Yes, we CAN ask for less than “go vegan”

An often heard crede – especially among so called “abolitionist” vegans – is that “veganism is the moral baseline”. It seems to mean that being vegan is the minimum we can do for the animals if we want to be moral creatures. Conversely, anything less than vegan is immoral behaviour. I don’t agree with that, and the way many activists use the sentence often seems quite ineffective and often condescending to me.

From idea that veganism is the moral baseline, it seems to follow (at least for those who adhere to the moral baseline motto) that our outreach towards omnivores can never be anything less than suggesting them to go vegan. Asking people to be reducetarians, for instance, would be an immoral demand, just like, believers hold, asking or demanding that a childbeater become a parttime childbeater rather than doing it every day (I have written about that before, here and here).

Let us assume for a minute that asking anything less than veganism is immoral (and that veganism is the moral baseline). Let us, however, at the same time assume – for the sake of the argument – that asking “things less than veganism” leads to a higher reduction of animal suffering and killing. What, in that case, should we prioritize: the morality of our outreach, or its impact? In other words, should we – again assuming for a minute that we know for sure – use a less effective message because we believe it to be a more moral one?

driving force

Those who would answer that the morality aspect is the most important, will often claim that the impact is actually on their side too, and that what is painted above is some kind of false dichotomy. I want to briefly examine here if that is true. In other words: is it possible that asking other things than “go vegan” is more effective in reducing animal suffering and killing?

People who follow this blog will know that my answer will be that that is definitely possible. I give three reasons why I think a smaller ask may (often) be more effective than the bigger, go vegan ask. I am not implying that everyone should do “reducitarian” outreach – more about that below.

One: bigger total impact
It seems to be common sense that when we ask people to do something easy, more of them will do it than when we ask them to do something hard. The difference between the small number of people doing the hard thing, and the higher number of people doing the easy thing is big enough, the people doing the easy thing may all together have a higher total impact. Say we ask one thousand people to go vegan and say we get ten of them to actually do so (it definitely is possible to go vegan overnight, no one is denying that). On the other hand, say that we ask another thousand people (our control group) to participate in Meatless Mondays, and say that 300 do so. You can do the math. One might object that the few people that were convinced become fulltime vegans might also become active in reaching out to others, but actually the same can be said about the meat reducers, who can also advocate for Meatless Monday.

Two: meat reducers may more easily become vegan
I believe our main challenge today is to get as many people as possible to take the first steps, to cross a certain treshold.That is in many cases one of the most important things we can help them do, because it is a lot easier to move up the vegan scale when you have made a first step. Being a reducetarian is not an end, but a beginning.

Three: meat reducers make veganism easier and may tip the system faster
Meat reducers are the driving force behind demand, and companies producing vegan products, do so in the first place for *them* and not for vegans. In other words, meat reducers help to make it easier for everyone to eat more and more vegan, or even to go vegan overnight.

These are three reasons – and in my upcoming book they will be better referenced – that could indicate that asking people to reduce might have a bigger impact than asking them to go vegan. One could argue that if this would be so, this demand would actually be the more moral one. After all, what’s moral about using a message that is less effective than one we know to be more effective?

Let me explicitly state my purpose in writing all this. I am not saying that our movement should never use the “go vegan” message. I *am* saying, conversely, that we are under no moral obligation to *always* use the “go vegan” message. And I am suggesting that those who think they should criticize people who do “less than vegan” outreach (be they vegans themselves or not) stop doing that.

PS: some more information:

How to veganize the world: one possible strategy

This is a somewhat longer article that gives a summary of the strategy you can also find in this talk. It first appeared in French here.

How to veganize the world

Let’s assume that if you’re reading this, you agree that, apart from all kinds of other changes, your ideal world is a world where animals are not used for human purposes, be it food, clothing, research, entertainment, or whatever. A vegan world, in short.

Can we ever achieve a vegan world? Right now, it doesn’t look too good. To use Melanie Joy’s so called “three N’s of justification”, meat is natural, normal and necessary. And to add two more N’s: it’s nice (tasty) and it’s not the first and only thing we worry about. Also, demand for meat, dairy and eggs is expected to grow a lot in the coming decades, because of the increasing purchasing power of people in upcoming economies, like China and India, which together represent one third of the global population.

