The Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: How Should Vegans Live, by Xavier Cohen.

This essay, by Oxford undergraduate student Xavier Cohen, is one of the two finalists in the undergraduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Xavier will be presenting this paper, along with three other finalists, on the 12th March at the final.

How should vegans live? By Xavier Cohen

Ethical vegans make a concerted lifestyle choice based on ethical – rather than, say, dietary – concerns. But what are the ethical concerns that lead them to practise veganism? In this essay, I focus exclusively on that significant portion of vegans who believe consuming foods that contain animal products to be wrong because they care about harm to animals, perhaps insofar as they have rights, perhaps because they are sentient beings who can suffer, or perhaps because of a combination thereof.[1] Throughout the essay, I take this conviction as a given, that is, I do not evaluate it, but instead investigate what lifestyle is in fact consistent with caring about harm to animals, which I will begin by calling consistent veganism. I argue that the lifestyle that consistently follows from this underlying conviction behind many people’s veganism is in fact distinct from a vegan lifestyle.

Let us also begin by interpreting veganism in the way that many vegans – and most who are aware of veganism – would: the diet in which no foods containing animal products are consumed. In conceiving of veganism like this, there seems to be an intuition about the moral relevance of directness, on which it matters how direct the harm caused by the consumption of the food is with regards to the consumption of the food. On this intuition, eating a piece of meat is worse than eating a certain amount of apples grown with pesticides that causes the same amount of harm, because the harm in the first case seems to be more direct to the consumption of the food than in the second case.[2] Harm from the pesticides seems to be a side-effect of eating the food, whereas the death of the animal for meat seems to be a means to the eating food. Even if we grant this intuition to be a good in this case, it is not good in the case where the harm is greater from the apples than from the meat. To eat the apples in this case is to not put one’s care about harm to animals first, which means going against the only thing that should motivate a consistent vegan.[3] Here, our intuition about the amount of harm caused is what seems to matter; if what we care about is harm to animals, then we should cause less rather than more harm to animals, and therefore, from the moral point of view, it seems that it is better to eat the meat than the apples. Let the conviction in this intuition be called the ‘less-is-best’ thesis. Therefore, the intuition about the directness of the harm is only potentially relevant in situations where one has to choose between alternatives that cause the same amount of harm, or in situations where one does not know which causes more harm. The rest of the time, it seems that consistent vegans do not care about the directness of the harm, but instead care only about causing less rather than more harm to animals. This requires an awareness of harm that extends further than relatively common considerations by vegans about animal products being used in the production process for – but not being contained in – foodstuffs like alcoholic drinks. Caring about harm to animals means caring about, less directly, accidental harm to (usually very small) animals from the harvesting process, and from products that have a significant carbon footprint, and thereby contribute to (and worsen) climate change, which is already starting to lead to countless deaths and harm to animals worldwide.

However, caring about harm to animals cannot plausibly require consistent vegans to cause no harm at all to animals. If it did, then in light of the last two examples given above, it seems it would require consistent veganism to be a particularly ascetic kind of prehistoric or Robinson Crusoe-type lifestyle, which would clearly be far too demanding. In fact, it is probably the case that one cannot live without causing harm to animals due to the trade-off in welfare between other animals who are harmed by one’s own consumption, and oneself (an animal) who is harmed if one cannot consume what one needs to survive. But it is definitely the case that all humans could not simultaneously survive if they could not cause harm to other animals, meaning that human animals would be harmed if they tried to live this way, and hence that animals will necessarily be harmed regardless of how we live (or die). We could not all be morally obligated to live in such a way that we could not in fact all live. Therefore, due to this argument and due to such a lifestyle being overly-demanding, there are two sufficient arguments for why causing some harm to animals is morally permissible.

