Category Archives: advocacy

Creative, Non-Violent Vegan Advocacy (A Beginner’s Guide)

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

This article was originally published January 31, 2012 on Care2.

During the past few years, the call to reduce our consumption of animal products has grown tremendously. There is a great deal of diversity amongst the individuals and organizations behind this appeal, as well as in the reasons and benefits they point to, and most of them are not vegan. However, there is one thing they have in common, and that is that they are all making it easier for people to be vegan for life. Indeed, the movement away from animal use is shaping up to possibly be the most significant social phenomenon of the 21st century.

Vegan recipe blogs, which illustrate innovative techniques for preparing a huge range of delicious, satisfying meals and treats, have proliferated into the hundreds, if not thousands. Both the number and the variety of vegan food items are increasing annually in restaurants and supermarkets.  New vegan businesses are opening every year, and thriving more than ever, including cafes, bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, clothing and apparel stores, online boutiques, and even retreat centers and B&Bs.

Professional dietitians, in increasing numbers, are helping to guide consumers through the sea of books, blogs, articles and DVDs to learn how to achieve vibrant health on naturally wholesome vegan diets, as well as making it easier than ever to avoid the poor nutritional choices that frequently result in the “ex-vegan” phenomenon.

Note: Some may be surprised to find this out, but it is becoming more and more well-known that all nutrients required by the human body can be obtained from non-animal sources, including plenty of protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and fatty acids such as Omega and DHA oils. If there were any nutritional deficiencies in well-planned vegan diets, the mainstream American Dietetic Association, American Medical Association, and similar science-based organizations would be broadcasting them far and wide.

For those of us who are committed to ethical veganism, it is essential to derive all our nutrients from non-animal  sources. Although there are those who claim to have experienced nutritional deficiencies caused by a plant-based diet, it seems ever more likely – in light of the information we now have access to – that these individuals may not have been sufficiently informed about vegan whole foods nutrition and the many options for nutritional supplementation, including the huge range of whole-food supplements that are becoming increasingly accessible for all of us in the developed world.

As the devastating environmental effects of animal agriculture become increasingly apparent, environmentalists are speaking out about the industry’s blatant offenses against the global ecosystem, such as deforestation for grazing, the cultivation of vast feed crop monocultures, extremely high emissions of carbon and other warming gases such as methane, the careless squandering of oil, water and other finite natural resources, and the pollution of our air, water and soil – all while this filthy industry is artificially propped up by tens of billions of dollars in government welfare funding.

With the growing popularity of social media, the educational resources shared by dedicated advocates are making it easier for the previously uninformed to bear witness to institutionalized cruelty that is not only perfectly legal, but so horrific that most of us turn away in distress, unwilling to endure with our eyes what innocent others are forced to endure with their bodies.

And a growing number of abolitionist vegans are explaining and demonstrating the simple fact that unless we shift the paradigm to fully include these sentient beings in our moral community by embracing veganism and rejecting the property status of animals, there will be no end to the socially-acceptable barbarism which allows us to treat beings as innocent as our children as economic commodity units.

The Internet, while still dominated by large corporate interests, has comparatively democratized the ability of grassroots advocates to share information. Blogs, forums, and social media sites have opened up communication lines for rational dialogue among everyday people at a rate of growth unprecedented since the invention of the printing press.

In the past, some individuals may have felt tempted or even obligated to tap into the wide reach of large organizations that soak up the majority of the funding available for animal advocacy by appealing to mainstream values with a message promoting animal welfare or vegetarianism. But now, individuals who are genuinely concerned with fundamental issues of animal rights are able to make their voices heard independently.

Given the burgeoning opportunities, advocates can pick and choose what methods and media suit their talents, personalities, preferences, and geographic locations. If you’re a gregarious extrovert in the city or suburbs who loves to chat with people on the street, you might do well setting up tables at festivals or street stalls with cupcakes or finger foods.

If you’re confident about your ability to prepare amazing food, you might enjoy holding a vegan cooking demonstration in your own home or elsewhere, or hosting vegan dinners or potlucks with a suggestion to guests that they bring a friend who’s interested in learning more about veganism.

Or, if you’re an introvert who would rather cross the street than engage with people you don’t know, blogging, vlogging, and social media advocacy would likely be your preferred venue. (Those of us who live in rural areas also usually find it easier and far more effective to use the opportunities offered by the Web for our advocacy.) Not confident in your writing ability? No problem – perhaps you can team up with another advocate who inspires you, and help them to be more productive by doing research or writing outlines that they can polish up into an engaging article for publication. Maybe you’re better at editing than writing; you might be able to find someone who’s in need of assistance with that. Collaboration (with someone whose approach appeals to you) can be a great way to achieve more and reach out further.

Note: There are some activists who insist that face-to-face outreach is somehow superior to online communication. However (in the absence of comprehensive studies), is there any reason to think offline or online advocacy is more effective than the other? It seems that the strengths of online are the weaknesses of offline, and vice versa, but neither seems to be more effective than the alternative.  Offline, face-to-face advocacy can often be more personable and forthcoming than online due to the subtle nature of nonverbal communication (not to mention the unquestionable power that mouth-watering vegan food has over the skeptical consumer harboring imaginary fears of sensory deprivation as a result of eliminating animal products). But online advocacy – which works around the clock, everyday, for all those who understand the language – can reach many more people, oftentimes by a few orders of magnitude.

More important than the venue or media used in advocacy, however, is the quality of the content. Excellent vegan food, a powerful vegan message, and friendliness and charisma will obviously do much better while tabling at a festival than bland or unappealing food, a message of compromise, and mediocrity, aggression or a judgmental attitude. And good photography, terrific vegan recipes, and well-researched, convincing writing will do better online – all other factors being equal – than content of lesser quality.

Finally, quality entails knowing what not to promote. Encouraging the purchase of animal products purported to be produced under ‘ethical’ conditions (free-range, cage-free, humanely-raised, grass-fed, organic, etc.) serves only to reinforce the common, traditional belief that it is morally acceptable to use other animals as resources for human consumption.

The same can be said for the confused and confusing message generated by the promotion of a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, which ignores the violence inherent in the production of milk and eggs (not to mention the barbarism involved in the manufacture of other animal-based products including clothing and toiletries), as though these equally brutal industries should somehow be exempt from the moral examination undertaken by those who view meat production to be an intolerable form of injustice.

The fact is that none of us needs any animal products in our lives. We exploit animals and consume the products of their bodies because of pleasure, amusement, convenience, and blind tradition – all trivial reasons to rationalize the brutality of unnecessary exploitation.  Sadly, no matter what we say or how well we say it, the fact is that most people won’t go vegan simply upon hearing our message. However, as vegan advocates, veganism is the message we should exclusively and unequivocally promote.  Anything less – promoting vegetarianism, or the consumption of ‘humane’ animal products – betrays the fundamental truth that brings us to veganism in the first place: the understanding that we must bring an end to all exploitation if we are to move beyond the pandemic of violence that underlies our current cultural paradigm.

