Reading Time: 17 minutes Farm Sanctuary Pigs in gestation crates
Reading Time: 17 minutes

I posted an old essay of mine the other day with this preface:

I wrote this years back and have not looked at it since. A few week ago, I was approached by “Philosophical Vegan” (PV) who told me that when you search for veganism an philosophy on Google, my essay is one of the first search results. That’s pretty cool, unless, of course, the essay has problems. PV seems to think it has many, and that it may. You see, it was written pretty hastily and a long time ago, and I may well have refined my views since writing it. It was more of a psychological reaction to what I perceived was a pretty psychological position. Anyway, what I want to do is post my original article, with those caveats, and then post PV’s rebuttal to it, before writing a rejoinder to sum it all up.

I think this sort of thing is important. Doing philosophy, for me at least, is rather like the scientific method: you put your views out there to be challenged and attacked, and in so doing find out whether they are lacking. If they are, you adapt them accordingly. As time goes by, your views become more refined and more robust.

You can also discuss with him at his website. Here is the whole piece in one place. I will, this week, respond to it:

The original article touches on a number of important issues, but doesn’t really delineate them well.

The issues are:

1. What is good?
A. Animal ethics
B. Environment
C. Human utility
2. How do we judge a person as better or worse than another?
A. Progress & Means
B. Perfection & Fatigue

The second is the more complicated issue, so I’ll cover the others first.

I think we both agree on the consequential perspective of ethics, and in some sense that ethics are fundamentally based on questions of harm and welfare of some variety. There’s no need to go over why deontology is arbitrary and dogmatic, and beyond that impossible to practice due to pervasive conflicting interests in reality.

I think we also both agree that sentience is an essential component to harm, and that there is a scale of value from the least sentient (like insects) to the most sentient (like humans). I don’t think any of us place moral value upon plants and bacterium, and there are sound scientific reasons not to: they do not have the means to be sentient, headlines about “plant intelligence” are yellow journalism. Plants are complicated and responsive in the way of watches because they have evolved to be so, but do not exhibit true learning or intelligence in the proper sense.

I would clarify that the interest based framework (which Singer waffles on) is the most consistent metric: you may subscribe to an interest based framework, or a hedonistic one based on sense experience. The conclusions are similar, except a couple differences. Most relevant to animal agriculture is that the interest based framework does not support the argument of a sudden and painless death assuming a mediocre future (few of us want to die an untimely death, painless or not, because we have an interest in living). And an interest based model does not support taking the pleasure pill in that famous hypothetical scenario (not many people want to live out their lives in a euphoric stupor of maximal pleasure, but rather want to live lives of meaning and purpose).

Since the conclusions are so similar in most cases, however, I can address most of these arguments without needing to establish common ground on that premise.

1.A. Animal ethics.

I think you agree on the topic of vegetarianism, that it would be better for animals if we didn’t raise and kill them for meat, and that the same treatment doesn’t make any difference to plants since they have no notion of their own existence anyway (even if it did, the animals killed for meat eat far more plants than would be needed to feed people instead of the meat).

I can agree that in limited circumstances in producing very high welfare vegetarian food (egg, wool, maybe milk) these animals could lead long, relatively happy and fulfilling lives worth living. A much more limited amount of meat could be produced in this way, by using the body at the end of what would be the animals natural or happy life — the same, of course, could be said for pet dogs, cats, and even humans (as ghoulish as that sounds).

However, the vast majority of animal product production doesn’t meet anywhere close to ethical standards we could accept as uncontroversially providing good lives. And 99.9999% of the time, it’s a safe assumption to make that the production of animal products any given vegetarian or carnist is consuming are creating miserable lives, and ending them as soon as they’re done growing to market size, or are no longer useful for production of consumables like dairy, eggs, and wool. None of these animals enjoy a retirement.

Suggesting animals might have it better on certain kinds of farms than in the wild (a highly questionable claim already) is also irrelevant, since that’s not the alternative here. Vegans generally want to stop breeding these animals into existence, not continue our practice of artificial insemination and then suddenly turn the product out into the wild to fend for itself. Gradually, as society stops buying, the farms will stop breeding.

These are the same kinds of arguments that have been made in favor of slavery before it was abolished — even down to the “happy slaves make better workers, so owners are incentivized to provide them high quality lives” ideas. It’s just not true.

Yes, in theory, it may be possible to have happy slaves, and it may be possible to keep farmed animals for their products and let them live fulfilled lives. It may even happen sometimes, but can it happen reliably? Can we trust farms to follow ethical standards, or will they inevitably cut corners for profit, or due to human incompetence? Can we even trust people who keep their own farmed animals not to be subject to cognitive biases, convincing themselves the animals are happy when they aren’t?