If it is the case that causing some harm to animals is morally permissible, then there is no clear reason as to why there should be categorical difference in the moral status of acts – such as impermissibility, permissibility, and obligation – with regards to how they harm animals, apart from when these categorical differences arise only from vast differences in the amount of harm caused by different acts. So for example, shooting a vast number of animals merely for the pleasure of sport may well be impermissible, but only insofar as it causes a much greater amount of harm than alternative acts that one could reasonably do instead of hunting. It seems that the most reasonable thesis, then, which is in line with the less-is-best thesis, is that the morality of harm to animals is best viewed on a continuum on which causing less harm to animals is morally better and causing more harm to animals is morally worse, where the difference in morality is linked only to the difference in the amount of harm to animals.

Hitherto, I have said that it seems to be the case that consistent vegans care about causing less rather than more harm to animals. However, I claim that the less-is-best thesis should in fact be interpreted as having a wider application than merely harm caused by our actions or life lived. One’s care for animals should be further-stretching: rather than merely caring about harm one causes, a consistent vegan should care about acting or living in such a way that leads to less rather than more harm to animals. The latter includes a care about harm caused by others that one can prevent, which the former excludes as it is not harm caused by oneself.

The impact of social interaction on people’s lifestyles is an important way in which consistent vegans can act or live in such a way that leads to less rather than more harm to animals. That nearly all vegans are in fact vegans because they were previously introduced to vegan ideas by others rather than coming by them and becoming vegan through sheer introspection – is testimony to the impact of social interaction on people’s lifestyles, which in turn can be more or less harmful to animals. Consistent vegans have the potential to build a broad social movement that encourages many others to lead lives that cause less harm to animals. But in order to do this, consistent vegans will have to persuade those who do not care about harm to animals (or let care about harm to animals impact their lifestyle) to lead a different kind of lifestyle, and if this recommended lifestyle is too demanding, many will reject it or simply not change, meaning that these people will continue to harm animals. If these people are more likely to make lifestyle changes if the lifestyle suggested to them is less demanding, which for many – and probably a vast majority – will be the case, then consistent vegans could bring about less harm to animals if they try to persuade these people to live lifestyles that optimally satisfy the trade-off between demandingness and personal[4] harm to animals. This lifestyle that consistent vegans should attempt to persuade others of following I shall call environmentarianism.

Why ‘environmentarianism’? And what is the content of environmentarianism? Care about harm to animals can be framed in terms of care for the environment, as the environment is partially – and in a morally important way – constituted by animals. This can be easily – and I believe quite intuitively – communicated to those who do care about harm to animals, and those who do not are likely to be more swayed by arguments that are framed in terms of concern for the environment than for animals; concern for oneself, one’s loved ones, and one’s species things that most people care greatly about – may be more easily read into the former than the latter, especially in light of impending climate change. Environmentarianism, then, is the set of lifestyles that seek to reduce harm done to the environment (which is conceived in terms of harm to animals for consistent vegans) – as this matters morally for environmentarians – regardless of which sphere of life this reduction of harm comes from. Be it rational or not, ascribing the title and social institution of ‘environmentarian’ to one’s life will, for many, make them more likely to lead a life that is more in line with caring about harm to animals; people often attach themselves to these titles, as the dogmatic behaviour of many vegans shows. Moreover, environmentarianism can be practised to a more or less radical – and thus moral – extent. Some may prefer to reduce total harm to animals by a given amount by making the sacrifice of having a vegan diet, but not compromising on their regular car journey to work, or perhaps by opting out of what for them may be uncomfortable proselytising, whilst others may find taking on the latter two easier than maintaining the strict vegan diet (that they perhaps used to have). Some may reduce total harm by an even greater amount – and hence lead a morally better lifestyle – by having a vegan diet and by refraining from harmful transport and by actively suggesting environmentarianism to others. As an environmentarian may begin by making very small changes, one can be welcomed into a social movement and be eased in to making further lifestyle changes over time, rather than being put off by the strictness of veganism or the antagonism typical of some vegans. Environmentarianism has the great advantage of making it easier for the many who cannot face the idea of never eating animal products again to live more ethically-driven lives.

