The Meat Eater Problem

Link post

I am linkposting this open access article by Michael Plant about the meat eater problem. Some excerpt and quick thoughts are below.

Abstract

Here are two commonly held moral views. First, we must save strangers’ lives, at least if we can do so easily: you would be required to rescue a child drowning in a pond even if it will ruin your expensive suit. Second, it is wrong to eat meat because of the suffering caused to animals in factory farms. Many accept both simultaneously—Peter Singer is the pre-eminent example. I point out that these two beliefs are in a sharp and seemingly unrecognised tension and may even be incompatible. It seems universally accepted that doing or allowing a harm is permissible—and may even be required—when it is the lesser evil. I argue that, if meat eating is wrong on animal suffering grounds then, once we consider how much suffering might occur, it starts to seem plausible that saving strangers would be the greater evil than not rescuing them and is, therefore, not required after all. Given the uncertainties and subjective assessments here, reasonable people could substantially disagree. The surprising result is that a moral principle widely considered to be obviously true—we must rescue others—is not, on further reflection, obviously true and would be defensibly rejected by some. Some potential implications are discussed.

1. Introduction

It is widely believed that we, as members of the public, have a Duty of Easy Rescue to one another.

Duty of Easy Rescue: We are required to save lives in rescue cases, one-off instances where we can physically save a stranger [not a friend or really good person] at trivial cost to ourselves.1

To illustrate this, consider the following, familiar case from Singer2:

Shallow Pond: You are walking past a shallow pond and see a drowning child. You can easily rescue the child, but doing so will ruin the expensive new suit you are wearing.

Intuitively, we are required to save the child. This is because, as Peter Singer explains: “[it] will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.”3

It is also widely believed that it is wrong to be a meat eater, someone who regularly consumes animal products produced from factory farms.4 This is on the grounds that this consumption requires creating animals who, due to the conditions in factory farms, live overall bad lives.5

[...]

This paper argues these two beliefs are, in reality, in substantial tension and may well be incompatible, once additional plausible empirical and normative considerations are accounted for. Further, if they are incompatible, we must abandon the notion that there is a Duty of Easy Rescue.

Here, in brief, is the argument. We accept that doing (or allowing) harm is permissible—and may be required—when it is the lesser evil; to put the same thing differently, we are not required to do (or allow) the greater evil. Therefore, we wouldn’t be required to save lives, even if we could do so easily, if that would be the greater evil. I argue that, if we accept that meat eating is wrong (on animal suffering grounds) then, once we look at the details, it starts to look plausible that meat eating causes so much suffering that saving the lives of strangers would be the greater evil (compared to not saving them) and would, therefore, not be required. Simply, accounting for the existing concern for animal welfare reduces, and may remove, the obligation to rescue others.

[...]

[...] The basic argument is this: for each year of meat eating by a human, that creates about five years of chicken life. So, if we consider just that, and think that those animals have lives which are nearly as bad as human lives are good, then the Strong [Anti-Carnism] Thesis [“Meat eaters cause a sufficient amount of animal suffering via their diets that not saving strangers’ lives in rescue cases is (in expectation) the lesser evil”] is no longer inconceivable.

2. If Meat Eating Is Wrong, How Plausible Is the Strong Anti-Carnism Thesis?

How might we get from the claim that meat eating is wrong to the Strong Thesis—the claim that meat eaters cause a sufficient amount of animal suffering via their diets that not saving strangers’ lives in rescue cases is the lesser evil?24 There are lots of things to consider and I work through these systematically.

I start by considering just the consequences of rescuing a randomly encountered stranger compared with not saving them. This has three parts, each of which is discussed in a subsection. Section 2.1 compares the benefit to someone of having their life saved against the costs a meat-eating diet causes to animals. Section 2.2 considers the non-dietary effects the death of a meat eater would have, such as the grief caused to their friends and family. Section 2.3 accounts for the fact that not all humans are meat eaters.

For non-consequentialists, what makes something the lesser(/​greater) evil does not have to depend solely on the consequences. Section 2.4 raises two reasons one might give for claiming that rescuing the stranger would be the lesser evil, even though this has worse consequences, and therefore the Duty of Easy Rescue still applies.

Finally, Section 2.5 wonders if we could save the person, but neutralise their prospective meat-eating harms. In this case, doing that would be the relevant lesser evil and we would be required to save them after all.25

3. If the Strong Thesis Is True, Must We Abandon the Duty of Easy Rescue?

The Duty of Easy Rescue does not seem to be a fundamental moral principle. Rather, it derives its intuitive force, at least in Shallow Pond, from two underlying premises: (1) saving a life is overall very good, and (2) we have a duty to promote the good when we can do so easily. Saliently, (1) is a mixed empirical and moral claim whilst (2) is a purely moral claim. What explains why we do not think we have to save the life in Drowning Dictator is that the empirical facts are different and (1) is not true: we expect that saving the dictator’s life would lead to much suffering, and because suffering is bad, saving the life is bad overall. It seemed obvious, prior to accounting for humans’ effects on animals through their diets, that rescuing the person in Shallow Pond was very good. However, if we really did believe the Strong Anti-Carnism Thesis were true then, once we account for this, not saving lives in ordinary rescue cases is now the lesser evil and so the Duty of Easy Rescue is robbed of its original plausibility.