Still, I’m optimistic. I think a vegan world is an obtainable goal (although it of course depends on what we consider to be a vegan world exactly, but let’s not have that discussion). The question then is: how do we reach that goal?

The most obvious idea, and the strategy that gets the most emphasis from both individual vegan/animal rights activists as well as from most organisations is simple: try to convince as many people as possible to go vegan, by explaining them that animals suffer or deserve respect and even rights. This is an important part of the strategy, but it is definitely not the only required part and it is maybe not even the most important part. I believe the social struggle for animal rights is the biggest and most challenging struggle of them all. To win it, we’ll need different tactics. But first, let’s see why this struggle is so difficult and different.

The struggle for animal rights is different

We love to compare the movement for animal rights with several human rights causes, such as the anti-slavery movement, the fight for women’s liberation, anti-racism, and so on, but it is important to note that, while there certainly are similarities, there are also big differences. The first among them is that in our case, the beings campaigning are not the same as the victims. We, their supporters, speak for beings who can’t speak for themselves. And we are still quite a small group. The public support for our cause is by far not as big as it was or is for let’s say the struggle for black people or women’s rights, exactly because in those cases respectively people of color and women were and are to at least a significant extent part of the protest. In the words of author Norman Phelps “we are attempting to be the first social justice movement in history to succeed without the organized, conscious participation of the victims.”

Take into account also the incredible degree to which our society is dependent on animal products. Most people, especially in the western world, have animal products at every meal. That’s three times a day, every day. Huge economies depend on the consumption of animal products, including also big parts of the clothing, research and some entertainment industries. We are invested in the (ab)use of animals to a degree that we probably have never been invested in the “use” of for instance black people, women or children. This obviously makes the whole system suffer from a very high degree of inertia. It’s good to take that into account.

Another reason for inertia is this: the main behavior (in terms of volume) that we are trying to change is eating behavior. Our food habits are sort of ingrained in us, maybe more so than anything else. What we eat is tied to emotional and psychological factors. We can be addicted to food, and some researchers believe that some food products or ingredients may have a level of addictiveness comparable to hard drugs. When it’s about food, we don’t think with our mind but with our taste buds or our stomach. Meat eating has been part of our history for hundreds of thousands of years. Many people experience some part of primary craving for it.
Conversely, what makes our challenge even bigger is that our opponents have it quite easy: their message (that eating animals is ok, normal, healthy…) is one that the large majority of the public wants to hear. It’s a message that the industry throws out their with billions of advertising money.

The above factors (as well as others) should be taken into account when strategizing about our movement and how to get to a vegan world. This is not to say that no comparisons are valid and that there are no similarities, but it means that we shouldn’t be too quick to draw conclusions based on what happened in other movements. We are largely in uncharted territory.

Moral and non-moral factors

moral non moral
When we look at the factors that can influence individuals (and society as a whole) to go vegan or progress towards veganism, we can make the following distinction: there are moral factors and non-moral factors. Concern for animal pain and suffering is the main moral factor or argument that we use. We hope that by considering the plight of the animals that they eat, people may change their behaviour. Non-moral factors are factors that can motivate or help people to eat or go vegan as well, but which have in and of themselves nothing to do with morality. For instance the environment in which individuals find their food and eat can be conducive to them eating vegan or not. A wonderful selection of great tasting meat and dairy alternatives could convince people to choose them without any thoughts of the animals being involved. Concern about one’s health is also a non moral factor (though I would never call it selfish or egotistical, as some people do).

We think moral factors work best

In our movement, we focus mostly on the moral factors. We spend a lot of time telling people that animals are sentient beings, that they have a right to life etc, saying that that is reason enough for them to change their eating habits.

Why do we focus on these moral factors? In part, because we think this focus is the most effective thing we can do. And we think they are effective because they are what convinced most of us who are vegetarian or vegan at this point. That we were moved by those factors, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that others will be too. Indeed, if it worked for everyone in the same way, we should have a lot more vegans already, obviously. You could see the present day vegetarians and vegans (a couple of percentages of the population) as the innovators and early adopters on the “diffusion of innovation” model. The rest of the population – the so called early and late majorities, and obviously the laggards) might very well need different ways to be convinced – because they are different people, with different interests – than us. Briefly put, when we advocate, we should always keep the following in mind: that you are not your audience.

