I’m so excited to welcome a new contributor, Eliot Michelson – a Ph.D. Candidate at UCLA who delves deep into the ethics of veganism and presents some very challenging worries. This is the first in a series of posts that Michaelson will contribute on this topic, and I hope you’ll stick with us and share you thoughts below as his questions lead us toward a more comprehensive understanding of our own beliefs and behaviors and refine the ethical arguments for veganism.
– Joshua Katcher, Editor
I’m an academic philosopher by training and I’m going to try to offer an honest assessment of some of the more interesting, non-trivial philosophical issues surrounding the ethics of veganism. This will be the first in a series of posts on this topic. I’m going to do this one of the ways that philosophers sometimes tend to – by first offering reasons to doubt that one ought to be vegan. To be clear, I’ve been vegan for over ten years now, so that’s where my personal sympathies lie. But, as a professional philosopher, I will do my best here to divorce myself from such sympathies. My aim, ultimately, is to refine the ethical arguments for veganism by subjecting them to repeated scrutiny and then building them up once more. I’ll also do my best to keep this as accessible and jargon-free as possible (no promises, but thankfully Joshua has agreed to do some editing). As a result of the approach I’m taking, it may be that my posts serve only to piss off or confuse vegans and to disappoint academic philosophers. I hope not, but feel free to write me and express your disappointment or praise if you feel strongly about it.
So, today I’m going to introduce a worry I’ve recently started to have about justifications for veganism. In subsequent posts, I will offer some tentative responses to the worry. Before we get to the worry itself, however, let’s put some background on the table: throughout these posts, I’m going to take it as a given that the world would be a better place without animal suffering and death for food production. I take it that this, perhaps in conjunction with other considerations, means that there is some sense in which we, collectively, shouldn’t eat animals. I take it that a number of good arguments can be given for this: many (and perhaps most, or even all) of the animals we eat have various features (feeling pain, being conscious, developing loving attachments to conspecifics, etc.) that plausibly confer on them some degree of moral status. That moral status means that they have some claims on us, including a claim not to be harmed by us. Additionally, the way that we currently cultivate animals for food does massive damage to the environment (methane production, overgrazing, intensive water use, etc.) and also involves an unacceptably high human cost (repetitive stress injuries, and just flat-out injuries — often rather grisly — being commonplace in U.S. slaughterhouses), both of which I take to be very bad. For the time-being, I’m going to take the case here to be clear: we, collectively, shouldn’t eat animals. The question I’m going to explore below is whether this means that we, individually, should refrain from eating meat. The worry I’m interested in suggests that the answer is ‘no’.
In order to introduce the worry I have about justifications for veganism, it will help to first consider an analogous, but slightly simpler, case — one involving voting. There is a classic, and somewhat well-known philosophical problem that arises out of voting behavior, and which generally goes by the name `the paradox of voting’. It runs as follows: hopefully, you feel some compulsion to vote (you should!). Yet any individual election in which you have ever voted, and any election in which you ever will vote, is highly unlikely to have been decided by just a single vote. That means, in effect, that your vote was useless. What’s more, you could have done something else with your time instead of voting — something that might not have been useless. You could have exercised, or volunteered, or taken your dog for a walk. But since your voting was useless, wouldn’t doing any of those have actually been better than voting? Of course, if everyone were to follow this line of reasoning, the result would be very, very bad. That is why this is a hard philosophical problem — the reasoning looks good, but all of us following through on it consistently would lead to an unacceptable outcome.
Let’s call the analogue of the paradox of voting, applied to veganism, the `futility worry’. The futility worry basically tries to drive a wedge between the way that we, collectively, ought to treat animals and the way that we, individually, ought to eat. In slightly more detail, the worry is that individual decisions not to eat meat have no real effect in reducing overall animal suffering and death. In other words, such decisions are futile. If that’s right, then, given this futility, we might worry that there’s no real reason to refrain from eating meat. Our strongest ethical reason for such restraint must be a concern for animal welfare. But if any particular decision to eat meat won’t affect this, then why shouldn’t we go ahead and eat meat?
So much for the sketch of the futility worry. Why though should we take it seriously? Well, suppose that one is currently a meat eater. One could then opt to stop eating meat. But this won’t have any effect on the current state of things. Some number of animals have already been killed to supply the grocery stores, restaurants, etc. that one might frequent. Those animals are dead, and your decision to purchase meat now will have no effect on how many animals have already been killed. Therefore, if your decision not to purchase meat is to have any direct effect on animal welfare, that effect must run by way of your sending a signal to meat producers that fewer pieces of meat — and, thus, fewer animal deaths — will be required in the future. (Decisions not to eat meat might have some indirect effects on animal welfare as well — such as contributing to a social environment where beating animals is generally considered unacceptable — but I assume that ethical vegans and vegetarians generally hope their actions will result in fewer animal deaths more or less directly, by signaling the meat production industry.) Such signaling, by way of making purchases or refraining from doing so, is often called `economic signaling’. The futility can thus be summed up as follows: we have good reason to believe that, with regard to animal welfare, such economic signaling will be highly ineffective. And if such signaling is ineffective, we have no obligation to be vegan or vegetarian.
…if your decision not to purchase meat is to have any direct effect on animal welfare, that effect must run by way of your sending a signal to meat producers that fewer pieces of meat — and, thus, fewer animal deaths — will be required in the future.
