance to – and put too much faith in – moral drivers for change. We would love all change for the animals to be inspired by the right reasons, but caring or outrage are often not enough in and of themselves. In this case too, there were different drivers.

It’s of course hard to know to what extent political, economic and moral reasons were each responsible for the ban. Even today, looking at the reactions of prominent Catalonians who are pushing back against the Spanish court decision, it is hard to make out whether the statements given by Catalonian officials are actually motivated by concern for animals, or whether concern for animals is used to further a political agenda. “Barcelona has been an anti-bullfighting city since 2004. Whatever the court says, the Catalan capital will not allow animals to be mistreated,” tweeted Barcelona mayor Ada Colau. And, according to The Guardian, Josep Rull, the Catalan minister for public works, said: “The constitutional court can decide what they want, but we have already decided that there will be no bullfights in Catalonia. (…) We want a country where it is not possible to make a public spectacle of death and suffering to an animal. This is what we decided at the time in Catalonia and is unalterable for us.”

The question I want to ask, however, is: does it matter what the motivation was or is?

It may matter less than we think. I imagine that proud Catalonians who don’t care all that much about animals but who suddenly pick up animal rights slogans because they feel it’s a good argument to further the separation from the Spanish may start believing in these very arguments, just by using them. It’s what we call “fake it until you make it”, in psychology. Feelings and attitudes can follow actions, even if they were not initially there.

As a movement, we need to be pragmatic. We need to find as many possible arguments and drivers that can help animals. When people further the cause of animals to further their own agenda, I think we should support that – as long as that agenda is, of course, not immoral.

Of course, now that the ban is being challenged, we will see whether the motivations behind it are strong enough for the Catalonians to take a stand against the Spanish. Maybe the story of the Catalonian bullfights will turn out to be a story that actually confirms the necessity of ethical, moral outrage for permanent change. I think, however, that it’s rather the opposite: in this case, the ban may hold exactly thanks to the added support of the fiery and feisty Catalonian desire for independence.


Should we tell people that going vegan is easy?

Many vegans love to tell other people that going vegan is sooo easy. Indeed, it has become a lot easier, but I would argue that to most people going vegan is still not easy. One good indication of this is research that tells us that not even staying vegan is easy for most vegans: 75% of them fall off the wagon at some point.

Maybe going vegan was easy for you and me (actually, it wasn’t for me), but that shouldn’t lead us to uncritically extrapolate and assume that it’s easy for everyone. I always emphasize that maybe the most important skill for any activist is the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes (or to walk in their shoes). If you want to influence somebody into thinking or behaving differently, you need to know, first of all, what their experience of the world is.

That is important because others’ experience can be so completely different from yours, that what worked for you will not work for them.

It is tempting to think that reality is reality, and that we all experience it more or less the same way. But of course that’s not the case. Here’s an interesting example. Last week, pollsters asked voters whether Trump’s campaign had stabilized after the offensive videorecording came out. Look at how perception among Republicans and Democrats differed:


Reality of course remains the same in both groups’ cases: Trump’s campaign is in big trouble and he’s dealing with a lot of criticism coming from all kinds of corners of society. But looking at these graphs, you would almost think that Republicans and Democrats are each seeing a different version of Trump and his campaign. And to a certain extent, that’s true: they each have their own experience and their respective perception shapes their “reality”. Everyone is influenced by their biases, fears, wishes, etc.

We may think that we are the only ones seeing reality the way it is: unfiltered, unchanged. For instance, we may believe that no matter what others say, it is easy to be vegan today (especially when seen in the light of what is at stake, and what the animals go through, right?).

“Easy” however, is a relative concept. What is easy for you may not be easy for me and the other way round. We need to take into account the biases I mentioned, but also things like: the place where people live; whether they have certain health problems or allergies (imagine someone with a soy and gluten allergy); their general openness to new things, etcetera.

If people tell us that they find it hard to go vegan, and we just say it’s not (just like in the picture below), we’re not winning. Giving people tips and assistance on how to make going vegan easier for them is something altogether different than telling them it’s easy, period (and maybe implying that if they dare say it’s not easy, it means that they are selfish and put their own comfort above the misery of other creatures).



