Two Inadequate Arguments against Moral Vegetarianism

by Erich_Grunewald8 min read30th Jan 20214 comments

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Dietary changeFarmed animal welfare
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This post is written for a more general audience & therefore some things in it may be obvious to EAs. And the tone is a little bit more strident than is the norm here. But I think the two arguments I cover are important to any EA interested in animal suffering.

Faintly are heard the ploughmen at their ploughs,
But not an eye can find its way to see.[1]

– John Clare

Of all the positions I hold strongly, the one that says it’s morally right & good to practice vegetarianism & veganism is, in a way, I think – & I hope this doesn't reek too pungently of hubris – the easiest one to argue for. That's because most people already have these intuitions, though they apply them inconsistently. They feel that we have some duties & obligations towards our pets & other companion animals, for example. They would also most of them admit that what goes on in factory farms today is less than perfect. And then, having not quite forgotten this state of affairs, when they happen to be used by someone, they complain of having being treated like an animal, which of course suggests that animals are treated in a way that we find utterly unacceptable (if they are in fact the sorts of creatures that can be mistreated).[2]

That said, as with everything else, so with vegetarianism & veganism: there are arguments for & against it & some of those are good & some are bad. I am going to describe two arguments against moral vegetarianism & explain why I think they are inadequate. What they have in common is that they argue not that reducing animal suffering is not a worthwhile end but that vegetarianism (& veganism, but I'll stop saying that) is an ineffectual means of achieving that end. They do this on empirical consequentialist[3] grounds, giving essentially economical reasons for why it is so.

The Argument from Price Elasticity

The first argument goes as follows. The law of supply & demand says that when supply exceeds demand, prices go down. Take cattle ranchers, for example. They already maximise production in the area they have – they are not going to be producing less cattle if demand drops. Instead they will sell it at a lower price. But if they make any profit at all from their cattle, they will raise as much cattle as they can. Hence people going vegetarian won't reduce meat consumption, because meat eaters will make up for the lost quantity demanded by buying more meat at cheaper prices.

In economic terms, this argument makes the claim that the price of meat is perfectly elastic, that is, the price will adjust as demand changes. But from what I can tell from the literature, the price of meat is relatively inelastic, though it depends a little on the region & the type of meat.[4][5] That makes sense in the developed world at least (but likely elsewhere, too) as meat, for meat eaters, is something of a necessity; and moreover, if the price of meat fell, most people wouldn't eat more meat for the simple reason that they already eat about as much meat as they want to.

It's true that the cattle rancher maximises production in the area they have & that they're unlikely to start producing less cattle when demand drops. But at some point the price of purchase isn't going to cover the costs of production anymore, especially taking opportunity costs into account.[6] So the whole ranch will have to fold & the rancher will need to find something else to do with the land, e.g. lease it to some developer.[7] And there will always be some cattle ranchers whose profit margins are very low; these will be the first to go when demand goes down.[8]

There are also strong regional differences that we wouldn't expect to see if this argument were true. For instance, in India, which has a strong vegetarian culture, meat consumption per capita is one quarter of what it is in neighbouring Pakistan, even though GDP per capita is much higher in India. So the difference from many Indians eating less meat isn't made up by remaining Indians eating more of cheap meat. Though I'm sure there are many confounds here.

The Argument from Supply Chain Buffers

The second argument begins with the observation that, when one buys a piece of meat, whatever animal it came from has already suffered & died for it – whatever good or bad comes from the purchase must be good or bad for future animals. In other words, if there's any effect at all, it must be an effect on future meat production. But we know that any one individual purchase is exceedingly unlikely to have that kind of an effect.[9]

Now you may argue that, sure, the chance that a single purchase will affect future production is very low, but when it happens (as it will) the effect will be very large indeed. But I can refine my argument. I can say, as Mark Budolfson does[10], that we know something about meat-producing supply chains. We know that meat producers always produce a bit more than is normally sold (which goes to waste or is repurposed when it expires on the supermarket shelves) & moreover generally that there are small but reliable buffers at every step of the supply chain. This introduces more than enough noise in the signal to make any one purchase invisible to the producer's eyes.[11] The signal is "absorbed" by the buffers. Put differently, in deciding not to buy a piece of meat, one has no greater chance of making a difference than does the person who casts a vote in a U.S. presidential election from a state like Vermont or Wyoming.[12]

So goes the argument from supply chain buffers. I have tried my best but am forced to admit that not only am I not able to refute this argument, but I'm not even sure I understand it. To see why, imagine for example a scenario where the populace of some city or country decides, for cultural reasons, one by one to stop buying meat. If the inefficacy argument were true, the first person's doing so would not affect meat production, because the signal would be lost in the noise & absorbed by supply chain buffers. But the same is true for the second person, & the third, & the fourth & so on. Gradually consumption would drop towards zero but meat producers, having not at any point in time discerned a significant drop in demand, would blissfully go on producing the same amount that they always produced.[13]

But this is absurd. The argument proves too much. I don't think the inclusion of supply chain buffers adds anything to it. It just shifts it sideways, so to say. Because it's clear, I think, to those who manage each stage of the supply chain roughly how much of the buffer is used or sold at that point & how much of it goes to waste, in the same way that the store manager knows how much meat they've sold each day & how much they've had to throw out.

