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On the Psychological Continuum

There is a general consensus that vegetarianism and veganism are different philosophically. And when I spoke about a continuum over a year ago as a result of a workshop with Rae Sikora, who demonstrated that there was a continuum, there was some discontent.

How about this? There is no philosophical continuum, but there is a psychological continuum, as evidenced by everyone at the workshop taking steps back or forward, denoting their increase in animal use (including no meat to meat, or backsliding, like I did a decade ago), or their decrease (such as when vegetarians go vegan).

The underlying premise is that you can know what is right (such as me knowing what's right then eating cow flesh in the form of filet mignon for a year), but that by no means will necessarily manifest in your behavior. Hence the psychological continuum described (below) by Austria's Association Against Animal Factories from about a year ago. I like the idea of remembering that an individual's mind and that individual's behavior can be perfectly dissonant without causing life-threatening damage or problems for that person. After all, most people will say they don't want to hurt animals, yet they do so all the time, at least indirectly by paying others to do it for them. Perhaps the mind isn't the thing that needs changing, but the heart does.

[H]umans are much more social than rational creatures. In everyday life on average, people try to merge into society, behave correspondingly, and afterwards rationalize their behaviour, i.e. find “rational” reasons why they act as they act. This observation is so obvious that it does not seem to merit quoting empirical support. I assume Francione does not disagree.

So, while this fact does not need to concern us, if we are thinking about ethical principles, for example based on rational arguments leading to deontological ethics, that changes when we are talking about how to move society towards this ethical ideal. This, now, is a very practical matter, where all measures we take must be tested empirically on their consequences. Nobody is able to theoretically predict which measure will have what consequences in society. Hence, what we need from this point onwards is psychology and not philosophy.

And human psychology says that humans are far more social than rational creatures. And that means for the animal rights movement:

  • Social entities like compassion, empathy and suffering are very important factors to motivate humans to change their behaviour. In contrast, abstract-rational entities, like personhood or rights, are not.
  • One of the most important aspects determining human behaviour is their social environment. Humans want to be well integrated into their society and live in harmony with it.
  • Humans have a strong need for social security, i.e. they generally want that things stay as they are and that change happens slowly and in a controlled way.

I don't disagree with that, as most people are conformists. I do disagree with some of what follows, though, and agree with some as well (my comments are in italics):

The animal rights movement must adapt their political campaigning strategies to these psychological facts. That means, political campaigns must incorporate the following aspects:

  • Centre your campaign material on presenting suffering and stimulate compassion and empathy in people. Abstract-rational phrases using terms like rights or personhood should play no significant role. (No role? Though I don't think I've ever used the term personhood with a non-attorney, I don't see what's so negative about referring to rights. I don't think it's one or the other. Why can't you talk about the right to freedom when you're showing a caged animal?)
  • The goal of the campaign should be presented to the public in a way that it seems to them that if it was achieved, a certain clearly distinguishable aspect of suffering of animals will be totally alleviated. (I agree with this one, and don't consider it intellectual dishonesty, and here's why: I don't encounter many people who object to using animals, but you can get just about everyone to object to their suffering. And the only way to totally alleviate that suffering is to not use the animal. Your goal is non-use, but it is achieved through an alleviation of all suffering campaign–in a way that hits one of their buttons. –If I am understanding this correctly.)
  • The aim of the campaign must be to change society, the social system in which people live, and not individual peoples’ minds. (I don't get why you can't do both.)
  • The campaign should not demand huge changes in society. The goal must be realistic and should not lead into the unknown. The whole development of society must be slow and continuous, the changes incremental. (I think this is where single-issue campaigns that abolish a use of an animal do have a place. I do think that in my lifetime greyhound racing will end, circuses will be animal-free, elephants and marine mammals won't be in zoos, and fur might even be banned. None of these things will happen without targeted campaigns. And the perception of what animals are and should be used for, and the empathy for their plight, will increase with each campaign and bleed over into other areas–at least in my mind. I'm still not sure why vegan education can't be part of any of these efforts.)

What do you think?

