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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Half-baked Heuristics

Recently a friend and I ordered take-out for dinner. My friend, a vegetarian, requested plain pizza. When the food arrived, we discovered the restaurant had accidentally given her a pepperoni pie. So she picked off all the pepperoni slices and threw them away, eating the pizza without them.

"Do you not like pepperoni?" I asked.
"Oh, I used to love it before I went vegetarian," she said.
"Then why don't you eat it? Otherwise it's just going to go to waste."
"Because I'm a vegetarian," she said, looking at me strangely.

And in my experience, most vegetarians would do the same. It's always seemed totally illogical to me -- at least, if your reason for being vegetarian is to avoid hurting animals. (I know that's not the rationale used by all vegetarians; some eschew meat for health or religious reasons, but for the purposes of this post, I'm only referring to the "don't-want-to-hurt-animals" vegetarians.) Given the mistake by the restaurant, which wasn't her fault and which is already a done deal, how are the animals any better off if their meat gets thrown in the trash instead of eaten by my friend?

But I think this incident is a great case study in a specific flavor of irrationality: people adopt a general behavioral rule, or "heuristic," that works for most cases, but then they stick to it even in those particular cases where it doesn't apply. The reasoning here seems to go something like this: Eating animals causes suffering, and I don't want to cause suffering, therefore my heuristic is that I shouldn't eat animals. But then they stick to the heuristic even when it doesn't apply -- when eating animals doesn't cause suffering.

A related case arose in a Slate article this week by Christopher Cox arguing that there's no reason for vegetarians to avoid oysters, since oysters have no central nervous system and, therefore, almost certainly can't feel pain. As the author acknowledges, this reasoning probably won't sway many vegetarians, most of whom seem to think, "Vegetarian means not eating animals, oysters are technically animals, therefore I can't eat oysters."

And not-eating-animals is a fine heuristic in general if you want to avoid causing pain, because, almost without exception, animals do feel pain. But if there is an exception -- like oysters, it seems -- then there's no reason to stick to your heuristic. Valuing the label "vegetarian" rather than the logic behind the label makes your vegetarianism seem more like a matter of remaining pure than of avoiding harm. I like how Cox phrased it: "The main argument of Animal Liberation is that discriminating against nonhuman animals is indefensible because it makes irrelevant category distinctions—pain cuts across species barriers. But to loop oysters into a dietary taboo simply because we've labeled them animals is to make just such a faulty distinction."

There's one more kind of sticky heuristic that I often notice cropping up in discussions about vegetarianism: the rule that associates ethical behavior with self-sacrifice. I can understand where the association comes from -- it's certainly true that helping others often entails sacrifices. For example, if I want to give money to charity or volunteer at a soup kitchen, I have to sacrifice money or time that I could have spent on myself. And it's also true that when people benefit from a harmful behavior, they're often tempted to come up with dubious justifications for why it's not unethical, so that they don't have to endure the sacrifice of giving it up.

So in general, the self-sacrifice=ethical, self-enriching=unethical heuristic is not a terrible one. But sometimes it just clearly doesn't apply. By forgoing the pepperoni, my friend isn't helping anyone or anything, so to admire that decision amounts to admiring self-sacrifice for its own sake.

And in those rare instances in which I've seen a vegan friend of mine eat, say, cheese that was accidentally put on his pasta in a restaurant, people tend to gleefully pounce on him: "Aha! So you're cheating?" Even when he explains that there's no point in depriving himself if the cheese will otherwise go to waste, other people's reaction is usually, "Oh come on, you're just making excuses because you want to be able to eat it!"

One of the interesting features of evolution is that it often produces "good enough" solutions, rules that are imperfect but that work well enough for us to get by, and that therefore stick around. And that's exactly what heuristics are -- time-saving rules of thumb that save us the trouble of carefully considering each new situation we find ourselves in. They're "good enough" to give us the right outcome most of the time. But that doesn't mean we can't do better.


  1. But would you eat a Soylent Green sandwich that was served to you by accident?

    I kid, but to some vegetarians eating meat is not only harming animals, but is inherently disgusting.

  2. I dated a girl once that was a dedicated vegetarian, but she would eat free-range beef and chickens if they were humanly slaughtered (usually from local farms). That always seemed reasonable enough to me.

  3. Interesting post. I would ask your friend if eating animals is unethical because it causes the animals suffering then how could she eat dairy like cheese on a pizza. She could respond to you that meat might be hard for her to digest since she has been living on a vegetarian diet.

    I will note that Peter Singer has discussed the issue of animals like clams who have no nervous system or interests (as he would say). Although he falls into the category of people who will not eat clams because they are animals (and has grown a dislike of meat in general) he does acknowledge that eating an animal like clams could be considered morally acceptable.

    I have known of many vegans that will make your distinction. For example, I knew of one man who was a vegan for ethical reasons but had allowed hunting of deer on his property. The argument was that the deer were overpopulated and would starve to death if left alone. As long as the hunters used guns that would kill an animal instantly (or I am assuming relatively instant) then he had no moral qualms with people killing deer on his property. He argued that less suffering would amount with the population of deer thinning out.

  4. Now on to something you actually said in your post :D

    I am not entirely sure how heuristics apply in this case.When it comes to morality your actions arent exactly meant to solve some practical problem.Theres no trial and error in morality.Your actions and beliefs have a somewhat more symbolic value rather than practical efficiency.

    Lets say that i make the argument that the cows feel no pain because lets say they are killed instantly so when you buy meat you dont contribute to their suffering.How many veggies would buy that argument ? Probably not many but i dont care.My point is that even if a made a solid argument for my position they wouldnt care because in reality they arent concerned with a practical issue but a symbolic one.Its the symbolism of their actions that is important to them.You nailed it when you said that they are more concerned with remaining pure.Thats exactly why they do what they do.The distinction between creatures that feel pain and those who dont can be arbitrary because it doesnt affect the symbolism.

    Also self sacrifice has the ultimate power when it comes to symbolism.This is something that christians see in the jesus story but for the life of me i cant see how exactly this all plays out in their minds.

    By the way when your friend is treated to this kind of reaction how can you not expect him to remain pure ? Remember , morality isnt just what you think , its also what others think you think.

    So to conclude i agree with most of what you said but i think it was a bit constricted by the fact it was limited to moral decisions and that in my opinion it doesnt take into account the complexity of human nature.Can we really do better ? I am not so sure.

    Again good post , i like the way you think.You focus on the basic principles and you dont see t

  5. Nice story

    People get so caught up in the fact we are humans and easily forget we are animals.

    Yes people are capable of having complex thoughts and forming complex mental models with many variables and numerous rules that apply to them and evaluate situations in depth and figure out analytically the consequences of our actions but in general ... we dont !

    Humans can do that only when they focus their conscious part of their mind on a topic.This is time consuming and more importantly its depleting some very important resource that i have no name for.Its some sort of mental stamina that is quickly being drained when you do that focusing.When it finishes , you feel frustration and your mind quickly begins to wonder.I ve felt it many times when i am trying to solve a simple problem and even though i know the solution is right around the corner i just cant help it and i quit.Being able to hold your mind focused like that for a long time is one of the most important qualities.