It is not unusual for animal advocates to be deeply troubled and frustrated by the state of our society and its hardened attitude toward animals who are not human. But social change, while often slow, is also unpredictable, subject to tipping points, paradigm shifts, and peaceful revolutions in attitudes and behavior. As someone who advocates unequivocally for widespread veganism, don’t forget that you are among the gentle, strong, and independent-minded pioneers of a growing, positive, and peaceful movement to protect our environment, improve public health, and most important, to eventually end the social acceptability of violence and injustice inflicted on the innocent.

With a little effort, courage, creativity, and the willingness to share what we’ve learned with patience, persistence, and understanding, we can all help others to understand the significance of this essential change we are trying to bring to fruition.


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On Advocacy Media Preferences

Absent any comprehensive studies on what media are most effective for persuading people to go and stay vegan, we are left with searching for reasons why one medium of advocacy might be more effective than another. Further, any reasons we do come up with for preferring one medium over another would likely be speculative (i.e. empirically untested) and depend more on personal preferences and learning styles than any obvious or universal advantage.

Of books, magazine articles, scholarly journals, blogs, forums, emails, street stalls, leaflets, event tables, speeches, presentations, casual discussion, and whatever other forms of communication might be effective, it seems to me that what is communicated and how it is communicated is far more important than where or through what media a message is communicated.

We have reason to believe that, all other factors equal, books — to the extent that they are read — are the most effective media simply because of the time it takes to read a book compared to other media. Other than time spent, however, there is no reason to believe that, word for word, books would be any more effective than any other mode of written communication.

It is likely true that our individual learning styles vary in many ways. For example, Alice might respond best to a well-reasoned argument supported by verified facts, while Bob might respond best to a video and a plea for empathy. Alice might be interested in reading a 250 page book written for academics, while Bob might not get past page 2 of such a book. Alice may cross the street to avoid the vegan education table at the summer festival, while Bob may be drawn to a long chit chat session at the vegan education table.

The reason I’m writing about advocacy media is that I’ve seen many opinions, seemingly unsupported with facts or reason, that we “need to get out in the streets” or engage in some specific mode of communication, rather than another mode, if we are to move things along. This seems misguided.

We very much need to 1) get our message right, 2) deliver our message in a palatable manner, and 3) target the appropriate audience (i.e. non-vegans), but it really doesn’t matter whether we choose popular non-vegan forums on the Internet or the library or the table at the summer festival to communicate our message. Chances are excellent that vegans are a proportionate cross-section of those non-vegans we wish to educate. As individuals, if we focus on the media in which we are most comfortable communicating, and the media to which we would personally be most receptive, chances are that, collectively, we will have all bases covered regarding the non-vegan public in proper proportion to their preferred media.

In other words, focus on the modes of communication in which you prefer to communicate, and to which you would be most receptive, and let others focus on the modes they prefer and to which they are receptive. If you like spending time educating on Internet forums, then educate on Internet forums! If you like to chat with random people in the city or at the festival, do that! Both? Fine. Just don’t make unsupported statements that either one or another is ineffective or that your preferred mode of communication ought to be the preferred mode for everyone.

Most important is that we should get the message right. Very briefly, 99.999…% of nonhuman animal exploitation and harm is unnecessary. Unnecessary nonhuman animal exploitation and harm is wrong. Therefore, 99.999…% of nonhuman animal exploitation and harm is wrong. Therefore, avoid it by going vegan and encouraging others to go vegan. Being vegan is far from the most we can do; it is the least we can do.

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Basic Economics and Four Types of Advocacy

Supply-side Versus Demand-side Advocacy

We live in a market economy made up of two major factors – supply and demand. These two factors determine what is bought and sold and for how much. Qualitatively, demand represents the wants and needs of buyers in an economy. Supply represents the efforts of firms to profit from existing demand. The stronger the demand for a given product, the more potential profit and resulting competition among suppliers there will be in attempting to satisfy demand for the product. If there is no demand for a given product, there will be no supply for the product because firms will not be able to profit.

The most important conclusion to draw from the simple qualitative economic facts above is that demand drives supply. Marketing firms may help a product realize its potential demand, but they cannot create demand. [1]

Since demand drives supply, if we focus on changing demand, we can change supply. But the reverse is not true: we cannot change demand by focusing on supply.

For example, Hellmann’s® Mayonnaise recently announced that it has switched to “cage-free eggs” in its Light Mayonnaise. In a discussion with advocates about this switch, I suggested that if large animal welfare organizations insisted on engaging in single-issue campaigns (because such campaigns are good fundraisers), then instead of “cage-free egg” campaigns, they would at least be engaging in legitimate animal advocacy to campaign for vegan alternatives in restaurants and brand-name products.

However, the problem with such vegan-oriented single issue campaigns is that they are supply-side advocacy. To use the example above, let’s assume that Hellmann’s® developed a vegan mayonnaise to compete with Vegenaise® and Nayonaise®. Only if there is sufficient demand will it be sufficiently profitable for Hellmann’s® to keep the product on the market and develop it further. If there is not sufficient demand, the vegan product will not be sufficiently profitable and Hellmann’s® will discontinue the vegan product. The marketing and chief executives and stockholders don’t care what sells (e.g. vegan products or animal products), they only care that a product or service sells, i.e. that there is a demand for the product.

So what does this imply for animal advocacy? It obviously implies that we must focus virtually 100% of our time and energy on increasing demand for vegan alternatives to replace animal products. The only way to do that is through vegan education; that is, informing people why they ought to go vegan and how to go vegan. As we create more demand for vegan products through vegan education, suppliers will respond by catering to the new demand.

There can never be enough vegan education. New vegan products can be taken off the shelf for a lack of demand; but people, once genuinely convinced that animals are persons to be fully included in the moral community, and once educated on how to be a vegan, will stay vegan for a lifetime and influence others, thereby increasing demand.

Welfare Activities Versus Vegan Advocacy

It is illegitimate to call welfare reform activities animal “advocacy” because such a paradigm and the resulting activities encourage people to continue consuming animal products. The welfare paradigm and activities are not merely neutral and unproductive; they are harmful and counterproductive. On the surface, welfare activities appear to reduce violence and suffering in their temporary focus on the symptoms of speciesism. But below the surface, welfarist thinking is the very problem of exploitation itself. All animal exploiters, virtually without exception, “take animal welfare very seriously.” This is because the philosophy of animal welfare accepts, as a most basic and dogmatic premise, that nonhuman animals are here for us to exploit.

Welfare activity, because of its inherent ineffectiveness and support of animal exploitation and killing, as both a theoretical and practical matter, is the active promotion of violence.

Vegan advocacy inherently rejects all animal exploitation and the promotion of violence. Such rejection is the essence of vegan advocacy, and is the only advocacy for nonhuman animals.

Four Types of Activities

Below are four types of activities distinguished by whether they address supply or demand, and whether they are vegan or welfare activities.

Type 4 activities are supply-side welfareactivities. They generate most of the revenues for the large corporate animal welfare groups like PETA and HSUS, which is one reason they are so common and popular from the standpoint of the welfare groups. They are counterproductive because they indirectly encourage animal product consumption. They also drain resources from demand-side vegan activities.

Examples of Type 4 activities are welfare single-issue campaigns, welfare law campaigns (e.g. Prop 2 in California), welfare reform campaigns, controlled atmosphere killing and cage-free campaigns, gestation crate campaigns, and foie gras prohibition campaigns.