People will not feel listened to and appreciated when you ignore how they experience reality. A better way to deal with this is to recognize the difficulty they are having, empathize with it, and say that others (maybe including yourself) have experienced the same thing. The feel – felt – found technique offers a way to do this:

  1. I understand how you feel (recognize the problem)
  2. Others have felt the same (show they are not the only one)
  3. They found that after a while they… (show that change is possible, maybe explain the solutions they found)

When you explain that you (or if not you, then other people) had similar difficulties, you also don’t give the person the idea that you are some kind of superbeing (since you find easy something that they find very hard), and they will be able to identify much more with you.

Of course, we shouldn’t exaggerate the difficulties in going vegan either. By all means, we can say that it’s perfectly possible and feasible, and getting easier every day. But looking at the world through other people’s eyes, recognizing their challenges, and helping them surmount them will serve us better than just declaring that going vegan is easy.


Beyond Meat and Tyson: sleeping with the enemy?

The multinational meat company Tyson Foods is – at least to the vegan movement – a monster, slaughtering millions and millions of animals every year.
The startup Beyond Meat, on the other hand, is one of the vegan movement’s darlings, for taking meat alternatives to new levels.
How should the vegan movement respond when one invests in the other?

That’s what just happened: Tyson Foods bought a minority stake (5%) in Beyond Meat.

Judging by the comments on Beyond Meat’s Facebook page, and the company’s public response in a blog, many vegans are not amused.

Beyond meat logo

The accusations are unsurprising: Beyond Meat sold out. They’re only in it for the money. Buying a Beyond Meat product now means financially supporting the meat industry, etc. Therefore, (some) vegans will no longer buy Beyond Meat.

On the other hand, the announcement also got over 1600 likes.

So it seems the audience is torn. What to think?

I’ll take the example of Tyson and Beyond Meat to talk about a very basic distinction when we think about what’s good and what’s not good. It will be obvious for many among you, but is hopefully illuminating for many others.

Basically, one of the ways to explain the different opinions about what Beyond Meat did is in terms of a difference between focusing on values and focusing on consequences. When we look at many moral discussions and issues, this dichotomy is often at their basis.

Let’s investigate.

People who attach the most importance to values will say things like what you read above: that Beyond Meat sold out. That you just can’t deal or cooperate with a company like Tyson Foods because it is evil. That now Beyond Meat has been contaminated. They will point to all the bad things Tyson does, that their intentions are bad, and will say that being somehow implicit in further enriching them is plain immoral.

People who attach the most importance to consequences will look at what will happen as a result of this “collaboration”. They will keep in mind the bottom line (reducing animal suffering, abolishing the killing of animals, or something of this nature) and wonder if what happened will advance this bottom line. In other words, they will not ask whether Beyond Meat did an evil thing or not, but will wonder what good or bad will come out of it: will there be more or fewer animals killed (in the long or short term).

Put very bluntly, for the sake of making it clear, we could say that value-oriented people will say that if something is wrong, it’s wrong, irrespective of any positive consequences. Consequence-oriented people will say that something is okay if the consequences are mostly positive, no matter whether or not we can consider the actual action or deed immoral.

It’s usually not that simple or black and white though. Value-oriented people will almost always take consequences into account to at least some extent, and consequences-oriented people will not throw all values overboard. But it’s a matter of focus, or priority. Two other words for these two approaches would be principled versus pragmatic. In philosophical terms, these two positions are known as deontologist (from the Greek word for “duty”) versus consequentialist (or utilitarian).

Here’s another example that may make the distinction between values and consequences clearer. A skilled hunter may give a wild animal a quicker and more merciful death than when this same animal would die a long, cruel death from hunger. However, this hunter – assuming his first intention is not to reduce animal suffering – wants to have a quick thrill killing an innocent being. Now, if we would have the power to stop this from happening again, what do we do? Do we stop the hunter because we think it’s wrong, even if that would be much less painful for the animal (let’s assume the animal will die in a few days or weeks through lack of food). Or do we say that, exactly because of these consequences, and in spite of the hunter’s intentions, this whole action turns out to be okay and we should support it?

