Saturday, November 17, 2012

For the abolition of veganism, for the abolition of slavery

About the necessary paradigm shift needed in the animal rights movement.

I. Introduction

a. Nonhuman animals are slaves

Ever since Darwin we have clearly known that human beings are not the only animals to have interests and to feel emotions. Nevertheless, nonhuman individuals are legally a property in our speciesist society. Considered as a ressource, they are exploited for their milk and eggs ; are murdered for their skin and flesh ; are used as a “biological material” for experiments, etc.

b. 99.8% of animal slavery = food

The number of terrestrial animals killed for food is numbered at roughly 60 billion individuals every year. Aquatic animals are counted in tons, about 150 million tons every year, which makes at least 1000 billion victims. Overall that makes about 1'060 billion individuals killed every year for food. In comparison, the fur industry kills 60 million individuals (→ 0,0057% of food victims) and animal experimentation about 300 million victims (→ 0.028% of food victims).

II. What strategies must be used to abolish slavery?

First, we will analyse the strategy used by social movements to bring about change and secondly we shall compare this to the strategy used by animal rights activists until now.

a. Strategy used by social movements

aa. Claim-making machines.

Social movements are claim-making machines.

1) They express a claim: → “Abolition of apartheid!”, “We demand women’s right to vote!”, “Software should be free!”
2) Then, they make the claim more visible in the society (demos, petitions, letters, TV debates, etc...)
3) This claim-making creates a debate in society, causing the issue to be put on the agenda and hence to become a public problem.

It is important to notice that it is always a minority who starts making a claim. And during the public debate (that can last for decades) the more the claim is discussed, the bigger the minority becomes, even eventually becoming a majority.

Once the unanimity concerning a situation/practice is broken because some people begin to make claims for a change, it becomes easier for others to question the practice → the psychological study of Asch.

bb. Psychological study of Professor Asch

"Which of the bars on the right is the same length as the one on the left?" It depends...

In this experiment, Professor Asch showed ten people a line drawn on a paper. These participants were asked to say which of the bars next to it was the same length. In reality, however, only one of the participants was the real subject of the study, as the other nine were this psychologyst's accomplices and were instructed to give an incorrect answer. When the nine accomplices gave a wrong answer, the subject complied with the majority. And he even thought that this majority was right. But when there was at least one person who broke unanimity by giving the correct answer, it became easier for the subject to question what the majority said and he was more likely to respond correctly.

If the social pressure generated by unanimity is so strong for those questions for which the solution can be found just by looking, we can easily imagine that it is even greater for justice issues that require some reflection.

Once a claim demanding the abolition of a practice is heard in society, the consensus on the legitimacy of that situation is broken. It begins to be perceived as problematic, making it easier for others to refuse to comply with the majority and to also support the abolition of the practice.

Therefore, one can understand that by expressing and making visible the claims that create a public debate in the society, social movements take full advantage of the beneficial effect caused by the act of breaking the unanimity on a situation.

b. Strategy used by animal rights activists: conversion strategy

We have seen that animal exploitation for food represents about 99.8% of the exploitation. Nevertheless, concerning this issue animal rights activists have used the conversion strategy.

Conversion strategy consists of converting people to vegetarianism/veganism without creating a public debate nor making any claims (like for example: “Slaughterhouses must be closed now!”).

The belief behind the conversion strategy is this: “we are just a minority, so we have to first convert a lot of people to veganism and only then will we create a public debate.“

1) But all social movements were a small minority when they started to make claims, even the movement for the abolition of human slavery.

2) And the conversion to veganism is much more complicated if there is no debate in society concerning this issue, because it is extremely difficult to question a unanimously accepted practice (Asch study).

Social movements have never used this kind of tactics alone. If boycott is used, it is used with claim-making. Examples: Martin Luther King called for a boycott of Montgomery buses and claimed that racial discrimination had to be abolished. Gandhi called for a boycott of British textiles and claimed that India had to be independent. Moreover, what is also problematic is that veganism isn't even perceived by the public as a political boycott, but as a personal choice (see later).

