An Activist's Life = A Meaningful Life
First of two talks presented by Matt Ball at Their Lives, Our Voices 2008; second talk.
Since I stopped eating animals 20 years ago, I have met countless people who have been very motivated to take action for the animals. Yet many of these people are no longer active, and some have even stopped being vegetarian. This is a big problem, and addressing it requires facing some fundamental questions about human nature.
In the end, most everyone wants to be happy. This leads to the basic question: What can bring real and lasting happiness?
Based on people's actions, it would seem that greater wealth is the key. It is human nature to desire more, to strive for a greater share, regardless of what we already have. Over the eons, individuals who pursued and obtained the most (e.g., food, partners, social status, and other signs of "wealth") were the ones who prospered and passed on their genes. The connection between "having" and the continuation of one's genes was not conscious; rather, it was manifested in the individual's drives and desires to accumulate, a discontent with the status quo, and envy of those with more. As Robert Wright summarizes in The Moral Animal, "People weren't, of course, designed to be relentlessly happy in the ancestral environment; there, as here, anxiety was a chronic motivator, and happiness was the always pursued, often receding, goal."
These innate desires, built into our genes over the course of many millions of years, have not disappeared. Since our bodies are programmed with a view toward possible scarcity, and for judging our situation against those around us, there really is no such thing as "enough." It would appear that nothing satisfies the drive to accumulate – there is always more to have, and there are always those who are better off. In short: evolution has left us with a nature that pursues without end (for more, see Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, by Richard Layard).
For example: Americans are now about twice as rich as we were in the 1970s, but Americans are no happier now, according to studies. Similarly, even lottery winners revert to their former baseline of happiness (The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt; also see Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert). The phrase isn't "the pursuit of happiness" for nothing! Ultimately, the counterintuitive (and hard to accept) fact is that happiness simply isn't to be found in wealth or possessions.
Once we recognize our ancient drives, we can more clearly and logically pursue what really can be important. Rational analysis reveals the pitfalls of our evolutionary heritage, and can thus free us from drives and desires that prevent us from achieving sustainable peace and happiness. As rational beings, we can make decisions about how to live our lives based on logical and consistent derivations from first principles – concepts that we rationally recognize as important, defensible, and irreducible.
The Meaning of Life: Making a Difference
Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (1993):
It is easy for us to criticize the prejudices of our grandfathers, from which our fathers freed themselves. It is more difficult to distance ourselves from our own views, so that we can dispassionately search for prejudices among the beliefs and values we hold.
If we are to be free of the constraints that limit most people – that is, if we are to make rational choices the basis of our lives – it is critically important that we do seek out what is fundamental, rather than accepting the beliefs of our parents, the preaching at the local church, the current social views, the most recent best seller, etc. Just as reason shows us our biological baggage, reason also shows our cultural encumbrances.
Reason allows us to rise above all of this is by showing us a larger perspective, allowing us to take the "point of view of the universe," where no one's interests count for more than anyone else's. What do we find from this objective perspective? Honestly and thoroughly considering a universal view shows that virtually all actions can be traced to a desire for fulfillment and happiness and a need to avoid and alleviate suffering. In other words, thousands of years of philosophy can be summarized in nineteen words: Something is "good" if it leads to more happiness, and something is "bad" if it leads to more suffering. This is simplistic, of course. Yet, despite the fact that some situations are difficult to analyze thoroughly, in general, focusing on consequences is the most consistent way to maximize good outcomes.
Given that pain – physical, emotional, or psychological – is generally the single greatest barrier to happiness, eliminating suffering must be our first priority. In other words, suffering is irreducibly bad, and the alleviation and prevention of suffering is fundamentally good. I am in no way discounting the value of pleasure, but in the end, I agree with Richard Ryder who said, "At its extreme, pain is more powerful than pleasure can ever be. Pain overrules pleasure within the individual far more effectively than pleasure "
Once we recognize that suffering is fundamentally bad, and thus eliminating suffering is the ultimate good, we can each dedicate our life to reducing as much suffering as possible. From these primary principles, we can give up the futile pursuit of happiness, and, rather, live our lives beyond ourselves, for what is truly important. We can transcend our genetic and cultural programming and experience the full potential of our humanity and the richness possible in our existence. From a rational, universal starting point, we can choose to author our life's story, rather than following the narrative set for us by our genes and culture. We can rise above the self-centered and immediate. We can be a part of something greater.
