23. Februar 2024

Critique of the political aspects of CEVA workshops

First and foremost let me stress here that I am not against CEVA workshops. CEVA is the Centre for Effective Vegan Advocacy and their workshops are held by Melanie Joy and Tobias Leenaert across the world. Our group VGT has organised such a workshop in Vienna as well. So, yes, please do participate in those workshops and take a number of relevant skills with you. But that should not stop me voicing some criticism.

Underlying the workshop as the ethical basis is – unspoken – utilitarianism. A very crude and naiv version even. While Peter Singer stops the worst aspects of utilitarianism by introducing basic rights for beings with a sense of self in time, CEVA doesn‘t seem to be doing even that. On the other hand, in contrast to usual versions of utilitarianism, CEVA counts killing as damage too, sometimes as the only measurable damage. The aim is to reduce as much suffering and as much killing as possible. CEVA seems to think that this is the usually accepted majority opinion of the animal advocacy movement, which is really surprising, because in my experience it is not at all. And with good reason.

I do not want to go into all the incredibly many shortcomings of this approach. One could ask the question why this is not at all our ethical approach to humans. When it comes to humans, we all believe in human rights, or do we not? Nobody is talking about reducing suffering as the guiding principle. The difference is obvious: if an elderly lady living somewhere alone without being friends to anyone and having no relatives, but a lot of money, is swiftly killed, her money could be used to save thousands of humans from suffering and death. If we want to reduce suffering, this is the way to go. But we consider that murder. It is contrary to human rights. This is why we are not utilitarians, when it comes to humans. Then why be utilitarian, when it comes to non-human animals?

This aspect is mirrored in the fact that all social liberation movements for humans do not mention at all the reduction of suffering as their primary cause. Its about liberation. The liberation of women, slaves, blacks and, generally, outgroups from oppression within society, that is the cause. And that is something very different to wanting to reduce suffering. It might well be – and indeed a lot of people within the movement of „effective altruism“ argue that as well as CEVA – that being in the power of a well meaning human is often better than being free. Thats why according to this view wild animals should ideally be in human care. Lennaert indeed showed a wild animal, being hungry or hunted by another animal, in his CEVA workshop part and suggested that this should be an issue for us as much as farmed animals. Without saying it aloud, CEVA suggests that liberation from supression is not the issue, is not a goal, but reducing suffering is. A benevolent dictator not withstanding.

An example by CEVA of good activities based on this view is a model doing an advert for a slaughterhouse and then spending the money she earned by that on vegan outreach. CEVA just calculates that overall there is less suffering if she does that, never mind if she personally becomes involved in the promotion of the senseless killing of non-human animals on the slaughter line. By that logic it might be worth running a slaughterhouse if all profits go into vegan outreach. Radical utilitarianism knows no ethical bounds as long as the consequences overall are less suffering. That reminds me of a person wanting to slaughter a real live cat in the city centre of Vienna, argueing that people seeing this would make them understand the brutality of slaughter and feel empathy with farmed animals in the same situation. We actively prevented this action from happening because it directly contravenes the basic rights of the cat. From the animal rights perspective, the consequences play no role at all.

Those and similar criticisms were not answered at the CEVA workshop. Those weird consequences of their underlying ethics were simply ignored. Such a discussion was not promoted. But CEVA stressed clearly that it is an advance in their view if a consumer changes from chicken meat to beef, because for the same amount of meat, fewer animals have to suffer. Strangely, though, at the same time if somebody switched from factory farmed to free range meat, that was not considered an advance. On enquiry, the lecturers said that they haven‘t thought about it yet, as veganism is their goal. Even from their utilitarian point of view: is it better to get a person eating one day per week vegan and 6 days factory farmed meat, or all 7 days meat, but only free range. Which would mean less suffering? This calculation was never done.

But my primary concern is the consequence that seems to be drawn by CEVA from their utilitarianism in their suggestions for activism. The approach seems to be that there is a world with a huge amount of suffering from different causes and a good person will try reducing this amount. CEVA does not seem to differentiate at all between the causes for suffering. If it is due to oppression in human society or an avalanche in the wild, it all counts the same. Interestingly, if a person turns vegan and thereby stops abusing animals, this is considered reducing suffering in the world. So if I stop abusing somebody than I act good by reducing suffering? A political view would be that I have to stop because my abusing the other is unjust and the other has the right not to be abused. Instead of saying somebody stopping abuse is good, I would rather say that they act justly and right.

Justice, liberation and suppression are all terms that never surfaced at the CEVA workshop. There was no comparison to other liberation movements, no analysis of oppression in human society, no mentioning of capitalism. In fact, the CEVA view seems to be to totally ignore the political side of the animal issue and reduce it to a personal lifestyle or consumer choice, or simply to being a good private person reducing suffering by helping others.

