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The Best Thought-Experiment Against Ethical Veganism I’ve Ever Heard
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I spent almost a decade of my life as a vegan. The whole idea suited my nature well. I’ve always liked things that challenge my self-control, they’re satisfying in a way I can’t describe, and veganism is a tour de force in self-control in a world that’s made food manufacturing indistinguishable from the manufacture of designer drugs, and where it’s perfectly normal to have dessert at 6am in the morning in the form of a pretty, pink Starbucks drink.
But I’ve also always liked things which I’ve assumed would improve my odds of having a long and healthy life, and this directed my initial interest and, later on, my entire approach to being vegan. I saw chronic illnesses in other people reversed with a vegan diet, every sign of disease or dysfunction you’d find in a normal bloodwork assay banished (even though I know now that the same happens when you simply lose weight). But this pragmatic approach to veganism was always at odds with most other vegans I knew.
Their approach was much more abstract, more ostensibly self-less. They called themselves “ethical vegans.” They eschewed meat because factory farming brought suffering on millions of innocent creatures, and they not only wanted no part in it, they wanted to end it.
But I was never convinced that the suffering of animals was sufficient to stop eating meat, It had always been obvious to me that some level of suffering was both inevitable and necessary to achieve some higher good. Animals have to suffer and die everyday for the maintenance of complex and outstandingly beautiful webs of animal life, life and death are mutual complements, whether we like it or not. The idea that we should selectively elevate a pillar of the natural world to the level of travesty just seemed outlandish.
So I was more than pleased to read today one of the best thought-experiments against ethical veganism I’ve ever heard. It’s much more elegant than my own argument, and funny too. It turns ethical veganism on its head and shows a less-than-intuitive way in which it’s actually not as ethical as it makes itself out to be. Here’s an excerpt from the Substack post where I read it:
Imagine a dystopian future in which aliens with a taste for human flesh kidnapped a bunch of people from Earth and raised them as livestock on their alien planet. Humans on the alien planet are kept alive “free-range,” able to interact and live their life, but only for their first 20 years. Then they are harvested for food.
If you were an alien politician concerned about the ethical mistreatment of humans, would you advocate for (a) the continuation of the system but with better treatment for humans (quicker death, better living conditions, longer life), or (b) to stop the system entirely, although this would mean that humans would soon die out in one generation as they’d be unable to survive on the alien planet. Quick, which would you advocate: (a) or (b)?
Like all philosophical thought experiments this is merely a fable, but it throws the issue into stark contrast. I’ve written before about longtermism, the idea that future lives carry moral weight—in this case, there will be millions of humans on this alien world that never exist if you choose (b) and abandon them to their fate on the hostile planet. So it seems rather natural that one should push for (a) instead and promote better treatment. Even if, on net, the humans in the alien world suffer, is oblivion really the preferable alternative to net suffering? Especially if you could alleviate that suffering through action? I’m reminded of the story of the axe-murdering utilitarian, who goes around targeting only those with chronic back pain, since their net suffering will, over their lifetime, outweigh their net pleasure. Presumably, most people the axe-murdering utilitarian thinks should be replaced with the null set of oblivion would protest their deaths, screaming “No! Please! I choose life despite my constant mild pain!” while running, clutching their backs.
This may all seem ridiculous, and such thoughts experiments definitely are—indeed, as you’ll find, this entire essay is ridiculous—but it is also the sort of things that philosophers of the ethics of animal consumption debate. I myself am deeply sympathetic to vegetarianism, and admire those who commit to it, but how could domesticated animals like pigs or lambs continue to exist in the numbers they do if we stopped eating meat?
For many of the animals we eat, we’d be consigning their species to oblivion if we stopped eating them. Presumably, if they could somehow signal to us their preference, would they pick (a) or (b)? Hoof up or hoof down? My intuition is they’d probably choose to be born, and eventually eaten, rather than not be born at all. Hoof up.
The next time someone tells you they’re an ethical vegan, ask them: “So you want domesticated animals to go extinct?”
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