    But i think the problem is that people dont realize how little they use this ability.How much of their behavior and their beliefs are formed by the non conscious part of their minds that doesnt do all this analytical thinking and in all probability "feels" alot like being an animal.Too bad none of us will ever get to experience that first hand.

    You must have felt it too.I feel it all the time.When you re getting an emotion that compels you to act in a certain way that your conscious mind says is probably maladaptive in this particular case but you have to do it anyway.

    We can only have rules of thumb.Only our conscious mind can create something better but we can only make limited use of it.Our belief that our rules are so much more complex and profound than they really are comes from out tendency to rationalize them.This notion is key to this whole issue.The behaviors and ideas have mostly been picked up from observing others , not from some profound introspective and analytical thoughtful reasoning procedure.

    I just love it when people look at animals acting like we do and attributing that to instinct and then when they do the exact same thing it has to be attributed to some high minded lofty ideals and their supreme intellect...

  6. I'm a vegatarian. On the one hand, I agree with the oyster thing. I've eaten oysters since becoming a vegatarian and have no qualms about doing so again.

    But I think there's something to be said for generally following rules even when the immediate benefits aren't there. You might not trust yourself to break the rule just occasionally, and you might worry about not trying to accommodate your rule if they know you will break it once the food has been delivered.

  7. Really interesting post, thank you.

  8. Given the mistake by the restaurant, which wasn't her fault and which is already a done deal, how are the animals any better off if their meat gets thrown in the trash instead of eaten by my friend?

    But certainly you wouldn't claim that cows are better off if your vegetarian friend did eat the pepperoni, right? So from an animal suffering, the 2 are equivalent, in which case it's probable that other principles come into play, eg:
    -increasing public visibility of your friend's choice: if she just ate the pepperoni this would have failed to remind the restaurant that she's a vegetarian and a stranger looking over would have taken her for a meateater thereby diminishing the mere possibility of vegetarianism from their mind.
    -there is obviously a certain level of "ickyness" associated with the meat and I don't see how it's inconsistent to find meat repulsive in general if it came from a killed animal. Otherwise we would have to brand it illogical to refuse to use, say, a handbag made of human skin because it was given to us by mistake and using it does not contribute anything extra to human suffering.
    -the other guess as to motivation is the difficulty in drawing a line and people's self-knowledge of their psychology. For instance in many strands of Buddhism it's forbidden to eat meat except in cases like this where it wasn't prepared for you. So the way ordinary people get around this is to go to a butcher since "hey, the animal's already dead [and wasn't prepared for me but a 'meateater' but now I can't let it go to waste]". So a refusal to eat the pepperoni might come from the idea that it brings you one step closer to ordering it since it's already there.

    But I agree, most heuristics people use aren't fully consistent or well-defined -- I guess for ones that are we probably won't call them heuristics!

  9. I don't know whether the person who threw away the pepperoni on the pizza was a vegan or just a plain ol' vegetarian. There is a difference: "vegans" tend to be extremely strict about avoiding all "animal derived" products. They are often quite hard to live with because their dietary habits are quite hard to live with, and they can be extremely "snarky" about people who allow themselves to eat evan a little meat, whether or not ithis is "heuristic" or not. "Ordinary" vegetarians are usually easier, because if you have vegetarians among your friends and acquaintances, and you're throwing a party, you can prepare a variety of things that the vegetarians will eat. Some vegetarians are even okay with the occasional fish or chicken dish.

    I think this distinction makes a difference: both "vegetarians" and "vegans" may well be operating on the "don't harm the animals" reasoning, and that, in itself is not a bad thing, but I also think the "vegans" are the more illogical of the two types, since their diet is so strict, and they are often so snarky about the habits of others who don't follow their strict practices. This actually is more about notions of "purity" than it is about "logic" or "illogic"

  10. Great post! I've often thought that this kind of behavior -- "I do this because this is the way people in the category I'm in do it" -- is the result of mental laziness; people don't want to bother going beyond the "this is the way we do it" part to the "why, again, do we do it this way?" part. I see this also in behavior associated with religious rituals. But I think it's more than just mental laziness -- I think there's an element of "pride in belonging." I've seen numerous "observant" Jews who seem to take pride in following the Jewish rituals. They don't seem to care about the "why" of it; they simply like doing it -- and having others in the group know they're doing it (e.g., keeping kosher). There seems to be something satisfying for some people just in being able to identify as belonging to a group, and following the general rule that identifies one as being in that group -- even in situations where doing so doesn't make much sense. For these people (for most people, I'd wager), being "in the group" appears to be more important than being rational. Sigh.

  11. Some very astute reasoning. I imagine the same could be said of a vegan/vegetarian who is offered a pair of hand-me-down leather boots.

    I heard about a practice among some vegetarian Buddhist monks who, if you invite them over for dinner, will eat meat if that's what you're serving. They only request that you don't kill the animals on their account.

    The only reason I can think of where a "moral vegetarian" might forgo the pepperoni is if she was afraid that she might lose her willpower to continue as a vegetarian if she were to taste the delicious pepperoni.

    Just for laughs, here's a link to a funny short video by Mitchell & Webb (you'll probably have to copy and paste):


  12. People tend to get enjoyment from their moral beliefs. It feels good to know - or think you know - what's right and wrong, and it feels good to do what you consider to be the right thing. This pleasure is very fundamental and isn't highly intellectualized.

    Greater pleasure comes from applying a set of straightforward rules than comes from acting in some ad hoc way to maximize utility. It would not have increased animal suffering for your friend to eat the pepperoni, but for her to do so would have taken away the pleasure she got from successfully following a rule that she considers proper.

    If she was fully aware of the way in which her heuristic doesn't maximize utility, she might have been more willing to eat the pepperoni, but she would have also gotten none of the pleasure that she got from doing what she thinks is right. In this case, ignorance is bliss.

    I realize that most people think the point of morality is not to get pleasure from doing what you think is right. Most people would choose the red pill with regards to their own moral conduct. But if Morpheus never gave them the choice, they would go about their lives as though the illusion of the own goodness were real. I think that morality is often a recreational activity, and destroying people's moral delusions could make it harder for them to get pleasure from that activity.


    Throwing the bliss of ignorance aside, I have another thing to say.

    I'm not sure that it's actually a good idea for people to try to see beyond their general heuristics, because people generally do, as a matter of fact, break their heuristics for selfish reasons. People who believe that cheating is wrong will still have sex outside of their relationships, rationalizing it with some cheap moral explanation.

    For most people, sticking to heuristics like "do not be an asshole" or "do not have sex with someone who is not your romantic partner" or "do not eat meat" would be a moral improvement. Since strictly heuristic moral behavior would be an improvement for the majority of people, suggesting that people put effort into doing even better still might not be such a great idea.

    Suppose your friend were the kind of person (yes, there is such a thing as a "kind of person") who isn't so big on hard-line heuristics. Would she eat the pepperoni in the situation you describe? Sure. But maybe she also would in many other situations, where the moral argument in favor of meat consumption isn't so great.

