Tag Archives: Skepticism

The Social Psychology of Veganism – Moral Licensing

What is Moral Licensing?

In one fascinating psychological study, researchers found that doing a bit of good gives folks the license to do something naughty (Sachdeva et al. 2009). So, for instance, a person may go for a jog and then feel they can reward themselves with a box of donuts. Maybe that person participates in Walk a Mile in Her Shoes to raise awareness to domestic violence and later feel licensed to use pornography later.

When it comes to human relationships with other animals, this moral licensing could have implications for vegan activism. If someone donates to an animal charity, for instance, perhaps they feel they can “treat” themselves to some chickens’ wings later. Researchers would refer to this as a sort of moral self-regulation or licensing.

Limited Evidence

Although it is often the case that consumers will try to suppress any guilt they may feel for complacency in animal suffering by buying cage-free or donating to an animal welfare group, it is not necessarily the case that they will feel compelled to hurt Nonhuman Animals more as a result of acting prosocially.  Indeed, replication studies on moral licensing have not supported the existence of this psychological effect (Blanken et al. 2015).

Instead, cognitive dissonance is more likely at play. Cognitive dissonance occurs when folks become uneasy when confronted with a disconnect between their values and behaviors and then attempt to alleviate that conflict. Nonvegans can either tweak their values or behaviors to achieve psychological equilibrium. It is often the case that consumer values and behaviors shift toward the speciesist. In other words, when confronted with their empathy for other animals, some nonvegans double-down on their nonveganism to ease cognitive dissonance, not to engage in moral self-regulation.

Although moral licensing has little scientific support, it does remind us of the importance of scientific rigor. To be reliable, evidence should be supported by multiple studies. Activists, meanwhile, should investigate the source of scientific findings and determine their veracity before applying them to social movement efforts.

For the Vegan Toolkit

  • Moral licensing is not strongly supported by research
  • Individuals who practice prosocial behavior toward animals are not likely to “treat” themselves to speciesist practices in exchange


Blanken, I., N. van de Ven, and M. Zeelenberg. 2015. “A Meta-Analytic Review of Moral Licensing.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41 (4): 540-558.

Sachdeva, S., R. Iliev, and D. Medin. 2009. “Sinning Saints and Saintly Sinners: The Paradox of Moral Self-Regulation.” Psychological Science 20: 523-528.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the social psychology of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights.

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Do You Know the Most Common Mistake in Animal Activism?

Effective Animal Advocacy

As a social scientist specializing in social movement theory as it applies to the Nonhuman Animal rights movement, I am often dismayed that so many vegan activists consciously dismiss the importance of research in their commitment to prioritizing activism. This likely reflects a general conservative suspicion with science (an ironic attitude given that science is such an important ally to social justice), exacerbation over the critical plight of Nonhuman Animals, or even plain ol’ human stubbornness.

I argue that this “Activism First” skittishness of science constitutes a serious blunder. The liberation of Nonhuman Animals will not come willynilly, through good fortune, or even with dedication and hard work. Tactics must be supported with research and guided by science to ascertain their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, the power, politics, and egos of social justice work frequently trump a genuine and necessary interest in what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved. As a researcher in this field who has studied extensively the science of social movements and the politics of anti-speciesism, my biggest piece of advice to vegan activists is to pause a moment and do some assessment.

I am certainly not making a case for elitism. Innovation in tactics should be fostered, and sometimes this will emerge from newcomers and the unstudied. However, it is a strategic failing when the majority of a movement’s activists have zero training in effective activism and few have bothered to read the scientific theory of social movements and social change. This is an enormous, unnecessary, and avoidable disadvantage.

To presume ourselves experts and leaders in social change without also adopting the role of student exemplifies human arrogance, entitlement, and privilege. Activists must be life-long students in order to be effective leaders. If Nonhuman Animals are counting on us, we are obligated to aspire to our best.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.Readers can learn more about the science of effective activism and the importance of research in movement repertoires in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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What Are You Doing to Help Animals Right NOW?

Sad looking dog

In this essay, I will deconstruct what people really mean when they pull on what Michele Kaplan calls, “The Urgency.” The urgency of Nonhuman Animal suffering (“RIGHT NOW!”) is exploited as a diversion tactic: no time to think, animals are suffering!  It is a trope that is frequently invoked to silence criticism and maintain the status quo, frequently in response to the following:

  • Critiques of sexism and misogyny in Nonhuman Animal rights advocacy
  • Critiques of racism, normalized whiteness, and white supremacy in Nonhuman Animal rights advocacy
  • Critiques of counterproductive agriculture reforms that protect speciesism
  • Critiques of “happy meat,” “veg*nism,” or other reductionist campaigns

While it may not be their intention, activists drawing on the urgency trope are exploiting the torture and death of Nonhuman Animals to maintain privilege and inequality.  Women, for instance, are frequently shamed for taking issue with rape culture as it is aggravated and perpetuated by misgoynist activism in the Nonhuman Animal rights community.  How dare they distract us when other animals are suffering RIGHT NOW?