The right thing for the right reasons?

Not only do we believe that these moral factors work well, we also want them to work well and we want people to be convinced by these moral factors and nothing else. We want people to be vegan for the right reasons, which is to say: because they care about animals. I guess this is because we believe that only people really caring about animals provides real and lasting protection for them. We have doubts that a vegan world will ever come about as a result of a lot of health or foodie vegans, and for good reason. There may be other reasons too, more personal ones, but I’m not going to start psychoanalyzing.

So because 1. we think a focus on moral arguments works and 2. because we want people to do the right thing for the right (moral) reason, our movement has very explicitly focused on it for the past few decades.

The problem with moral campaigning however, is that it’s not enough. One thing we can learn from other movements, and in particular from the anti-slavery movement (and here is a parallel with other movements which I think we can draw), is that the good fights are not won (if they are ever won) with moral arguments alone. In the case of slavery in North America, not only was it ended by an actual war, but also other things were really important, like the invention of the steam engine which could automate certain tasks and could make them cheaper than working with slaves.

Morality alone won’t do it

In the case of the animal rights movement, these non-moral factors are arguably even more important. If you would draw the case for the moral arguments to its logical extreme, you would argue that we have a duty always and everywhere to avoid animal products (let’s restrict ourselves to diet here), even in the case of us having only water and bread as our only meal for the rest of our lives. Now, that may morally make sense, and many present day vegans would not turn their back from veganism even if all they could eat was water and bread. However, we can easily imagine that every advance in alternative products (both in quality as well as quantity or availability) makes it a lot easier to further evolve on the scale towards veganism. To put it another way: as the offer of alternatives for animal products improves and increases, the required moral motivation or concern shrinks. This is a good thing, because we don’t have people’s motivation directly under our control, nor do we control their compassion or discipline to change.

Behaviour change may precede attitude change

For those of us who want people to go vegan for the right reasons and actually care about animals, there is good news though: attitude change can follow behaviour change. Let me explain. In our movement, as in most social movements, we usually work like this: we want to change people’s attitudes or beliefs about something, and hope that these changed attitudes will make them change their behaviour. In our case: we try to change their attitudes about animals by informing them about how animals are sentient beings who can suffer, deserve rights and respect, etc. We hope they understand this and then take the next step, which is to stop eating animal products. This works sometimes, but probably not often enough. Not only are we unable to make many people care (we don’t have much control over their caring), but some (maybe many) of the people who actually do care, will not change their behaviour (this is called the attitude-behaviour gap). Indeed we may assume that deep down, most people do care about what happens to animals in e.g. factory farms. Most people, however, are not vegan. They are not putting that caring into practise. The reasons for this are many, but one of the main ones is undoubtedly that it’s generally not convenient enough to do so.

When people’s behaviour changes first though (i.e. without their beliefs having changed), this behaviour change can influence their beliefs. You may notice the parallel with what I wrote about before: moral reasons and non-moral reasons. People can change what they eat for non-moral reasons: they may be in an environment where there’s great vegan food, they may be eating it because someone else prepares it for them daily. In the future there may be vegan alternatives just about everywhere. In some situations vegan food could be the default option and people may choose this option without thinking.

Now what happens is that once they experience that vegan food is good to eat, is doable, affordable, etc, they get more open to the animal rights arguments because they are no longer afraid of losing something. They know and have experienced already that there are great alternatives for animal products, so they don’t fear missing out. This time they are less prone to avoid reading an article on animal suffering or avert their eyes when they see coverage of factory farms on TV. They are less likely to dismiss it.

Let me illustrate how behaviour influences beliefs with a concrete example. Imagine a bullfighter and a slaughterhouse worker. These two people basically do the same thing: they kill cows. Now if you would ask non-vegans who of the two persons they feel most angry with, the answer will be: the bullfighter. Why is that? In part it is because many people see bullfighting as senseless violence while they see slaughtering an animal for meat as a necessary thing to do. Food is in their eyes less trivial than entertainment. I think, however, that this is not the main factor at play here. I think the main difference is this: most people are not involved or invested in bullfighting (they don’t attend bullfights or don’t watch them on TV), but are invested in the slaughtering of animals because they eat meat. Behaviour influences beliefs. It is much harder to judge or condemn something you do yourself. It is easy for most people to condemn fur because they are not wearing fur.

