Why is being vegan such a focal point in animal advocacy?
If you care about animals and you get to know a little bit about animal advocacy circles you would immediately realize that being vegan is considered as a moral threshold for the community. Not every animal advocate is vegan, in fact many of them are not, but it is viewed and to a significant extent accepted as a focal point. Any reasonable book or blog or article on animal rights at least mentions veganism at some point, most farmed animal advocacy organizations at least have some form of a vegan outreach program.
Why is that? Other social groups do not have such a focal point: environmentalists travel by plane, leftists buy Iphones, conservatives also have parties at times, and most importantly they do not use these gatekeeping standards against newcomers.
What is going on exactly? What moves animal advocates to adopt such a standart? Animal advocates generally accept this as “normal” but I think there is more to it.
I am going to talk about five possible reasons to explain why. I will argue that the first two reasons, which are generally accepted as sufficient, are not enough to explain the current situation, but the last three give a better explanation.
Possible reason #1: Because it is very important
A very plausible explanation for the importance of veganism is that being vegan saves so many animals that it is one of the most impactful things that an advocate can do. According to the Animal Charity Evaluators model, the number of animals (vertebrates, to be precise) spared by being vegan is 105 per year. That looks really impressive.
But I do not think this is the main driver behind veganism. For three reasons:
Firstly, it is not simply true. These types of models are defective and many people do not really believe these. Most of the so-called “spared animals” consist of small wild-catch fish such as anchovies. As mentioned in ACE’s model, 79 of 105 animals consist of wild-catch fish. One cannot expect that fishers will stop fishing if some people adopt plant-based diets. Wild-fishing is not constrained by demand, it is rather constrained by supply of fish in the seas. So if a person or a hundred persons go vegan, it will not have an effect on a fish boat sailing to catch fish. Fishers are generally constrained by fishing quotas and hunting seasons, regulated by the governments in order to sustain fish stocks, and they generally catch all the fish they can when they sail for fishing. So unless we have a significant portion of the population (say %30) going vegan, it would not have an effect on wild-fish catch. One needs to decrease the demand so much that fishing boats would stay at the docks even if there are plenty of fish in the sea and it is legal to fish that season. This is not happening and will not be happening in the near future. So the real number should be at least 26 per year, not 105.
Secondly, this does not explain why one should be “vegan”, rather than “more-or-less” plant-based. One can consume animal products some of the time and still be saving a lot of animals. One can also be smart about its consumption decisions. If one eats beef and dairy instead of chicken, farmed fish and eggs, the number may go down to 1 per year. Considering even a vegan person may harm animals through other means such as traveling or unnecessary extra plant based food consumption for enjoyment which also indirectly kills animals, these low numbers may be considered as negligible.
Thirdly, if one looks at the total number of animals killed and harmed in animal agriculture, which is 772 billion, even the number “105” is irrelevant since it is so small in comparison to the total number of animals. In response, one can say that being vegan creates a domino effect to convince others to go vegan as well, but unless that domino is able to create a giant asteroid impact which would convince hundreds of thousands of people, it won’t change the overall picture. And data shows that the number of vegans seems not to be increasing.
Yet, animal advocates still insist on veganism, even if numbers are not “that” high, even if being “vegan” is not absolutely necessary to reduce animal suffering and even if being vegan will not create a significant change in the system.
So we need to look for other reasons in order to explain the focality of veganism.
Possible reason#2: Influence of ethical theories
One can think that the focality of being vegan stems from philosophical sources. There are many philosophical pieces which argue that one should be vegan for ethical reasons. Maybe that is the reason behind all this?
I do not think this is the main driver behind veganism. For two reasons:
Firstly, not all animal ethics theories lead to the conclusion that being vegan is a necessity and/or extremely important. According to an utilitarian ethical framework, one can consume high welfare animal products. Peter Singer (the, or one of the, most prominent animal ethics philosophers) argued that eating free range eggs can be fine. Even eating meat can also pass the threshold if it is reared in very good conditions. Furthermore, taking action to reduce animal suffering, such as campaigning (or outreach) can create much more utility than being vegan. So under an utilitarian framework, animals matter (because they are sentient), there is a big problem (lots of animals experience excruciating pain in factory farms), stopping to consume low welfare animal products is good but consuming high welfare products is not that bad, and finally, taking action to reduce suffering en masse in far more important than occasionally drinking a glass of milk.
