Beware of vegan dogma

Suppose I asked you to write an online dating profile for yourself. And suppose I told you that you could only use one word to describe what you desire in a significant other. What quality would you first and foremost be looking for?

Mine would be: open-mindedness. It’s the quality that guarantees you can talk and have good conversations no matter what. It’s the quality that helps guarantee empathy, because you’re open to listen to everything and consider all kinds of things. It’s the quality that assures, in short, growth.

The opposite of being open-minded, is being dogmatic. Being dogmatic is basically the attitude of not questioning things. One is not necessarily dogmatic across the board, about all kind of topics imaginable, but one can definitely be dogmatic about certain topics.

If you are a vegan today, then chances are big that, like me, you spent quite a bit of your life accepting certain dogma concerning the consumption of animals. You were in a certain box. I call this box the box of carnism (Melanie Joy’s term).carnism

Being inside the box of carnism – being subject to the ideology of carnism, made you accept all kinds of dogmatic ideas. Like the ideas that eating animal products is natural, normal and necessary.

Then, if you were like me after some time, the light went on. You pushed the box open and jumped out as a vegan (maybe first a vegetarian, but that’s okay).carnism box

Now, the thing is that I realized – only after many years of being vegan – that to a certain extent, I had ended up in another box. The vegan box.vegan box 1Just like I had been dogmatically accepting all kinds of beliefs before, I was doing the same now. I was thinking of veganism in the only way that one is allowed to think about it: honoring the decade-old definition. I would point out that as soon as one made one exception, one isn’t a vegan. I repeated the eternal mantra that it wasn’t about welfare but about rights (and I used welfare and welfarist as dirty words – when did they ever turn into that?). And so on…

So, a couple of years ago, I largely got out of that box. And I began questioning everything once more. I believe I am largely coming to the same conclusions as when I was in the vegan box, but here’s the thing. It is the very act of questioning that is important. It is that that will guard us against fundamentalism. It is that which will keep us open-minded. It is that that will keep us away from dogma. Dogma is what prevents us from improving.

And the need for questioning, for introspection, for self awareness is not over. It is possible that I will end up in yet another box. It could be called… the box of openmindedness, the anti-dogmatic box, the pragmatic box. We can make boxes, ideologies, out of everything.

One box is better than another, but it is better not to be in any box at all and to keep our thinking free.

You can check the presentation on open-mindedness, rationality, empathy and positivity that I recently gave at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxemburg:

See also: ten vegan things I recently changed my mind about

When the term “speciesism” gets overused

I think most of us are attracted to the term speciesism. It seems such an elegant concept. And it’s a strong one. In many cases, when you use it correctly and cleverly, it’s a prety nice argument that makes sense. Especially when you talk to progressive minded people. They see that you have a point, and that there is an analogy with racism etc.

What is speciesism about? It’s about discrimination solely on the basis of species, just like racism is discrimination solely on the basis of “race”.  I remember reading the following illustration or explanation of speciesism (I think it was in James Rachels’ Created form Animals). If you test cosmetics on the eyes of rabbits, you need to ask: why don’t we do this on people? The first answer would be: we don’t do this on people because people’s eyes would hurt. Then we ask: is this different in the case of rabbits? If no (if rabbits experience the same discomfort), then we are being speciesist if we test on rabbits but not on humans. The species, in this case, is the only reason for the difference, and that’s not right. If, on the other hand, we could say something like: because rabbits don’t experience pain in their eyes (which is not true), our acting wouldn’t be speciesist but would be inspired by a morally relevant criterium.


Like I said, I think that’s a good argument. The way I use it in discussions is that say: “If you do x to animals but not to people, you have to give me a morally relevant reason.”

I don’t think there are many good arguments against speciesism. Some people would suggest that people have a different moral standing, were created with souls, or whatever, but these things are not convincing to me.

Now, because speciesism is such an elegant concept, we tend to use it in all kinds of circumstances, and that is where, in my humble opinion, we may err. I’m talking (among other things) about where we apply the speciesism-argument to outreach and communication, within the animal rights movement.

