Environmental Ethics

Should Meat Be Excluded From the UK’s Value Added Tax?

The idea of using a meat tax to improve human health and protect the environment has been getting a fair amount of attention from prominent scientists in the media. Professor Mike Rayner was quoted last year as saying, “I would like to see a tax on red meat and meat products. We need incentives to cut down on meat and dairy consumption.” Marco Springmann told the Guardian, “Current levels of meat consumption are not healthy or sustainable. The costs associated with each of those impacts could approach the trillions in the future. Taxing meat could be a first and important step.” And Joseph Poore suggested that taxing meat will likely be necessary to avoid serious environmental problems.

Taxing food products to promote human health is controversial. It has been suggested that introducing taxes to limit particular food consumption behaviors is a troubling shift towards a “nanny state,” involves paternalistically imposing “alien values” on people, and interferes with the free market by picking and choosing winners and losers among different products. A decision to impose a dedicated tax specifically targeting meat would need to adequately address all of these concerns.

For this post, however, I’m going to sidestep those difficult questions to instead focus on a question with an answer that seems to me a bit more straightforward: given that the UK already has a Value Added Tax that applies to some food products but not others, should it continue to exclude meat products from this tax?

The UK’s Value Added Tax, or VAT, is meant to target luxury goods while withholding taxes on “staples.” But the definition of what exactly counts as a luxury is a bit mysterious. Currently beef, lamb, pork, chicken are all excluded from the VAT. But shelled nuts are considered to be “luxury goods” and have the 20% VAT imposed on them.

Treating meat products as “staples” likely hearkens back to earlier beliefs that meat was a required part of a healthy diet and an essential source of protein. However, it is now well-established that diets with low amounts of meat, and indeed fully vegan and vegetarian diets, can be perfectly healthy and can meet nutritional needs for the overwhelming majority of the population. Moreover, this can all be done relatively inexpensively…low meat diets do not require buying the latest luxury food items at Whole Foods.

But the problem is not just that there are equally nutritious alternatives to meat…it’s that meat is demonstrably worse than many of them on a number of measures. The World Health Organization currently classifies processed meat as “carcinogenic” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic.” Moreover, high levels of meat consumption are bad for the environment in a number of ways. Rearing livestock is the biggest contributor to methane (a greenhouse gas that plays a significant role in climate change), utilizes a large portion of the world’s fresh water supply, and is a significant source of nitrogen, phosphorus and other pollutants (for a useful and accessible summary, see: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6399/eaam5324 ).

These are reasons that directly affect humans, and so could be thought of as both self-interested concerns and altruistic concerns (since future generations will be more seriously influenced by our impact on the environment). But one of the most common arguments against meat consumption is focused on animal welfare. Many vegetarians and vegans believe it is always wrong to kill an animal for human consumption, provided that alternatives are available. Practicing vegetarians currently make up a relatively small proportion of the population, but presumably a majority of people would agree that animals shouldn’t be mistreated or made to suffer needlessly, and there’s good reason to think that many of the animal welfare problems in current animal rearing practices (from housing to transporting to slaughtering animals) are a result of the pressure to produce vast amounts of meat as cheaply as possible to meet the current high demand for meat. So there are also strong reasons related to animal welfare to dramatically reduce per capita meat consumption that are based on values presumably shared by most people, though this is rarely directly mentioned in public policy discussions about taxing food.

Given all of the above, it seems as though there are strong reasons to include meat products in the VAT. But what about the objections mentioned above? The problem with these objections in the present context is that they seem as though they already apply to the current system. The current VAT system already favors certain foods over others and incentivizes goods according to particular values. In fact, the current system arguably provides perverse incentives that encourage people to choose at least some products, such as meat, that are less healthy, worse for the environment, and worse for animal welfare than other products that are taxed.

In other words, given that we already have a VAT tax that incentivizes some food products over others, it seems clear that meat products (and particularly red meat and processed meat) should be included. These products should no longer be regarded as necessary “staples” in healthy diets, and continuing to do so could have devastating consequences for the planet.

The Re-Greening of Abraham

By Charles Foster

Some odd alliances are being forged in this strange new world,

I well remember, a few years ago, the open hostility shown by dreadlocked, shamanic, eco-warriors towards the Abrahamic monotheisms. They’d spit when they passed a church.

The rhetoric of their distaste was predictable. The very notion of a creed was anathema to a free spirit. ‘No one’s going to tell me what to think’, said one (we’ll call him Jack), the marks on his wrists still visible from where he’d been chained to a road-builder’s bulldozer. And the content of the creeds, and the promulgators-in-chief, didn’t help. ‘I’m certainly taking no lessons’, Jack went on, ‘from some patriarchal sky-god represented by a paedophilic priest.’