The conversion strategy is not used in social movements but in religious movements.

But the success of this tactic is very limited: After 2,000 years of this strategy being used by Christianity, the majority of humans are still not Christian, and Christianity has even used plenty of very violent conversion tactics. How many thousands of years will we have to wait to abolish animal slavery if we use this strategy?

III. Consequences of the conversion strategy

a. Inefficiency

aa. Historical look

Throughout, history no change for more justice was obtained with the conversion strategy. However, the strategy of social movements has been shown to succeed many times (human slavery abolitionist movement, civil rights movement, women's liberation movement, LGBT movements etc.). So we can see, that it is very strange for the animal rights movement to use a strategy that has never brought about any change for more justice instead of using the one that already been proven to work many times.

bb. Proportion dominance

Studies have found that courses of action that completely (or almost completely) eradicate some problem are preferred over courses of action that provide incomplete eradication. For example, in a recent study published in 2006, Professor Bartels found that an intervention saving 102 lives out of 115 at risk was judged more valuable than one saving 105 lives out of 700 at risk, even if the number of lives saved was higher in the second intervention! This psychological effect is called “proportion dominance” and Bartels showed that its impact was even more important in the context of saving natural resources or animal lives. An intervention preventing 245 of 350 fish deaths due to pollution from Factory A was judged much more important than one preventing 251 of 980 fish deaths due to pollution from Factory B.1

Let's imagine that being vegan saves the lives of 100 animals each year. Since the total number of animals killed every year is 1'060 billion, the saving of those 100 animals is considered as totally insignificant by our human mind because of this “proportion dominance” effect. This is the reason why many people refuse to change their diet, knowing as they do that their tiny individual actions will not even slightly change the enormous number of animals killed for humans each year.

However, if the act of refusing to eat animal products was presented as part of a global boycott from an international movement seeking to eliminate the entire 1'060 billion killings every year, we can assume that people would think much more seriously about the issue. All this without even taking into account that just the expression of the claim “Killing animals for food has to be abolished!” will create a debate in society, and therefore make a substantial amount of people think about the problem.

cc. Misuse of time and energy

The animal rights movement doesn't have an astronomic number of activists and our resources are limited. Nevertheless, we are using our time and energy to convert 6 billion non-vegans one by one, all without even knowing if our strategy will succeed one day. Instead we could be creating a debate among our society as a whole on the legitimacy of killing animals for food, therefore making every citizen think about the issue. Because our goal is to change the situation for the animals, we should spend our time using the most effective strategy that allows us to achieve the abolition of animal exploitation as quickly as possible, otherwise billions of animals will suffer and die for nothing.

So, if we want our ideas to be heard more clearly by society, hence encouraging more people to boycott animal products and ultimately causing animal exploitation to one day be abolished; we need to generate a societal debate, and this latter will be created by public claims and not by the strategy of conversion.

b. Question of personal choice

The advocacy of veganism creates the impression amongst the public that it is a question of personal choice and not a question of justice.  “Just like some people are Muslim, some people are vegans, everyone has the right to do what s/he wants.”

Of course the decision of killing and eating another individual isn't a question of personal choice but a question of justice towards the exploited animals. However, people will not realise this if there are no people who claim that the killing of animals for food has to be abolished.

Because of the use of the “veganism” construction, this is what remains to the public mind: “They don't eat animal products because they are vegans” is very similar to “This guy doesn't eat pork because he is Muslim”. It comes down to personal choice again. If we use political claims it will change to: “they boycott animal products because they demand the closure of slaughterhouses / they want animal exploitation to be abolished / they want a legal right to life for animals.”

