Two Reasonable People Debate Veganism: Part Two

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Two Reasonable People Debate Veganism: Part Two

As I said in my introduction to the first half of this conversation I think that as a philosophical movement it is important that vegans engage with sensible and respectful criticisms of our position. If our position is a rational one being open to inquiry can only hone and strengthen our arguments. If our conviction that veganism is a useful method to ‘make the world a better place’ is proven to be incorrect then it is vital that we find out and refocus our compassion elsewhere.

In the first half of this conversation I introduced you to Robert Johnson a moral philosopher, author* and contributor to RVGN and Rhys Southan author of letthemeatmeat.com, an interesting and thoughtful blog that focuses on critiquing the philosophy behind veganism.

Rob presented his argument for veganism which rests on the logical extension of the moral principle that it is wrong to cause unnecessary suffering, to all creatures that are capable of experiencing suffering. Rhys challenged vegans on the way in which we use the word ‘necessary’ and questioned the wisdom of attempting to achieve consistent and logical extension of moral principles.

I have asked them to write a closing statement summarising their position and consolidating their response to each other’s arguments. And I remind you again: Rob and Rhys are representing their own perspectives on veganism and do not claim to speak for the entire vegan or non-vegan community.


Rob defends his commitment to the logical extension of moral principles


I’m not sure ‘necessary’ is a ‘weasel word’ – we’ve been using it to define human laws and ethics for centuries! I agree that equating ‘necessity’ with ‘what is strictly necessary for survival’ is problematic. But, again, we don’t do that in human law. The idea that we would or should do it in animal ethics, regardless of what many ill-informed vegans think, is fallacious. Where one should draw the line of ‘necessity’ is up for debate, but there’s not much rational support for the idea that it’s necessary to kill others if you like the taste of them.

The idea that by living we do harm to some individual somewhere, is not just strictly limited to animal ethics: by competing for resources – especially energy intensive resources in a diminishing environment – we do harm to other humans, first and foremost. Yet we don’t hear the argument that we should oppose ‘human rights’ on the basis that it is impossible to be perfect. It’s not a good argument, and it’s no better in animal ethics just because we’re scratching for excuses.

Where one should draw the line of ‘necessity’ is up for debate, but there’s not much rational support for the idea that it’s necessary to kill others if you like the taste of them

On the assumption that a good moral theory is about rational moral principles: it was actually society that made this assumption, not me. This is how ethics is enshrined into law; logically extending the rules and principles we already have. It’s also true that this, initially, was because moral rules were useful to the functioning of society. If people turn their backs on the idea of moral principles, and instead wish to create a moral theory that ignored those in other societies, or outside human societies altogether, then fair enough. That hasn’t happened, though, so I think we should be arguing in reality. Therefore in an area like ethics, where any assumption would be (all other things being equal) scientifically unjustifiable, we should use the assumptions granted us by social agreement, rather than inventing a third, completely separate assumption just because it fits a position correctly. The latter vs. the former is fiction vs. rationalism. I explain this kind of concept in great detail in Rational Morality – it’s better to use socially agreed and acknowledged assumptions than to simply invent them.

The other argument stated against this principle of extending rationality, is that it doesn’t obviously extend to veganism. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, as it would have to be a very specific moral concern to specify an exact race/sex/species for benefiting from the moral principle, and thus exclude others. Similarly, any basic principle about suffering, death, pain or anything really morally valuable, wouldn’t relate singularly to human beings. These moral principles would certainly extend in some directions that wouldn’t relate to other animals – for instance, for having interests heard in certain political activities – but these are extensions, not basics.

Rhys’ arguments, for clarity and fairness, are that our base principles could be something like “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.” These aren’t basic moral principles though: the latter two are specific instincts, the former is a psychological bias. Our laws and ethics among humans were certainly influenced by these instincts and mental biases, in fact they are part of a wide spectrum of feelings and psychological effects, from hunger and preference for patterns, to competitive instincts and guilt reflexes. However our basic principles are not one and the same thing as instincts or biases.

Our principles are those we base our ethics on: so they are influenced by things like our desire to protect offspring, but are much more basic (which is why they often sound ambiguous; they are primarily to be built upon and reasoned about, not to be descriptive themselves). Most basic principles relate to sentience, by virtue of being about suffering, death or things that actually matter to human beings, who are primarily sentient animals. I am happy to be proved wrong about this, but referencing influences to moral principles rather than the actual moral principles we currently have, is not a way to do it.