But it’s changed. Jack still heaves bricks through bank windows (he says), and still copulates inside stone circles, but now he’s mightily impressed with Jesus, has a Greek Orthodox icon of the resurrection next to his bong, and pictures of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on his dartboard. He’s not alone. He’s part of a widespread movement that is reclaiming and recruiting the intrinsic radicalism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the fight against Neo-Liberalism and the destruction of the planet. Continue reading

Gene-Editing Mosquitoes at The European Youth Event 2018

By Jonathan Pugh


The below is a slightly extended version of my two 5min presentations at the European Youth Event 2018, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. I was asked to present on the following questions:


  1. What are the ethical issues surrounding gene-editing, particularly with respect to eradicating mosquitoes?


  1. Should the EU legislate on gene-editing mosquitoes?


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Cross Post: Five ways the meat on your plate is killing the planet

Cross-posted from The Conversation

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Francis Vergunst, Université de Montréal and Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford

When we hear about the horrors of industrial livestock farming – the pollution, the waste, the miserable lives of billions of animals – it is hard not to feel a twinge of guilt and conclude that we should eat less meat. The Conversation

Yet most of us probably won’t. Instead, we will mumble something about meat being tasty, that “everyone” eats it, and that we only buy “grass fed” beef.

Over the next year, more than 50 billion land animals will be raised and slaughtered for food around the world. Most of them will be reared in conditions that cause them to suffer unnecessarily while also harming people and the environment in significant ways.

This raises serious ethical problems. We’ve compiled a list of arguments against eating meat to help you decide for yourself what to put on your plate.

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Anybody Out There?

By Guy Kahane

These days it seems as if every couple of weeks or so we get reports about newly discovered planets that are ever more similar to Earth. The most recent discovery, planet Proxima b, is the closest planet found so far; Scientific American called it ‘the Earth next door’. Last October, an amateur group of astronomers noticed that the star KIC8462852 was flickering in an odd way, its brightness changing by up to 22 per cent, a much larger change than could be explained by any familiar cause. Some science fiction fans speculated that this might be a ‘Dyson Sphere’—signs of a super-advanced civilization desperately trying to harness energy from their sun. No convincing explanation of this effect has been found so far, and another star, called EPIC 204278916, was recently spotted exhibiting the same mysterious flicker. Then it was reported that Russian radio astronomers recorded a two-second burst of mysteriously strong radio waves coming from a sun-like star in the Hercules constellation.

We know we shouldn’t get too excited. Even if there are numerous Earth-like planets out there, they may all be lifeless. And scientists will probably eventually find perfectly natural explanations for these strange flickers and signals (the Russian report already seems to be a false alarm, caused by terrestrial interference). But still: it’s hard not to anticipate the day—perhaps in the coming few years, perhaps later in our lifetime—when strong, perhaps undeniable evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe will emerge. It sure feels as if that will be an incredibly important discovery. Arthur C. Clarke once said that “there are two possibilities: either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” But it’s not that easy to explain why.

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Video Series: Tom Douglas on Asbestos, a Serious Public Health Threat

Asbestos kills more people per year than excessive sun exposure, yet it receives much less attention. Tom Douglas (Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics) explains why asbestos is still a serious public health threat and what steps should be undertaken to reduce this threat. And yes, the snow in The Wizard of Oz was asbestos!

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.

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Don’t write evil algorithms

Google is said to have dropped the famous “Don’t be evil” slogan. Actually, it is the holding company Alphabet that merely wants employees to “do the right thing”. Regardless of what one thinks about the actual behaviour and ethics of Google, it seems that it got one thing right early on: a recognition that it was moving in a morally charged space.

Google is in many ways an algorithm company: it was founded on PageRank, a clever algorithm for finding relevant web pages, scaled up thanks to MapReduce algorithms, use algorithms for choosing adverts, driving cars and selecting nuances of blue. These algorithms have large real world effects, and the way they function and are used matters morally.

Can we make and use algorithms more ethically?

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Guest Post: What (if anything) makes extinction bad?

Catia Faria, Pompeu Fabra University

Follow Catia on Twitter here

 Throughout history, countless species have come into existence only to later become extinct. Whether extinction is caused by natural processes or human agency, environmental scientists and the general public seem to agree that extinction is a bad thing and that, therefore, conservation efforts should be made to counteract, and perhaps revert, the losses. Resources are often devoted to the reintroduction of endangered species into ecosystems in which they have long been absent. In other cases, states implement measures to protect autochthonous species (that is, species which are native to a certain natural environment, as opposed to introduced as a result of human activity) which are threatened by the presence of a foreign species by eradicating the members of the latter. There are entire organisations dedicated simply to the aim of preventing the extinction of species whose continued existence is at risk.  However, these practices rely on rather controversial assumptions.

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Vagueness and Making a Difference

Do you make the world a worse place by purchasing factory-farmed chicken, or by paying for a seat on a transatlantic flight?  Do you have moral reason to, and should you, refrain from doing these things?  It is very unlikely that any individual act of either of these two sorts would in fact bring about a worse outcome, even if many such acts together would.  In the case of factory-farming, the chance that your small purchase would be the one to signal that demand for chicken has increased, in turn leading farmers to increase the number of chickens raised for the next round, is very small.  Nonetheless, there is some chance that your purchase would trigger this negative effect, and since the negative effect is very large, the expected disutility of your act is significant, arguably sufficient to condemn it.  This is true of any such purchasing act, as long as the purchaser is ignorant (as is almost always the case) of where she stands in relation to the ‘triggering’ purchase.

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