One reason why people may not like vegans: no one likes to feel that they are immoral

This post is also available in: Français Italiano

To many vegetarians and vegans it’s a mystery: we’re doing our best to be caring and compassionate towards all sentient life, and therefore choose to boycott eating animal products. Isn’t that something commendable? But then why do so many people seem to mock, criticize or even attack vegans and veganism?

Sure, at times we can be a little annoying. We may inconvenience omnivores by making them wait while we inspect labels, or by vetoing their choice of restaurant when we go out for dinner. But this doesn’t really explain the hostility and ridicule that we may encounter at times.

Part of what’s happening here is a phenomenon called do-gooder derogation, or the putting down of morally motivated others.

You may have experienced it yourself as a vegetarian or vegan: without even having said anything at all, meat eaters at the table may get defensive by making fun of you and your “diet”.

Why does this do-gooder derogation happen? The problem is that people will often feel that your behavior (i.e., your eating or being vegan) is an implicit condemnation of theirs (their eating meat). Morally good behavior seems to often come with an implicit moral reproach towards others.

According to researchers who have studied do-gooder derogation, “moral reproach, even implicit, stings because people are particularly sensitive to criticism about their moral standing (…). Because of this concern with retaining a moral identity, morally-motivated minorities may be particularly troubling to the mainstream, and trigger resentment.” The response to this threat to our moral identity, then, is to put down the source of the threat (Minson and Monin).

Merely thinking about how vegetarians see the morality of non-vegetarians can trigger the derogation effect. When meat eaters anticipate moral reproach by vegetarians – i.e., when meat eaters think that vegetarians would morally condemn them – they will tend to increase their derogation.

Now, the biggest problem that should concern us here is not that the ethical consumers (in this case, the vegans) are offended, ridiculed or treated badly, but that the denigrators themselves will be less committed to ethical values in the future. In other words, the negative comparison doesn’t just offend the vegans, but prevents the meat eaters – out of some kind of self protection – from taking steps towards veganism themselves (Zane).

So, to summarize, this is what may happen (worst case scenario).

This is obviously problematic for the spread of vegan values and behavior. So, here are my suggestions to avoid causing non-vegans to feel morally reproached, and thus to derogate vegans and veganism, and thus become more alienated from us and our message.

  1. Don’t “rub it in”. If people often feel guilty already, and experiencing moral reproach alienates them from us and our message, don’t add to their feeling of guilt or moral reproach by further guilt-tripping them. It won’t help (even though sometimes it might be fun or satisfying to us).
  2. Don’t only use moral messages and arguments. These can be problematic in the sense that they bring forth more do-gooder derogation than non-moral messages. Non-vegans feel less threatened by people who eat a plant-based diet for health reasons than by ethical vegans. This doesn’t mean you have to stop using ethical arguments; just that also talking about health (or taste) can be strategic and productive.
  3. Talk about your own imperfections. We can tell others some of the things we do while we know we shouldn’t. Maybe we talk about how we didn’t change overnight and needed some convincing ourselves. Or we can talk about other domains in which we’re doing less great. It’s important to show others that we’re not different from them, not some kind of alien species with a level of morality or discipline they could never attain.
  4. You may want to make explicit the distinction between the act and the person. Choosing to not eat animal products is a morally better choice, but that doesn’t mean that people who are still eating animal products are bad people.

Rather than adding to derogation, alienation and disempowerment, we can do our own part in creating connection and rapport with others.

(Read much more on effective communication in my new book, How to Create a Vegan World).


32 thoughts on “One reason why people may not like vegans: no one likes to feel that they are immoral

  1. I think appeasement brings its own risks. Most people are pretty comfortable with a high level of oblivious selfishness and casual cruelty. While your general ‘don’t be a dick’ rule holds as true in this example as most other similar situations in life, many people do need gentle encouragement to consider any alternative perspective than their own complacent status quo. Pointing out the contradictions of “loving” but still harming animals, and the dearth of justification to do so seems to be the minimum catalyst necessary to break their inertia and start their path towards enquiry. Just don’t be an overbearing sanctimonious zealot in the process. I think it has to be called out, and it is our duty as aware and ethical humans to do so. Even if it is uncomfortable sometimes

  2. Very good commentary on outreach, and in what I like to call “the long game.” We use the long game with our friends and family; patience is your best tool when you know people are going to be continually in your sphere of influence.