  13. I am a vegetarian and utterly agree with what you're saying. Never understood other vegetarians that do this (unless of course it is for health reasons, etc.).

  14. "Eating animals causes suffering, and I don't want to cause suffering, therefore my heuristic is that I shouldn't eat animals. But then they stick to the heuristic even when it doesn't apply -- when eating animals doesn't cause suffering"

    On the other hand, you could easily argue that ALL animal products available to the average consumer came from animals who no longer suffer - and thus, there should be no problem consuming them.


    Basically, you're trying to argue that the consumer can't harm the animal, so it should be acceptable to consume "already harmed" animal products. Total hogwash. In a global economy, one of the most effective ways of bringing about change is to apply economic pressure. If enough people refuse to eat meat products, producers will have to reduce the number of animals they harm.

    It has nothing to do with heuristics. This was not a good example of a decision-making process being used inappropriately.

    To be sure, there are "cultural" vegetarians - those who choose the lifestyle because of what it represents, rather than what it aims to accomplish. But to me your objection (I use that word lightly) to your friend not eating the pepperoni is a little silly. For whatever reason she chooses, she's got a vested interest in not making random exceptions to the self-imposed rule.

    The foremost being "integrity"

  15. A friend of mine, who's a veg, and a vegan, and a raw foodian, has no problem stuffing his face full of pepperoni pizza and chocolate cake at birthday parties. It's a special occasion he says. Ah, the infinitely flexible rationalizations of vegetarians amuse me to no end. Apparently eggs aren't animals and fish aren't smart enough to care about.

  16. If we have determined to do X because we believe it is appropriate to do it because of reason Y, does it make sense to do X only when reason Y will be satisfied? If not, why criticize the doing of X in circumstances where that won't be the result?

  17. I don't think I can agree with this. The main reason given by most vegetarians in that case (at least in my experience), is that after not eating meat for a while, and after having fully grasped that meat is animal flesh, the idea of eating it repulses them. It becomes an aesthetic concern, if you will. It isn't so much that they are blindly sticking to an all too general rule, but that they are influenced by their positions in other, non-moral ways, and this is made manifest in cases like this.

  18. This is a brilliant observation that even most studious vegans miss. "Heuristics" nice. Thank you!

  19. An interesting feature -- perhaps the only valuable one -- of heuristic rules is that they save "computational" power. On those grounds, adopting the rule "don't eat animals" might be so computationally simpler than "don't harm animals by eating them" that it makes sense to adopt the former. The latter, after all, requires calculations of e.g. the chances that someone will ask you why you are doing whatever it is you are doing, how your explanation will be interpreted, and how likely it is that more or fewer animals will be hurt to be consumed in the future. That could get a little tedious if it had to be done on a regular basis (dinner parties? buffets? accidental orders? etc).

    It is interesting that this might be part of a larger problem in rational choice theory, namely, if it is ever rational to intend to perform irrational actions. In this case, we know that there will be cases where it will be irrational not to do *x* but we might reason that it is rational to adopt a policy "don't do *x*."

    Cool extension of an old puzzle!


  20. If you ask most vegetarians, meat no longer registers as food to them. It may in fact seem unpalatable. So, just because the animals had already been killed does not suddenly make it a neutral decision. To think that it's so simple is, in my view, a worse mistake than the (supposed) irrationality of not eating meat when you receive it accidentally. It's actually pretty surprising that you wouldn't see that.

  21. This is interesting. (It seems like vegetarians can't win either way.) I have never thought of heuristics as being the "good enough" thing to do, but instead a rule that had been thought through for just these times when questionable situations arise in which there could be a separate, equally OK answer. Self-sacrifice, in such situations as trivial as pepperoni eating, would be, for me at least, an acceptable accompanying consequent to keeping to whatever I'd decided my values were that were important enough to overshadow self-sacrifice.
    To say that in other situations, simple heuristics really could be improved upon isn't nonsense, of course. If there is a true loss to outweigh the original value of the belief, it should be altered.
    But trivial self-sacrifice doesn't seem to be enough to have to consider all factors that might qualify a convenient interruption in the value system (and sometimes such general rules might prevent someone breaking away from his own value system for any convenient opportunity...)

  22. This brings to mind knowledge or even medical treatments that came about or were obtained through unethical or even criminal means. Suppose that some mad scientist had forcibly subjected a hundred people to horrific and fatal procedures to obtain knowledge/treatment X, experiments which we would never have approved of in the first place even if we knew perfectly well that X would be able to save a million people. Given that the maniac had his way and that the world now has X, it would be foolhardy to reject or even destroy X because of the way it was obtained if X can help and promote the welfare of one or a billion.

  23. How is your friend's decision not to eat the pepperoni different from the scientific communities refusal to use research done by Nazis? The harm has already been done, and some of the information might be valuable.

    I'm really not being sarcastic, I am curious how you feel about this.

  24. You make some excellent point here, but in your friends' defense if she has been vegetarian for any significant amount of time, eating the pepperoni would likely have made her very ill.

  25. it's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.

    logical consistency is a tricky thing.

    On a side note, it can be argued that plants want to live too (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/22/science/22angi.html). Perhaps we should stop eating altogether. That would be the highest form of self-sacrifice, no?

  26. I think it's a bit of an overstatement to say that a vegetarian who picks out the pepperoni is irrational. Even if the *only* reason for a person's vegetarianism is not wanting to hurt animals -- which is something that I have hardly even come across during my ten years as a vegetarian -- it would be perfectly rational not to eat meat even when the animal has already suffered. Why? Because the digestive system would be severely shocked by a pepperoni pizza if one has been a vegetarian for a long time; it would not be very enjoyable. It might also cause emotional distress (although emotional distree may very well be irrational!). Finally, many vegetarians who may have liked meat before have also developed a bit of a distaste for it; that's certainly true in my case.

    Anyway, I'm always puzzled about these hypothetical vegetarians who are supposedly concerned *only* about the suffering of animals. Pretty much all the vegetarians/vegans I know would include a vast number of other, such as health and ecological reasons among their motives. So, really, I think that vegetarianism is a particularly bad case study of irrational behaviour. Indeed, eating meat might be a much better one!

  27. Isn't it rational to accept that there's an irrational element of the mind that might be tempted back into a life of meat-eating if exceptions are allowed?


    I recall a Tibetan lama telling followers that eating beef is preferable to eating oysters because you take thousands of oyster lives for every cow you kill. The idea, I guess, is that every life is of equal value. In that case, committing suicide would seem to be morally preferable to taking antibiotics...but the Tibetans might have a workaround for this point.

  28. As a derist, I think your friends behavior was completely reasonable. She has chosen to cultivate an aversion to meat. Why risk eating it. She could start to like it?