All of this speculation is where tentative veganism comes in, i.e. abstaining from animal products because we have no reliable source, or reliable knowledge on how to source animal products in a way that would be ethical to the animals themselves, not due to any kind of dogma.

These issues came up recently with vEGGans, particularly revolving around this sanctuary that sells eggs to support the cost of caring for the chickens:

There are also other practices like freeganism, ostroveganism/bivalveganism, and invasivorism, which could be ethically justified. These are the real issues that deserve contemplation.

Unfortunately, the nuance of these arguments is lost on most people, and all they take away from it is, “see, it’s OK to eat meat. Off to McDonalds then”, and I am concerned that may also be what many people who have read this article have taken from it.

All other things being equal, in terms of animal ethics, it is safe to make the generalization that a vegan will hold the “moral high ground” over a meat eater because of the typical behavior, just as it’s safe to say slavery is wrong, despite rare counterexamples, and that the institution and general social acceptance of these practices is wrong.

1.B. Environment

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that no sensible secular person cares about the Earth itself (as a large rock in orbit around a burning ball of hydrogen) any more than the ongoing environmental catastrophe on Venus. We care about the consequences of environmental change upon the inhabitants of the Earth: all animals, human and non-human. We care about the present and future consequences of environmental damage to these sentient beings. We care about the capacity of the Earth to support ongoing life for creatures with lives worth living. So, environmental problems and animal (and human) ethics have a clear exchange rate by which they can be compared.

There may be some deontologists and theists who believe it’s wrong in and of itself for a species of plant to go extinct even if it has no effect on anybody or anything else, “just because”, or just because “god put it here”. That’s not a rational argument, and not one I can really address here.

In terms of the consequences to the environment, though, we’re talking about harm to animals and humans; harm to ecosystems which harms animals, and denies humans resources (like the potential life saving drugs to be found in rain forests).

These are scientific questions, and they should be answered scientifically.

“I remember going to a debate on what was better: organic, seasonal or local produce. The end result was that nobody knew. Each had their pros and cons that were different and not mutually comparable.”

They can be compared. The problem is that the appropriate way to do that is not an informal debate, but a rigorous scientific study evaluating carbon footprint and environmental damage.

When you look at the science, it becomes clear that organic is not a scientific answer (the evidence for local and seasonal consumer behavior is variable). There are a few good ideas in organic agriculture, and there are a few occasional bad practices in some conventional agriculture, but overwhelmingly the practice and promotion of organic agriculture is not good for the environment.

Organic offers lower yields, higher prices (which has been shown to cause people to eat fewer veggies — many people, if they can’t afford organic just won’t buy veggies at all), requires substantially more human labor for weeding, often uses MORE pesticide, and MORE dangerous and unregulated “natural” pesticides (which are less effective at killing the pests, but more dangerous to human health: natural does not mean good), and the cross-breeding and radiation based mutations they use are less effective and more dangerous (occasionally even creating toxic plants) than the high precision gene editing of modern agriculture.

In shunning best practices in conventional agriculture, organic has paved the road to hell on Earth with its good intentions.

When it comes to “natural” meat, it’s even worse. The arguments for the environmental benefits of grazing are pseudoscience:

Across the board, factory farming is better for the environment than any other meat production. And that’s a dismal fact, because factory farming is really terrible in itself.

I not only disagree that “Bill” has done more good than “Judy” in terms of his organic choice (irrespective of meat consumption), but I believe Bill (while wasting his time and money on organic agriculture) has done substantially more harm (with good intentions, but none the less). With respect to these two issues, Bill is doing two wrongs, while Judy is doing none.

I know you’ve supported organic agriculture for a long time, but I hope you’ll be able to avoid the sunk-cost fallacy, and examine the evidence with an open mind.

That said, it is conceivable that there is a meat eater out there somewhere who does less harm than a vegetarian or vegan, because our impact on the Earth is not just a question of whether we eat meat or organic. On average meat is far worse for the environment than plant foods, but there are exceptions. There are bad plant products, like palm oil. And there are arguably good animal products like rope grown oysters, or eating invasive species.

I mentioned ostrovegans and invasivores earlier, and those points hold for environmental impact too.

A vegan who is eating palm oil probably has little room to take any kind of moral high ground against somebody who is otherwise vegan but eats oysters: in fact, the opposite may be the case, and an oyster eating ostrovegan may have the moral high ground on a palm oil eating ‘vegan’. However, as stated in the last section, these are rare and nuanced exceptions, not the norm of carnism today or in our society.

