I’m No Longer Going to Argue about Veganism

Discussing the ethics of veganism with nonvegans can be painful. I’ve heard all the objections:

  • But I really like meat [usually bacon] or dairy [usually cheese].
  • Animals are here for humans to eat.
  • What about protein?
  • Humans have evolved to eat meat.
  • Vegans harm animals through farming vegetables.
  • How do you know plants don’t suffer?
  • Human problems are more important.

I struggle to confront these objections with patience and compassion. I cannot help but get distracted by three facts:

  1. The objections (at least in their common forms) are blatantly terrible for very simple reasons. They are obvious rationalizations—as evidenced by the fact that when they are easily dispensed with, few people actually change their behavior.
  2. Roughly 1,000,000,000 creatures are killed each week because of how they taste. With a moral calamity that massive, it is depressing that I’m called on to convince people of its existence.
  3. When it comes to causing immense suffering and death, the default should be not to do it. You don’t need to justify not causing widespread suffering and death. So if a person proposes causing suffering and death, they are the ones who need to provide a good reason. This is another way of saying that vegans do not have the burden of proof. Arguments from tradition are bad arguments.

As a matter of social justice, I commit to being a better advocate. It is a basic practical reality that people must be convinced to become vegans, as screwed up as reality is. It is the only way forward.

However, as a matter of moral philosophy, I am done arguing.

Here is what I mean. There is a helpful concept in ethics called a ‘decisive intuition’. A decisive intuition is an intuition that any moral theory must incorporate and explain. If a theory doesn’t, the theory is therefore wrong. Decisive intuitions are the boxes that any theory must check.

For example, if someone proposes a moral theory according to which torturing children for fun is permissible, we know that the theory is wrong. Our theories don’t need to explain that torturing children for fun is wrong. They only need to show how it is wrong. We aren’t open to abandoning the intuition. We are as certain of it as any plausible foundational claim about moral value.

We have other sorts of intuitions too. There are some that we feel strongly about but would be willing to reject with a compelling enough theory. An example would be whether we have stronger obligations to the people close to us than those further away. In other words, why is your mother more valuable (to you) than a random person across the globe?

There are some intuitions that we are open about. Certain kinds of lying might be an example. Although there are situations in which the wrongness of lying is a decisive intuition, there are others in which it is genuinely difficult to know what to do. We then turn to a theory. If we have a theory that accounts for all the decisive intuitions reasonably well, perhaps it can guide us through tricky situations.

Hence, there is a spectrum. We are certain of some judgments (the decisive intuitions), pretty certain of others, and genuinely open about others. In this latter case we might say that we don’t have an intuition at all.

Where does veganism stand? It is typically taken to be a nondecisive intuition. And since the status of an intuition is purely a function of common opinion, if people don’t think obligatory veganism is a decisive intuition, then it isn’t one. As a result, if a moral theory doesn’t entail obligatory veganism, it doesn’t tell us anything about the truth of the theory. In fact, the theory is supposed to give us guidance on the issue.

People typically recognize the moral significance of our treatment of nonhuman animals. Who among us can watch the ubiquitous videos of the torture that takes place in farms and not feel the tug of conscience? However, some people might feel so strongly about the superiority of human beings that the rejection of obligatory veganism is something close to a decisive intuition. For them, any theory that entails obligatory veganism must be wrong.

I will no longer debate the ethics of veganism. More precisely, I will take obligatory veganism as a datum of moral philosophy. It is a box that any theory must check. I hereby declare that, henceforth, I will consider obligatory veganism to be a decisive intuition.

What does this mean? It means that if a proposed moral theory does not entail obligatory veganism, it must therefore be wrong. I am as certain of the wrongness of using animals for purposes of taste as I am of any metaphysical claim about value. I am not going to argue that veganism is obligatory. I will only show how.

