more thoughts on veganism and well-being

I was thrilled to receive this thoughtful comment on my last post on my vegan experiment:

Comment from abeala

I have some disjointed things to say in response.

First of all, yes, it can definitely be difficult to have a significant other who does not eat the same way as you. Around the time I started testing the veg waters, my now-husband and I became engaged. He was very supportive, but had no intentions of going veg himself. Honestly, I was at least a little disappointed that he was not responding to the moral arguments that had moved me.  Depending on the couple, the dynamics of this kind of situation can go a thousand different ways. So that is at least one respect in which being veg can disrupt even healthy social relationships.

There is a problem with the arguments for veg*ism that is relevant but which neither of us has brought up yet, and that is the collective action problem. As the argument goes, no animal food producer is literally sensitive to the change in demand caused by one person ceasing to buy their products. So, the producers continue to raise the same amount of animals as they were raising even before you were veg. Although veg people like to talk this way, it is not true that you are saving any animals by being veg, strictly speaking.

At this point, a person can bite the bullet, and agree it is a collective action problem, but then she would need to quit talking as if she herself were saving any animals by being veg. Or, a person can argue that being vegetarian/vegan/flexitarian is a symbolic gesture more than one intended to affect change in the animal industry. In that case, it is probably less blameworthy than we had previously assumed to fail to adopt any of those eating patterns, because symbolic gestures are supererogatory or at least not as morally pressing as preventing suffering that is within your control. Preventing the suffering is -not- really within your control, at least not unless you are a famous vegan activist.

I don’t think we need to say that human flourishing *requires* supporting an industry that tortures sentient beings. If people could make meat in a laboratory, or if there were enough social stigma surrounding meat consumption, then that would be false. People who flourish are those who make wise judgments regarding what they can do with the life circumstances they’ve been handed, including the states of affairs they inhabit and their pre-existing qualities of character. Some people, because of their temperament and their social circles, are probably well-suited for being vegan, and do well that way. But many others will come to the all-things-considered judgment that veganism is bad for them, and I think we [people who care about animals, but not at all costs] should take that seriously instead of just saying “oh, you don’t care enough,” or “oh, you didn’t try hard/long enough.”

Some actions are bad enough that a wise person would not engage in them even at great social cost (participating in the Holocaust, perhaps). I don’t think animal food eating falls into this class of actions. There is still something bad and regrettable about using animals for these purposes in the current manners, and a morally sensitive person will realize this. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will successfully become vegan and stay that way happily for life. Assuming that a person rejects consequentialism/utilitarianism for whatever reason, then at least some of her judgments will be made not strictly on the basis of whose welfare outweighs whose. An individualistic reading of virtue ethics can issue the result not that we merely assign our own interests greater weight in the utility calculus, but that we see things from a different point of view entirely, in which wise moral decisions cannot be made according to any rules or procedure.

There are some options for translating moral concern for animals into action other than by becoming vegan. I try to purchase most of our animal foods from Whole Foods, which to my knowledge has the best animal welfare standards of any grocery store (although of course they are not as high as many people would like). These products cost more, but I like to put my money where my mouth is. In fact, I wonder whether purchasing these products actually sends a stronger message to the food industry than abstaining from animal foods altogether. It’s also a good idea to cut back on meat consumption, for health reasons in addition to animal welfare reasons. As I recall even PETA has said, two flexitarians is as good as one vegan, from the perspective of overall animal suffering. Finally, I encourage you to adopt homeless companion animals instead of buying them in pet shops or from breeders. You can make a big difference in those animals’ lives, at least.

Moral of the story: Being a flexitarian because you think animals’ suffering doesn’t matter, or because vegetarian food weirds you out, is probably not morally commendable. But we can’t infer a person’s quality of character from what she puts on her plate. Reasons to be, or not to be, veg*n are more complicated than most people interested in such matters seem to realize.

One Comment

  • Stephen wrote:

    True, no one veg*an is saving animals by being veg*an. However, each veg*an is *contributing* to the saving of animals. We are like a group of people rolling a large boulder by pushing on it. Strictly speaking, no one of us is moving the boulder. But together we are moving it, and each person’s contribution helps. By the same token, veg*ans and others who cut back on the consumption of animal products are collectively saving animals, and each person’s contribution helps (though some more than others).

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