(Cross-posted from my substack The Ethical Economist: a blog covering Economics, Ethics and Effective Altruism.)
EDIT: If people downvote I would find it useful to know why. I realise this is a touchy subject!
In popularising the concept of speciesism, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation may be one of the most influential philosophical works of the 20th Century. Singer argued, drawing parallels to other forms of discrimination such as racism and sexism, that the interests of all beings should be worthy of equal consideration regardless of which species the being belongs to. Animal Liberation has had a profound impact on our treatment of animals, with many excluding animal products from their diet, campaigning for better welfare conditions for farm animals, and even looking to reduce suffering for animals in the wild. I’d rank it as the most illuminating book I have ever read.
Singer himself laments that the book did not have even more impact. “All you have to do is walk around the corner to McDonald’s to see how successful I have been”, the philosopher was quoted as saying in 1999. 23 years later Big Macs are still widespread, even if there is a (delicious!) McPlant competitor. Even within the Effective Altruism movement only about 23% of EAs are vegan and about 48% eat meat of some form.
Was Singer not convincing enough? Has the book not made it into the hands of enough people? It is true that most people haven’t read the book. Some who have read it have not been convinced by the anti-speciesist message. Others doubt that animals have interests sufficient to be considered moral patients. I disagree with these people and much has been written to counter their views, which I don’t want to summarise here. This blog post is addressed to another group that has started to emerge: those who embrace an anti-speciesist viewpoint and buy into the moral patienthood of non-human animals, yet haven’t taken the vegan plunge.
What reasons could such people have for not going vegan? A surprising reason to me is that people think that going vegan has such a small impact relative to other things they can do to improve the world, such as donating or changing career, that they feel justified in ignoring it (e.g. here, here, or similar argument here). There are a few ways to counter this argument including arguing that the absolute value of veganism remains very high even if the relative value is small, denying the relative value is small, or denying that relative value is even important in the first place. I think these counters can be strong (see some discussion here), but for now I want to hit you with a thought experiment.
Imagine through some crazy turn of events society starts farming mentally-disabled humans for meat. These humans are so severely disabled that they have comparable cognitive faculties and capacities for welfare to pigs or cows. These humans suffer in the factory farms they are raised in, but they don’t really fight back and they’re pretty tasty, so many people decide to eat them from time to time. Humans this disabled do exist - this teenage boy with a mental age of nine months is likely less cognitively advanced than most pigs. We can’t know for certain that the boy wouldn’t suffer more than the pig in the same conditions, but this isn’t actually important - this is a thought experiment after all.
I couldn’t possibly imagine eating these humans. I have a viscerally disgusted reaction to the idea of doing so. There’s a sense to which this reaction is strengthened by the fact these humans are disabled, as I tend to feel greater duty to protect those that are more vulnerable. I’m sure most readers feel exactly the same way as I do. The thought of saying “I don’t see the point in stopping eating them as it wouldn’t have as much value as using my career to do good” seems abhorrent.
The key point is that, under an anti-speciesist philosophy, there’s no clear difference between the human factory farming and the animal factory farming. In both cases the suffering is the same. If you react in horror to the human farming, you should also react in similar horror to the animal farming. You probably don’t have a similarly visceral reaction to both though. Neither do I - the human farming just seems worse. But is it actually worse? I don’t see why it would be to an anti-speciesist.
If you’re anti-speciesist but not vegan, I hope this thought experiment gives you pause for thought. Of course you can bite the bullet and say you wouldn’t abstain from eating humans in the thought experiment, but I suspect most of you wouldn’t admit to this. If you are adamantly against eating the humans in the thought experiment, you should be similarly against eating the animals we currently farm.
There are a few possible reasons why the human farming might seem worse. For example, we are humans and naturally feel more concern towards our own group. Also, status quo bias strengthens any reluctance to move from our current situation towards one in which we farm humans (and similarly reduces motivation to stop eating meat if one already does so). These are just biases though, and all they show is that we don’t react badly enough to animal farming. They show that we’ve normalised something that is far from normal and that, if we were thinking clearly, we would never touch meat again.
As a non-vegan, here's how I think about this:
I'm (bival)vegan and basically endorse all of this (so strong upvote).
I happen to find the idea of eating animal products uncomfortable/upsetting, feel that way when I order food (or someone else does so on my behalf) and it comes non-vegan, and am already managing my diet well with little inconvenience and I'd guess no real loss in productivity, so there isn't much reason for me to start eating animal products again. But it's less clearly worth it to pay the initial and possibly ongoing costs of going (almost) all the way vegan. "Disgust" is too strong, though.
