An extract from ‘Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy’ edited by Kirstof Dhont and Gordon Hodson, published by Routledge. This chapter was written by Tobias Leenaert.


As many as 70 billion farmed animals (including birds, pigs, cows, goats, and sheep, but excluding marine animals) are raised and killed each year for food. Especially when “factory farmed,” most of these animals lead short and miserable lives and are subjected to pain, stress, anxiety, and boredom on a daily basis. While many people may deem it important to improve the living (and dying) conditions of these animals, the animal rights or animal protection movement wants to abolish the use of animals for human consumption altogether. If this movement wants to achieve its objective of abolition, a highly idealistic “go vegan for the animals” approach will not be sufficient. Given the extreme dependency on the use of animal products today, I suggest that the animal protection movement requires a lot more pragmatism. A pragmatic approach includes asking for reduction of animal products consumption, using non-moral arguments to motivate people, investing in creating an environment that facilitates change, and creating a larger tent.


Most people, at least in Western countries, eat parts (meat or fish) or products (mainly dairy and eggs) of animals every day, often during three meals.1 In these countries, there is barely any tradition of cooking meals without them. When, during public talks, I ask people if they can think of a plant-based recipe for a main dish which they received from their parents or grandparents, they almost invariably come up with a blank. Hence they are often quite unable to imagine how some people – vegans – can live without using animal products. In spite of the growing popularity of plant-based eating, many still believe that avoiding animal products is a way of living for ascetics only. Most people are what we may call steakholders: they are heavily invested in eating animal products and as such have a stake in not truly grasping the situation that farmed animals are currently in.

In the same way, at a more structural level, our economy, or a big part of it, is a steakholder too. I am talking about the industries of raising animals, feeding them, transporting them, slaughtering them, processing them or producing equipment to do all of these things. I am talking about companies that sell meat products or foods where animal products are an important ingredient (from yoghurts to pizzas), as well as about the whole distribution sector: stores and supermarkets, but also all kinds of restaurants, cafeterias, and caterers. And then there are chefs, teachers, food photographers, cookbook writers, TV personalities and so on, who may all be very invested in animal products because they too derive part of their livelihood from working with them.

In a situation like this, with a very high investment at both individual and societal levels, a plea to take animal interests and suffering into account will often fall on deaf ears. Moreover, even if it did not, and even if everyone accepted the idea that it is morally wrong for us to raise and kill animals for food – at least in the way that we do structurally – it would still not be obvious how we would move in a new direction. We have – or at least think we have – become very dependent on the use of animals for the continuation of our society. If an intelligent extraterrestrial race would study us and ask the question what fuels our civilization, one possible answer would be: non-human animals, which are raised and exploited for the benefit of Homo sapiens, the apex predator of this planet.

Idealism versus pragmatism

The movement that tries to rid the world of factory farming and the use of animals for human purposes – I will call this the animal rights, the animal protection, or the vegan movement interchangeably – is a relatively recent phenomenon2 and has, as a moral movement, been relying mostly on moral arguments.3 The movement’s message is that it is wrong to use animals for food or other human purposes, and that, basically, we should cease doing that, today rather than tomorrow. Thus, the animal rights movement actually has a double demand: it asks that people change their attitude towards animals (from not sufficiently caring about them to believing that they are morally relevant and have interests) as well as their behavior regarding animals (moving from meat eater to vegan).

I call the focus on this double demand (basically “go vegan because animals have interests”) an idealistic approach. It is focused on what the movement would ideally want, and it emphasizes that people should do the right thing for the right reasons.4 I contrast this idealistic approach with a pragmatic approach. I believe that the animal rights movement needs a high dose of pragmatism today, because it faces an enormous challenge. I have already stated that we are extremely dependent on the use of animals today, but there are several other reasons why the challenge animal advocates face is so huge. One is that, unlike with other movements, the animal rights movement does not have the support of the victims it is trying to help. The struggle would be easier if chickens, cows, and pigs joined animal advocates, but that will never happen. Furthermore, the challenge is all the bigger in that this movement is about animals, not about people. While vegans may not see much of a morally significant difference there, most people do, and will accept more confrontational tactics for human rights issues than for animal issues. Finally, eating meat (and animal products) is something very ancient, something that, to our knowledge, our species has done for a very long time. This obviously does not justify the practice, but it helps to explain that it may not be easy to get rid of it. Indeed behavior change in the field of food is notoriously tricky. In her book Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat, Marta Zaraska provides an excellent overview of all the reasons – from genes to culture – why people are so hooked on meat.

