Setting an example for others: how ambitious should we be?

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.

attainable example

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.




11 thoughts on “Setting an example for others: how ambitious should we be?

  1. This is really insightful, and the same thing I thought when listening to the interview. Even a thoughtful, dedicated individual like Sam Harris is put off by Singer’s position, even though Singer’s position is the logical conclusion to the chain of thought. Will believes it is more important to actually make a real difference in the real world by inspiring real people, instead of being perfectly “logical.”
    The same holds true for dietary change. Sure, you can argue that veganism is the only “logical” conclusion, but logic doesn’t matter. Results matter. The chickens, pigs, turkeys don’t care if you are “true to yourself.” They only care if you are actually being effective at changing hearts and minds.

  2. Tobias, note that Will didn’t go from Singer’s 90% of salary to asking for people to give away 50%. He went down to 5-10%.
    Given that the percentage of vegans in the US basically hasn’t changed, and meat consumption is at an all-time high despite the efforts of many multi-million-dollar orgs promoting veganism, don’t you think we should totally rethink our approach? Instead of a small softening of the vegan message, maybe we should come at it from the perspective of meat-eaters?

  3. “However, even if I would know 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.”

    Perhaps this goes back to some extent to issues you have raised before about language. You can be vegan without using the word “vegan” with non-vegans. You can say “vegetarian” and let others assume their own definition for that word, although you may see the two as the same thing because eggs and dairy aren’t vegetables. You can describe your diet as “plant-based.” Others may make assumptions about what can be included beyond just the “base.” In English, I sometimes hear people describe themselves or others as “veggie.” That doesn’t sound very intimidating, and it is not untrue in describing vegans, even if it is not necessarily specific.

    One need not change one’s diet to sound less intimidating. One can just use less intimidating-sounding language.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  4. Blasphemy indeed, but I get why you would say it and the theory makes sense :). Then again, I do think Francione has a point when he says that it doesn’t cause a paradigm shift, but rather confusion (“I already buy cage-free eggs so I’m doing enough”) and the perpetuation of the false believe that veganism is difficult and extreme. If we’d focus on reducitarianism and vegetarianism, it might have a bigger impact in the short run — and a more measurable one –, but it wouldn’t stop the exploitation, merely decrease it. People would still look at animals as products and fail to take their interests seriously. In the end, wouldn’t it be the case that there would be less animal exploitation, but still a big industry, zoos, hunting, … in sum: the mentality of looking at animals as property and products? Perhaps an aurea mediocritas could be being vegan and promoting veganism and coming across as easy-going on minor aspects such as whey (which, I guess, have little economic impact, being side products that is) using vegetarianism and meat reduction as a good first step while still presenting them as such and not as a goal in itself (“It’s a good first step you took, you’re really making a first significant difference. Can I help you out with something?”)? I don’t know for sure, I’m not an expert on vegan advocacy, but I think in a way, it is important to keep fighting for the full “vegan” option so that the ethical idea that using animals as objects is wrong can grow at its own pace and perhaps when the time is right — I have high hopes for the development of clean meat — in the future (though moral change can happen quite unexpectedly and quickly) it can thrife more. As opposed to abandoning the representation of veganism as the moral baseline and goal at all and giving up on the idea that animals are not objects? So I guess a kind of equilibrium of the clarity of abolitionism and the “gentleness” and tactfulness of welfarism? Please, correct me if I don’t make sense at all :).

    1. if i were gary, i’d say: get familiar with my views! 😉
      But seriously, i understand what you mean, and it is the default thinking of many vegans, but i don’t think it would go that way. the first talk here explains my ideas of why reducetarianism may be the fastest way to get to a vegan world, or that at least it is a necessary part of the campaign for it:

  5. I’ve been thinking about this because I have a friend and colleague who is become an ardent activist against a local puppy mill. I was surprised at how vehemently she responded when I asked if she eats meat- that these are two different issues. We did have a nice conversation about suffering being the same whether it is a dog, a pig, or a cow.

    I think of these issues (anti-puppy mills, anti-pigeon shoots (still a thing where I live)) as gateway issues to the larger issues of cruelty.

    Although, sometimes I do feel like an annoying, unwanted missionary. 🙂

    1. Hats off to you for taking the opportunity to get a conversation going and, as Tobias points out, sow the seed! And for what it’s worth, I think if you sometimes worry about being an “annoying” activist, my hunch is that you are not. It’s the people who don’t fret about whether they are annoying who seem to go off the rails! 🙂

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