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Animal Welfare, Reducing Meat Consumption and the Instrumental Use of Moral Reasons

Author: Rebecca Brown

In this post, I consider how moral reasons may be used instrumentally – that is, to bring about some desired end. I take as an example the public debate around reducing meat consumption. I suggest that although animal welfare is recognised as important in a number of contexts, it is rarely used as a reason to develop policy to promote plant-based diets. I question whether the (possible) instrumental ineffectiveness of animal welfare-based arguments to reduce meat consumption is a legitimate reason for leaving it out of the debate.

Reducing meat consumption

Recently, there has been quite a bit of discussion around policies to reduce meat consumption, along with other animal-derived products (milk, eggs, cheese, and so on). One curious aspect of the public discussion of a move towards plant-based diets is the near absence of animal welfare as a reason for advocating policies directed at reducing the consumption of animal-derived protein. Indeed, the rather clumsy terms ‘plant-based diet’ and ‘animal-derived protein’ seem specifically designed to distance the discussion from associations with vegetarianism and veganism – two commonly understood, widespread ways to refer to diets which exclude meat and/or animal-derived products. Vegetarian and vegan are associated with established movements and sets of beliefs which typically (though not exclusively) identify welfare as an important, perhaps decisive, reason to avoid farming animals.

Instead of pointing to animal welfare as a reason to reduce meat consumption, advocates of such policies point to the harmful impact on the environment and the health of consumers that results from the farming and consumption of animals. First, it is argued that rearing livestock is generally a less efficient means of producing food than growing crops, and contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the consumption of animal-derived protein (particularly red and processed meat) is associated with increased risk of a range of diseases. (More details of these arguments are available in recent reports from researchers at the Oxford Martin School and Chatham House).

There are at least three broad reasons for encouraging people to adopt plant-based diets:

  1. Reasons based on a concern for the environment
  2. Reasons based on a desire to promote health
  3. Reasons based on concerns about (non-human) animal welfare

It seems curious that this third (animal welfare-related) reason is rarely reported or discussed in support of policies to encourage plant-based diets, except through animal rights organisations and groups like the Vegetarian Society.

Why avoid animal welfare?

There are a number of reasons why those advocating policy changes might want to avoid discussing animal welfare in relation to the promotion of plant-based diets. These could fall into reasons relating to the (perceived) quality of the argument itself, or to its instrumental effectiveness at changing behaviour (these are overlapping categories – we would generally expect arguments seen as weak or invalid to be less influential). Such factors could include:

I. Animal welfare constitutes a poor / invalid reason for reducing meat consumption

  • belief that animal welfare is not compromised through the farming and slaughter of animals
  • association of animal welfare-based concerns with fringe / sentimental / extreme viewpoints
  • perception that decisions about meat-eating are a matter of personal choice
  • belief that, although animal welfare is compromised by farming practices, it is unimportant, or less important than other reasons for reducing meat consumption (such as environmental and health concerns).

II. Animal welfare is likely to be ineffective at convincing people / changing behaviour

  • association of animal welfare concerns with fringe groups / extreme viewpoints may be thought to make people reluctant to accept such arguments
  • fear of moralisation and alienation of particular groups (e.g. farmers) / provoking backlash
  • animal welfare-based reasons for reducing meat consumption are over-demanding, indicating that (almost) all meat consumption is wrongful, and should be stopped altogether

This is not a full list of reasons why arguments based on animal welfare might be largely absent from the public debate on promoting plant-based diets, but it gives an indication of the range of factors that could play a role. Some of these reasons seem more persuasive than others. There will also be many more objections to the promotion of plant-based diets / reduction of meat consumption in general, that do not relate specifically to animal welfare-based reasons for such policies.

Instrumental use of moral reasons

Debates around animal welfare and farming raise many interesting, ethical questions. I’m interested, here, in a broader, philosophical question to do with the use of moral reasons in an instrumental fashion. That is, whether or not it is acceptable to selectively present moral reasons in order to best influence people’s behaviour. In this case, discussion of animal welfare may be absent from the debate because those involved in the public discussions around promoting plant-based diets think that arguments about animal welfare are weak or invalid (see the first set of arguments above). However, an alternative explanation is that arguments relating to animal welfare are perceived as likely to be instrumentally ineffective at actually changing policy or dietary behaviour.

To illustrate, we can imagine that I think you should eat less meat, primarily because I think eating meat is wrongful on the grounds that it causes suffering to animals. However, I know that you are unlikely to be persuaded by this argument – perhaps you don’t like animals much anyway. I’m also aware of the claims for the environmental and health benefits of plant-based diets. I happen to know that you are a climate change sceptic, and that you are obsessively concerned for your health. It seems that, by selectively telling you about the (proposed) health benefits of cutting down on meat, I could more effectively achieve my aim of changing your behaviour, than if I were to tell you about the animal welfare or climate advantages of a plant-based diet.

We can describe this selective provision of only those reasons deemed most likely to be effective as the instrumental use of moral reasons. I do not obviously mislead you in informing you about the proposed health benefits of a plant-based diet, but I strategically provide information to maximise my desired ends. The same might be done at the public policy level, where important reasons are withheld because of their likely non-impact (i.e. their instrumental ineffectiveness). Should we feel uneasy about this instrumental approach to using moral reasons to justify policies?

One concern might be to do with the differing implications of different reasons for a policy. In the case of promoting plant-based diets, a concern for animal welfare might prioritise cutting down on farming practices associated with the greatest suffering (perhaps high intensity broiler chicken farming, or pigs reared in sow crates). However, if the reason given is to address the environmental impact of farming, it would make more sense to reduce the number of cows farmed (since they tend to be less intensively farmed, taking up more space, and produce more methane). A concern for health would encourage people to cut down on red and processed meats as a priority. Thus, different reasons for the broad strategy of reducing meat consumption could be directly counterproductive at an incremental level.

There might, however, be something more fundamentally problematic with the instrumental use of moral reasons: that it involves a failure in honesty, authenticity, or openness in some way. Particularly in the processes of democratic governance, we should not tolerate failures in these respects: the use of expedient lines of reasoning to generate support for policies, and the avoidance of discussing important reasons on the basis that they are (perceived as) less respectable, or less likely to be fruitful.

Animal welfare is – clearly – taken seriously in many areas of governance within the UK and elsewhere. Extensive regulations exist to protect animal welfare in farming and other contexts. Constant debates are repeated around the use of animals in scientific experimentation, and ways in which this can be reduced. Much controversy surrounds the legality of blood sports and often campaigns to outlaw them receive widespread support. It seems unreasonable to maintain that the vast majority of farming, whether for meat or animal protein, does not cause suffering to animals (often considerable). Yet recent discussions by academic and policy organisations often ignore this as a rationale for promoting plant-based diets, while instead discussing newer (more complicated and potentially less decisive) reasons based on human health and climate change. To ignore animal welfare in the context of these debates seems like a failure to attempt a full and open discussion of the merits and implications of policy in this area.

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