Type 3 activities are demand-side welfare activities. They are counterproductive because they directly encourage animal product consumption, increase demand for animal products, decrease demand for vegan products, and drain resources from demand-side vegan activities.

Examples of Type 3 activities are encouraging or condoning “happy meat” and “cage-free egg” consumption. A typical Type 3 statement is, “If you’re going to insist on eating that anyway, at least buy free-range.” If we would not say, “If you’re going to kill or rape anyway, at least don’t beat the victim as many times as you normally do”, then we should not say similar things about animal product consumption. Silence is far better than Type 3 statements.

Type 2 activities are supply-side vegan activities. With the exception of owning a vegan business, these activities do little or nothing to decrease demand for animal products or increase demand for vegan products. Owning a vegan business is an excellent advocacy activity. All other supply-side vegan activities, while not necessarily counterproductive, drain resources away from demand-side vegan activities, and in many cases (such as anti-fur campaigns), are counterproductive as they encourage speciesism by their narrow focus.

Examples of Type 2 activities are requesting vegan products from grocers and restaurants (as an advocacy tool; not because you simply want a certain vegan product available); vegan product campaign (e.g. campaigning for Hellmann’s® to develop and market a vegan mayonnaise); owning and operating a vegan restaurant (again, a great form of advocacy, largely because it incorporates Type 1 activities); vegan product development; elimination single-issue campaigns (speciesist and utterly useless unless we’ve eliminated demand).

Type 1 activities are demand-side vegan activities. They decrease demand for animal products while simultaneously increasing demand for vegan products. Because of their focus on demand and vegan education, demand-side vegan activities are the only activities capable of eventually abolishing animal exploitation.

Examples of Type 1 activities are vegan education (explaining why and how to go vegan through various media and opportunities); abolitionist education (explaining the legal and many other similarities between human chattel slavery and modern nonhuman slavery); vegan food blogs and cooking classes; educating fellow advocates and others about the problems with welfarism and single-issue campaigns.

Important: Unless we are operating a vegan business (which is mostly a supply-side activity), we should spend between 97% and 100% of our animal advocacy time doing Type 1, demand-side vegan activities and the remaining time, if any, doing Type 2 supply-side vegan activities. We should always stay entirely away from harmful Type 3 and 4 welfare activities.

Welfare activities are popular because they accept our society’s violent and speciesist belief that nonhuman animals are here for us to exploit and kill, but they are counterproductive because by such acceptance, they also promote and strengthen the violent and speciesist notion that animals are here for us to exploit and kill. Welfare activities are part of a vicious circle.


[1] Marketing firms are in the business of realizing the potential demand for products, but the realization they are able to generate consists in making consumers aware of a given product or service along with various psychological methods of stimulating potential consumers’ interest in the product. Marketing a product can only fulfill a product’s potential demand; it cannot create demand. We can market a highly undesirable product or service all we want, but if the product has no inherent demand, the product will not sell.

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Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit: What Is Wrong with Single Issue Campaigns?


A single issue campaign (herein referred to as “SIC” or “campaign”) can be of two different types: welfare-oriented campaigns and elimination-oriented campaigns. SICs can also be short-term or take up an organization’s entire mission and lifetime. The primary difference between the two types is that welfare-oriented SICs focus on merely reforming an exploitive industry, while elimination-oriented SICs focus on entirely eliminating an exploitive industry. Since some industries are mere subsidiaries of a larger industry (e.g. the foie gras industry is a subsidiary of the animal agriculture industry), some SICs may be an elimination-oriented SIC to a subsidiary industry, while being a sort of welfare-oriented SIC in relation to the principal industry.Welfare-oriented Single Issue Campaigns

Welfare SICs are at the core of the business and revenue cycle of almost all large, corporate animal welfare groups. Large animal welfare groups such as PETA anticipate and select what they consider a winnable target – usually in some area that industry is ready to make the targeted change in for profitability reasons anyway – and generate a donor and public relations campaign to “encourage” industry to make the change a few months or a few years earlier than industry would have without the welfare group’s prodding.Of course, when selling the SIC to donors, the welfare groups dramatize the industry’s resistance to the proposed change to justify an immediate call-to-arms in the form of “send us your money NOW or we’ll lose this campaign!!” What the welfare groups either downplay or don’t mention to the donors is the negotiations with the targeted animal exploiter, which generally include emphasizing to the targeted exploiter how the campaign can be a “win-win” for both the welfare group and the exploiter if the exploiter will eventually allow the welfare group a “victory”. So the stage is set, the volunteers (who are generally also in the dark about the overall money-making and industry-welfare partnership scheme) are mobilized, and the money comes flowing into the corporate welfare organization and into the pockets of its executives in the form of handsome salaries and bonuses.After weeks or months of campaigning by the welfare group, mostly done by the lower-paid staffers and a small battalion of volunteers, the targeted exploiting company: 1) has shown adequate “resistance”, 2) has cost the welfare group’s donors quite a bit of money and cost the volunteers quite a bit of time and energy, and 3) calculates that it would be an optimally profitable time to “give in to the pressure” and agree to the demands of the welfare group for the “win-win” on which the industry-welfarist partnership thrives. The welfare group (e.g. PETA) has received its windfall of donations, gets to declare “VICTORY!!!” to its donors and the public as loud as it can, and obtains future status among donors as the “reliable watchdog” of industry. The targeted exploiter gets free advertising and promotion by the welfare organization in an “all’s well that ends well” love affair of public support. Meanwhile, any cost to the exploiter of the targeted change is more than offset by the subsequent public goodwill generated by the welfare group and the fact that the targeted change is almost always a long-term strategic benefit to the exploiter which would have to be incurred regardless of any campaigns to hurry it up.Elimination-oriented Single Issue Campaigns

As described above, elimination-oriented SICs differ from welfare-oriented SICs primarily in that they target an industry rather than a practice within an industry. Generally, the targeted industry is a subsidiary of a larger principal industry. For example, dog racing, horse racing, dog fighting, and cock fighting are subsidiaries of the principal animal entertainment industry. The foie gras industry is a subsidiary of the principal animal agriculture industry. The seal clubbing industry is a subsidiary of both the hunting and fishing and animal agriculture industry.

Many of the same large corporate welfare groups that specialize in welfare-oriented SICs also engage in elimination-oriented SICs. While elimination-oriented SICs can be very profitable for most of the groups that engage in them, they are usually not as profitable as the welfare-oriented campaigns mostly because the “win-win” opportunity with the target industry is diminished or lost entirely. In elimination campaigns – with a large exception to be explained in the next paragraph – there is no negotiation with the targeted exploiter. Still, entire organizations are financially fuelled by elimination-oriented SICs and such campaigns can be very lucrative without significantly changing society’s moral attitude toward animals, if at all. Fur comes and goes out of fashion, seal clubbing becomes more or less common, but overall moral attitudes toward animals change very little. In fact, when these subsidiary industries make a “rebound”, they often do so with tremendous success, as the fur, veal, and seal clubbing industry have in the first decade of the 21st century.