For the above reasons, pragmatism, or an approach that focuses on reality and what is possible right now instead of on what is ideal, should get a more prominent role in the animal rights movement’s outreach. Note that I am not saying, by any means, that pragmatism is the only approach that will work, but merely that it should be necessary part of the global efforts of the animal protection movement.

I will, in what follows, suggest four ways in which this movement can be more pragmatic. These are:

1. a focus on reduction rather than elimination (the behavior)

2. a focus on non-moral arguments (the attitude)

3. a focus on creating a facilitating environment

4. a focus on being more inclusive

Four ways to be pragmatic

The ask: Incremental steps can lead to abolition

The most obvious examples of incremental steps to improve the plight of farmed animals are (1) improving their living conditions (so-called “welfare reforms”) and (2) reducing consumption and thus production (lowering supply by creating a lower demand), so that eventually fewer animals will come into the world only to lead miserable lives.

Many vegans and animal rights activists feel – idealistically – that it is morally wrong to suggest or imply anything else than the complete abolition of animal products, on both a personal and a societal level. Their argument is that if we do not want to be speciesist, we cannot voice demands that we would find unethical were we talking about humans. In the case of humans, so the argument goes, we would be abhorred at anyone asking for regulating, rather than abolishing, child abuse or slavery. If we allow these kinds of demands in the case of animals, we are implying – still according to this reasoning – that animals are less than humans, and that exploiting them is basically okay if we do less of it, or if we do it in a less bad way.

Although such comparisons may make some kind of sense in a theoretical way, in practice they are quite unhelpful. Eating animal products is not just condoned but actively celebrated by the great majority of the population, whereas child abuse is universally condemned (and is illegal). A rigid-idealistic approach that puts these different issues on the same level might be appropriate some decades in the future, but it is not now – or at the very least it cannot be considered the only right way to advocate for farmed animals – for the reasons stated above.

I will not talk about the advantages or disadvantages of campaigning for welfare reforms here, but I will focus on the other example of an incremental strategy that asks for the reduction of the consumption of animal products (rather than their elimination). Asking for reduction is strategic (for the aim of abolition) for several reasons. First of all, for most people, reducing the consumption of animal products (on both an individual and societal level) is a much easier thing to do, at this point, than completely eliminating them. There will hence be more people following up on an ask to reduce than an ask to go vegan.5 Once people reduce, it is easier, from that position, to shift further towards eating plant-based (see the next paragraph). Moreover, because there are many more reducers than vegans (even including vegetarians), the reducers altogether have a bigger impact on reducing animal suffering than the small number of vegans.6

The most important reason why reducers are crucial, however, is that a critical mass of them may be the fastest way to tip the system towards a plant-based norm. To see this more easily, let us look at another phenomenon: the gluten-free “revolution.” In the last five or ten years, most supermarkets and restaurants, not just in Western but also in other countries, have developed sizeable offerings of gluten-free products and dishes (usually at least as large as or larger than vegetarian or vegan products). These products cater not just to the one percent of the population that is gluten-intolerant or gluten-sensitive and requires a gluten-free diet, but also to the much bigger segment (close to ten percent of the population in some countries) which chooses to largely avoid gluten (McCarthy, 2017). This latter group consists of people who do not have a medical condition and do not need to be gluten-free, so they are less strict about it. We can call them gluten-reducers. It is not difficult to imagine that it was this bigger group who made it interesting for producers to really invest in the development of decent gluten-free products. It is thanks to them that gluten-free took off and is now everywhere.