Defining ourselves as vegans/vegetarians transforms the refusal of a practice into a simple lifestyle. If we don't want this issue to be perceived as a question of personal choice, when someone asks us why we don't eat animal products, instead of saying “I am vegan” we should say: “I boycott animal products because I am for the closing of slaughterhouses” or “I am for the abolition of animal exploitation”.

c. Psychological reinforcement of speciesism

The goal of the conversion strategy is to convert people to veganism; the means are not important, which is why many arguments are used that have nothing to do with the oppression of nonhuman animals. Example: health or environmental arguments are nearly always on the flyers that we distribute. And sometimes there is not a word about speciesism.

If we were in a society where some people ate children, would we criticise the practice by saying that this can be bad for the health of the cannibals? No, we would criticise it only by saying that children have an interest in living their lives. Also Talking about the health of cannibals sends the unconscious message that the interests of the children are not so important.

Imagine there was a demo against the genocide in Rwanda in which people would have said: “This has to be stopped because there is too much blood produced by the killings and this pollutes the groundwater.” It is immoral to use this kind of argument (health or environment) when humans are murdered. And it is also immoral to use this kind of argument when sentient beings from another species are murdered.

The conversion strategy drives us to use every argument that we have in order to convert people to veganism, but when we use the health and environmental arguments instead of the victims murdered every day we implicitly send the unconscious speciesist message that the lives of nonhuman animals are not so important.

IV. What to do to abolish the slavery of nonhuman animals?

a. Example of human slavery abolition

Let's take the example of human slavery abolitionists in the 19th century.
Did they try to convert people to « hooganism » (a way of living that excludes all products of human slavery)?

No! They made claims that human slavery has to be abolished and created a debate in the society on the question. Animal rights activists should do the same.

b. Morally inacceptable strategy

If there were concentration camps in our country in which human slaves produced all kind of products, would we just tell people to stop buying these products or would we claim that these concentration camps have to be closed down? I think we would clearly express that they have to be closed down and it would be totally immoral from our part just to ask people to boycott these products.

Thus, not only is the strategy of conversion inefficient, creates the impression that killing animals is a matter of personal choice and unconsciously reinforces speciesism, but moreover is not a morally acceptable position.

c. Social movement strategy

If we want to abolish animal exploitation, we must express a claim asking for its abolition and make it resound more and more in the society, creating a public debate on this issue.

For example when we write flyers, press releases, when we are interviewed, when we organise demos, instead of the individualist sentence: “go vegan!” we must make clear claims for a change in society: “Killing animals for food must be abolished.”

To illustrate and fully understand the difference between the two strategies, compare the following examples.

Conversion strategy,:

Go vegan!”
Veganism is good for the planet.”
Veganism is good for your health.”
Vegans have better sex.”

Going vegan is a rational choice.”
Vegan food is great!”

Social movement strategy:

We demand the abolition of the property status of the animals.”
Slaughterhouses must be closed now.”
Killing animals for food should be abolished.”
Animals should have a legal right to life.”
Farming, fishing and hunting, as well as selling and eating animal products, must be abolished.” (copied from meat abolition website: )
Society should condemn and fight speciesism just as it fights racism and sexism.”


When we take part in activism or just speak in defence of non-humans, we need to be sure that our message is understood as a request for change that concerns the whole of society. Instead of being afraid of the public, we must have the courage to speak for the animals involved and begin to express what we really want:

We demand the abolition of animal slavery!”

1 For more information about this study read Bartels, Daniel M., Proportion Dominance: The Generality and Variability of Favoring Relative Savings Over Absolute Savings (2006). Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol. 100, pp. 76-95, 2006. 


Solomon Asch experiment - A study on conformity

Social Pressure and Perception

Imagine yourself in the following situation: You sign up for a psychology experiment, and on a specified date you and seven others whom you think are also subjects arrive and are seated at a table in a small room. You don't know it at the time, but the others are actually associates of the experimenter, and their behavior has been carefully scripted. You're the only real subject.

The experimenter arrives and tells you that the study in which you are about to participate concerns people's visual judgments. She places two cards before you. The card on the left contains one vertical line. The card on the right displays three lines of varying length.

