How militant advocacy kills good ideas: the case of abolitionist veganism

This post is about how hardline militancy about potentially good ideas (eating less meat, open source software, reducing alcohol consumption) cruels rational debate, and often has the opposite effect in the real world of that intended. Militants are essentially ideologues and fascists and need to be called out for it.

Firstly, to any vegans or vegetarians reading this: I like all both of these things. In moderation:) Now read on…

Recently I accidentally become embroiled in a comments section discussion / flame war attached to an article called ‘Unsavory: The Problem With Angry Vegans Who Push and Preach Their Ideals‘. Most of the flaming was by other people and for other people, so I escaped with only minor charring around the edges.

As the comment section developed (closed at 1788 comments), I learned of a new species of human: ‘abolitionist vegans’ – vegans who preach that everyone should stop eating all animal-derived products completely. These people call themselves ‘ethical vegans’ and see vegans as pursuing the only morally correct path. They make a lot of claims, which boil down to the following two explicit claims (e.g.,

  • eating meat and animal-derived products is immoral
  • the animal industry that supports this human habit is destroying the planet.

And two implicit assumptions, often made in passing in various diatribes:

  • humans derive only a fleeting ‘palate-pleasure’ from eating meat
  • non-human animals are as conscious and have the same rights as humans

You can see the frame for a giant emotive shouting match. But why? Why can’t people understand topics like this rationally (even while admitting that there may be subjective elements)? It matters, because there are very useful points to be raised and acted upon. Unfortunately, militant advocates often ruin any chance of the average person listening to them by being absolutist (i.e. fascistic), rather than balanced.

Here are some examples of what I mean from the vegan debate:

  • the abolitionist vegan claim that eating meat is (one of) the greatest cause(s) of environmental degradation and global warming is pretty close to the truth. It’s not clear whether it’s the #1 cause, but it seems to be agreed that it is very important (, 2013; wikipedia).

Many of us who care about the environment and read on such matters would not be surprised at this. What is the obvious response? It’s to eat less meat, or even much less meat. Clearly, if every person who already eats ‘high’ amounts of meat as is typical in the West (let’s leave poorer people who eat little meat alone for now) were to reduce by 50%, then some very large proportion of the environmental impact will go away. (Note: the relationship between consumption and costs is somewhat complex, due to infrastructure, distribution networks and so on, so a 50% reduction doesn’t quite translate to a simple 50% in impact.) Now, what if society were to reduce its average intake of meat across the board to only 20% of today’s level? We can probably assume a reduction in impact (perhaps taking a few years to stabilise) of 60 or 70%, and maybe higher.

Every rational person would agree that reducing one of the main sources of environmental degradation and climate change by 70% would be a fantastic thing. If meat’s impact is as high as 35% (which would make it the largest cause of CO2), and say 50% for other environmental damage, then we are saying that reducing meat consumption by 80% on average around the world would result in (taking 70% as the resulting reduction in impact) 0.7 x 0.35 = 24.5% reduction in CO2 and 35% reduction in other environmental damage. These are absolute numbers that say: if we greatly reduce our meat consumption, we could get a 1/4 total reduction in CO2 output and a 1/3 improvement in environment.

If everyone stopped flying tomorrow, we couldn’t get close to this (flying, in the worst IPCC scenarios might hit 10% of the total climate impact of human activity by 2050).

These numbers are all very rough, but for the sake of argument, let’s just assume they’re true, which is what militant vegans (and even other more sensible types) assume. Now to achieve this, not one person on the planet needs to be vegan, or even vegetarian. It just needs most of us to be a lot closer to vegetarian levels of consumption than we are today. Some people will and do choose to be 100% vegetarians and vegans, and undoubtedly there will be some people who by preference or by need will still eat mainly meat of some kind, e.g. fish, reindeer, kangaroo.

Do militant vegans argue like this? If they really cared about the environment, they would. But then, they probably wouldn’t be vegans. Their current approach is almost guaranteed to alienate most people from any thinking about the problem, or undertaking any reduction at all: it’s quite likely that they are working against the many chefs, food scientists, vegetarians and members of the public who rationally argue for reductions in meat consumption.

