This is the third of three posts detailing my thoughts on veganism. The first post explained why I thought, at that time, that it was okay to eat certain kinds of meat, and announced the beginning a month-long experiment in which I temporarily adopted a vegan diet. That experiment is now over, and my second post listed my first impressions after adopting vegan lifestyle. There, I concluded that veganism is an entirely viable, easy, and even enjoyable option for a middle-class graduate student in a major city. This third post will discuss the ethics of eating animals from a new perspective, based on an argument I developed over the course of my month as a vegan.
I’ve decided to approach the question from a metaethical angle. I will argue that utilitarianism cannot provide a sensible answer to questions involving animal suffering, and that a deontological perspective is more useful in this case. I will then use this perspective to argue that it can be ethically permissible to eat animal products if certain conditions are met.
Utilitarianism makes a lot of intuitive sense as an ethical system. It is difficult to argue for ethics based on virtue, contracts, or hard and fast rules if those approaches will compel us to condone suffering. It is unsurprising, therefore, that consequentialist reasoning is often invoked to argue for the moral necessity of a vegan diet. The argument is simple: If it is good to minimize the suffering of humans, and animals have the same capacity to suffer as humans, then there is no reason why we should not act to minimize the suffering of animals as well. Since farming animals is likely to make them suffer and certain to kill them at some point, it is necessary for the sake of reducing suffering that we refrain from consuming the products of animal farming.
My question for vegans is this: Why stop at domesticated animals? Many wild animals live in conditions of atrocious suffering, even when compared with the treatment of animals on factory farms. Sea turtle hatchlings, for example, rarely live long enough to actually see the ocean, as the vast majority of them are eaten by predators before they make it down the beach. Large grazing mammals usually end their lives with a terrifying chase followed by being torn apart-often while still alive-by wolves, lions, or other predators. The predators, meanwhile, live in a world in which there is nowhere near enough food to go around, and are at constant risk of death by starvation. Compared to the fates of many wild animals, a quick death in a slaughterhouse seems downright merciful. Why, then, should the utilitarian logic of veganism not apply to the case of wild animals? Why should humans not intervene in natural ecosystems to reduce this suffering? The fact that we are responsible for breeding and keeping our livestock might appear to us as a compelling reason to save a pig but not a deer, but I imagine that it would look like a pretty hollow argument from the deer’s perspective.
Most vegans, rightly, I think, accept the suffering of animals in nature because it is essential to maintaining the natural order. In fact, some vegans are even comfortable with hunting for the very valid reason that the lack of natural predators in certain areas, leaves humans with rifles as the only thing staving off total ecological collapse as a result of overpopulation. Certainly very few vegans would suggest that we should sterilize all wild animals so as to prevent them from having offspring that will live to suffer as they have. And yet this is exactly what the utilitarian approach to veganism would suggest: The reduction of suffering should trump all other goals.
I think, therefore, that our willingness to accept the suffering of wild animals comes from a different ethical position, and that this position is more useful for questions about animal welfare than utilitarianism. Environmentalists accept and encourage the development and preservation of natural ecosystems, even if these wild ecosystems pose no benefit to human beings, and even if the animals that are part of these ecosystems experience immense suffering, because we consider the a wild animal’s life, however short and painful they may be, to be a good in itself. I propose that this view of animals fits well with the second formulation of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative:
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
Applying this logic to animals means that we need to see animals, as well as humans, as ends in themselves. This allows us, and in fact compels us, to leave wild animals alone, because we can see their lives as they live them as ends in themselves which are not subject to human moral evaluation. If this is the case, however, then there would be no reason to draw an arbitrary line between wild and domesticated animals. If the life of a moose is an end in itself, then so is the life of a cow. This ties in a little bit with the argument I made in my first post on veganism: Since pigs, cattle, and chickens are incapable of fending for themselves in the wild, and since attaching economic value to these animals is the only way to sustainably ensure that humans will care for them, it follows that it is acceptable to eat animal products as a way of permitting these animals a chance to live life in the first place. To phrase it differently, cattle get to live on the condition that they provide us with milk and meat, just as moose get to live on the condition that some of them die as a result of disease, predators, and starvation.
So it is justifiable to eat animals. The consequences of Kantian carnivorism do not stop there, however. If animals are to be treated as ends in themselves rather than mere means, then this places considerable restrictions on the conditions in which they can be raised for meat. I don’t think that anybody would consider a battery hen or a veal calf to be treated in a way that considers it an end in itself. What, then, is the dividing line? What does treating an animal as an end in itself appear like in practice? I propose the following rule:
It is justified to farm an animal for food if and only if that animal has a greater standard of welfare than a comparable animal in the wild.
By ‘comparable animal’, I mean an animal with roughly the same physiology and neural complexity. A cow could be compared with a bison, a pig with a boar, a chicken with a quail, and so on. The idea behind this rule is that domestication can be undertaken while respecting the animal as an end in itself if explicit efforts are made to elevate, rather than denigrate, that animal’s welfare as a result of the domestication process. Consider an idealized version of free-range agriculture, in which an animal is provided with ample space, given opportunities to socialize, not subjected to painful and unnecessary mutilations such as castration or tail-clipping, and killed quickly and painlessly in a way in which the animal does not know what is happening. This animal animal enjoys everything its wild cousins would enjoy, in addition to medical care, guaranteed food and shelter, and protection from predators. Whether any real-world free-range farms actually live up to this standard is a separate question, but I submit that this is, at least in theory, an acceptable standard for the production of ethical animal products.
A Kantian carnivore diet is mostly vegan, mainly because meat produced according to the standard described above will be quite expensive, but also because the environmental impact of meat means that eating it regularly would be a violation of the first and third formulations of the categorical imperative. Kantian carnivorism is therefore essentially veganism with exceptions. The exceptions are listed below:
- Wild game, including wild fish, is okay, if the hunting or fishing process is sustainable, as this gives wild animals a less painful death than they would have at the hands of most predators, and is actually necessary sometimes to avoid ecological catastrophe.
- Farmed meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal products are okay, so long as the conditions on the farm are better than the conditions experienced by comparable wild animals.
- It is better to eat meat than to allow food to go to waste. This doesn’t really come from my argument above, but I think that there is a strong environmental argument that is justifiable to eat unethical meat if the animal is already dead, and eating it does not create economic demand for more like it to be raised and slaughtered.
I’m going to finish with a thought-experiment. This plays into a slightly different argument from the one I raised here, but the two are related, and I think that this slightly different approach personalizes the discussion in a productive way. Imagine that you exist in a non-corporeal pre-born state. While in this state, you are given a choice. Your first option is to be born into a comfortable life, in which you will be given adequate food, protected from all danger, kept generally healthy, and provided with enough stimulation to keep you happy. The condition is that twenty-five years into this life, you will die. Your death will come instantly and be completely painless, and you will not know that it is coming ahead of time, because you will forget having made this choice once you are born. You will go instantly from a happy life into oblivion, with no pain or fear. The alternative is to reject the life offered to you, at which point you will simply wink out of existence, going instantly into oblivion, never to be born at all.
I leave you to answer the question for yourself. Personally, I would choose to live.