In order to cut environmental damage down in other parts of one’s life so much as to match a vegan avoiding animal products — an industry that’s widely reported to be as polluting as the entire transportation sector — a person would have to virtually become a forest hermit. Going vegetarian or vegan, or ostrovegan, or even just radically reducing meat consumption, is the single most effective and practical thing we can all do.

There is more we can do, sure, but with rapidly diminishing returns, and the burdens of those changes far exceed what most people would see as practical — it’s also not something that serves as a viable example for society in general. It would not benefit us to encourage everybody to return to the primitive lifestyles of our paleolithic ancestors, and with over seven billion people in the world, it’s very unlikely such a move would even be sustainable — it would also be an immense hit to the quality of human life, while going vegan would improve it.

Which brings me to my next point:

1.C. Human Utility

Since publishing this article, hopefully it has become more apparent that animal products do not benefit humanity in the broader way you originally suggested.

It’s long been known that the saturated fats in land-animal meat and dairy promote heart disease.

Despite the best efforts of cholesterol skeptics and conspiracy theorists, this is and remains the scientific, governmental, and NGO consensus:

Skinless chicken is only recommended as a replacement for other meat (they don’t necessarily advise people to eat it), and only in limited amounts (whereas nobody credible says to limit your bean intake). Chicken is arguably a “lesser evil” in nutritional terms, but it still contains saturated fat.

Fish is different in that there are recommendations for moderate intake (twice a week) for the general population (although not for vegetarians), because it contains a more polyunsaturated fat profile, along with EPA and DHA which may reduce risk of heart disease.

So fish is an exception, being a meat that stands out as potentially having some meaningful utility.

Vegans can get omega 3 from nuts and seeds, and also get DHA/EPA from supplements made from algae, the original source where the fish got it to begin with (although evidence on the benefit of DHA/EPA is mixed, and it may not be useful for most people).

More recently, the World Health Organization came out with their report of the cancer risks of red and processed meat, with the certainty of processed meat being causative comparable to the confidence level in cigarettes. (WHO clarifies the number of cancers likely caused by red and processed meat. To put it in perspective here, it’s over 14% the prevalence of cancer caused by smoking: 85k vs 600k a year, respectively)

Chicken (not yet studied by WHO) and Fish are lesser evils for cancer risk, but may not be far behind as we establish better controls in epidemiological studies. These meats also contain high levels of problematic substances (like Methionine and Heme Iron, which seem to feed cancer and be directly carcinogenic respectively), along with substances metabolized by gut microbes in regular meat eaters that are pro-inflammatory and associated with heart disease and possibly elevated cancer risk as well, like TMAO — the mechanism of action is there.

And it gets worse if you cook the meat in a conventionally ‘delicious’ way. Grilling or frying at high temperatures inevitably produces HCAs in extremely high quantities (quantities which only occur in meat) by chemical reactions occurring with creatine, and grilling adds PCAs into the mix too — both known mutagens that damage DNA and can almost certainly cause cancer.

Apparently the Japanese had the right idea in eating raw, or low temperature pasteurized fish. However, even that is not ideal due to the factors I mentioned above, as well as environmental contaminants like heavy metals and marine toxins.

When it comes to nutrition, eating animals is unnecessary, and that’s scientific consensus:

“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”

The bottom line is that we do not need meat to meet our nutritional needs, and with the possible exception of a limited amount fish, it’s just increasing health risk without any benefit over plant foods.

But do we need it for food security? No. There are undeveloped countries that for lack of other industries and modern agriculture need animal agriculture and fishery right now (like herding nomads, and many coastal regions throughout Africa). I don’t dispute that. However, in the developed world we have plenty of other food to eat available year-round.

Our process of making animal products is nothing short of wasteful and destructive, with feeding several times the amount of food to animals than would be needed to feed humans directly, using antibiotics in large amounts creating antibiotic resistant “superbugs”, and as you already mentioned immense waste of water resources. Fishing is a little different, but it has its own problems, too.

For the sake of our food security into the future we have to stop eating meat. The developing world will take some time (and need some help) to catch up, but we can’t use their situation as an excuse to continue behavior that is totally unnecessary for us when we have the resources not to.

In no sense do we, as inhabitants of the first world, need or benefit from animal products in our diets, or on our bodies. There are some good arguments to be made for the utility of animal testing for life saving medical treatments (that’s another discussion), but that’s already an exemption widely held by vegans: when it comes to necessity and human life, it is no longer “possible and practicable” to avoid animal products.