My experience with my own brochure, Thinking Critically About Animal Rights, supports the psychological continuum and the idea that people might stop a particular use of an animal when they learn about what is done to that animal in order for them to use the animal. The only way to stop the suffering and the rights violations is to stop the use. Meanwhile, if they heard only the "it's not right to use them because they are sentient" argument, that might not move them.

I'm not saying welfare reform is the answer, but that ceasing the use of an animal is the only action that will completely alleviate suffering. I don't see why that argument can't be used in vegan and single-issue campaigns.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dan #

    I never never done anything wrong that I haven't cognitively rationalized away. Even the most severe pain can be cognitively rationalized away. I think talking about abstract reasons for not exploiting animals is imperative. That's not to say we shouldn't also display and talk about torture and pain (we certainly should), but to say we should diminish rationality in our discourse is ridiculous. My latest essay, Rational Ignorance and Rational Irrationality, addresss a related issue.

    I think the 'movement' spends way too much time and money on single-issue campaigns without general vegan education as an integral component, but only a few people agree with me on this, so whatever. If we're going to do SICs at all, a call to end all exploitation should be an integral part of them. SICs dampen my hope than any meaningful change will happen – they mostly seem to reinforce moral schizophrenia.

    March 29, 2009
  2. Dan #

    The exception to cognitive rationalizing away wrongs is when we react quickly or thoughtlessly, but this is rarely the case in deciding what to eat, etc.

    March 29, 2009
  3. John Carbonaro #

    I always liked this article ( which Mary referenced back in 12/07 :

    "animals are enemies" -because seeing them as individuals threatens our capacity to block self-examination and the ensuing guilt for our behavior towards them (for the goal of human ends; food, entertainment,companionship..).

    I've been spending some time reading about 'social ecology', particularly Murray Bookchin.

    "Social ecology locates the roots of the ecological crisis firmly in relations of domination between people. The domination of nature ( animal use )is seen as a product of domination within society, but this domination only reaches crisis proportions under capitalism".

    I guess that this is where 'change society- not single individuals' comes in? But how is this to be achieved if we don't embrace a philosophy that acknowledges the importance of releasing the individual 'into the wild' of his own making, apart from the security/conformity and ultimately,exploitation of the political powers that be? People's minds don't need bigger 'mind cages' in which to settle into more comfort (psychological welfarism?). In order for people to want freedom for animals, perhaps they need to want a greater freedom for themselves. Right now i think that a lot of people are happy to live in mind crates and consume a steady diet of psuedo-freedoms (locovore-serfdom). They have to see how things 'really are' for themselves before they will be open to the need for a change.
    Perhaps this ties in with the 'single issue' issue. If we look at how society dominates/oppresses as a general force towards life, isn't 'animal rights' itself just a single issue (of a much larger wrong?) If everyone with a 'cause' just shows up at a protest with one-dimensional signs that read " End oppression in all it's forms" – how will people be guided to enact? Single issue campaigns do help people connect the dots, and hopefully does not fragment the mobilizing effort needed to create a force/momentum strong enough, consistent enough, and focused enough to truly be called a societal force.

    March 29, 2009
  4. Dan #

    We don't slaughter 10 billion humans annually in the US. When we stop slaughtering animals for food, then I'll worry about human exploiation. (And yes, I know that's what leftists say about AR, but they've got it backwards.)

    March 29, 2009
  5. John Carbonaro #

    I like to look at the commonalities between and behind human and animal exploitation. Putting one before the other (in terms of forming an action plan) is itself to utilize a splitting, hierarchical view. Human beings are exploited in that they are indocrinated from birth to accept that animals are objects to be used by a 'superior' race of beings. This 'use' indocrination creates consumers/producers who will be used to make corporations & industries all that more powerful. Many people became vegans when , in some situation, they realized that the 'meat' they were eating was once the subject of it's own life. They were able to see the whole(being), because they themselves had stepped outside of the WHOLE (of societal/oneness indocrination). They saw the animal as a seperate being, which coincided with themselves becoming individuated, seperate.We are all familiar with the hunter/flesh-eater rationalization that they are behaving according to Nature – a oneness and higher power that absolves them from individual responsibility(to themselves and others).
    We-Are-All-Connected can become a facist state of mind for activists if we are not careful. Our single issue significance can become dwarfed, minimized, marginalized..lost if we distill all oppression or all liberation into a one dimensional resolution/goal. The different aspects of oppression form, not fragments, but a kaliedoscope reflective of the overarching force of subjugation (both human and nonhuman).
    Rather than be homogenized by these forces, we must recognize and empower our alliances and similarities while retaining our individualities. Should we really be comparing evils : animals that are murdered VS the babies who are spoonfed their bodies? Both are exploited. We have to change these consumers to not feed on animals or feed the powers that be that benefit from commodifying both.