The large exception referred to in the last paragraph is the pseudo-elimination campaign that is sold to the public as an “elimination campaign,” but in reality it is proposed legislation negotiated with the target exploiter and the exploiter’s lobbyists and politicians to “ban” a certain practice with a grace period of several years that will allow the exploiter to continue the abuse in question and come up with alternative practices (i.e. welfare reform) to keep the industry alive beyond the sunset date. The classic example of this is the California “ban” on foie gras production starting in 2012 (if it’s not overturned by then by new methods of producing foie gras). See Part II. B. 3. in this Duke Law School link for more information on the so-called “ban” in California.

The Problems with Single Issue Campaigns

While it is understandable, from a business or economic growth standpoint, why welfare groups engage in SICs (SICs are very effective fundraising tools as explained above), there are some problems with SICs that are fatal from the standpoint of bringing about any meaningful, lasting change in society’s moral attitudes toward nonhuman beings.

Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit

As a practical matter, one of the biggest problems with SICs is that they focus most of the animal movement’s money, time, and energy on the periphery (the “fruit”) of the animal abuse and exploitation tree while ignoring the tree’s root, trunk, and lifeblood of exploitation. The specific parts of the periphery focused on are usually what are perceived to be (but aren’t necessarily) the most egregious abuses.

New welfarists (i.e. those who support SICs and welfare reform as a way to abolish animal cruelty) ironically call these perceived egregious abuses the “low-hanging fruit” because the public generally agrees with the welfare groups on these particular issues. I say the phrase “low-hanging fruit” is ironic because it also helps explain why SICs (i.e. picking the low-hanging fruit) are so ineffective at changing society. First, the sole reason that the fruit is “low-hanging” is precisely because most of society already agrees that it’s fine to eliminate these practices. “Low-hanging” is a synonym for “go with the flow” or “accept the status quo.” Second, what is the nature of “fruit”? It is sweet and it grows back on the animal exploitation tree. Picking the low-hanging fruit (i.e. sponsoring SICs) is sweet because it endears the general public to the welfare organizations, fills the organizations’ coffers, and allows the organization to yell “victory” on a regular basis. And as these problems/”victories” are metaphorical fruit, the problems grow back after a few years, providing an endless supply of fruit in the future while not harming the tree of exploitation and cruelty at all.

So, the millions of dollars that get poured into the animal movement go to picking easy, financially lucrative “fruit” off of the animal exploitation tree instead of working to chop the tree down. Later in this essay, I will talk about chopping the tree down, but right now, I’d like to discuss two more problems with SICs and “supply-side activism”.

Global Free-Trade

We live in a world where globalization in free trade is here and on the increase. Given the economic benefits of global free trade, it is highly unlike that this trend will slow or reverse. The implications of such free international commerce is that if we make an industry practice illegal in one city, state, or nation, the animal exploiters will merely set up shop in a less restrictive state or nation and export the goods to where the demand is located. Since demand has more influence over supply than supply has over demand (e.g. the customer is always right), it has never really been cost effective to focus on restricting suppliers in the first place, except perhaps to sue them for false advertising. In a global economy, where a supplier can easily set up in a less restrictive state or nation, it has become downright absurd to focus societal change on suppliers.

But as absurd as it is to focus on suppliers in a global economy, that is exactly what SICs, especially welfare-oriented SICs and SICs focusing on exportable commodities, do. If we eliminate horse slaughter in the United States, exploiters will simply ship the horses to Mexico and slaughter them there. If we eliminate battery cages in the United States or Austria, suppliers will simply move battery cages to Mexico or another, more lenient European country, respectively, and ship the eggs back to the more restrictive countries.

So, SICs focusing on reforming or eliminating the production of exportable commodities (e.g. SICs on battery cages, gestation crates, and controlled atmosphere killing) without changing the demand for those commodities may enrich welfare organizations because donors have been duped into giving money for such campaigns, but these SICs are doomed to failure in changing society’s attitudes and behavior if demand is not addressed. We need to focus the animal movement’s resources on changing demand.

SICs Cultivate Speciesism

The third problem with SICs is that, if they don’t also call for an end to ALL animal exploitation and abuse, they cultivate speciesism. SICs do this by implying, via the silence regarding other forms of exploitation, that forms of exploitation other than the one on which the SIC is focused are either not as important or unimportant. SICs can avoid this problem by putting it front and center that ALL animal exploitation is wrong and ought to be abolished, but they almost never even mention other forms, much less make them front and center of the campaign.

So, to the extent we focus on the evils of purchasing fur, but ignore the evils of purchasing leather or buying eggs, we imply that only fur is the problem. When we focus on veal, as the movement did in the 1980s and 1990s, we imply that consuming dairy products is okay, even though the veal industry is little more than a by-product of the dairy industry.

SIC promoters may object that mentioning all other forms of exploitation or even related forms (e.g. the veal dairy connection) may result in public resistance to the campaign. The implication here is that the welfare group won’t get the donations and the public endearment. Well, as long as we insist on pacifying the public instead of educating the public, we will get nowhere. We don’t want to offend the public, because we cannot educate people if they are angry with us, but we must find creative and intelligent ways of getting our message across rather than telling people what they already know and agree with.

The Solution: Attack the Root; Chop Down the Tree

The root, trunk, and at least 97% (in numbers killed) of all animal exploitation is in animal agriculture and is directly caused by the fact that so few people are vegans. The remaining 3% of animal exploitation is in experimentation, hunting, rodeos, zoos, circuses, and fur; the elimination of which is equally rooted in widespread veganism. So, what does the “animal protection movement” do? The opposite of what makes sense. Instead of focusing 97% of its efforts on vegan education, which would address 100% of exploitation, the “animal protection movement” focuses 97% of its efforts, via SICs, on welfare reform and trying to reduce or eliminate the 3% periphery. The remaining 3% of the “animal protection movement’s” efforts (in time and money) are given to lip service about going vegan.

We need to turn this around if animals are to stop existing in a perpetual, indefinite hell. We need to focus at least 97% (preferably 100%) of our efforts on vegan education. Being a vegan is not difficult. The food is delicious and optimally nutritious; and we certainly don’t need leather or wool for clothing; nor do we need zoos, or circuses, animal experimentation, or any other uses of animals.

More importantly than how easy it is to go vegan, however, the animals we slaughter for our gustatory, clothing, entertainment, and other preferences are just like us. They experience the same pleasures, pains, and desires for comfort and security that we do. The only known difference is that they don’t use spoken or written language or symbols in thought and communication (which is NOT to say they don’t effectively communicate in non-verbal ways) and this difference of spoken or written communication is completely irrelevant to the moral question of our use of them.

Given our experiential similarities and kinship with animals, what we do to them and the scale on which we do it (53 billion annually, worldwide) is an atrocity worse than any atrocity humans have ever engaged in the history of our species. We need to wake up out of this moral coma as individuals and as a society.