Activism, as CEVA uses the phrase, seems to be only to talk others into changing their habits and living a life of a good vegan example. Activism was mentioned in the workshop as talking with somebody about veganism while they sit beside you on the aeroplane. This is why there was a lot of emphasis in the workshop to make you able to communicate effectively, meaning friendly, supportive, positive. You should talk in a way that others love you and like you and want to be like you. That way you get them to become vegan. CEVA also stressed that we should not show cruel pictures, at least not before asking the other person if they agree seeing it. Cruel pictures were explicitly banned from the workshop and the talks. All this underlines the underlying approach: being animal friendly is a personal and private decision and not a political issue of liberation. Lennaert even made a joke about using the term „liberation“ in the context of animals.

Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Frederik Douglass and other shining lights of liberation movements all stressed the fact that there is no (political) change without a conflict. They would say stop the friendly chit chat, demand justice, and demand it with vigour, showing the cruelty as it is. Yes, pictures of animal abuse are unsettling. And that is good, because as a political movement we want to unsettle society. No, I do not need effective communication if I do an action that is intended to disrupt consumerist business as usual, as Martin Luther King explicitly demanded. If we want a political, a structural change to society, we need to fight. That is the clear message from the old guard of the liberation movements. Is that outdated? Were they wrong? Do we know better today?

I have a real worry. You know, in the 1990ies we did everything possible to make animals a political issue. We tried to force all parliamentary parties to include animal issues into their agenda and into their election program. We tried to get them to have spokespeople for animals. We tried to establish a ministry of animal welfare. And now I hear CEVA to essentially say that this does not matter at all. Animals are not a political but a private issue. Just be nice to them and spread the word. Even: a good activist is one where the opposition does not even realise their activism, i.e. if you persuade someone to go vegan without them realising that this was your purpose. There was another CEVA mantra: the form of communication is much more important than the content. The old guard above would have disagreed. The content must be clear, never mind if it bores people. With radical actions you will get them to listen. If your activism is not perceived as activism, you have failed.

Now, my worry is that in animal advocacy we are moving away from politics back into the private sphere. Maybe repression is felt so strongly that people consciously or subconsciously want to avoid conflict. So they rather want to hear that advocacy is best done privately, without anyone realising. The safe movement is also a case at hand. They arrange good terms with the slaughter house owners and then stand in front of the slaugther house not to protest, but to stroke and touch the animals when they arrive. Yes, activist life without confrontations is much easier, cosier, safer. But is it effective? Can we ever achieve any advance in the liberation of animals without a conflict?

CEVA counts the number of vegan options and the number vegan products available as their marker for success. Even if that happens for other reasons than animal ethics. We want to reduce suffering by any means necessary, remember? But these markers do not say much about the value of animals in society or their political stance or the degree of their liberation. If a country has a high percentage of vegans for merely historical or cultural reasons, or for health reasons maybe, without respect for animals and no any animal welfare law, does that mean this country is closer to animal liberation than one which is more meat based but respect for animals is a highly valued norm and there are stricter animal welfare laws? I guess CEVA would say the only thing that counts is the amount of animal suffering, full stop. Small wonder that animal welfare legislation is nothing they care about.

If we allow activism to become a private affair again, as it was before the advance of the animal rights movement, that would be a tragedy. I call that the new Biedermeier. The Biedermeier age in the early 19th century was a reaction to increasing repression, censorship and police powers against the democratic movement after the French Revolution. It meant withdrawing into private life. Everything neat and tidy, no awful pictures, no political talk. That was left to the authorities.

I sincerely hope that there is no new Biedermeier looming, not the least for the sake of an effective animal movement.

7 Gedanken zu “Critique of the political aspects of CEVA workshops

  1. martin,

    i don’t mind a debate, but i prefer one where the arguments of the person you debate with, are presented fairly and correctly. you mention the two aims i mention in my book (minimizing killing and minimizing suffering), but you neglect to mention that i also listed minimizing injustice towards animals, which by definition has a human cause. I define (p 10) a vegan world as one where animals aren’t made to suffer or killed wantonly by humans, and where almost all use of animals has been abolished.
    I have never claimed it is just about suffering (or killing), even thoug i think these are important.

    Re political action, i don’t necessarily think (nor have i ever said that, i think) that it is a matter of reasoning rationally with politicians. of course pressure and noise and struggle can be part of that. what i do say is that we should choose our targets strategically – as you seem to do in your campaigns.

    i understand your concerns about having not just very nice and non confrontational approaches, and i don’t suggest we only have those. i understand the need for political action. i understand your issue with utilitarianism and looking at suffering only. I understand almost all your issues. I think in trying to illustrating them, you’re just using the wrong examples and barking up the wrong tree, misrepresenting and strawmanning as you do it.