I'm not sure I would give up my reactions of discomfort/upset, though, in case they're an important source of ethical motivation for me. I generally find guilt/shame more important for motivating big life changes. However, it's also possible guilt/shame cause me to give too much weight to the short term relative to the far future.
I think the virtues of moral expansiveness and altruistic sympathy for moral patients are really important for EAs to develop, and I think being vegan increased my stock of these virtues by reversing the "moral dulling" effect you postulate. (This paper makes the case for utilitarians to develop a set of similar virtues: https://psyarxiv.com/w52zm.) I've also developed a visceral disgust response to meat as a result of being vegan, which is for me probably inseparable from the motivating feeling of sympathy for animals as moral patients.
When I was a nonvegan, I underestimated the extent to which eating meat was morally dulling to me, and I suspect this is common. It was hard to know how morally dulled I was until I experienced otherwise.
I'm sure you would, but this isn't actually relevant. The point is that from your current standpoint - where you haven't been raised to think eating humans is OK - you think the act is beyond the pale. This implies that when you are thinking clearly and without bias, you think eating other sentient beings is abhorrent. This in turn implies the only reason you eat meat now is that you're not thinking clearly and without bias!
I don't think eating human flesh is beyond the pale or abhorrent. Eating human flesh that was produced with, say, 10 hours of suffering seems basically morally equivalent to eating flesh from humans who consent and are treated well, plus buying clothes that took 10 hours of slave labor to produce. And doing these separately seems morally okay as long as the clothes allow you to have more positive impact with your career. Current-me just wouldn't do the first one because it's disgusting and becomes more disgusting when associated with suffering.
It seems like there's a taboo on eating human flesh, and also a harm, and the argument is conflating the disgust response from the taboo with the immorality of the harm. Disgust should not always be extended to general moral principles!
"...seems morally okay as long as the clothes allow you to have more positive impact with your career."
Utilitarian calculations need to be justified beyond just piling up more things in the "positive" bin than the "negative" bin. An often used thought experiment is asking if it is ok if a doctor kills a healthy patient in a hospital to donate their organs to five other needy patients so that they may live. While utilitarians may justify this in the way you did, this justification looks unfounded if there is a recently deceased organ-donor in the morgue at a nearby hospital who could provide all those same organs. How is killing the healthy patient justified then? Would we see the utilitarian doctor as still justified if they said "It's annoying to have to drive over to the other hospital, fill out paperwork, get the organs, then drive back. It is still a net positive to kill the healthy patient here, and it's easier for me, so I'll just do that."?
Considering your analogy, it is easy to buy clothes that didn't require slave labor, and even if not, it is tenuous to see how a specific set of slave-produced clothes would have an overall positive benefit to your career greater than the suffering they incurred.
Bringing it back to animals, the equation isn't the negative of animal suffering against the positive of your career, it's the negative of animal suffering against the marginal career cost, if any, of switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet, which is much lower. You can understand why many would see the claim that the animal suffering is worth it in comparison to marginal personal inconvenience it saves as dubious and particularly self-serving.
Is this true? I have heard the claim 'there is more slavery going on than at any point in history', but know very little about this and how it's defined. I would guess it's hard for me to avoid this if I'm going to a normal clothing store.
All my thought experiment is designed to do is to remind anti-speciesists that there is no clear moral difference between eating mentally-challenged humans and eating animals. If we feel differently about the two that is likely to be due to various biases that are not morally relevant.
This might cause some people to rethink eating animals, as they wouldn't eat the humans. If you would eat the humans however then this thought experiment is unlikely to have an affect on you - I wasn't intending for this thought experiment to be relevant to everyone anyway.
On a consequentialist morality, feelings of moral outrage, horror or disgust are not what matters. (Instead, what matters on it is how to allocate attention/willpower/dedication to reduce the most suffering given one's psychology, opportunity costs, etc.) In the original post, you say "These are just biases though, and all they show is that we don’t react badly enough to animal farming." Consequentialist morality doesn't have a concept for "reacting appropriately." (This is why, in Thomas Kwa's answer, he talks about what he'd do conditional on having a disgust response vs. what he'd do without the disgust response. Because the animal suffering in question isn't quite bad enough to compete with alternative ways of using attention or willpower, going vegan isn't thought to be worth it under all social and psychological circumstances – e.g., it isn't thought to be worth it if it's costly convenience-wise and/or health-wise, if there's no disgust reaction, and if the social environment tolerates it.)
