I have been exceptionally busy and am somewhat behind on this project. Let me pull on what I said in the previous piece:
This is the second 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.
The second part deals mainly with the environment, primarily being the consequences of the world’s health on sentient beings like ourselves, and to biodiversity. Similarly to PV, I am a consequentialist of sorts, though with many caveats. Indeed, PV states:
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.
PV goes on to talk about the organic vs seasonal vs local vs animal harm vs climate change affecting properties of eating meat. These aren’t, of course, all mutually exclusive. He has an interesting, and perhaps a rare and more rationally scientific approach to his food ethics than others in that he denies organic as being particularly ethically sound when compared next to other farming methods. Of course, there are many different value frameworks one can adopt when comparing ethical provenance of food – does lack of animal harm trump CO2 emissions? What about biodiversity encouraged by organic farms when compared to monocultural farms who, despite lack of such, offer better CO2 emissions stats?
It is difficult to compare these things, even though he says science can help here (and it can), because the problem is about what your axioms are, what your starting points are. Science can help to give answers when these axioms are assumed, but it does not help define the axioms, and which ones are the most appropriate. If we are going to eat meat, then pitting animal welfare against emissions is a matter of what value you see as most important. And yes, both can be instrumental to a defined goal – but that goal would itself be a sort of axiom. There is arguably a good deal of subjectivity here.
And, as mentioned by PV, there are possibly some very ethical meat-eaters who do a better job than some vegetarians who opt for a lot of palm oil or other problematic crops. But, in general, we should take the average consumer of both, and I would have to agree that vegetarians are much more ethically defensible consumers than meat-eaters, across the board, for a lot of different reasons, from animal welfare to the environment.
The list for the benefits of a vegetarian diet on the planet is vast, and a good place to start is the documentary Cowspiracy, which can be viewed here:
As you can see, I am disagreeing little with PV.
Human utility is less something that interests me in being a consumer. In other words, I am not worried whether something is healthy for me, as a consumer, or not. That is why, when I have supported organic, I have not done so in claiming it is healthier for me, as a human.
Now, there are considerations here, and it is not so obvious. I have seen this being argued with regard to smoking, and the cost to society. Because smoking kills people early, the cost in healthcare provision until death, some say, is less than the welfare of a healthy person who lives some 40 years past retirement age, eating into pensions and welfare provision, and becoming ill with another ailment associated with age.
So, yes, prima facie, it is no doubt healthier to be a vegetarian than a meat eater, and research into certain groups (such as Mormon vegans) backs this up. Fish, as PV stated, are pretty good in providing the chemicals making up omega-3, which benefit the brain, amongst providing other benefits. You can, though, get these from other sources that do not involve animal death. Indeed, I am super keen on this as omega-3 has been shown to be extremely beneficial to curtailing antisocial behaviour and improving brain connectivity (see Adrian Raine’s excellent book The Anatomy of Violence). The pills my children are taking, multivitamins, have omega-3 derived from flaxseed, and not from fish oil. As PV states:
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.
We are at a point when pretty much every health benefit you can get from meat can be derived from alternative sources that are more morally benign. And so really, we should.
PV continues, and with soundness:
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.
The amount of crops produced to feed the animals to feed ourselves is wasteful, as can be seen from the documentary above.
In conclusion, PV continues to be on the money, ethically speaking. Again, not much to disagree with here!