The essence of waking up out of our moral coma is going vegan and engaging in vegan education. Vegan education entails everything from large-scale programs sponsored and paid for by our largest groups to talking to the people in our lives as individuals. We need to put an end to the moral relativism and timidity on every level of our advocacy without being offensive or annoying in doing so. We need to promote veganism without the kind of embarrassing publicity stunts for which PETA is well-known. When the topic of vegan living comes up, we must be honest and unequivocal in our contributions to the topic, which is to say that we view slaughtering innocent animals as morally wrong as slaughtering innocent humans. If people are offended by the comparison of humans and animals, it is because they are the victims of acculturation in a grossly speciesist society and accept anthropocentrism as unquestioned dogma. We need to challenge the dogma. We need to have people carefully question and think about how sentient nonhuman beings are similar to human beings, what the differences are, and which is morally relevant, the similarities or differences. If we take an impartial, unbiased view, it is blatantly obvious that the similarities are morally relevant and the differences are utterly irrelevant.

For more information on vegan education, this blog essay is a good starting point.

Note: This essay was edited on December 21, 2011 to clarify in the last section that the term “vegan” meant the elimination of all animal products from one’s life as much as is practically possible, including the elimination of animal products in clothing, entertainment, personal care products, and other possible uses of animal products.

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Just Being Vegan

Three of the last several essays on this blog have been about vegan education. Based on what I’ve written in those essays, one might get the impression that I believe that everyone who goes vegan ought, as a moral imperative, to engage in a significant personal effort to educate others about why and how to go vegan; but that is not the case, and the purpose of this essay is to elaborate on and/or clarify what I see as a behavioral moral baseline – that is, being vegan – as contrasted with behavior that is highly desirable and strongly encouraged, but not morally imperative – that is, being active in vegan advocacy beyond merely being vegan.

When discussing animal rights, people sometimes object that there are too many problems in the world involving humans, and that once we get our global or national house in order regarding humans, then we can worry about nonhumans. Ignoring the embedded speciesism and “othering” in this line of thought, even if one prefers assisting humans prior to assisting nonhumans (which, just like the reverse, is fine), there is no reason for contributing to the intentional harm and exploitation inflicted on nonhuman beings. In other words, other than changing habits, merely being vegan requires no significant time or effort that would take away from one’s time or energy available to help humans. Being vegan does not entail becoming an animal rights activist any more than avoiding cannibalism entails becoming a human rights activist or avoiding a career as a pimp entails becoming an outspoken feminist. One simply refuses to engage in exploiting nonhumans (or humans or women) and goes on with life as usual.

Another problem with the objection that we need to “take care of humans before we go vegan” is that so many human problems are directly rooted in our consumption of animal products and the deplorable animal agriculture industry that supplies this consumption. One of those human problems is world hunger. A large portion of total demand for grains is made up of the animal agriculture industry’s demand for animal feed. Animals always consume significantly more calories, nutrition, and protein in plant-based food than they provide in animal products (meat, eggs, and dairy). This artificially high demand makes the price of those grains – which could instead be allocated to feed starving human populations – rise to a significantly higher level. In addition, more large populations of humans in places like China that used to be almost vegan are being introduced to larger quantities of animal products, artificially increasing demand and price for grains even more. Sadly, perhaps even potentially catastrophically, the world demand for animal products is expected to double over the next couple of decades, putting enormous upward pressure on the price and supply of grains, and causing even more human starvation for the have-nots. Another human problem solved by veganism is the animal waste and digestive gas, particularly from pigs and cattle, released into our air and water which has a devastating effect on our environment by polluting our water and air and contributing to global warming. A third human problem that is significantly reduced by veganism is the health problems brought on by moderate to heavy milk, cheese, egg, and meat consumption, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity. So do we really want to help humans, ourselves included? If so, then we should go vegan.

Once we go vegan, we are no longer directly contributing to various human problems and the problem of animal exploitation, and as long as we are “just vegan” and don’t do anything to promote so-called “humane” animal products, we are blameless for what goes on regarding our society’s exploitation of nonhuman beings. As vegans, we have met a minimum standard of moral behavior with respect to nonhumans. At this point, as vegans, if we believe that there are other areas we would prefer to spend our time on other than animal advocacy, such as working at the homeless shelter, then that’s fine. Active animal advocacy, while highly desirable, is no more a moral duty than getting involved in any other cause or movement. There is nothing wrong with spending our volunteer time engaging in what interests us most (e.g. the human rights cause), but we should not contribute to a major problem like animal exploitation and all of its extremely negative external costs to humans and nonhumans and use the failed excuse that “there are more important things to do” than going vegan (or refraining from violence in general).

A Caveat

So, being vegan, by itself, achieves the moral baseline of avoiding the exploitation of others, and vegan or abolitionist advocacy beyond merely being vegan is very desirable and strongly encouraged, but it is ultimately supererogatory. There are, however, as I discussed in the three recent essays on vegan education, certain activities and types of supposed “animal advocacy” that are counterproductive and that vegans ought to steer clear of: namely, getting involved in efforts to regulate animal exploitation and promoting supposedly more “humane” eggs and dairy.

As vegans, we ought to either promote vegan living (including, for example, vegan food-only blogs and promotion) or decline to get involved in advocacy. Joining with those who promote exploitation, even if described and marketed as “humane”, is inconsistent with our behavior and beliefs as vegans, and in the long run promotes and reinforces animal exploitation instead of eroding it. Also, while it is true that, as vegans, we would like to see less suffering of those exploited than more suffering, there are two additional interrelated reasons why we ought to refrain. One reason is that we have limited time, money, and energy for advocacy, which makes our decision in what to invest them a zero-sum game. Every quantity of time, money, and energy spent on promoting so-called “humane” animal products is necessarily diverted from vegan education. The other reason is that abolitionist vegans are outnumbered by consumers and advocates of “happy eggs” and “happy milk” by several orders of magnitude. The movement for “happy” animal products, which is ultimately a boon for the industry and its long-term profitability, is going very strong and only shows signs of growing stronger at this time. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that welfare reform efforts lead people to go vegan. People may become interested in reform efforts and then eventually go vegan, but what gets people to go vegan is vegan education: people go vegan when it is understood why we are not morally justified in killing animals for food and other trivial purposes and when it is understood how delicious and nutritious vegan food is.

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Vegangelical: A Strong Voice for the Sentient and Innocent

I’ve seen a new word floating around cyberspace. The word is “vegangelical.” I believe it is meant to be a derogatory term for us so-called “holier-than-thou” or “extreme” vegans who “impose our beliefs”on supposedly innocuous and “moderate and reasonable” consumers of animal products. This essay is dedicated to looking a little closer at some of these derogatory terms and descriptions of vegans who dare to speak on behalf of the innocent. Specifically, we’ll compare…I mean contrast, “extremism” in avoiding animal products versus extremism in using and consuming animal products.Extremism In Violence

Let’s first take a glance at that pervasive Orwellian concept that veganism is “extreme” while the “Standard American Diet” (referred to herein as “SAD”) including meat, dairy, and eggs is “moderate and reasonable.” The only way veganism can be considered “extreme” is by contrasting it with its opposite; namely, the societal norm of slaughtering 10 billion innocent animals annually. As I wrote about a couple of months ago, the average American causes the intentional slaughter of about 33.3 fully-sentient nonhuman beings annually. By contrast, there are absolutely no intentional deaths in a vegan diet, and any inadvertent deaths in crop production in vegan human populations are far less per capita than the number of inadvertent deaths per capita in any non-vegan human population. Intentionally terminating an innocent life – human or nonhuman – for completely unnecessary food preferences is extreme.Extremism In Poor Health

The obesity and heart disease rate in this country is anything but “moderate and reasonable”, and it is a direct result of our obsession with meat, dairy, and eggs. We are literally taking several years, and in some cases, a few decades, off of our life-expectancy because we clog our arteries with the blood-sludge of the animal fat and cholesterol inherent in the SAD. Not to absolve consumers, because we consumers are ultimately responsible for our choices, but the SAD and the big animal agribusiness interests that promote it in a bombardment of daily advertising, are having an extreme field day sending Americans to their graves much earlier than they would normally arrive there; not to mention the health care and pharmaceutical costs of attempting to prevent or reduce further damage from the SAD.

