A Pragmatist’s Guide To Animal Advocacy
In this final part of our 4-part series discussing Martin Balluch’s essay, “Abolitionism vs. Reformism,” we look at what it will take to achieve meaningful change for animals in the next couple of decades. A pragmatic and/or utilitarian approach to animal protection very clearly indicates that one should focus on incremental behavior change and mainstream advocacy approaches.
Sometimes, when I tell fellow animal advocates that I’m a utilitarian, I receive either a roll of the eyes or just blank stares. Utilitarianism is a bad word in some circles, but to me it’s an obvious goal to reduce animal suffering as much as possible given the resources one has available. I equate a utilitarian approach to animal advocacy with a “pragmatic” approach, i.e., one that achieves substantial gains for animals. While I assume this is a goal that all animal advocates would share, however, there are some who equate this sense of pragmatism with “selling out.”
I’ve touched on the reform vs. abolition debate in previous posts, and won’t rehash those points here, but the incremental advocacy approach that I often endorse leads to several observations about animal advocacy in general. Related in many ways to Balluch’s arguments, these are based on nearly a decade of studying how people perceive and behave toward non-human animals. Using this research as inspiration, here are three “axioms of animal advocacy” that I offer for consideration:
- Real change for animals happens incrementally
- “Extremeness” usually undermines the message
- Animal protection is a social phenomenon
The first point is probably obvious; as animal advocates, we must be ready for a long-term commitment when it comes to protecting the billions of animals abused and neglected by humans. The changes we seek for non-humans may take generations to achieve and will require incremental milestones that some advocates label “welfarist.”
The second point relates to “extreme” tactics as well as “extreme” ideologies, both of which are turn-offs for the average person. Except in rare circumstances, extreme approaches serve mostly to alienate the target audience and slow progress on behalf of animals. The unfortunate reality is that the mainstream perception of “extreme” is much broader than the average animal advocate’s.
Regarding the third point… Balluch offers some interesting thoughts regarding the social nature of animal advocacy. Achieving real progress for animals is really more about our fellow human animals than it is about non-humans. A supportive social environment is necessary to help society move toward the right of Balluch’s welfare-rights continuum. And while persuasion may be limited in its impact, as I’ve argued previously, it remains necessary and social interaction is of course a basic element. As Balluch suggests, the challenge is how to grow animal advocates from small, relatively isolated groups of people to change “society as a whole.”
We have already observed that the easiest way to turn people vegan is to expose them to a vegan social environment. Religious sects use that characteristic of social animals by forming close-nit groups, cut off from the outside world, where the sect can sustain a way of life the rest of society considers utterly weird. Were the members of the sect still imbedded in “normal” society, they would not be able to sustain their way of life. The animal rights movement, however, is not satisfied with establishing some small vegan communities within larger society. The movement wants to change society as a whole.
Finally, to close out this series, I’d like to share Balluch’s direct advice to animal advocates. The first set of bullet points below further underscores the social element of animal advocacy, while the second set provides a more general blueprint for advocates. Each is a concise and poignant statement about the nature of animal advocacy and the need to be pragmatic and focus on system-wide change. While I personally may not agree with every aspect of Balluch’s essay, he offers advice that is valuable for anyone seeking meaningful and lasting change for animals.
It is basic knowledge on human psychology that humans are much more social than rational animals. If humans were purely rational animals, we could ignore psychology in politics and solely argue rationally, without the use of empirical data. Theory and practice would be the same. But humans are indeed much more social than rational animals. 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, do 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.
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.
- 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.
- The aim of the campaign must be to change society, the social system in which people live, and not individual people’s minds.
- 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.