It’s complicated, as you can see, and this discussion has being going on for ages in moral philosophy. It’s what the famous trolley problem is about, and it’s also what my experiment about eating meat for money is about.

(One way to think about this is to put yourself, in this case, in the position of the animal. Would you want people to care more about the consequences, which are directly affecting you? Or about the principles? My view here is that as the animal, I wouldn’t care about what’s right or wrong for humans to do. I would care about my suffering or not suffering.)

If you focus on values, and you have your values clear, then you can often use quick judgments to state whether to you personally something is okay or not okay. But if you judge by consequences, you need to investigate those consequences, and these are not always clear, and you usually have more “work” to do than a values-oriented person.

Let’s go back to Beyond Meat and Tyson Foods. I usually find myself attaching more importance to consequences. Reducing animal suffering to me is what counts, and I’m usually in favor of everything that contributes to that. So, apart from wondering if an investment of Tyson Foods in Beyond Meat is an evil thing in itself, so to speak, we could wonder: what would the concrete, actual consequences for the animals be? More generally, can it ever be a good thing when meat companies invest in plant-based products? Here are some possible consequences to take into account when assessing this case.

If a meat company butters their bread on two sides, or bets on multiple horses (to say it with two “non-vegan” expressions), and is able to profit from the growth of vegan products, we can assume it will become less resistant to this evolution. The lobby for meat is powerful, but as the industry’s financial dependence on selling animal products decreases while its profits from selling vegan products increases, we can expect a shift in their antagonism towards the growth of vegan consumption.

We could wonder – as many vegans do – what happens with the profits the meat company makes from the vegan products? If we are values-oriented, we could say that this is wrong and disgusting in any case: this money is being used to enrich the exploiters. If we are consequences-oriented, we wouldn’t really mind about that in itself, though we might wonder whether these profits might be used to bolster the company’s meat department. In that case, we’d have a negative consequence. This seems unlikely though. I have a hard time seeing a reason why a company would structurally invest the profits from plant-based products to market their animal-based products – unless of course there’s much more money to be made with the latter. But it’s exactly because plant-based is on the rise and animal-based is (very slowly) on the way down in Western countries, that companies like Tyson are starting to invest in plant-based.

Another argument is that these huge companies like Tyson have a big advertising budget. They are able to put veg products really out there: on TV, in supermarkets, etc. Their reach is much bigger than that of the smaller, idealistic companies (though we cannot but be amazed at the attention Hampton Creek has gotten with virtually no advertising budget!).

If Tyson gets really interested, they could also start using part of their resources for research and development of vegan products.

As CEO Ethan Brown says in his blog post, this financial stake of Tyson in Beyond Meat also creates opportunities for the two companies to work together, and to have an influence on Tyson. This may sound naive, but consider the alternative: usually isolating someone or something doesn’t really do anything in terms of influencing them in the right direction. The only thing isolating someone allows you to do is to keep your hands clean. If you are concerned about keeping your hands clean at all costs, you’re very much values-oriented.

You’re also focusing on values when you say that Tyson is only doing this for profit. This is something that you might find morally problematic. However, no matter what Tyson’s intentions are here (and undoubtedly it’s about profit), the consequences could still be positive. In any case, money is one of the main motivations for people to do anything. I think it’s more useful for us to try to make use of and exploit this motivation than to condemn and boycott it.

Whether you focus more on values or more on results, Tyson is not just going to disappear, or stop doing what they do overnight. Rather, Tyson needs to evolve into something else. That is a much more realistic option. And as much as we dislike what it’s doing now, and as much as we may dislike big companies, capitalism, commercialism, consumerism, and so on, I think the best way is to “allow” Tyson to evolve, and to take steps like it just did. Likewise, I think it’s good if we “allow” Beyond Meat to get their hands dirty and get in bed with what is, until further notice, still the enemy.