It follows from all this, then, that consistent vegans should be (especially stringent) environmentarians. For the given impact they have on the total harm to animals, it does not matter if this comes from a totally vegan diet. In fact, to be fixated on dietary purity to the neglect of other spheres of one’s life – in the way that many vegans are – is to contradict a care about harms to animals. With this care given, what matters is lowering the level of harm to animals, regardless of how this harm is done.

[1] One may interpret ‘harm’ in different ways. The deontologist can read harm as denoting the infringement of rights or snubbing of duties, and consequentialists can interpret ‘harm’ in terms of the good.

[2] Let us assume that the apples and meat are of the same nutritional value to control for any intuitions about preserving one’s health.

[3] Let us assume, for the sake of simplicity, that caring about harm to animals is the only ethical concern that consistent vegans have.

[4] ‘Personal’ here refers to the impact of one’s lifestyle on harm to animals apart from the impact on harm to animals one has through affecting others’ lifestyles. This impact on others’ lifestyles is factored in to the notion of demandingness: the lower the demandingness of the lifestyle suggested, the greater the ‘multiplier effect’ of take-up of the lifestyle by others.

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8 Responses to The Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: How Should Vegans Live, by Xavier Cohen.

  • Matt Sharp says:

    I agree with the final 2 sentences:

    “In fact, to be fixated on dietary purity to the neglect of other spheres of one’s life – in the way that many vegans are – is to contradict a care about harms to animals. With this care given, what matters is lowering the level of harm to animals, regardless of how this harm is done.”

    However, that does not mean vegans should stop discouraging people from eating animal products and instead start promoting ‘environmentarianism’. Whether promoting ‘environmentarianism’ would actually reduce harm to animals more than veganism is an empirical question that has not been addressed in this essay.

    Sure, there are plausible reasons why tying-in harm to animals with concern for the environment could plausibly be better for animals. But there are plausible reasons why it would not be. If you start focusing on harm to the *environment*, it means people have absolutely no reason not to harm animals if (a) the environment as a whole is no longer an issue or (b) a specific case of harming animals does not harm the environment or (c) cases where improving the environment actually lead to greater harm for animals (considering the amount of suffering that wild animals experience, for example, it may be preferable to harm part of the environment in order to prevent this).

    • Xavier Cohen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Matt.

      With regards to (a), I’m not totally sure what you mean. One of the reasons for cashing out the social movement of consistent veganism (hereafter, ‘X’) under the title of ‘environmentarianism’, as opposed to some other name, is the idea that we shouldn’t conceive of the environment in such a way that it excludes animals (including human animals) who I claim in the essay not only partially constitute the environment, but do so in a morally important way. If we think of the environment in such a way that when it is “as a whole no longer an issue” (as you write), then it doesn’t follow, as you claim it does, that there is no reason not to harm animals. If we were to harm animals, then we would be harming the environment and ‘making the environment an issue’. This explanation also addresses your claim in (b).

      Your claim in (c), however, requires explanation that isn’t just a reiteration of content in the essay. I will answer in two parts, first addressing those whose environmentarianism is motivated only by a care about harm to animals – the people who I primarily focus on in the question – and secondly those whose environmentarianism is not motivated only by a care about harm to animals.

      1) For people who only care about harm to animals, the objection in (c) is uninteresting as there isn’t anything else aside from animals that they care about that could by weighed-up against their care for animals. For these people, environmentarianism simply is what follows from a care about harm to animals.

      2) For people who aren’t solely motivated by a care about harm to animals, there will be some of this weighing up, and depending on how individuals’ sets of ethical motivations concerning the environment are constituted, it might be the case that a person performs an action that is recommended by their set of environmental concerns, but not by a care about harm to animals. There are two things to consider here.

      Firstly, I think it’s highly unlikely that there would be a significant number of these instances because when cares conflict, I think it’s unlikely that a person (or many people) would care much more about some non-animal environmental concern, such as plant populations, than they would about (sentient) animals. Secondly, even if there were instances of this, one would have to show that these (seemingly minimal) drawbacks of cashing out X in terms of environmentarianism would render environmentarianism a less favourable title than some other alternative. My reasons provided in the essay for why environmentarianism is a good title would have to be taken account in this argument and shown to be outweighed by other reasons in favour of some other formulation of X. I believe the burden here lies on the objector.

