This is the first part of my long promised reply to Philosophical Vegan (PV). It is not really a rebuttal because, essentially, I agree with much of what he says. This may come as a surprise and shame to my meat-eating readers. I have not shied away from admitting, as a thread through my writing on this topic, that vegetarianism is morally better than eating meat, and admitting that I am imperfect. I fail to live up to the perfect moral standards that one sets oneself in idealistic hope.
First of all, links. Here is my original essay on vegetarianism and veganism, where I looked somewhat at the psychology of adopting the moral high ground, as well as some of the moral claims. Here is Philosophical Vegan’s full rebuttal of my essay. What I do find important to note is the strength of psychological biases. We must be careful that we don’t post hoc rationalise eating meat merely because that is what we do and that is what we want, intuitively, to continue to do. I commend PV for putting a science- and evidence-based approach as the key driver in his writing and philosophising.
Part of the problem with making claims about veganism is that there are so many different types of veganism. For example, should one eat honey or not? Bees are absolutely vital in the pollination of vegetable and horticultural crops, and without harnessing their pollinating proclivities, we would be in serious trouble as vegans. But one can easily make an exception for bees, considering their necessity and lack of pain receptors and other neural mechanisms involved in the calculations as to whether farming them is morally acceptable or not.
Another problem is the vast range of farming methods that go on, from the most intensive methods, to those that figure the welfare of animals as much more important. This also creates complications in calculating the ethical merits of each. For example, it is now beginning to be well recognised that intensive farming techniques are ethically more responsible for the environment, on a macro scale (climate change, etc.), than smaller, more animal friendly farming methods. Or, in other words, it can be a case of battling climate change vs animal welfare; achieving both is nigh on impossible. More on that in the next part.
I am interested in this quote from PV’s piece:
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.
I would say, in the general sense, this is most likely correct. But let’s take an extreme case and see if we can work with that. I used to keep chickens in my back garden. They lived a pretty good life, as far as I can tell. That, however, assumes that chickens rate the same sort of things that I do – the outdoors, those little freedoms. How can we tell that animals are leading miserable lives. Of course, in the worst of conditions, we can make some pretty good inferences. Let’s take a dairy cow. I wonder, if you could ask a magic cow that had been given self-awareness and sentience of a higher order, whether being taken advantage of, milked and farmed was worth it for the life of grazing in a field and hanging around with its cow acquaintances. The same could be said about sheep and wool.
Death comes to all animals, including us. Would we prefer not to exist merely on account of death? In the same way, and not taking into account the manner of death, would animals kept in relatively good conditions, and leading potentially “happy” lives, take that existence and a death (to be eaten) over non-existence?
Obviously, such questions are impossible to answer, and also require the animals in question to be kept in universally decent conditions.
Just thinking out loud, but are we, as humans, in some sense farmed throughout our lives to pay taxes, only to die at the end, sometimes pretty horribly? Indeed, we are often kept alive through that pain and suffering without being allowed to be “put down”!
I did like this point that PV made, sort of addressing my previous points:
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?
As I said, calculating animal welfare or wellbeing is no easy thing. Regulation and rigorous enforcement is obviously important here.
In reality, I had not contemplated or realised the variety of veganisms. I suppose there is a similarity to religion: there are as many versions of Christianity as there are Christians. People can adapt any eating regime they like. There is no dogma that means one must eat exactly X – people can create their own bespoke veganism, or Xism, as fits their moral evaluations.
Which leads on to this idea of “tentative veganism” – an idea which holds some good moral fibre. If one cannot sensibly derive, from available information, robust conclusions about the ethical provenance of any given item of food, then one should assume the worst. Abstinence is the safest moral option.
From this section of the piece, on animal ethics, is the important claim:
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.
This is an argument you hear a lot, and I used a version of it, with a little more explanation:
Is it better that a chicken doesn’t exist, or exists happily in a free ranging comfortable environment whilst laying unfertilised eggs to be consumed by a random bloke who occasionally picks them up and strokes them?
Perhaps there is no answer to this. No value can be assigned to non-existence. So let’s compare a free range chicken in my possession with a wild chicken in the jungles of Asia where they are native. The constant threat of predation, a less comfortable roost, no veterinary support if they become ill, no separation if there is unnecessarily vicious henpecking must surely mean that a free range chicken leads a more comfortable and happy life than a wild one. Maslow’s hierarchy would imply a happier chicken is a free range chicken. Chickens do not understand notions of possession such that I own them and they are not free or wild, and as such this is perhaps irrelevant to the discussion.
In this case, it seems obvious that it is better to have free range chickens than to have wild ones.
So where vegans seem to argue that non-existence is better than a whole range of potential existences, I argued that you simply cannot compare these things. And I think I still would. I seem to remember Schopenhauer arguing this, though I could be wrong: that you simply cannot argue comparatively with existence and non-existence. It’s not like comparing a value with zero, as a value. It’s comparing a value with a non-value.
Therefore, I think there are problems in comparing any type of existence with non-existence, especially if you cannot access the experiential opinion of the animal itself.
Perhaps, then, a tentative veganism is well able to be applied here. Perhaps not.
I will save my comments about environmental impact (such that the more space you give to animals, the less efficient they are, and the worse for macro-environment they are) for the next section. Suffice to say that, without taking environmental impact into consideration, then of course legislating for the most animal welfare in farming as possible would be the most ethical course of action.
That we buy far too much meat products without even considering this or the environment at all is an indictment of our own moral fibre. Those who do favour animal welfare over anything else (such as macro-environmental impact) are at least trying to be more morally accountable and responsible, even if, as will be discussed in the next post, this may be arguably poorly calculated. The moral intention is at least better than moral apathy, or self-delusion about the moral evaluation of eating meat.
In essence, with his first section, there is not an awful lot I disagree with.