Extremism In Unnecessary Environmental Filth

Unimaginable amounts of raw sewage from pig farms, feed lots, and massive chicken sheds is polluting our air, ground water, and rivers and killing fish by the millions. As noted in the December 14, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone magazine in an article entitled “Boss Hog”, our large pig farms spray huge quantities of liquid shit from gigantic manure pits (which often overflow in storms into surrounding [formerly fresh] water) up into the local air, causing people unfortunate enough to live anywhere near the “farms” to breathe in the toxins and develop severe respiratory illnesses (and possibly lung cancer and related problems). As stated in the Rolling Stone article: “The smell of hog waste is unduly invasive: It’s as if something has physically entered your stomach. The stench causes pilots to gag at 3,000 feet.” Even the methane and nitrous oxide produced by cows and pigs from our feed lots and pig sheds is causing a warming effect on the atmosphere at a rate that is comparable, and sometimes exceeds, the warming effect of what millions of cars and trucks belch into the air in our country. [1] On top of all of this, and due to the political power these corporations wield by lobbying and buying politicians, Congress is planning to exempt these polluters from even reporting, much less doing anything about, what they emit into the environment. Further, we are now environmentally concerned about the industrialization of China and India – including their newfound fondness of the SAD, which is expected to at least double the environmental problems we have now over the coming decades – while we do nothing to set an example. What kind of world are our children and grandchildren going to live in during the next 50 years, the next 100 years? Will they even survive it and the global power struggles that will come with it?

What’s Extreme?

So what’s extreme? Veganism certainly isn’t “extreme,” unless we consider a peaceful, healthy, and environmentally responsible way of life extreme. If anything is extreme, it is intentionally slaughtering 10 billion animals annually in the U.S. (or 33.3 nonhuman beings per non-vegan person annually), killing ourselves from heart disease and obesity on the SAD, and ruining our environment (so severely that we’re literally making people sick, and not just making them gag), when it is completely unnecessary and so destructive.

Holier-Than-Thou Vegans

Let’s now turn to the “holier-than-thou” criticism; and the related charge that vegans are vegans because “it’s a sweet way of feeling superior to others”. The only way I could see this criticism holding weight in a criticism of someone’s attitude is when the difference in another’s behavior that they are disapproving of is trivial or insignificant when compared to their own behavior, and the moral judgment and disapproving attitude of that trivial difference in behavior is clearly an overreaction. But how can we, with any decent conscience whatsoever, consider the killing of so many innocent beings, the destruction of our health, and the environmental consequences “trivial” or “insignificant”? It is monstrous to dismiss such violence and destruction as trivial or insignificant.

Criticizing vegans who are outspoken about the atrocities of our day and the easy vegan solution to it as “holier-than-thou” or “feeling superior” is unwise at best, given all of the benefits of living in a vegan society. To go a step further and suggest that vegans should shut up and mind our own business – given the consequences of the SAD on us, nonhumans, and the environment – is foolish; and it is foolish because it is either embarrassingly ignorant of the facts, or so numb and apathetic to the plight of others as to be parasitic, but worse than most parasites, because most parasites must be parasitic to survive, whereas we don’t have such a need to be parasitic. We have a choice. We can go vegan.

Talk Is Cheap

Anyone can say they “care about animals” and talk about avoiding “unnecessary” suffering. But vegans walk the talk, and if some of us do happen to feel “superior to others” or “holier-than-thou” in this regard, we’ve earned every right to feel that way. The only thing that really is nothing more than “a sweet way of feeling superior to others” is using this line to cheaply pump one’s ego and feel a false sense of “morally superiority” by expressing the old self-contradictory “absolute” rule in moral relativity: Thou shall not judge (and in expressing that rule, even implicitly, one automatically contradicts oneself by committing a judgment and violating the rule).

Our Badge of Honor

Vegans should wear the term “vegangelical” as a badge of honor. After all, what crime did nonhumans commit to deserve their sentence to a life in “cage-free”, “certified humane” and organic concentration camps and a brutal slaughter to end it all? Their crime was evidently to be born completely innocent in the wrong place at the wrong time, or to be born of the wrong species/parents.

As “vegangelicals”, we are the ones promoting decent, civilized behavior toward nonhuman beings and a healthy human diet, promoting life and longevity. We are the ones helping to protect the environment by our food and clothing choices. We are the ones giving the otherwise speechless innocent the strongest voice they have. This is nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of, but rather something strong and immensely respectable to embrace and bring into the open – a respect for all life.


[1] This sentence was modified on March 12, 2008 to reflect a more technically accurate statement. The essential point of the sentence as it was originally written remains unchanged.

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Determinism in Human Behavior and Its Implications for Advocacy

Part One

I am beginning this essay assuming the truth of determinism in human behavior, with a defense of determinism presented afterward in Part Two. My intention in this order of presentation is to immediately get to the primary point of the essay (in Part One) and leave the supporting argument for determinism at the end (in Part Two) for those who are interested in such elaboration or who have any doubts about the fact that human behavior is as determined as any phenomenon in the universe. If you find yourself frustrated at the undefended assumption of determinism in Part One, then you may want to read Part Two before reading Part One (which is the order that I originally wrote the essay in).

To start, I will define what I mean by determinism. Determinism in human behavior means that human behavior is caused by a person’s character, desires, and mental impulses, but that a person’s character, desires, and mental impulses are ultimately caused by events outside of that person’s control, such as genetic inheritance, neurobiological interactions, and environment, including the upbringing of the person, the educational opportunities, the culture and society, what happened in the past, from the past year or month to the past few minutes or seconds. This definition admits a “will” or a desire-that-produces-action, but it admits no “free will” or free desire. I will use the words determinism and causality interchangeably to mean approximately the same thing, with determinism referring to the more general state of the world and causality referring to more specific causal relationships.

What does such determinism imply for moral agency and responsibility? May we go out and do whatever we want and claim that we are not responsible for it?

Well, we already do go out and do whatever we want, so nothing has changed in that regard, given the above-stated definition of determinism. If we don’t go out on a killing rampage, it is because we’re not the kind of person who really wants to go out on a killing rampage, but if we were that kind of person (a fact about us that is ultimately out of our control), we would go out on a killing rampage and rationalize to ourselves that it was the appropriate thing to do. Nobody, whether the person is a torturer and mass-murderer or a non-vegan, does anything that they don’t rationalize as morally or otherwise acceptable. The sociopath, even if he realizes that society disapproves of his actions, believes that there are better reasons, morally or otherwise, for acting in his anti-social ways than for not acting in those ways.