Another way behaviour change comes before concern for animals is of course when people go vegetarian or vegan for health reasons. Research shows that in a significant part of the cases people who go veg for health reasons develop (just in the way I described above) a concern for animal suffering, and often ethical vegans started out as health vegans. I think the concern of some vegans that health is not a good motivator or argument to talk about veganism because it is less “sticky” (i.e health vegetarians or vegans will be more prone to give it up) doesn’t hold much water, because without the health argument we might have had way less vegetarians or vegans in the first place, and secondly many people, as I stated, evolve in their motivations over time. This objection is mainly a reflection of us wanting people to do things for the right reasons. (On the other hand, health benefits of veganism shouldn’t be exaggerated, and potential nutritional pitfalls should be explained).

The importance of incrementalism

As you may be able to see, what I described above is not about making people vegan directly. By experiencing vegan meals and products, people slowly change their behaviours and beliefs, and many will eventually arrive at being full fledged vegans because they care about animals. However, this is not to say that all the people who reduce their meat consumption are of no value in and of themselves. On the contrary. I believe the fastest way to a vegan world is to emphasize the reduction of animal products (in tandem with a “go vegan” message that is carefully targetted at some audiences and in some circumstances). People will be a lot more inclined to actually do something when you ask them to take a step they can imagine really taking. For most people, the question to go vegan will be a non-starter. That doesn’t mean there should be no outreach material or groups or individuals that are using the “go vegan” message. It just means that there should also be a message out there to reduce (and maybe this message should be more prominent than the go vegan message). The important thing here is that a big group of meat reducers is the fastest way to increase demand, and thus supply. The more meat reducers there are, the more veg products will appear everywhere, and the more easy it will become to to go totally vegan. It is crucial to bear in mind that many of us may be vegan thanks to the fact that it is now a lot easier than before, and that it is a lot easier thanks to… the big group of meat reducers asking for veg products (rather than the still tiny amount of vegans).


To put all this together: apart from the “go vegan for the animals” approach, there should also be an approach that focuses on behaviour change first. This behavior change can be for whatever reasons (health; the availability of great alternatives…), and to whatever degree (meat reduction, vegetarianism, Meatless Mondays…). Just like people can evolve in terms of their motivations, they evolve in terms of their frequency of meat consumption. A big group of meat reducers will increase the supply, making it easier for everyone to go vegan. When vegan products and meals become even more available, and certainly when they come closer to being the default option, spreading the animal rights message will be much easier, as by then both individuals and society as a whole will be less dependent on animal products. This also means that at this point in time, it is extremely important to focus on creating amazing alternatives for animal products, both in supermarkets and in restaurants.

How to veganize Sam Harris

For those who don’t know him, Sam Harris is an author on philosophy, religion & atheism, rationality and a lot of other topics, and has quite a large following. In his latest podcast, Sam Harris talks with psychologist Paul Bloom about “the dark side” of human nature. One of the topics under scrutiny this time is vegetarianism/veganism.

I have written before about Sam Harris’ dietary choices and his at the time not very convincing arguments for not being vegan. I don’t require people to be vegan, but in his case, as someone really adamant about following rational argument to wherever it leads, I couldn’t help pointing out some inconsistencies.

Listening to this recent podcast (from min. 1.14 to the end), I was impressed and moved by Harris’ statements and philosophizing on our behaviour towards and thinking about animals, however. Harris wants to take the idea of going vegan seriously. I’ll go over some of the ideas exchanged between Harris and Bloom below, before drawing some conclusions.

Harris and Bloom both both agree that future generations will see us the way we see slaveholders today and that they will consider our present treatment of animals as monstrous. They both agree about their own complicity “in the horrific suffering of many many creatures”, and that they “are participating in a system that is on some basic level indefensible.” Bloom: “We can ask ourselves what it’s like to knowingly do evil. And this is what it feels like”. Bloom doesn’t want to call it hypocrisy but rather weakness of will.

