Ideas for Making Anti-Specieist Appeals to Conservatives

Summary: Based off of Jon Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory, I brainstorm how and why the vegan, animal rights and anti-speciesism movements might alter their messaging targeted at conservative audiences by appealing to values conservatives more closely hold. I suggest effective animal advocates may have a bias blindspot as to why conservatives might perceive veganism and animal rights negatively, and I suggest further in an effort to create more effective anti-speciesist/vegan messaging for conservative audiences. 

If we take Jon Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory, we can tie the values more highly prioritized by conservatives to vegan or vegetarian diets throughout history. From there, we translate them into terms which carry the same themes but to a different target audience (i.e., whichever modern conservatives you’re seeking to influence the diets of).

Traditional societies in every civilization of East Asia (e.g., Japan, China, Korea, etc.) South Asia (i.e., Indian subcontinent) and Southeast Asia (Indochina+all those islands) have had state religions like Buddhism or Hinduism which encourage or prescribed vegetarian or vegan diets at higher per capita rates than any other agricultural civilization in history. Indigenous peoples of North America are commonly known for living in harmony with nature for thousands of years. Stereotypes aside, this entailed a diet of not much meat and a lot of fish, but only when it was plentiful. So that’s something like a modern reducetarian/flexitarian diet. A lot of this could be respect for religious authority, but in the Western world the dominant religions don’t encourage vegan/vegetarian diets. The ‘sanctity/purity’ value could easily be a factor in religiously motivated veganism/vegetarianism, along the lines of all life being in harmony with itself, and humanity the chosen species to be nature’s stewards by divine/cosmic decree. A lot of the Ancient Greek philosophers were vegan or vegetarians, so that ties into the idea of humanity being a virtuous exemplar for all life, which precludes from eating which produces suffering. If we build a conceptual bridge from Buddhism to the Ancient Greeks in that manner, that gives vegan memes a foothold in Western civilization, which is a conservative memeplex or whatever. I don’t know if you can tie veganism to Greco-Roman ethics popular in the modern Judeo-Christian worldview, as it’d be hard to find a quality source for that kind of thing.

Of course the ‘sanctity/purity’ value is a double-edged sword. The conservative foundation for eating meat seems to be a clear, i.e., “clean” or “pure” delineation between man and animal, and to reassert that man eats whatever animal he wants. Conservatives face social influence pushing them to not even think about becoming vegetarian/vegan, since the opposites of the other Haidtian values conservatives prioritize are ‘betrayal’ and ‘subversion’. By engaging in impure behaviour which blurs formerly clear lines you undermine your own ability to contribute to and defend your ingroup. Loyally respecting the will of the ingroup comes first, especially when the taboo behaviour undermines the integrity of one’s moral foundation, i.e., undermining purity. So from a typical conservative viewpoint being vegan blurs the line between the hierarchy of man on the top, and all other animals beneath. This is similar to why one reason conservatives are more adverse to LGBT folks is because being LGBT undermines the purity of traditional partriarchy and the structure of the institutions upholding it.

So to start off with I’d say emphasize a loyalty to humankind as a form of human universalism, and connect that to doing one’s part to reduce meat intake as a part of individual responsibility to prevent runaway climate change or an anti-biotic resistant outbreak; respect for the sanctity of nature with lots of picture of how factory farming is destroying jungles; hammer on the angles of factory farmed animals looking and being gross to eat because they’re exposed to awful conditions and anti-biotics which undermine the strength of anti-biotics for humans. This shows how factory farming is impure, which I think could be used as a meme to move conservatives to eat more free-range or free-run or local or hormone-free meat and animal byproducts. I know the conditions for those aren’t as good as we’d like, and it might be better to convince people to go vegan. But if on these grounds we can convince conservatives to sympathize with systemic changes to factory farming to improve conditions, conservative political parties could be moved to adopt into their platform advocating for systemic farm animal welfare reforms. Between that and liberal parties advocating for the same, it’d increase the chances the sort of corporate farm animal welfare reform campaigns which have found EA great success will work even more in the future. Tie all that into a message about how a conservative going vegan is somehow technically not a betrayal or subversion of human supremacy (tolerance for continued speciesism depends on how much you want to spread anti-speciesist values vs. just ending factory farming by itself).

