Steps among many—not leaps among a few—will end factory farming

The latest word of warning.
The latest word of warning.
Image: AP Photo/Larry Crowe
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Let’s say you care about reducing animal suffering, and that you believe one of the most important things we can do about that is to stop farming animals. Now, imagine you have to choose between pressing one of two buttons. The yellow button converts one typical meat eating teenager to lifelong veganism—a way of living that eliminates all forms of animal consumption. The blue button converts 10 typical meat-eating teens to lifelong reducetarians—people who cut down the amount of animal products they eat. Even though none of the teenagers give up animal products completely, together those reducetarians’ actions would add up to a greater decrease in animal consumption than the veganism of one person. As someone who cares about reducing animal suffering, which button do you press?

It’s an easy choice for me. I am less concerned with the amount of individual personal consumption than with reducing animal suffering on the whole, and so I would press the blue button. Yet not all animal advocates think that outcomes are all that matter. Those who believe morality is about being as virtuous as possible would see moral progress being made in the vegan conversion, and none in the reducetarian conversions. If it is immoral to cause suffering to animals, they’d say, then it is also immoral to cause them suffering less frequently. Yet the reducetarians appear to believe there is value in causing suffering less frequently. If we are perfect anti-speciesists, there may indeed be something morally suspect about this.

But the personal integrity objection to reducetarianism has its limits. Imagine the yellow button converts one person to veganism, and the blue converts 100 to reducetarianism, amounting to a decrease in animal consumption that is the equivalent of 50 lifelong vegans. Does personal integrity still merit voting yellow? If so, we could keep widening the gap until the yellow button converts one person to veganism, and the blue button converts three quarters of the entire human population to a mostly plant-based diet that involves the consumption of animal products only exactly once per year.

At this point, picking the yellow button should, I hope, look absurd. Pressing it has probably no discernable impact on industrial animal agriculture, while pressing the blue button utterly decimates it. To think that creating a single extra vegan is a better thing to do than drastically reducing worldwide animal product consumption without veganism puts all the emphasis on how animal product reductions are distributed amongst the population, and basically none on the overall amount of reduction. Assuming anyone could seriously adopt this stance, they would seem to be missing the bigger picture.

Of course, these buttons do not exist, and the extreme version of the hypothetical looks nothing like any real choice we will ever have to make. But the point of this thought experiment is to show that reductions in animal farming are ethically significant even if we achieve them without going completely vegan. For those who accept that basic idea, an important question is how we achieve the greater overall reductions.

It might still seem like promoting veganism alone is the only answer. How could we think that lowering but not eliminating our animal product consumption would have a greater impact than giving up animal products altogether? On a purely individual level, it is clearly true that anyone makes a bigger impact through their own consumption if they give up animal products completely. Yet what this line of thinking ignores is that there are many people who would indeed be willing to reduce the amount of animal products they eat, but would never seriously consider going to zero. If we reach out to them with a “veganism-or-bust” message, many of them will balk at making such a seemingly radical change, and will pick “bust.”

This matter of making impact through reduction hits close to home for me, as my dad eats 275 pounds of meat per year (as does the average American). Getting him to reduce, even by as little as 10%, would do quantitatively more for animals than getting a flexitarian who eats five pounds of meat per year to go vegetarian. To reduce animal product consumption as much as possible, we need to tell the potential reducetarians of the world that reduction without total elimination still counts. Small acts among many people have a greater impact than large acts among a few, and we can inspire far more of these small acts if they are treated as meaningful. This is not to say that the vegan message will not resonate with some people; rather, we need to make room for both approaches.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Advocates of vegan-only activism might say the reducetarian message is confused and even self-contradictory. The strict ethical vegan message goes something like this: Being a consistent vegan is a moral imperative, and so eating any amount of animal products is unjustifiable. Reducetarianism is suggesting that it’s understandable if you fail to live up to that requirement—regardless, reducing your consumption of animal products is a morally good thing to do. This offers more of a positive reinforcement for avoiding animal products, which might work better for some people than the strict vegan prohibition. However, the question this raises for reducetarians is as follows: How we can call factory farming wrong, and then in the next breath say that reducing but not eliminating our animal product consumption is a morally acceptable response to that wrong?  

The simple answer is, “Because that’s the message that often works where the vegan message does not.” The more complicated answer is that rationality, logic, and altruistic ideals are not the only influences on human behavior. Life is difficult enough as it is—for some people, the thought of being an ideologically perfect eater all the time is too exhausting to even attempt. When vegans tell us to stop supporting factory farms, the framing of their message often comes across as: “You must immediately stop this morally horrendous thing you do every day.” Sometimes this works—in fact, I suspect some vegans use an approach like this because it may have inspired their own veganism—but many people will hear this as an accusation that they and almost everyone they care about are moral monsters. Unfortunately, that often makes it easier to ignore than to confront. I’ve found the more upbeat framing of, “Here’s something good to do: You can reduce the amount of meat you eat” can work better. It helps create especially positive associations with vegan meals, and avoids some of the more sobering implications of the negative messaging.

Of course, if everyone in the world did go vegan today, that would end factory farming. And to be clear, that’s what I want. But that possibility looks pretty remote for the time being. What we see now are some very morally committed people going vegan, and almost everyone else ignoring or teasing the vegans and going on with the diets they grew up with. Veganism is the optimum, and I encourage everyone to be as plant-based as they possibly can. But I support non-vegan reducetarianism too, because it avoids many of the hurdles to maintaining unwavering life-long veganism while still getting us much closer to a vegan world.

Imagine if a lot of these people who were reluctant to embrace total veganism committed to avoiding animal products whenever it was not too inconvenient, awkward, or otherwise unpleasant for them to do so. Many of them would see that opportunities to choose plant-based meals abound, and they could quickly find themselves eating largely vegetarian diets. This would create a feedback loop in which vegan and vegetarian meals became more available, and eating these meals would be just as normal and convenient as eating meat is now. A lot of the concerns that currently make it more difficult to go vegan would start to disappear. The demand for animal farming would significantly decrease—as would animal suffering along with it.