Philosophical Vegan Rebuts my Vegetarian / Vegan Essay (Part 1)

Philosophical Vegan Rebuts my Vegetarian / Vegan Essay (Part 1) June 1, 2016

I posted an old essay of mine yesterday 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 first part to his response:

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:

http://www.henheaven.org/

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.

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/httpblogsscientificamericancomscience-sushi20110718mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/

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:

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/aug/04/eat-more-meat-and-save-the-world-the-latest-implausible-farming-miracle

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.

https://sentientist.org/2013/05/20/the-ethical-case-for-eating-oysters-and-mussels/

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.

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