My Response to Johanna

Last week, I received an email from a person whom I will identify, with her permission, only as Johanna. Johanna wrote, in part:

You argue that we ought to put all our time and energy in trying to persuade people to become vegans. I think that is a wonderful idea but what about all of those people who are not at all concerned about animals and are never going to become vegans? What about those who may become vegan eventually but are not willing to do so right away?

Doesn’t it make sense to pursue welfare reform with respect to these people? Isn’t it better to encourage these people to eat foods that are produced in a more humane manner, even if the differences between those foods and foods produced in a conventional way may not be very great?

Johanna’s concerns are quite typical among those who promote welfare reform and the “happy” meat/animal products approach. I am posting my reply to Johanna in the hope that others will find it of use in thinking about these issues.

Here is my reply, Johanna:

There are basically three groups of people out there.

The first group consists of those who, as you suggest, do not care about animals and are never going to become vegans, at least not for reasons of ethics.

Those in this first group are not, by definition, going to be willing to pay more for foods that are marketed as being produced in a more “humane” manner.

If you are suggesting that these people could be effectively forced to purchase more “humanely” produced food if we were to legislate certain reforms as a national matter, there are at least two considerations.

First, any welfare measure that is going to reduce animal suffering in any significant way and that will be applicable to all domestically produced food (and is not aimed at a niche market of affluent consumers) is going to be costly and will result in a significant increase in food prices. This would elicit a political reaction that would ensure that the reforms are not enacted or are weakened to the point of being completely meaningless.

Second, even if reforms were legislated, it is not clear that, under various free trade agreements, the import of animal products produced under conventional conditions could be blocked. To the extent that people in this first group do not care about animals and are not willing to pay any premium for the supposedly more “humane” product, they will simply buy the product from the conventional source.

You should know that in Europe, there has been a good deal of resistance to domestic legislation intended to implement European Community animal welfare directives.

The second group consists of those who are concerned about animal ethics and who would go vegan immediately if they were presented with a good argument that they ought not to eat any animal products and that there is no moral distinction between flesh and eggs or dairy.

To the extent that instead of approaching these people with a clear vegan message, you tell them that they can satisfy their moral obligations to animals by eating cage-free eggs or meat that has the Certified Raised and Handled label, or the Animal Compassionate label, or any of the other “happy meat” labels, or that according to commentators like Peter Singer, they can “occasionally treat themselves to the luxury of free range eggs, or possibly even meat from animals who live good lives under conditions natural for their species, and are then humanely killed on the farm,” they may very well not go vegan.

I cannot tell you the number of times I have had animal advocates tell me that they have been vegetarians for years but that they are going vegan after attending a lecture, or hearing an interview, or reading something I have written about how meat and dairy are indistinguishable and about how anything other than veganism is animal exploitation.

For example, in response to a seminar on animal rights I gave recently at a no-kill shelter, a volunteer wrote:

I was a vegetarian for about 12 years prior to the seminar, and have been vegan ever since I left the shelter after your visit. I think it was the Simon the sadist example that you gave that really hit home. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for coming to speak there. Becoming vegan has really opened me up to re-evaluate the contradictions in my life, not to mention all the great new food that I wouldn’t have tried because it was so easy to be a lazy pizza-ordering vegetarian.

(You can read about the Simon the Sadist example here.)

In response to my interview in The Vegan, a reader wrote:

At the end of the interview you said, “I spend a great deal of time talking with my friends about veganism and I am delighted to say that many of them have become vegans. And I never stop trying to persuade the others. Never.”

I just wanted to let you know I am one of your converts! Vegetarian for 30 years, I became vegan 1 year ago after reading some of your stuff online to which my vegan daughter drew my attention. My reaction was “Yes, this is absolutely right” and my only regret is that I didn’t do this decades ago.

I totally support your stance which seems so obviously right, true and clear-thinking that sometimes it’s hard to understand why everyone cannot see it.

I get dozens of these messages. The same thing happens with Bob and Jenna Torres over at Vegan Freaks. We talk almost weekly about emails and calls that we get from people who are going vegan because they finally “get it.” They thought that it was morally acceptable to be less than a vegan because that is precisely what the “movement” told them.

The third group consists of those who will not go vegan immediately even if you present them with a persuasive vegan message. Should we encourage these people to consume cage-free eggs, or “happy” meat, or to cut out meat but not dairy, etc., as incremental steps toward veganism?