Most importantly, the result is that for the really gluten-intolerant, their strict diet has become much easier to follow, and much tastier. The same is happening in the vegan domain. Demand creates supply, and with an adequate supply, shifting towards a plant-based diet will get easier and easier. If it has become a lot easier to be vegan today compared to a decade ago, vegans have in the first place reducers to thank, because it is mainly reducers who helped create demand. The many brands of dairy milk alternatives one can find in the supermarket, for instance, are not there because of ethical vegans, but because health conscious reducers and lactose intolerant people, or customers who just wanted variation, created a demand.7 This is not to say vegans will not play a more important part in all of this in the future, when they have grown in numbers, but for now, it is the reducers who have the biggest impact on the market. Later in this article, we will discuss the importance of creating an environment that facilitates change.

The arguments: We do not necessarily need to lead with moral arguments

Above, I talked about the double demand of animal advocates: we want behavior change – which the previous paragraph was about – and attitude change. The desired behavior (i.e., reducing or ideally eliminating animal products) can be demonstrated for a variety of reasons. I roughly distinguish moral arguments from non-moral arguments. The main moral argument is that animals have interests (or rights) and can suffer, and therefore should not be killed, harmed, or even used. Non-moral arguments for reducing or avoiding animal products include especially health, but also financial reasons, trendiness or peer pressure (doing it for your significant other), etc.

The arguments that many vegan/animal rights advocates want to use, and the motivation they want people to have, is exactly this moral one, the concern for animals. This, for many of them, is the “right” reason. These advocates want people to do the right thing for the right reasons, so much so that sometimes people who demonstrate the right behavior for the wrong reasons are not considered part of the club. According to some, there is no such thing as “a health vegan,” because a vegan is by definition motivated for ethical reasons. Other people, the argument goes, may label themselves as being on a plant-based diet, but not as vegans (Lampert, 2016).

As I stated before, this whole approach is highly idealistic and probably unrealistic. More importantly, it is not necessary that people do the right thing for the right reason. My view is that animal advocates – or advocates of any kind, really – should at least “allow” people to start out with doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is acceptable not just because doing the right thing is good for other beings irrespective of the motivation, but also and especially because reasons can evolve, and can develop out of new behaviors. I will come back to this point below.8

As indicated above, the animal rights movement – being a moral movement – has traditionally invested most of its advocacy resources in moral arguments. The cliché that vegans are preachy and make people feel guilty (e.g., Minson & Monin, 2012) obviously does contain some truth (though it should be noted that meat eaters, for a variety of reasons, may feel accused rather easily). Advocates and organizations spend a lot of time on ethical arguments, in their pamphlets, websites, documentaries, demonstrations, petitions, online and offline discussions, etc. There is also a lot of confidence in the idea that these moral arguments work, that they make a difference and can shift people’s attitudes. And surely they may. But certainly not in every case. Part of the faith in moral arguments may come from the fact that many or most people who are vegans or animal rights advocates at this point were swayed themselves by exactly these type of moral arguments. Hence, they expect that these arguments will have the same effect on other people. Advocates who became vegan after watching the documentary Earthlings (basically a horror show of all the awful things people do to animals) presumably want others to watch that film, expecting or at least hoping it will have the same effect on them.

People, however, differ greatly in terms of their interests, degree of empathy, discipline, health situation, tastes, financial situation, etc. It may be argued that a big part of the population in many cultures cares about animals – witness cases of public outrage like the shooting of Cecil the lion in 2015 by the American dentist Walter Palmer – but does not care enough where caring would imply significant and inconvenient behavior change. In this sense, people who are vegan (or even vegetarian) at this point in time, can be considered low-hanging fruit. They were relatively easily swayed because they cared enough and were able to put this caring into practice. This clearly does not apply to the majority of the population – or else we would have a totally different situation by now and at least factory farming would no longer exist.

Advocates also derive confidence about the effectiveness of moral arguments from historical examples. We love to believe that when a society (or humanity) achieved something good, we got to that point primarily because we believed it was the right thing to do. We like to believe that slavery9 was abolished first and foremost because people believed it was wrong, and a group of us stood up and was outraged at the practice.