I have heard it a thousand times, and every time I hear it, I inwardly sigh in furstration. The argument takes the same shape: you can’t do x regarding animals, because it would be immoral if we did it regarding people. In this case x is about a certain way of communication, a certain argument, a campaign… Again, it sounds good at first sight, but let me fill it in with some concrete examples

  • When I recommend meat reduction or Meatless Mondays, I get to hear that that is speciesist, because we wouldn’t approve of something like Child Abuse Free Mondays in the case of humans.
  • When I recommend that we should encourage people when they have taken steps to reduce their meat consumption, some people will reply that’s speciesist because we wouldn’t praise a murderer or abuser who is presently murdering or abusing less people.
  • When I advocate that we should try to be gentle and sensible and patient etc when talking about animal suffering and veganism, I get to her that “people who are against rape and have been victims of rape should be able to educate people about rape and not be found annoying.”
  • Another quote in the same vein: “Would anyone advocate for the abolition, or the regulation, of child sex slavery? All of us would say it is our moral obligation to advocate for the absolute END of child sex slavery, and that “improvements” are wholly inadequate, and speciesist.”

I think you get the picture. In my humble opinion, the speciesist argument the way it is used in the above cases is false. We are in no way talking about the same things. We are talking about practises in society that are seen entirely, fundamentally different. If you want to keep saying that it is the same thing, you can of course say it, but it won’t be effective.

Moreover, if in our activism and outreach we should only say or advise things regarding animals that we also feel we can advise regarding humans, there would be a lot of stuff we shouldn’t say (which of course is exactly what a part of the animal rights movement believes). We couldn’t encourage or praise people for doing anything less than veganism; we couldn’t tell people to try out a vegan challenge like Veganuary (you can’t tell rapists to try to stop raping for a month!); we can’t just give leaflets to people in supermarkets because we wouldn’t give leaflets to rapists; we couldn’t support any government’s initiative to encourage people to eat less meat because a government wouldn’t encourage people to abuse children a bit less.

And so on, and so forth. The more of these examples I write down, the more absurd the argument gets. The deplorable thing is that all these recommendations that some people in the movement would not have us make, are the claims that psychological and sociological research shows work best: small steps, small wins, rather than big challenges.

As I have written before, you can be truthful to your own rules about what to say and what not (ignoring all the research, and no matter how many times you hit a wall), or you can look for what actually helps people be open and change.

Let’s use the term speciesism cleverly, in the right context.




Vegan activism: the difference between individuals and groups

Vegan and animal rights activists come in different shapes and sizes, and there are several possible ways to categorize them. Let me suggest one way: we can distinguish between those who are working or volunteering for an organisation, and those who act individually.

I am aware that I am simplifying and generalizing, but bear with me for a moment, because I think what category one falls into, may often determine part of one one’s activist style and philosophy.

Faithful readers of this blog will know that I often make a distinction between pragmatic and more ideological activists or activism. Now the thing is that when you work or volunteer for a veg/animal rights organisation, you will often be a lot more pragmatic. You will have to be. This is because organisations tend to do different work than individuals. Organisations often became organisations (this is to say individuals joined together to form them) in order to have more influence and impact. Trying to establish alliances with institutional agents can increase this impact. So especially bigger groups often put a fair amount of resources into institutional change.

stick to ideology

The institutions that animal rights/veg groups try to influence, can take many forms. They can be political: local, regional or national governments, political parties… They can be corporate: businesses in all shapes and sizes, from food producers to restaurant chains to any business with a restaurant in it… They can be other organisations in civil society: environmental or health organisations who may be natural allies and help spread a message. They can be academic: schools and universities. All these institutions can have a multiplicatory or leverage effect: if you can move them, they’ll move many other people for you.

It is definitely possible to move institutions from an individual or grassroots position, and in fact it probably happens all the time. Yet it is undoubtedly often easier to do so – and to do so at a bigger scale – from a position within an organisation – changing laws, for instance, is not something easily done as an individual.

There are several reasons for this. Organisations represent a group of people, and some institutions – especially political ones – will only be moved if they see the organisation speaks for or can influence a certain number of people. Organisations also often have several resources available that individual activists or smaller groups do not always have: the means to do research and show certain results to institutional partners, or an outreach channel of many thousands of followers. They can use these channels to advertise what the “partner” did – which is of course great to either put pressure or incentivize them. Organisations also have more money, which may be useful for certain purposes, like campaigning, lobbying, etc.

These institutional allies will not always want to do exactly as the animal rights/veg groups suggest. They will not necessarily spread the message in the exact same way. This could because they don’t believe in it the same way we do, or because they think their own constituency is not ready for it. In my experience, for instance, when institutional partners want to do outreach about plant based food among their audience, they feel more confident emphasizing health and environmental reasons, than animal rights reasons.

