by Eliot Michaelson

The basic question I want to ask is this: suppose that you’ve been convinced that killing animals for food is bad.  You don’t want to be party to bad things happening, and accordingly you’ve become a vegetarian or vegan.  Still, you live in a society full of people who aren’t vegetarians or vegans.  So how should you interact with them?  Should you be tolerant of their moral choices, even if you’re convinced that these are the wrong choices (and even though, per our assumptions, you’re right)?  Or should you somehow alter the way that you interact with non-vegetarians?  Alternatively, for those non-vegetarians reading this, we can put the question as: are your vegetarian friends morally required, at least by their own lights, to shun you?

“…are your vegetarian friends morally required, at least by their own lights, to shun you?”

A brief aside for those who’ve read my older posts.  As you can probably tell, I’m setting aside the Futility Worry for the time being in order to focus on a different question: not whether or not one should be a vegetarian, but rather how one should conduct oneself as a vegetarian.  For the purposes of this post, I’m just going to assume that any time someone declines to purchase or eat meat, one is doing something good; correlatively, when one decides to purchase or eat meat (except perhaps in some very special circumstances), one is doing something bad.  We can assume that any individual choice has some direct or indirect effect on animal welfare, or not.  For present purposes, this won’t matter much.

Now back to the main question.  For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume that there are basically only two ways you can go (as a vegetarian) in response to quandary: first, you can be what I’ll call an “Accommodator”; or, second, you can be “Resolute” (admittedly, these are less than perfect titles, since it can often seems good to be resolute and bad to accommodate, and I don’t want to prejudge anything here — so please try to hear these neutrally).  What I mean by the former is that, in rough outline, you choose to offer your thoughts on why one should be vegetarian in some limited range of circumstances, and are willing to accommodate the preferences of your meat-eating friends, family, and acquaintances to a fair extent when attempting to coordinate eating plans with them.  Perhaps you start by suggesting a vegetarian restaurant or by offering to cook a vegetarian meal, but you’re willing to compromise on someplace that serves both meat and decent vegetarian fare if pressed.  Likewise, you probably avoid directly confronting these friends and acquaintances, at least regularly, about their leather shoes, jackets, etc. (though hopefully not fur).  On the other hand, you might choose to be “Resolute”.  That is, you might decide to voice your views on the evils of meat eating on a regular basis to those around you and to refuse to share a meal with others unless it is going to be exclusively vegetarian.  Obviously, there are quite a few options in between these extremes, and many vegetarians probably in fact vacillate at different points in their lives (I certainly have).  For the time being, however, let’s stick with our simplifying assumption and pretend that these are the two main ways that one might respond to the circumstance of being a vegetarian in the contemporary context — that is, in an overwhelmingly non-vegetarian society.


At first blush, it might seem that there’s an easy answer to this question of how we should act as vegetarians: we should act in the way that’s likely to maximize animal welfare (note: you don’t have to be a consequentialist per se to think that maximizing animal welfare is a worthy goal). Which way that is might itself be a bit contentious, but at least we know the contours of what this debate might look like. On the one hand, we might endorse Resoluteness.Generously, Resolute Vegetarians can hope, initially at least, to push a few of their on-the-fence friends and relatives into full-blown vegetarianism via their blunt and determined defense of it. Over time, however, the social habits of theResolute Vegetarian are likely to push her into contact with fewer and fewer non-vegetarians, thus reducing the chances for such encounters. What’s more, the attitudes expressed by the Resolute Vegetarian, coupled with their manner of expression, is likely to cause many — or even most — non-vegetarians to react defensively. On the other hand, sustained and less confrontational engagement with those individuals seems more likely to prompt some moderate changes in eating and shopping habits — at least reducing, if not eliminating, meat consumption and purchases of animal products.

These latter considerations point towards endorsing Accommodationism. Accommodators are likely to sustain their engagement with non-vegetarians more reliably over time, thus increasing the opportunities for success via a “soft push” towards reduced meat consumption and reduced purchases of animal products. The Accommodator’s approach may well prove to be equally, or even more, effective with most fence-sitters (though it may, perhaps, take a bit longer). Additionally, and non-trivially, Accommodators seem more likely to be able to sustain their own vegetarianism over time. That is, since Accommodators bear only the relatively low social costs of adopting non-standard eating and shopping habits, rather than the relatively high cost of segregating eating partners and alienating friends and relatives,Accommodators are more likely to find vegetarianism a relatively pleasant way of being — thus allowing them to sustain their habits over a longer period. In contrast, Resolute Vegetarians seem more likely to suffer from “burnout” and give up on vegetarianism altogether (granted, this will vary more than a little with personality).

There is a serious worry with this line of reasoning, however: while Accommodationism may well seem the superior strategy from the point of view of promoting animal welfare, there seems to be something unsatisfactorily weak about this position. Generally speaking, when someone is about to engage in a truly bad act, we typically feel some pressure to stop them from acting in that way — supposing this is feasible. So, for instance, when your friend starts driving recklessly — thereby endangering both you and any bystanders — or when he/she starts abusing his/her dog, you try toget them to stop. Or, at least, assuming that you are a decent human being you do. Perhaps your friend will react badly to this, claiming that your interference with his/her reckless driving or animal abuse is an infringement on his/her right to choose how to conduct herself as an individual. Still, intervening and enduring your friend’s criticism is clearly the right thing to do. And if he/she refuses to modify her behavior, it’s pretty clear that you should probably stop being friends with him/her (in addition to doing whatever else you can to prevent him/her from continuing to act in this way).