What determinism implies for moral agency and responsibility is that we possess agency and responsibility within the range and to the degree that we are the type of person we are. If we are born the type of person who is easily influenced by society, not curious about the world, and lacks opportunity for expanding our horizons, we will be typical products of that society and our agency and responsibility will be restricted to that society’s norms. If we are born of a bad temperament and that temperament is amplified by a very hostile and violent environment, we will likely become violent sociopaths. If we are born with a kind temperament, more independent tendencies of mind, are not very easily influenced by our society, curious about the world, and have ample opportunity for exposure to philosophy, other eras, and other societies, we will likely be influenced by these differences and likely become a moral exemplar in our society. In short, we have subjective agency and responsibility within the psychological range of our given genetic and environmental background.

But isn’t it a contradiction of determinism to say that we have any agency and responsibility? Ultimately speaking, it is a contradiction, and we lack objective, ultimate agency and responsibility. But within the narrow range of our character, we do have responsibility that is essentially equivalent to our subjective sense of responsibility. Our sense of responsibility is the genuine feeling that we are free to do whatever we choose; that there are no external restrictions on our behavior. Our sense of responsibility is that subjective “freedom of action” that we feel when nothing external is stopping us from acting. We rationally deliberate on a course of action and choose plan B instead of plan A. That we were ultimately determined to pick plan B doesn’t matter in this limited, subjective sense of responsibility. We knowingly and willingly (but also determinedly) picked B instead of A, and we are, in that limited sense, subjectively responsible for the consequences of our choice. If we did not even have this limited subjective sense of responsibility, then words like “careful”, “prudent”, “foolish” and “reckless” would be meaningless. We can relate to the meaning of such words because of our subjective sense of responsibility, even though our actions are ultimately determined by our character and corresponding desires and impulses, which are ultimately determined by factors outside of our control.

Human Versus Nonhuman Agency and Responsibility

The only difference between the agency and responsibility of normal adult human beings versus conscious, sentient nonhuman beings is the possession by normal adult humans of abstract knowledge and intelligence, which is interrelated with and interdependent on language use. I use the phrase abstract intelligence because conscious, sentient nonhumans are highly intelligent in their non-abstract present moment experience, but they don’t think abstractly (e.g. mathematically, linguistically, far in the past, or far in the future). Nonhumans could not survive, especially in the wild, if it were not for their non-abstract intelligence. Some might call this non-abstract intelligence “instinct”, and instinct exists in us all, but to say there is no more to nonhumans than instinct is a serious failure to realize how non-abstractly intelligent nonhumans are. [1]

Because we (as normal adult humans) can learn abstractly and be psychologically and socially conditioned so much more due to our abstract intelligence and language use, our subjective moral agency and sense of responsibility can be significantly greater than nonhuman beings. However, to the extent that this capacity to learn and be conditioned has been left dormant, we are much closer to nonhuman beings in moral agency and sense of responsibility.

Unfortunately, our abstract intelligence and language use can also make our behavior monstrously cruel and immoral, far beyond the capacity of any nonhuman, especially when our agency and responsibility for moral behavior is diminished by living in an immoral society. We are highly social creatures – herd animals, if you will – and our inclination to follow the herd, at least for most of us, is one of our strongest psychological and instinctual drives, and sadly, for most of us, is also much stronger than any sense of morality. So when the herd engages in atrocities, most of us are all too willing to go along, or at least ignore it. In fact, the herd instinct of humans can be found underlying and significantly contributing to virtually all atrocities in history and the present: genocides, slavery, witch-burnings, and the moral status and uses of animals, including their property status and slaughter by the billions.

Many readers today will say, “Yeah, sure, the first three (genocide, slavery, witch-burning) are bad, but the moral status and use of animals is fine as it is.” I’ll just remind these readers that the societies and people engaging in the first three thought those were “fine as they were” also. Again, humans never engage in activity that we have not “rationalized” in some way. We see the atrocities of other societies and other times clearly, but we tend to be so very blind to the atrocities of our own society and time. Vegans may be upset with this moral blindness of our society until we realize that it is no different than being upset with Hurricane Katrina. Tragic and sad? Certainly it is tragic and sad, but inevitable in a blind, indifferent, and determined universe nevertheless.

Implications for Advocacy: The Importance of Causality

If we live in a blind, indifferent, and fully determined universe, does that mean we should merely accept that things are the way they are and do nothing about it? Certainly not. Pure determinism is pure causality, and although our actions are ultimately caused by our character and our character is ultimately caused by events outside our control, our actions are not without effects themselves. A corollary to determinism is that every action is not only an effect of something else, but it is also a cause of something else. Our actions in vegan and animal rights advocacy cause good effects. The only reason there has ever been any moral progress in the world, whether it be the abolition of slavery and witch-burning or the recognition of legal civil rights, is because of the effects of advocacy for such moral progress. We may not be able to change the course of a major hurricane’s path, but we can change and have changed humanity’s path over time.

Causality and determinism does imply that certain types and methods of advocacy will be far more effective than other types and methods of advocacy. It does imply that we cannot advocate for animal welfare – which merely entrenches the industrial owners and users of animals further in their property rights and gives consumers a false sense of comfort about consuming them – and expect abolition to ever come of it. There is no causal relationship between consumption of “happy” meat and going vegan. There is a causal relationship between vegan education and animal rights education and going vegan. We must advocate for veganism and the end, not the regulation, of animal use and ownership.

Finally, causality means that we should spend as much of our time as possible on open-minded people and avoid spending time and energy on never-evers. We must also try to avoid anger and frustration at the general state of the world and at those who don’t understand us, for in a determined world where we are not ultimately responsible for our character, it is very similar to being angry and frustrated at a person of lower mathematical intelligence for not understanding the algebra or calculus we are showing them. This is not to say there is any correlation of mathematical or any other kind of intelligence with moral character. Indeed, many people of the lowest moral character have been highly intelligent in one way or another, but severely lacking in moral intelligence. It is to say, however, that those of lower moral character are to be considered no more responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs than someone born and raised with some other defect. It is ultimately nothing more than bad luck.

People born and raised with lower moral character may be inspired to improve their moral character. Fortunately, moral character is just as malleable as other kinds of intelligence, and perhaps more so. But the initial motivation for improvement must occur naturally and cannot be caused by the victim who lacks it. If the initial motivation for improvement doesn’t exist or occur, determinism dictates that the morally challenged will remain so indefinitely until the sufficient external cause presents itself.

Implications of Determinism for Punishment

What about punishing those who are not ultimately responsible for their actions? In light of causality, punishment as a deterrent makes sense. It also makes sense to keep dangerous, violent beings (human or nonhuman) physically separate from trustworthy, nonviolent beings. Retributive punishment does not have justification in light of causality, but it does make living victims feel much better and brings psychological closure to living victims, due in part to the subjective sense of responsibility we experience and that we naturally project onto others. I see retributive punishment as a moral gray area to be decided on a case-by-case basis, and even then, it seems to be a matter of opinion, as it is in most gray areas, as to whether we did the right thing with respect to retributive punishment. We should try to err on the side of caution and clemency in retributive punishment.

