Why Vegetarians Should Be Prepared to Bend Their Own Rules

Alberto Giubilini
Republished from Aeon Magazine

It’s a common enough scenario. A vegetarian has been invited to a friend’s place for dinner. The host forgets that the guest is a vegetarian, and places a pork chop in front of her. What is she to do? Probably her initial feelings will be disgust and repulsion. Vegetarians often develop these sorts of attitudes towards meat-based food, making it easier for them to be absolutists about shunning meat.

Suppose, though, that the vegetarian overcomes her feelings of distaste, and decides to eat the chop, perhaps out of politeness to her host. Has she done something morally reprehensible? Chances are that what she has been served won’t be the kind of humanely raised meat that some (but not all) ethical vegetarians find permissible to consume. More likely, it would be the product of cruel, intensive factory farming. Eating the meat under these circumstances couldn’t then be an act of what the philosopher Jeff McMahan calls ‘benign carnivorism’. Would the vegetarian guest have done something wrong by breaking her own moral code?

Most vegetarians are concerned about animal suffering caused by meat consumption, or about the impact of factory farming on the environment. For simplicity’s sake, I will consider only the case of animal suffering, but the same argument could be applied to the other bad consequences of today’s practices of factory farming, including, for example, greenhouse gas emissions, inefficient use of land, and use of pesticides, fertiliser, fuel, feed and water, as well as the use of antibiotics causing antibiotic resistance in livestock’s bacteria which is then passed on to humans.

Because eating meat typically supports the practice of raising animals in factory farms where they are inhumanely treated and killed, eating meat is likely to contribute to animal suffering (or to the other bad consequences of factory farming). Now, if we agree that one of the good reasons for being vegetarian is that eating meat to some degree encourages practices that cause animal suffering, then at a first glance it might seem that eating meat only rarely is morally permissible (but see the philosopher Shelly Kagan for a counterargument) because it is very likely that eating meat only occasionally will not have any impact on the amount of suffering inflicted on animals.

However, by not eating meat, and especially by not eating meat when they are offered it in front of non-vegetarians, vegetarians send out a message to other people. By sticking to their ethical commitment, vegetarians signal that there is something wrong with being a carnivore, thus prompting other people to consider the morality of their habit of eating meat and perhaps even persuading them that consuming meat is wrong. In other words, the positive impact of being a vegetarian, in terms of reduction of animal suffering, might be amplified when vegetarianism is publicly defended and demonstrated in social contexts. And, conversely, making exceptions to vegetarianism might convey the message that eating meat is not so bad after all. If even vegetarians sometimes eat meat, then eating meat can’t be so reprehensible from a moral perspective, can it? So perhaps the guest who ate the pork chop was morally wrong for this reason: she sent out the wrong message to the people who were having dinner with her.

But it isn’t as simple as that. Avoiding meat in all circumstances, including in the circumstances in which the vegetarian guest found herself, is a strategy that can backfire. Plausibly, the ‘right’ message to be sent to non-vegetarians is one that increases the chances that as many of them as possible will give up meat or at least reduce their meat consumption. If people perceive vegetarianism as a position that allows for no exception, they are probably less likely to become vegetarian. A flexible moral position is more appealing than a rigid one that allows for no exceptions. It is more likely that people would be convinced to become flexible vegetarians – that is, that they abstain from eating meat with some exceptions – than to become rigid vegetarians, and being a flexible vegetarian is preferable, from a moral perspective, to being a carnivore.

So the vegetarian guest’s eating meat when offered has probably shown the host that it is possible to be a (flexible) vegetarian and, at the same time, occasionally enjoy some meat without feeling guilty. This has certainly made (flexible) vegetarianism look more accessible and more appealing than it would have been if the guest had refused to eat meat. Granted, perhaps by eating meat only occasionally one would lose the right to call herself a ‘vegetarian’, but this might not be all that important. What matters more is that a world with many people who eat meat only occasionally is far preferable to the world we currently live in where there are relatively few vegetarians and a vast majority of carnivores.Aeon counter – do not remove

Alberto Giubilini

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit

22 Responses to Why Vegetarians Should Be Prepared to Bend Their Own Rules

  • Chris Jarrett says:

    This article fails to discuss or address the problem for people who are vegetarian because of medical reasons where eating meat causes a violent or deadly medical condition. Most vegetarians are “flexible” vegetarians and this gives the impression that they can be served meat without a problem. The perception of flexibility among the general population has deadly consequences to people who cannot eat meat.

    • Alberto Giubilini says:

      Thank you for your observation Chris. It is an important point. In my article, when I refer to vegetarians, I mean “ethical vegetarian”, i.e. people who refuse to eat meat out of ethical concerns (for example for the suffering or the killing of animals). This was included in an earlier draft of the paper, but was then cut out for reasons of space, as the editors thought it was clear from the context. But if there are people who simply cannot eat meat for medical reasons, my argument does not apply to them. Of course, for theme being “flexible” is not an option.

      • Chris Jarrett says:

        I understand the context and that you were focusing on ethical vegetarians. Their behaviour, however, has consequences for ‘medical vegetarians’ and that is what is missing from your post. When ethical vegetarians are flexible in their diet, non-vegetarians assume that all vegetarians are similarly flexible. The non-vegetarians, assuming that all vegetarians can be flexible, then serve meat to medical vegetarians. This causes medical harm to medical vegetarians as well as emotional distress to both parties. Thus your argument for flexibility creates harm that is not addressed in your argument.

  • Géraud Léernais says:

    Thre is something dangerously silly about this argument. Replace “vegetarianism” and “meat” with “cannibalism” and “human meat”. Mutatis mutandis the argument becomes:
    (premise) It’s ok to bend one’s moral rules when it refrains from making one’s moral code look too rigid for others to adopt.
    (premise) Always refraining from eating human flesh makes one’s moral code look too rigid for others to adopt.
    (conclusion) Therefore it’s ok to occasionnally eat human flesh.

    What’s silly about this argument is that it relies on the assumption that eating human flesh is not really morally impermissible, but morally suboptimal, to the effect that it allows for exceptions compensating for it’s suboptimality (i.e. express a “flexible”, more appealing moral view), or is conditionnally wrong (i.e. it is wrong unless it allows more people to adopt the view). But few vegetarians would agree that eating meat is merely a matter of suboptimality, or is merely conditionnally wrong. They would instead say that eating meat is morally wrong simpliciter, and that it creates an “imperative” not to eat meat. If that is the case, it’s completely irrelevant whether the rigid guest prefers moral coherence to politeness.

  • Alberto Giubilini says:

    Thank you Geraud. This is a good and challenging objection. Other people raised the same point against my article in other venues or in personal communications, so I think it’s worth trying to address it. Put it simply, the objection is that if we replace eating meat with some other clearly immoral practice, the implication of my article is that we should sometimes engage in such immoral practices, rather than rejecting them tout court. You make the example of cannibalism (I assume you mean killing humans for the purpose of eating their flesh, not just eating meat of already deceased humans, which is not so obviously immoral, though it certainly is disgusting). Other people mentioned slavery or rape. So, does my argument imply that engaging only occasionally in cannibalism, rape, or slavery is permissible, or indeed morally preferable to rejecting these practices tout court? I believe not. There are important disanalogies between these cases and the case of eating meat. I will use the case of rape for brevity’s sake, but the same response applies to the other examples.

    First, from a philosophical point of view, occasionally eating meat is not as morally bad as occasionally raping someone. The latter is always harmful, but the former is not, because even if we assume that killing an animal or inflicting suffering on animals is as morally bad and as harmful as raping someone – which by the way I think is not – eating meat only occasionally is unlikely to make a difference to the amount of suffering inflicted on animals. On the other hand, even a single case of raping certainly makes a difference to the amount of suffering generated and to the harm inflicted on others. So, while it is true that only occasionally raping someone is ought to be preferred to frequently raping someone (which is an implication of my argument on the basis of the analogy between raping and eating meat), there are stronger moral reasons against occasionally raping people than there are against occasionally eating meat (which is an implication of the moral difference between eating meat and raping).

    The second response is more practical. It is easier to convince people that raping (or slavery, or cannibalism) is wrong than it is to convince them that eating meat is wrong. I don’t have any evidence to bring in support of this claim, but considering the amount of people who carelessly eat meat regularly in our morally evolved societies, it seems a reasonable assumption. Therefore, while an attenuated form of vegetarianism – what some would call reducetarianism (https://reducetarian.org/) – might be necessary to convince people to reduce meat consumption and therefore minimise the amount of suffering inflicted on animals, it is not necessary to defend an attenuated form of raping in order to convince people that raping is wrong. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of the world population does eat meat regularly, and decades (actually, centuries) of philosophical discussion about the wrongness of eating meat have not succeeded in convincing the vast majority of people that eating meat is wrong, while the vast majority of people is convinced that raping (or slavery or cannibalism) is wrong. A more accessible form of vegetarianism – or reduceterianism – might be more effective than outright vegetarianism, while the same is not true for an attenuated form of raping.

    Now, there is a possible counterargument to my second response. Consider the case of slavery. There was a time in which slavery was considered normal and not unethical by the vast majority of people (at least in certain societies), in the same way as eating meat is today considered normal and not unethical by the vast majority of people. So if it is true that an attenuated form of vegetarianism is preferable because it would likely be more effective in convincing people to reduce meat consumption, then it is also true that defending an attenuated form of slavery, say giving slaves two free days a week, would have been better than fighting slavery tout court. But here I am happy to accept the implication. A world in which there are people who are slaves 5 days a week and free men 2 days a week is preferable to a world in which people are slaves all the time, in the same way in which a world in which all people reduce meat consumption is preferable to a world with relatively few vegetarians and the vast majority of omnivores. Granted, it would be better if everybody rejected slavery and everybody gave up eating meat, but the latter is unlikely to happen in a short time and without fierce resistance in the same way as abandoning slavery was unlikely to happen in a short time and without fierce resistance in those society where slavery was the norm. Besides, once again, from a practical point of view, it would be easier to convince people that slavery is wrong (as in fact people are now convinced) than it is to convince them that eating meat is wrong, so there are stronger practical reasons for rejecting slavery tout court than there are for rejecting eating meat tout court, even though there are equally strong moral reasons for defending an attenuated form of slavery and for defending an attenuated form of vegetarianism

    • Géraud Lernais says:

      Dear Antonio,

      Thank you for your thorough reply. I wish more contributors to this blog shared your responsibility toward posts they authored. Thinking again about your argument, I think it’s acceptability mainly hinges one two questions:

      1) Which form of consequentialism are we assuming, “act consequentialism” or “rule consequentialism”? As far as I can see, the view that is the most favourable to your argument is “rule consequentialism”, because the rule not to eat animals is not worth following in situations where showing some flexibility is all things considered favourable toward the interests which the rule seeks to protect, i.e. when flexibility is likely to increase acceptance of the rule, hence its total expected utility. By contrast, “act consequentialism” plus the assumption you mentioned below in your reply to Ella, that any particular instance of eating animals has negative expected utility, and which I was assuming in my reply above, gives the opposite result, and does not favour your argument.

      2) Where do we draw the line between moral and prudential reasons? It is not clear that showing some flexibility in one’s vegan diet is morally justified by rule consequentualism even in situations where it is likely to increase acceptance of the rule; one could argue that rule consequentialism is only concerned with the expected utility of the rule considered in abstraction of its acceptance by other moral agents, i.e. the intrinsic expected utility that abiding by the rule has, and not the expected utility produced by making it the case the rule is more widely accepted. One might see the latter has pertaining not to morality per se, but to reasons for some social value which sometimes correlate with moral reasons (i.e. when not following has good social value, do not follow, otherwise do follow the rule), but which are otherwise mutually independent.

      • Géraud Lernais says:

        Sorry I meant “Alberto” of course.

      • Alberto Giubilini says:

        Thanks Geraud,

        yes, I agree that my argument presupposes the validity of rule consequentialism, rather than act consequentialism, though the rule in question would have to be quite complex and specified , something like “do not eat meat, except in those circumstances in which doing so might convince others to reduce their consumption of meat”. The kind of consequentialism put forward by R.M. Hare would allow for this kind of rules characterized by this level of specificity.

  • Jonathan Birch says:

    It’s great that vegetarianism is now accepted as normal, at least in the UK. Restaurants are expected to have vegetarian options, supermarkets are expected to label everything, even cheese and wine, and hosts of dinner parties are expected to remember who is vegetarian and who isn’t.

    This hasn’t come from nowhere, but rather from 170 years of pressure for social acceptance from vegetarians. And it’s crucial in making vegetarianism *easy*, which is in turn crucial in creating more vegetarians. (Veganism doesn’t have the same level of social acceptance, though I wish it did, and acceptance seems to be increasing.)

    This should all factor into the vegetarian guest’s strategic considerations. Partial vegetarianism, suspended when socially inconvenient, doesn’t create any pressure for social acceptance, and so doesn’t help make vegetarianism any easier.

    • Alberto Giubilini says:

      Thank you Jonathan. I think we disagree about the success of vegetarianism. True, in the UK restaurants have vegetarian options and products at the supermarket are clearly labelled. Still, in spite of these measures, vegetarians remain a tiny minority, even if ethical and practical arguments for vegetarianism are well known. So I think that although you are right that vegetarianism is “normal” in the sense that it is now a recognized and accepted lifestyle, it certainly is not “normal” in the sense that a large portion of the population is vegetarian. Even if some progress has been made, I suspect it is unlikely that significantly more people will be convinced to turn vegetarian. It is not that people are unaware of the bad consequences of eating meat, it’s just that they do not care enough to give up eating meat. Trying to convince an omnivore to become vegetarian is hopeless, unfortunately. Sometimes it can be a successful strategy, but in the vast majority of cases it’s not. Trying to convince them to simply reduce meat consumption is more likely to succeed, and as I argue in the article, a world where many people significantly reduce meat consumption is preferable to a world where only a tiny minority is vegetarian and the others consume large quantities of meat.

      • Jonathan Birch says:

        “although you are right that vegetarianism is normal in the sense that it is now a recognized and accepted lifestyle, it certainly is not normal in the sense that a large portion of the population is vegetarian.”

        — But vegetarianism needs to be normal in the first sense before it can be normal in the second sense. It’s normality in the first sense in the UK is a significant achievement. This is not the case in most of the world, and this is one reason why there are far more vegetarians in the UK than in other parts of the world (the number of vegetarians and level of acceptance of vegetarianism are mutually reinforcing).

  • Huseyin says:

    Hi Alberto
    I will simply reiterate my comments to Brian’s post. I see that you tried to address one of them above, i.e. I mean “ethical vegetarian” but I still think that there are other generalizations that, to me, undermines the quality of the argument. 1. Generalization 1: “Probably her initial feelings will be disgust and repulsion”..No some people develop a neutral attitude. Generalization 2. “Most vegetarians are concerned about animal suffering caused by meat consumption, or about the impact of factory farming on the environment.” No some people are vegetarians and vegans for health & spiritual reasons. 3. Generalization 3 ” plausibly, the ‘right’ message to be sent to non-vegetarians is one that increases the chances that as many of them as possible will give up meat or at least reduce their meat consumption” No not all vegetarians / vegans are evangelical. Some people are just vegetarians/vegans and no they are not trying to convert the carnivores. So based on these assumptions the essay ignores the fact that there is much diversity in terms of motives and relies on a very stereotypical image of vegetarianism/veganism.
    Thank you

    • Kriss says:

      I’ve been veggie for 34 years and still like the taste of meat. Sometimes I find it impossible to resist. However I would still object if someone used my weak will against me and served me meat because they knew I had lapsed a few weeks before, assuming that it didn’t matter.

  • enough says:

    Psychology: These flexitarian/reducitarian schticks seem popular among a set of academics who themselves aren’t vegan but who want self-flatteringly protray their lack of effort and selfishness as strategic virtue. Spending time to think up outlier scenarios where meat eating possibly could be strategic is suboptimal time use.

    • Alberto Giubilini says:

      For what it’s worth, I am a vegetarian, not a flexitarian/reducitarian, though I do think that being reducitarianism is a reasonable position

      • enough says:

        You are not only vegetarian, you are a vegetarian who has wasted time on these encertain outlier scenarios. By consequentialists standards, can you justify doing that rather than spending that time on animal activism?

  • Ella Peile says:

    What are you basing the statement “eating meat only occasionally is unlikely to make a difference to the amount of suffering inflicted on animals” on? It seems clear that every piece of meat eaten increases demand, thereby increasing the number of animals killed and thus suffering inflicted.

    • Alberto Giubilini says:

      Thanks Ella. Suppose I eat a steak just once per year, and I am vegetarian the rest of the time. It is very unlikely (though, admittedly, not impossible) that my choice makes a difference to the number of animals that are raised and killed in factory farming. Factory farms are probably not raising and killing one more animal than they otherwise would in order to provide my steak. The same is probably true if eat a steak just twice per year, and perhaps also three time a year, and so on. Granted, there must be a cut off point after which my eating meat implies that an extra animal will be raised and killed; but the point is that the less frequent my eating meat, the less probable it is that any instance of my eating meat makes a difference to the number of animals raised and killed in factory farming.

      Now, it is also true that, although improbable, it is not impossible that my eating a steak only occasionally does make a difference to the number of animals raised and killed. Indeed, there is a non-zero probability that any instance of my eating meat is the one that triggers a new order of meat by the butcher, and therefore that causes more animals to be raised and killed – this is why I wrote that it “unlikely”, and not impossible, that eating meat only occasionally makes a difference. The more often I eat meat, the higher the chance that any instance of my eating meat triggers the new order by the butcher, but even one single instance of eating meat has a non-zero probability to trigger a new order of meat. So the “expected utility” of any instance of eating meat, even if it once per year, is negative: there is a very small chance that any instance of eating meat, no matter how rare it is, would have bad consequence in terms of animal suffering and killing of animals. And if the expected utility is negative, in a consequentialist perspective you ought not to eat meat even once. Shelly Kagan puts forward this type of argument in the paper I’ve linked in my article.

      • Ella says:

        “Granted, there must be a cut off point after which my eating meat implies that an extra animal will be raised and killed” – and multiplied by the number of people who adopt similar flexitarian diets, it is guaranteed that extra animals will be raised and killed.

        • Alberto Giubilini says:

          Yes, no doubt. But the point I was trying to make is that, for the vast majority of people, the realistic alternative to being flexitarian is not being vegetarian, but simply eating meat regularly. And way more animals will be raised and killed if most people eat meat regularly than if most people are flexitarian.

          • Ella says:

            I agree. I think this is relevant for how we approach activism and conversations with meat eaters, though it doesn’t sway my choice to never eat meat. I don’t think following a strict vegetarian diet necessarily dissuades those who would see it as too hard. Analogy: I follow some environmentalist blogs and though living a 100% plastic-free life does feel too difficult, the examples set make me confident that I can at least reduce my plastic use.

  • Ella says:

    What are you basing the statement “eating meat only occasionally is unlikely to make a difference to the amount of suffering inflicted on animals” on? It seems clear that every piece of meat eaten increases demand, thereby increasing the number of animals killed and thus suffering inflicted.

Authors

Subscribe Via Email

Affiliations