How should we revise the Duty of Easy Rescue? Given that the worry is about animal suffering, and assuming the Strong Thesis, it seems it should be something like:

The Revised Duty of Easy Rescue: In rescue cases, we are not required to save lives. However, in the unlikely event that we are confident the person is not a meat eater (for instance, they are vegetarian or vegan), we are required to save them.

While we may find this conclusion distasteful—I certainly do—that alone does not give us any reason to reject it.

4. Potential Additional Implications

If the Strong Thesis is true, not saving strangers’ lives in rescue cases is the lesser evil. Thus, for consequentialists, as for non-consequentialists such as Frowe who hold that we are required to do the lesser evil—at least when it is not too demanding—it follows that we are required not to rescue strangers.55 Peter Singer, a consequentialist, would therefore be pushed to say it is wrong to save the drowning child in the Shallow Pond if he accepted the Strong Thesis (which, of course, he might not).

Second, if saving lives is overall bad, are we are permitted, and perhaps even required, to kill other people to prevent their meat eating?

This does not straightforwardly follow. Non-consequentialists may appeal to the familiar doing–allowing distinction, as noted earlier: we are not permitted to cause one harm unless the harm we prevent is substantially greater.

What’s more, consequentialists and non-consequentialists alike will point out that, in general, going around killing people is exceedingly unlikely to be how one does the most good—inter alia, you can do little good from inside prison. For those concerned with factory-farmed animal suffering, presumably the better route is to raise that issue publicly and support campaigns against it—not to kill a handful of people [agreed!].

Third, even if it’s wrong to kill people, should we be trying to reduce the overall human population without killing people? Perhaps we could try to shut down hospitals, so lives are not saved, or aim to make birth control more widespread, so fewer new people are born.

The answer here is much the same as the one above. Even if it would be better, in general, if there were fewer people, it would seem we have only a pro tanto duty to realise this, one which would be easily overridden by other considerations, most saliently that there is something even better we could do instead.

Fourth and finally, we can ask: How might accounting for humans’ practices on animals alter our priorities if we are trying to be effective altruists, that is, aiming to do the most good with our spare resources? Two options commonly recommended by members of the effective altruism social movement are to give to organisations in the developing world that save lives or reduce poverty.56 However, the longer people live and the richer they are or become, the more meat they eat and the more suffering they will cause as a result. Studies show very consistently that, as people get wealthier, they consume more meat.57 Hence accounting for the effects that human practices have on animals will reduce the value of both of these by some amount—it won’t necessarily make such actions negative, not least when we consider that those in the developing world eat much less meat. Of course, opinions will differ over how large this reduction is, something that will vary, as noted, between countries [agreed!]. Crucially, this reduction does not rely on the truth of the Strong Thesis: just so long as we think humans have some negative impact on others, it applies [agreed!].

My quick thoughts

I agree with Michael that, “if meat eating is wrong on animal suffering grounds”, “the Strong Anti-Carnism Thesis is, in fact, surprisingly plausible”. I estimated the lives of all farmed animals combined are 12.0 times as bad as the lives of all humans combined are good, which suggests not saving a random human life is good. However, my estimate is not resilient, and it respects the current annual expected total hedonistic utility (ETHU), which may be poorly correlated with ETHU across all time (what matters). So I believe an agnostic attitude with respect to the aforementioned thesis makes sense, in which case saving the lives of strangers can be the smaller or greater evil. As a result, I agree with Michael that:

A moral principle widely considered to be obviously true—we must rescue others—is not, on further reflection, obviously true and would be defensibly rejected by some.

Nevertheless, it is also unclear to me whether we should accept the Revised Duty of Easy Rescue suggested by Michael:

The Revised Duty of Easy Rescue: In rescue cases, we are not required to save lives. However, in the unlikely event that we are confident the person is not a meat eater (for instance, they are vegetarian or vegan), we are required to save them.

I am no longer confident that decreasing the consumption of animals is good/​bad. I suggest the following revision:

  • Resilient duty of easy rescue. In rescue cases, we are not required to save lives. However, in the unlikely event that we are confident the person would overall contribute to a better world (for instance, they are in Forbes’ billionaires list The Future Perfect 50?), we are required to save them.