If we are to be a part of the elemental good of eliminating as much suffering as possible, we must, of course, be vegetarian. I assume it goes without saying that we can't be truly humane, truly human if we are a part of a system so very callous, so inherently brutal that it will kill off, through slow, agonizing means, hundreds of millions of animals, even before they reach the slaughterhouse. Consuming flesh foods from modern agribusiness not only pays others to exploit and butcher fellow feeling beings; it not only affirms the view of animals as unconsidered cogs in the machine of profit; but our purchases are what give agribusiness the resources needed to grow and brutalize more of our fellows.
By choosing to be a vegetarian, we will accomplish a great deal of good over the course of our lives – we will spare many hundreds of animals from the malicious maws of modern agribusiness.
But each one of us could accomplish much more, in just one hour!
This may sound like an informercial scam, but it is true – for every person you convince to go vegetarian, you double the impact of your life's choices. So, if tomorrow you hand out 60 booklets to new people, and just one person decides to go vegetarian, you will have saved, in only one hour, as many animals as you will save with every choice you make during the rest of your life.
In other words, if we agree that being a vegetarian is vital, then we must recognize that being an effective advocate for the animals is many times more important. Efficient outreach has truly enormous potential; if you think compound interest is a good deal, effective vegetarian advocacy allows for exponential returns!
In his book Meat Market, Erik Marcus writes:
When I was a teenager, my greatest ambition was to one day be a millionaire. [Later] I adapted the millionaire concept for purposes of activism…I wanted to [keep] a million animals out of slaughterhouses.… But is it realistic to think that a typical person could keep a million animals from slaughter? Absolutely!… At two thousand [land] animals saved per new vegetarian, this means that during your life, if you convince five hundred young people to become vegetarian, a million animals will be saved.
With a reasonable level of investment, each one of us can do this. You don't need to start a group. You don't need to pass a law. You just need to make the choice to join with the others who are writing their own narrative, who are working for something bigger than just themselves. Vegan Outreach can provide you with the lessons from decades of experience and all the tools you need. We exist to help everyone and anyone, in every situation, be the most effective advocate possible for the animals – for a world not just a bit less bad, but for a fundamentally better world.
Leaflets don't print themselves, however. Vegan Outreach is dependent upon the financial support of those who recognize the importance of effective advocacy. There are many demands on our limited time and money, and we must choose to invest our scarce resources to do the most good. Working to expose and end the hidden horrors of factory farms is the best possible investment – every new vegetarian pays dividends every year, in terms of their food choices and the example they set for others.
The Advocate's Example: A Meaningful Life
The question then is how to be the best possible advocate. In the past 20 years, I have made many mistakes. At my talk tomorrow, I will discuss in more detail some of the lessons I and other Vegan Outreach activists have learned. But I want to touch on one quickly here.
Society's stereotype of vegans is a significant roadblock to widespread change. No longer does "vegan" need to be explained when referenced. But unfortunately, the word is often used as shorthand for someone young, fanatical, and isolated. In short, "vegan" = "unhappy." This caricature of vegans guarantees that veganism won't be considered – let alone adopted – on a wide scale.
Regrettably, the "angry vegan" image is based in reality. Not only have I known many fanatical vegans, I was one. My self-righteousness gave many people a lifetime excuse to ignore the hidden realities of factory farms.
As a reaction to what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses, very strong feelings, such as revulsion and fury, are understandable and entirely justified. Over time, people tend to deal with their anger in different ways. Some take to protesting, some to screaming, hatred, or sarcasm. Others disconnect from society and surround themselves with like-minded people, seeing society as a large conspiracy against vegans. Although understandable, none of this does much to help the animals and move society towards being more compassionate. If we are to take suffering seriously, we must deal with our anger in a constructive way.
