Vegan advocacy: Unapologetic or pragmatic?

opposing views on vegan advocacy

On Jan 28 2017, I did a Facebook live discussion with Casey Taft on the topic of vegan advocacy. Casey is the founder of Vegan Publishers, author of Motivational methods for vegan advocacy: A clinical psychology perspective, and is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
In terms of vegan advocacy, Casey feels that promoting a clear vegan end goal is the best way to bring about both reduction and cessation of animal use and that we should be careful not to promote the very thing (speciesism) that is the biggest contributor to our animal use in the first place. I, on the other hand, believe that while there’s a place for this approach, it is not what is most needed at this moment in time. I maintain that asking people to reduce their consumption of animal products is helpful to create a vegan world, and is not a betrayal of vegan principles or of the animals. This post is part summary, part observation of the discussion we had. Throughout the text I will link to related blogposts I wrote previously.

opposing views on vegan advocacy

A civil discussion across the aisles
First of all, in spite of our different viewpoints, the discussion between Casey and me was friendly and civilized, and I found in Casey a respectful critic of my views. When I accepted Casey’s suggestion to talk, this for me was my first objective: to have a constructive discussion “across the aisles”. On the meta-level, I am very interested in how people with very different opinions can still have civil conversations (this is a bit like one of Sam Harris’s stated goals for his Waking Up podcast). Due to our different experiences, different upbringing, different genetic makeup, we are bound to experience the world differently and to have different opinions about many things. I believe one of the main conditions to create a better world is that we are able to discuss these differences. When we meet people who have different opinions, it is important to be charitable to each other, and to start with trusting that the other person has good intentions. So, I’m thankful that Casey and I were able to do that.

Points of agreement
Though our viewpoints are quite different, it isn’t that Casey and I are at loggerheads about every issue or aspect of vegan advocacy. Reading his book in preparation for our discussion, I found myself agreeing with quite a few things: obviously, the abolitionist aim, but also the idea that ultimately people need to see what we do to animals as an issue of social justice. I agree with him about the importance of respectful yet assertive conversation, and with reinforcing positive behavior rather than punishing undesirable behavior. I appreciate that he wants to build a bigger tent by including demographics that have largely  been excluded from vegan advocacy. I share his stance against misanthropy. I agree that we don’t have enough research to say too many things with too high a degree of certainty.

A pragmatic approach
The main difference between our approaches is that Casey believes that we should never advocate for anything less than veganism, and that when we do that, we are betraying the animals, as well as our beliefs and that we may be actively undermining the case for veganism. I, on the other hand, believe that there is, so to speak, no moral obligation to always and everywhere present veganism as a moral obligation. If there’s any obligation, it is to do what works.

It is important to emphasize that the strategy I suggest – on this blog, in my talks and most elaborately in my book How to Create a Vegan World  is not meant as the only strategy that should replace all others. Rather, it is a complementary, but – I think – necessary strategy. I believe that in this I differ from many “abolitionists” who believe there is only one right way to advocate for veganism, and who consider anything less than that as an aberration that is at the same time ineffective and unethical. It’s equally important to emphasize that I do believe in the same goal: the idea that we should stop using animals for human purposes and should minimize animal suffering.

My view, very briefly, is that getting a lot of people to reduce is easier than getting a lot of vegans, and that, therefore, this is the fastest way to tip the system: a lot of reducers are what has been and is driving demand for plant-based products. A higher demand (coming from these reducers especially) obviously leads to a higher supply of good alternatives. Thanks to more alternatives, it becomes easier and easier for everyone to shift towards more plant based eating (see What vegan can learn from glutenfree) and to be open to animal rights arguments. I emphasize that, apart from trying to influence people’s attitude in the hope that people will change their behavior, we also need to help people change their behavior first (eating plant based to whatever degree, for whatever reason), so that they will more easily open their hearts and minds to the horrible situation animals are in. An example of this is also health conscious vegans who evolve into ethical vegans.

Where you stand depends on where you sit. We are presently so invested in using animals, both on the individual and societal/economic levels, that it is very hard to start thinking differently about eating animals. (The shortest introduction to my views is this video.)

If we agree that a critical mass of reducers is important, it is also important to see which arguments convince people to reduce their consumption of animal products. Health and environment seem to be effective arguments in this context; so, we should use them.

Does pragmatism = betrayal?
Now, Casey and others may agree that all of this may very well be true, but that for us vegans to advocate for reduction is to implicitly condone the eating of animals, and to downplay the social justice issue that is veganism or animal rights. One of the arguments that is often used to support this claim is to say that we wouldn’t be doing this in the case of humans. We wouldn’t advocate for a reduction of slavery, a reduction of domestic abuse, a regulation of child abuse; we would call for it to stop.

This argument sounds very elegant at first sight, but I believe it is very much off the mark. I have written about this previously (see On comparing animal rights with other social justice issues and Slavery Free Mondays, but basically, comparing, for example, child abuse or wife-beating with eating animal products, is comparing something that 99 percent of the people abhor and agree to ban entirely with something that almost as many people not just condone but actually celebrate.

Advocates of Casey’s view may then reply: but it doesn’t matter what people think about these issues; what matters is that we can compare human and non-human animals and that we are right to do so. Well, I believe that if we want to carve out a successful approach to stop people from doing something, we really do need to take into account where society is, not just where we are. Comparing eating animal products to beating one’s wife will often be ineffective, and people may feel very accused and morally reproached (alienating feelings usually will not lead to change).