    1. @tobias

      A debate ist one where both sides present their arguments. Hence thanks that you did now. Insofar your position will not be misrepresented, as I inadvertantly might have done. I am happy to hear that you do not think the consequence of our acting is the only thing that matters ethically and that you do not think that reducing suffering and death is the primary or only ethical aspect to consider.

      However, the 3 goals you mention in your book are not presented neutrally. Firstly, you say that you assume (I think: wrongly) that most readers of your book will agree with the first two, ie reducing suffering and killing. If that really was true, I would say this would merrit a lengthy discussion of why this is problematic. On the other hand, just following the presentation of those 3 goals, you argue that there might be injustice without suffering, you speak of an infringement of “alleged” (quotes by you, presumably meaning that you do not believe in them, like if they were nonsense on stilts) animal rights and of speciesism, which you seem to find ok. From here on, and throughout the book, you do not argue from the perspective of rights, of injustice, of suppression and of speciesism, or am I wrong? The whole approach of yours seems to me totally utilitarian from start to finish. But good, if I just read that wrongly.

      My second essential criticism refers to political confrontational campaigning. If you endorse that, good, but that did not surface at all in your CEVA presentations, nor in Melanie’s. Again I stress, that its none of my business and I see myself not at all in the position of telling others what to do. But I think it is ok to point out that I am missing this essential asset in a workshop on vegan advocacy. Actually, I think that we will never reach a vegan society without a struggle and confrontation. Obviously, I might be wrong there. Thats why people should make up their own mind themselves and why there should be a public debate. But if I am right, as I obviously believe I am, then it would be essential to include that in effective vegan advocacy. The remainder of my argument follows from there, because for a political debate, confrontation is essential, hence the difference between political and private.

      A little hint that I am on the right track: neither you nor Melanie have so far faced repression, or have you? You probably never will. Thats because the powers that be do not consider you a threat. They do not fear from you a political change. They are happy with you spreading your vegan message the way you do – I say: on a personal lifestyle choice level. I have been on a pig factory farming conference and there they talked about challenges in the future. Veganism or vegetarianism or flexetarianism are not one of them, but animal welfare legislation is. According to their words. Maybe they misjudge, but so far they are right. They struggle very much with the new laws coming in (like a ban on sow stalls in Austria), but not with a diminishing demand. If I look at the statistics of meat consumption per head in Austria, there is (almost) no decrease whatsoever. Almost, because there is a decrease of some 2,5 % in the last 10 years, but that was it. Variation of consumption seems to be more due to the market price of animal feed than due to any other cause. In 1997, for example, meat consumption per head was less than it is today in Austria. Actually, beef and chicken consumptions per head have been increasing for the last 3 years each.

      We all can only do our best, and we all act as we think is most effective. I do argue, though, that there are good reasons to believe that confrontational approaches for political system changes are vital to end the suppression of non-human animals in human society. And I do fear that for one or the other reasons activists worldwide seem to move away from confrontational activism towards a positive campaigning approach only.

  2. I am personally disappointed that this public critique was posted, especially given that VGT was a co-host of our CEVA training. I would have preferred for Tobias and myself to be contacted directly so that we could address the concerns posted here. What concerns me most is that our work is, in many ways, misrepresented by this criticism. I won’t address the specific criticisms but I do want to say that they are not an accurate reflection or our approach or even of our personal beliefs.

    It’s true that we include a lot of psychology in our training, but that’s because our focus is on advocacy — and advocacy is informed by psychology. We of course want to achieve ideological change, but approaching ideology as devoid of psychology is like approaching language as devoid of grammar. My work in particular is political in nature and is focused on social justice and the transformation of systems of oppression. And for both me and Tobias, our focus is on harm reduction rather than simply the reduction of suffering. And we never argue against political activism or legislative campaigns, nor would we, as these are legitimate and important components for transforming oppressive systems.

    My hope is that readers of this post consider the validity of the criticisms before making a judgement about the politics and practices of CEVA.

    1. @ Melanie Joy

      I see no harm in debating those issues in the public. I have no personal problem to solve with you or Tobias or the CEVA approach generally. I wanted to trigger a debate in the movement about those issues, as I do fear that more and more activism is moving into the private sphere and that fewer and fewer groups and individuals dare to be confrontational. I would like to see sensibility towards that by the movement, not by CEVA. I think CEVA can and should follow their approach, as it is a valid one. But I do also think that the movement at large should see it in a wider perspective, including the downside of dropping confrontational approaches.

      Also, if I do misunderstand CEVA’s approach, maybe others do too. So, I again consider it good to debate that in public. I consider arguments and a debate with different opinions per se not as problematic. Its not about winning and being right, its about putting different viewpoints in the open for people to form their opinion within the movement. And that is fair enough, I should think.