When others don’t want to take on our exact message, we have the choice. The first option is to take an absolute stance and refuse to work with them. The second is to be strategic: we compromise and accept the way in which they will bring the message to their voters, members, employees etc. Of course, in our decision a lot will depend on the perceived gains and the perceived sacrifices. But the point I want to make is that generally, if we don’t want to be pragmatic and just stick to our strict ideology, have way less chances of starting alliances that may help influence big numbers of people. Don’t compromise, and you may end up working and preaching on an island.

The work that individuals (not affiliated with groups) do, is often more about reaching out one by one. It is easier there to be stricter and uncompromising: if a person doesn’t want to listen, one moves on to the next person. But the more one is out in the real world, away from the internet, partnering with other actors, the harder it becomes to maintain a strict ideology if one wants to have results.

I can understand that some activists do not want to be pragmatic. I understand they don’t want to advocate for meat reduction rather than full blown veganism, for instance, because they believe this can’t be reconciled with their views. That is fine. But at the very least, I hope those people can grant other people – and groups – a more pragmatic approach, without accusing them of betrayal or being greedy for funds, or whatever arguments animal rights groups get thrown at them these days.

Because there is no betrayal. I have said this before: we should be true not to our ideology and its rules (for instance veganism), but to the values and objectives below the ideology: decreasing animal abuse.  

It is good to bear all this in mind when forming an opinion of (big) organisations. Also remember that you rarely have all the information about them (practise slow opinion). You probably don’t know their entire strategy. Just assume that their intentions are the same: putting an end to the use, suffering and killing of animals.

Of course organisations have their own challenges. They may evolve in a wrong direction, become less efficient, more wasteful, bloated etc. But that doesn’t mean this is a given, or that the net benefit of these organisations is not good. Just like individuals, organisations will probably never be perfect. But we need them. As a movement, we need their resources, their expertise, their experience, their outreach and their influence to make the difference we want to make for animals.

See also:

the danger of big animal rights organisations
money money money in our movement
 compromise isn’t complicity

Veganism: ideology versus results

(trigger warning: contains interesting thought experiments! :-))

As readers of this blog may know, I like to challenge the cherished and well established vegan concept now and again. Why? Because 1) I think everything – everything – should be questioned, again and again, not for the sake of questioning itself, but to make our thinking, or ideologies, our dreams, our tactics better, sharper, and more effective. 2) Because I think there is so much more to helping animals than just being a consistent vegan.

Obviously, not everyone appreciates this questioning of veganism, as a concept, as a practise, as a strategy. Many people believe they know exactly what veganism is, what role it plays, how necessary it is, and who is a vegan and who isn’t. For those people, everything is simple: veganism has been defined, some decades ago, by Donald Watson (as the avoidance of animal products in as far as practical and possible). You just do as he says. Never mind that that is quite a vague, subjective phrasing. Never mind that Watson and his friends at the early UK Vegan Society welcomed everyone who agreed with the objectives, independent of whether they practised veganism or not.

Like I have stated before, I have been vegan for 17 years, so my critical comments on vegans and veganism are to be read in a different way than those of your average omnivore. I make them, like I said, in the hope of making us more effective. What I want to do here is take a brief, closer look at why people are vegan, what the impact of it is, and what some of the issues that I have with it are.

ideology vs results

Let’s start with a very simple question: Why do vegans eat only vegan food? Why, in other words, are they vegan?

Most of us vegans may think they have a definitive answer to this, but let’s investigate.

When we judge the morality of an action, we can judge it in terms of 1) its results and 2) whether it is right for wrong for a person to do that action. These are two different things. To see this more clearly, imagine that for every person who becomes vegan, an imaginary, quite mean omnivore commits to eating twice as many animal products, thus neutralizing any effect vegans may have. The vegans’ action thus has no results (point 1 above). Being vegan in this case seems to become much less important or urgent, but most of us – including myself – would still do it, simply because we find it wrong to eat animals (and there may also be disgust or health concerns, but these are another matter).

Reason number one (the results) is my main reason for being vegan. I believe that enough vegans, together with the bigger group of vegetarians and the much bigger group of reducetarians, are slowly but surely changing demand, and thus production (stimulating the development of good alternatives and lowering the demand for animal products). Thus, we save animals from a life of suffering (by them not needing to be born). When a life is more misery than happiness, it is better that that life was never there.

Reason number two, the morality of an act, is important to me but is secondary. If one agrees that eating animals is wrong, it seems that it is always a wrong thing to do, independent of the circumstances and consequences. It is easy to imagine situations where whether you eat or don’t eat a product with animal ingredients makes no difference whatsoever in terms of results. When something is offered to you (i.e. when you don’t intentionally buy a piece of meat, for instance) your refusal to eat that product will have no impact on demand itself. Of course, with your behavior you can still show others that you don’t eat animal products, which is about raising awareness. But let’s say that there is no such awareness-raising factor involved. Let’s say there’s some leftover piece of meat somewhere, and no one sees you eat it. What exactly is the problem with eating it? There’s no impact on anyone, and no impact on demand. It is a piece of meat that would be thrown away. Foods thrown away by supermarkets would be a case in point.