Notice that I am not claiming that obligatory veganism is a decisive intuition. I cannot do that. Decisive intuitions are a matter of common adherence. Rather, the fact that obligatory veganism isn’t a decisive intuition is precisely the moral failure that I am attempting to confront. So treating it as an open question, in a certain respect, undermines the project. Some moral questions are so obvious that we shouldn’t be expected to convince the people mired in prejudice. Some moral crises are so catastrophic that we need to get to work on solving the problem, not bicker about theories that rationalize the continued destruction of lives and the world. It is time to press forward. People need to get on board.

Other than the three listed above, there are a number of reasons to join me. The prominent approaches to ethics are not innocent of the suffering that human beings have inflicted on nonhumans. The bloody farms are a natural consequence of the anthropocentrism at the core of ethics. A similar story can be told about environmental devastation and the dangerously parochial approaches to technological development (particularly in artificial intelligence). It is time to stop building ad hoc inclusions for nonhumans or the environment into standard moral theories (what might be called ‘pork barrel ethics’). Environmental ethicists have been sounding the alarm for two generations.

A major impediment to the growth of veganism is that people face no censure for eating animals. There are no social consequences. In fact, it is the vegans who are criticized as self-righteous, annoying, and effeminate. Gatherings can quickly become uncomfortable. Many people abandon veganism because of the social pressures.

It might be possible to develop sanctions by treating the morality of veganism as given. It takes seriously the idea that veganism should be the default. It rejects the framing of many standard ethical theories out of hand. Or at least, it forces them to place the wellbeing of nonhumans far closer to the center.

The very debate over the ethics of veganism assumes that the issue is open. We do not debate the ethics of torturing children for fun. We ought to approach veganism the same way. Let’s start ethics with the idea that torturing and killing billions of creatures a month for taste is wrong. The assumption is as safe as any other.

As an addendum, I chose the example of torturing children for fun intentionally because it closely resembles what we in fact do to billions of nonhumans. It also illustrates something odd about the phrase ‘obligatory veganism’. It follows from #3 above that veganism is in principle a restrictive moral position. That is, it lists a number of actions that you should not perform. In that respect, it is like our obligation not to torture children. Just don’t do it. It isn’t that hard. Every time you pass someone on the sidewalk, in a sense, you’ve fulfilled your obligation not to be randomly violent towards strangers. Congratulations! (Though you’re not really a hero.)

Obligatory veganism takes the same form. When you pass a human, dog, cat, duck, pig, cow, etc. on the sidewalk, don’t catch, torture, and kill it. And don’t pay for others to do it on your behalf. Just don’t do it. It shouldn’t be hard. Unfortunately, we live in a world where living by the restriction often is hard. That’s what we ought to change. Moral philosophy can do its part.logo-green

 

9 thoughts on “I’m No Longer Going to Argue about Veganism”

  1. “Let’s start ethics with the idea that torturing and killing billions of creatures a month for taste is wrong. The assumption is as safe as any other.”

    Help me bridge this gap. I’m not seeing it. How do you get to this assumption? Sheer intuition?

    By the way, I don’t torture children because:
    A. I am sufficiently similar to a human child that someone who is willing to torture a child is probably willing to torture me.
    B. We need un-tortured children for the future state of reality that I would like to create and experience.
    C. I don’t get any benefit from torturing children to warrant the amount of effort required to go out of my way to torture children.

    If all three of these conditions were to no longer apply, then why wouldn’t I torture children? Help me see the light.

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    1. I am taking ‘killing billions of creatures a month for taste is wrong’ to be a decisive intuition. So yes, I get there with intuition, just like we get to the idea that torturing children for fun is wrong.

      Then we move to explain how it is wrong. You give three reasons to explain the torturing children intuition. I don’t really know if they are good reasons. They appear relevant to the children case but probably not the fundamental moral concerns. Regardless, I can know whether you’re right by determining whether your principles entail obligatory veganism. If they don’t, I know your principles, at some level, are wrong.

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  2. So, are you recommending rejecting fallibilism about such intuitions? Did you reason your way to this decisive intuition, and if so, are you committed to those reasons being decisive as well?

