Can skepticism save animal rights? I’m optimistic.
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM

Rebecca Fox, The Abolitionist
November 2014

Writing about critical thinking for vegans fills me with hope. Writing a response to a fellow vegan’s thoughts on skepticism and animal rights demonstrates, I think, that my hope is justified: a community of critically thinking vegans is emerging.

I believe that if we encourage people to think critically and provide them with reason and evidence, then suggest they reflect upon the treatment of animals in an informed manner, they will come to veganism on their own. And if their reason leads them elsewhere then we would do well to listen to them, and rigorously examine their arguments because the basis of scientific skepticism is an awareness that we could be wrong… about everything.

Critical thinking is too often conceived of as something we do alone, perhaps seated, chin resting on fist, staring off distantly. A few moments of reflective solitude before I press play on the next podcast, or scroll down to the comments section, are of course necessary and occasionally fruitful, but I find the most important kind of critical thinking happens inside my community, not inside my own head. We are all aware of the old metaphor, articulated best by Issac Newton, ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’[1] I think it is of equal importance to remember our peers. Their minds, sharpened by the same intellectual giants, can challenge and provoke us as individuals and cause a community to grow.

Rob Johnson recently wrote an article for RVGN entitled ‘Can Skepticism save Animal Rights? I’m Sceptical’[2]. As a skeptic I’m perpetually skeptical too… but I’m also optimistic. One of the reasons for my optimism is that vegan ethicists like Rob are discussing critical thinking and its potential within the animal rights movement. There are forums emerging where a community of thinkers can test and refine their ideas. Those ideas that stand up to scrutiny are ones to get excited about. Writing about critical thinking for vegans fills me with hope. Writing a response to a fellow vegan’s thoughts on skepticism and animal rights demonstrates, I think, that my hope is justified: a community of critically thinking vegans is emerging.

Rob’s article highlights how a lack of critical thinking has created an animal rights movement with philosophical and tactical flaws. He points to campaigns that are inefficient and confuse the public[3] as well as otherwise sound arguments which are undermined by reliance on mystical ideals.[4] This sort of detailed analysis is far from how I first became aware of the dearth of critical thinking amongst vegans.

Skeptics often find themselves in the position of consumer watchdogs and it is in this much more prosaic role that I first found myself encountering irrationality in the vegan community. At vegan festivals, talks, restaurants, meet-ups, websites and on message boards I saw vegans buying snake oil. People like me, who care about animals and are bold enough to make the uncomfortable choice of disagreeing with society’s moral norms, were being taken advantage of as they were sold crystals and potions to cleanse themselves of invented maladies.[5] More worrying than the expensive, and often gaudy, trinkets are the charlatans touting unfounded health claims and dubious medical interventions.

A deficit in rationality may be making the animal rights movement weaker, but it is also making the individuals who make up that movement sick. Vegan doctors promote AIDS denialism[6] and hand out anti-vax screeds[7]. These anti-science proponents convince vegans to take courses of action that could kill them or their children.[8] When talking to a woman handing out anti-vax leaflets at a vegan festival she remarked surprised – ‘you must be very upset, your hands are shaking’ - what amazes me is that there aren’t more of us shaking with righteous indignation when these dangerous ideas proliferate in our community.

It’s important to remember (especially in the midst of a heated conversation) that the people who promote these ideas aren’t monsters. Many of them genuinely believe the pseudo-scientific advice they dispense will help people.[9] My persistent optimism allows me to view this as positive, and not as a reason to throw up my hands and deplore the delusions of mankind. Most of these people haven’t had the opportunity to learn critical thinking skills or have their ideas challenged by other critical thinkers. If I hadn’t met people and read books and websites that challenged my own irrational beliefs, I might be offering to read your tarot cards and make you a nice milky cup of tea rather than meeting up for a chat about philosophy over a soy latte. Though it may initially seem cruel to disillusion people, you are actually giving them an opportunity, inviting them to engage in a conversation that will challenge and improve you both.

The animal rights movement is a diffuse network of ideals and ideas about how to achieve them. But whatever the movement’s goal, the best way of achieving it is through appraising the various methods by which it can be furthered and selecting a suite of tactics that are judged to be the most effective and efficient. This is not just a framework for advocacy but for any endeavour: work out what you want, experiment with different methods for getting it, put into effect those that seem promising. We all use this strategy everyday when we negotiate with other people, embark on an artistic project or bake a cake.

