Life, and this is so much the better, is often much more comical than we imagine. Looking at those old photos of me eating meat to my heart’s content, who could have said at that moment that I would become a convinced anti-speciesist and vegetarian a few years later?
As of today, this is my fourth anniversary of vegetarianism and it’s a journey that I’ll explain throughout my all life so I thought it might be a fun idea to write a little blog post to explain my motivations, thoughts and pathways on the subject. Especially since I’ve evolved a lot on the subject, both in the way I explain it and in the way I approach it individually and put it into practice.
The trolley dillema is a well-known thought experience in moral philosophy. Imagine you are driving a trolley and the track splits into two separate branches. You cannot stop the trolley and must choose to drive on one of the two tracks. Oh but wait! On the 1st track there are 1 random person who will die if you choose this one and on the 2nd track, 5 other random people who will have the same fate if you choose this 2nd track.
What do you do? Well of course, 5 lives saved is better than 1 right so you probably just go on the 1st track. Now let me introduce you to some variations. Imagine now on the 1st track there is grandma and on the 2nd a baby (please appreciate my artistic talents on Paint, yes pretty wild isn’t it?).
Well of course, you choose the 1st track again. These are very intuitive and simple thought experiences for the moment. The one I want to emphasize on in the following: now imagine on the 1st track a pig and on the 2nd nothing.
What would you do in this case? Well most of people choose not to kill the pig so choose the track where there’s nothing. So why a large majority of people eat ham? Why kill the pig whereas you could not? As long as there is a vegetarian option, why not to take it? If not, why kill the pig since you can simply not by choosing something else than ham?
Death vs pain
Although this is one of the arguments that appealed to me at first sight, and this is where I usually start when I explain why I don’t eat meat, I have to say that it is not a correct argument in a purely philosophical and axiomatic sense. Let me now point out why I think so.
In fact, there is a moral distinction to be made between the issues of taking life and inflecting pain. From a purely theoretical point of view, the former does not necessarily imply the latter and vice versa. Let me underline why I see the issue of inflecting pain as something more accurate when it comes to say whether it’s a good thing to eat animals. I begin with a quote from Peter Singer:
The capacity for suffering—or more strictly, for suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness—is not just another characteristic like the capacity for language or higher mathematics. The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is not only necessary, but also sufficient for us to say that a being has interests—at an absolute minimum, an interest in not suffering.
In Peter Singer’s view, it is the capacity to suffer that is morally important. As a consistent utilitarian, I believe that the maximisation of the welfare of all, requires that of every sentient being, regardless of their intelligence. It should be made clear that this is not about arguing for similar treatment of humans and nonhumans, but about changing the way we perceive and treat the latter. It is not a question of ‘giving pigs the vote’, but of not despising the different but real interests of non-humans such as the interest of not to suffer.
The wrongness of killing a being is more complicated as evidenced by the debates around abortion and euthanasia. While self-awareness, the capacity to think ahead and have hopes and aspirations for the future, the capacity for meaningful relations with others and so on are not relevant to the question of inflicting pain—since pain is pain, whatever other capacities, beyond the capacity to feel pain, the being may have—these capacities are, I think, relevant to the question of taking life. For example, assume death does not imply suffering. Who would I save between a human and, say, a pig? That’s an interesting trolley dilemma case because it forces one to find other criteria than the capacity to suffer to determine who between the human and the pig should be killed. People often ask me this question because they tend to think that an anti-speciesist will answer that both have strictly the same value and that we should treat both the same way. This is a classic but common confusion between treating animals as moral patients with interests and treating animals and humans strictly equally when there is no question of inflicting suffering. But of course, I would prefer to kill the pig because, cognitively speaking, it has less than the average human and it is reasonable to think that cognitive abilities may in this case be the only variables to be taken into account in deciding whom to kill - provided only that death does not cause suffering and all other things being equal. However, pain and suffering are in themselves bad and should be prevented or minimized, irrespective of the race, sex, or species of the being that suffers.
Unfortunately, even with this new vision of not causing unnecessary suffering, the conclusion remains the same: stop eating animals. Indeed, assuming that your basic moral axiom is ‘I want to avoid inducing unnecessary suffering’ rather than ‘I want to avoid inducing unnecessary death’, the system of animal livestock or killing as it currently stands induces suffering - and suffering that goes far beyond the local suffering that you can experience by, for example, banging your little toe against a piece of furniture. I use the qualifier ‘unnecessary’ because it is unnecessary for us humans to eat meat: the scientific consensus is now very firm on the issue and I refer to my references - more rigorously, I should say that it is counterfactually useless for us to eat meat (it is useful if and only if it is the only food available to us for our survival). To detail here the scope of animal exploitation in terms of induced suffering is beyond the scope of this blog post and I refer again to my references below for the curious and skeptical.
