Should vegans eat meat to be ethically consistent? And other moral puzzles from the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics

Should vegans eat meat to be ethically consistent? And other moral puzzles from the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

The latest issue of The Journal of Practical Ethics has just been published online, and it includes several fascinating essays (see the abstracts below). In this blog post, I’d like to draw attention to one of them in particular, because it seemed to me to be especially creative and because it was written by an undergraduate student! The essay – “How Should Vegans Live?” – is by Oxford student Xavier Cohen. I had the pleasure of meeting Xavier several months ago when he presented an earlier draft of his essay at a lively competition in Oxford: he and several others were finalists for the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics, for which I was honored to serve as one of the judges.

In a nutshell, Xavier argues that ethical vegans – that is, vegans who refrain from eating animal products specifically because they wish to reduce harm to animals – may actually be undermining their own aims. This is because, he argues, many vegans are so strict about the lifestyle they adopt (and often advocate) that they end up alienating people who might otherwise be willing to make less-drastic changes to their behavior that would promote animal welfare overall. Moreover, by focusing too narrowly on the issue of directly refraining from consuming animal products, vegans may fail to realize how other actions they take may be indirectly harming animals, perhaps even to a greater degree.

But couldn’t ethical vegans live in such a way that they failed to harm animals both directly and indirectly, by trying to identify the complex causal pathways between their day to day behavior and animal welfare, and then adjusting their behavior accordingly, if necessary? Perhaps they could. But this would require an even more demanding lifestyle—what Xavier calls a “particularly ascetic kind of prehistoric or Robinson Crusoe-type lifestyle ”—which is likely to alienate even more people (and be almost impossible to achieve in practice).

To truly reduce harm to animals overall, therefore, ethically-motivated vegans should, Xavier argues, be less demanding. They should soften their focus, that is, on the specific issue of whether or not they (or others) have directly consumed an animal product, and instead work on creating a movement which Xavier calls “environmentarianism.”

Environmentarianism 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.”

The upshot is that such a lifestyle is more flexible. It allows people to make changes to their behavior that would improve animal welfare, on balance, along a greater number of possible dimensions. That way, they can choose the behavioral adjustments that are most consistent with other values in their life, that are more achievable and sustainable over the long-haul, and that are more likely to be inviting to others (in terms of creating a movement).

Better, even, to eat a little meat now and then, as part of an “environmentarian” lifestyle that more people would be willing to adopt (if that lifestyle, on balance, and as practiced by a sufficient number people, would reduce net harm to animals), than to fetishize a strict vegan diet.

Here is the link to Xavier’s fascinating essay, which is fairly short and definitely worth the read. And here is the link to the full issue, with a strong line-up of papers, including one more winner of the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics (from graduate student Jessica Laimann) and one each from philosophers Neil Levy and Tom Beauchamp.

In this issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics …

Less Blame, Less Crime? The Practical Implications of Moral Responsibility Skepticism

By Neil Levy

Most philosophers believe that wrongdoers sometimes deserve to be punished by long prison sentences. They also believe that such punishments are justified by their consequences: they deter crime and incapacitate potential offenders. In this article, I argue that both these claims are false. No one deserves to be punished, I argue, because our actions are shot through with direct or indirect luck. I also argue that there are good reasons to think that punishing fewer people and much less harshly will have better social consequences, at a reduced overall cost, then the long prison sentences that are usually seen as required for social protection.

Common Morality, Human Rights, and Multiculturalism in Japanese and American Bioethics

By Tom L. Beauchamp

To address some questions in global biomedical ethics, three problems about cultural moral differences and alleged differences in Eastern and Western cultures are addressed: The first is whether the East has fundamentally different moral traditions from those in the West. Concentrating on Japan and the United States, it is argued that theses of profound and fundamental East-West differences are dubious because of many forms of shared morality. The second is whether human rights theory is a Western invention with no firm traditions in Eastern moral traditions. It is argued that this thesis is unsupported both historically and in contemporary bioethics. The third problem is whether multiculturalist theory casts doubt on claims of universal principles and rights. It is argued that the reverse is true: multiculturalism is a universalistic theory. The argument throughout supports common morality theory.

Should we Prohibit Breast Implants? Collective Moral Obligations in the Context of Harmful and Discriminatory Social Norms

By Jessica Laimann

In liberal moral theory, interfering with someone’s deliberate engagement in a self-harming practice in order to promote their own good is often considered wrongfully paternalistic. But what if self-harming decisions are the product of an oppressive social context that imposes harmful norms on certain individuals, such as, arguably, in the case of cosmetic breast surgery? Clare Chambers suggests that such scenarios can mandate state interference in the form of prohibition. I argue that, unlike conventional measures, Chambers’ proposal recognises that harmful, discriminatory norms entail a twofold collective moral obligation: to eliminate the harmful norm in the long run, but also to address unjust harm that is inflicted in the meantime. I show that these two obligations tend to pull in opposite directions, thus generating a serious tension in Chambers’ proposal which eventually leads to an undue compromising of the second obligation in favour of the first. Based on this discussion, I develop an alternative proposal which, instead of prohibiting breast implant surgery, offers compensation for the disadvantages suffered by individuals who decide not to have surgery.

How Should Vegans Live?

By Xavier Cohen

In this essay, I look at the significant portion of vegans who are vegan because they care about harm to animals. I investigate what lifestyle is in fact consistent with caring about harm to animals, which I 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.

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4 Responses to Should vegans eat meat to be ethically consistent? And other moral puzzles from the latest issue of the Journal of Practical Ethics

  • Jacy says:

    Hm, the argument here (in favor of “vegans eating meat” AKA “reducing your consumption of animal products but not eliminating it in order to do the most good for animals”) seems to just be based on one speculative consideration, that simply being a reducetarian means others will see your diet/lifestyle as more realistic and therefore be more likely to adopt it. I might be missing something though.

    That argument seems fairly weak. There are many considerations here, including that going vegan does more direct good for animals in expectation, might do more to shift the Overton Window, arguably has more precedent in successful historical social movements (e.g. slavery abolitionism), and might make animal rights/welfare seem like a more important cause because people see you as being more willing to sacrifice for it (though veganism arguably isn’t much, if any, of a sacrifice).

    I’d be interested in a fuller treatment of this question, since it’s often brought up in activism circles and, to my knowledge, lacks a formal write-up and breakdown of the evidence. Most activists seem to be of the opinion that it weighs in favor of veganism, although only saying you’re vegetarian when the social circle you’re currently in seems very far away from veganism.

    • Natasha says:

      You make some good points, and I agree with this. Also something I don’t think the article takes into consideration, is the fact that we must feed the animals that are raised for meat, and the produce that we use to feed them causes possibly just as much harm to small animals as directly providing humans with the produce. This is very idealistic, but I believe that if most of the first world went vegan, we would take up so much less farm space for agriculture, because we don’t need to provide all of the livestock we are raising with food, which would subsequently give space to farm more produce, and perhaps we could use that space to grow food for third world countries. However to be fair I have no evidence backing this. Honestly, this article seems to be an excuse for people to not feel as bad about eating meat, especially those who are aware of the ethical implications. This shows that people would rather spend a lot of time researching and hypothesizing about this topic rather than changing their lifestyle and giving up meat.

    • Natasha says:

      Something I don’t think the article takes into consideration, is the fact that we must feed the animals that are raised for meat, and the produce that we use to feed them causes possibly just as much harm to small animals as directly providing humans with the produce. This is very idealistic, but I believe that if most of the first world went vegan, we would take up so much less farm space for agriculture, because we don’t need to provide all of the livestock we are raising with food, which would subsequently give space to farm more produce, and perhaps we could use that space to grow food for third world countries. However to be fair I have no evidence backing this. Honestly, this article seems to be an excuse for people to not feel as bad about eating meat, especially those who are aware of the ethical implications. This shows that people would rather spend a lot of time researching and hypothesizing about this topic rather than changing their lifestyle and giving up meat.

  • doctor Abel says:

    The argument seems not concrete cos one says wrongdoers deserve to be punished by long prison sentences and at the other end is against it but in my own opinion when bringing up a child there is no way you will show them the right way without punishing them. same applies to eating red meat we all enjoy it but its not healthy as scientists claim and advise to have more veggies. but now again when they say hey wish to reduce harm to animals its abit confusing cos now they confusing their pets they groomed with the animals on the farm

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