Francione writes that veganism is the “moral baseline” for animal rights, and that we should unequivocally support veganism alone. He wrote in a blog entry of April 9, 2008 that we should not waste time with organizations that say that some forms of animal abuse are worse than others. This implies that we should be equally dismissive of lacto-ovo vegetarians and meat-eaters, and be equally condemnatory of factory farming and traditional “family” farms that try to be humane towards animals. I agree that veganism is a baseline for animal rights. One cannot be fully an animal rightist without eliminating all animal products from one’s diet, since all of these usages involve exploitation and harm to animals. I also agree that animal rights groups should promote veganism, and not directly promote injustice or lacto-ovo vegetarianism.
However, I do not agree that ethics is all-or-nothing, and that there are no distinctions to be made in the practices I outlined above. I also believe that while we should not promote lacto-ovo vegetarianism, it would be a mistake not to be at all positive about someone moving to that as a new diet. I also think we should refer them to resources that they seek, in hopes that they will start with that and then progress to veganism. When I say we should not promote lacto-ovo vegetarianism, what I mean is we should not ask for still-oppressive practices in our campaign. However, if someone responds wanting to go only part-way, resources about lacto-ovo might come in through the back door. You can call it not so much as failing to refer them to veganism (which of course is the most preferred course of events simply as such), as a more sophisticated attempt to refer them to a road to veganism, which subvegan vegetarianism will be if all goes well. If encouragement of walking along the road is offered, that is part of things going well. If discouragement is at once and always thereafter introduced, the road to veganism may well not even be trodden upon.
The reasons why I avoid Francione’s all-or-nothing approach relate simply to truth and goodness. The truth is, such a dietary switch has much positive about it, but also something very negative for dairy cows (and of course veal calves, since those are the male offspring of dairy calves) and chickens used for creating eggs. Lacto-ovo vegetarians assist animal rights by degrees by respecting the rights of some animals, though not all. By doing this they help offset speciesism, a human health epidemic related to eating animal products, and an environmental disaster for all animals, again related to human consumption of animal products. That should be praised as progressive because it does indeed make progress, while also it should be pointed out that lacto-ovos are not only imperfect, which can be innocent, but commit injustice, which is not innocent.
So it is absurd to put all forms of animal husbandry on the same “moral baseline.” Francione himself would abolish dehorning of cattle as a legislative proposal, as I have discussed elsewhere, and presumably this is based on the assumption that it is “better” to do without the dehorning. Well, this can be generalized to ridding animals of all factory farming hellish treatments. The animals would have no trouble identifying what is preferable and neither should we.
I would like to contrast two approaches to a lacto-ovo vegetarian who falls short of veganism, but struggles to make progress:
- Fundamentalist: rejects that some forms of animal abuse are worse than others, and so negates a moral distinction between meat-eaters and lacto-ovo vegetarians, and factory farming and “family” farms; so meat-eaters, lacto-ovo vegetarians, factory farmers, and traditional animal agriculturalists would equally be greeted with rejection, scorn, dismissal, etc., as tends to be the actual animal rights fundamentalist response;
- Pragmatist: rejects all forms of animal abuse, claims that we are morally obliged to be vegan as a duty of justice, but that some forms of animal abuse are worse than others, that factory farming is a much worse evil than traditional rearing of animals for flesh, and that lacto-ovo vegetarians are more progressive than meat-eaters; accordingly, while all animal agriculturalists would be considered morally wrong and unjust, and the same goes with all animal consumers, an element of praise could be had in that some forms are worse than others, and trying to eliminate abuse by degrees deserves some limited praise and less blame.
These two approaches involve two different senses of veganism as a moral baseline for animal rights:
- Fundamentalist animal rights requires veganism, and every other kind of diet is equally bad or on the other side of the baseline in an equal way, since we "should" not proceed on the assumption that any form of animal abuse is worse than any other;
- Pragmatic animal rights requires veganism, but not every practice is the same distance from the baseline; factory farming and meat-eating are farther away than traditional farming and lacto-ovo vegetarianism for example.