While Bloom seems to be willing to defend “humane” meat, saying the suffering is the problem rather than the killing, and that the world would already be a much better place if we only produced humane” meat, Harris doesn’t want to buy into that so easily. He says:

“I know that I’m not going to kill a cow to get my next hamburger… and the fact that I participate in a system that does this knowingly more or less condemns me as a hypocrite. (…) I know I wouldn’t kill them myself, and I wouldn’t like myself if I became so callous as to be ok with doing it. I don’t want to be that person.(…) My first ethical concern is: if you know that you would find it ethically repugnant to kill animals, day after day so as to secure your protein (…), if you much rather pet a cow than kill it (…), if you know you are that kind of person and you wouldn’t want to be any other kind of person, doesn’t it seem just transparantly unethical to be willing to delegate that process to others and just keep it out of sight, out of mind and just go on eating meat however raised?

sam harris

Bloom believes that if Harris thinks this way, if he finds it morally repellent to kill animals, then yes, he shouldn’t delegate it.

Harris seems to be entirely aware of both the suffering going on and of the inconsistency between his beliefs and his actions. He names two factors that keep him from being vegan: “(1) the pleasure to which I think I’m marginally attached (…) and (2) the feeling that we don’t understand human health and nutrition enough… ” Harris doesn’t want “to have what I eat and what I feed my kids such a life consuming project. It’s just easier to eat meat and fish sometimes.” He admits, however that “that laziness, given the magnitude of the suffering we are imposing on animals, is a horrible thing about me. That laziness is not justifiable if you actually look closely at the details.”

Both Harris and Bloom agree that it would be a lot easier if some things were imposed from the top down. Bloom compares it to the following: he isn’t really prepared to give away a big part of his income, but is in favor of taxes taking a share. Harris, in this respect, talks about “getting up each day and having to rely on your own heroism and commitment and some sort of discipline.” Still, he acknowledges that “we obviously can’t keep killing and emiserating animals with a clear conscience until some benevolent despot passes that law for us. We can’t abdicate personal responsibility here.”

I think we can draw several lessons or conclusions from this dialogue:

  1. People who are committed to rational thinking can come to the conclusion that eating animals (at the very least factory farmed animals) is wrong.
  2. They won’t necessarily put that belief into practice.
  3. Some of the ways to bridge the gap between attitude and behaviour (at least in this case) are 1. showing the nutritional adequacy of vegan diets (preferably in a rational way and without exaggeration) and 2. as a movement, by stimulating the development of alternatives.
  4. What’s also clear is that Harris seems to think that it is all much more complicated than it really is. Most people who have been vegan for a mere couple of months will realize that it doesn’t require much “discipline” or “heroism”, even though getting there might be less easy or obvious.
  5. We can see that they haven’t done much thinking (especially Bloom) and are probably quite misguided about “humane meat”. I am definitely not saying that there are no differences between different ways of raising animals, but as far as we can see, “humanely” raised meat (if we would agree that it exists at all) is very hard to come by, would be very expensive and its production is not generalisable. What Bloom has in mind when he talks about “humane” meat is probably a far cry from an actual improvement.

I leave the word to Harris before drawing conclusion number six:

“We are two people [Harris and Bloom – VS] who have admitted to participating in a system that is not only in some sense objectively bad but perhaps so bad as to be the kind of thing that would be on the short list as to be an embarassment to our descendants. (…) We’re both conceding that the way we raise and treat and consume anmials is probably a moral scandal (…) analogous to slavery and yet we are to some degree participating in it and not really signalling much of a willingness to change. I’m gonna signal my own willingness to change. I’m appealing to my listeners to send me some streamlined info on how to idiotproof this process.”

So here’s conclusion number six: sometimes change is a slow process (I know it was for me) but, even though Sam Harris hasn’t reached the vegan “nec plus ultra” yet, change seems to be possible for everyone. It would be good not to write off anyone on the basis that they are not vegan yet, and encourage them, especially when they are showing intellectual honesty, and are mustering the courage to honestly examine their belief and draw honest conclusions. Sam Harris wants to really investigate what he can do. I applaud him for that and wish him good luck. I’m sure he’ll soon be a formidable ally to the movement for compassion for animals.