When women, in particular, are shamed for voicing their opinions on sexism in advocacy, this trope also pulls on sexist stereotypes that women should put the needs of others first, ignoring their own oppression. Shaming women for caring about themselves has historically been an effective means of countering women’s empowerment and maintaining a status quo of oppression.

For activists who invoke urgency, I suggest that, if they truly do care about other animals suffering right now, it would be advisable to stop castigating marginalized people. A violent movement is not a healthy one. Instead, pay attention to what marginalized persons are communicating, and make an active effort to learn something from it. Doing so makes the movement stronger. I say this because this movement will never succeed so long as women are being discriminated against, people of color are being excluded,  and speciesist reforms remain the preferred tactic of Nonhuman Animal “rights” organizations.

The “Animals are Suffering Right NOW” trope is intended to quell criticism.  It is generally an uncritical diversion from engaging in discourse, preventing activists from examining how they might actually be participating in the oppression they seek to destroy. Before defaulting to the “common” sense of “The Urgency,” activists should consider that, as Kaplan suggests, ” …just because it feels good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are reaching beyond the choir.” Worse, if problematic tactics get protected as common sense, they could actually be abetting violence.


A version of this essay first appeared on The Academic Activist Vegan on August 2, 2013.

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the politics of veganism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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Can Veganism Save Your Life? I’m Skeptical

Engine 2 Diet founder pictured holding an axe wearing a shirt that reads "KALE"
Rip Esselstyn, founder of the Engine 2 Diet

Perhaps one of the most dangerous trends in Nonhuman Animal rights activism is the relentlessness of bogus health claims made in the name of veganism.  Plant-based eating1  is often marketed as the secret solution to every health crisis under the sun.  Want to reverse heart disease?  Go vegan.  Want to fight depression?  Go vegan.  Want better skin?  Go vegan.  Want a better sex life?  Go vegan.  And the list goes on.  Encouraging healthful and ethical eating is not in of itself a bad thing (so long as it does not include body-shaming or concern-trolling), but encouraging others to expect miracles is disingenuous.

In many cases, veganism becomes a mask for capitalizing on the vulnerable. Blatant marketing schemes adulterate the nonviolent message of veganism, repackaging it into profitable fad diets in order to sell programs, books, videos, and membership access.

Unsubstantiated or inflated claims inevitably undermine the vegan movement’s legitimacy. They could possibly endanger individuals who ascribe to them as well.  Vegans committed to nonviolence and justice have an ethical obligation to take issue with those who misguide and exploit the sick or dupe the worried with fear-mongering.

Take, for instance, VegNews, which launched a “Veganism Saved My Life” column in 2013. It features seriously ill people who are supposedly pulled from the edge of the grave by the power of fruits and vegetables.  In the first installment, a woman with Stage IV Breast Cancer is approached by a Seventh Day Evangelist who encourages her to try plant-based eating.  After forgoing her medications and going vegan, the patient reports:

I felt results within the first few weeks of changing my eating. I felt lighter, and even though I was still very ill, I began to have more energy. My immune system grew stronger and stronger—it’s why I am here today.

Extraordinary claims might be expected from vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists, as faith-based claimsmaking is customary in the religious community, but when a respected authority in the vegan community such as VegNews lends platform to these questionable claims under the guise of science, it then becomes necessary to consider how the vegan movement could be engaging human exploitation and endangerment.

Engine 2 Diet founder poses with a bounty of vegetables

Can veganism cure cancer?  Diabetes?  Heart disease?  Perhaps so in some cases.  Nevertheless, activists  should keep in mind that there are a litany of other variables impacting life quality and longevity including genetics, environment, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, sex and gender, exercise, and stress levels.  Of course consuming processed foods, “meats,” dairy, and birds’ eggs is not helping much, but it isn’t entirely accurate to claim that plant-based eating is the mysterious key to recovery and long life.

Many studies have been conducted that do suggest that plant-based consumption improves health and lifespan, but to exalt the practice as a magical cure-all is potentially very dangerous.  Anyone who is considering shifting to plant-based eating with high expectations of Oprah-worthy medical turnarounds is advised to do their research.  Buyer beware: look beyond the shiny claims endorsed by celebrity doctors, manufacturers, and authors.  Actually take a look at the original medical research.  This information is available to anyone (Google Scholar is a great place to start). Many mainstream medical journals ensure that the main findings of their published research are free from jargon and easily located in abstracts.

