Vegans: concerned with the suffering of real animals, or abstract concepts?

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Vegans: concerned with the suffering of real animals, or abstract concepts?

In the last decade of studying animal ethics, this is by far the best argument I have encountered against veganism. Although primarily a philosophical point, it has great significance to the practical lives of vegans. It goes like this:

Being vegan reduces the demand for animal products, so at best reduces the amount or types of animals being bred into animal industry. Amount, because fewer animal products are being demanded, type because not everyone who goes vegan will be reducing consumption of the same types of animal products*.

Veganism does not reduce the suffering of living creatures, it simply reduces the number of animals being bred into suffering. Thus, it is argued, veganism is more concerned with the abstract notion of suffering – that there is less ‘suffering’ existing in the world – than animals who actually exist.

Indeed, every vegan reading this should be given some food for thought by arguments like this: if you’ve never encountered the argument before, yet it isn’t concerning to you, I would suggest you consider why you are vegan in the first place!

Is veganism mistaken in its attempt to reduce animal suffering and death?

If you believe animal exploitation – the unnecessary use and consumption of animal products – to be abhorrent, the natural response is to refuse to involve yourself in it. In the long run, the key to ending animal exploitation is to gradually increase the number of vegans and therefore reduce and eventually eliminate the animals being bred for our use. This part hasn’t changed: veganism is still the most effective form of abolishing animal use. However most of us seem to think veganism has a practical, ethical effect on top of making society a less violence-indulging place; we would prefer to think of veganism as helping animals in some way.

In the most important way, it still does that. If we believe that veganism is a rational choice - that non-veganism is unnecessarily supporting the breeding, suffering and death of other sentient individuals – then we are also likely to believe that veganism will gradually increase in society. If it does this exponentially - so vegans begin to make up 1%, 10%, and so on - then that curve will start steepening after a while*. We currently see the number of vegans increasing very slowly, but the more of us there are, and the more corresponding vegan options and media representation there is, the more non-vegans will switch into it. It’s these switches, realistically, that will create a surplus of supply in some areas of farming that will mean living animals have no need to be killed. If sanctuaries exist, it is feasible that we will have a significant number of existing animals living out their days in much better conditions than they started off at.

This isn’t the most compelling argument in favour of veganism though – indeed it simply assumes that some surplus animals in the future will be put into sanctuaries. There is also the case of genuine welfare regulation/improvement. Implicit within the argument that veganism is more interested in abstracts than practicalities is the assumption that there are other things we can do to successfully achieve practical effect (otherwise, why bother criticising veganism in the first place?)

This other option, if one is sceptical of veganism, is welfare reform. It’s fairly intuitive that welfare reform isn’t particularly helpful in abolishing exploitation: it works from the same cues as veganism, but is a different response. I.e., if someone feels guilt/is motivated to do something about animal suffering, the usual choice is to stop consuming those products that cause it or else to consume products that are perceived to cause less suffering. These are two potential answers to the same problem, so it’s understandable why a promotion of welfare campaigns would dent figures of active vegans, and vice versa.

The question, then, is with regards to the efficiency of welfare regulation campaigns. Do they actually help animals? If they do then we potentially have a viable alternative that we should be promoting instead of veganism.

There is more ambiguity here than you would think. They certainly aim to help animals, but when you consider the most popular forms of welfare improvements – such as free range eggs – it becomes clear that there are big, potentially fatal questions which it can’t answer. The chickens involved in free range egg production still suffer immensely, dying early, and most male chicks are still ground up at birth due to being unable to produce eggs. The small, largely cosmetic changes, with regards to allowing the chickens more room or to see the blue sky above them occasionally, don’t seem to do anything significant for the actual chicken. The chicken cannot contemplate that she is better off than other chickens who do not know the blue of the sky, or who have slightly less room, and she still suffers in an extremely significant manner. Has the welfare improvement done anything significant for animals, or has it just made the suffering look more amenable to us consumers?

That last point is also relevant: welfare improvements generally only happen where they are profitable. It might be the case that, occasionally, a welfare improvement does help chickens, but companies generally only take them on where it is profitable to do so (you will note the price of free range eggs is much higher than normal eggs). Generally this limits the effect of welfare regulation to that which it is profitable to provide: chickens aren’t living long lives in the forest under free range systems as companies would not be able to sell products which were created this way for a profit. Animal industry isn’t a charity.

This kind of reasoning shows that current methods of welfare improvement are not only limited, but largely blunted by pursuing changes that look better to consumers rather than improve actual animal welfare. Ironically, this is where veganism would actually help.

Were animal groups to promote veganism as the sole solution to animal welfare problems, demand for these products would drop due to concerns in animal welfare, rather than changing to demand for apparently higher welfare products. The welfare improvement that companies provide in order to try and fight this drop would potentially be much more effective and thought out. This is as the improvements in this scenario aren’t being provided solely due to it being profitable to implement, in order to nicely increase sales, but rather they would be provided in an attempt to save the business from PR threats. It is very easy, currently, for companies to do very little, as animal groups will jump upon and publicise the smallest changes as if the chickens were now laying on gold stitched cushions. This would be very different were these groups to only advocate veganism; welfare improvements could be more meaningful.

This is without mentioning the competition aspect: in a world where demand for these products began to dwindle, companies would be at competition with one another in order that they get the sales other companies are losing: hence companies would make costly improvements in order to improve sales. This isn’t some ‘out-there’ theory against the accepted theory of animal welfare, it’s the basics of how economics and marketing work: there is much more hope for animal welfare improvements – genuine progress for animals – if the animal groups themselves drop the welfare campaigns.

These kinds of points are intuitive once one considers what marketing is (an attempt to increase sales or fight PR battles to save losses), how economics works and that veganism is about reducing demand. However, I fully concur that this isn’t immediately intuitive when one thinks about welfare improvement and veganism. It is very easy to get lost in a fundamental argument about the nature of vegan aims (eliminating animal breeding) and welfareist purpose (to improve animal welfare). If we get lost in the theoretical nature of the concepts, the intuitive answer is that veganism is abstract whilst welfarism is practical. This is called ‘attribution bias’ and is the process by which humans replace complicated or unknown subjects with much simpler and easier to understand ones. Veganism is an unnecessary extreme whilst welfarism is a sensible compromise, under this bias.

This is why we need rational arguments, and moreover a promotion of rationality wholesale: animals are products in our current society, and to understand how to improve their lot we must grasp how consumption, economics and business work, not simply take theoretical ideas at face value. A shallow assessment that veganism is for the abstract and welfarism for the practical doesn’t cut it. Imagine the scientific equivalent: arguing that space travel is impossible due to our basic understanding of gravity on earth and of pressure in space. This understands the basic challenges that science encounters, but it doesn’t understand how they are overcome via other aspects.

We can’t oversimplify if we want progress, we have to be using the best reason possible. Had we failed to do this in astro-physics, our knowledge of space would be determined solely by what we see from Earth. Our failure to do it in ethics could mean that we wrongly doom animals to a place as our products, working in terrible conditions, for many more centuries than were necessary.

Rob Johnson is a British ethicist, editor of The Abolitionist and author of the book Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong.

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