Part Two

A Defense of Determinism

As promised in the first paragraph of this essay, the following section presents a defense of determinism.

In my experience and without exception, all phenomena are caused by something other than themselves. I have never witnessed anything or anyone as the cause of itself and I don’t expect to see any such miracles during my brief existence in the universe. The only conclusion that makes sense and coheres with firmly established scientific theory and empirical observation is that the universe has been an on-going process of unimaginably numerous, complex, and interrelated chains of causal relationships stretching back at least 13.5 billion years.

Some theories in physics (both classical and quantum) suggest “uncaused” randomness, but at this point in time, the theories seem to be too dependent on problematic philosophical interpretation to overthrow the overwhelming empirical evidence in other areas of science and in everyday life that there is a reason or cause behind every phenomenon. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It seems far more likely that we don’t know the whole story (perhaps including the best philosophical interpretation) in quantum mechanics and chaos theory than that these theories confirm “uncaused” randomness. I’ll keep an open mind for extraordinary evidence or epistemologically stronger interpretations to arise in the future, but for now, I remain a believer in an absolutely determined universe.

Determinism and Us

Given determinism in all areas where we are on the most solid epistemological ground, it seems that we have no reason to believe that humans stand outside of and/or above causality, despite our anthropocentric and egocentric propensity to think we’re special and transcendent. Indeed, we are just as determined as the weather: in some ways we are as predictable and in other ways we are as unpredictable, but always determined to the same degree. Even if there is an “uncaused” randomness in the functioning of our brains at some level within chaos theory or quantum mechanics, it would only mean that humans are determined by some “uncaused” random factors, not that humans are not determined.

Some of us might object that we don’t feel determined. It certainly seems that I’m choosing to write this essay now. If I want to stop writing and go remove snow from my deck or roof, there’s nothing stopping me. Compatibilism is the idea that since there is nothing external to us constraining our actions, we act freely. The compatibilist perspective accepts a determined universe, but defines freedom of action as the absence of external constraints on or causes of our action. In cases where we act without such external constraints or causes, we are said to act freely in an otherwise determined world. The compatibilist perspective makes sense subjectively. The compatibilist view is somewhat akin to the view that “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west”. We don’t feel Earth rotating, and it certainly appears that “the sun comes up and goes down”. So conventionally, we still talk that way even if we know that from an objective perspective, it isn’t correct.

The pure determinist perspective differs from the compatibilist perspective in defining freedom of action as the absence of both external and internal (character, psychological, neurological, and/or physiological) constraints on or causes of our action. From the pure determinist perspective, we are always under the influence of psychological constraints or causes (which are a combination of our particular neurobiology and life-long environment) for which we are not ultimately responsible. The compatibilist perspective maintains that we can take action to build our character and therefore “take responsibility” for our character. The pure determinist perspective maintains that before we build our character, we must be the kind of person who would desire or be motivated to build our character; which in turn depends again on our character, which in turn depends on our circumstances of birth (the brain and temperament we inherited) and our initial environment (parents and community), and other aspects of “moral luck” [2] that we did not choose and for which we are not ultimately responsible.

We acknowledged above that when we decide to do something, like stop writing and go shovel snow, the act appears to us to be completely free. But from the pure determinist perspective, we would have to acknowledge that we are determined by our impulses to act in certain ways at certain times, and that our impulses to commit or refrain from any given action at any given fraction of a second are determined by thoughts arising independently of our “willing” them to arise and, on a scale of which we’re not aware, neurological functioning (the electrochemical whirl and buzz of millions of neurons per second doing their life-long habitual routines without consulting us and about which we are utterly unaware). As to our actions in everyday life, we should also acknowledge significant factors such as our innate tendencies to scratch inches, to drink when we’re thirsty, to eat when we’re hungry or bored, and to generally react to the world according to our temperaments, our desire for pleasure and aversion to pain, our previous habits, what we have read or heard, our life experiences, and our culture, all of which we were ultimately thrown into by the past conditions of our determined (or random) universe.

Pure determinism does not deny that we make decisions and choices (i.e. does not deny that we have a “will”), but rather denies our independence from causal factors (outside of our control) that ultimately determine what character we possess and therefore what choices we will make (i.e. denies that our “will” is free or independent of our genetics, environment, and life circumstances).

To get first-hand experience in one aspect of psychological determinism, sit quietly for all of five minutes and “free will” yourself to think of absolutely nothing (or if you prefer, will yourself to think only of one thing, like your favorite number). If you have so much control over your mind and impulses, then you should be able to go five measly minutes willing yourself to be locked on to one single concept or a completely blank mind. If you did the experiment, what you found was that you don’t control your thoughts (no matter how hard you try). If anything, your thoughts (and desires) control you. At best, they unstoppably arise and pass away like bubbles in a carbonated beverage, only hopefully not that rapidly. Chances are excellent that you didn’t even make it one minute, probably not even 30 seconds, before an uninvited subtle thought slipped through the back door and crashed your concentration party.

Is Free Will a Logical Possibility?

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine everyone, starting at midnight tonight, was granted “free will”, meaning that we could now rid ourselves of all past psychological conditioning, intelligence, temperament, and character, and literally be the cause of ourselves. We can now select our intelligence, temperament, the degree of our desires and aversions, our character, and start with a clean slate with no cultural or socio-economic baggage.

An interesting question arises, however: How would we begin to choose? Would we not need a Rawlsian “original position” of knowledge? If so, wouldn’t that knowledge in the original position be a determining factor in our free will? Is pure free will with absolutely no determining factors even logically possible?

I often find myself in disagreement with the 19th century philosopher, philologist, and intellectual entertainer, Friedrich Nietzsche, especially in moral philosophy, but in answering the question of the logical possibility of free will, and therefore the causa sui, I agree with Nietzsche when he says in his typically colorful way, “The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far, it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still hold sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Munchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.” [3]

Whereas the compatibilist perspective makes sense subjectively, the pure determinist perspective makes sense objectively. The pure determinist view is somewhat akin, in contrast to the compatibilist view stated earlier, to the view that Earth rotates on its axis while the Sun remains relatively stationary. Determinism in human behavior and the heliocentric view of the relationship between Earth and Sun are both objectively correct, even though conventionally and subjectively, it makes sense to talk of compatibilism and the Sun “rising” and “setting.”


[1] The non-abstract, present-experience intelligence of nonhumans is a topic that is beyond the scope of this essay, but I might address it in some future essay on the nature of nonhuman minds.

[2] “Moral luck” is a term introduced by Bernard Williams and subsequently developed by Thomas Nagel. Nagel describes four kinds of moral luck: resultant, circumstantial, constitutive, and causal. The kinds of moral luck that I am referring to in this essay are circumstantial and constitutive. Circumstantial luck is luck in the circumstances we are born into, such as the era, society, culture, family and socio-economic conditions we were born into (i.e. the luck of our environment). Constitutive luck is luck in our basic genetic characteristics and includes our species, race, nationality, temperament, moral or immoral tendencies, mental and physical abilities (or lack thereof) (i.e. the luck of our genetic inheritance).

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, Number 21, translated by Walter Kaufmann in the Basic Writings of Nietzsche, The Modern Library Classics, 2000.

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