  29. The comments of Dan! and ttahko make an interesting pair... To the best of my knowledge, the key health benefits accrue from radically reducing the amount of meat consumed, from the truly absurd levels consumed by most Americans (down to a level more in line with what it likely was during most of our recent evolutionary history). And the ecological arguments follow the same basic line -- it is the large-scale "production" of animals for consumption that is ecologically irresponsible; again, radically reducing the amount of meat in our diets would have at least most of the positive ecological effects of eliminating it. Finally, much of the suffering of non-human animals raised for foods comes, again, from the large-scale processes necessary for the inexpensive production of meat; again, a radically reduction in our meat consumption, combined with a focus on the welfare of animals raised for food, would solve many of these problems in many cases...

    Dan!'s friend, who will eat meat that has been raised in an ecologically responsible way and cared for using (appropriately) high standards of animals husbandry, has taken one route to working towards a consistent and morally justifiable position.

    Whateverman's note re: integrity and not making exceptions to self-imposed rules is especially interesting in this context. thedarwinreport's sarcastic comments re: the friend who makes exceptions for special occasions points towards the problem of how others interpret our actions. If that friend really only eats animal products on "special occasions" they are certainly radically reducing their demand for animal products (& if everyone did that, the number of animals raised and killed for food would be radically reduced) & hence helping the ecological and preventing harm causes, they are getting the health benefits of a diet that has a radically reduced animal-fat intake, etc. But if everyone (or even many people) view this as a cop-out, as showing that really eating animals is always OK, then this might be a bad example to set...

    Again, this is where the trickiness of the necessary calculations to be a strictly rational utilitarian of some sort becomes overwhelming, and one is perhaps best off just adopting a set of "good enough" rules, for the sorts of reasons Richie directs our attention towards...


  30. I'm an abolitionist vegan - i.e. do not think the use of sentient beings for non-essential human ends is ethical - and I must say, we're doing an appalling job of presenting our case if this is an average impression of what the vegan position is taken to be. Even in the case examined, it seems that the vegetarian - let alone vegan - viewpoint has been hopelessly misunderstood.
    Professor Gary Francione's website and blog might be interesting places for people to look to grasp the issues, or the articles on the website of the Institute for Critical Animal Studies. I'm sure there was an interesting point in this posting and the comments, but since the examples bear little resemblance to the thinking and behaviour they are supposed to exemplify, it's hard to see how this might be verified. Try harder to explain your ethical position, vegans! We're not making ourselves clear!

  31. This has all been very interesting! I just want to reiterate the very first comment that was made, and which has been made a few times. Dofang Birdcell said:

    "But would you eat a Soylent Green sandwich that was served to you by accident?"

    That would be my reason for not eating those pepperoni's (I'm a vegetarian). The reason I'm vegetarian is that my attitude towards non-human animals is close to my attitude towards human animals--and I would not want to eat either, or wear either as clothing.

    I wonder if this is a slightly different reason for being vegetarian: Seeing animals as other organisms with a right to live VS. not wanting them to suffer. In the first case, it would not be fine to kill animals whether they suffer or not; in the second, killing them is fine only if they don't suffer. I think in my eyes, the fact that you can kill animals without them suffering is as irrelevant as the fact that you can kill humans without suffering--and in neither case is it acceptable.

  32. First of all, great post Julia... but as usual, I am inclined to play devil's advocate.

    I think there are some ethical subtleties that your line of reasoning misses, at least in the case of the pepperoni. (Oysters are another matter.) As people have already pointed out, the "it's already prepared" justification for eating meat is a slippery one. At what stage in the process does that justification start to apply? Once the animal is killed? Butchered? Delivered to the store? Delivered to your house?

    In fact, I think this "slippery slope" argument defeats the following straw man argument for vegetarianism: if I don't order pepperoni, then a little less pepperoni gets used, so maybe a couple fewer animals get killed in the long run, so I'm doing some good.

    I think that's a straw man, because in the context of factory farming practices, one individual's choice to go vegetarian probably registers as little more than noise.

    There's a better justification that says, if many people become vegetarians, then slaughterhouses will be forced to reduce output, will buy fewer animals, will reduce the environmental and ethical harm that results from the farming of those animals.

    But how do we get many people to become vegetarians en masse? Well, one way is to become vegetarian in a public way. Refusing to eat meat alone isn't enough; you have to send the message that it's easy to stop eating meat, that it's a reasonable and pleasant and familiar choice, and that it's a meaningful choice because others are making it along with you.

    But if you have chosen to be such a "public vegetarian," you dilute those messages every time you eat meat.

  33. It's like Barry Schwartz points out in "The Paradox of Choice"; if people spend all their time recalculating the economic or moral consequences of their actions, they wouldn't have any time left to actually do anything.

    It's easier to stick with the heuristic for things you've already decided and save your mental energy for new and/or bigger problems.

  34. @Dan

    "I dated a girl once that was a dedicated vegetarian, but she would eat free-range beef and chickens if they were humanly slaughtered (usually from local farms). That always seemed reasonable enough to me."

    How was she even a "vegetarian", let alone a "dedicated" one, if she intentionally chose to eat meat? That makes no logical sense whatsoever. A vegetarian, by definition, doesn't eat meat -- no matter how it was raised. She was an omnivore. And, personally, I find it ridiculous that people who aren't vegetarian would pretend to be vegetarians. It must be trendier than I thought!

    Personally, I find "humanely slaughtered" an oxymoron. It might make people feel better about eating meat, but it doesn't do much for the animal in the end. The animal is still treated as property, as a commodity. They're still bred into captivity to be used however their owners see fit. And why? Usually just because people like the taste of meat. I don't believe that is an ethical choice, especially when there is a choice, as many of us do have whether we want it or not.


    As a vegan, I do try to avoid causing more animal exploitation, since I believe it is wrong. In some things, I admit I do take an "it's already here, the animal has been exploited" approach. Sadly, it would be very difficult and expensive for me to replace every non-vegan thing in my home, though I hope to do so over time. For now, my time and money are better spent preventing more animals from being exploited.

    But when it comes to food, I do take a firmer stand. I would not pick off the pepperoni, though. I would send the pizza back (assuming vegan cheese and crust, as some places do have it). The reason for that is that, while yes, the animal has already been exploited, I think it's important to make sure the restaurant knows that it will end up paying for such mistakes so that hopefully it will take such things more seriously in the future. And it's similar with friends and family that try to give me non-vegan food. I know that I must stand firm with some people especially because if I fail their "test", they'll see it as an excuse to make more non-vegan things for me and prove me a hypocrite. (Yes, some people in my family really are that manipulative and are really pissed that apparently me going vegan has made it so "inconvenient" for them, even though I always bring my own food to gatherings and never ask for an special treatment beyond not expecting me to eat/use non-vegan stuff.)

    Further more, I wouldn't think of eating it because it would make me sick. I won't go into details here, but yes, I have good reason to believe that.

    Also, at this point. the idea of eating meat (or any other animal product) does gross me out. Since I started to eat a vegan diet, I've worked to undo the denial and desensitization that I had built up over many years of eating meat (et al.), to really see things as they are and find out where they came from. That was very hard to do before, because I feared that if I did I would starve or at least give up tasty food (seems ridiculous now, lol).