    I caution the attitude that “vegans are the same” and “This is what it’s like to be vegan” and “this is the best way to make vegans.” There is no one vegan just as there is no one Borg assimilation of non-vegans. To say “vegans must make nice” ignores the fact that there are many people that respond to a strident message, just as there are individuals who shrink from it. Veganism can’t fit everybody if there’s a one-size-fits-all approach — while some people find empathy via a strong sense of justice, the rest find justice through a strong sense of empathy. The ways must be as many as blades of grass, and each individual may benefit from contact with a wide variety of vegan messages — being shocked by a Direct Action Everywhere demonstration at the meat counter in Whole Foods, and a gentle conversation with a vegan cousin over coffee. Which one’s “right?” The wake up call or the shepherding into the fold? One thing is for sure — people don’t make “radical” changes to their lives, and stick to it, without some sort of visceral reaction to go with the intellectual logic.

  3. Vegetarians [and I am one) and vegans bring a lot of this opprobrium on themselves by taking this ‘holier than thou’ attitude. I do not think avoiding eating meat makes me better than someone else. It is my personal choice. So I never try to influence anyone to do the same as me. Naturally, people become defensive if I mention I don’t eat meat and explain how they hardly eat any or have to because of xyz, and that is their trip, and I can’t help that, but it is not a trip I would ever lay on anyone, because, as I said, I actually don’t regard my choice as a moral high ground and I wish other non-meat eaters didn’t either, because they are not helping anyone with this attitude.

      1. How do you figure that “eating animals isn’t a personal choice”? Someone can always choose not to do it, hence it certainly is a personal choice.

        1. He said, the difference is victims. Just like pit bull fighting. That isn’t a choice in many places, it’s illegal.

          1. Do you guys really believe, that plants are not victims? Humans kill animals as well as plants by eating them…it seems to me, that many vegans don’t realize that even plants are alive. It is not good to kill animals, but it is not good to kill plants either. BUT WE GOTTA EAT SOMETHING

              1. A number of studies have shown that plants feel pain, and vegetables are picked and often eaten while still alive.

                Sorry, Vegans: Scientists Say That Plants Can Feel Stress.

                Even the Ancient Indians did know that, if you read the Scripture.

                Truth dosent care about feelings.

  4. I think it’s the preaching especially and the guilt tripping (mostly from vegans, never really noticed it with vegetarians, I just respect their choice and they respect mine). I have nothing against vegans and quite love some of the recipes. But I had a conflict with a vegan coworker who was going on and on about chickens during our lunch break until I finally flipped out on her saying “I don’t give a fuck about the damn chickens”. Now I’ve hand raised a chicken from an egg myself (she was more of a companion than anything throughout the final term of my pregnancy and unable to move much without pain, she’s now living with my mother in-law so she can be outside in a garden) and I’m becoming more aware now of the atrocities that go on in that industry but back then I was seeing a lot of atrocities already.

    I was meeting people on a daily basis with all sorts of problems that ended up in a shelter or on the street (like a girl who’s mother told her to get an abortion at 16 or she’d kick her out and she put her on the street anyway after the abortion, or mentally challenged girl who had been raped repeatedly by caregivers, or a young boy half native half white who suffered extreme physical abuse from his family for being half white, or a girl who had been raped by family and later put into prostitution by her boyfriend.

    Honestly the stories are endless and seeing all of that regularly… In that moment, since I was also physically and mentally exhausted, I didn’t have the emotional capacity left to give a damn about ‘the chickens’ and she just wasn’t stopping.

    It’s not that you’re wrong to protest or that there isn’t a lot of horrible things going on, it’s that you are so focused on that that you cannot see what the other person in front of you is struggling with and that maybe they don’t have the capacity to handle more crap right now. How about giving the other person some space so that they become more open to the things you want to show them.

    Not everyone is interested in becoming vegan, but they may be interested in joining your fight to stop the commercialized pain inflicted on the animals. But don’t just give someone shit for not doing it your way because they don’t want to help by becoming vegan (so OBVIOUSLY they must be heartless) but instead would rather find alternative solutions to raise the standard of care for and protection of animals.

