Ethical veganism

Brian Leiter has a very interesting and largely apt argument against the claim that veganism is morally superior to meat-eating. I find this particularly interesting, because I have some sympathy toward ethical vegetarianism, though not enough to outweigh my enjoyment of meat. So let’s think about it some.

The crux of Brian’s argument is that there’s no plausible theory grounding the claim that animals have a right to life, as opposed to the more plausible right to be free from the infliction of pain. The best chance for getting such a theory comes from some variety of utilitarian theory (since animals don’t have the reasoning capacity to support direct moral standing in deontological theories). But that won’t fly. In his words:

Let’s suppose, plausibly enough, that sentience (the ability to experience pleasure and pain) is a morally relevant characteristic. Since animals are sentient, it seems there ought to be a moral obligation not to inflict gratuitous pain and suffering on them (a central part of the argument against “factory farming”).
* * *
an animal’s well-being is constituted by pleasant and unpleasant experiences at particular moments (synchronic well-being), and they lack a conception of their lives going well across time (diachronic well-being), such that losing their life could be a harm to them

This seems pretty plausible. I do have some reservations about the idea that what constitutes an animal’s well-being comes from the sorts of affective states that it has the capacity to have — but I take Brian’s main point to be that we don’t really have anything better — we can’t, for example, say that an animal’s well-being is determined relative to its plan for its life, because it simply doesn’t have one. I’d also wonder whether or not the fact that animals will furiously resist death (for evolutionary obvious reasons) could be taken to suggest that some animals have some kind rudimentary recognition that death is a bad for them. But that is a question for the biologists.

Still, however, there seem to be at least two arguments for veganism that might go through.

The non-ideal theory argument for veganism

This is quite straightforward. In an ideal world where meat isn’t cruelly produced, such a vegan might argue, it’s acceptable to eat meat. But we live in a world where meat is cruelly produced, and it’s difficult if not impossible (or overwhelmingly expensive) to find non-cruelty meat. In such a world, it is morally obligatory to avoid meat.

The anti-hypocrisy argument for veganism

This argument is a little deeper, and works in both ideal and non-ideal theory. It’s related to Kant’s argument against animal cruelty on the grounds that it warps our own character. I think a similar argument can be made against the killing of animals in general. Here’s roughly how it might run.

For many (most?) of us, participating in the killing of an animal or encountering a dead animal produces a feeling of revulsion. The revulsion is at least partly a moral feeling, in that it expresses our intuition that killing animals is wrong, even if that intuition is, strictly speaking, incorrect.

Suppose we think that feelings like the revulsion at death are generally good for our moral character — they more or less often give us reliable guides as to how to live our lives on a day-to-day basis. (For example, we might reasonably think that the revulsion we feel at killing an animal arises from the same mechanism that produces the revulsion we feel at killing a human.)

Suppose we also think that certain kinds of hypocrisy undermine these moral senses. There are at least two kinds of hypocrisy at play here. First, we are revolted by being directly responsible for the deaths of animals but have no qualms about taking the benefit of other peoples’ bringing them to their deaths.

Second, we accept the deaths of disfavored animals but reject the deaths of favored animals (puppies and kittens) with no legitimate moral reason for the distinction. (I take it that most westerners would be horrified at the notion of eating a puppy even if it was killed painlessly — and many would say that killing the puppy to get it on the plate is immoral.)

Then, by eating meat killed by others, we train ourselves to ignore our visceral reactions to morally questionable situations, as well as the implicit moral judgment (accurate or inaccurate) that we’ve made that lies underneath the reactions. And by permitting ourselves to act on the inconsistent claims “it’s ok to kill cows for food” and “it’s not ok to kill puppies for food,” we damage our capacity to engage in moral reasoning in other areas. Both of these cognitive habits are bad for our overall moral characters.

Thoughts? (Tobey?)


20 Responses to “Ethical veganism”

  1. Greg Says:

    What about skirting the animal welfare problem by couching your argument in terms of human equality and public reason. Something to the effect that meat is produced in a hugely inefficient way in terms of calories/acre relative to grains and vegetables, and the these farming practises contribute to pernicious inequalities in life prospects for much of the world’s population.

