Idealistic versus realistic animal advocacy: the need for effectiveness and rationality

This month, a new book was published about effective, rational approaches for the animal advocacy movement: How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach (Tobias Leenaert, Lantern Books 2017). This book is a wake-up call for many animal advocates, to start being more effective by being more pragmatic. In this article I summarize the basic argument of the book and extend the idea a bit further.

Realists versus idealists

First some definitions. With rational I mean: accurateness in beliefs (epistemic rationality), effectiveness in means (instrumental rationality) and consistency in ends or values (axiological rationality). Animal advocates have a vegan world (the abolition of animal rights violations, eliminating the exploitation of animals) as one of their most important ends. That is a consistent end, so that is axiologically rational. But when choosing strategies to reach that end, we need instrumental rationality: we need effectiveness. Here we see a divide within the animal advocacy movement.

The animal advocacy movement can be roughly divided in two camps (although there are intermediate positions):

  • the realists (or pragmatists, as Tobias Leenaert calls them) who use methods and strategies that work in the real world where people (meat eaters) have cognitive biases and do not always make rational decisions, and
  • the idealists who use methods and strategies that only work in an ideal world where people always behave rationally and would be easily persuaded by rational arguments or indignant judgments such as “meat is murder, dairy is rape, meat eaters are moral monsters, factory farming is an animal Holocaust”.

If the goal is to achieve a vegan world as fast as possible, a rational strategy uses effective means that not only work in the ideal world but also work in the real world.


The intuitive system 1 versus the rational system 2

Realist strategies are more effective but cognitively more demanding as they require rational, critical thinking, self-control and sometimes changing one’s mind, whereas idealist strategies are less effective but cognitively less demanding as they are based on spontaneous intuitions and gut feelings that can be very strong but sometimes irrational.

The difference between idealists and realists comes from a psychological duality what is generally known as system 1 and system 2 thinking. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman speaks about thinking fast and thinking slow.

System 1 generates automatic, spontaneous, intuitive, emotional, very quick judgments based on mental rules of thumb or short-cuts called heuristics. These work fine in familiar situations, but in unfamiliar situations, such as looking for effective strategies to create a vegan world, these intuitions or gut feelings can become unreliable and can generate cognitive biases. As an example: a bat and a ball cost $1,10 together, the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much costs the ball? If you give an automatic, fast response, using your system 1, your response is most likely wrong (the ball costs $0,05 instead of $0,1).

System 2, on the other hand, is slow, more effortful and logical. This corresponds with what Tobias Leenaert calls slow opinion. With effortful critical thinking, system 2 can correct erroneous judgments generated by system 1. Animal advocates need system 2 thinking to look for solid reasons and scientific evidence to choose the most effective strategies that work in the real world.

A paradox

Effective, rational animal advocates should be realists. In the real world, meat eaters often behave and think irrationally. It seems a bit paradoxical, but it means that rational, realist animal advocates should take irrationalities of meat eaters into account. Choices made by meat eaters often violate their own values or ends. Meat consumption is accompanied with many rationalizations (fake arguments) and cognitive biases. When confronted with animal rights arguments, there is clear evidence that meat eaters experience a so called cognitive dissonance.

An idealistic strategy is often more irrational because it does not properly take into account irrationalities of meat eaters. Idealists act as if meat eaters are rational and therefore should be easily persuadable by arguments or judgments. When meat eaters are confronted with judgments from vegans or become aware of the morally superior choices of vegans, they feel a cognitive dissonance. Their reactions can become counterproductive. A backfire effect is possible: meat eaters persist in their meat consumption, they derogate vegans and start denigrating animals even more.

Consistency in ends is rational, but paradoxically, this may require that we should be inconsistent in our means. In his book, Tobias Leenaert gives the example of consistently sticking to the rule to eat strictly vegan. At first sight, it seems that this strategy is effective, as it directly points towards the consistent end of a vegan world. But the consistency of sticking to a strict vegan diet may sometimes be ineffective to reach the consistent end. Ends should be consistent, but means can have to be inconsistent in order to be effective.

Mental purity and moral disgust

Idealistic animal advocates often criticize realistic or pragmatic animal advocates for adopting immoral strategies, because the system 1 judgments of the idealists are emotionally strong but not compatible with the thought-through system 2 conclusions of the realists. The strategies chosen by the realists are often counter-intuitive and hence appear immoral in the eyes of the idealists who use intuitive moral thinking instead of critical moral thinking.

One example of a strong system 1 effect that underlies a lot of idealist judgments, is mental purity. Idealists believe that it is wrong to ‘make our hands dirty’. This choice of words reveals a moral disgust. As physical disgust can be a very strong emotion, moral disgust can be strong as well. Let me give some examples where the difference between idealists and realists is based on this system 1 effect of mental purity. Most of those examples are discussed in more detail in the book How to Create a Vegan World.

Purity in consumption behaviour

Idealistic vegans are often dogmatic about sticking to the rule, being very strict about their vegan diets. For example they do not want to eat a vegan meal served at a non-vegan restaurant, they want to avoid all animal products and exclude the small animal ingredients such as some E-numbers, even in situations where there is no expected benefit for the animals and where their strictness can have dissuading effects on meat eaters. Consistently sticking to strict rules can push off meat eaters. Realistic vegans have a more relaxed, flexible concept of veganism, if there are reasons or evidence that it might be more effective to persuade meat eaters.

The dogmatism of idealists is based on system 1 thinking: a judgment that we should stick to a rule is made quickly and easily, whereas having to adapt to the situation or context (e.g. having to think about how meat eaters perceive strict vegans) requires more cognitive effort of system 2. Realists or pragmatists have to critically think about the consequences of their choices. Sometimes our choices appear to be good (e.g. strictly avoiding animal products), but can be counter-productive (e.g. dissuading meat eaters). Sometimes our choices appear to be important (e.g. avoiding small amounts of animal products) whereas they have no positive or negative effect on animals.

Compare the latter with an often irrational fear of toxic pesticide residues on food. People often want to avoid tiny traces of applied pesticides and want to pay a lot of money for e.g. organic products that do not contain those pesticides, even if the health risks of the synthetic pesticide residues are negligible compared to the much higher amounts of natural pesticides produced by the plants themselves or the organic pesticides that can sometimes be more toxic than synthetic pesticides and even if the pesticide risks are buried under the much higher amounts of healthy, protective chemicals produced by the plants. If we look at the willingness to pay to avoid health risks, some people are willing to pay much more to avoid the risks of the tiny traces of some synthetic pesticide residues compared to other risks such as traffic accidents or chronic diseases from an unbalanced diet, even if those other risks are much bigger. Those people apply the precautionary principle inconsistently, which is irrational.

Another example of purity is the fact that idealistic animal advocates are often reluctant towards eating cultured or clean meat that is the same substance as animal meat but does not involve animal rights violations. Those vegans have developed a feeling of moral disgust towards meat, which also extends to clean meat. Compare it with the experiment where you put a disinfected insect in someone else’s coffee. After removing the insect, that person is not willing to continue drinking from that coffee, even if there are no traces of it left in the coffee. Once a feeling of disgust is triggered, it cannot easily be erased. It requires a lot of cognitive effort (system 2 thinking) to overcome that feeling of disgust.

Purity in identity

Related to the previous examples, we can say that idealistic vegans think in black-or-white, which is characteristic of system 1 thinking. They believe “you are either vegan or not vegan”, like “you are either with us or against us”. For idealistic vegans, veganism is part of someone’s identity. It is not merely a collection of food choices. Seeing nuances requires a more effortful system 2 thinking. Idealistic vegans are often afraid of grey areas. Therefore they prefer to think in terms of all-or-nothing. For them, grey areas are dangerous because they are not pure, they are not white, they are contaminated with blackness, like the small traces of animal ingredients in a meal contaminates that meal with the blackness of animal rights violations. This idea of contamination reflects a moral disgust.

Purity in messages

Idealistic vegans often criticize realistic vegans for sending out wrong messages. Instead of the clear, straightforward message “Go vegan!”, realists often ask for e.g. “reduce meat, eat more plant-based, join Meatless Mondays.” A go-vegan message reflects the end goal, but might be too demanding or ambitious for most meat eaters at this moment, in this real world, so for them working with smaller steps can be feasible. But system 1 often objects to those more nuanced but perhaps more effective messages, because system 1 wants to stick to the clear message, a direct reference to the final goal.

Purity in focus

For idealistic animal advocates, we have to focus on the only important argument to go vegan: the animal rights argument. Introducing other arguments such as the health and environmental benefits of vegan diets are considered as a distraction or sometimes even as being harmful. Realistic animal advocates are open to those other messages, applying them if they are effective. The focus of idealists on one argument or one objective is an example of a single objective bias, as if talking about other benefits of veganism introduces impurities in the real message of animal rights.

Another example of a single objective bias can be seen with idealistic feminists who promote family planning (contraceptives) to improve women’s right to bodily autonomy. Unwanted pregnancies are serious violations of a right to bodily autonomy, and family planning intends to avoid unwanted pregnancies. But if some environmentalists also promote family planning in order to avoid unintended births and hence avoid future environmental impacts of newborn people, these environmentalists are criticized by the feminists who argue that women’s rights should be the only objective.

Purity in collaborations

In choosing with whom to collaborate, idealistic animal advocates often make ineffective choices that only work in an ideal world. Idealists are more exclusive and want to collaborate only with people who are fully like-minded. Realists on the other hand are more inclusive and can have many collaborations. In his book Tobias Leenaert gives the examples of idealists criticizing collaborations with businesses (e.g. fast food chains) that sell both vegan and non-vegan foods or with TV chefs who cook both vegan and non-vegan recipes. The idealists do not want to celebrate or support the choice of large meat companies that invest in animal free products. Those idealists are again rather concerned about purity than about effectiveness: they don’t want to make their hands dirty with some collaborations they deem unacceptable. But those idealists are not able to give evidence that such collaborations are ineffective or harmful. Hence, criticizing realists who favour such collaborations is irrational.

Another striking example of purity in collaborations within the animal advocacy movement, is the concern about animal activists who have racist judgments. People like Brigitte Bardot are advocating for animal rights but also make racist statements (e.g. against Muslims). Idealistic antiracist activists do not want to have anything to do with those racist activists: they want to keep their movement clean from racism. However, rejecting those activists is not always effective. First of all, those rejected activists are not going to change their minds about racism when they are rejected by the animal advocacy movement. Their level of racism will not decrease when they are not allowed to join the vegan community. On the contrary, they will associate themselves with other racists and start to distrust antiracists even more.

On the other hand, when they are not expelled from the community, those activists with racist opinions can more easily come into contact with antiracist activists. Both activists have something in common: their fight for animal rights. Due to this commonality, the antiracist activists are perceived as sympathetic by the activists with racist opinions. There is psychological evidence that people are more easily persuaded by other persons who appear sympathetic to them, so the antiracist activists are more able to persuade the activists with racist opinions. When the racist activists are welcome in the movement, chances are higher that eventually they will be persuaded by antiracist opinions, compared to the situation where they are not welcome. For the antiracist activists, welcoming those activists with racist opinions requires more effortful system 2 thinking, because they can no longer simply ignore those activists and they are in a sense forced to communicate with them in a more effective way. Believing that contact with racist activists makes your own hands dirty, is an irrational belief because it is not effective in fighting racism.


How to Create a Vegan World: A Pragmatic Approach (Tobias Leenaert, Lantern Books 2017).


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