As for the final argument – that there might be undesirable consequences of adopting veganism – I agree. Ironically, many of the things Rhys lists (pollution, accidentally killing animals, etc) are things that most non-vegans have concerns about already. That we would have to consider them more carefully, and that it is difficult is of no relevance. It’s only relevant if the system is completely unworkable. Yet if some humans suddenly became tiny, and feral, and thus accidentally were stood on as a mouse might be, do you think that would be a good argument to ditch human rights altogether? Of course not. We would come up with a solution to take into account the new situation. You work at solutions, balance arguments, and gradually act to make ethics and law better reflect reality. As I said in my opening statement: if we have to abandon the word veganism because of smaller moral quandaries around the fringes, so be it. This doesn’t change the main argument for veganism, or the problem with our use of 99% of animals.

Where do you draw the line between sentient and non-sentient? Do you have to make exclusions for animals that are tiny? Are there some remote cultures who have a right to continue eating animals, even if the rest of the world becomes morally opposed? These are part of a rich debate that can, and is being, had. Rightly so. You don’t ditch the entirety of rationalism and the solutions it posits because of fringe issues, though; you debate them and attempt to solve the problems instead. If these were of genuine concern, the logical step would be to remove things like beef, pork, fish, etc, from one’s lifestyle then debate the fringe issues (like trampling insects or further extensions leading to human extinction). The term ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ analogises this kind of argument!


Rhys demonstrates how the ultimate logical extension of vegan ethics would lead to an ‘impossible’ situation


If something is necessary, it is either inevitable or necessary for something – such as attaining a desired outcome. The use of “necessary” is misleading in ethical discourse if the “for what” is not defined. A set of actions might be necessary to achieve a specific goal (it may be necessary to kill an animal if the goal is to eat that animal), but the actual achieving of a goal is never necessary, no matter what the goal is.

Of course eating animals because we like the taste of them is not necessary. But eating animals (or plants) because we’re about to die of starvation isn’t necessary either. Eating when we’re otherwise about to starve is necessary for extending our lifespans, but extending our lifespans is not necessary, since failing to do so is an option. This is why it is easy but meaningless to criticize animal exploitation as “unnecessary” harm. All non-inevitable harm is unnecessary, and using this rhetoric of non-necessity against animal exploitation puts vegans on the hook for unnecessary harms too.

Is building roads necessary even though we know that roads are on balance a benefit for humans but almost 100 percent harmful to wild animals by fragmenting their habitats and increasing the odds that a speeding vehicle will hit them? Building roads might be necessary to connect communities through high-speed transportation and so on, but why is this connection of communities necessary? Eventually the “for what” of these necessaries will almost certainly collapse into justifications like convenience or pleasure – excuses for harming animals that non-utilitarian veganism is supposed to avoid, and which reveal a partiality for humans that might excuse meat eating if it excuses road building.

However, societies do care about intention and motive, and not just consequences, so we might distinguish road building (for instance) and animal slaughter on mens rea* grounds. Many vegans would make this argument, but Rob did not, so I won’t address it in detail. I’ll just say that the psychological and practical reasons for humans to care about motive do not necessarily apply to animals who lack sophisticated understanding of intention; if we extend moral principles to animals based on their ability to suffer, this might mean that principles having to do with higher-level concepts such as motive would not logically extend. In which case, it would be specious for vegans to use “intent” to argue that low-suffering animal exploitation is unethical while vegan practices that harm animals are not.

All non-inevitable harm is unnecessary, and using this rhetoric of non-necessity against animal exploitation puts vegans on the hook for unnecessary harms too

I think you underestimate the radical implications of applying moral principles designed for moral agents* and their moral patient* dependents to all sentient beings, most of whom are moral patients who are unable to substantially cooperate with humans. You said this is “only relevant if the system is completely unworkable.” I think it is unworkable. For one, giving rights to all sentient moral patients means that they have rights constraining our behavior in regards to them, but we have no rights against them in return. By definition, moral patients can be wronged by us, but cannot wrong us. If we were consistent with this, we would always concede the advantage to animals whenever there was any conflict over resources or anything else, because harming or depriving animals in any scenario could be a rights violation against them, whereas depriving ourselves for the sake of animals would not be a right violation against ourselves.

When most people have rights against other people, as (ideally) in human rights, the rights concept theoretically encourages compromise and cooperation between humans who are supposed to have something close to equal standing. Flooding this system with non-human moral patients would make rights unenforceable even in theory, and any attempt to work around this by giving ourselves rights against animals who cannot consent to our actions would be arbitrary and self-serving; any differences between such self-serving veganism and low-suffering animal exploitation would likely be in degree, not in kind.

If it is unworkable to consistently extend moral principles to all sentient animals largely because of the impracticalities of giving rights to wild animals (as well as liberated domesticated animals who became feral), do we have to drop animal rights completely? The tiny-feral human thought experiment is a good way to test that.

