Wielding the Moral Force

Last week, I wrote about what I call the “moral force” of veganism. People really want to think of themselves as good, and veganism is a challenge to that. So much so that us vegans are frequently accused of attempting to force people into going vegan. As I pointed out, no one is actually being forced into veganism; but people’s own conscience can make them feel that way. And that’s a good sign.

But we need to be careful with how we leverage the moral force. We’re dealing with people’s feelings — if we don’t show any empathy, moral discomfort will be confused with disdain for us and what we stand for. On the other hand, if we make an effort to be nice, people may be able to pinpoint the source of their discomfort — not us, but cognitive dissonance. True, there are people who will blame us regardless of whether we’ve done anything to make them feel bad, but we can’t do much about that.

It can be tempting to use the moral force offensively at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has gone straight for the jugular: If you care about animals, why aren’t you vegan?, in response to someone expressing concerns about horse racing. Or, in response to someone reacting in horror to undercover footage of farmers abusing pigs: You know the entire animal agriculture system consists of chronic, routine abuse, right?

But more than likely, this doesn’t work. People don’t want to be wrong, but they often do want to learn. You have to meet them where they’re at. And you do this by minimizing the moral distance between you and them. You don’t want them to hear I’m good and you’re bad, even if that’s not what you’re saying. You want to convey I understand you don’t want to cause unnecessary harm; I’m the same way.

It might not be obvious to us or them in these situations, but we have the upper hand and need to use it wisely. The moral force is like gravity: the closer you are, the stronger its effects. We must craft statements that are appealing to their sensibilities yet provoke them.

The first step is to emphasize your similarities. Establish, in some way, that you have a shared interest in reducing suffering. Often, this comes naturally: I am also concerned about the treatment of horses.

Then, instead of asking why aren’t you vegan? perhaps we should ask if they’ve considered the way other animals are treated, for example on factory farms. More than likely they will say yes, and you can follow up with a question about whether they’ve tried any of the various plant-based meats out there.

That’s the basic structure: identify yourself as friendly, relate to the concern, then introduce a broader issue along with some semblance of a solution. This way, people can make the connection between the issues they care about, their self-concept as a decent person, and veganism. It won’t work every time — it might not even work most of the time — but for people that are open and interested in improving themselves, it should do the trick.

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