Why changing (our) minds is so hard

Our ability to change our mind is a beautiful thing. Of course, sometimes minds are too easily changed: people can be under the sway of dictators, gurus, marketeers and just buy whatever those people are selling, without any critical thinking. But for many other people, changing their mind is a lot harder, especially when we’re talking about deeply held and cherished beliefs. These can be moral in nature (questions about whether GMOs, eating meat, spending a lot of money on going to other planets… are ok or not…), or factual (whether eating meat is healthy or not, whether there’s alien life on other planets, etc).

I love it when people, after having given an issue or question their consideration, suddenly say that they have changed their mind about it and now hold a completely different, sometimes diametrically opposed, opinion on it. In this post I wanted to give you my thoughts on why this is actually rare. I will touch on three issues involved in changing minds (ours or other people’s):

1. changing our mind about something is hard
2. we don’t like other people to change our mind
3. we don’t like to admit we changed our mind, and we definitely don’t like to admit that it was other people who changed our mind

(c) thebigriddle.com
(c) thebigriddle.com

Changing our mind about something is hard

Why is that? Basically, we like to see confirmed the opinions and ideas that we already have. We want to justify what we are already thinking, and we don’t like any information that contradicts what we believe. Therefore we will be much more open to even notice information that confirms our ideas and opinions (this is called confirmation bias). Put simply, if you believe A rather than B, you’ll be more likely to seek out and find and believe stuff that confirms A. It goes without saying that this confirmation bias makes it a lot more difficult to change your mind. Just do the experiment: how likely are you (as a vegetarian or vegan) to read (and seriously consider) an article called “Three arguments against veganism”. Maybe you say you won’t read it because you know what is in there and because in the case of veganism there are no good arguments against it. But that would exactly prove your confirmation bias, I’m afraid.

Changing one’s mind about whether it’s right or wrong to eat animal products is especially challenging, because this is an issue with concrete, real world consequences (not everything is: we may never be confronted with an issue like abortion, for instance). Suppose we’re omnivores, who suddenly come to the conclusion that eating animals is wrong (i.e. we just changed our minds). We are then suddenly experiencing that our behavior doesn’t match our beliefs. The friction that we feel as a result of this is called cognitive dissonance, and the theory of cognitive dissonance says that we will try to resolve this “dissonance” (it’s not a nice experience). There are two ways to do this: 1. we follow up on our new belief and reconcile our behavior with it (we become vegan). Or 2. we don’t want to go vegan (we like meat), so we adapt our belief so that it matches with our behavior. We say things like: eating animal products is not that bad, animals are raised for this, the meat I eat comes from animals that didn’t suffer, etc. People who want to avoid going vegan would do best to ignore all the pro-vegan information altogether. This way they can avoid to change their mind and their behavior. So, another answer to the question why changing our mind is so hard is: we often have an active interest (a stake, or a steak!) in not doing so.

Let me offer one suggested solution to this quandary: we must make it easier for people to change their minds by making sure the negative consequences of changing one’s mind are as small as possible (see my talk Making Compassion Easier). In other words, we’ll need to provide people with great alternatives to animal products, which are available everywhere, at competitive prices.

We don’t like other people to change our mind

All of us like to think of ourselves as adult, mature individuals, who can make up our own mind about things. We do not like anyone to tell us how to think, and value our – real or perceived – autonomy. I remember being in a bookstore with a friend, and pointing to a book that I thought he should read. He picked it up and when he read on the cover “this book can change your life”, he snorted, said “I”ll change my own life, thank you very much”, and put the book down.

Already 350 years ago, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that “people are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others”. You may have experienced that when you tried to influence or convince someone of something that you believe in, they just dig in their heels even deeper, and the distance between you and them only becomes bigger.