Unfortunately, because the animal rights movement is so unwieldy, with so many people who care passionately about different issues, it does not work in the same efficient manner that I always use to bake. This confusing climate leads to a proliferation of campaigns that have unclear goals and ineffective strategies for accomplishing them. It may not seem like a big problem: if everyone does their own thing and contributes what they can by following their own compassion we might just muddle through… but there is a hidden cost. In business we are always reminded to consider ‘opportunity costs’ and it benefits us to remember them in everyday life too. Opportunity costs are the loss of potential gain when other opportunities are forgone.[10] In my everyday life they inform my decisions about things like whether to take the bus or call a taxi – the bus is cheaper but it comes with the cost of lost time, discomfort and potential for strange new unpleasant smells. If I choose the bus I save money but make other losses in the area of time and personal comfort. It’s the weighing up of these savings and losses that help me make decisions. If I make the wrong transport decision it is likely to yield few negative implications. If the animal rights movement chooses to spend time, money and energy on ineffective strategies there is the potential for huge negative repercussions – for the animals.

Wasting the time and effort of motivated and compassionate people is worrying enough, but what if the climate of irrationality not only impedes but actively impedes progress? In Rob’s article he mentions the potential for welfare campaigns to encourage animal use (as long as it’s free range and organic). To add to this concern I submit the vegan image problem.

In his book Change of Heart, what social psychology can tell us about spreading social change, Nick Cooney discusses the overwhelming quantity of studies that suggest people respond best to arguments presented by people like them.[11] Unfortunately the public’s perception of vegans is that we are not like them , not at all. [12]The general public, without much time for or interest in the subtle distinctions of different animal rights perspectives, tend to see us (and this ‘us’ includes pescatarians, raw foodists and many others who I could not sit down for a shared brunch with) as odd… In fact ‘odd’ might be too kind (and ‘moralizing, weirdo plant fetishists’ might be a bit too harsh) but it’s safe to say we are not viewed as reasonable. The public has a keen collective eye, and they see us for what we are: overall we are not reasonable. The pseudoscientific trinkets and advocacy for dangerous quack remedies are a big giveaway. I like to think that I prioritise ideas over personalities, but I must admit that I devote more time considering the theories put forward by philosophers and scientists than I do those put forward by folks who smell of ‘chakra cleansing’ incense. When we allow what are at best silly – and at worst dangerous – ideas to be sold within our movement, we waste our resources and we damage our credibility. As a group with new and destabilising moral theories to advance, it is natural that the majority would find any excuse to dismiss our ideas and continue on with their comfortable lives – we are giving them just that.

The fact that the animal rights movement is so infected with bad thinking habits seems especially ironic to me, because they are asking the public to partake in a fairly major act of methodological skepticism.[13] Methodological skepticism (or Cartesian doubt) is the systematic process of being skeptical about your beliefs. Our culture has a convenient belief that allows us to continue our tradition of animal exploitation. The animal rights movement wants to encourage the public to skeptically examine the cultural belief that it is okay to use animals for our own purposes and pleasure.[14] This is a big ask. The belief is enforced with traditions, religions, tastes and habits and yet we still expect people to reconsider how they treat animals. If they do apply a critical eye to this belief then we expect them to change the way they live to accord with their conclusions. To request such an epic task of self-enquiry and lifestyle change without examining our own areas of superstition or irrationality… well, it just seems rude.

If our aim as animal advocates is to reduce the suffering of animals we need to embrace critical thinking to be efficient, but also to avoid hypocrisy. A reasonable approach to achieve this aim would be built on a clear, secular understanding of ethics informed by empirical evidence of animal sentience and coherent reasoning from first principles. This understanding would be open to respectful informed debate and criticism at every level – from the foundational principles to the tactical strategies. Advocacy would be limited to a select few approaches that had demonstrated the most potential efficacy. New approaches would be constantly developing and emerging as creative responses to the challenges faced by the existing advocates, and the best of those would garner support. We would present an intellectually honest and coherent argument that is less vulnerable to being undermined, and demonstrates a respect for our audience and the truth. Although there is much debate about the relative merits of a confrontational versus an educational approach to advocacy[15] I would hope that, guided by these principles, we could maintain a kind, dignified and reasonable attitude and maybe dispel the angry hippie stereotype that has plagued us for so long. Above all, being reasonable means being open minded to re-evaluating both our aims and tactics and utilizing a community of other critical thinkers to support us in developing our arguments and achieving our goals.