    Also, with time things change. My coworker was deadset on convincing me to change through lecture. You fight, I dig in my heels. You’ve already lost me and most people will refuse now solely because it’s what you’re telling them to do. I’ve actually found over time I’ve naturally started eating less meat and haven’t really been missing it that much.

    And another way to ‘convert’ could just be making such an awesome mouth-watering recipes that they’ll want to make them over and over and every time they make it you’ve thwarted the meat industry a bit more. Rather than the “You eat meat so you’re this and this, and d you even think of that, and how must they feel and -guilt, guilt, guilt-, -shame, shame, shame” etc.

  5. I’ll tell you EXACTLY what it is, at least for those of us who have spent a lifetime doing the dirty, thankless work of rescuing and caring for homeless, unwanted animals. We are sick of being told we are cruel to animals, despite all we do, simply because we ate sour cream or drank milk. We also don’t like being told what to do, and being dictated to, or being told a health problem we have can be cured by veganism when we know it can’t be. We’re sick of self-righteous vegans who have 308 selfies on their Facebook page showing them hugging cows, while we’re doing the thankless work of cleaning cages and working with maladjusted animals needing rehabbing so we can rehome them. We’re tired of being told we MUST feed vegan food to cats and dogs that we rescue, or we’re cruel. I think veganism has attracted a lot of 20 somethings with emotional issues who use veganism to make themselves feel superior to others. PLEASE GO AWAY and stop ruining the animal rescue movement for the animals WE take the time, personal money and energy to rescue. People think we’re all nuts because of many of YOU.

    1. THANK YOU! “I see you drank a glass of milk, let me tell you why you’re worse than Hitler.” Hyperbole, but still, the attitude of every vegan I have ever personally met or encountered online. Keep your movement you crass, grassfed hypocrites.

    2. I appreciate the rescue community very much. I k ow it’s hard work and you do such good work. But the vegans are right here. We should consider all ani.als not just cats and dogs. It’s an arbitrary line drawn. All animals suffer and if we can avoid it especially since there are so many great alternatives, why not?

      1. First of all, you’re treating the situation as if “all animals are the same,” but this just fundamentally isn’t true. Cats and dogs have a much different cultural significance than, say, cows and chickens, not to mention they’re just completely different species.
        We have been hunting bovine and birds and game and small mammals for millions of years, before we even fully evolved into homo sapiens. On the other hand, dogs and cats entered our company willingly maybe 10 to 20 thousand years ago and proved to be useful hunting/vermin killing partners and friendly companions, co-evolving and developing with us in our society, and have therefore received a much higher seat of respect in our western cultural diaspora than other animals.

        Depending on the part of the world you’re in, the animals that have higher cultural significance changes. Dogs and cats have less significance in some parts of the world, so are either treated as food, or ignored.
        Some cultures put high significance on cows and don’t eat them, or high significance on snakes, so they don’t kill them, or high significance on birds, so they keep one in the home for luck. Some cultures have completely different “companion” animals, like guinea pigs, goats, or weasels. It all depends where you are, and it absolutely is NOT “arbitrary.”
        If you believe that how we view certain animals in comparison to others is “arbitrary,” then you should invest in a dictionary, because you don’t know what that word means.

        Secondly, you are aware that animals suffer in the wild as well, right. I mean, their entire lives in the wild are a desperate struggle to stay alive and reproduce. Sometimes they’re attacked by a predator, or a rival of their own species, and they suffer a slow and agonizing death. Sometimes they get diseases or starve or lose a limb or freeze to death. Sometimes they watch their offspring die and have to unceremoniously cannibalize them to conserve energy. Sometimes they have to sacrifice their offspring to predators just so they themselves can live to see another mating season. Even in calmer moments they are constantly on high alert in case another animal comes around to threaten them. EVERYTHING is a threat to their life. Never, ever, ever in the wild will an animal just be calmly blissful and carefree. That is not how real life works for them.

        No, I am not saying this as some sort of excuse or justification for killing animals, nor am I saying, “They must be so much happier on a farm even if their lives are short!” because that’s obviously idiotic. I’m just pointing out that no matter what you do or don’t do, pretty much all animals will suffer, because life, especially in the wild, is struggle and suffering. It is a uniquely human (and by extension, dog, cat, and other companion animal) privilege to feel safe, comfortable, and content, for any period of time. And even the majority of humans don’t have those luxuries.
        If you believe animal suffering will be eradicated if everyone just turned vegan, you are sorely mistaken.