So is veganism the moral baseline of animal rights? Yes, but the form that baseline should take is crucial. Some conceptions of veganism as the moral baseline of animal rights are better and more accurate than others.
I have seen Francione confuse the issue, on a part of his so-called “The Abolitionist Approach” website (the title of course arrogantly and wrongly assumes there is only one abolitionist approach—namely Francione’s) by stating that my sort of approach simply calls eating animals “acceptable.” That is an oversimplification. And it is based on an oversimplified picture of animal abuse and flesh-eaters. I reject the flaws and accept the parts that are progressive. I reject eating eggs and milk, but I accept not eating cows, goats, pigs, and fish. That, logically, is how it should be, and also cannot logically be equated with full acceptance. I condemn what is unacceptable, and praise what is acceptable. Francione’s negative and in fact illogically distortionist approach is thus unrealistic or lacking in truth-value as well as being too stingy in the appraisal of others.
Perhaps fundamentalists have had the experience that if veganism alone is praised, and everything else is condemned, people might have a “crisis of conscience,” and admit, “Yes, you are right. Veganism is the best way for all concerned. I’ll become vegan.” This is one possibility. The problem for the fundamentalists is, my approach has the same advantage, since I also praise veganism as best and the only just way, condemning all other approaches by degrees. My approach thus can get exactly the same response by making an ethical appeal.
However, Francione’s approach is apt to get other poor responses which my approach does not engender, and here it is relevant to try to do some movement psychology. At the ethical level:
“Vegans are high-and-mighty and holier-than-thou. They are unpleasant people. They reject me. I don’t want to join that club, thank you very much.”
Howard Lyman states in his talks that studies show that people like the message of animal rights but they often don’t like the messengers. That would seem to indicate that animal rightists are often too angry, self-righteous, and negative in their approach to activism.
Another common reaction at the practical level could well be:
“It’s too much for me to handle becoming vegan all at once. If I can’t get help from animal rights people to at least cut down on animal products, then I don’t think I’ll bother at all. Why go through any part of my life as a lacto-ovo vegetarian if I’ll always get flack from animal rights people and still have them compare me to Jeffrey Dahmer, the psychopathic murderer?”
So they may not become lacto-ovo vegetarian, and may well be much less likely to go on to become vegans, since the only way most people get to veganism is not through an overnight change, but through a gradual evolution of diet. As my friend and fellow animal activist JoAnne Schwab tells me, by far most people who change to vegetarianism are adults, who have years of conditioning to animal consumption. As well, she insightfully points out, it is not necessarily selfishness which produces reluctance to change since some cannot change diet to save their life, as the cases of those who needlessly fall to heart attacks, strokes, and other ailments silently testify. Given the gradualism of most changes to veg*anism, if the gradual stages are eliminated, then so too goes the veganism in most cases. It does not help to berate these people that veganism is easy, although in so many ways it is. Most people need time to adjust and adapt. I myself took most of a year to go from vegetarian to vegan some twenty years ago. I know someone who went vegan overnight, and I admire him for that, but apparently he is exceptional in this respect. Fundamentalists agree it can take time to switch, but the crucial difference is that they are less encouraging or supportive about gradual changes. That can make all the difference in some cases.
So the one advantage of the fundamentalist approach, that it can get some people to change on ethical grounds, is shared by my approach. However, Francione’s negative approach has the following disadvantages that my approach does not carry at all:
- Fundamentalist vegan campaigns make changes to veganism right away (the one possible advantageous response to this negative approach) less likely because most people really do not wish to listen to, let alone associate with, those who are negative in their approach. This is a basic fact of human psychology.