    Perhaps an example. All your reasons seems to involve a reference to great death and suffering. Raising egg-laying hens (in certain environs) involves neither. Veganism requires not eating eggs. So, either veganism is not morally obligatory, or that obligation cannot be solely rooted in the moral wrongs of causing great death and suffering.

    Is the above something you would reject out of hand? Etc.

    AJ

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    1. Hi, AJ!

      Great points. A couple thoughts.

      Do we reason our way to the intuition that torturing children for fun is wrong? Perhaps. However you slice it, I would probably do the same in the case of veganism. Though the analogy does suggest that what ultimately matters is the suffering, not what you consume.

      However, a feature of my position is that veganism should be the default. If someone wants to keep egg-laying hens, they need to show that their actions are consistent with what we discovered in explaining how nonveganism is wrong. I do not argue for it here, but I think, for practical and psychological reasons, we should have high standards on this issue. Nonvegans tend to take any small exception or allowance that a vegan concedes and expand it into a rationalization for something that closely resembles the status quo. The “certain environs” you mention would be difficult to come by (or impossible, since on at least one level it would involve supporting the broader chicken industry).

      The easier option: “Just don’t do it”

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  3. So as long as we raise and kill animals in a way that causes them very little suffering . . .

    I’m not trying to talk you out of veganism (you don’t want to entertain that). What I’m am trying to highlight is a danger for the “I’m not going to entertain not-p” anymore. It’s popping up all over philosophy – and it runs together the very obvious truth that there are some things that we shouldn’t waste time discussing, with the idea that they themselves are thoroughly convinced that p, so not-p is one of those thing we needn’t bother discussing.

    For one, it lacks intellectual humility. Think of what you’re suggesting. You have so completely examined the matter that it’s not possible for you to come across a reason to move you off your position – despite the fact that you know lots of smart reflective people who hold different views. It may also involve a bit of intellectual laziness, for defending your position requires making sure your own ideas are clear. Shutting off discussion, for yourself, makes that unnecessary. And, the worry is that many of the views that, say, the APAblog editors find beyond the pale are really not that well thought out. And isn’t the point of arguments from philosophers like Singer and Thomson that we need to challenge really basically held beliefs – even, “It’s always wrong to kill innocent people”.

    Finally, think also of what your saying about the rest of society – the great (intellectually) unwashed masses who can’t handle real philosophy. They need convincing, but not by argument (because you’re not going to do that). So we use our rhetorical skills and whatever else out our disposal (our power in the profession perhaps) to get them on board with veganism. And so we get someone like Barnes suggesting that she can’t engage with an argument of Singer’s because those great unwashed might come to think things they shouldn’t think – they not being in possession of her level of reason. Trott said virtually the same thing on her blog.

    To say you’re going to advocate for p, but not through argument, is to view your interlocutors with contempt.

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    1. You are shifting topics significantly here, which is fine (but see my article on philosophical gaslighting). It is difficult to tell to what extent you are objecting to me or some broader philosophical trend that may exist and of which I may be a part. I’d be curious to see other examples of this supposed trend. I would imagine that, if they are like my argument, they are embedded in a political project of institutional critique. Relatedly, I would imagine that they are more nuanced than you appear to be acknowledging. For instance, in discussing a social justice issue, values of “intellectual humility” and intellectual non-laziness, though certainly laudable in one respect, in the current context are often used as euphemisms for the detached patient centrism that allows massive injustices to continue. To the contrary, a great deal of intellectual humility is necessary for individuals in dominant groups to recognize the full scope of the harm they contribute to.