The question, then, is why the decision to eat meat should be any different. Vegetarians sometimes claim that “meat is murder.” I’ve never quite known what to make of this slogan (though I certainly grant that it is catchy!). But suppose,more precisely, that we claim that killing animals for food is a very bad thing (regardless of whether or not it comes close to the badness of willingly and knowingly killing another human being). If that’s right, then choosing to purchase or eat meat produced in this way would seem to make one essentially an accomplice to this very bad act of killing animals for food (strangely, it might well be that those who actually do the killing in contemporary meat production are largely blameless, since they themselves are economically exploited — but that is an interesting and difficult question in its own right). And, whether or not killing animals for food is directly akin to murder, being accomplice to it would itself seem to be a very bad thing. But this makes it seems that we, as vegetarians, have ample reason to avoid, at the very least, sharing non-vegetarian meals with non-vegetarians: choosing to eat meat is choosing to be an accomplice to a very bad thing, i.e. killing animals for food. And, generally, we should try to stop people from doing very bad things when we can. At the very least, we should not choose to fraternize with people who do very bad things and claim to enjoy it while they are in the process of enjoying those very same bad things! To do so would seem to be to tacitly endorse their actions — something which, if we really take those actions to be as bad as many of us claim to, we have every reason to avoid even the whiff of endorsing.

So the case for Accommodationism looks less stable than it might initially have seemed. A concern with animal welfare might initially push us towards being Accommodating, but considerations stemming from the moral weight of killing animals seem to tell in favor of the thought that Accommodationism is too weak a moral stance — that it risks making us, as vegetarians, complicit in the very system that we ultimately object to.

The question of whether to be Resolute or whether to Accommodate is, I take it, a question that resists any sort of easy solution. Accommodation is, for any number of reasons, likely to be the easier and more sustainable path for many,and probably most, vegetarians most of the time. What’s more, there is decent reason to believe that it may yield more substantial long-term progress in altering non-vegetarians’ eating habits. That said, there are good reasons to find it an unsatisfactorily weak response: if we vegetarians are right about the moral import of harming animals, then we are living in the midst of one of the most sustained and terrible moral atrocities mankind has ever perpetrated — namely,the modern meat production system. Anything short of throwing our bodies in front of this terrible machine of animal suffering and death is unlikely to constitute an appropriate moral response to the recognition of the sheer horror of this situation. The drive to be something more than Accommodating is, therefore, a deep one — and one not easily dissolved by appeals to the likely effects on animal welfare. A future that involves anything other than the full-scale dismantling of this system is, honestly, a morally intolerable one. Consequently, living one’s life as though things were, in general, normal and acceptable seems deeply inappropriate.

“…living one’s life as though things were, in general, normal and acceptable seems deeply inappropriate.”

But how to avoid those morally intolerable futures? The reasoning with which we began led us to think that Accomodationism was probably the best way to try to effect long-term change in others, given the resources that we have available to us as individuals. This, I think, points to an important limit to the present dialectic — and to the way that vegetarianism is generally conceived of in the present social context. That is, vegetarianism tends to be bethought of presently as an individual choice — a choice about the values that one wants to endorse via one’s own consumer behavior. In this way, refusing to purchase animal products or meat might be thought of as akin to the refusal to purchase non-Apple computers because one finds them aesthetically displeasing, or refusing to buy star fruits because they look funny.

But, as ethical vegetarians, the reason that we should have for avoiding meat isn’t some mere aesthetic revulsion. Rather, it is a moral commitment to the wrongness of killing animals for human enjoyment. As such, we should be interested in changing the world in such a way as to reflect this commitment. Consumer choices are very often a poor way of obtaining such changes. (This is not to say that they never work. Boycotts of lunch counters during the Civil Rights Movement clearly had a noticeable effect. Note, however, that the end goal there was not the elimination of lunch counters, but rather of a practice they only incidentally engaged in.) This suggests that we ought to view the present problem, the problem of how to act as vegetarians, as a properly political one — one that can only be dealt satisfactorily via a political solution.

This diagnosis of the problem would, in turn, offer one promising explanation of the instability of choosing between Accommodationism or Resoluteness: neither of these are properly political responses. Rather, they are value-oriented consumer positions, positions which make sense only within a system of laissez-faire capitalism in which individuals are expected to express their values not primarily as citizens, but rather as consumers. As we well know, however,such systems are terrible at preventing all manner of exploitative practices — as it turns out that consumers tend be either deeply misinformed, ignorant of, or just plain unconcerned with the values they express via their buying habits.(Unfortunately, we need only look to recent events in Bangladesh for a horrific reminder of this.) As vegetarians, we therefore need to re-orient our understanding of our goals away from individual changes in eating habits and towards larger-scale political action, with the explicit goal of restricting the availability of meat through the force of the law. No doubt this is a more radical orientation than most vegetarians are presently comfortable with. My point is that this orientation is, I think, where our moral commitments push us, whether we like it or not. As such, I would suggest that it is an orientation that we should in fact embrace.

The next natural question is “What might a vegetarian political agenda look like?” This is a question that moves beyond the bounds of ethics per se, and into the realm of applied political philosophy. Still, this is not to say that philosophers like myself have nothing to contribute to this debate. In my next post, therefore, I will start to explore how vegetarians might start to pursue, collectively, a coherent political agenda — and one that, with some luck, might lead to a fairly drastic overhaul of the meat production and distribution system of the United States and perhaps even beyond.

To be clear: none of this leads to any sort of direct resolution to the Accommodator’s Dilemma. In fact, I doubt that there is one to be had. What these considerations do suggest is that the way we ought to interact with non-vegetarians depends not only on what is likely to convince the greatest number of them to alter their eating habits, but also on what sorts of personal habits will make us optimally effective as advocates of political change, given the particularities of the social and political system that we find ourselves embedded in.

I am indebted to Liz Harman’s talk at the 2012 Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, “Eating Meat as a Morally Permissible Moral Mistake,” for first getting me thinking about these particular issues.