I do not claim here that moral arguments and outrage were unimportant, but rather that people in idealistic movements may often rely on them too heavily and be partly blind to other, more mundane factors that played a part in the outphasing of certain practices. In the fight against slavery, for instance, we should consider the impact of the industrial revolution. Mechanized labor was, in some cases, cheaper than slavery (slaves have to be housed and fed). It is not hard to see how this factor helped push forward the movement for abolition.

Take, as another example, whale hunting. In 1986, whale hunting was banned in all but a few countries worldwide. Especially in the nineteenth century, whale oil, made from whale blubber, was popular as a fuel and as a food condiment. In 1849 Canadian physician and geologist Abraham Gesner developed kerosene. As a fuel, kerosene was cheaper, less dirty and longer lasting than whale oil. As a consequence of his invention, and of the later development of vegetable oils, the demand for whale oil declined and whaling was less and less profitable. The point here is that, had we not had these alternatives, abolishing whaling in 1986 would have been a lot more difficult, if not impossible. Gesner and other inventors obviously did not set out to abolish whaling, but their inventions paved the way for people to be touched by moral arguments in a later phase.

Moral revolutions are not made by moral arguments alone. Although moral arguments are an important and necessary part of vegan and animal rights advocacy, it is important to understand their limitations. Moral arguments in themselves also may create a lot of resistance. When they hear someone say that eating meat is wrong or bad, many meat eaters may feel that this implies a judgment or condemnation of their own (i.e., the listener’s) choices. Indeed, the mere presence of a vegan, independent of their arguments, may be enough to evoke negative feelings. People want to think of themselves as morally good, and “because of this concern with retaining a moral identity, morally-motivated minorities may be particularly troubling to the mainstream, and trigger resentment” (Minson & Morin, 2012, p. 201). The problem is that the feeling of being judged often goes together with a defensive reaction: when our moral identity is threatened, we may try to put down the source of the threat (Minson & Morin, 2012, p. 201). This phenomenon has been called “do-gooder derogation”: the putting down of people we consider doing something good. Research by Zane, Irwin, and Walker Reczek (2016) has shown that when meat eaters as much as anticipate moral reproach by vegetarians – that is, when meat eaters think that vegetarians would morally condemn them – they will tend to increase their derogation. What should concern animal advocates, however, is not in the first place the fact that they might be ridiculed or treated unfairly, but that the denigrators themselves will be less committed to changing their behavior in the future. Being derogated does not just offend the vegans, but prevents the meat eaters – out of some kind of self-protection – from taking steps towards veganism themselves (Zane et al., 2016).

But would we not, in the end, prefer that people do the right thing for the right reason? Fortunately, there is more than one way to help reach people develop the “right” attitudes. Usually, most people – and especially ethics-focused advocates, think of change as transitioning from attitude change to behavior change. We inform people with all kinds of statistics and stories, hope that they will discover that animals indeed matter (attitude change) and from there change their consumption (behavior change). Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957), however, teaches us that in many cases, people will adapt their beliefs so that they are in line with their behavior. Meat eaters, who experience the dissonance between eating meat and actually caring about animals and realizing that they feel pain, may resolve the dissonance by denying animal pain or animal mind (Rothgerber, 2010; Rothgerber, this volume). Fortunately, we can also go about change the other way round: a change in behavior can lead to a change in attitude. In many cases, this might actually be an easier way to create change. This brings us back to how I started this article. Our incredible investment in and dependence on animals – we are steakholders, remember – makes it difficult for us to think about them through a different or new lens. In other words: where we stand depends on where we sit.

I offer several examples of behavior change preceding attitude change in my book How to Create a Vegan World (Leenaert, 2017), but let’s briefly look at a few cases here. One famous example of behavior change preceding attitude change is what happened with seat belts. While many people opposed having to wear a seat belt initially, their attitudes around it seemed to have changed after having had to wear the belt for some time (Fhaner & Hane, 1979). One can imagine the same shift in attitudes regarding the laws on smoking in public spaces. Although the ban, where it was introduced, initially caused a lot of outrage, nowadays many of us cannot even imagine that smoking once was allowed in those very places where it was only recently banned, and may actually think the ban is a good idea, just like they can now appreciate the protection a seat belt gives them.