Since you're primarily addressing consequentialists here, I recommend explaining why "reacting badly enough"/"reacting appropriately to moral horrors" is an important tenet of the morality that should matter to us (important enough that it can compete with things like optimizing one's impact-oriented career).
Without those missing arguments, I think it'll seem to people like you're operating under some rigid framework and can't understand it when other people don't share your assumptions (prompting downvotes).
For what it's worth, I do feel the force of your intuition pump (though I doubt it's new to most people) and I think it's true that consequentialist morality is uncanny here, and maybe that speaks in favor of going (more) vegan. Personally, I've been vegan in the past but currently at the stage where I mostly buy the consequentialist arguments against it (provided I am really trying to reduce a lot of suffering), but still feel like there's some dissonance/a feeling like I'm doing something I don't want to do. I don't really endorse that on reflection, but the feeling doesn't go away, either.
My understanding is that it does have such a concept in that we should react similarly to different acts that are equally good/bad to each other in terms of their consequences. My thought experiment was simply designed to remind anti-speciesists that there is no clear moral difference between eating mentally-challenged humans and eating animals. So however you react to one (whether it be with indifference, moral disgust causing you to abstain, or moral disgust that doesn't cause you to abstain) you should react in the same way to the other. If one has the thought "eating the humans is beyond the pale" one should think "eating the animals is beyond the pale".
It's similar in flavour to Singer's drowning child thought experiment - he draws parallels between walking past a drowning child and not donating to help those in severe poverty. If you think to yourself "I would save the child", then you should probably donate more. If you think to yourself "I would walk past the child but would feel extreme guilt" then you should probably feel that same guilt not donating. Does that make sense?
This is only the case in an "all else equal" situation! It is very much not the case when changing one's reactive attitudes comes at some cost and where that cost competes with other, bigger opportunities to do good.
Same reply here: Singer's thought experiment only works in an "all else equal" situation. Depending on their circumstances, maybe someone should do EA direct work and not donate at all. Or maybe donate somewhere other than poverty reduction.
I’m not sure what the cost of changing one’s reactive attitude is. Do you mean the cost of going vegan? If so what do you see as the main costs?
Yes. Isn't it true that people who go vegan at one point in their life revert back to eating animal products? I remember this was the case based on data discussed in 2014 or so, when I last looked into it. Is it any different now? Those findings would strongly suggests that veganism isn't cost-free. Since the way you ask makes me think you believe the costs to be low, consider the possibility that you're committing the typical mind fallacy. (Similar to how a naturally skinny person might say "I don't understand obese people; isn't it easy to eat healthy." Well, no, most Americans are overweight and probably not thrilled about it, so if they could change it at low cost, they would. So, for some people, it' isn't easy to stay skinny.)
Maybe we disagree on what to count as "low costs." If their lives depended on it, I'd say almost everyone would be capable of going vegan. However, many people prefer prison to suicide, but that doesn't mean it's "low cost" to go to prison. Maybe you're thinking the cost of going vegan is low compared to the suffering at stake for animals. And I basically agree with that – the suffering is horrible and our culinary pleasures or potential health benefits appear trivial by comparison. However, this applies only if we think about it as a direct comparison in an "all else equal" situation. If you compare the animal suffering you can reduce via personal veganism vs. the good you can do from focusing your daily work on having the biggest positive impact, it's often the suffering from your food consumption that pales in comparison (though it may depend on a person's situation). People have made estimates of this (e.g., here)! Again, the previous point relates to the same disagreement we discussed in the comment thread above. If someone does important altruistic work, everything that increases their productivity or priorization by 1% is vastly more important than going vegan. You might say, "Okay, but why not go vegan in addition to those things?" Sure, that would be the ideal, in theory. But in practice, there are dozens of things that a person isn't currently doing that could improve their productivity or prioritization by 1%, and those 1%-improvements would be a bigger deal in terms of reducing suffering (or doing good in other ways). So, unless one first implements all those other things, it doesn't make sense, on consequentialist morality, to prioritize personal veganism.
I admit I'm getting confused. I think you've moved into arguing that going vegan has low relative value or may not even make sense for a maximising consequentialist. In my thought experiment I was trying to be agnostic on these points and simply draw a parallel between eating mentally-challenged humans and animals.