    As it is, I have a hard time watching other people eat non-vegan stuff around me. For example, when watching someone eat a chicken I think about the two pet chickens I have (from my pre-vegan days when I thought there was such thing as "humane" and "cruelty-free" eggs) and I really do feel sorry for the poor little bird that ended up on the table after a short, miserable life. But, of course, I'm polite and don't mention such things to non-vegans usually, and especially not at dinner -- though I can see why others do occasionally lose their cool. Sometimes it's hard to bite my tongue.

  35. @thedarwinreport

    "A friend of mine, who's a veg, and a vegan, and a raw foodian, has no problem stuffing his face full of pepperoni pizza and chocolate cake at birthday parties. It's a special occasion he says."

    Yeah... I wouldn't consider him a vegan or vegetarian any more than Dan's ex-girlfriend who would eat "humanely slaughtered" meat.

    That's even more ridiculous, though, because whereas vegetarians aren't necessarily interested in avoiding animal exploitation, avoiding animal exploitation is central to the idea of veganism. And if one is vegetarian for just health or environmental reasons, it doesn't even make sense to me to not make exceptions. If you're going to be a vegetarian for health reasons, why is it o.k. to eat ice cream and donuts but not the occasional piece of meat in a veggie stir-fry? And if for environmental reasons, why choose imported exotic fruits over locally hunted venison?

    To me, true veganism is much more logically consistent. I know it's not perfect, and we don't live in a perfect world, but I'm vegan because I want to -- as much as practical -- avoid contributing to animal exploitation because I think it's wrong to when I have the choice not to. But then there are some people who don't understand what it means to be a vegan and seem to think it's just another "diet". They need to look at the history of veganism, like why Watson coined the word to begin with. It was precisely to differentiate between people like us and vegetarians who were o.k. with at least some forms of animal exploitations. Veganism, therefore, is definitely NOT just about diet. And, imho, no occasion is "special" enough to justify doing something that one considers unethical and/or morally wrong.

    (And heck, it's not like there aren't vegan party foods that he can bring and share. My husband's last birthday party was entirely vegan, including the cakes and ice cream, and the food was all a hit despite the fact that we were the only vegans.)

  36. I am a vegetarian for four reasons:
    1)Not punishing/hurting animals.
    2)General health improvement
    3)Avoiding unnecessary risks - mad cow, ecoli, toxins from seafood etc.
    4)Reducing global warming etc.

    Not eating the peperoni clearly applies to 2) and 3) and sets a good example (Plus I find it easier to follow a simple rule - no meat)

    Not eating oysters comes under 2) but even more under 3).

    I am not vegan. I applaud anyone who takes a step towards being more vegetarian. No meat, less meat, etc. For those who criticize the logic of strawman vegetarians, I say our logic is simple, the less meat and animal food consumed the better.

  37. You are sitting in judgment without thinking about the thoughts and feelings of your friend. Here are several perfectly good reasons why a vegetarian might pick pepperoni off pizza.

    (1) After years of vegetarianism, you have mixed feeling about pepperoni. Tastes good, but having pig in your mouth is disturbing.

    (2) Despite being a vegetarian, you find meat tempting. To maintain the discipline of not eating it, you must be consistent about not eating it.

    (3) You enjoy the sense of living within a set of rules more than you'd enjoy pizza with pepperoni.

    As for oysters, the above considerations could apply, even though there is no ethical reason to adopt a "no oysters" rule.

    (1) Feeling of eating an animal might be disturbing to someone who never eats animals.

    (2) Enjoyment of oysters could trigger desire for other more problematic "seafood".

    (3) There's enjoyment to be had in staying with a simple set of rules.

    There are lots of factors that go into the rules we live by and the choices we make...it's not nearly as simple as you're making it out to be.

  38. Not to upset any vegetarians or vegans, but opting out of eating animal product seems to be a rather passive form of activism.

    Another heuristic that comes to mind is that of identity or self-concept. People who perceive themselves as belonging to a group (due to certain past experiences, interests, values, goals, attributes, etc.) feel the need to be authentic--to act in accord with their self-awareness, especially in public! The rational error that you observed, Julia, ironically seems to be the individual's attempt to be self-consistent!

    And my judgement that avoiding eating animals is a passive form of activism...that's an example of an authenticity judgement. Heuristics, indeed! We hold each other accountable to our identity claims. Ethics is inextricably linked to our social nature.

  39. @Attachment

    "Not to upset any vegetarians or vegans, but opting out of eating animal product seems to be a rather passive form of activism."

    Actually, I agree -- assuming it's even a form of activism, which perhaps it's not.

    But, as someone who is against animal exploitation, I see veganism (or the best one can manage in one's situation, which is really all any of us can do) as a moral minimum because unless you are vegan or trying to be vegan as best as you can, you are intentionally choosing to exploit animals or have them exploited for your benefit.

    Otherwise, imho, it's like a slave holder who, enjoying the benefits of their own slaves, campaigns for others to set theirs free. It's a bit hypocritical and most people can see right through that sort of thing. And, indeed, many "animal rights activists" do seem very hypocritical to me as so many aren't even vegetarian, let alone vegan. I don't see how it makes much sense to campaign against fur, but continue to buy leather -- or buy dolphin-safe tuna. But then some people do value certain animals much more than others, maybe because they're cuter. And some people think that labels like "cage-free" make some big difference that makes eating eggs right when eating battery cage eggs was wrong to them.

    In any case, since I can be vegan (i.e. I'm not going to starve or go naked being vegan), I see it as the least I should do. But it is hard to stop there. Many vegans do get involved in other forms of activism. Even just being a vegan does tend to lead to a sort of grass roots activism of encouraging others to go vegan. I've never considered myself very "evangelical" before, and had intended to keep rather quiet about my veganism at first, but when you sit down to dinner with family with just a few things on your plate that you brought or when you're out with friends and ask the waiter for the vegan "cheese" no-butter in the crust pizza, well, then you're assured to be asked A LOT of questions -- no matter how much you'd rather just sit and eat. And they're always the same questions (and bumper sticker style jokes).

    But, without even really trying to, I have gotten some people thinking about veganism. A former hunter friend of mine has since gone vegan and stuck with it, I think a cousin of mine is seriously thinking about it, another cousin of mine is planning to go vegan when she moves out on her own. And even just one person going vegan does a lot more, imho, than a campaign to increase the size of veal cages. So, there's the activism.

  40. A couple of people have justified veganism as a way of avoiding exploiting animals. An open question to those folks: do you not believe that at some point, raising cows for milk (for example) ceases to be exploitation and becomes something more akin to equitable employment or "fair trade"?

    It seems to me that if cows are living under good conditions, and they aren't being killed, then their lives aren't that different from the lives of many human workers.

  41. @Scott


    The cows are property. They cannot choose to work or not. They cannot choose where they live or what happens to either to themselves or their offspring. It is far closer to slavery than fair trade employment.

    As for how cows are actually treated, I don't see how vegetarians who say they are vegetarians to reduce animal exploitation can justify drinking milk. Even in organic/free range/grass-fed farms, cows are artificially inseminated (i.e. forced to become pregnant), then the newborn calves are taken away from their grieving mothers to become veal -- which leaves the milk intended for them available for human consumption. This process is repeated when milk production slows for several years and then the cow is killed, well before her golden years. There is no such thing as cruelty-free milk. And I assure you, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what happens to the cruelty of cow farming.