- A negative image of animal rightists is fostered in the immediate recipient of the fundamentalist campaign as intolerant, unkind, impatient, condemning, blaming, accusing, judgmental, etc., unlike the more positive approach which will be experienced as inspiring, enthusiastic, progressive, offering praise where it is due and blame where it is due (i.e., fair), patient, kind, more fun, etc.
- Will lead to negative word-of-mouth among others about animal rightism and ill repute for vegans in general too, extending right into media portrayals as well.
- Might discourage people from going for any kind of vegetarianism and thus veganism (see above discussion). This is ironic since fundamentalists pride themselves on being the most pro-vegan of all animal rightists. However, indirectly, they weaken the vegan tendency overall even though they directly advocate it as do the pragmatists.
- Does not account for problems such as feeling overwhelmed or stressed out by dietary changes, or intolerance by friends and family; if a supportive attitude that is positive and encouraging is not offered, efforts may flounder and fail quite easily in the face of such social conditions. Not everyone is equally strong in the face of such challenges.
- Dietary campaigns are educational, so let us evaluate them on that basis. As a teacher who received training at a first-rate teacher’s college, I was instructed that teaching involves information, focus, and emotional support. The fundamentalist approach provides some information, although it is imperfect in claiming that all forms of animal abuse are equal; it provides some focus, although it is confusedly all-or-nothing and has no subtlety of degrees or parts of wholes; and it scores almost a zero in terms of emotional support.
- Fundamentalists of the sort that Francione portrays do not recognize the positive in partial solutions, only the negative, so people will rightly feel cheated in how fundamentalists “judge” them, and will resent and rebel accordingly. People’s defenses will go up rather than be open-minded. Personal attacks have a way of arousing defensiveness whereas personal dialogue and sharing have a way of maintaining free and open spaces of community in which so much more is possible.
- Fundamentalism will undermine attempts to prevent cruelty in animal agriculture. In “Animal Rights Law” I argue it would be a mistake to miss the opportunity to outlaw factory farming, or aspects of it, out of a crude ideology that “equates” all forms of animal abuse.
So there we have it. Negative attitudes just create more negativity. Perfectionism notoriously leads to a more imperfect world. If two approaches have the same advantages, but one carries several disadvantages, people should get the point that something is wrong with the disadvantageous standpoint. By the way, I do not count as an advantage that activists get to feel smug, superior, “great,” or powerful by putting down others. I only count advantages that are legitimate and compatible with genuine and full respect for all sentient beings. So let veganism be considered morally basic to animal rights. But let a view of parts and wholes, of degrees and fullness, also be a part of any “basic” view in terms of both truth and goodness. “Baselines” or “basics” should not lead to oversimplification. Francione acts as though all forms of animal agriculture and animal consumption are equally on the other side of his “baseline.” Forms of vegetarianism short of veganism form percentages of animal rights, even as veganism forms 100% of animal rights in the dietary aspect.
Francione is inconsistent in maintaining that we cannot praise percentages of animal rights since his theory would approve of a law wholly protecting an entire animal interest with a proto-right, while the same law might neglect all other animal interests (see my essay, “Animal Rights Law” for a discussion of this view). That would only amount to a limited percentage of animal rights—and a minor percentage at that—since animals possess many different kinds of interests. I have argued that such an analysis makes Francione an animal “welfarist” in a previous blog entry. However, his negative approach to vegetarianism as a whole, while it does produce some fine results, merely prolongs animal illfare much more than a truly positive approach.
FURTHER READING ON ANIMAL RIGHTS INCREMENTALISM
A Selection of Related Articles
Sztybel, David. "Animal Rights Law: Fundamentalism versus Pragmatism". Journal for Critical Animal Studies 5 (1) (2007): 1-37.
Short version of "Animal Rights Law".
Sztybel, David. "Incrementalist Animal Law: Welcome to the Real World".
Sztybel, David. "Sztybelian Pragmatism versus Francionist Pseudo-Pragmatism".
A Selection of Related Blog Entries