Back to our topic of interest: one paper examining the relationship between behavior and attitude carries the very interesting title The role of meat consumption in the denial of moral status and mind to meat animals (Loughnan, Haslam, & Bastian,2010). In one of the studies, participants had to fill out a survey with questions onthe moral status and mental states of cows. One half of the participants were givennuts to nibble on while they answered the questions, whereas the other half weregiven beef jerky. Judging from their answers, the second group attributed the cowwith a lower moral status and a less developed mental life than the first group. Theresearchers concluded that the study “provides direct evidence that eating meatleads people to withdraw moral concern from both animals in general and theanimals they ate.” Their behavior (eating meat) influenced their attitude towardsanimals (see also Loughnan & Davies, this volume). If behavior change can precedeand influence attitude change, we have to make it as easy as possible for peopleto change their behavior. And that is why we need an environment that facilitatesthat change.

The environment: Facilitating compassion

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2006) offers a useful model of behavior change:10 a rider tries to direct an elephant through the forest. The rider stands for our rational, decision-making self. The much bigger and stronger elephant is the emotional part of us. Often, rider and elephant are in conflict: our inner rider decides we want to be healthier, while our inner elephant is unable to say no to one more piece of pie. While this conflict is exhausting, the efforts that both rider and elephant are required to make can be reduced when there is an easy path through the forest. This path is our environment. By adapting the environment, we can make it easier for people to change, even without them having the necessary motivation.

Crucial to creating a facilitating environment are commercial companies creating the alternatives for animal products. They can be supported (or sabotaged) by civil society (including vegan and animal protection organizations) and government. Companies creating vegetarian and vegan products, like tofu, sausages, and burgers, have been around for decades now.11 In the past five years or so, however, we have seen the arrival of a new breed of company in this space. They are startups with a number of characteristics: they are well funded – often by venture capital; they are highly technological (many of them originating in Silicon Valley); and they are very ambitious, wanting to “disrupt” the conventional way of doing things.

Let us consider a couple of examples, all from California. The company Beyond Meat, backed by Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio among others, produces the Beyond Burger that is now available all over the United States and already in many other countries as well (Going Global, 2018). Another company, Impossible Foods, was developed by world renowned former Stanford professor of chemistry Patrick Brown. His burger, so real that it actually bleeds, has received rave reviews and has become somewhat of a hype. By putting their products on the market, these companies obviously can make an enormous difference. The startup Just (previously called Hampton Creek), for instance, has managed to convince chain 7/11, as well as Compass Group, the biggest caterer in the world, to only use Just’s egg-free mayonnaise all over the USA. That is a lot of chicken suffering avoided.

Potentially the biggest game changer could be the so-called clean meat: it is based on cultured cells and as such is real meat, but – after overcoming some remaining hurdles – it should involve no animal suffering whatsoever. Dutch researcher Mark Post, at the University of Maastricht, presented the first edible prototype at an internationally covered event in 2014. He has since formed his own company, called Mosa Meats, to bring the product to market in what he hopes will be just a couple of years. Back in California, the team of Memphis Meats, another start-up, has developed the first clean meatball and expects to be able to sell it or a similar product within five years.

Although for most of the general population, the potential impact and the value of these products will be clear, the same cannot be said for those within the animal rights movement. More generally, commercial endeavors cannot always count on the support of idealists. Here, however, is another chance to be pragmatic. Once more, advocates can either insist that these companies be in it for the right reasons, or can accept that the right thing is being done for less than ideal reasons.

