An uncomfortable thought experiment for anti-speciesist non-vegans

(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.