Taste and convenience, I’m sure you know, are not really utilities of eating meat on a social scale, because as society adopts and embraces more vegan foods, both are naturally accommodated (which we’re already seeing: look at Ben and Jerry’s new non-dairy Ice cream line, Beyond Meat, Gardein, even store brands of vegan options). There is nothing inherently in meat that makes it any more delicious to human beings than something a talented chef can prepare from vegan means. The issue is one of a short lived transitional inconvenience: people who go vegan do not typically crave meat all of their lives, but stop wanting it or even usually become averse to it in short order, much like an ex-smoker.

  1. How do we judge a person as better or worse than another.

I’ve said this is the more complicated issue, and it is, but I’m going to keep this short and leave it a bit open ended, because while we can make quite objective evaluations on how much harm something does compared to its utility, judging human beings based on the effects of their actions is a sensitive matter.

I’ve examined animal agriculture from three perspectives: Harmful to animals, harmful to the environment (more so than any other easily preventable cause), and harmful to human beings presenting no practical utility in the first world to make up for those harms (I can say it’s a lot easier to respect pescetarianism, though, since it at least has less negative utility).

Animal products are bad. But does that make everybody who buys them in any amount bad?

2.A. Progress & Means

We don’t all have equal means, and the way you have postulated the “moral high ground” evaluation misses that entirely: this is not how we deal with judgement in reality, and it’s not something we think of as fair or reasonable.

I would submit that it’s much more impressive to meet a vegetarian from Texas than a vegan from San Francisco. What I’m talking about here is not crude harm footprint, but the margin of effort the person made to be a better human being considering his or her circumstances.

Two lacto-ovo vegetarians, one born vegan and one raised on steak and potatoes, represent a massive difference in moral vector: one has become a worse person, and one has become better. And that, I say, is how we should evaluate people: not as numbers, because if we play the number game we all may be losers, but in terms of willful change. It’s not where somebody is, but how far that person has come, and where that person is going still. Regardless of their respective harm footprints today, a complacent vegan who has no interest in learning more about what foods are the most sustainable, how to reduce energy usage, or otherwise help the world (“I’m good enough already, I’m vegan”) is probably a worse human being than somebody who is every day willfully improving: cutting down on meat, dairy, eggs, palm oil even; advocating to help others; and all around making a persistent effort to always be better today than he or she was yesterday.

There are no obvious arbitrary lines of “good enough”, we all can and should keep working on doing a little better all the time.

“I must also reiterate that vegetarianism is beneficial, in my opinion, to society as a whole. What I should not do (if I was one) is to automatically assume the moral high-ground over those who were not vegetarians without knowing their ethical repertoire, if you will.”

Based on your premise of evaluating harm footprint, I disagree entirely. It’s one of the safest assumptions I could possibly make that any given meat eater (organic bike riding habitual recycler he or she may be) will have a larger harm footprint in this world than any given vegetarian. I might be wrong one in a million times, but I’ll take those odds. I have worse luck at assuming a person’s gender.

However, based on how I judge people, I completely agree that it’s an inappropriate assumption. I don’t need to know their current “ethical repertoire”. I just need to have a very general sense of the effort they’re putting in to become a better person. Where are they from? How were they raised? Are they reducing animal products? Are they working on being more destructive instead? This is the real relevant information that tells me about who they are as people — what their moral characters are really like, apart from the matter of circumstance.

“Vegetarianism is fairly obvious and a relatively easy decision to make. It is ethically beneficial on several levels, and most people choose not to be vegetarian out of the love of meat, the variety of food this enables you to have and most prevalently, the laziness of the meat-eater. It takes a large effort to change one’s entrenched behaviours. I am one of these people: I ethically approve and would like to be a vegetarian, but am honest enough to say that I am a meat-eater still.”

It seems like you saw something difficult, were discouraged by an all-or-nothing attitude or the fatalism of a self-fulfilling prophecy (the mere deceptive thought of “I can’t”), and gave up. This is a common problem in the way people think about going vegetarian. Leaping from the bottom to the top of a mountain may be an impossible effort, but you can take a step, right? And then another step. And another. If you had started slowly reducing and replacing meat products when you wrote the original article, you might be practically vegetarian today without having ever extended any inordinate effort in the process. Why not start doing that today?

We all have improvements to make, and a long way to go to “perfection”. There’s nothing to say we’ll even reach it, but the measure of our ethics — of who we are as people — is the effort we put in to make continual progress.