        You could say the suffering would be “reduced,” because the animals would not exist at all, but suffering cannot be “avoided.”
        You can even say, “I do not want to contribute to animal suffering,” and that’s fine.
        But it will always be there, whether humans actively participate or not.

        As a last note, yes, you can be an animal activist and generally good-hearted person while still consuming animal products. Just because someone is an “animal activist” doesn’t necessarily mean they’re an “ALL animals” activist.
        If I actively work with cat and dog rescue organizations and promote cat and dog welfare, I am an animal activist, because I am helping animals.
        Similarly, if you’re a conservationist that focuses specifically on, say, rhinoceroses, but you’re not particularly concerned with or fond of cats or dogs and don’t really care about cat or dog-focused issues or whether they live or die, hey, guess what, you’re still an animal activist. Because you are actively going to bat for animals, even if it’s only specific animals.

        It works this way because as a species we categorize things. It’s just what we do. There are humans who separate the animal kingdom from humanity and hold humans as “most important.” There are humans that separate by mammals, birds, and fish, etc. and believe mammals are “most important.” There are people who separate each individual species and, because of cultural and personal bias, have a few “favorites” they see as “most important.” Some people (some vegetarians and vegans, even) see animals as important, but do not care about insects. Some believe all vertebrates are equally important. And even some, like fruitarians, include plants in their all-encompassing importance, and so only eat fallen fruit and seeds.

        And it’s important to remember that, unlike other people in the world, and unlike other animals, we have the luxury to deeply consider these things.

  6. The problem here is that vegans do eat live things, they eat vegetables and humans cannot survive without eating other life.
    A carrot cannot consent to being eaten, that carrot may also be sentient and research has shown that this could well be the case.
    Vegans believe they are helping to protect animals but they divert their guilt at eating live things by not eating things that can look them in the eye.
    I raise my own cattle and chickens, they get looked after they well and their death is humane. My vegetables get looked after equally as well.
    The real reason people dislike vegans is their tendency to smug preachy behaviour and complete denial about the lives and rights of alleged non-sentient life.
    All you have to do is live your own life, eat what you decide is best for you and shut up about it.
    You do not have the god-given right to convert the rest of the world to your way of thinking and that is the problem in a nutshell.

  7. How is it a mystery why most people don’t like vegans? You literally exemplify in the first sentence of your article why people don’t like vegans without even seeming to realize it. You start of right away with indicating that non-vegans are “immoral”. And you wonder why people don’t like you? First of all, we don’t live in a vegan world. Nature encouraged a food chain and life has fed on life since life on earth began. Any morality you apply to something entirely encouraged in nature is purely subjective. It is your personal moral belief that eating meat is morally wrong. That belief is not a reflection of the reality of the world you live in, which is anything but vegan. You decided for yourself that it is wrong to eat meat. Second, you very clearly indicate a desire to convert other people to your personal vegan beliefs. See a problem here? You treat your vegan beliefs like some sort of dietary religion. You feel a need to convince others to do as you do. Again…you wonder why people don’t like vegans? I’ll explain it to you myself since I’m not a vegan. We don’t like you because many of you act self-righteous, arrogant, standoffish, angry, and you try to push your own personal beliefs onto other people. It has nothing to do with us somehow feeling “guilty”, or having some inner subconscious knowledge that we are somehow “immoral”. A human eating meat is no more “immoral” in the eyes of nature than when a pig munches on a dead rabbit, or when a big fish swallows a little fish. I don’t feel guilty for eating meat, and I need you to understand that. I get beneficial nutrients from meat, and I respect and understand that life feeds on life. I have absolutely no issue with that. Furthermore, to be entirely frank I find vegans to be insufferable. You point out a perfect example of why I feel that way. The single biggest deal breaker for me when I was still dating, was if a woman was vegan. I would immediately lose any and all interest in her the moment I found out. I honestly think being married to a vegan would be a nightmare for me. Perhaps disliking vegans has more to do with you wanting to convert others to your beliefs, feeling morally superior, and being standoffish than it does with us feeling “guilty” for eating meat. Infact I’m telling you, as a person who eats meat, that we don’t like you for those reasons, and not because of some sort of misplaced guilt over being “immoral”.