      Secondly, even if one could show that some alternative title of X is better (given that the only care is one about harm to animals as stipulated in the essay), then fantastic. The claim that environmentarianism is the best way of cashing out X is in my view not the main conclusion of the essay. The point of it is that X is not in fact veganism, and therefore that vegans motivated by a care about harm to animals should not see themselves as vegans, but instead something else.

      When thinking about the argument of the essay generally, I believe it is important to keep in mind that what is being looked for is how one set of people – vegans who care about harm to animals – can create a social movement that brings about the state of affairs they want as best as possible. In order to do this, I have argued, they need to be affecting the lives of people who are not vegans. In doing so, it is only natural that these – hopefully masses of – people do not live in precisely the way that vegans who care about harm to animals would want them to live (in an ideal world). Environmentarianism is a solution that looks to find the optimal point on this trade-off between personal harm and demandingness, and I have argued that it does very good job of this. Furthermore, once people become environmentarian who did not previously let ethical considerations impact their lifestyle in this kind of way, they become a part of the environmentarian community within which people will be arguing strongly that harm to animals is of ethical significance. It is reasonable to believe that once these people have become more open to ethical considerations due to the very welcoming nature of environmentarianism, they will be more likely to be receptive to such ethical arguments.

      I’m sorry that my response is so long, but I think that’s because your comment touches upon an interesting question that I didn’t get the chance to expand upon with the 2000 word limit.

      Thanks again,
      Xavier

      • Matt Sharp says:

        Hi Xavier

        Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’m afraid my response will be slightly rushed. I agree with much of your response: it’s well-argued! You say:

        “One of the reasons for cashing out the social movement of consistent veganism (hereafter, ‘X’) under the title of ‘environmentarianism’, as opposed to some other name, is the idea that we shouldn’t conceive of the environment in such a way that it excludes animals (including human animals) who I claim in the essay not only partially constitute the environment, but do so in a morally important way.”

        This seems reasonable to me. However, in your essay you write:

        “Some may prefer to reduce total harm to animals by a given amount by making the sacrifice of having a vegan diet, but not compromising on their regular car journey to work, or perhaps by opting out of what for them may be uncomfortable proselytising, whilst others may find taking on the latter two easier than maintaining the strict vegan diet”

        This seems to be giving people the option of doing something that is good for the environment (reducing car journeys) that has clear environmental benefits (reduced CO2 emissions and lower resource use) but that doesn’t obviously create an overall benefit for non-human animals (some animals may benefit, others may be harmed). If most people going into the environmentarian movement choose these options, then there may be little or no improvement for animals.

        “once people become environmentarian who did not previously let ethical considerations impact their lifestyle in this kind of way, they become a part of the environmentarian community within which people will be arguing strongly that harm to animals is of ethical significance”

        This depends on the make-up of the environmentarian community. If it becomes dominated by people who prioritise decisions to improve the environment (reducing car journeys etc) rather than specifically conceiving of the environment as including animals in a morally important way, then it will merely become another environmentalist community. I’m not sure why it’s preferable for vegans to frame themselves as being motivated to improve the environment (which happens to importantly include animals) rather than (say) framing themselves as being rights-based and attempting to attract those concerned with human rights (e.g. by showing that speciesism and racism both derive from similarly flawed reasoning).

        ‘The point of it is that X is not in fact veganism, and therefore that vegans motivated by a care about harm to animals should not see themselves as vegans, but instead something else.’