  2. Ryan Says:

    But in killing animals don’t we deprive them of a certain sheer number of dopamine and seratonin infused time-slices? Even if they don’t recognize a connection between those time-slices in a single life?

  3. Steve M. Says:

    What relationship, if any, does this discussion have to the questions whether:

    (1) harms must be temporally located, or whether statements describing harm are necessarily time-indexed;

    (2) one should adopt a globalist perspective, or a holist conception of value;

    (3) any robust form of self-awareness is possible, even for human beings; and

    (4) whether there is a relationship between concepts like personal identity and self-awareness (whatever it might be) and harms-across-time — and, if so, what it is.

  4. John Says:

    I quite like the arguments given by Jeffrey Masson in The Face on Your Plate.

    Plus this Understanding of the non-humans

    Also check out The Green Gorilla by the above author.

  5. Aaron Says:

    There are people with the self-awareness level of animals, people with the same lack of a life plan and whatever else you discuss here, i.e. babies or mentally retarded people of whichever description. On this argument, wouldn’t it be OK to eat them too?

  6. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    One thing I simply fail to understand about the way most philosophers discuss animals is how readily they seem willing to make empirical assumptions about “animals.” This is partly what Dorf is criticizing, I think. Though Professor Leiter admits that some animals, like elephants, may have diachronic experience, I wonder how it is that we can be so sure many other members of the animal kingdom do not experience as such.

    How can we be so goddamn sure? Dorf is absolutely right to point that the more we study a variety of animals, including dogs, cats, apes, elephants, and many others, the more complex and advanced their inner worlds may seem. We don’t understand the inner worlds of human beings very well; it is rank hubris, in my mind, to presume that we can wave our hands and assume much about the experiences of animals.

    (I am not accusing Professor Leiter of any of the sins noted above, just expressing general frustration on the discourse).

  7. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    And Aaron,

    In the comments on Dorf’s blog, Professor Leiter expressly notes that inasmuch as babies lack the capacity to experience diachronic well-being, death would not be a harm for them. As he notes, that does not necessarily vitiate the claim (whether it is a reductio could be contested, I think, though I am sympathetic to the perspective that it is).

  8. Aaron Says:

    Daniel, what is Dorf’s blog? And I would agree, perhaps, that infanticide isn’t necessarily a harm, but it does seem an unpalatable conclusion to say it would be OK to farm babies for food, no? Or what about farming mentally retarded people for food? (Removing complications about parent’s emotions blah blah.) That’s what I was getting at.

  9. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    (There are a series of posts on there addressing Professor Leiter’s stance on veganism)

  10. ben wolfson Says:

    There are those who deny that an animal’s loss of life can’t be a harm to it (I suppose one needs a bit of high-octane theorizing to get oneself into the state of mind in which loss of life isn’t harmful), but really, the non-ideal argument seems like the clincher.

    There’s also the saw about the exorbitant necessary energy inputs into a single cow, and the effects of the extremely high demands for meat (runoff from piles of shit, e.g.).

  11. ben wolfson Says:

    And in a recent unfogged thread various people who’d had experience with animal slaughter said that in some cases it seemed (as much as these things ever can seem to be the case) that the animals knew that the fix was in and were skittish.

    One of the posts at the blog Daniel linked brought up Velleman’s “Well-Being and Time”, which I thought might have been lurking behind Leiter’s claim about animals. (Velleman makes the same claim.) I’ve got several qualms about that article.

    Is there a plausible theory grounding the claim that people have a right to life?