Plant-based eating has potential to improve quality of life and reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, but, no, veganism can’t exactly “save your life.”  What it can do, however, is save the lives of Nonhuman Animals.  Going vegan means refusing to support the exploitation and killing of others.  Indeed, while I have argued thus far that a health-scare approach to vegan outreach is risky for public well-being, it also disempowers the vegan movement.  Activists can’t reasonably hope to create meaningful social change for other animals by enticing new members with fear, quackery, and anthropocentrism. Furthermore, only a few privileged humans have access to pricier plant-based eating of the “life-saving” kind.

An honest approach to veganism will acknowledge that Nonhuman Animals must be included in the message as a matter of coherency. An honest approach will also acknowledge that health claims are limited both in efficacy and in accessibility.


Note: I use the phrase “plant-based eating” in lieu of a veganism, as I am careful not to conflate a vegan diet with veganism as a political position.


A version of this essay first appeared on The Academic Activist Vegan on January 7, 2013.

You can read more about the problems of health-centic vegan outreach in A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory (Palgrave 2016). Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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The Rationalization of Misogyny: Why I left the Vegan Skeptic Community

Cartoon of a chimpanzee in deep thought










As readers may be aware, I take issue with the abolitionist position on atheism and feminism.  I won’t rehash those points here, but given those developments, myself and a few other activists thought it prudent to branch off and begin a new project in 2011-12, one that specifically valued rationality.  As a scientist and an atheist, this position seemed well-suited to my worldview.  I began to advocate for a rational, evidence-based approach to Nonhuman Animal liberation.  Instead of drawing on personal beliefs, religion, experience, etc., I have argued that we need to hold our tactics and theory up to scrutiny.  Does it work?  And does it work for the right reasons?  If not, we’re not making any headway. Now is the time to abandon personal allegiances, idol-worship, and comfortable (but ineffective) approaches.

And so I became an ardent supporter of VeganUK, a small internet community that favors a rational approach and offers a safe space for atheists to connect and collaborate.  I started publishing papers and blogging about our new approach.  I became an administrator for the VeganUK Facebook group.  I became an editor for their magazine, The Abolitionist (now defunct).  I spent hours and hours at this non-paid position because my heart was in it, because I really believed in the project.

At this time, I was also studying feminist theory heavily.  Teaching gender at the university level, I became immersed in the research on gender inequality, rape culture, and patriarchy.  It was starting to inform my activist work.

It was then that I began to notice that other feminists who also valued a rational approach to Nonhuman Animal advocacy were routinely being shouted out and then banned from VeganUK.  The community rules, in so many words, stated that if you don’t hold up to scrutiny, you get the boot.  Which is fine if we’re valuing rationality, but it soon became clear that this was a ruse to subdue critical feminist thought. There was intense pressure on female group members to agree with the men and ignore the feminist experience that shows women another side to reality that men are more or less oblivious to.

The utopian dream of rationality is achieving 100% objectivity.  But this dream of pure objectivity completely obscures the fact that human beings are themselves tools of measurement.  Humans are products of socialization, they are prone to error and bias.  The scientific method works to reduce bias, but it cannot account for how one’s identity shapes the very questions we choose to ask.  Neither can it assure that how we choose to research the question and how we interpret the results is done with complete objectivity.  So long as the human factor is involved, there will always be bias.

Feminists argue that recognizing differential socialization and privilege is a more honest approach to a scientific inquiry into social inequality.  Social beings studying the social are never divorced from the social.  If you can’t get rid of bias, the next best thing to do is own up to it.  If your tool is imperfect, you will have imperfect results.  Pretending the imperfection isn’t there is unprofessional, dishonest, and often dangerous.

Drawing of two hands in a science laboratory holding a meditating female figure










In advocating this position, a position widely accepted within the scientific community, taught to students of science, and often required in scientific publications, I was ridiculed as “unscientific” by individuals in the group with no formal scientific training themselves.

Men who identify as atheists and skeptics with a few Richard Dawkins books on their shelf are encouraged to think themselves arbiters of what is deemed legitimate science.  I suspect, however, that their claim to expertise (with no qualifications to support it) is a prop for patriarchal oppression. These identity markers help already privileged people appear more important, authoritative, and wise. This mechanism protects the white male position and delegitimizes marginalized voices.