Animal Liberation is one of the most prominent animal ethics book, by Peter Singer, and it does not preach a vegan diet, even thought Singer did point to a plant-based diet as a call-to-action in his Animal Liberation (which in my view was a mistake, but understandable due to reasons which I will explain below). So even though some philosophers like Tom Regan and Gary Francione did make the case for the focality of veganism, one cannot say that philosophical theories have a consensus on the focality of veganism.
Secondly, most people do not even read that much philosophy. Sure, vegans read more animal ethics than the average person, but most people get on board by watching documentaries, YouTube videos, reading unsophisticated short texts or surfing online. And even for those who do read philosophical books, I highly doubt that most readers fully understand concepts like “deontology”, “intrinsic value”, “consequentialism”, “equal consideration of interests”, “moral patient” and so on.
I concede that a very small minority of people may be influenced by deontological ethical theories and adopt the view that being vegan is an absolute moral obligation and a central element in moral advocacy. I also concede that philosophical theories may also have a huge impact since they have an influence on a small number of, but powerful leaders. Their number may be low, but activists who are highly committed to the cause because of philosophical theories, can have a disproportionate impact in the landscape of advocacy.
But this still under-explains the wide adoption of veganism as a focal point in animal advocacy in general. Next two reasons I think explains this gap.
Possible reason#3: Emotional reactions
Look at these photos and describe your reaction.
These are typical images which are used commonly in animal advocacy. Usually there is a single animal or there is a group of animals but the camera focuses on one animal. That makes sense because it is easier to attract the attention of the viewer and creates a stronger immediate reaction. Charities which work on “human welfare” issues also typically use images which focus on single persons rather than groups of persons.
If things go according to the plan and the viewer has a positive attitude towards animals, I think the first reaction is to connect with and value “the individual animal”. This is not a “consequentialist start”. It is rather a “deontological” attitude to focus on individuals and valuing individual beings. (This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I am not criticizing deontological ethics. I am simply trying to describe the thinking process.)
I think the following reaction is this: “I should not be harming this being and/or I should not be a part of this”. This reaction is one of “non-involvement” which explains people’s leaning towards being vegan.
One can say similar mechanisms occur in other social justice topics, and that’s true. But there are two important differences.
First, “non-involvement” reaction is much stronger in this case since “the involvement” in question is literally eating and digesting body parts of animals, whereas in other social justice domains individuals generally do not directly harm the oppressed. For those who are on board with veganism (who are a minority in the population), eating meat or drinking milk is simply “disgusting”. One feels disgust from crowded factory farm visuals.
People do not feel the same level of disgust when shopping for a luxury item (even if they know they spend their money on charity), or transport by car instead of cycling. From the viewpoint of vegans, non-vegans are not only committing a moral mistake, they are also making something “disgusting”. And disgust is not dependent on the amount (or scale). As it is equally disgusting to shit in public a little bit or a lot, eating meat a little bit or a lot makes almost no difference for people who think it is disgusting to eat meat. So it is understandable that people who feel disgust take this very seriously, and ask others to take this seriously as well. (But take note, feeling of disgust is not necessarily the best guide for finding the best possible impact or most effective advocacy, more on that later). Disgust is a powerful emotion which explains vegans' strong commitment to abstaining from any animal products in any quantity and their reaction to others who don’t share their commitment.
Second, many social justice movements take a more consequentialist and incrementalist route as they develop, but farmed animal advocacy was unable to do that. I will develop this point in detail below.
Possible reason#4: Lack of possibilities for incremental progress, until recently
If you watched a documentary about animals in factory farms, not only would you be sad about animals, you would probably feel powerless to fight against such a huge system. And if you look around, you would be even more frustrated: almost everyone is eating meat, people who farm animals are very powerful, some handful of vegans like yourself are very few and not that powerful.
Under these circumstances, the most and probably the best you can do, is to “not take part” in this immoral system by not consuming its (animal) products.
Although this is very depressing, animal advocates usually compensate for living with the present awful status quo with the hope for future vegan utopia. So instead of focusing on the present, many vegans believe that “in the future” things will be very different and it is meaningful to work for (and wait for) this future world where people will see what they see and stop animal exploitation. This “not taking part” in the present immoral status quo and having hope for a vegan future attitude seems to be working and giving people enough morale to continue their commitment.
And until recently, “not taking part” was the only option available for farmed animal advocates. Campaigning for farmed animal welfare reforms was not on the table for a long time. The first major cage-free commitment was made by Whole Foods in 2004. The real momentum began after 2015 (only 7 years ago) when a number of animal charities focused on this intervention and major funders provided grants to organizations which carry out these programs.