But why should we take it that such signaling is ineffective? The basic problem is that meat eaters nowadays tend to buy their meat from a variety of sources — different grocery stores, a variety of different restaurants. This is no longer a world where meat is mostly bought at a local butcher. What this means is that when a meat eater stops eating meat, the economic signal accompanying this choice is `spread thin’ across this rather large number of meat-providing establishments. One more steak sold or unsold at a restaurant or grocer, the worry goes, is highly unlikely to influence that establishment’s purchasing behavior. Likewise, one case more or one case less of meat shipped to a particular restaurant or grocer may well have no effect on overall killing (remember, like most parts of our modern economy, there is a fair bit of waste in the meat-production system; some percentage of meat produced is always thrown away). Conversely, if one is currently a vegan or vegetarian and were to start eating meat, the economic signal generated would be extraordinarily weak relative to any particular grocery or restaurant. This decision would, in all likelihood, lead to no increase in actual meat production. But if we suppose that one of the main goals (and perhaps the goal) of being vegan or vegetarian is to reduce overall animal death for meat consumption, then we have reason to worry that the decision to not purchase meat is ill-aligned with achieving this goal. The most direct route to reduced animal death (having to do with eating habits, at least) goes via economic signaling, but the choice to abstain from meat should be expected to have little to no actual impact on the total number of animal deaths in the world — so weak is the actual signal here. But if we have reason to think any particular one of us choosing to abstain from eating meat will not result in fewer animal deaths overall, then it seems that we (individually) have no reason to refrain from eating meat.
Let me pause briefly to reinforce this worry about economic signaling. Whether or not there is a genuine worry here depends, of course, on how restaurants and grocery stores actually act. I’m no expert on this, but it seems reasonable to think that, typically, restaurants and grocery stores attempt to keep slightly more meat in stock then they expect to sell — so as to minimize both waste and angry customers (friends tell me that, in grocery stores at least, the amount of meat thrown away is actually more on the order of 30% or so). If that’s right, then one steak more or less sold is unlikely to tip the balance in any particular situation and lead a store or restaurant to order more or less meat in the future. Of course, in contrast to voting, it’s plausible that one might occasionally tip the balance. We’ll consider whether or not this offers an adequate response to the worry in a later post. For the time being, let’s grant the proponent of the futility worry that if one only has a very, very small chance of actually reducing overall animal death by abstaining from eating meat, then this turns out to be a much less significant ethical decision than most vegetarians and vegans have wanted to think.
Okay, so if you’re like me and a committed vegan, you might be thinking right now: shoot, that’s depressing. But maybe something went wrong in our reasoning above.
Okay, so if you’re like me and a committed vegan, you might be thinking right now: shoot, that’s depressing. But maybe something went wrong in our reasoning above. Maybe indeed. In my next few posts, I’ll explore several possibilities for what I think may have gone wrong (I’ve already gestured at one of these). Before wrapping this up though, I want to explore a possible response that I wouldn’t put much stock in: call this the `active involvement response’. According to the active involvement response, the proper ethical aim of veganism (that is, whatever beliefs one might have about the healthiness of veganism — I’m no expert there) is not to reduce overall animal suffering and death, but rather to bear no direct personal responsibility for that animal suffering and death. This sort of motivation for veganism doesn’t obviously fall prey to the futility worry, but it does suffer from some other serious deficiencies. In particular, it seems to rest on a rather strange understanding of why we ought to act in one or another way. Typically, if I am concerned with not being responsible for something bad happening to something, that’s because I think that that something is valuable. Think about the way you value your close friends: it’s not just that you want to make sure that you don’t harm them personally. Rather, you want for them not to be harmed, period. Why? Because they are valuable to you. A concern with animal welfare that extends to only your own personal choices seems, well, strange.
Think about the way you value your close friends: it’s not just that you want to make sure that you don’t harm them personally. Rather, you want for them not to be harmed, period. Why? Because they are valuable to you. A concern with animal welfare that extends to only your own personal choices seems, well, strange.
What’s more, it’s not clear that the active involvement response actually does avoid the futility worry. The problem, once more, is that any animals you decide to eat today have already been killed. Nothing you do now is going to have any effect on that. So it’s not clear how, in choosing to eat a steak now, you bear any personal responsibility for the death of the cow that you are now eating. After all, the cow was already dead when you decided to order the steak. If that’s right, then the active involvement response really is a non-starter; even with its strange view of value, it won’t serve to motivate veganism.
To summarize then, I think that the futility worry should be a fairly significant one for committed ethical vegans and vegetarians. It’s not clear that our individual choices actually make any animals’ lives better, at least in and of themselves. That said, I think that there are other good reasons to be vegan or vegetarian — and not ones having to do with the health benefits of not eating meat. Again, I would claim no expertise with regard to those, and if those are the only reasons we have for not eating meat, I will be severely disappointed. Thankfully, I don’t think that’s the case. In coming weeks, I’ll explore what I take to be some more promising responses to the futility worry.
(While footnotes seem to me out of place in a blog post, it is worth noting that the `futility worry’ as discussed here is an analogue of another futility worry, regarding carbon emissions, introduced recently in a Ph.D. thesis by Mark Budolfson. Budolfson’s discussion is also very much the genesis of many of my own thoughts on this subject.)