So when I stopped eating meat, this decision was nothing more than pure logic for me given the axioms involved in my moral system. I was still a child at that time but here is what I wrote down for myself in chart form:
|premise 1||To eat meat/fish you have to kill and most likely inflict pain to an animal (A)|
|premise 2||The interest of an animal to not suffer is essential (B)|
|premise 3||The interest of a human being in satisfying his taste for the flesh is incidental (C)|
The only thing missing is a moral axiom that I personally stated above (I want to avoid inducing unnecessary suffering). Well, the logical conclusion is pretty trivial I guess.
Finally, à la Ockham’s razor, one might reasonably think that the action that tends to minimise unnecessary suffering is simply to stop eating meat. A kind of paradox is that the action is, in itself, very simple: it is simply the fact to not buy meat (which is an action that does not require any hard skill so it is very easy to implement). But because of very hard inertia forces, the action to not buy meat – or, contraposely, the non-action to buy meat – is actually quite hard for a lot of people.
Even if neither death nor pain
Let’s put aside purely philosophical considerations and let’s now put my economist’s hat and simply have a look at some consequences of animal livestock for society as a whole. Indeed, while the local and individual gain from eating meat may be positive - although probably marginal (it depends how the taste of the meat will bring utility to you) - the collective gain is significantly negative (i.e the consumption of animals brings a cost to society in the long term) due to very strong negative externalities from livestock farming.
But firstly, let us look at the indirect benefits of improving animal welfare, namely the altruistic utility gain of humans in making animals happy. As Romain Espinosa pointed out in his fabulous book ‘Comment sauver les animaux: une économie de la condition animale’, the main challenge in estimating the total surplus generated by animal welfare measures, in the same way as for environmental measures, is the absence of a market price - the end of live castration on farms is not a good that citizens can buy at the supermarket, from which we can infer their utility. One must resort to what economists call ‘contingent valuation methods’. In a study published in 2019, Richard Bennett and his co-authors use these contingent valuation methods to measure the public utility gain from the implementation of the EU Broiler Directive, which came into force in June 2010 and aims to improve the welfare of farmed chickens. This type of work paves the way for better public policy assessments of measures to improve animal welfare, taking into account the indirect utility gain in the social welfare function. Richard Bennett’s study concludes that the effects are very large. Very few public policies can boast such a rate of return on welfare for the population: for every euro invested in chicken welfare, the utility of the human population is increased by 23 euros. So this basically means that even if we take an instrumental view of animal welfare, the altruistic gains from improving the condition of farm animals can be very high and sometimes outweigh the costs of implementing the associated measures.
Secondly, as I said in the first paragraph, livestock farming induces strong negative externalities.
- Livestock is a driver of global warming. According to the FAO, livestock as a whole is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is slightly more than the direct emissions (fuel consumption) of the transport sector (IPCC, 2014). Livestock is a driver of deforestation. As a result of climate change and deforestation (65% of which is due to cattle ranching), much of the Amazon basin is now emitting CO2 instead of absorbing it. The weight of consumption choices was confirmed in a study published in May 2018 in the journal Science (Poore et al., 2018). Using data from 38,000 farms in 119 countries around the world, the study established the average environmental impact of producing 40 of the main foods consumed, based on 5 indicators, including GHG emissions and annual land area occupied. A scenario replacing the current diet with a 100% plant-based diet would reduce food-related GHG emissions by 49% and require 76% less land.
- Intensive livestock farms are incubators of pathogens. As an FAO report stated more than 10 years ago, ‘it is not surprising that three quarters of the new pathogens that have affected humans in the last ten years have come from animals or animal products’. Rohr et al. (2019 ) finds that, ‘since 1940, agricultural drivers were associated with >25% of all — and >50% of zoonotic — infectious diseases that emerged in humans, proportions that will likely increase as agriculture expands and intensifies’. Thus, intensive livestock farming creates conditions for the emergence and amplification of epidemics.
So even if we ignore the purely philosophical arguments against eating animals, i.e. even if we say that the unnecessary death or suffering of animals is not in itself bad, we have just shown that (1) the improvement of animal welfare gives utility (i.e raise social welfare) (2) livestock farming, as it is currently implemented, cannot be considered a sustainable practice because of its strong negative externalities for society as a whole.
Furthermore, let me write quickly one of the advantages that is not often mentioned besides the fact that’s it’s good for your health (I will not elaborate on this since it’s pretty trivial but I give some reference at the end in case you may be sceptic): it basiccaly reduce your cognitive load when choosing what to eat. In fact, as you can experience in daily life when you’re a vegetarian in France, there are not that much plant-based alternatives, if you’re lucky you might find two tomato sandwich and a tabbouleh chasing each other in the takeaway section of the supermarket. So you do not spend your time on choosing if you’ll take the lasagne or the chicken salad or whatever (high entry cost because you have to change your habits but still a win-win situation in the long run since you do not have that much choice).
It’s totally fine not to be 100% vegetarian or vegan
Much of my argument therefore centred on the fact that ‘it is fundamentally not acceptable to do harm’. However, I think this is not a very good approach to convince people, even if, empirically, it was this argument that appealed to me personally in the 2nd place (after the trolley dilemma). Rather, I think the veg(etarien)an community should more emphasis on the fact that ‘it’s good to make compromises that make the world a better place at a lower cost’. So I usually put emphasis on the following question: ‘as long as there is a vegetarian option, why not to take it?’.