But there was public attention for farmed animals well before 2015: Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation was published in 1975, Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights was published in 1983, Gary Francione’s Animal, Property and the Law was published in 1995. For all those years, people did not have a realistic opportunity to do something else for farmed animals, except not consuming them and advocating that “abstention” lifestyle.
While other social movements had or created avenues for incremental social change and advocating for institutional reforms (for example: right to vote for women, minimum wage for workers, carbon quotas for environmental protection etc.), farmed animal advocates lacked these avenues for a long time.
While I think these last two reasons partly explain “the beginning” of the thinking process, I believe there is more going on at the community level, which will be explained below.
Possible reason #5: Community dynamics
I think there are three community dynamics that drive veganism as a focal point in animal advocacy.
The most intolerant wins: Nassim Taleb explains this dynamic in his piece. If we apply his idea to animal advocacy, we can see similar outcomes. Vegans disgust the idea of eating meat. Non-vegan animal advocates are not disgusted with the idea of eating meat, but are also fine with veganism and agree that eating animals is problematic. Taleb’s point shows that even if the majority of animal advocates were not vegans at the start, intolerant vegans (I am not using “intolerant” in a bad sense in this context) will push the indifferent majority towards adopting their own preferences, precisely because of their intolerance of non-veganism. This can be shown in a couple of examples:
A group of animal advocates goes to dinner. Most advocates are almost equally fine with eating meat and eating vegan. But a minority of advocates who are vegans, disgust eating meat and have a strong view against people who eat meat. Since going to a vegan restaurant is the only option (due to the intolerance of the vegans) to satisfy all members, the group will tend to adopt the preference of the most intolerant (as long as the majority is indifferent). This is a reason why in most effective altruism events the meals are vegan, even if the majority of attendants are not vegan.
A more serious example: let’s imagine that an animal advocacy group is electing its leaders. Non-vegan voters are indifferent towards vegan and non-vegan candidates, but vegans are extremely intolerant towards non-vegan candidates. They even speak out loud about the possibility of leaving the organization if the leaders are not vegan. In this case, vegan candidates for leadership positions will have a disproportionate advantage over nonvegan candidates even if vegans are a minority in that advocacy group.
At this point, it is reasonable to expect that those who have more power in an organization will lead it according to their own values. It is normal to expect advocates in leadership positions who are vegans, will promote veganism as a focal point in advocacy.
I am not saying that this is a bad or an immoral dynamic by the way, I am just describing it. Vegans are not doing anything wrong or forcing other people, it's just how things might and do work in some communities. In fact, Taleb is very happy that his anti-GMO agenda worked thanks to the intolerant minority consumers who refused to buy GMO foods, and eventually had a disproportionate effect on the market and made most goods non-GMO, even if the majority of consumers were indifferent to both options.
A common identity: I think the question “why is being vegan is a focal point?” contains at least some part of the answer: “being vegan is a focal point, because it is a focal point”. Even though this standard may be arbitrary, it serves the function of creating a common identity for the community. If some people decide to become vegan due to various reasons explained above (impact, philosophy, and emotions), and get together, and achieve more power within communities thanks to their strong commitments (or intolerance led by disgust), “being vegan” becomes their common symbol, their point of reference of group membership. At that point, being vegan starts to mean much more. It is not just an individual reaction or activism, it is being a part of the community. People don’t just be vegan as they are “pushed” due to the horrors of animal agriculture. “Vegan” is also a “pull factor”, at least for some people (people who care deeply about animals and/or people who don’t prefer, or can’t join other communities). People drive meaning, enjoy friendship, solidarity, and increase their social status by being vegan.
If animal advocacy communities had different sources of common identity, things could be different. Other social justice movements generally have other community values than “non-involvement”. For example, environmental groups or left wing organizations generally criticize luxury spending, but they do not have strict standards for consumption. They generally care more about their protests and political success, and set their standards accordingly. For that reason, they have low entry standards for new members in order to expand public support for their cause.
Tribalizm: This dynamic has more to do with “rival” communities. Animal advocacy is hard. People usually make fun of animal advocates. People also feel intimidated by animal advocacy if they are blamed for animal cruelty. They react either by pointing out that animal advocates are also complicit in animal cruelty if they are also eating meat as they are, or argue that advocates are just weirdos who “don’t even meat” if they are vegans (yeah I know, it’s stupid). This status competition pushes animal advocates towards veganism if they were not vegan, in order to be able to coherently and consistently make their case for animals. This dynamic also makes vegans all the more attached to their identity and community. There may be more people who are flexitarians than vegans in the general population, but in terms of outspoken animal advocates, vegans dominate.
Some takeaways and final thoughts:
Feeling disgust (or other strong emotions) is normal but these emotions should not guide advocacy strategies.