The startups mentioned were founded by people who were at least partly motivated by the idea to make our food system more compassionate and sustainable. This probably does not apply – at least in most cases – where the meat industry itself is getting in on the plant-based wagon. Take the case of Tyson Foods, a big meat company which not so long ago bought a stake in Beyond Meat (Pellman-Rowland, 2017). As a vegan, it is easy for me to sympathize with the sentiment of many other vegans: that it is extremely frustrating to see that a company that has made billions out of the suffering and killing of chickens will now start to profit from plant-based foods. The same can be thought of McDonald’s, which seems to be cautiously wetting its feet in the plant-based pool, having recently launched a real vegan burger in a few countries (Hosie, 2017). But we can obviously look at all this also through a pragmatic lens. First of all, companies like Tyson or McDonald’s will probably not go bankrupt overnight because of lack of demand. Neither will they become a vegan company in the very near future. Obviously everyone is free to boycott or protest these companies, but realistically we can only expect them to change gradually, by developing and focusing on plant-based alternatives step by step. Many people, especially those with anticapitalist ideas, will deplore the mere size of multinationals like them, but in these cases, size might be helpful. McDonald’s, Tyson, and others investing into more plant-based options, have massive research and development departments through which they can make these products better. And they have huge advertising budgets, to bring them to a much bigger audience than smaller idealistic companies can. They can also use their huge network of contractors: suppliers, distributors, etc. Lastly, we may expect that as soon as a company is buttering its bread on two sides and is profiting from the growth of the plant-based pie, it will be less resistant to change, and less out to sabotage the growth of the vegan category or the animal rights movement.

The fact that today profit is the newest driver – after health, animal welfare, and sustainability – to develop and bring to market plant-based products may be deplored by the very idealistic, but is in fact a very good thing. The animal rights movement may have to allow the enemy to join the club and turn them into allies, rather than fighting them.

The commercial sector is crucial because it provides the alternatives. If there is nothing palatable to eat, we will not be very successful in making people shift their diets. But of course it is not the only sector that the vegan movement can support and work together with. An environment that is conducive to change consists of all kinds of institutions that offer ways for people to demonstrate the desired behavior (again, without necessary having the right attitude). I am talking here about all kinds of places where people eat, from schools to company cafeterias to restaurants, and the places where people shop, from small stores to supermarkets. In addition to that, there are governmental institutions that, given the right push by civil society, may help create additional incentives for businesses to develop and offer alternatives, and for customers or citizens to try them.

Choice editing is one more promising area to bring about behavior change. In public cafeterias, but also in restaurants, supermarkets, and other places where people buy food, we can make the desired choices easier to make and more damaging choices harder to make. We can make it easier, through the positioning of items on the menu, of products on shelves, of prices and discounts, for people to choose a plant-based option. An example of this is what EVA (Ethical Vegetarian Alternative), an organization I worked for, implemented in the city school system of Ghent, Belgium. Within the context of a campaign called Thursday Veggieday, the default dish in all city funded schools in the city is vegetarian or vegan. Students could still get a meat dish on that day, but they would have to go through some extra trouble. The result is that around 95% of the students eats vegetarian on Thursday (Traynor, 2009). It is a pragmatic, behavior-first option, that does not take away people’s choices entirely.

The movement: Creating a bigger tent

The fourth and last way to be pragmatic is to be more inclusive and create a bigger tent. The vegan movement, almost by nature of the very concept of veganism, often takes a quite binary approach to things. For many vegans, either one is part of the solution, or one is not. Avoiding animal products is often seen as the single most important thing one can do to bring about change, and the one thing through which one declares allegiance to the cause. This obviously makes for a very small club. Only a small percentage of the population in most countries is (intentionally) vegetarian, and the number of vegans is smaller than the margin of error with which the polls are executed (Simcikas, 2018). If the abolition of the use of animals for food and other ends is to be achieved, this small group of people will need to expand and it will need allies.