    March 29, 2009
  6. John Carbonaro #

    Oh yes Dan, let me add that nothing drives me more crazy than so-called leftists who talk about liberation whilst dining on the flesh of animals.

    March 29, 2009
  7. John: "Human beings are exploited in that they are indocrinated from birth to accept that animals are objects to be used by a 'superior' race of beings."

    Agreed. We are definately exploited and violated from birth. The very truths we depended on to form ethical choices are hidden from us, condoned by our "specialness".

    And if we approach animal use psychology, we're accused of "emotionalism" – whereas, they have "science". So, I'm hesitant to relinquish philosophical ground, as I think it's the immovable masthead. Unfortunately, it's ineffective in a culture unwilling to examine ethics. So that leaves anthropomorphizing… and tugging at heartstrings…

    As the essay mentions, GF is opposed to utilizing film material that shows abuse – "those pictures do not question animal use, but animal abuse"…

    I came across a "farmer's" blog that wrote about the HBO "Death on a Factory Farm" documentary… The gist of the blog was that "unless one is consuming meat, they (vegans) have no authority to dictate how it should be brought to one's table". IOW vegans must stay out of campaigns that expose cruel farming practices… Because the goal is non-use of animals, vegans have no credibility pointing out cruelty. Perhaps this is true. But, the challenge is how to jump to "rights" without exposing horrific abuses?

    In the essay: "But I would be immediately ready to stop driving a car, if car driving was banned, i.e. if all others stopped as well. If they do not stop and only I do, then I would not feel that my sacrifice of not using one would be worth the effort."

    How true. I don't know how many people I speak to, defend their continued habits because (pragmatically), "the world won't change" or "whatever one does matters little". It's like the (convenient)script is pre-written for them. It's hard to go from there without confronting their moral code… (that is sanctioned by all).

    Finally, "I have had a lot of experience with the struggle against animal industries, and it is clear that they have a very strong interest in selling animal products. They will do anything to create that demand."

    Can we believe how highly motivated the animal industry is now that Cargill has voluntarily installed video cameras and 3rd party auditing in it's slaughterhouses?

    "Developed and managed by Arrowsight, in collaboration with Dr. Temple Grandin, one of the industry's foremost experts on animal welfare, the program is designed to help plant operators teach and monitor performance in animal handling. “Cargill has adopted some of the most rigorous animal care guidelines in the industry,” said Cargill Beef President John Keating. “This additional investment gives us the objective input we need to effectively train our people and improve our processes.”

    Clearly, they intend to keep/win their customers psychologically.

    March 30, 2009
  8. Mary – heard this interview with Gary Francione on Radio Netherlands ('The State We're In' radio show), one of the international radio stations which CBC plays on on overnight AM radio.

    Followup interview from a previous one about 'the right to own pets', this one is about animal suffering in slaughter process.

    A very stirring interview. A Canadian university professor was his debate opponent.

    Interview is at bottom of page at

    March 31, 2009
  9. P.S. – I should have used the words 'jarring' and 'disturbing' rather than 'stirring', which is definitely the wrong adjective to use.


    March 31, 2009
  10. Dan #

    To be honest, Jan Narveson sounded like a psychopath in that discussion.

    March 31, 2009
  11. I agree that the interview was disturbing. Actually this "scholar" Jan Narveson did a pathetic job at defending his position. But that usually is the case when your arguing from an irrational viewpoint.

    There's also a few more interview with Francione here at NZ Vegan examining welfarism vs abolitionism:
    As well as many other interesting podcasts.

    April 1, 2009

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