I know many effective animal advocates want to spread values primarily along the lines of intrinsically valuing the well-being and experiences of non-human animals. Unfortunately from a first glance it doesn’t appear the intrinsic value of non-human well-being will resonate with conservatives as much it does liberals. Some conservatives conceive their omnivorous diet as tied into religious and/or cultural tradition, and while vegetarianism/veganism may not be bad in itself, a conservative might see it as wrong for themselves to move away from their culture’s traditional  diet in the process of going vegan/vegetarian. Of course, as effective altruism and animal advocacy put more proportional focus on systemic/institutional change over individual behavioural change, a new opportunity for appealing to conservatives presents itself. If going fully vegan/vegetarian is unappealing to conservatives because it is seen as betraying traditional diets, effective animal advocates could argue for going reducetarian/flexitarian primarily on anti-speciesist grounds, or eating meat more conscientiously, i.e., opting for clean meat or the least harmful alternative as often as possible. While most effective animal advocates are liberals and so it may seem cognitively dissonant to us for a large number of conservatives to eat animals “conscientiously” without intending or aspiring to a fully vegetarian/vegan diet, technically this could be a road to anti-speciesist values-spreading, moral circle expansion, and increased public support for reforming/abolishing industrial farming across the political divide. Admittedly reliably measuring attitudinal shifts like this in the absence of clearer behavioural markers like a complete shift in diet would be difficult.

Ultimately in writing this post I realized it seems difficult to think of positive ways to make anti-speciesist/vegan appeals to conservatives, since the messages which work for liberals apparently don’t work on conservatives. What I’ve also realized is I haven’t seen animal advocates putting themselves in the shoes of conservatives and thinking of how from their perspective veganism/vegetarianism is, intrinsically or extrinsically, a betrayal of their current values. For all we know this could be tied to perceptions of liberalism which aren’t technically wedded to the anti-speciesist project. For example, much like how liberals are caught in filter bubbles giving them exaggerated and atypical examples of conservative close-mindedness, conservatives may only be encountering examples of veganism and animal advocacy done in a poor and hypocritical manner most animal advocates would also oppose. I haven’t seen effective animal advocates consider the possibility current positive messages about veganism/anti-speciesism might be adequate if only they weren’t tailed by negative perceptions of veganism and animal rights, or vegans and animal rights activists themselves. This suggests a next step forward might be to survey conservatives to discover the reasons for not decreasing their animal (by)product intake, and to identify the kind and degree of negative associations they link to veganism/vegetarianism and animal rights.

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2 thoughts on “Ideas for Making Anti-Specieist Appeals to Conservatives

  1. Thanks for writing this! I have a few comments/extensions:

    1) You might be interested in this study, which suggests that preference for or against vegetarian food has to do with the values around the food, specifically “social power,” rather than the taste. To me that suggests that some rightwing values may coincide with preferring eating animals and vice versa. https://academic.oup.com/jcr/article/35/2/294/1806132

    2) My understanding of moral foundations theory is that conservatives do share liberals’ values of harm/care and fairness/equality, but they have additional values to appeal to, so I would think that animal advocates should maintain our current arguments and supplement them on occasion by appealing to tradition.

    3) I actually think appealing to conservatives should not be too difficult. In my view, there’s actually quite a strong biblical case for veganism. Adam and Eve are created vegan in the Garden of Eden, and God only allows humans to eat animals after the flood as a concession to humans’ inherent sinfulness and violence. That seems to imply that veganism is the ideal and that those in hope of the Messiah or Jesus’s return should be vegan.

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    1. That all makes sense to me, but neither of us are Christians. I know some Christians in the EA community, but not any Christian vegans, so I’ll ask them what they think. Ultimately, if we can’t Christians don’t agree with animal advocates Christians should ideally become vegan, that animal advocates might think so is of no consequence.

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