The movement can choose to only include vegans and see the rest as the enemy, or can look at things on a spectrum rather than as divided in two different camps (binary). It can be inclusive rather than exclusive. Some polls seem to show that the amount of people that significantly agree with the ideas and direction of the animal rights movement is a lot higher than the number of people who demonstrate behavior change (i.e., being vegetarian or vegan). A recent survey conducted by researchers at Oklahoma State University, for instance, shows an incredible 47% of Americans to be in favor of a ban on slaughterhouses (Norwood, 2018). Results from a poll by the Sentience Institute tell us that 49% of US adults support a ban on factory farming, 47% support a ban on slaughterhouses, and 33% support a ban on animal farming (Reese, 2017). Obviously, these results need to be interpreted with caution. Nevertheless, they may very well indicate that the support for the goals of the animal movement might be higher than assumed, and further progress may largely be a matter of eliminating barriers. Many of these respondents may be the kind of people who know that something is wrong but for some reason cannot or will not stop doing it, but who might be entirely fine with government interventions, requiring everyone to alter their behavior. To idealists, this might seem weak, but it should in fact inspire them and give them hope.

Although being vegan is a very useful and praiseworthy thing to do or be (as I mentioned, I have been vegan myself for 20 years, at the moment of writing this), overfocusing on being vegan – and certainly on being perfectly vegan – may be misguided. The impact of one’s own consumption on animal suffering and killing may actually be quite small compared to the impact one can have on other people’s consumption. This impact can be achieved in different ways. One can be, for instance, a really good ambassador and communicator for animals, motivating a lot of people to decrease their consumption of animal products. Being vegan for this purpose is not a necessity. Arguably, it could, in some cases, actually constitute a hindrance, as it may increase the distance with the audience, and puts messenger and listeners in different categories. One can also achieve a big impact by spending time for all kinds of animal causes while not being vegan. One can have a restaurant or other business with great vegetarian and vegan options while not being vegan. One can make small or large donations to animal groups, with which these groups can fund actions and campaigns. It is clear that non-vegans – people who technically, in the eyes of many vegans – are still part of the problem, can contribute tremendously to the vegan cause, and presently probably have more of an impact than the vegans themselves, given that there are so many more of them.

Another way to make the tent bigger is to allow slightly more people to stick the term vegan on themselves (should they wish to do so). Also in thinking about its own ideology, rules and definitions, the vegan movement can use a lot more pragmatism. This is a message that is not always accepted with enthusiasm. The movement is quite invested in labels, and in making sure that people carrying a label can rightfully carry it. To suggest less rigidity seems to engender all kinds of fears, of watering down the ideology, of confusion, of inconsistency. Still, it is important to realize that there is no use in excluding a 99% vegan from the club of vegans. To insist on 100% purity and consistency is unnecessary, unproductive, impossible and insufficient.

Such insistence is unnecessary because when even a 95% vegan world is achieved, the final 5% will take care of themselves. At that point, the remaining animal ingredients or services will, if they have not become too expensive, be banned, as by then the public support for that will be huge. It is futile to focus on the final percentages, or the last few steps, first.

Second, goals of purity and 100% consistency can be counter-productive; although consistency on the whole is praiseworthy and non-vegans may sometimes admire a vegan’s principledness and consistency, going too far in that direction may alienate people and be met with incredulity. To insist on avoiding any animal product in any circumstance, even in cases where consuming that product has no real-world impact on demand at all (think, for instance of “dumpster diving,” where food is consumed that is going to be thrown away), is not just useless but can actually be damaging. Helping to create an image of veganism as something feasible and attractive is much more important than being pure to the final 0.01 percent.

Third, being 100% consistent is impossible. Animal ingredients are everywhere and cannot be avoided entirely. In this sense, it could be more truthful for vegans to say that they are 99% vegan. Avoiding the pretense of 100% consistency might help avoid the accusations of inconsistency and the gotchas that meat eaters like to throw at vegans. Finally, being 100% vegan is insufficient to reduce suffering. Although the damage one does with one’s consumption will be greatly reduced, one will still cause suffering to both humans, animals, and the environment even eating only plant-based products. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as Voltaire said.