You wrote that if normal-sized humans (I’ll call them giants) were to coexist with tiny-feral humans (TFH), the giants would seek a solution that balanced competing interests. Any real solution would probably require segregating the giants from TFH, like by putting all TFH on reservations that giants could not as a rule enter. Vegans cannot offer an analogous relocation plan for all wild animals (and even if they could, wild animals could not consent to it), so to make this more relevant, let’s say TFH rejected this plan, or the plan was impractical because there were too many TFH. This would leave giants and TFH in proximity to each other, with the giants aware that their routine activities would frequently maim and kill TFH. If giants decided to maintain their lives and societies even while knowing they would constantly be destroying TFH settlements and lives, would they have to give up the concept of human rights entirely?

Maybe not, since rights could still be a good way to resolve conflicts between giants, but I don’t see how they could claim to be consistently extending principles of human rights to all humans. Giants might object that I’m holding them to an unrealistic perfection standard, but the giants who went about their lives knowing that they were frequently killing TFH would clearly be putting their own lives and pleasures before the lives and pleasures of TFH – tacitly admitting to an unprincipled partiality toward themselves. If giants took human rights seriously, they would need to find a way to make their presence more of a benefit than a harm for TFH (like by giving them food and protecting them from predators), or they would need to phase themselves out.

If giants failed to do either of these, but they refrained from eating TFH, then they would be settling for a line-drawing process. But this line drawing process would be arbitrary and unprincipled — just like the one that resulted in veganism.


Thank you to both Rob and Rhys for engaging in this interesting and civil discussion. Hopefully they have demonstrated that even potentially volatile differences of opinion can be handled rigorously and with respect.

Rhys raised several points which have made me reflect upon how I think about veganism. In his opening statement he said that vegans often present veganism as “both a necessary and sufficient ethical solution to conflicts between humans and non-human animals.” Reflecting on Rhys’ arguments and the recent article posted on RVGN from Brian Tomasik on wild animal suffering, I am inclined to agree with Rhys. Even vegan humans cause immense suffering to animals and wild animals suffer in a myriad of horrible ways unrelated to human intervention. If our concerns are about reducing suffering, we cannot pretend that by being vegan we have disqualified ourselves from culpability or done everything possible to eliminate suffering. I can also imagine a non-vegan who does more to reduce animal suffering than a vegan. For example, I’m sure Peter Singer* has made a much more dramatic difference on the amount of suffering than the average non-activist vegan consumer. It’s uncomfortable to live with the fact that you can’t realise the full extent of your principles, but I am comforted by Rob’s practical approach. I find myself, like him, able to accept that we may not be able to fully realise a ‘vegan world’, yet remain encouraged to advocate for moral progress in the knowledge that perfection is probably unattainable. We should, as he says, “work at solutions, balance arguments, and gradually act to make ethics and law better reflect reality.”

If our goal is to reduce suffering then we should be willing to accept that veganism on its own may not be the best we can do, and that there are some non-vegans who are more effective at achieving that goal

I found Rhys’ interrogation of the word ‘necessary’ an interesting exercise. It’s a word we vegans throw about too casually, and yet it underpins a huge portion of vegan philosophy. When examined more closely we are forced to reflect on the indirect harms we do to others when engaging in behaviour we define as ‘necessary’ - like buying a laptop or driving a car. Though I found some aspects of this analysis useful, Rob felt that it trespassed into postmodern territory – a subject he has written about before and that we hope to revisit in future articles.

Rob began his argument by describing veganism as a ‘line-drawing exercise’ at which I’m sure many readers, including myself, bristled; but this less dogmatic approach to veganism allows for more hubris and generosity when considering other ethical positions. Many of us were vegetarians before we were vegans. We thought we had drawn our lines in the right place and then (eventually) we realised we could do better. If our goal is to reduce suffering then we should be willing to accept that veganism on its own may not be the best we can do, and that there are some non-vegans who are more effective at achieving that goal. That said, it seems obvious that those non-vegans could achieve even more by going vegan.

I’m interested to explore the idea of ‘moral patients’ further. As Rhys points out, extending moral patienthood to all sentient animals presents some practical difficulties, but I don’t accept that there is an inherent problem with moral patients - such as children and animals - having rights ‘against’ us while we have none ‘against’ them.

When it comes to the hard decisions about what to do with all these Tiny Feral Humans (TFH), I can’t help but think they would still qualify as bearers human of rights despite their diminutive stature and poor grooming. How we manage our interactions with the TFH would doubtlessly be a logistical and ethical quagmire, but I would encourage my fellow Giants to at least consider not killing them just because they taste good.

If you are interested in reading more about Rob’s approach to moral philosophy I recommend you seek out his excellent book Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong and browse our archive for articles he has contributed to RVGN.

If you want to engage further with Rhys’ critiques of veganism you can visit his blog, letthemeatmeat.com, where you will find plenty of thought provoking content that will make you by turns fascinated and furious. Follow Rhys on Twitter to keep up with his work.

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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