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.

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.




Can abolitionists and pragmatists ever trust each other?

I get a quite a bit of criticism from some people for my blogposts and videos. I’m being told that I’m telling people not to be vegan and that hence I’m an anti-vegan. I’m being told I’m not vegan myself because I’m not picky about wine, because I would eat a steak for 100.000 dollars (which I can use for animals), or because I would make small exceptions if I thought it was better for people’s idea of vegans and veganism, and therefore for the animals.


It seems that abolitionists in particular have a hard time with what I write. I should actually put the word abolitionist in quotation marks, because all of us in the animal liberation/vegan movement are abolitionists, at least in terms of objectives. In terms of strategy, we differ: my tactics and communication are often not abolitionist, but rather pragmatic and incremental.

I realize there is a chasm between abolitionists and pragmatists, if I can put it that way (I use the word pragmatist rather than “welfarist”, which is the usual opposite of abolitionist, but which is a complete misnomer). And I have been thinking about that chasm, and what could be at the basis of it. Because the animosity and downright hostility that these two groups feel for each other, at times defies explanation.

One would think that we could agree to disagree on strategy, and that at least we wouldn’t second guess each other’s intentions. Yet that’s exactly what happens. What’s at the core of the hostility seems to be a lack of trust. Abolitionists don’t seem to trust that pragmatists really, really want an end to animal (ab)use, that they really really want a vegan world. Conversely, I think some pragmatists may have similar doubts about abolitionists, believing some might be more interested in a vegan club than a vegan world.

Somehow, we need to find that trust; the trust in each other’s good intentions and in each other’s love and respect for animals. If we then differ about what strategy is efficient, or even think that the other’s strategy will not lead us to where we want to be, things won’t get so out of hand.

Like I said, I’m a pragmatist. I don’t tell people that veganism is the moral baseline or that they should go vegan, but suggest that they take whatever steps in that direction that they are comfortable with. I suggest we are patient. I suggest people don’t spend too much time worrying about what’s in bread or wine or fruit juice, and over doing the impossible. I suggest that every step is good. I never say meat is murder, I don’t accuse people of being immoral, selfish or hypocritical if they are not vegan, as we won’t really endear people to our cause this way. I also suggest that we need to work together with other organisations, sectors, companies, governments and that we need to be practical and pragmatic in this. I believe that a big mass of meat reducers is a faster way to arrive at a vegan society than slowly increasing the number of vegans (though I think both should be done). I also believe that people can evolve from health concerns to animal concerns, so I talk about what I think interests them.

Basically, I want to make it easier to eat vegan, and I believe that convenience is the basis ofwhich we can build our critical mass. All of that doesn’t mean I don’t believe the world should be vegan. I believe in that as much as the people who unequivocally say that vegan is the moral baseline believe it. I also believe it’s realistic to get there. I do believe that not just the suffering of animals is wrong, but also taking their lives.

I think saying that we need all approaches is way too easy, and I believe some are better than others. I follow the one I think is best, and I hope you do the same (the one you think is best, that is). But I believe that an in-your-face, veganism-is-the-moral-baseline-approach can coexist with a pragmatic, incremental approach.

What I also believe is that it will be a lot harder to be successful if we don’t trust each other.

The danger of big animal rights organisations

I think Mercy for Animals is one of the most impactful animal rights organisations in the US. In just a couple of years, they have grown out to be a group that very regularly gets big media coverage for its undercover investigations. Thus, it has exposed what happens in factory farms to millions of people in the US and beyond.


And yet, today I found this on Facebook:


I have a reallly hard time getting this. I do not like to question people’s motivations and intentions, but in this case it is really hard for me to see this as a sincere attempt to help animals. At the very least, given what MFA has done, this seems to me to be terribly and sadly misguided.

There are also other possible interpretations. One is that the author of this has had a personal bad experience with the group in question – they could be, for instance, an ex-employee. The second is that things like this are set up by the opposition: the meat industry itself.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist by a long shot, but think about it. What would be some efficient ways to fight against the success organisations like Mercy for Animals are having? The ag-gag laws, which in some US states have made it illegal to make photographs of factory farms are one thing. Another tactic could be to damage animal rights organisations from within the movement.

A good way to do that would be to try to diminish the credibility of organisations like MFA by accusing them of all kinds of things: saying they are corrupt (out to get money for themselves), inefficient, or not pure in their mission. Basically it’s a “divide and conquer” strategy.

More generally, I believe that trying to spread, within our movement, a very rigid, dogmatic, no-compromise strategy would be a great thing for the industry to do. I’m not saying that everyone who believes in no-compromise black-and white solutions and who dislikes any sort of pragmatism has been inspired by the opposition, obviously. But I do believe that the industry loves to see the increase of fundamentalism or radicalism (I’m using the words not in their derogatory but more in their philosophical sense). Fundamentalist ideologists are, I believe, by far not as dangerous as pragmatic, strategic thinking people. When individuals get together to build an organisation, and acquire money enough in order to get huge media attention and afford lobbyists, that is the moment they get really dangerous. And that is the moment they would need to be discredited by all means necessary.

Whether the industry is behind some of this or not, don’t fall into the trap of believing the big organisations are betraying the animals or wasting your money. They consist of committed individuals like you and me, doing the best they can for the animals every day. Support them.

Disclaimer: I founded and for 15 years led EVA, a Belgian veg organisation. It isn’t “big” (12 staff at most), but it is definitely above grassroots level.