Thursday, January 13, 2011

Move over, St Francis

From the ages of about sixteen to nineteen inclusive I was a vegetarian, because I thought that eating animals was wrong. Then I studied moral philosophy and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t wrong, so I became an omnivore again. Now I’m thinking of going back to vegetarianism though, because although I don’t think it’s wrong to eat animals, I would like to cause less animal suffering. Indeed, I already eat a bit less meat than I would if I didn’t care at all about the suffering of animals, and going the whole hog would just be an extension of that.

I don’t think it’d be sensible for me to go quite the whole hog though. Being strict about things like the rennet in some cheese and onion crisps or frying my falafel in the same oil someone used for their sausages wouldn’t be worth it, because the inconvenience it would cause me would outweigh the negligible or nebulous impact on animal suffering, at least in my preference distribution. It’d be more efficient to inconvenience myself less in some money-saving way and then donate the saving to Oxfam. This situation probably generalises even to consequentialists who cut out meat for moral reasons. You start off cutting out burgers and bacon, because the savings are big and the inconvenience small, but there’ll presumably come a point when the inconvenience outweighs the suffering saved. So I won’t really count as a vegetarian, because I’ll still eat animals when not doing so is very inconvenient. I also won’t be cutting out E120, because I don’t care about beetles.

One thing I’m not sure about is whether eating happy animals increases the balance of suffering over happiness at all. I suspect it doesn’t. The main effect on animals of vegetarianism is that there are fewer of them. I assume that the suffering of factory-farmed animals is great enough that it outweighs any happiness they might enjoy, and the hedonic calculus would be rosier if they’d never been bred. If there are happy farm animals this presumably won’t be the case for them, though.

Some people will presumably say that it’s wrong to rear animals so that we can kill and eat them, even if the animals are happy and wouldn’t otherwise have lived. The usual thought experiment pushing this line of thought asks us to imagine that Earth is actually a farm set up by some aliens who steal our bodies and eat us when we die. We’re supposed to say that what the aliens are doing is wrong, and that what organic farmers do is similarly wrong. I find it hard to sympathise with or even believe people who say that if this is what’s happening then they’d rather the aliens hadn’t set up the farm in the first place. I’m pretty keen to have been born, and even in my unselfish moments I'm keen for humans to still exist. Of course, if you’re not a consequentialist then you can maintain that even if a world with organic farms and planetary human-farms is better for the livestock, and the livestock are glad their farm was set up, the farmers are still acting wrongly because of autonomy or dignity or whatever. I think people who look at things this way are like bulls in a china shop, blundering round as their consciences tell them with little or no regard for the consequences of their actions. I hope not many people act like that in real life. I hope if I’m presented with the opportunity to save the lives of five people about to be hit by a runaway train by pushing a fat guy in the train’s path then I’ll have the guts to do it. But since I’m unlikely to be presented with such opportunities for heroism, I’ll cut down on the burgers instead.


  1. You'd be far better cutting out dairy products than meat - dairy cows can have poorer welfare when compared to beef cattle or sheep. Dairy cows are pushed close to metabolic collapse, and there are plenty (although admittedly not the majority) who are kept indoors for their entire lives and just fed cut grass.

  2. It's not easy, is it? I can believe that dairy cows have a worse time of it than beef cows, but my understanding was that this is outweighed by the fact you get so much more milk from a cow than you get beef. So although the suffering that goes into a cheese sandwich is more intense than the suffering that goes into a steak, the latter lasts a lot longer. But I guess I could cut down on the cheese too.