  8. Wow, look at all the angry meat eaters. I think they are angry because they will sob over an article about a puppy being kicked to death whilst munching on their slaughtered-animal burger. Most people care about cruelty to animals, they fact they are brain-washed into thinking it’s acceptable to indulge in the wholesale torture and slaughter of farm animals makes their brains hurt, so they lash out.

    1. Brainwashed? Are you not aware that killing animals for food is not ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’.

      Every species from the dawn of time has killed something to eat, it’s not some fad. There are billions of bacteria trying to kill you right now and will devour your corpse.

      You talk about this like it’s some absurd concept.

      I can prove this point. Tell me why it’s immoral to kill animals for food, without turning your answer into a question or changing the subject matter..

      1. From a non-vegan standpoint, I can see the argument that (most) animals are sentient and (mostly) self-aware, intelligent, emotive beings, and it is therefore immoral to extinguish their lives. I do not necessarily agree with it, but I can understand how someone would come to that conclusion.

        However, I do not see how this directly leads to veganism, because arguably there are animals that are not sentient and emotive. Bivalves, like clams, for example. Yes, they feel pain as a survival response, but then, so do plants.
        I also don’t see why the viewpoint that “killing animals is wrong” would morally prevent a person from, say, keeping chickens and eating their eggs. They lay them anyway, and the eggs are unfertilized, and as long as you ensure that the chickens are thriving and content it seems like a moral non-issue.

        This is why I completely understand the moral standpoints of a vegetarian, but the vegans tend to lose me.

        1. other people (including vegans) have indeed looked at the examples you name and concluded that there is not necessarily something wrong with it. Some (bivalvegans) eat bivalves because they believe they’re not sentient. Re plants we can’t be sure at this point, but if they would feel pain that is of course relevant. I’m open to the idea that backyard eggs are not (or much less of a problem). But the fact that these two cases are fine does not mean that vegans are wrong about all the rest. I think you’re (unintentionally?) arguing for almost-veganism 🙂

  9. It’s absolutely astonishing how similar the tone and message of this post is to that of a fundamentalist Christian blog; the same core assumption of moral superiority, the same goal of “converting” nonbelievers/non-vegans, and even the exact same tactics and talking points, especially this bit:

    “Talk about your own imperfections. We can tell others some of the things we do while we know we shouldn’t. Maybe we talk about how we didn’t change overnight and needed some convincing ourselves. Or we can talk about other domains in which we’re doing less great. It’s important to show others that we’re not different from them, not some kind of alien species with a level of morality or discipline they could never attain.
    You may want to make explicit the distinction between the act and the person.”

    Oh my GOOOOOOD, this SCREAMS “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” and “Don’t make your non-believer friends feel insecure by insinuating you’re better than them because you have a fulfilling and eternal Relationship with Christ, whereas they are empty and sad without Jesus.”

    Honestly, this whole post has SUCH strong Christian fundie energy, I have a hard time believing it wasn’t on purpose.

    Are you honestly telling me you conduct yourself the same way a morally self-righteous, fundamentalist religious person does, and you are STILL confused as to why people are put off by your attitude? You have turned your veganism into a religion, and yes, people absolutely pick up on that, no matter how subtle you think you’re being about it.

    1. thanks for your comment. this is so funny and ironic. I am sincerely believing that vegans should be modest about whatever they might be doing better (I do think our diet is morally better than the standard diet, yes), and I generally talk about how we should go easy on the proselytizing (this is a blog for vegans) and your comment shows that you are perceiving this as exactly that, proselytzing, manipulation maybe. I can see where you come from, and I guess I can understand that the energy is similar to christian fundamentalists wanting to change other people. I have wondered myself how we (vegans) are different. The preliminary conclusions I’ve come to are that 1. it really matters whether what you say is rational and science based or not. On the whole I think vegans score better than christians (even though we can exaggerate our claims somewhat, now and then) and 2. the intention matters. With good intentions (and especially combined with good facts) I think one is allowed – maybe even more, one is expected to – try to influence (not coerce, not force) other people of their views, given that one beliefs that those views would be to a certain great benefit.
      I assume that e.g. you are not going to compare proselytizing of christians with that of anti-racists? (or would you?). What is the difference with vegans?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *