The Gentle Art of Persuasion

I disagree with nearly everything Jamie said in yesterday's post on persuasion. Let's begin with the main point: That it’s hard to persuade people to change their behavior because they have different perspectives and different life experiences. Hard, yes, but hardly impossible. Persuading people is what successful movements for social justice accomplish. We are in the midst of a pretty dramatic one in the way people think about sexual orientation, which is markedly different from how people thought just 20 years ago and certainly 50 years ago.

So perhaps what Jamie means is that it’s hard to persuade people to make sacrifices for others, especially others with whom they feel no particular kinship. After all, despite the rhetoric of “protecting” marriage, according fully equal rights to members of the LGBT community doesn’t really cost straight people anything. By contrast, getting people to give up steak and even pizza? Now that’s a sacrifice!

Well, yes and no. If we assume that people only act out of self-interest, then veganism or something like it can be sold based on its health benefits. And I certainly agree, indeed I’ve said on this blog, that organizations like Farm Sanctuary ought to be devoting much of their budget to marketing attractive vegan alternatives to meat and dairy products.

But Jamie apparently goes further to suggest that one will encounter moral opposition to pleas about suffering, and here he simply errs. To wit:

1) Jamie wonders whether demand for soy as food might accelerate the conversion of Brazilian rain forest to agriculture. He cannot be serious. To produce feed for beef or dairy cattle requires orders of magnitude more land for cultivation than is required to produce vegetable products for direct human consumption. And that is simply a matter of calories per acre under cultivation. Raising beef and dairy cattle also produces vast quantities of methane gas, which, pound for pound, is much worse for global warming than CO2. Other animal-based food industries (such as pig farming and the raising of chickens for eggs or meat) produce their own environmental problems, to say nothing of the potential for breeding lethal strains of influenza. Even if one had no regard whatsoever for the welfare of non-human animals, the environmental case for a plant-based human diet would be compelling.

2) Jamie asks how we measure the suffering of calves against the suffering of the families of dairy farmers who would lose their livelihood if everyone went vegan. I’ll answer this question momentarily but first let me point out that he has improperly framed it. Am I morally responsible for the suffering of the families of laid off GM auto workers if I decide that instead of buying a new Buick I’m going to ride the bus? If one is a thoroughgoing utilitarian, sure, because thoroughgoing utilitarians do not respect the act/omission distinction. But this is no way to lead your life. It makes you morally complicit in all suffering that you could alleviate by reducing your standard of living to subsistence levels and donating every other penny you have to benefit others. A much more common and sensible way to understand the moral consequences of one’s actions is to ask what are the direct effects of the small number of things you choose to do, not the infinite number of things you choose not to do. By choosing to consume dairy products, you participate in the veal industry.

3) Perhaps I have misread Jamie and what he means to say is only that I’ll have a hard time persuading the marginal dairy farmer that he should become a vegan or that my veganism is, all things considered, morally appropriate. But then we are simply back to the claim that it is hard to persuade people of things that are not in their interest. I don’t doubt that dairy farmers would like there to be a dairy industry, just as I don’t doubt that corn farmers like government subsidies for growing corn. The vast majority of my fellow citizens are not farmers, however, and I thought the point Jamie was making had to do with the effectiveness of moral arguments.

4) Now back to the philosophical question. Jamie says that “Donald Griffin never argued that animal suffering is just like human suffering.” Well, why not? Is there any evidence that the animals with whom we share the same basic biology and neurochemistry have qualitatively different experiences of physical pain and (at least in the case of most vertebrates) emotional distress that we do? Is Jamie appealing to Creationism? Undoubtedly, we humans think we have reason to prefer our own wellbeing, just as parents have actor-relative reasons to prefer the wellbeing of their children to those of other children. I would even concede that this should count for quite a bit on the positive side. Thus, I don’t think we have a moral obligation to provide the sort of education for gorillas and chimps that would enable them to obtain gainful employment; but that hardly means we can prefer our welfare to theirs to the point of affirmatively harming them by, for example, injecting them with H.I.V. I learned yesterday that it may be possible to create a mammoth from preserved DNA. Suppose that 2 million years from now our super-advanced descendants use such a technology to re-create 21st Century humans: Would our suffering count for less than the future beings because they are so much smarter than we are/were?

5) Jamie also asserts: “Every ounce of effort you put into veganism is effort you can’t put into ending the bushmeat trade—unless you’ve somehow found a way to eliminate the opportunity costs that every meaningful action entails.” This is absurd. Veganism is simply eating, an activity we all do every day. Yes, I probably spend a few more minutes in the supermarket than most omnivores because I need to read ingredients lists, and true, I have to buy my belts and shoes online to get good looking synthetic leather. But are these added minutes per month going to interfere in any way with my ability to make an annual donation to the International Primate Protection League? In fact, the sort of person who thinks about the moral consequences of her diet and clothing is likely to be more, not less, concerned with such practices as the hideous bushmeat trade.

One final point about persuasion: With the exception of Jains, very few current vegans were raised that way. I came to this view because I was persuaded by appeals to reason and emotion, which is pretty much how all human decisions are made. (The emotional centers of the brain are essential to decision making.) I do not consider myself an especially moral person. In fact, I can be sort of a jerk. So if persuasion worked on me, it can work on others.

Posted by Mike Dorf