For the first time in the history of the known universe, one animal species is radically and intentionally starting to change its own diet. Homo sapiens is doing what no other mammal or other animal has done before: at least a small group of us is choosing to eat lower in the food chain, for ethical, environmental and health reasons. This is an incredible place to have arrived at, and it is something to be celebrated. There is, however, a very long way to go if we want to even make a dent in the suffering of farmed animals. I have argued that the movement that wants to help animals – and especially farmed animals – is highly idealistic in its approach and requires more pragmatism. We need a Homo emphaticus, but empathy and the right attitudes towards animals may follow behavior (and institutional) change rather than precede it, for the majority of the people. We already love some animals, like cats and dogs, and “charismatic megafauna” like tigers and elephants. Other animals we exploit, and it is exactly our exploitation of them that makes it harder for us to care about them. We may yet learn to love all animals once exploiting them has become redundant.

Whether one ideologically agrees with the project of the vegan/animal rights movement or not, to create a better situation for the farmed animals in this world, the movement needs to reach a lot more people. In this chapter, I suggested a pragmatic approach to do exactly that. Here are the implications of the above, in summarized form:

• Asking for reduction is an essential part of the road to abolition of animal use;

• all arguments that can help lead to change should be incorporated;

• the development of alternatives to animal products is crucial to make change easier, and the movement needs to support the commercial sector;

• and the movement needs to be more inclusive and count as its members not just people that are already vegan, but everyone looking in the same direction.

The animal rights movement is, fortunately, no longer the only player creating change in this space. Health and environmental organizations are telling the public that a high consumption of animal products is neither healthy nor sustainable (Health and Environmental Implications, n.d.) and the commercial sector is creating the products that will make meat, eggs and dairy redundant. The animal rights movement should work in tandem with other domains in society, which may have different motivations and put out different messages to the public, but which nevertheless will contribute, though often unintentionally, towards the same goal of reducing animal suffering and eliminating the use of animals for human purposes.

There is a lot we do not know about how best to change people and society in the domain of animal products consumption. Fortunately, more and more resources are going to research, and meta-charities like Animal Charity Evaluators (; see also Bockman, this volume) and Faunalytics ( are acquiring more expertise and bringing out more and more studies. Regarding the ideas outlined in this article, here are some suggestions for further research:

• How does the impact of moral and non-moral (e.g., food) advocacy compare?

• Is consistency or flexibility more attractive to outsiders?

• Regarding vegan products and dishes, which proportion is sold to vegans,

which to reducers?

• Are people who are already eating plant-based diets for health reasons more

open to animal rights arguments?

• Which are the best messages to advocate for reduction?

‘Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy’ edited by Kirstof Dhont and Gordon Hodson, published by Routledge, is out now. This chapter was written by Tobias Leenaert.


1 The focus in this article is on farmed animals (raised for food products mainly), but obviously animals are also used for clothing, research, and entertainment.

2 Possible starting points could be the publication of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer (1985), or – going further back – the foundation of the Vegan Society in the UK (1944).

3 Animal rights activists and vegans or vegan organizations may also use health and taste

(as well as environmental arguments), which can be considered non-moral arguments.

4 Of course, in a way, all vegans, vegetarians, animal rights activists, are idealists. In this article, however, I use the term idealistic to point to a certain approach or strategy, and distinguish that from a pragmatic approach (which is also used by people who are basically idealists in the sense that they do have an ideal and are working towards it).

5 See, for instance, Charles Duhigg (2012) on how change usually occurs in steps.

6 This is easy to see when looking at statistics of vegans versus meat reducers. While the former still hardly even show up on the radar, reaching at most 2 percent of the population in some countries (but usually less), people who reduce consumption of animal products may number 20 percent or more (depending on how they are defined). To see how the number of vegetarians and vegans has been quite stable over the last few decades, see Simcikas (2018).

7 To illustrate this with numbers: in the fluid milk category, plant-based milks now take a global marketshare of about 12 percent (Bailey 2018). It is obviously not the (at most) 1 percent vegans who are consuming all these dairy alternatives.

8 For an argument against using health and environmental arguments, see Reese (2017).

9 I’m talking about what is sometimes referred to as chattel slavery or de jure slavery, and

am not denying the existence of modern-day de facto slavery.

10 This model was further popularized by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard (2011).

11 In Far East Asia, we can safely assume that the commercial selling of tofu and other plantbased staples has been around for many centuries.



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