  12. ben wolfson Says:

    (A minor thing: In WB&T, Velleman invites us to consider various life histories, represented with the subtletly appropriate to philosophy as graphs of hedons (or wahtever) against time. Some of these—a graph with a positive slope, say, representing (as apparently it does) a life of continually increasing achievements, which began in poverty and ended in robber baronetcy or whatever (though couldn’t it also have represented a life in which one was pumped full of steadily more pleasure-producing drugs?—hush!)—are better than and preferable to others, such as one with the opposite slope, in which laziness and sloth brings one from a position of initially great advantages to one of crushing penury and misery. This strikes me as already a claim that should be controversial, but whatever. In totting up the figures for these graphs, we are, I suppose, insensitive to whether the decrements come from frustrated ambitions or from the pains of being on the rack. For the latter, of course, we don’t need—do we?—to consider the fact that the person on the rack has a conception of his life as a whole, if indeed he does (I imagine the rack doesn’t leave much mental energy left over for such pursuits, but presumably all that matters is that he’s the sort of being that can conceive of its life as a whole, though that would threaten Velleman’s already implausible claims about narrative). It’s his sentience to which we advert. And that’s a component in totting up the graph. Velleman thinks that we shouldn’t combine the momentary goods or ills affecting a cow. (Whatever such momentary things might be. Most obvious candidates are obviously not momentary.) But surely we also agree that a cow’s life, when characterized by incessant physical abuse (we could represent this as a graph if we wanted), is worse than a cow’s life not so characterized! We could also (surely!) say that the life of a chicken in a feedlot is, qua chicken-life, worse than that of a chicken that wanders around a field doing whatever properly constituted chickens do, but that doesn’t lend itself to being graphed.)

  13. Paul Gowder Says:

    Ben, your last comment makes me wonder whether it’s even possible to evaluate the total goodness or badness done to an entity without taking a diachronic perspective.

    Imagine there are two cows: cow A suffers excruciating pain for one minute of its life. Cow B suffers excruciating pain for one minute out of every ten, for its whole existence.

    Would Velleman really have us say that cow B is no worse off than cow A? That seems really implausible. But in order to say that cow B is worse off, do we have to accept all kinds of claims about the cow having a conception of a life as a whole (or about us having a morally significant conception of a cow’s life as a whole)? If nothing else, it would seem that the cow must have a sense of its identity continuing over time, or we must have a sense of the cow’s identity continuing over time.

  14. Paul Gowder Says:

    (I feel like my comments in this thread are, while, not directly relevant, sort of merging with the instant thread to some kind of “measuring goodness and badness over time slices and using those time-slices to make broader evaluations” harmony.)

  15. Steve M. Says:

    Could one adopt a view in which summative theories of value are okay for beings without life plans, etc., but not for beings with life plans, for whom global perspectives are more appropriate?

  16. Stuart Buck Says:

    What makes all of the moralistic vegan arguments kind of weird is that agriculture kills animals all the time. Even if you think that agriculture kills fewer animals, that isn’t helpful if your moral standard is that one should never partake of anything that involved the death of animals. If that’s really someone’s moral standard, they should just bury themselves right now, because it’s absolutely impossible to live on earth without participating in animal deaths.

  17. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:


    There seems to me a plain ethical distinction to be drawn between colluding in practices that cause unspeakable and grotesque suffering to animals and acting in ways that involve the death of animals. I doubt seriously vegans are consciously trying to live a life that does not implicate the death of any animal life whatsoever.

    (I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian)

  18. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    I apologize for continuing to flog this, but see:

  19. Stuart Buck Says:

    There seems to me a plain ethical distinction to be drawn between colluding in practices that cause unspeakable and grotesque suffering to animals and acting in ways that involve the death of animals.

    Doesn’t veganism involve the refusal to eat, wear, or in any way use any product that came from animals, no matter how humanely collected? If not, I misunderstand the debate here. But if so, then your reference to “unspeakable and grotesque suffering” is beside the point, as I believe at least some vegans would still refuse to eat meat, on putatively moral grounds, regardless of how the animals were treated.

  20. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:


    This is the debate that Professor Leiter seems interested in; whether humane death causes suffering to animals (ex hypothesi) that are incapable of a sense of diachronic well-being.

    This is certainly an interesting question; as I understand it, Professor Leiter’s point is that if this question is answered in the negative, the impetus for veganism seems to lose force.

    However, Dave’s 2nd comment here is also worth observing; that an argument which begins by assuming away the existence of “unspeakable and grotesque suffering” may not do justice to many vegans practical concerns.

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