Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

What is a counterfactual and why should you care? Suppose that I say, “If only Thomas Jefferson had championed the cause of the abolition of slavery then slavery in America would have been abolished when the United States was founded.” That’s a counterfactual. It poses a solution to a problem (or a cause for some effect) that runs counter to the facts as we know them. Why should you care? Because, staying with the example, it the counterfactual was true, then supposedly we would know something valuable about abolishing slavery, something we might be able to apply to eradicating slavery where it still exists today.

 By now, you have seen the problem with counterfactuals, that is, how in the world are we supposed to know whether they are true? How can we, almost 250 years after the fact, say anything meaningful about what might have happened had events in the past been different? We can’t, not the least because what we call history is necessarily incomplete and inaccurate.

I suppose that if today my 8 year-old neighbor Johnny crashed a baseball through my living room window that I could be fairly well justified in saying “If only Johnny had played baseball at the park rather than in my front yard, my window would still be intact.” Do we have any justification for supposing anything meaningful about what might have been the case in the history of the abolition of slavery with respect to what Thomas Jefferson might have done? That seems impossible. While I can be fairly well justified, on a practical level, in knowing the circumstances of my broken window and Johnny’s participation in that, we have at best very weak justification for supposing anything about the complex reality of slavery in America – a reality that involved millions of individual people, actions, events, motivations, and other factors. At best, our history can only ever be a rough sketch, an approximation of what happened, our best guess at how things once were. Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t find meaning in history, or that we have no understanding about the past. Certainly we do. What it means though is that when we suppose “If only this had happened rather than that” we are engaging in speculation that has less and less value as the events under consideration increase in complexity and drift further back in time.

So, what does this have to do with animal rights? Only this: When someone says, “If only all the major animal protection organizations had been promoting veganism all this time, imagine where the animal movement would be right now,” they are posing a counterfactual. Now, it is tempting, when hearing this counterfactual, to nod one’s head knowingly, as if to say, “Oh yes, if only that had been the case, things would be so much better now.” But, as tempting as that might be, we ought to resist. We simply can’t know how things would be now if only things had been different then; speculation at this point is counterproductive.

The second problem with this particular counterfactual is that it is not even clear that promoting veganism now is the most effective strategy to actually increasing the adoption of veganism. Social-psychological research indicates that, in general, most people do not alter the fundamental aspects of their identity, nor change their behaviors, when presented with reasons why they should. If we think that it would be better for more people to be vegan, it is likely that we have to do something other than just present them with an argument for veganism. It is important to note that, in many cases, large organizations who advocate for other animals have been trying do just that.

Counterfactuals – those statements that ask us to consider what would be the case now if only things had been different then – are interesting as thought experiments but aren’t very helpful in the real world. In the specific case of the counterfactual that asks us to imagine how the world would be if only veganism had been championed all these long years, not only are we being asked to dream of a present based on an unknown and imaginary past, it isn’t even clear that championing veganism now is the best way to achieve our goals.

What if all the major animal protection organizations had been promoting veganism all these years? Who cares? They haven’t been, and we don’t know what difference it would have made had they been. Rather than wasting time in thought experiments about what might have been, better that we set about making a difference in the here and now.



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Comment by Tim Gier on October 4, 2011 at 5:23
I was thinking about racism in America last night. I find it entirely implausible that at any one time there was any thing at all like a sudden major change in the consciences of most people with regard to people of color and what they were due. Rather, I think that there were incremental changes in what society would tolerate in regard to the treatment of certain people. That is, while certainly many people were rightly concerned with whether any white man accepted any black man as his equal, the primary concern was that prejudicial behavior stopped. I suppose that most people now think it would be better that all people accept the equality of all other people. But, I also suppose that most people also realize that if any one person wants to be a bigot, that's his business, so long as he doesn't harm anyone else in the process. So, while we recognize that what people think is important, all that ultimately matters is what people do.

If it is generally true that people who have knowledge do not act on that knowledge, and if it is true that changes in belief often occur as a result of prior changes in behavior, then engaging in some kind of vegan education that is limited to the transmission of information from one person to another is bound to fail in the long run. That wouldn't mean that the transmission of information can't be part of what brings about cultural change, it simply would mean that vegan education, so construed, can never be sufficient.

It is generally true that people who have knowledge do not act on that knowledge, and it is true that changes in belief often follow on from prior changes in behavior. People who ignore these things in order to cling to their preferred prescription for social change do so at the peril of the very cause they champion.
Comment by Monique on October 4, 2011 at 2:45

I agree.   It seems to me that those who promote vegan education as the sole (or even major) tactic are ignoring everything we know about human psychology.  Humans rarely change their behavior in response to rational argument or even appeals to emotion.  Arguments and feeling are offered after the fact as rationalizations of behavior, but they are not often the cause of behavioral change. 


Essentially what we are trying to do is create widespread changes in behavior.  The things that actually influence behavior have been studied, and findings from these studies have been employed in many social marketing campaigns in the recent past.   I think we need to look at these earlier campaigns to learn what works and what doesn't.


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