        I think you may be onto something with this. I’m just uncertain as to the practical benefits of tying concern for animals to concern for the environment. Indeed, you say:

        “I think it’s unlikely that a person (or many people) would care much more about some non-animal environmental concern, such as plant populations, than they would about (sentient) animals. ”

        Given this, then perhaps X could be Sentientism: where what matters morally is the presence of sentience. After all, if the reason people are more concerned about animals than plants is due to sentience, then shouldn’t vegans care about all sentient beings? This would have the advantage of bridging animal and human rights. It would also have the advantage of provoking debate about potential future artificial intelligence/sentient machines (and perhaps even further down the line, sentient alien life). Where it falls down is the lack of focus: it’s unclear what specific actions we can take in our day-to-day lives to most reduce harm to sentient beings. This is where veganism has an advantage: it focuses on a key harm to sentient beings: the demand for animal products for consumption.

        So perhaps you’re right that “Environmentarianism is a solution that looks to find the optimal point on this trade-off between personal harm and demandingness”, and you make a reasonable hypothetical case for it being true, but ultimately whether it *is* truly the optimal point is an empirical question that requires evidence, as I originally noted.

        Incidentally, as you’re an Oxford student may I assume you’re aware of the effective altruism movement (Giving What We Can was founded at Oxford Uni, and the Centre for Effective Altruism is in the same building as the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics)? More specifically there’s an ‘effective animal activism’ subset of it. I’d encourage you to check out the facebook group (search for Effective Animal Activism). I’m sure they would love to discuss your essay.

        • Xavier Cohen says:

          Thanks for wading through my second essay, Matt!

          I think it’s fair to say that your main point is that whether environmentarianism “*is* truly the optimal point is an empirical question that requires evidence”, even if I have provided a reasonable hypothetical case for it being true. Sure, if we could run a test on this and find out the result, that would be ideal. But a prerequisite of carrying out that test is having a number of (good) alternative suggestions to environmentarianism (of which sentientism – or sentientarianism? – could be included.) Even if we had such a list, we wouldn’t be able to carry out a perfect test that would tell us the title which would in fact lead to the best effects, as the development of history is far too complex for us to make predictions with certainty. We might be able to get some evidence that one title is preferred by a large set of people to another title, though. And if we’re looking to properly build a social movement, that’s probably the kind of research that it would be good to carry out. But prior to doing this, we need both what I have said the main point of my essay is – “that X is not in fact veganism, and therefore that vegans motivated by a care about harm to animals should not see themselves as vegans, but instead something else” – *and* some plausible reasons backing up a certain way of cashing out X. I think I have taken us a good way towards in fact selecting environmentarianism as the title of the social movement, even if more work could be done to strengthen this choice.

          Xavier

  • Sarah says:

    Given the devastating impact of climate change on human populations, wouldn’t this apply equally to anyone who believed in living so as not to kill or harm other people, ie basically everyone? I am not sure why vegans would have a special requirement for consistency in this.

    • Xavier Cohen says:

      Firstly, thanks for your comment, Sarah.

      I agree that my argument implies that people who have a care about harm to *humans* should live in such a way that takes account of (that is, gives moral weight to) how their actions lead to harm to humans. But this is an implication that I’m happy to accept.

      The special requirement for consistency in my essay only comes from the fact that I am primarily focusing on people whose only ethical concern (as stipulated in footnote 3) is a care about harm to animals, and that I am specifically addressing the question of how these people can live in such a way that is consistent with this concern. These are simplifying assumptions (I suspect there is next to no-one who only has this precise ethical concern, and not many people desire to live a life that is as consistent as possible with their ethical concerns because most people think there is more to the good life than ethics), but they are nonetheless very helpful in providing a kind of model to guide the actions of people who do have this care and who do – to a certain extent – want to live a life that is consistent with it.

      – Xavier

  • A Philosopher says:

    This is a thought-provoking piece and I welcome its addition to the corpus of practical ethics, a field which has been close to my heart for some time now. My main concern in relation to the essay above — and perhaps its author will reassure me on this point — is that, amongst the discussions of consistent veganism and environmentarianism, he may have unwittingly become a dirty moderate. Is this the case?

  • meh says:

    TL;DR: if your goal is to decrease harm X in the world then do what is most effective in decreasing harm X. I the author believes giving environmental and incremental arguments is most effective in decreasing harm X. I will however not supply any empirical evidence for that empirical claim. End of essay.

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