2.B. Perfection & Fatigue

As to the project of moral perfection, you summarized your position on fatigue:

“There is no ceiling to consequentialism, so it comes to where we draw that arbitrary line. We should probably all be Jains, but somewhere along that continuum, we give up the moral project.”

Over many generations in some hypothetical future of world peace, maybe we could imagine something like that being good. But it isn’t today. There’s a calculus to moral behavior.

While there’s a lot to potentially disagree with on PETA’s positions, their position on practicability (which is an essential part of the definition of veganism) is spot on:

“We discourage vegetarians from grilling waiters at restaurants about micro-ingredients in vegetarian foods (e.g., a tiny bit of a dairy product in the bun of a veggie burger). Doing so makes sticking to a vegetarian diet seem difficult and dogmatic to your friends and to restaurant staff, thus discouraging them from giving a vegetarian diet a try (which really hurts animals).[…]

Remember that every vegetarian saves more than 100 animals a year from horrific cruelty—and by encouraging people around you to follow your lead, you can save many more.”

Our influence upon others in the context of the society we live in does a lot more good than anything we can personally do, so sometimes doing a little less (in terms of being a practicable example) is actually doing more. We must be careful not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. In this sense, there is a very strong argument for not being obsessive, and remaining an example people can see themselves following. Mercy for animals even has an article on why they ask people to go vegetarian, and avoid the “v-word”, “vegan”:

With psychology and statistics, we’re getting a better idea of what effective altruism means. And in terms of serving an optimal example and having the best positive impact, it means there are diminishing returns — and perhaps even harmful ones — from obsessive and impractical behavior.

In all of these respects, Jain monk behavior is not optimal, and the excess caution they take today probably morally useless. Remember, Jains are after personal spiritual purity, not necessarily doing their best to make the world a better place by practical methods. It may be the least harm they can do personally, and if humans were totally isolated from society there may be an argument for it, but in terms of systemic consequence, it’s probably much worse than vegetarianism.

Similarly, 99.9% vegan (avoiding the obvious things) is probably better than 100% in reality because of the obsessive effort 100% takes that would rub people the wrong way, and that would be better devoted to making up for that otherwise unavoidable harm with more good. It may not go so far as eating a steak under the excuse of a “Paris exemption” when you’ve already made the change (eating something obviously meat would probably strike people as more hypocritical than relatable), but if it comes to making a hard sell, it’s better somebody does that than nothing by a long shot. Ongoing study into what people find compelling and are able to imagine themselves doing is important.

We should model behavior that can catch on: there’s a limit to how much dedication is actually useful in a social sense. Perfection is a concern for people in a hypothetical utopian future, not for today. This probably goes for rate of change in the judgment framework I suggested too. As far as it stands now, we should make an ongoing effort to improve by cutting out animal products, and reducing our footprint in other ways — week by week, year by year, and at a reasonable pace that can inspire rather than intimidate others.

If, for example, we go vegetarian one year (the biggest positive change we can make with the least effort), go vegan the next (probably the second largest), then the next year work on composting, then recycling greywater, etc. This would be a pattern of ongoing progress that builds upon the prior year in terms of knowledge and infrastructure without demanding too much of us at once, never sabotaging our moral project out of fatigue. It’s a story that can encourage others, while if we were to do (or try to do) all of those things at once or recommend the same of others, the effort may seem (and even be) insurmountable.

There’s a serious risk of people, daunted by the sheer magnitude of the tasks before them, succumbing to an all or nothing psychology and choosing to do nothing or, as you said giving up on the moral project at some arbitrary point along the way, rather than pacing themselves to achieve everything they can over time. So, please don’t be daunted: be inspired. Don’t condemn or make things look difficult: be inspiring and show others a practicable model. We may all be at different points along this road, the important thing is being on it. As long as you’re making progress, that’s what matters.

At a certain point it is sensible to judge people for dragging their feet, but we had better be familiar with their situations and the amount of effort they really have to spare if we do: people who are barely surviving may not have much energy or time to dedicate to moral improvement. That would be somewhat like judging a poor person for not donating as much to charity as a rich person. But anybody with the interest and time to have made it through this article isn’t in that situation: it’s important to be honest with ourselves and hold ourselves to standards of a certain amount of effort put into personal change: to set goals and make sincere effort to meet them.

Go vegetarian, then later go vegan, then don’t stop there, but don’t burn yourself out either and model behavior other people can follow. In a few hundred years we should be so lucky to deal with the “problem” of worrying about how to become more perfect in a utopia.

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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