Our task, then, would be to help people discover the arguments to change their minds by themselves, rather than us offering them those arguments (and telling them their opinion or arguments are incorrect). One way to do this is by mainly asking them questions, as is done with the so-called Socratic method. Socrates, in his dialogues with others (as written out by Plato), didn’t offer his discussion partners his own opinion, but teased out their own arguments, doubts, assumptions etc. by asking them questions. When someone defends eating meat on the basis that it’s what predators do in the wild too, rather than telling them that these predators don’t have the moral apparatus or the alternative in terms of veggie burgers to help them behave differently, we could ask something like: can you see any difference between humans and lions in this respect?

We don’t like to admit that we changed our mind

I started this post by saying how I admire when people change their minds. I admire it also when they can publicly acknowledge this. However, the latter is very hard to do for most people. We believe that showing that we changed our mind is the same as admitting that we made a mistake, and that this makes us look weak, stupid, or whatever. This is a matter of self-preservation and saving face.

How often do you hear a public figure, like a politician, say that they changed their mind? They have good reason to avoid saying that, because their audience tends to think of politicians who change their mind as wishy-washy people with wishy-washy, unstable opinions (if this person changed their mind about this today, will they not change his mind again tomorrow, about the same thing or another thing?). We expect people like politicians to be well-informed from the start and to never change course once they have chosen one (though of course we will be happy if they change their minds in a direction that we applaud). The result is that people will rather hold on to an opinion, long after they’ve been convinced it’s not a correct one. This goes for politicians as well as in our own relationship disputes.

Suggested solution: given that it’s hard for people to admit that they changed their mind, we can try to avoid them having to admit it. What I mean is that, if we would love a person to change their mind from x to y, it is good not to have them defend x too much. As soon as we start a discussion with them about x or y, and they defend x, the more difficult it will be for them later to choose y. And if we present ourselves all the more as champions of y, it becomes even more difficult for them to change, as y will be associated with someone else. It will be the opinion of someone else that they copied (the second issue I discussed above). What’s happening is known as polarization: two parties having opposing viewpoints, just getting even more opposed, digging their heels in. The more one party defends their position, the more difficult it will be for them to change their mind. I think this dynamic will be the most explicit where two people already have some kind of competition going on: siblings, roommates, partners… who debate a lot.

Basically the other should have the idea that once they change their mind, we won’t be there to tease them with things like “See! See now that you were wrong before?!” or “ha, finally you listened to me (and allowed me to influence you)!”. Try to help make sure that the other person will not lose face. Try to make sure they don’t have to admit defeat because there was no battle to begin with. This means trying to not present an issue as a conflict of arguments, as two different positions being opposed to each other. Show how it’s not a black and white matter, how the other party already shares some of your opinions and how you already share some of theirs. This way once a party changes their mind, it will not seem as if they switched camp (and should therefore be afraid of losing face) but just integrated some of your arguments and are now seeing things differently.

Another thing that can help people avoid losing face when changing their mind is when there is another factor (which is not you) that they can attribute their change to. People might be wary of changing as long as they fear having to acknowledge your influence on them, but they might more easily do so if they can attribute it to for instance a change in their health situation (the doctor told them something), or because there’s now an organic store nearby, or they discovered they are allergic to dairy… All of these and many more factors can offer good reasons or excuses (it doesn’t matter) to change their mind. If you discover that there might be such a reason, by all means, let them use it, and don’t insist that it was *you* who was the determining factor in changing their mind.

Needless to say, the ability and readiness to change one’s mind will vary a lot among individuals. Some people may be extremely stubborn. Or people may be able to easily change their mind in some domains, but not in others. Some people will be good at changing their mind across the board. These people are 1. very rational or 2. very mature, or both. The rational people just go for anything that seems correct to them. They are to a large extent aware of their possible biases, and they know that it’s not because *you* gave them some arguments that these arguments are not true and that they shouldn’t carefully evaluate them. Maturity helps them to acknowledge your influence without feeling in any way humiliated or inferior. Mature people are not afraid of looking weak.

In general, it is safe to assume that on big issues like eating meat, changing minds is not easy. Still, it is possible. I think our role is ideally the one of a kind of coach that helps tease out arguments and ideas that others already believe, rather then telling them how to think.