Ethical Veganism: A Critique

Inspired by the latest Cato Unbound symposium, I'd like to argue for why I think ethical veganism is possibly disingenuous.

Problems With Utilitarian Calculus

The first series of issues I would like to address involve ethical vegans' claims about mitigating the suffering of animals.

Their basic argument goes something like this:
  1. Animals experience at least some level of suffering and pleasure.
  2. Modern meat production imposes widespread suffering on animals.
  3. Even if animals are less morally important than humans, there is so much animal suffering in modern meat production that it overwhelms the human benefit of meat consumption.
  4. Therefore, we should not eat meat.
The first problem with this argument is that it presupposes that humans' pleasure from meat consumption is trivial. There is no amount of human pleasure that would be enough to convince an ethical veganism that eating meat was worthwhile. This suggests to me that the utilitarian calculus involved in this argument is disingenuous. Vegans simply assume from the outset that eating meat fails to generate enough human utility to justify industrial meat production practices. 

The problem is that actually demonstrating that animal suffering is so terrible that it demands we eschew meat was the very task ethical veganism was required to demonstrate in the first place. You had one job, ethical vegans, and you merely assumed what you were supposed to prove. Or even substantiate.

The second problem with this argument is that it discounts all utilitarian benefits to animals that come from industrial meat production. The most obvious benefit is existence itself; were it not for the meat industry, many if not most livestock animals simply wouldn't exist. There are other benefits, such as secured living space, protection from natural predators, opportunities to breed, veterinary care, and so on. All of these things are provided at no small expense to humans and confer at least some utilitarian benefits to livestock animals. Even if the utilitarian value of these things is very low, it's not zero, and thus it belongs somewhere in the moral calculus. The fact that vegans omit this step in the calculus, however, suggests that their utilitarian calculus itself is disingenuous.

A third problem with the utilitarian argument for veganism is that vegans already have responses to the arguments I've made above, but their responses are not utilitarian arguments

For example, when asked to demonstrate animal suffering, vegans often present explicit descriptions of what life for an animal is like on a factory farm. This is an emotionally gripping argument, indeed; but it is not a calculation of utility. We might agree that animals experience suffering on factory farms, but until that suffering is quantified in a way that counter-balances against the human pleasures of meat consumption, it is merely an emotional argument, and not a utilitarian one. If ethical vegans respond to utilitarian critiques of their utilitarian arguments with non-utilitarian reasoning, this suggests that their real reasons for ethical veganism are non-utilitarian reasons.

So, in three different ways, I have shown that the utilitarian arguments for ethical veganism are disingenuous. 

A Problem With "Animal Suffering"

Non-vegans frequently point out that plant foods must be grown, and therefore require farmland. Farmland deprives animals of their habitat, and thus also causes animal suffering. 

Vegans typically respond to this by reminding us that, on a per-calorie basis, plant foods require less farmland than animal meat. But, there are two problems with this argument.

The first problem is that, in making this argument, vegans have already conceded that their food causes animal suffering. They are no longer suggesting that veganism is an ethical alternative to meat-eating; they are only saying that veganism is not as bad for animals as meat-eating is. But ethics is about more than merely avoiding the most harmful thing, it's about avoiding any harmful thing at all, wherever possible. So, the problems with agriculture aren't limited to meat-eating; an ethical vegan ought to avoid any avoidable food that causes animal suffering "unnecessarily."

This brings me to the second problem of the argument. On a per-calorie basis, surely grains and many nuts are more efficient agricultural products than meat. But this cannot possibly be true of many vegetables, such as celery (a net-negative-calorie food), herbs, lettuce, spinach, and so on. These vegetables are extremely low in calories and therefore may actually be worse for animal suffering than the raising of traditional livestock animals. And I hasten to add that this is true of the environmental impacts of such products, as well

Ethical vegans who wish to remain philosophically consistent should not just eschew meat, but also any vegetable product that causes more animal suffering than it's "worth." Yet, the dearth of animal-welfare arguments against the consumption of celery and parsley among ethical vegans demonstrates either that they haven't thought through the implications of their own arguments very carefully, or that the arguments themselves are disingenuous.

A Conclusion

Now, when I say "disingenuous," I don't mean to suggest that ethical vegans are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. I'm only suggesting that the arguments in favor of ethical veganism, as presented by ethical vegans, cannot possibly be the real reason these vegans believe in veganism. If, for example, a person came to believe in veganism based on utilitarian arguments, then that vegan would either be capable of providing utilitarian responses to utilitarian criticisms, or he would have to admit that the matter is as-yet unresolved. When was the last time you heard a vegan do either?

So why are people ethical vegans? 

One possibility is that they have an emotional attachment to animals that causes them to look upon industrial meat production with disgust. It's an emotional reaction, but not a hard one to understand. It's also thoroughly unobjectionable. If the way cattle are butchered makes you sick to your stomach, why should you have to eat beef? That, alone, is a valid reason to eschew beef. There is no need to pretend to be an ethical vegan. There is no reason you can't avoid meat for the simple reason that meat production seems icky to you. If so, it would be better to simply acknowledge things as they are.

Another, more unsavory, possibility is that ethical veganism is a type of moral grandstanding. To have extremely high levels of empathy is a high-status position. Imagine how much higher-status it is to have so much empathy that you are even capable of extending it to other creatures. Some people even extend their empathy to trees, even to rock formations. The more we proclaim our concern for increasingly more inanimate non-human things, the more we seem to say to our fellows, "Look here, I am the caring-est one of us all. Behold the extent to which I care for things!"

It seems likely to me that most self-proclaimed ethical vegans are some combination of the two. They don't like meat, they are grossed-out by meat production, and they want other people to know how much they care deeply for the welfare of all things. I have no objection to people's taste in food, and I don't fault anyone for being grossed out by the meat industry. My only "beef" (get it?) is with disingenuous arguments and moral grandstanding.

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