Two Reasonable People Debate Veganism: Part One

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Two Reasonable People Debate Veganism: Part One

One of the principles of ‘reasonableness’ (and indeed good critical enquiry of any kind) is a willingness to accept and consider sensible and respectful criticism of your ideas. Our goal as critical thinkers is to move closer to the truth, and that’s only possible by refining and testing our conclusions about the world. Our goal as compassionate people who want to ‘make the world a better place’ can only be achieved by a clear understanding of the world we seek to improve.

It is, therefore, surprising how little considered debate there seems to be about veganism between reasonable vegans and reasonable non-vegans. We see plenty of snarky or dismissive comments hurled at and by vegans, but not much in the way of constructive debate. We hope to redress this balance by inviting Rhys Southan of letthemeatmeat.com, an interesting and thoughtful blog that focuses on critiquing the philosophy behind veganism; and Robert Johnson, a moral philosopher, author and contributor to RVGN, to discuss some of Rhys’ criticisms of veganism and open a dialogue which we hope will continue to inform and shape the ethical discourse.

A note before we begin: it should be obvious that Rob and Rhys are representing their own perspectives on veganism and do not claim to speak for the entire vegan or non-vegan community. Many other arguments for and against veganism have been made and we invite further discussion in the comment section below.


Rob introduces his argument for veganism


The argument for veganism is a long and arduous one, not because it’s necessarily complicated, but because it is the intellectual opponent to a norm rooted deep within our most dearly held beliefs and traditions.

Veganism itself is, in essence, the result of a line-drawing process; where we should draw a rough line on moral principles like suffering. Between the unnecessary (thus immoral) and the necessary (thus excusable)

To simplify a great forest of myth busting into a single oak; veganism is about logically extending our moral beliefs, ousting traditional or unjustifiable values in favour of objective decisions, and driving a divide between what ‘is’ – what ‘has been’, in fact, for thousands of years – and what ‘should be’ based on our modern understanding of the relevant evidence.

Veganism itself is, in essence, the result of a line-drawing process; where we should draw a rough line on moral principles like suffering. Between the unnecessary (thus immoral) and the necessary (thus excusable). By choosing veganism we say that the important moral factor is not the ability to reason, or the ability to enjoy reality TV (assuming the two are not logically inconsistent), but the ability to feel. We currently afford other humans a right to certain amounts of dignity, in not suffering or being murdered, because they can speak back to us and stand up for their rights. Yet veganism asks us to ignore the irrelevant factor of ‘speech’ or ‘reasoning’ in favour of the solely important factor of ‘suffering’. When we’re sticking knives in someone, the morality of it is not decided by their ability to coherently ask you to stop, but by the suffering they experience.

Veganism, as a result, is about recognizing that not everyone who deserves moral interests can stand up and argue for them. When we draw the line between humans and other animals, we do so biologically, determining categories of species. The moral line should be far less defined than the biological one, and should encompass the attribute of sentience – the appropriate factor in suffering – rather than the irrelevant physical or intellectual characteristics, such as number of legs or ability to do Sudoku.


Rhys’ initial critique of Rob’s argument


Many vegans believe that living an otherwise standard lifestyle that excludes consumption of all animal products is both a necessary and sufficient ethical solution to conflicts between humans and non-human animals. My view is that it is not possible to arrive at this conclusion through logic alone. You might be able to prove the moral necessity of veganism, and you might be able to prove the moral sufficiency of a mainstream vegan lifestyle – but not both.

Any argument that has us think of veganism as obligatory will demand far more than animal consumption abolition. This “far more” will tend to be human extinction if the goal is giving rights to animals to protect their interests, and it will tend to be a radical devotion to worldwide suffering reduction if the goal is reducing animal suffering.

You might be able to prove the moral necessity veganism, and you might be able to prove the moral sufficiency of a mainstream vegan lifestyle – but not both

In contrast, arguments that are lax enough to show a vegan lifestyle to be good enough will not show that veganism is mandatory, because there will be room for non-vegan lifestyles that are ethically sufficient as well.