      Regarding utilitarianism, it seems that this is very clear cut, in case Tobias’ book “How to create a vegan world” is anything to go by. On page 9, the first page of the first chapter, he makes it very clear that he thinks the goal of our movement should be “reducing as much animal suffering as possible” (no mention of its cause) and “reducing as much killing as possible” (never mind what its cause). And he also clearly says that he thinks most people in our movement agree.

      I very strongly disagree there. So strongly, in fact, that I cannot imagine anybody taking such a goal seriously. One thing is obvious for me: veganism is not the way to achieve that. By eating a fox, for example, you could argue that you reduced the suffering and death of all his or her future victims. In contrast, if you eat vegan tofu, in all likelihood by producing that a lot of animal suffering was caused by the production method, including pesticides and the use of large agricultural machines. Michael Archer did that famous calculation: in order to produce 100 kg of free range beef protein, you have to kill 2,2 cows. But in order to produce 100 kg of commercial wheat protein, you have to kill 55 mice. If the suffering reduction approach was true, you would have to choose free range beef.

      I have an easy answer for my view of veganism. It makes a huge ethical difference to directly kill someone or to produce inadvertantly collateral deaths. We make this difference very strongly with humans. We never treat them with utilitarian ethics without the safeguard of basic rights. But the utilitarians call basic rights “nonsense on stilts”. For them, such an argument is not possible. Why, then, should a utilitarian be vegan?

      Since utilitarianism has these very dramatic and very problematic downsides, they need to be addressed, I believe, if somebody promotes utilitarian ideals, even if only implicitly. I miss a debate on that at the CEVA workshop or at least in your books which you use as basis for the workshops.

  3. Martin,

    First of all, having been present at the same workshop, I think you misrepresent some of the opinions delivered by Melanie and Tobias. For example, they have never said that political campaigns are not important and have never spoken against pragmatic confrontative political campaigns. On the contrary, if you read Tobias’ book, you will clearly see that he recognises the importance of political campaigns (page 100-110, for instance) and he also recognises that the more sympathy the general public has for a cause, the more radically it can be campaigned for.

    Furthermore, as much as I understand your objection to the utilitarian ethics, I don’t see how it goes along with your pragmatic campaigning philosophy – for instance, supporting research into alternatives to battery cages. I see this as a clear utilitarian approach – sacrificing the rights of the hens used in the experiment for greater good.

    Moreover, I don’t understand your downplaying of the importance of more vegan products / more vegans, criticising that it doesn’t change the attitude of the society towards animals per se. Well, this sounds to me as if it was written by a hardcore abolitionist. In your own articles, you have always emphasised that people simply adapt to the system, that a system change later creates or helps to create an attitude change. So of course it is not enough to just have a lot of vegan products, but it is an important condition to be able to get real about animal rights. And this is exactly how Tobias feels about it.

    1. @Peter

      To the points you make:

      1) Political campaigning in Tobias’ book
      My essential criticism is that politics is a struggle. Politics is not a matter of having a better rational argument. I say this is someone who has done political “lobbying” (in the campaigning sense) for decades. Its a power struggle. In the pages you quote, there is nothing of that kind. While I understand the text in those pages as saying that animal welfare law improvements are rather unimportant, Tobias also seems to suggest that lobbying consists of putting rational arguments to politicians. My experience is that this leads nowhere. We need a loud and unsettling movement for political change, otherwise there will be none.

      2) Utilitarianism and pragmatism

      I can’t follow exactly what you are saying. I have abolitinist and strongly anti-utilitarian ethics, but I have very utilitarian politics. Do you mean that is a contradiction? Only if you think politics and ethics is essentially the same, which I do not. Ethics give you strict rules what is not an accepted political campaigning possibility. But otherwise, politics is consequentialist only, ie good politics is what moves society towards good ethics.

      I am not sure what you are refering to with the laying hens. Are you talking about the project to find ways not to cut the beaks of laying hens when they are outside their cages? I do not think any hen was abused for that project specifically. It was rather that companies using laying hens anyway changed this and that of their hen keeping management to see if that makes beak clipping unnecessary. A bit like somebody trying to improve prison management for humans, who is against prisons in principle, but is still cooperating with prisons to try out the effect of improvements.

      3) vegan infrastructure

      I might downplay vegan infrastructure in some sense, when I say that it alone will not change society. It also needs confrontational campaigning. But I do think that a vegan infrastructure is very important. In fact, I am co-founder of the vegan society Austria. Their only objective is to better the vegan infrastructure. And I co-invented the vegan summerfests in 1998. No, I do think that vegan infrastructure is vital for a “revolution” in the animals’ interest.

  4. Of course avoiding conflict/confrontation is much more attractive. And of course more people are ready to join a movement where you don’t have enemies. Do not fear: in my opinion this is just an other movement than the animal rights movement which has always been smaller. It’s not a bad thing that even people avoiding confrontation can find a way to contribute – as long as they don’t start working against those advocating rights instead of just kindness.

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