It gets worse. Abolitionist vegans primarily advocate their cause by mixing up the ethical and environmental arguments, based on the two assumptions above, and trying to make non-vegans feel bad about themselves. They appeal to what they say should be our moral and emotional horror at the ‘enslavement’, ‘torture’, and general ill-treatment of animals, not to mention their actual slaughter. (Remember, vegans won’t let you eat eggs or cheese either, so they’re talking about cruelty in dairy and egg farming too).

Here again, their general argument is not in principle wrong: the industrial agriculture system is well-known for mistreating animals, with innumerable studies available on everything from conditions for pigs in Denmark (where ‘sow stalls’ are allowed, banned in the UK), to cruelty in slaughterhouses, and so on. And here’s a film I have yet to see that looks interesting – cowspiracy.

How do thinking people react to this when they learn about these things? Clearly no rational person would find conditions that noone would accept for their pet dog or horse as acceptable, at least at some level. The response of many is to only buy free range, humanely produced products like free range eggs and ethically killed beef. However, militant vegans say that humane farming is a myth. Here we enter another variety of illogicality. Are factory farms inhumane? Undoubtedly many are. We can choose to avoid produce from those places by using labelling and online research to get humanely produced animal products (consumer awareness campaigns have already had positive effects, such as some British supermarkets adopting the RSPCA Freedom Food standard). Are some ‘free range’ producers lying about their green/humane practices? Undoubtedly some are. We can reduce and eventually remove these with proper regulation.

In fact it’s clear that humanity could vastly reduce inhumane treatment of animals, without being vegan or even vegetarian. If we just consider the products that do not involve slaughtering animals, i.e. eggs, milk, cheese, and anything made with them, and moderating our consumption of these things (again, potentially to much less than what we eat today) it’s not hard to see how to do it.

We get to the nub of the debate when it comes to killing an animal and eating it, i.e. the final act of meat production. Militants argue that animals are as self-aware, conscious and have the same rights as humans, and therefore we have no right to ‘enslave’ them or kill them for food. They juxtapose our violation of their rights with the supposedly ‘fleeting pleasure’ obtained from eating animal products. Here they are making two errors:

  • failing to understand that the ‘pleasure’ associated with eating animal products is subjective and also cultural. They consign to the waste bin centuries of artisanal production of (to take some examples) parma ham, goat cheese, salmon smoking; worse they consign a great part of what it means to be human – the pleasure of the table, conviviality, cuisine, and gastronomy – to the bin. According to them we have no moral right not only to make even a risotto containing parmesan cheese, but to profoundly enjoy it with friends over a glass of wine. (They appear to admit that a vegan diet isn’t going to be much fun by this characterisation as well).
  • making numerous dubious assumptions about ‘killing’, ‘rights’, sentience, and the natural and human moral value system. This is a complex area. If you subscribe to the ‘journey of life’ model and utilitarian standpoint of Peter Singer for example, there are interests for both humans (who want to eat meat and/or dairy, even if only occasionally), and for animals, who presumably have some level of right to ‘self-realisation’. Imagine that an extended family in Lebanon (a country with a comparatively vegetarian diet) gets together for a marriage feast, and eats a goat, cheeses, milk, along with bread, hummous, olives, cakes, baklava and so on. Their feast gives them immense pleasure, and they look forward to it all year. Their forebears have been doing the same thing for thousands of years. The cost of that is that one goat dies (let’s assume the goat was perfectly well treated and happy while alive). Whose pleasure / self-realisation is more important? No-one can agree on this.

Here again, militant vegans are most likely having the opposite effect in the real world than they intend. If they want more people to learn about inhumane conditions for meat and dairy production, angrily shouting that their culinary, familial, and cultural needs are worthless isn’t going to win many listeners, and will alienate most people. If they were really interested in doing the most good, they would remain non-judgmental about the subjective issue of ‘pleasure’ (which clearly they don’t understand anyway) and difficult moral issue of killing, and concentrate on showing people the kinds of horrors that industrial farming creates. They would still have to let people make up their own minds, unless they want us to convert to a totalitarian state which they run.

To give you an idea of how twisted some people’s thinking is, a quote from the site:

If you embrace nonviolence but are not a vegan, then words of nonviolence come out of your mouth as the products of torture and death go into it;

It’s easy to find examples of how objectively incorrect such a statement is, such as people who run their own sustainable garden-farms, and milk their pet cow, and eat eggs from their chickens (this would describe a large proportion of the rural population in Africa and south-east Asia). This kind of nonsense kills their own attempts to be taken seriously: if they can’t think straight, why should we listen to what they say?

