Strategic Incrementalism

There are as many opinions about appropriate tactics to create a world more friendly for animals as there are vegans. But the most vociferous debate is often between two camps: those who push for incremental change, typically through legislation, and those who will settle for nothing less than wholesale abolition of animal exploitation.

Early on in my career as a vegan, and even before I made the change, I watched plenty of rescue videos posted by the Animal Liberation Front. Their bravery — risking, and often facing, outlandish charges of domestic terrorism for rescuing some furry critters — was contagious. I was inspired. I’ve since become somewhat skeptical about the effectiveness of such tactics in the long run.

At the same time that I was watching hour after hour of brazen rescue videos, I was skeptical of the animal welfare-focused organizations, that pushed for what I saw as milquetoast compromises that served to allay the concerns of the average consumer. If the cages are a square foot larger, I thought, the average consumer may come to believe their consumption of meat and animal products to be ethical. The force of cognitive dissonance — the persisting force that leads to veganism — would be diminished.

Today I suspect that we can be most effective in choosing our tactics based on the specific issue, rather than pushing for a one-size-fits-all approach.

The reasons for this are purely psychological. If we try today to outlaw the consumption of meat via legislation, we will fail spectacularly. The public is not ready for such a measure, and may never be. Most people consume meat multiple times a day. But what if we outlaw the use of fur specifically? That could work. Perhaps I live in a bubble, but my impression is most people view fur as completely unnecessary and cruel. It could conceivably be banned via legislation, and we’d have a world that’s slightly kinder to animals.

So how do we reduce the consumption of meat? I suspect the answer to this is technological: continuing development of delicious plant-based meats that are on par with animal-based meats in terms of taste and cost, in addition to the successful delivery of clean meat to grocery store shelves. The best route to change is to pave a road with as few speed bumps and potholes as possible. We will create alternatives that are as close to identical as conventional, animal-based meat as possible, with the only difference being that one requires slaughter. Perhaps at some point in the future, legislation banning slaughter-based meat would be successful.

Another issue that calls for a different set of tactics is the use of animals in experimentation. I think it’s important that we acknowledge that animal testing has resulted in substantial gains for humanity. By using animals, we’ve cured diseases, developed vaccines, invented new medications. Yes, many, many animals have died in many, many experiments, and it may not have been worth it. But to proclaim that there is no benefit to animal research is to unfairly dismiss its importance. I expect our recognition of the cruelty of much of animal experimentation, along with an acknowledgement that what happens to animals in experiments is not always predictive of what happens to humans, will lead us to phase out animal experimentation. The answer to this, too, is technological, and there is some work in this area already underway.

There are other examples. I believe we will be most successful if we thoroughly examine each instance of the systematic abuse of animals and perform a little calculus to determine the way forward. Much of the abolitionist approach is ideological and tends to shirk any sort of compromise, but if our goal is to save as many animals as possible, we owe it to them.

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