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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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 actuality 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.