I am optimistic about the impact of critical thinking on the plight of non-human animals, but I find myself in agreement with Rob. The current animal rights movement needs a complete overhaul –which it may not survive intact – to align itself with reason and evidence. A reasonable vegan community may end up looking very dissimilar to the current vaguely defined animal rights movement, but I hope it will channel the enthusiasm and compassion of many advocates who count themselves as part of the existing mélange and many new recruits. The online magazine ‘Reasonable Vegan’ (RVGN.org) is our attempt to nurture this nascent community of skeptics, atheists, scientists, philosophers and indeed any critical thinker who is concerned with the interests of animals. I believe that if we encourage people to think critically and provide them with reason and evidence, then suggest they reflect upon the treatment of animals in an informed manner, they will come to veganism on their own. And if their reason leads them elsewhere then we would do well to listen to them, and rigorously examine their arguments because the basis of scientific skepticism is an awareness that we could be wrong… about everything.


[1] The oldest known reference to this metaphor is from John of Salisbury although it predates his usage in the Metalogicon 1159 in which he credits Bernard of Chartres. The Newton quote is drawn from a letter written to one of Newton’s rivals Robert Hooke in 1676.

[2] The article can be found here on the Reasonable Vegan (RVGN) website.

[3] As an example Rob highlights several areas that should be subject to skeptical scrutiny in the campaign for ‘free range’ eggs and suggests similar concerns could be raised about other welfare campaigns.

[4]Rob employs the example of the legal and moral arguments for nonviolence advanced by Professor Gary Francione which are founded on a spiritual principle of Ahimsa rather than a rational secular understanding of ethics.

[5] Here is one of many examples of pseudo-scientific health remedies being promoted to Vegan consumers and endorsed by vegan organisations. Viva La Vegan promote the use of homeopathy not just for people but for their pets and assert that scientific studies support its efficiency, which is egregious misrepresentation of the scientific consensus. 

[6] Vegan nutritionalist Gina Shaw has been invited to speak at several vegan events including Vegfest Bristol; on her website she advances many anti-science claims she believes that infectious agents do not cause disease and therefore that HIV does not cause AIDS.

[7] At a recent vegan festival I was handed an anti-vax leaflet promoting a lecture by Jayne Donegan, a homeopath who claims that ‘a healthy bout of chickenpox’ is good for children and fully supports the work and ‘research’ of Andrew Wakefield. 

[8] The website antivaccinebodycount.com lists the number of preventable illnesses causes by not vaccinating children from June 3rd 2007 to July 26th 2014 as one hundred and thirty seven thousand and twenty three, the number of preventable deaths at six thousand, two hundred and sixty three and the number of autism diagnoses scientifically linked to vaccinations as zero.Their figures are sourced from the Centres for Disease Control, prevention’s Morbidity, Mortality Weekly Reports and The National Vital Statistic Reports.

[9] Skeptics often refer to people who believe that the psychic services they are selling actually work as ‘shut eyes’ in the realm of spiritual practitioners. Reflecting back on my past experiences with ‘psychic’ intuitions I realise that I was a shut eye when reading tarot cards, a hobby I thankfully never pursued for profit. There may be more shut eyes than con-artists amongst the complementary and alternative medicine thanks to the human brains tendency for confirmation bias and many other anti-rational habits. For more on the psychology that leads us to fool ourselves I recommend Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

[10] A more through introduction to the concept of opportunity costs is available on wikipedia.

[11] In Change of Heart, What Social Psychology can tell us about spreading social change Cooney refers to studies that show that people respond best to messages promulgated by people they consider part of their ‘in group’.

[12] In Veganomics Cooney quotes a study conducted in the 1980’s that suggests the public views vegetarians as ‘pacifists, hypochondriacs, drug users and weight conscious liberals’ he also notes more recent studies have showed a less negative perception but notes that survey respondents feel much more warmly toward vegetarians than vegans.

[13] Cartesian doubt is a much more interesting philosophical approach than I have time to explore here, an overview is presented at wikipedia.

[14] This belief- that eating animals is okay- is supported by what Dr. Melanie Joy dubs ‘carnism’ (the entrenched belief that eating animals is a given rather than a choice http://www.carnism.org/2012-05-09-15-00-33) And by the human exceptionalism promoted and maintained by speciesm. Speciesim is a concept which has been discussed since 1970, an overview is presented on wikipedia.

[15] Skeptical activist Phil Plait implored skeptics not to be ‘a dick’ when advocating for reason in his TAM 2010 speech ‘Don’t be a Dick’ it is available on youtube. Other skeptics disagreed, not necessarily advocating ‘being a dick’ but arguing in favour of frank, honest and maybe sometimes confrontational challenges being issued to those who promulgate irrational and/or dangerous ideas. 


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