The experimenter asks all of you, one at a time, to choose which of the three lines on the right card matches the length of the line on the left card. The task is repeated several times with different cards. On some occasions the other "subjects" unanimously choose the wrong line. It is clear to you that they are wrong, but they have all given the same answer.

What would you do? Would you go along with the majority opinion, or would you "stick to your guns" and trust your own eyes?

In 1951 social psychologist Solomon Asch devised this experiment to examine the extent to which pressure from other people could affect one's perceptions. In total, about one third of the subjects who were placed in this situation went along with the clearly erroneous majority.

Asch showed bars like those in the Figure to college students in groups of 8 to 10. He told them he was studying visual perception and that their task was to decide which of the bars on the right was the same length as the one on the left. As you can see, the task is simple, and the correct answer is obvious. Asch asked the students to give their answers aloud. He repeated the procedure with 18 sets of bars. Only one student in each group was a real subject. All the others were confederates who had been instructed to give incorrect answers on 12 of the 18 trials. Asch arranged for the real subject to be the next-to-the-last person in each group to announce his answer so that he would hear most of the confederates incorrect responses before giving his own. Would he go along with the crowd?

To Asch's surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects conformed to the majority at least once, and 14 of them conformed on more than 6 of the 12 trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the mean subject conformed on 4 of the 12 trials. Asch was disturbed by these results: "The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct."

Why did the subjects conform so readily? When they were interviewed after the experiment, most of them said that they did not really believe their conforming answers, but had gone along with the group for fear of being ridiculed or thought "peculiar." A few of them said that they really did believe the group's answers were correct.

Asch conducted a revised version of his experiment to find out whether the subjects truly did not believe their incorrect answers. When they were permitted to write down their answers after hearing the answers of others, their level of conformity declined to about one third what it had been in the original experiment.

Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to be liked by the group and because they believe the group is better informed than they are. Suppose you go to a fancy dinner party and notice to your dismay that there are four forks beside your plate. When the first course arrives, you are not sure which fork to use. If you are like most people, you look around and use the fork everyone else is using. You do this because you want to be accepted by the group and because you assume the others know more about table etiquette than you do.

Conformity, group size, and cohesiveness

Asch found that one of the situational factors that influence conformity is the size of the opposing majority. In a series of studies he varied the number of confederates who gave incorrect answers from 1 to 15. He found that the subjects conformed to a group of 3 or 4 as readily as they did to a larger group. However, the subjects conformed much less if they had an "ally" In some of his experiments, Asch instructed one of the confederates to give correct answers. In the presence of this nonconformist, the real subjects conformed only one fourth as much as they did in the original experiment. The dissenter's answers made the subject more certain that the majority was wrong. And the real subject now experienced social pressure from the dissenter as well as from the majority. Many of the real subjects later reported that they wanted to be like their nonconformist partner (the similarity principle again). Apparently, it is difficult to be a minority of one but not so difficult to be part of a minority of two.

Some of the subjects indicated afterward that they assumed the rest of the people were correct and that their own perceptions were wrong. Others knew they were correct but didn't want to be different from the rest of the group. Some even insisted they saw the line lengths as the majority claimed to see them.

Asch concluded that it is difficult to maintain that you see something when no one else does. The group pressure implied by the expressed opinion of other people can lead to modification and distortion effectively making you see almost anything.

Implications for us and the oppressed animals

The more there will be people who will claim that our society has to stop killing animals for food, the easier it will be for others to agree with this claim, because they will see that there is not unanimity in the society on this issue. If this claim is never expressed it will be very difficult for people to agree with the opinion that we have to stop killing animals for food. Creating a public debate on this issue by making the claim that slaughterhouses have to be banned will create a situation where there will be more discussion on the subject and more people will be aware of our claim and because of the Asch effect the practice will be seen less and less normal. The conversion to veganism strategy without the creation of a public debate will have a very little effect. Every time when we make a flyer, when we are interviewed, when we debate etc. we have to clearly state that we demand the end of the killing.