I am not saying there is nothing wrong with eating thrown away animal products, but if there is, it will not be in terms of results. In the above case, whether you are consistent or not is neutral in terms of results. I, for one, can imagine circumstances in which being consistent results in a net negative effect. I have previously posited the thought experiment of whether you would eat a steak that was about to be thrown away, if you were offered 100.000 dollars for it, given that you could help a lot of animals with that money. People who would say no to this money, are attaching a lot of importance to reason number two, more so than to reason number one. Or imagine that someone tells you they’ll go vegan if you eat a steak.

Of course you can just not play along and hate thought experiments like these (though I would have hoped you wouldn’t still be reading after the “trigger warning”). But if you take them seriously, as I think you should, you can see that consistency doesn’t automatically deliver the best results for animals.

Apparently – judging by some of the criticism I get for these posts – it is necessary for me to point out that I’m not advocating vegans to make exceptions for no reason. And if vegans don’t want to make any exception, in no matter what circumstances and for no matter what consequences, who am I to fault them for doing so? Maybe their 100% consistent behaviour has some possible benefits or consequences too. It’s just not the approach that I would choose. It would be nice though, if conversely, someone like me, making these pragmatic considerations for the benefit of animals, would not be accused of all kinds of things (like not being a vegan or even an anti-vegan – even though I’m only talking about micro-incredients, and not even about a small bite or slice of cheese).

I am not attacking people who want to be entirely consistent and pure (most people would call me pretty consistent and pure, by the way). What I am saying is that sometimes, in some situations, it is worth considering an alternative to being entirely consistent. Or rather, one can consider being consistent with the aim of veganism (reducing suffering) rather than the definition of veganism.

All of this may seem trivial and unimportant, but it’s not. What I’m talking about – and will write about more in the future – is the difference between ideology and concrete impact. Far too often, I think, we follow ideology for ideology’s sake, without having much attention for the actual effect of following that ideology. It is, in the end, results that we are about. Or at least, it is what I am about. 

Would you eat meat for a lot of money?

The other day I asked strict vegetarians/vegans the following question on my Facebook wall: if you would receive 10.000 €, would you eat a steak? With almost 200 replies, it was one of the most liveliest discussions on my otherwise pretty lively wall.

As could be expected, a lot of replies were along the lines of “never! for no money in the world!” I could feel the pride and the confidence in those answers. No, of course they would not sell out! Of course these people wouldn’t betray their principles for money! Fortunately, pretty early in the discussion was an in my view more thoughtful reply: someone found it worth considering, since she could use the money to save animals.

That was also my view, and honestly, I wouldn’t hesitate. I’m not vegan for the sake of being vegan. My main reason to be vegan is to help animals and do my thing to make the world a better place in general, for all beings. If someone offers me a good amount of money to eat a steak (which is not the same as offering me money to kill an animal, which I wouldn’t do), I would take it. More than that: I would feel guilty if I didn’t. I would not want to put my own ideological or physical purity above the practical implications of accepting that sum.

I kept the amount offered purposely low, because I thought that for say one million euros the question would definitely be a no-brainer. But even then, apparently, many people wouldn’t have a bite. To be honest, I have difficulty understanding this attitude. I value pragmatism and actual change above anything else, and certainly above dogmatic principles. If this means that, as someone put it “there is something wrong with my veganism”, then so be it. I believe the vegan movement, like many other ideological movements, suffers from too much ideology and is in more need of pragmatism.

Does it make a difference whether people, or maybe a mass audience, would know about my “betrayal”? I think it does. If I would need to do this on TV, I would think harder, but I’d probably do it. I think that giving the message in itself that not all veg*ns are dogmatic and impractical ideologists is valuable in itself. Many veg*ns and animal rights activists would of course say that the audience would value consistency more. Maybe that is so, but I worry that the concern for coherence and consistency lives much more in their minds than in the omnivore’s, and that the premium we put on our exceptionless consistency turns more people off than it turns on.

It’s not that I can’t understand any counterarguments at all, but I haven’t come across one that I personally find valid. Feel free to try to change my mind with your comment… And please vote 🙂

Also read the follow up: Eating meat for money, the sequel.

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