Recently, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris did an interview on his Waking Up podcast (my favorite online thing to follow) with William MacAskill, the founder and face of the Effective Altruism movement. The whole two hour dialogue is worth listening to, but at one point, Harris asks MacAskill how much of our income we should give to charity. MacAskill gives his answer, after which Harris asks (without judgment, he says) why he shouldn’t give away even more.
MacAskill’s answer is interesting: what is important, he says, is not just the impact of what you do yourself, but also to what extent your behavior inspires others to do the same. If you convince one other person to give away ten percent of their income, you have doubled your impact. So, we should consider, in this case, setting an example that is doable for others to imitate. If you manage to give away 95% of your income, but if that leaves others uninspired because it is way too ambitious to ever serve as an example for them, that may not be the best outcome you can have.
Of course, this got me thinking about vegan advocacy. One might say that, given the fact that the number of vegans has not really been growing spectacularly (we’re still at one percent), the example vegans set for others could be too ambitious. It is a fact that even staying vegan is hard, given that 75% of vegetarians and vegans fall off the wagon at some point (and no, that’s not just the health vegans).
Of course, this goes against vegan orthodoxy, and some people won’t like to hear this. They will claim that we should only show to others the behaviors we would like them to adopt themselves. According to this view, we can only, as Gandhi said, be the change we want to see in the world. It’s the default way of looking at things, and I’m sure there’s a lot of validity to it.
But the thing is, of course, that moving towards veganism from a vegetarian position is a lot easier than going from omnivore to vegan. The fear that people will stop at taking the steps we ask them to take, and then do nothing after that is, I think, ungrounded. A much bigger concern is that people won’t take any step because the whole thing seems too daunting.
However, even if I knew that being a vegetarian was more effective in terms of being an example for others, I don’t think I could bring myself to go back to being more flexible and eat eggs and dairy products on a regular basis. But it does mean that I’m not going to overemphasize to others the small bits (the honey, the little bit of whey in this or that), and that I will do my best to set an attainable example.
Of course – and this wasn’t discussed in the above mentioned podcast – one could do one thing and show people another thing. If you feel that certain behaviors are too hard to be inspiring, maybe it’s good to come across as less strict than you really are. Maybe some vegan or near vegan celebrities have this idea in mind when in the media they say they make an exception now and then. This is something that they would be criticized for by many vegans, but which might actually be a good thing. Who knows?
In any case, the idea of setting an attainable example means that I’m not gonna fret that some people are not vegan but vegetarian, or close to vegetarian. I’m certainly not going to tell vegetarians that they aren’t making any difference (as some others may do). I think there’s a distinct possibility that in certain (or even many) cases, they may – at this moment in time – actually have more impact on others than the average vegan.
Blasphemy, I know.