      After your series of imperatives that I “think,” think about the distinction between a) the practical realities of social justice and b) moral theorizing that I use to frame the whole piece. First, you appear to be attributing to me a hierarchy of the two—one that I ardently reject. Second, I am not at all opposed to supplying arguments in favor of veganism or spending time discussing it. My previous response included both (hopefully in a way that you didn’t interpret as contempt). But importantly, I’m not doing the sort of work that Singer, Regan, Gary Francione, or Melanie Joy did with respect to speciesism. I’m suggesting that, as is the case with other prejudices and systems of dominance, the philosophical disputes offered by those claiming superior intellectual humility rightfully come to be seen as accessories to the crimes.

      Hence, if I have contempt for anyone, it is for the philosopher who uses their skill to bury the suffering and death of hundreds of billions of creatures (along with the attendant environmental and health crises) under a façade of rational argumentation. And when they do so while claiming to exhibit superior intellectual virtue, I would tell them to think.

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  4. Thanks for the reply.

    I did shift the discussion, but not for gaslighting purposes. My first comment trying to see how much of your commitment to veganism was a bedrock principle, while also hinting that it ought not to be (as opposed to being opposed to factory farming). The thing that interests me most about your post was not veganism, but the idea that you’ve found some philosophical principle that you’re no longer going to argue for. The issue is about public philosophy, and what’s an appropriate topic for discussion.

    For another example, there’s this (which I also commented on):

    https://adrieltrott.com/2018/10/16/comments-for-spep-panel-on-online-harassment/

    But there’s lots out there. And this response of yours:

    “For instance, in discussing a social justice issue, values of “intellectual humility” and intellectual non-laziness, though certainly laudable in one respect, in the current context are often used as euphemisms for the detached patient centrism that allows massive injustices to continue. To the contrary, a great deal of intellectual humility is necessary for individuals in dominant groups to recognize the full scope of the harm they contribute to.”

    is the standard reply. That doesn’t make it wrong, of course, but what are we to do with this. I’m happy to admit that I may, in some cases, lack appropriate humility and am intellectually lazy (aren’t we all, some of the time!? – I’m not engaging in intellectual virtue-signalling here). If I admit this, can we then move on to the philosophical topic? Does my wanting to question a philosophical view, itself, constitute by lacking such humility – about what philosophical theses, as determined how and by whom? The “frame the discussion” idea is the one I want to challenge, though it’s really a “frame whether we should have a discussion”, issue. And, some might well say my wanting to challenge that just shows my privilege, lack of humility, etc, etc. Can we at least argue about whether, say, being open to non-veganism is to be party to a crime?

    Perhaps I misread your claim about “not going to argue for”. I had thought that this meant that, in your being a public advocate for veganism, you weren’t going to take non-vegans with whom you engage as genuine intellectual peers, who need to be convinced by argument, and who might be able to convince you. That rather, they were just people to be moved, by whatever means, to the right position (veganism). That would be to hold them in contempt. But, if that’s not your view, then I apologize (I certainly didn’t think you were taking that view with me).

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    1. Again, I’m happy to discuss the ethics of veganism in non-academic contexts. My commitment to take obligatory veganism as a decisive intuition is relevant to the contexts in which decisive intuitions are discussed—namely, academic moral philosophy. Discussing veganism with moral philosophers is routinely excruciating. As I said, the piece is institutional critique of academic philosophy.

      I don’t really see the relevant connection between the piece you link and mine.

      We may also disagree on what public philosophy should do and look like.

      But to get down to basics, hopefully readers of this piece see that the click-baity title is only true when it is appropriately qualified. Plus, although it is true that I put something beyond argument (only in a particular context), I do in fact offer a second-order positive philosophical argument in favor of veganism. It is found in #3: the idea that veganism should be the default. The argument has 2 consequences:

      1. We *can* debate the ethics of veganism, but the terrain of the debate changes significantly. Nonvegans can no longer have the “change my mind” attitude.
      2. When we see *why* veganism should be the default, the idea that obligatory veganism is a decisive intuition doesn’t seem so strange.

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  5. […] for fixing what we’ve destroyed. Under individualism, the environment (including the lives of nonhumans), the wellbeing of other countries and their citizens, long-term stability across numerous […]

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