It is absolutely normal and understandable to feel disgusted about factory farming. But we should keep in mind that many people do not feel disgusted as we do. We need those people’s support for progress as well. We should be keeping our emotions in check when reaching out to other people and deciding what will achieve the most good by our actions. If not, it is entirely possible to put emphasis on things which will not generate the most public support and thus not achieve the most good for animals. We should also be mindful of the fact that emotions may still lurk behind sophisticated impact calculations and philosophical arguments. Noone is safe from “rationalization”, even those people who put strong emphasis on reason.
Trying to inject consequentialism (and effective altruism) into veganism may be extremely hard.
Prominent vegans like Tobias Leenaert for example, argued for perfectly reasonable strategies in order to expand the reach of plant-based diets and lower animal suffering due to individual consumption. While I agree %100 with their arguments and wish them best of luck, I think their task is very difficult. As explained above, the cards are heavily stacked against consequentialism (and effective altruism) in vegan communities for many reasons. They tried very hard for change, but as far as I see it, the focality of veganism did not change much in most groups.
Vegan advocacy and corporate-legal reform advocacy may not be complementary to each other, but rather they may be moving people into opposite directions.
It is generally argued that advocating for corporate reforms and vegan advocacy compliments each other. While I agree that both types of advocacy are aimed at doing good, and people can adopt them both, I have some doubts. Average person has a limited “activism quota” or “conscience fuel”. As most “front line” advocates know, you cannot have infinite CTA for everyone, people take action for only a few (you would consider yourself lucky if they take even one). So if an organization advocates for diet change, there is an opportunity cost: people burn their “conscience fuel” on diet change, and not on campaigning against corporations.
While both approaches aim to expand the moral circle, vegan advocacy may result in more non-consequentialist attitudes, more focus on individual consumption, and higher bars for entry to the animal advocacy community. But if our main aim is to achieve institutional reforms, those impacts may be “counterproductive”.
Many (effective altruism adjacent) animal charities run both types of programs. It may be a good idea to think twice about this.
We may need more consequentialist messaging and “let’s take action (all) together and (incrementally) reform the system” type community values in animal advocacy.
In order to achieve institutional change, we need more advocates who aim for big impacts. This requires a consequentialist mindset. We also need more general public support and settle for imperfect but incremental reforms as a step forward, in order to reduce large scale animal suffering. All this may require a different set of messaging and community values than most animal organizations currently optimize for.
Veganism may have won over the hearts and minds of many advocates and captured the high moral ground in many advocacy organizations. While this is not something we should be unhappy about, expecting the same path to victory in the general public is naive. People in general are not indifferent to being vegan or non-vegan, most do not feel disgust while eating meat and if they are forced to take sides, they would side with their meat, not animals.
How to win over the hearts and minds of the general public and achieve incremental yet tangible reforms for animals is the main question and answering that question may require different answers, reasoning and advocacy strategies than veganism.
Thanks for the well informed article. One thing I find interesting here is the underlying and undiscussed belief that life has more value when the living thing is bigger or further up the food chain. Ie a hump back whale has more inherate value than a mouse. Or a vertebrate more than an invertebrate, and clearly an animal more than a plant. While at the same time there is another unspoken moral impression that human life shouldn't matter more than other life.
Without the above two assumptions or underlying beliefs veganism starts to fall apart pretty quickly and the discussion must become much more nuanced, as perhaps it should...
Perhaps more about quality of life, levels of chemical interference or how far from the natural biocycle that life is live. Or maybe more about levels of pain, suffering and death in differing farming systems. Or about energetics, bound energy, carbon footprints, and/or the efficiency of eating autotrophes not heterotrophs.
As it stands now a lack of willingness to openly explore and confront these (mostly) unspoken assumptions, leaves many non-vegans unconvinced of the true ethical credibility of veganism, unless your founding principle is that you only care about vertebrates, preferably fluffy and cute. Which may simply be the less rationalised truth for many in the animal advocacy movement.
This is a really great article! One other thing that is worth noting is that veganism sets a nice threshold that should be in accordance with the values of animal rights activists. If you set the threshold at 'donate some amount' you get weird problems of arbitrariness of animal products consumed. But veganism is a threshold that you can hold everyone to. Additionally, I think that animal rights people -- myself included -- would say that, if you're really on board with animal rights, that would entail you being vegan, just like if you appreciated the plights of black people in 1830 in the U.S. you would not own slaves. (I use animal rights advocacy as roughly identical to animal advocacy -- I'm a utilitarian, for the record).