    There is no good reason to drink milk as adults and from other animals, other than taste (though I don't think that's really a good reason). Even if you like the taste, there is a variety of plant-based milks that make good substitutes. All the nutrients in it are available from other sources, and often much healthier sources. We are the only species that drinks the milk of another species (except when we feed it to other species). Most non-Caucasians are lactose intolerant and many cultures globally do not have a history of eating/drinking dairy products yet are still here. Yet, due to marketing crap like "Got milk?" and the USDA food pyramid, many people seem to think that drinking milk is an absolute necessity.

  42. Dofang Birdcell makes a good point about the Soylent green sandwich, even if jokingly.

    While only some of us think eating animals is wrong, surely nobody thinks eating humans is right.

    So then, imagine a scenario where you are served a pizza with human meat on it by accident. Would you proceed to eat it since otherwise it would go to waste anyway?

    If so, then your argument about vegetarians only works because you already assume an ethical distinction between animals and humans to begin with.

    If you wouldn't eat the human pizza, you would probably give the same reasons for not doing so as would a vegetarian who rejects the pepperoni.

  43. I really enjoyed many of the comments on the this post. I also tend to believe that the eating of meat is a better illustration of the limits of heurisitics than vegetarianism.

    “how are the animals any better off if their meat gets thrown in the trash instead of eaten by my friend?”
    There are many good reasons already highlighted why it would be rational of your friend to throw the meat away.
    Many vegetarians are faced with the problem that they have to explain time and again in a restaurant that being vegetarian means not being served meat. During Eastern dinner I was at a family dinner, and the appetizer was a plat consisting of many different small dishes, one of them being foie gras. I just felt repulsed or disgusted when I noticed this on my plate. So I demanded the waitress to serve me a new plate without foie gras. (knowing very well that they probably just removed it in the kitchen and served the same plate). However we have a kind of habit with the family of going twice a year to this place, so I have good reasons to stress to the cook that I don’t like to be served this dish. Making my point is a way of avoiding that the cook would be sloppy and serve me this dish every time. In addition, since I’m a vegetarian in 99% of the cases the sight and the smell of meat has become really disgusting. Before I made the decision I really liked all kind of meat. Overtime I have developed this aversion for meat, which is quit typical for ethical vegetarians as Marc D. Hausser points out in Moral Minds. Some people even believe that young children first have to ‘de-learn’ their aversion of meat before they start to like it. I also believe that the argument the damage is already done (the animal already suffered) so now you can just enjoy the fruit of this ‘cruelty’, and if you don’t than you would spoil the act of cruelty which would be worse is quit erroneous. For most vegetarians, as pointed out, the meat is not considered as an option for food. Beside the nausea (which is explained as overgeneralization if I understand correctly); the idea of wanting to remain ‘pure’ is presented in your blog almost like a ridiculous position. In one of the last posts the comparison with human meat is already presented. Why do people not eat human meat? The main reason will not be a ‘rational’ reason, but an instinctive feeling of aversion, the taboo triggers the instant rejection that most people would feel. Most people would think it is very strange that one say ‘stop I have to find a good argument in not eating this human being, I have to rethink my first principles and see if the deduction to come to my deciscion is the right one in this case’. Because imagine that human eat would prove to be a delicious meal, that would prove to be feast for the senses, should we be (or should we allow ourselves) to eat a little kid. Than we would find many reasons not do it. One is the deontological argument that we should not consider another human (sentient) being as a mere means, but should always have in mind that they are also an end. What also strike me as quit peculiar in your post is that you state that “And not-eating-animals is a fine heuristic in general if you want to avoid causing pain, because, almost without exception, animals do feel pain.” If I complete your sentence, most animals that have been raised in modern industrial meat-industry are very likely to suffer. It has always struck me that my friends, or other people, state that they acknowledge this fact, in addition they also believe this suffering is wrong; but at the same time they find all kind of ‘rational explanations’ to continue eating meat…. So perhaps the heuristics ‘eating meat is good for me, and it is very tasty’ is the rules of thumb that does not lead to the best outcome, indeed it is not because one has the habit of doing it , that it doesn't mean we can't do better .... at least if we don’t want to cause or be complicit in avoidable suffering…

  44. You're making a lot of (I think incorrect) assumptions about where the ethical stand in vegetarianism is.

    I'll let you in on a little secret. Your friend didn't eat the pepperoni despite your clever objections because, to a vegetarian, it is wrong to eat meat.

    That is, you seem to assume that the ethics of vegetarianism are dependent on the forbearance of the vegetarian directly preventing the suffering of an animal. But that is not the case.

    Consider a Smith/Jones argument: Smith loves the taste of meat, but is a vegetarian for ethical reasons. Jones detests meat, but has no ethical qualms about the suffering of animals.

    It seems pretty obvious that Smith, when he chooses not to eat meat, is making an ethical choice -- he is overriding his immediate desire to eat meat with a value judgment -- that it is wrong to eat meat. Jones is making a choice by not eating meat, but it is simply a choice to indulge (or rather, not insult) his desires.

    Note that the outcome for any particular animal doesn't factor in. This is important, in fact, because in almost any modern setting, Smith could make the following argument to himself:

    "This hamburger is already cooked. The meat was already processed; the cow probably slaughtered a few weeks ago. Eating this hamburger now would not directly induce suffering in any particular animal, and so I am not ethically obligated to avoid eating this hamburger."

    But if he did so, he would be missing the entire point of vegetarianism. As you did with this post. Vegetarianism is NOT an attempt to prevent the suffering of particular animals. It is a protest against a systematic cause of animal suffering.

  45. Here's an example I've given elsewhere. Few of us would think it acceptable to join a gang of racist bullies even if the gang's activities (throwing rocks through windows at night, taunting children on their way to school) would provide us with excitement and we were convinced that our participation or abstention would not affect the number or severity of the incidents. Similarly, whether or not I believe that my eating meat -- meat in general or this bit of pepperoni -- will have any direct effect on the treatment of animals, I ought not to do it, because eating meat displays a disregard for their suffering and death and so is not the sort of thing that a virtuous person would do. ("Virtuous" does not mean smug or holier-than-thou; it means having the right traits of character.)

    Further, virtuous behaviour in this matter may have an effect on other people, whose example will in turn influence others and thus in the long run have some real effect on animal welfare. The main point, though, is that, unless compelling special reasons dictate otherwise, the virtuous person will neither join the gang of racist bullies nor eat the pepperoni.

  46. Meg,

    "They cannot choose where they live or what happens to either to themselves or their offspring.... There is no such thing as cruelty-free milk."

    Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. I'm not talking about any current farming practices, which I am quite aware are often brutal. I'm speaking entirely hypothetically.

    To address your above comment about choice, what if you didn't fence in your farm, and just let cows go if they wanted to? And what if there were ways to induce lactation without forcing the cows to calve?

  47. Scott,

    You might as well be talking about milking unicorns if you're going to be that hypothetical.

    But, for the sake of argument, just how would we induce lactation and obtain that milk without treating cows as property and exploiting them? Please clarify how that would ever be possible, even hypothetically.

    But, really, why even try? There's an easy solution already: don't drink/eat dairy products. It's really not that hard.

  48. Hey everyone, thanks for all the intelligent comments! I've gone through them all and I'm going to respond to the main themes one by one:

    1. "You're missing the point -- to a vegetarian, eating meat is disgusting/inedible." (Shawn, T Ryan Gregory, Michael, ttahko, Jean Kazez)
    My argument is explicitly only about vegetarians who would enjoy eating the meat (such as my friend, in the example I gave) but who are refraining for so-called ethical reasons. If someone is avoiding meat because they have no desire to eat it, fine -- that's not what my post is talking about.

    2. "Vegetarians should send accidental meat back to the kitchen in order to make the restaurant pay for their mistake, so the chef will be more careful in the future." (rabbit, Meg)
    I agree, this is a good point, at least if you're in a restaurant. If you're at home, I guess the best thing to do is call the restaurant and ask them for a pepperoni-less replacement, but still eat the original pizza if you want to (unless they ask for it back, which is unlikely).

    3. "What about more extreme examples of taking advantage of harm that's already done -- wouldn't it be wrong to eat the pizza if it had human flesh on it, or to take advantage of scientific research performed by Nazis?" (BaldApe, Edwardson, Dofang Birdcell, Nusse)
    No, I don't think there's anything wrong with either of those hypothetical actions, unless you had some reason to believe that eating the human-pizza or using the Nazi-research would somehow incentivize future human-slaughter. Of course, I still wouldn't eat the human-pizza because I would find it pretty disgusting, but that's an aesthetic judgment, not a moral one.

    4. "It might still be better to refuse the meat if that helps you maintain your willpower, making it easier for you to pass up meat the rest of the time when it actually does make a difference." (The Uncredible Hallq, Jean Kazez, Charles Sullivan, Chuck, KenG)
    Yeah, I think this is the best rebuttal to my argument. I do suspect that most vegetarians still see such meat-eating as directly immoral, though, not just indirectly because of its effect on your willpower. But if maintaining-willpower really is the reason they're forgoing the accidental meat, then I agree that's a totally rational reason.
    One more note: being able to eat meat occasionally (i.e., when it would otherwise go to waste) might actually make it easier for some people to stick to their vegetarianism the rest of the time. Probably depends on the person.

    5. "It's not always easy to explain to people why you are making an exception to your rule, and you might have more of an influence on others if you don't make any exceptions, even justified ones." (The Uncredible Hallq, Jonathan, Scott)
    Good point. I think I had a hard time seeing that point of view because when I witness someone adhering dogmatically to a rule, that makes me LESS likely to be swayed by them, not more. But I might be in the minority.

    6. "This situation is no different from any other case of buying meat -- you can always just say 'the animal's already dead, so what's the harm?'" (Scott, Whateverman)
    I disagree. If you buy meat from a store or restaurant, sure the animal's already dead, but by purchasing the meat you're sending a signal to the store/restaurant about how much meat they should order next time, which results in more animals being raised by farms in the future. Whereas in the case of the accidental pepperoni pizza, whether you eat the pepperoni or throw it away has no effect on future production of pepperoni.

  49. Late to the party but...

    I think Frikle summarized what I think are salient points. If one thinks about this issue in terms of incentives, it is arguable that refusing meals containing meat provides an incentive for the restaurant not to provide the wrong meal (a wasted pizza and possibly lost business) and a negative incentive for a person to attend a restaurant that serves the wrong food too often (the person has to wait even longer for the 2nd meal).

    Finally, I think it also removes an incentive for the vegetarian to go to error-prone restaurants to pick up illicit meat.

    I think it can be cogently argued that if vegetarians follow the strategy of opportunistically eating any meat when it otherwise would have gone to "waste", this could in principle increase the demand for meat and result in more animal deaths. In the context of the longer picture outside of purely local cost-benefit analyses, it seems clear to me that choosing to eat the meat pizza is a rational exception to an imperfect heuristic only if you view the impact of the incentives discussed above to be negligible. Otherwise, it is just as likely to be irrational as not eating the pizza until you collect data on tradeoff between waste and incentives.

  50. Meg,

    I'm not attacking you. Is it really necessary to respond so dismissively?

    As far as being hypothetical--this is a blog about philosophy, after all. But moreover, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask whether some kind of animal farming practices could in principle meet very high ethical standards. The alternative is getting everyone in the world to go vegan, which I just don't think will happen. So I think we're ethically bound to explore the possibility of reducing harm to farm animals in other ways.

    Finally, you ask how one could obtain milk "without treating cows as property and exploiting them"? I think I've already tried to explain that. If you allow cows to leave without trying to recover, them then you aren't treating them as property. If they stay, they stay voluntarily; and if they stay on your land, you milk them.

    I'm assuming that even cows have enough intelligence to avoid a location where they have been poorly treated; perhaps that assumption doesn't hold. But if it does, do you still see a problem with the scenario?

  51. Hi Julia,

    "by purchasing the meat you're sending a signal to the store/restaurant about how much meat they should order next time"

    I think this is true in a schematic way. But as I said in my post, I don't think that one person's choice not to order pepperoni will effect the restaurant's choices significantly; and I think it's progressively less likely that these effects will travel up the supply chain. The goal should be to get many people to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption, not simply to do less harm as an individual.

  52. Scott,

    And I'm not attacking you. I truly believe that what you're talking about is nothing more than a fantasy. Hence why I do dismiss it as such.

    Again, how are you going to induce lactation on cows without exploiting them and get them to come to you to submit to lactation, again without exploiting them? Have you or anyone else had luck with this with wild animals?

    And wouldn't it be exploitation the moment you start taking it's milk? How does a cow consent to giving it's milk to another species? Even in the "nicest" farms, the cows come to the lactation facilities not because they are feeling altruistic about giving their milk away to humans but rather to relieve the pain in their full udders -- which wouldn't be there if their calves were present to receive the milk -- and because they're often fed there. If you induced lactation somehow without calves, at best you'd be relieving the pain you caused, and sucking the nutrients out of the animal. That sounds very exploitative to me.

    I don't believe that the world will ever be entirely vegan. Nor do I believe that it will be entirely non-racist or non-sexist. We've yet to even eliminate human slavery! But that doesn't mean that we should promote or just accept anything less. The only way to end animal exploitation will be through veganism because that is by definition what veganism is about, being against animal exploitation and avoiding it as much as possible and practical.

    And personally, I'd rather see more people go vegan than waste time actively exploiting animals to see if they can do it just a little bit better some how so they can feel better about exploiting animals because it's not quite as bad as what was before.

  53. P.S. That an animal stays on one's property does not mean that they consent to be used to produce food for you. It's a non sequitur.

    And again, since we're talking logic, how does one use another being without their consent -- which they cannot give, whether for inability to communicate or understand what's being asked -- without it being exploitation by definition? That is why I see your hypothetical as logically impossible. Hope that clarifies things.