Still, I really believe it is still ok if you do not want commit yourself to stop eating meat at all. There are many inertia mechanisms such as cultural/social norms and preferences that might make the entry cost quite high.
I get you! But plants can suffer too ;))))
In fact, it has not been proven that plants feel (no nociceptors) and they have very low cognitive capacities because they have no nervous system. So if there is indeed a doubt allowed on the plant itself (doubt because it has not been proven) there is most probably none as for the fruits and vegetables that were made by the plant in order to be eaten (cf. biology courses in high school, seeds, evolution would have had absolutely no interest in integrating pain to the fruits). However, pain, just like fear or love, has a function for the survival of the species. Pain is probably useful for generating a rapid response, likely to provoke movement and escape. Pain therefore has no physiological meaning for the plant because it is immobile and there is therefore strong evidence that pain does not confer any advantage in terms of adaptive responses to its environment. Finally, on average, it takes 15kg of plant for 1kg of meat (which is not proportional to the expected intake to compensate 1kg of meat in plant protein). So if someone care about the alleged plant suffering, she should better stop eating meat as well.
I get you! But the animal has already been killed so it does not matter whether I buy it or not ;)))
Note that the sunk cost fallacy does not apply when you just buy the meat. Boycott action is still valuable in a pure consequentialist point of view (I do not elaborate on this since it’s pretty trivial).
Consider my own example again. I decided to stop eating meat when I was in high school and I used to eat lunch with my friends in the canteen of my high school. At the beginning of my first year of vegetarianism in the school’s canteen, food waste was sorted, i.e. vegetables were thrown away separately from meat. There must have been a reason for this so I thought that sorting the waste would allow the canteen staff to adjust the menus accordingly. For example, if a lot of meat is thrown away on a daily basis, I thought that the canteen staff could anticipate that (1) the meat as cooked is not very good and the staff will adjust the recipe accordingly, (2) the portions are too big and therefore need to be reduced and it is not necessary to buy as much meat. The last point is thus important form a consequentialist point of view because my (instrumental) goal was basically to ensure that the canteen buys less meat (and therefore potentially fewer animals suffer needlessly). However, one day the sorting of food ceased and the canteen put a grinder in its place: it was no longer possible to distinguish whether meat had been thrown away. Careful readers might have spot the difference that this grinder makes from a purely consequentialist point of view. In fact, since the canteen staff couldn’t see if meat has been thrown anymore, they couldn’t adjust the next menus accordingly or, more accurately, they could no longer tell themselves that they were going to reduce meat orders because of its waste. Ok but what’s the point? Well, this means that if any of my friends had taken meat but had bitten off more than he could chew and wanted to throw away his remaining meat, I didn’t mind eating the leftover at all because, from a consequentialist point of view again, it wouldn’t change anything at all whereas if I offered to finish their meat dish when there was no grinder, it might have had an impact because there would have been less waste of meat and therefore the canteen staff might not have adjusted the meat orders accordingly. For the anecdote, as long as I can remember, that was one of my first ‘non-trivial’ utilitarian calculus (‘non-trivial’ because for a lot of people, the definition of a vegetarian stops basically at ‘well it’s not eating meat’ when in all rigour, stopping eating meat is not the terminal goal but only a possible instrumental goal, which is moreover not always necessary in a context of sunk cost fallacy as I have just presented it through this example).
Are you vegetarian or vegan?
Well strictly speaking I’m vegetarian. I’m maybe like 80% vegan. Indeed I consider that the social cost of being vegan is very high for me and I prefer to go to the restaurant/eat out with my friends and take the vegetarian option rather than eating alone at home because the vegan option does not exist. I’m good at cooking at home without animal products (well in fact I often feel lazy to cook too much so I often take vegan dishes as a substitute for meat as I also like to support alternative protein initiatives) but when I have to buy take-away food, eat at my parents’ house who put butter everywhere, or want to have a good time with my friends, I eat vegetarian rather than vegan. So even if I’m convince of the validity of veganism and I rarely buy products with milk or eggs, I err on the side of saying that I am vegetarian also for the main following consequentialist reason: although vegetarianism is becoming increasingly popular in most western countries, people still tend to associate veganism as an extreme and radical point of view. Not being depicted as radical is useful for not losing ‘weirdness points’ so that I can emphasize for the philosophical arguments more easily and better advocate for this cause.
I have more to say on the subject but it would be beyond the scope of this blog post so I forced myself to stop here. In addition to that, I highly recommend the reading of:
- Animal liberation, Peter Singer, 1974 (still on my top 3 of my favourite books of all time, as it was mind-blowing for me. Singer demonstrates almost axiomatically the validity of antispecism on the same philosophical ground of all other form of moral discrimination)
- Comment sauver les animaux ? Une économie de la condition animale, Romain Espinosa, 2021 (the most complete and amazing book for French readers on animal welfare economics. Even if you want to get an overview of the issue, this book is so well organized, you can have rapidly the info you want to get)