Not in my view.

Many welfarists seem to think that if you deliver a vegan message to someone who is not willing to go vegan immediately, she won’t do anything. On what is this assumption founded? Indeed, common sense tells us the opposite. If you present a vegan message to someone who is concerned about animal ethics but is not prepared to go vegan yet, she will most likely do something short of going vegan, and not do nothing. But you can be absolutely certain that if you tell such a person that they do not have to go vegan to satisfy their moral obligations to animals, she won’t. If you tell people in this group that it’s acceptable to eat cage-free eggs, or “happy” meat, or that it morally acceptable for them to be “conscientious omnivores,” that is precisely what they will do and all that they will do.

If you explain the vegan position clearly, someone who really cares but does not want to go vegan immediately will do something less than go vegan. The question is, what should she do?

When we are dealing with an animal advocate who, after considering the arguments for veganism, replies that she will not go vegan immediately, the response is not to suggest that she eat cage-free eggs or buy “happy meat” from Whole Foods.

By making this suggestion, you are encouraging her to believe that there is a difference between battery and cage-free eggs or between “happy” meat from Whole Foods and conventional meat. There is no significant difference. It’s all horrible. The “happy” meat movement makes people feel comfortable about animal exploitation and encourages people to consume animals and animal products.

There is no distinction between meat and dairy. To say that you do not eat meat but that you eat dairy or eggs is like saying that you eat large cows but not small cows. There is as much if not more suffering in a glass of milk than in a pound of steak and all of these animals end up in the same slaughterhouse after which we eat them anyway.

Also, what tends to happen with a lot of people is that when they give up flesh, they eat more dairy and eggs. What “progress” is that?

We should always be clear that there is no moral distinction between meat and anything else. It’s all bad. It’s all part of the exploitation of nonhumans, none of which can be morally justified.

A better practical solution is, instead, to suggest an incremental approach that is more consistent with the notion that we should eat no animal foods.

I often suggest to someone in this third group that she go vegan for one meal a day for a week or two. And then go to two meals in weeks three and four, and three meals in weeks five and six. I provide her with information on vegan nutrition and I direct her to some of the excellent websites that demonstrate so clearly how simple it is to be a vegan and that provide a wide range of the excellent and nutritious choices that are available.

I think it is very important to be honest with people and make clear that in our society, in which animal exploitation is pervasive, it is impossible to avoid animal exploitation completely. But the one thing that is absolutely certain is that if you are not a vegan, you are an animal exploiter. It is imperative that those concerned about animals be told clearly that caring about the matter is not enough. You have to put your principles where your mouth is.

Although the incremental approach that I have described is better than consuming cage-free eggs and “happy” meat, and putting greater profits in the pockets of exploiters whose animal products cost more and are no more “humane” than the conventional products, it is important to make clear to anyone who is concerned about this issue that anything short of veganism represents their placing their pleasure over the life and suffering of nonhumans that they are continuing to eat. We should never “approve” the eating of any animal products under any circumstances. We should always clearly and unequivocally reject Singer’s view that to be a consistent vegan is “fanatical” or that we may have an obligation not to eat vegan if to do so will cause others to react by saying, “Oh my god, these vegans…”

The one thing that I never do is to reinforce the idea—promoted by many of the large animal welfare groups—that veganism involves a difficult lifestyle change and is only feasible for those who are great at self-sacrifice and have monastic self-disciple. I tell them the truth: veganism is easy. Delicious, nutritous vegan food does not have to be expensive. And I reinforce that if they are serious about animal ethics, there is no other choice.

And as far as our outreach is concerned, remember it’s a zero-sum game. The time and resources that you spend promoting “happy” meat/animal products is time you do not spend doing clear, unequivocal vegan education. We have limited time and limited resources. That time and those resources should be put into clear and unequivocal vegan education. It is the best way to reduce use and suffering in the short term and it’s the only way to build an abolitionist movement in the long term that can shift the paradigm away from the status of animals as property.

The “happy” meat/animal products movement involves a necessary alliance between animal advocates and institutionalized exploiters in which animal advocates effectively become partners of institutional exploiters, promoters of “humane” meat, dairy, and eggs. The abolitionist approach rejects this alliance.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione