Rebecca Brown

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?

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