In What Are Morals?, Rob argued for logical consistency as a basis for ethics. One problem with this is that logical consistency is empty; depending on the norms of the society that claims to adhere to it, consistency could require egregiously harmful behaviors. Another issue is that total consistency may not be practicable; it could be an ideal to strive for, but arguing for concrete policies on consistency grounds alone is hypocritical because there will always be some other area where the person or society proposing the policy is not consistent. In addition, vegans often mischaracterize the underlying ethics of human societies that vegans say we must be consistent with (usually by oversimplifying) to make it look like consistency leads to veganism. And again, the actual logical conclusions of most vegan arguments is more radical than most vegans claim to accept.


Rob on moral principles and their logical extension


In response to Rhys, firstly, I don’t think logic alone can grant us a moral necessity to veganism. As I’ve written about at length in Rational Morality* and elsewhere, there are no such thing as universal moral facts, so it stands to reason that there would be no such thing as a purely logical argument for any moral fact (including veganism). However, I think it fairly unlikely that we can agree on any societal, basic moral principle without it being logically extended to veganism 99% of the time.

For instance, our will to provide human rights isn’t a randomly selected social principle: it’s a recognition of our desires for certain moral principles, extended logically in practice. The basis of any moral principle is not ‘humans are morally worthy by virtue of being humans’, it’s more like ‘other humans experience pain, so that means their interests involve avoiding that pain’. Extending arguments about pain, or suffering, or even death in this manner, always leads to extending based on the relevant characteristic (sentience) not stopping short based on irrelevant characteristics (like belonging to ‘race X’, ‘gender Y’ or ‘species Z’).

Morality is a socially invented idea, so a good moral theory is one where our agreeable and basic moral principles are taken and extended rationally

Rhys’ second concern appears to be the line drawing aspect, which I mentioned in my opening statement. That is, if we are ultimately concerned with reducing suffering, then the end goal is human extinction not veganism. That’s true, mainly. But, a good argument for veganism isn’t one that takes a position like this (utilitarianism) in the first place. Morality is a socially invented idea, so a good moral theory is one where our agreeable and basic moral principles are taken and extended rationally. Our basic moral principles certainly aren’t so polarized as to simply consist of one concerning statement about suffering. This sits alongside other concerns such as self-defense, self-security, the importance of family, the uniqueness of one’s ability to defend those they know, the importance within society to defend humans before animals, etc.

These are vastly complex sets of beliefs. Generally speaking, they are all important. But, also generally speaking, the responsibility of a human society to look after humans, etc, does not dissolve the ability of people within that society to buy tofu instead of turkey in the supermarket.

This is why I refer to it a line drawing exercise. It is appealing to think that the right answer in any debate is a line somewhere in the middle, but with the issue of veganism this isn’t true. We currently do very little to avoid animal suffering, or halt vast numbers of animals in torturous farm situations, or even simply to stop demanding they be killed for our breakfast. I don’t think moral consistency means we each have a responsibility to go and stand in front of livestock trucks – many vegans do, and I think they’re wrong – I simply believe that the great complexity of moral issues doesn’t change the fact that, in almost every situation, a vegan choice is a rational one.

Does it make a great moral difference if you’re a vegan and you buy a loaf of bread with trace amounts of milk in it? Of course not. Does that kind of argument mean that we should ignore veganism? Quite the opposite: if our argument against veganism is that it’s not necessary in very minor and insignificant circumstances like ‘trace’ ingredients, then we’re accepting that veganism has generally ‘drawn the line’ in the right place. If we have to abandon the word ‘vegan’ because of these minor situations, so be it. It seems unnecessary, though, as the arguments are the same.