Moreover, if you really believe that these issues are (almost) identical, then what about this: what would you do if you saw a man beating up his wife, or a child, or if you were witnessing someone buying a slave? If you had the power, you’d stop it, right? So, given that these issues are allegedly comparable, are you then morally obligated to do the same when you see people buying meat in a supermarket, or preparing it in their kitchen? Should you grab the meat out of their hands, or physically prevent them from buying or cooking meat? I don’t think so. The analogy, as analogies go, may not be perfect, but I think this shows that even us vegans think about these situations and issues as different. Similarly, while I appreciate Casey’s experience and everything he does for both animals and domestic violence victims (and abusers), I believe it’s problematic to compare the treatment of domestic abusers with the treatment of non-vegans. For example, Casey writes that most of the abusers he treats are ordered by courts to see him, which is indicative of the difference in itself.

I used to advocate like Casey does, from a “moral baseline” position. I changed my mind and my approach after years of advocating and campaigning. The main thing for me is not to be consistent with my ideology or theory, but to be consistent with results. If something gets good results, I will go for it. I will feel true to myself and my beliefs, even if, according to some, my approach is not in line with vegan orthodoxy (see also: Veganism: ideology versus results).

Research on effectiveness
Another point where I differ with Casey is in our opinions about the research that is being carried out by organizations like ACE (Animal Charity Evaluators), Faunalytics (formerly the Humane Research Council) and others. Casey has called their research pseudoscience and has written how their studies do not follow basic principles of science. While I do appreciate that, from his experience as a professor in clinical psychology with a lot of practical experience, Casey may bring a lot of interesting points to the table, I’m sure he too realizes that he’s not the only expert. I will not go into detail about the studies in question, but I’ll just make some general comments on this topic.

Like I said, I agree that we have not been able to do enough research to state many things with a very high degree of certainty. Note that this doesn’t mean we don’t have anything at this point. Plus, there is also a lot we can derive from more general research in the fields such as psychology, marketing and sociology. There is also common sense, and our combined experiences – even though we have to be careful with all these sources of data and knowledge. In any case, I’m very happy that there is more and more money being granted to and invested in research.

Casey seems to have a high distrust of the findings of the research (mainly done by the above mentioned groups) so far, one reason for that being – if I understood or interpreted him correctly – that the (preliminary) results often seem to point in the direction of support of incremental asks. Casey relies on theories and his own experience that according to him point in different directions, based on psychological theories and research, such as goal setting theory and the Transtheoretical Model (Stages of Change). He does not believe the findings of work in those areas suggest incremental asks are most effective, and that, in the case of Faunalytics and others, the data have been interpreted in a biased way to confirm the researchers’ original (incrementalist) views. Casey is mainly talking here about the Faunalytics study on former vegetarians and vegans. Che Green from Faunalytics has responded in the comment section on this article by Casey. I disagree with the conclusions Casey draws from the research – see What can we learn on research from ex-vegetarians?

I think in all of this it is useful to ask: what is it that could change our minds? My impression is that some people – I’m not necessarily saying Casey here – will not accept any evidence, because accepting it runs counter to their theories. There is, in other words, no way to falsify one’s conclusions (which is indicative of an unscientific attitude).

Personally, I don’t feel too much distrust towards the research done by groups like ACE and Faunalytics. Their studies were conducted with the specific aim to find out what works, and they have no interest whatsoever in fooling themselves. Even though we would be wise to remain critical (as with everything), I like to assume that people working on research in support of vegan advocacy would do their utmost best to avoid flawed methodologies and thus flawed results.

Big groups and money
I equally don’t share Casey’s distrust of “big groups”. It is definitely possible that big organizations go astray and sometimes are just raising money to fund their own continued existence, without doing all that much for the causes they advocate. However, there is obviously no reason to think that this is always or even usually the case. If a good organization is able to raise a lot of money, that is a good thing. Big organizations need funds to pay their staff and, therefore, need to fundraise. The more staff hours a group can devote to liberating animals, the more animals will be helped (no, it’s not going to be all done by volunteers). Money is a necessary resource not just to free up more working time, but also to do outreach. If we use money well, then the more money we can collect from people, companies and governments (often siphoning it away from other, more neutral or less noble, uses – see Money money money in our movement).

Reconciling different views
Casey and I finished our discussion by looking at what we can do to get along better and to reconcile these sometimes opposing viewpoints. Here are some ideas:

  • I talked about what I started this post with: trust. We have to be able to trust that all of us have the same good intentions (even though none of us is entirely pure in their intentions – we are humans, not saints). (see also: Can abolitionists and pragmatists ever trust each other?)
  • We also need to keep an open mind and be ready to change it. And, we need to practice what I call slow opinion.
  • While some approaches are definitely better than others and not all strategies are created equal, as long as we don’t know entirely what works best, strategic pluralism and experimenting with different approaches is (to a certain extent) a good thing.
  • It’s possible that different approaches can best be applied in different contexts. An “unapologetic” go vegan approach may be useful in one to one conversations where we see that the person is open-minded, while incremental, pragmatic approaches may do much better in the case of trying to create institutional change. Indeed, trying to change individuals (often done by individual advocates and grassroots groups) is quite different from advocating for institutional change (usually done by bigger, more professional groups). Similarly, approaching politicians with a health or environmental message will often be more effective than approaching them with an animal rights or “unapologetically” vegan message. Understanding these contextual differences may make us more tolerant of approaches that we usually don’t follow. (See also: Vegan activism: the difference between individuals and groups).
  • What is effective is also very much a matter of the factor time. Things that may not work (or not work optimally) today, may very well work (or work much better) in ten or twenty years time. I believe right now is a time for a mainly pragmatic approach, and that as time goes by and people become less and less dependent on animal products, an unapologetic approach will be more and more productive. (see also: The right strategy at the right time)

Again, despite our differences, I appreciate the work that Casey is doing, and I appreciate the fact that we had a constructive discussion.

You can watch the whole discussion (70 minutes) here.