Say a supermarket expect to sell around 100 sirloin steaks in a day, perhaps 90 on a bad day & 110 on a good day. Even if they stock 110 steaks, which of course is more than they sell on average (giving them a reliable buffer), there will nevertheless be a threshold below which they decide that too many steaks go unsold & they need to reduce their stock. This doesn't change if their desired buffer is zero percent, ten percent or 100% because the quantity stocked is still a product of the expected quantity sold. I'd assume that each preceding step of the supply chain operates similarly.

Final Thoughts

McMullen & Halteman[14] mention some further reasons to believe that moral vegetarianism is effective:

  1. When you buy a chicken, you are in a way buying more than a chicken. That's because it took a captive hen to breed that chicken. So by reducing demand for chicken you are also reducing the need for egg-laying hens. The same goes for most other animals sold for meat.
  2. By buying vegetarian, you encourage grocery stores & restaurants to offer more vegetarian options, which in turn may encourage other people to eat vegetarian food more often.
  3. Meat is relatively cheap because the meat industry is large & benefits from economies of scale. The more people buy vegetarian, the smaller the meat industry gets & the larger the plant-based food industry gets, meaning that, all other things being equal, the price of meat will increase & the price of plant-based foods will fall.

We are fewer than 8 billion people in this world but every year we slaughter 80 billion non-human animals for meat. If that's wrong, it's a wrong of truly staggering proportions. It's also one that is growing & will continue to grow as humans across the world get more prosperous. And it's not something that technology will solve (though technology can & does help); what's needed is nothing less than a great moral revolution on the order of abolitionism. That, if for no other reason, is why these questions matter.


  1. Clare, J. & Farley, P. (2011). John Clare: poems. London: Faber and Faber. ↩︎

  2. I owe this observation to Korsgaard, Getting Animals in View. ↩︎

  3. Specifically they concern act consequentialism. Other variants, like rule consequentialism, escape unharmed from these arguments. ↩︎

  4. Gallet, C. A. (2010). Meat Meets Meta: A Quantitative Review of the Price Elasticity of Meat. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 92(1), 258–272. ↩︎

  5. Selvanathan, E. A., Jayasinghe, M., Hossain, M. M., & Selvanathan, S. (2020). Modelling the Demand for Meat in Bangladesh. In Science and Technology Innovation for a Sustainable Economy (pp. 135–151). Springer International Publishing. ↩︎

  6. McMullen, S., & Halteman, M. C. (2018). Against Inefficacy Objections: the Real Economic Impact of Individual Consumer Choices on Animal Agriculture. Food Ethics, 2(2–3), 93–110. ↩︎

  7. ibid. ↩︎

  8. ibid. ↩︎

  9. Kagan, S. (2011). Do I Make a Difference? Philosophy & Public Affairs, 39(2), 105–141. ↩︎

  10. Budolfson, M. B. (2018). The inefficacy objection to consequentialism and the problem with the expected consequences response. Philosophical Studies, 176(7), 1711–1724. ↩︎

  11. ibid. ↩︎

  12. ibid. ↩︎

  13. It's almost as if the argument is that the demand signal is a kind of emergent phenomenon – it's there in the aggregate but invisible at the individual level. That makes me wonder whether there are general preconditions for emergence &, if so, what those preconditions are. ↩︎

  14. McMullen, S., & Halteman, M. C. (2018). Against Inefficacy Objections: the Real Economic Impact of Individual Consumer Choices on Animal Agriculture. Food Ethics, 2(2–3), 93–110. ↩︎

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I think it's helpful to just quote the buffer example in Budolfson (2018):

Richard makes paper T-shirts in his basement that say ‘HOORAY FOR CONSEQUENTIALISM!’, which he then sells online. The T-shirts are incredibly cheap to produce and very profitable to sell and Richard doesn’t care about waste per se, and so he produces far more T-shirts than he is likely to need each month, and then sells the excess at a nearly break-even amount at the end of each month to his hippie neighbor, who burns them in his woodburning stove.10 For many years Richard has always sold between 14,000 and 16,000 T-shirts each month, and he’s always printed 20,000 T-shirts at the beginning of each month. Nonetheless, there is a conceivable increase in sales that would cause him to produce more T-shirts—in particular, if he sells over 18,000 this month, he’ll produce 25,000 T-shirts at the beginning of next month; otherwise he’ll produce 20,000 like he always does. So, the system is genuinely sensitive to a precise tipping point—in particular, the difference between 18,000 purchases and the ‘magic number’ of 18,001.