It is not enough to be a vegan, or even a dedicated vegan advocate. If we want to maximize the amount of suffering we can prevent, we must actively be the opposite of the vegan stereotype. The animals can't wait until we get over our despair. We must learn "how to win friends and influence people." Regardless of the sorrow and outrage we may understandably feel, we must leave everyone we meet with the impression of a joyful person leading a fulfilling and meaningful life.
Remember our ultimate goal: reducing suffering. To change the world, we need to convince others to think beyond themselves, to open their hearts and minds. We must do the same. If I claim that I can't be happy because of the suffering in the world, I am saying I am not in control of my own life. If I allow myself to be miserable because of the cruelty in the world, I am adding to the suffering in the world. If I can't be happy as a vegan, how can I expect others to be interested in veganism? Just as we want everyone to look beyond the short-term satisfaction of following habits and traditions, we need to move past our anger to the meaningful action of optimal advocacy.
I'm not saying that we should put on an act of being happy. Rather, for reasons discussed earlier, I believe that we can truly be happy, because unlike most, we have the ability to control our own destiny, to author our own narrative, to recognize and be a part of something larger than ourselves, something truly important.
Reason for Optimism
There is another reason to be optimistic and upbeat: the progress we are making. If we look at the long arc of history, we can see how much society has advanced in just the last few centuries. It was over two thousand years ago that the ideals of democracy were first proposed in ancient Greece. But only during the eighteenth century did humanity see the beginnings of a democratic system. Not until late in the nineteenth century was slavery abolished in the developed world. In all of human history, only in the last hundred years was child labor abolished in the developed word, child abuse criminalized, women given the vote, and minorities given more civil rights.
It is hard to comprehend just how much society has changed in recent history. Prejudices we can hardly fathom today were completely accepted just decades ago. For example, if we read what was written and said about slavery – fewer than 150 years ago – the defenders were not just ignorant racists, but admired politicians, civic and religious leaders, and learned intellectuals. What is horrifying to us now was once common and respected.
However slowly we may feel that we are progressing today, we are advancing at lightning speed in comparison to past social justice movements. Just a short century ago, almost no animals received any protection whatsoever from abuse. Now, ninety-seven percent of people want to see animals protected from abuse, sixty-four percent want strict laws regulating the treatment farm animals, and fully one-fourth believe that animals deserve "the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation." Until 1990, there was one ballot initiative to protect animals that had passed at state level – just one! Since 1990, animal advocates have passed more than twenty, including several directly abolishing some of the worst abuses
Animal activism in the developed world has never been stronger or more effective, and we're getting more and more effective each and every day. For example, the first systematic national effort to reach our most receptive audience – Vegan Outreach's Adopt a College program – was only launched in 2003. In large part because of the recent shift to vegetarian advocacy and our efforts to reach people directly, factory farms – unknown to most people only a decade or two ago – are now commonly vilified as ethical abominations. Twenty years ago, few people had heard the word "vegan." Finding vegetarian meat and soymilk was nearly impossible. Now you can find soymilk, veggie burgers, and various other vegetarian convenience foods
Because of the number of individuals suffering and the reason behind this hidden brutality, I believe that animal liberation is the moral imperative of our time. We can be the generation that brings about the next great ethical advance. We should revel in the freedom and opportunity we have, the chance to be a part of something so profound! This is as meaningful and joyous a life as I can imagine.
We have no excuse for waiting. Taking meaningful action for the animals doesn't require anything other than our choice. Again: You don't need to start a group. You don't need to pass a law. You just have to make the choice to be a part of this vital work.
In the end, in our hearts, we know that, regardless of what we think of ourselves, our actions reveal the kind of person we really are. We each determine our life's narrative. We can, like most, choose to allow the narrative to be imposed on us, mindlessly accept the current default, follow the crowd, and take whatever we can.
Or we can actively author our lives, determining for ourselves what is really important. We can live with a larger purpose, dedicated to a better world for all.
The choice is fundamental. The choice is vital. And the choice is ours, today.
Read the follow-up: Advocacy for the Greatest Good.