The consequentialist case for ‘soft’ vegetarianism

I have been struggling with the moral implications of being a non-vegetarian for a while now. The reason I decided to write this blog post is that I needed to gather my thoughts and figure out for myself where I stand on this, with the added benefit of being accountable for any conclusions I draw.

Let me start off by declaring just how much I love eating meat. It’s so incredibly delicious, and soft, and succulent. In fact, I’m salivating just writing this draft. Which is why I have continued to eat meat for as long as I have. I am not unique in possessing this personality flaw; in fact, even the most morally upstanding and rational people I know choose to ignore the ethical ramifications of eating their favourite meal. So, in this blog post, I will attempt to make a rational case for soft vegetarianism based on a consequentialist ethics framework. This is not one of those PETA blogs that will attempt to tug at your heartstrings by showing horrific videos of slaughterhouses. I want to appeal to your cognitive compassion, not your empathy.

First, let me explain consequentialism for the uninitiated. Consequentialism is a philosophy of decision-making that weighs the morality of actions based on consequences. This is in contrast to deontology, which weighs morality based on whether the intention behind the action adheres to some set of moral principles. In some cases, deontology seems to be the more demanding moral theory, and in other cases, consequentialism. Personally, I lean much more towards consequentialism, since it is less prone to contradictions. However, it is also more open to interpretation, leaving more wiggle room to sneak in justifications for truly appalling actions. Anyways, more on this in a future post; now back to the point.

The first moral question we have to grapple with is the principle of killing animals for food when we have a choice not to. A good example is the hunting of wild game. These animals have led happy lives till that point and probably would have suffered more if they had starved, died of illness, or have been killed by any other carnivore. And if we can’t hold carnivores ethically culpable for murder, why do the same for humans?

We aren’t carnivores though. Humans as a species have been spectacularly successful in breaking the shackles of natural selection, and moving past the Darwinian edict of ‘survival of the fittest’. Without any evolutionary compulsion, it falls upon us to question the ethics of depriving an animal of a chance at a continued existence. The whole thing swings on how much value you attach to the inherent life of the animal over the bump in well-being you get from eating it. The jury is still out on this one, but it doesn’t really matter. Because unless we decide to go live in the woods, all our meat is going to come from domesticated animals.

It’s a whole different ball game when we talk about domesticated animals. Their entire existence is predicated on us continuing to enjoy their meat. Whenever animal n is slaughtered, animal n+1 takes its place. The deprivation of continued existence argument doesn’t apply here, because the existence of animals n+1 onwards is dependent on us continuing to enjoy our cheeseburgers and butter chickens.

Credits: SMBC comic 2013–09–07

Ask yourself this question though — what is the limiting point of suffering after which you can conclude it would’ve been better not being born? A common utilitarian view is simply the point at which the level of suffering cancels out the level of accumulated happiness. I disagree with this materialist world view because I think there is inherent value in simply being human and being alive, which needs to be considered in the consequentialist calculus. While I do not personally attach the same significance to animal life, even if I did I would rather those animals not exist, given the level of suffering we feel free to inflict upon them.

Consider this. When you decline the juicy steak in front of you because of your morals, who is it you are actually saving? The cow that was the source of the steak is already dead, and all the cows currently alive in the cattle farm face certain slaughter. What you are essentially doing is preventing the next cow from being born. You make a moral judgement that due to the prohibitive amount of suffering it faces, the life of the unborn cow is not worth living. Ironically, the less inherent value you think the life of a cow has, the easier it is to refuse the steak offered to you and cause said cow never to be born.

An afternoon of researching the realities of the relentless, high-volume suffering manufactured by the multi-billion $ factory-farming industry, and there is no moral uncertainty left in my mind. I’d rather an entire species of domesticated animal die out in the wild than live only to spend every waking minute in unending suffering and misery, all in the service of the taste-buds of their human overlords. Consider for a moment future generations pondering the moral horrors of our generation, the way we ponder the horrors of genocide and slavery. Would factory farming and our treatment of animals not rank topmost on that list?

Free-range meat, you say? Unfortunately, free-range is a myth. If it was properly executed on a large-scale, and the animals lived good lives before being killed painlessly, the cost associated with free-range farming would be simply too prohibitive. Even if you could afford the exorbitant prices, the added burden on the environment would in the long run (not so long anymore) do plenty more harm than good. And considering that many meat-eaters turn vegetarian due to concern over the role the meat industry plays in accelerating climate change, I certainly am not going to be the one to risk having slippers hurled at me by telling them to try out free-range.

I have been ruminating these views for quite some time now, and if indeed I do find eating meat morally indefensible, why have I continued to do so? My hypothesis is that the problem lies with our deontological moral intuitions. If you are convinced that eating meat is morally reprehensible, then the only permissible moral decision that aligns with this principle is quitting entirely. Whereas, a consequentialist viewpoint dictates that you ought to cause the total meat consumption in the world to be minimized. Let me present a thought experiment (taken from this podcast) –

Suppose you have 3 choices in descending order of utility:

(a) Staying at home and doing your homework, (b) Going to the pub with your friends, and (c) Staying at home and watching TV.

Knowing yourself, you are certain that if you stay at home you will end up watching TV. What then ought you to do — stay at home or go to the pub?

This is where Actualists and Possibilists differ. The former take the view that since you ought to stay home and study, you ought to stay home irrespective of what you finally end up doing. The latter hold that you ought to go to the pub in an effort to maximise utilitarian outcome.

For someone who loves meat as much as I, turning vegetarian can seriously impact quality of life. I have seen my vegetarian friends suffer from not being able to find good food in foreign countries, failing to try the local cuisines when they travel to new exotic places, being the butt of jokes at dinner parties, and in the long run, missing out on the profound meaning that food brings to life. I don’t want to be that guy, the cost is too high. Vegetarians like these discourage others who have arrived at similar moral conclusions from following through on them. However, if you halve your meat consumption starting today, and convince a friend to do the same, then from a consequentialist framework, you have achieved an identical moral outcome to quitting entirely.

That is what I intend to do. I will not consume meat when it does not translate directly into a high-enough bump in my well-being. Don’t get me wrong, I will likely still have the most exotic dish on offer when I go out with my friends to one of Singapore’s famous hawker centres. And I will reluctantly consume meat when it is too inconvenient to find a vegetarian option that doesn’t suck.

Here’s my prescription — whenever you eat meat, make sure it’s bloody worth it. Follow this, and halving your meat consumption is child’s play. You can make up for lost well-being by ordering the tastiest and most expensive dish when you do decide to let your hair down. And if you can demonstrate, both to yourself and the people you influence, that this way of life is sustainable and involves negligible sacrifice, then they too will feel encouraged to follow through on their own moral conclusions. Also look up pescetarianism as an option and make up your own mind about it.

The best is the enemy of the good — Voltaire.

Most important of all, drop me a line if you decide to pursue ‘soft’ vegetarianism. The only justification I have for not quitting something I find morally reprehensible is that I can achieve a better outcome through the arguments I present to the world.

21 yo mechanical engineering graduate from BITS Pilani, India. Currently living in Singapore, soon to move to the US for grad school.

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