I will not rehash the illogical and often hateful “rationalist” arguments some vegan men use to adulterate feminist theory, as I don’t think they warrant any further platform.  The atheist movement itself, where much of this anti-feminist rhetoric originates, is rife with sexist claimsmaking and abusive treatment of women.

A few years ago, feminists in the atheist (rational/skeptic/humanist/free-thinker) community began to speak out against the harassment they’d been enduring online and at conventions.  Prominent male leaders such as Dawkins either ignored or mocked their complaints.  In response, many women and their allies created “Atheism+”, a social change space where intersectionality is encouraged and social inequalities are explored through a rationalist lens.

Atheist+ proponents argue that it  is not enough to dissect the role of institutionalized religion in oppressing humans as a general matter.  When we operate according to generics (i.e. “humans,” “humanity,” or “mankind”), we more often than not default to the experience of privileged, white, heterosexual men.  We need a more nuanced approach that recognizes how the white male experience is not the universal experience.

Importantly, Atheism+ explicitly acknowledges that the unique circumstances of marginalized experiences are largely ignored in atheist activism.  As the popularity of Atheism+ increased, atheism was no longer seen as a space for men to reassert their white male superiority and mock religious people (who, by the way, are often from vulnerable non-white, non-male demographics).  Atheism was now about inclusivity and compassion for at-risk populations.

Cartoon. Man says: "Only rational thought can free the world!"Woman asks, "Can we do something about sexism and racism, too?" Woman is shouted down.

Unfortunately, the Atheist+ movement met with considerable hostility for their efforts, and the rift in the atheist community remains.  Female free-thinkers have launched new web spaces and an annual women’s conference, but many men in the movement continue to belittle feminists and harass them.  At the 2013 Women in Secularism conference, the Center for Inquiry’s CEO Ron Lindsay opened the event with a speech bemoaning how feminist critique was nothing more than a means to silence men. The realities of patriarchy can be completely lost on even those men supposedly in support of the feminist approach to free-thought.

The generic rational approach, more often than not, hides behind masculine ideology and the rhetoric of rationality to bully, intimidate, and ultimately silence women, people of color, and other vulnerable persons.  As often as rationality is used to liberate, it is used to oppress and maintain inequality.  Rather than prioritizing criticism and discourse, it becomes a legitimized means of stifling marginalized voices to the benefit of privileged white males.

When I originally wrote this essay in 2013, one the leaders of VeganUK was stalking my every move online.  He watched everything I posted on my blog,  on my public Facebook page, Twitter, etc.  He was also screencapping any of this feminist behavior he found objectionable, emailing me with these images as “evidence.”  He filled up my inbox with threats to sue me for voicing free speech over public content that I find problematic and sexist.

For any woman who has been a victim of violence at the hands of men who have stalked them (and there are many), it should be clear how behavior of this kind is both inappropriate and violent. And it is gendered. It is a classic technique wielded to threaten, frighten, and control women.  Apparently, free speech, rational thought, and criticism are appropriate only when they do not target privileged white men. I say this because feminist rationalists are abused in similar ways as a matter of course. The rationality movement is systematically seeking to erase women’s skepticism.

Until it went defunct sometime in 2015, The Abolitionist was also hosting my work without my permission.  I contacted four VeganUK administrators explicitly requesting that my work be removed, as I had no desire to be associated in any way with a group that promotes anti-feminist sentiment.  All refused my request; insisting that my work was not mine to control.  Although I had signed no copyright, they took my volunteered efforts to be the sole property of VeganUK.

For a group that claims to promote science, rationality, and integrity, I was quite shocked that academic dishonesty and blatant theft were actually being defended.  I was informed, more than once, that it was up to them to decide what to do with my work. But, then, science has a long history of appropriating the ideas and discoveries of women for patriarchal legacies. This would become an important life lesson for me as a female scientist and academic.

When men can’t shut women up with language of authority, power, and knowledge (more “sophisticated” and legitimated means of controlling women), they simply revert to the tried and true method of harassing and threatening them. When that doesn’t work, they can rip the carpet out from under marginalized folks by stealing their contributions and rendering them invisible. Sadly, it works. Science has been effectively doing so for over 200 years.

Privilege will always try to silence others to protect itself.  But, as always, onwards and upwards.  I’m still a scientist, I’m still an atheist, I still value rationality . . . I just keep a skeptical woman’s eye on it all from a safe distance.  The vegan rationality community is a dangerous space for many critical thinking women, and it’s nothing I want to be a part of. My efforts here are shared in hopes of reaching readers who value social justice and critical thinking, and those women who might be comforted in knowing they are not alone in their experiences.


A version of this essay was originally published on July 16, 2013 on The Academic Activist Vegan.

Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about vegan atheism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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