Rhys challenges vegans’ use of the word ‘necessary’ and the wisdom of extending moral principles


You wrote, ‘Veganism itself is…where we should draw a rough line on moral principles like suffering. Between the unnecessary (thus immoral) and the necessary (thus excusable)’. ‘Necessary’ is a weasel word that vegans typically fail to define. Sometimes “necessary suffering” is implied as the harm that humans must cause to survive, but this is rarely stated outright because standard vegan practice lets humans harm animals even when survival is not at stake. Veganism allows production and consumption beyond survival needs, even though this will harm animals (intentionally and unintentionally) through competition for land and resources, development, pesticides, “pest” removal, harvesting, transportation and pollution.

Even if vegan ethics explicitly defined bare subsistence as the standard for necessity, it needs to explain why human survival itself is necessary. If it is always immoral to cause unnecessary suffering, and if human existence is not necessary, then all harm that human existence causes animals is unnecessary harm. Vegans who appeal to necessity to excuse harms, and who want to avoid a human extinctionist conclusion, need to propose a mission for humanity that does not rely on self-interest. They cannot excuse the harm that human existence causes on the grounds that humans find existence pleasurable, because this means humans are justified in causing suffering for the sake of their own pleasure – which potentially allows meat eating.

What makes the harms of a hypothetical vegan humanity ‘necessary’?

You wrote, ‘Morality is a socially invented idea, so a good moral theory is one where our agreeable and basic moral principles are taken and extended rationally’. Couldn’t someone just as easily claim, ‘Morality is a socially invented idea, so a good moral theory is one that is beneficial to the societies that invent it’? I don’t see why morality being socially invented would entail that a good moral theory must rationally extend basic moral principles; there is an assumption here that needs defending.

If it can be defended, I don’t think it obviously leads to veganism. Logically extending principles that protect babies does not necessarily help animals, for instance, if these principles are motivated by preferences for social order, feelings of responsibility for beings we are directly responsible for bringing into the world, and a desire for humanity to persevere. Even if it were known that all human babies had a two-week window of non-sentience after their birth, these principles would protect non-sentient babies and not necessarily sentient non-human animals.

What makes the harms of a hypothetical vegan humanity ‘necessary’?

If you could prove that concern for sentience really motivates all such principles, the problem remains that veganism as a practice of abstaining from animal products will not satisfy the extension of many moral principles to animals. Veganism protects animals from being harmed through animal farming, animal testing, entertainment and hunting. But if we recognize that animals have interests in not being harmed in accidents, or not having their homes polluted or destroyed, extending moral principles to sentient non-humans requires significant protections for wild animals. Almost all pollution could be considered environmental speciesism, almost all human development would be a violation of animals’ habitat rights, human excursions into nature would be trespassing, killing animals accidentally could be as serious as criminally negligent manslaughter, and unintended but foreseen killings of animals could qualify as depraved-indifference murder.

Rights would be impossible to enforce consistently, as the maintenance of vegan human civilization would entail constant rights violations against wild animals. Since non-human animals are ‘moral patients’* who cannot violate rights, humans would be the only rights violators. One way to end humans’ constant rights violations would be the extinction of humanity. Alternatively, rights might become meaningless, or (more likely), the pretense of logically extending moral principles based on sentience would be abandoned.

The debate is continued in part two.

Perhaps unsurprisingly this discussion has continued longer than expected and so we are going to present both closing statements in a subsequent article. Rhys has raised some thought-provoking critiques and I have enjoyed reading Rob’s responses, sometimes nodding enthusiastically and sometimes internally quibbling details.

As a witness to this conversation I cannot help reflecting on how I would have responded to Rhys’ arguments, and I hope that readers will do the same using the ideas discussed here to test and refine their own ideas about veganism.

Rebecca Fox is as likely to be found meditating and burning incense as she is in an academic library, and yet is a passionate atheist and a skeptic. Her artistic career is fuelled primarily by ingestion of soy lattes. Her artwork can be found at rebeccaonpaper.com. Her vegan and skeptical activism is fuelled by critical thinking and compassion.

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