Suppose that a consumer knows all of these facts about Richard’s business, and is considering buying a T-shirt for himself. What is the expected effect on the number of T-shirts produced of that consumer purchasing a T-shirt? The correct answer is essentially zero, because given what is known about the history of demand for Richard’s T-shirts and how production quantities are determined, there is virtually no chance that exactly 18,001 people are going to buy Richard’s T-shirts this month and trigger a dramatic threshold effect—which, of course, is not to claim that there is zero chance of that happening, but rather that the odds of that happening—of exactly 18,001 of Richard’s T-shirts being sold—is certainly dramatically lower than 1/5,000 or any other number that would drive the expected effect of an individual buying one T-shirt anywhere near the consequence that 1 additional T-shirt is produced. This shows that the reasoning behind the Singer/Norcross/ Kagan Response is invalid, because insofar as that response is taken to show that consuming meat should be expected to have significant bad effects for animal welfare (e.g., equal to the average effect of those individual actions), similar reasoning would show that buying one T-shirt in the story above should be expected to result in approximately 1 additional T-shirt being produced, which is the wrong result.11 The problem with the reasoning is that it overlooks the fact that we can know enough about the supply chains in both cases to know that threshold effects are not sufficiently likely and are not of sufficient magnitude to drive the expected effect of consumption anywhere close to the average effect

 

I think the response in McMullen & Halteman (2018) to buffers is good. My understanding is basically that buffers either a) exactly reduce to the unknown threshold case where the expected value works out, or b) the amount of product to fill the buffer is set based on anticipated prices, which are informed by previous sales, so the buffer moves with anticipated prices.

First, it is possible that some amount of these buffers has to be “used up” or get very large before production will increase or decrease. For example, an egg producer might find that it is cheaper to stock a local warehouse all at once each week, and only restock when the warehouse is almost empty. In this case, consumers would have to purchase a warehouse full of eggs before a new restocking order was made. If this is the case, then the buffers are just functioning as part of the threshold framework described by Singer and Kagan. The number of eggs in a warehouse shipment would be the size of the threshold that needed to be overcome.

Alternatively, it is also possible that some buffer is a constant part of the system, and will not change in response to consumer choices. This is particularly likely with food waste. There could be some imprecision in production and shipping that is just too expensive to eliminate. For example, there might be a potential electronic system that would track chicken age, location, and quality, and thus minimize waste, but if that system cost the firm more money than it would save, firms might choose to dispose of some chickens rather than track them more precisely. This kind of waste would be present in the system whether demand was high or low, and might exist at all levels of the supply chain. Note that a consumer decision to consume one more or one less chicken will not have any effect on this kind of waste – the waste would be exactly the same regardless of consumer choices.

I'm less sure about cases where there's coordination and quotas in the industry, like supply management, or if the industry is too non-competitive, concentrated in a few companies (oligopoly, oligopsony) at some points along the supply chain. This depends on the country/region.

And then, having not quite forgotten this state of affairs, when they happen to be used by someone, they complain of having being treated like an animal, which of course suggests that animals are treated in a way that we find utterly unacceptable (if they are in fact the sorts of creatures that can be mistreated).

I realize this is not the focus of your argument, but I don't think this holds true:

  •  People subject to paternalism complain about being treated 'like a child', but might still think this behavior is appropriate in the case of children.
  • Those viewed suspiciously sometimes complain about being treated 'like a criminal', but probably believe it is right for criminals to be treated in this way.

This is true even though most people think that both children and criminals are the sort of creature that could be mistreated - it's just that what counts as mistreatment differs between groups.

Well, I don't disagree! I tried to make up the distance in the parenthetical statement, but I didn't mean to imply that treatment of humans & animals ought to be judged by the exact same standard. What I was getting at was more something like this, quoting Christine Korsgaard:

Then there is the disturbing use of the phrase “treated like an animal.” People whose rights are violated, people whose interests are ignored or overridden, people who are used, harmed, neglected, starved or unjustly imprisoned standardly complain that they are being treated like animals, or protest that after all they are not just animals. Of course, rhetorically, complaining that you are being treated like an animal is more effective than complaining that you are being treated like a thing or an object or a stone, for a thing or an object or a stone has no interests that can be ignored or overridden. In the sense intended, an object can’t be treated badly, while an animal can. But then the curious implication seems to be that animals are the beings that it’s all right to treat badly, and the complainant is saying that he is not one of those.

That is, there's a kind of tension in that sort of complaint. It implies that animals are mistreated by some standard, but that, whereas humans can be mistreated in that way, animals can't. So I meant to say that, if we do think that animals can be mistreated in that way (& many do, of course) then that sort of complaint is almost contradictory.