If you want to say that going vegan doesn't make consequentialist sense for 'reason X' that is fine. I'm just saying that you then also have to say "if I imagine myself in a world where it is mentally-challenged humans instead of animals, I would not stop eating the humans for the same reason X". If you can say and mean this sentence (I expect many people can) then this thought experiment should not have an affect on your choices. To clarify I don't really judge such people - they would be acting in a morally-consistent way which I think is one of the most important things in ethics.
I agree with that. Some of your earlier comments seemed like they were setting up a slightly different argument.
Someone can have the following position:
(1) They would continue to eat humans in the thought experiment world where one's psychological dispositions treat it as not a big deal (e.g., because it's normalized in that world and has become a habit)
(2) They wouldn't eat humans in the thought experiment world if they retained their psychological dispositions / reactive attitudes from the actual world – in that case, they'd finds the scenario abhorrent
(3) When they think about (1) and (2), they don't feel compelled to modify their dispositions / reactive attitudes toward not eating non-human animals (because of opportunity costs and because consequentialism doesn't have the concept of "appropriate reactions" – or, at least, the consequentialist concept for "appropriate reactions" is more nuanced)
I think you were arguing against (3) at one point, while I and other commenters were arguing in favor of (3).
FWIW, I consider the large share of vegans and vegetarians in EA (about half together, according to the RP survey) pleasantly surprising, a notable success for animal protection, and more encouraging than discouraging, but maybe this is because I'm contrasting with a shitty society-wide situation.
Also, if you include vegans, vegetarians, pescetarians and people trying to reduce their own meat consumption from the RP survey, that's about 83%! Only 11.7% plainly responded "Eat meat", and 5.6% responded "Other (please specify)".
(Of course, people can say they're trying to eat less meat without really succeeding, or while increasing consumption of the worst animal products.)
I agree with this "The key point is that, under an anti-speciesist philosophy, there’s no clear difference between the human factory farming and the animal factory farming."
I don't think this "I couldn’t possibly imagine eating these humans. I have a viscerally disgusted reaction to the idea of doing so." is a good argument.
I also can't imagine being the one pulling the plug on the 16yo of the article you mentioned, and I'm viscerally repulsed by human blood and most things surgeons interact with. Visceral repulsion is the reason for many people to not eat meat, but I think falls short on being something useful for convincing others.
I also agree that it might be the case that, actually no, the impact of being vegan yourself could be (depending on how you weigh some moral things) very big. If you were to think the entire lifetime suffering of a hen in a stereotipically bad factory farm is worth 1/100 of a human dying of malaria, it's very possible the suffering you cause by eating one chicken breast every day is extremely sizeable.
Context: I don't buy meat, and subsist on a diet that is 99% plants 1% whey. When I attend events I eat whatever they have. The reasons for my diet choices, currently, are mostly sustainability and cost related
I'm a non-vegan who is pretty confident animals are moral patients.
I would not object to humans being farmed by non-humans provided that the result is more utils being created than the counterfactual (perhaps some utils being enjoyed by the non-human farmers/eaters, but most utils being enjoyed by the humans who are being brought into existence by farming and who would not counterfactually exist).
FWIW, I do think there are instrumental reasons for humans not to subjugate other humans - and those instrumental reasons are very strong - and so of course I would not endorse slavery or cannibalism.
I am a pretty committed total view utilitarian on intuition, which is where this position comes from (but think that to be more confident I should engage at some point with metaethics and try to test how confident I am in this particular ethical framework). If you are a prior existence utilitarian or if you have some non-utilitarian tendencies, farming humans might seem much worse and I should take those intuitions seriously.
Applying this to animals, I feel very comfortable drinking milk or eating grass-fed beef raised here in New Zealand. I am soon relocating to London, and will need to reconsider the specific suffering/pleasure involved in animal products produced there.
Disclaimer: I previously worked on a dairy/beef farm in New Zealand, so there is some risk that my thinking on this topic has been biased by that experience.
I think this point of view makes a lot of sense, and is the most reasonable way an anti-speciesist can defend not being fully vegan.
But I'd be interested to hear more about what the very strong 'instrumental' reasons are for humans not subjugating humans, and why they don't apply to humans subjugating non-humans?
(Edit: I'm vegan, but my stance on it has softened a bit since being won round by the total utilitarian view)