Regarding people’s rights to choose, militants need to get a grip on how the real world actually thinks. In 2011, Jamie Oliver did a TV programme in which he showed live viewers what industrial chicken production is like with various films and a live demonstration of the asphyxiation of male chicks with CO2, a standard practice. He also showed organic free range farming at work. and explained the differences for animals. When he questioned the audience afterward, many said they would change their buying patterns, but about a third said they wouldn’t, and price would remain their main decision criterion. Now, I don’t agree with that last third at all (mainly because if you know how to cook, you can make a single chicken give you a week of meals), but one has to be careful even here. What if one of those people only ate (cheap industrial) chicken once every 2 months, while one of the organic free-range people eats chicken 3 nights a week? Who causes the most pain and distress isn’t who you think it is.

Rationally talking about difficult moral issues requires a) knowing the facts and b) understanding that philosophical difficulties arise due to competing ‘rights’, and that valuing rights is dependent on models and approaches that are ultimately quite subjective.

Try this thought experiment: would you prefer 70 years of suffering from a major lifelong degenerative disease (say severe MS), or 40 years as  a supremely fit and healthy person? Let’s say you are that sick person and at age 20, God drops in and offers to take one year off your life in exchange for a proportional improvement in your health right now. You take it, and you notice a tiny improvement. He gives you the same offer again. After accepting it 10 times, you feel significantly better than usual, but you are still essentially disabled, but starting to imagine what life is like for a ‘normal’ person. You accept more years off, and by they time you’ve taken 15, you understand the freedom and joy that is waiting for you after taking yet another 10 or 15 years off. Where do you stop?

Militant vegans and all other militant advocates for any cause need to understand that everyone will have a different answer to this question, and it is the individual’s right to choose. They also need to understand that absolute cancellation of the thing they are against (meat, air travel, plastics) isn’t required to obtain a vast improvement in the objective situation, and that their advocacy of an abolitionist position is most likely going to prevent people from actually looking into the problem and potentially making changes. They should also realise that sometimes the value obtained by doing a thing is greater than the supposed damage caused by doing it.

In the past, a few militants, fascists and ideologues have had supporters, and success (by their definition). World war II, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China to name a few. All caused untold human suffering. Today we live with the violence of Islamism, which seems recently to be competing for some sort of prize in sub-human barbarism.

Being a militant vegan is more like being a fascist dictator or fundamentalist Christian than being a normal advocate for animal rights.


2 thoughts on “How militant advocacy kills good ideas: the case of abolitionist veganism

  1. Hi Tom,
    You make some good points especially how the militancy approach will never be as popular as the peaceful approach – ex. Martin Luther King vs Malcolm X. As Gandhi once said: “There are many causes I am prepared to die for, but no causes that I am prepared to kill for”. (my personal motto – 🙂 ). The only way we, as a minority will gain followers is by projecting our best, most peaceful and diplomatic self rather than isolating ourselves and attacking meat-eaters (after all, vegans used to consume animal products once too). This way, we can gain respect from meat-eaters and they will automatically be more open minded about our lifestyle. Although I understand where militant vegans are coming from – it is hard to keep our mouths shut and deal with things we think are outrageously unjust in a peaceful manner. But in the end, what they need to remember is that our lifestyle is there not to attack, but to defend. We will never be able to restore human compassion in this world if we attempt to restore it with hate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well put! We all need to have our ideas changed, but that process is a slow and contemplative one, and there are differing value systems out there. Secondly, we need to examine objectively what is going on in nature, in order to understand how to improve human behaviour. For example, all animals are not equally sentient – fish don’t even have a concept of ‘children’, only eggs randomly laid in the oceans. Is taking some fish from the sea (sustainably, not like we do it today) the same as taking a mother cow’s young calf? Clearly it isn’t.

      Absolutism is our enemy, and careful observation and thoughtful introspection and discussion is how we need to proceed. The minute we treat other people who think and act differently (within limits) as immoral subhumans, we lose all rights to force our views on others – just as you said.


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