  54. Hi Meg,

    Yes, that last post does clarify things. I suppose I'm trying to understand what constitutes "exploitation" in this context. And although I think my claim that cows staying on property might constitute consent is debatable, I don't think it's a non-sequitur.

    "Have you or anyone else had luck with this with wild animals?"

    But cattle are not wild animals. What's your reasoning here? I feel like there are a lot of unstated assumptions that are preventing us from communicating.

    "But that doesn't mean that we should promote or just accept anything less."

    Unfortunately, this is one place where we disagree. I think it's unethical to refuse to compromise in the short term if compromise will significantly reduce harm.

  55. Domestication of animals is a form of exploitation. Hence the question about wild animals. To not exploit cows, we'd have to find some way to undomesticate them, else they would be dependent on us (a dependency that our ancestors created through selective breeding for traits that benefited humans much more than the animals, as well as taking the animals out of their natural habitats).

    To clarify exploitation, as I use it in this context: to use someone for your own purposes without their consent. At least, that's the gist of it. I don't want to get too caught up in the definition, but I think that should suffice. I don't believe that animals can consent to be used, particularly ones that have been brought up in a domesticated setting and don't really have another choice. I think domestication of animals is wrong, though I do believe that we have a responsibility to take care of the animals already here, so long as we don't produce more domesticated animals.

    As far as "compromise" goes... certainly *some* things are a step in the right direction, such as less animal use overall since I don't expect to see the world go vegan tomorrow or probably ever (I don't expect a perfect world, I just try to work towards one).

    However, I don't see how advocating compromise is helpful. I would be thrilled to see a 50% reduction in rapes and murders, but I would not tell a rapist or murderer, "Just do it half as much and I'll be happy, mmmmkay?"

    Also, I think a lot of animal "welfarists" seem to misunderstand what veganism is about and what we vegans want. Ideally, we want to see an end to animal exploitation because the central idea to veganism is that animal exploitation is wrong (no, it's not what they talk about in those trendy "vegan" diet books, but I'm talking about actual veganism here). It's not about free range eggs or "happy meat". In fact, such things do little for the animals who are still exploited but are often great for those in the business because they can charge much higher prices with little extra expense (in fact, many more "humane" practices, actually save the companies money which is why they may fuss a little for show but are actually happy to adopt such practices). And people will pay much more to feel like they're doing their part to help animals while still directly contributing to animal exploitation when they could instead save their money and choose to avoid such products as much as possible.

    (I might add, they also make so-called "animal rights" groups like PETA and HSUS a lot of money in donations because many people would rather donate to their "causes" to do away with battery cages for chickens then just give up eggs. And PETA et al. and animal businesses, for all their talk about hating each other, do more good for each other. No wonder PETA gives slaughterhouses awards!)

    Such compromises do not significantly reduce harm. They make people feel better about doing harm and make other people lots of money doing harm. And I believe that your hypothetical about cows is along those same lines.

    Anyhow, I hope that clarifies.

    If you're interested in more info about the logic of behind veganism, Gary L. Francione does a good job on his blog: http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/

  56. In case anyone is still wonder how it can rational to pick off the pepperoni, there is an excellent post over at commonsenseatheism.com that explains it.

  57. Hi Meg,

    Well, my hypothetical about cows isn't designed to make people feel better about doing harm. It's designed to probe the boundaries of consent and exploitation in the context of a philosophical discussion.

    What I take from your last post is that from your perspective, any discussion of the treatment of domesticated animals is irrelevant, because what matters is consent, and all animals are positively incapable of giving consent.

    If you take issue with this slide from domesticated animals to all animals, then you have to explain why the process of domestication itself cannot have been consensual.

    To answer your question about compromise, I have to counter by saying that rape and murder are not institutionalized behaviors practiced by the majority of Americans(*). So the analogy you're drawing is a false one.

    * (Unless you count military violence; but that also proves my point, since the US won't be abolishing its military any time soon.)

  58. (Disclaimer: thinking out loud)

    As someone who is not a vegan but is striving to make conscientious decisions about what I eat, I do side with Meg on this issue with the backbone message being that moral responsibility lies with those who have more choices in what they can consume; "I don't eat meat because I can but don't have to."

    That said, I am also not sure if veganism is necessarily *the* answer. That is to say, although the moral position may be one we can all agree with in principal, I am not sure I would want everyone in the world to be a vegan.

    The domestication of animals I think has created a pretty slippery slope for the species involved. The cow, the chicken, the pig... what would happen to them if we were to stop eating them or managing them? Send them scott-free, out on their own, letting them be as they will? What happens to our industries and economies? Working people (who may themselves be vegan as many are driven away by some of the fowl jobs they do)? Trade relations? Ok, politics and economic issues are secondary, but what about ecological factors? No doubt we'd see a rise in predatory populations - if that happens, do we 'control' these populations for the sake of the cow? Do we instead invest and spend resources in maintaining and protecting these species (keeping a bear or a mountain lion from a fair meal?)- controlling where they have to be, what they can eat, etc? There are also other ecological questions worth considering in between, not to mention political/economical decisions that would need to be made (in this god-forsken political climate of ours where we're having trouble making policy for global warming).

    If we can even at least somewhat agree about the potential consequences - foreseen and unforeseen - in this scenario, I would also ask you to consider the potential consequences of 'universal veganism'. We would all have the moral high-ground, sure, but I wonder what ecological problems (unintended consequences) we would face if mans' impact was herbivorous in nature, rather than omnivorous (not to mention those annoying political and economic factors that can cause things like conflicts over resources - domestic and foreign).

    I think these are the types of hypotheticals worth thinking about. Simply saying x is bad because it makes something suffer isn't enough - there are a laundry list of things connected to making that animal suffer, not just you eating it.

    I am more thinking aloud here, as I forewarned, rather than trying to make an argument or rebuttal and in no way am I trying to justify animal suffering or exploitation - I'm only trying to consider that perhaps what is moral isn't always necessarily 'good' (or feasible, for that matter).

    In the mean time, all I can do is what is in my control, like perhaps the best thing to do is eat the 20 bucks, give the pizza to someone in need, who doesn't have my choices, and eat something else. The dilemma still exists, but i can help to try serve the best scenario.

  59. @scott

    Part II

    But while I know that many people will never see animals as anything but property, I think a lot more people do see a problem with animal exploitation but are so surrounded by it that they have an easier time condemning the exploitation of other's, whether it's the outrage over Michael Vick's dog fighting or bull fights or the animal sacrifices of some minority religion or other cultures eating animals we consider pets or seal hunts. That, to me, seems very illogical and hypocritical unless we are truly to value some lives more than others because we think they're cute. But I have hope that many of those people will decide to extend their consideration to less cute animals. I know I have and many others have, so it's not just a fantasy even if I have no delusions that we'll ever have a 100% vegan world.


    In case I don't get/take the chance to say it later, I would like to say a sincere thank you to Scott and others here for a really good discussion. These types of discussions have a way of going downhill fast and I appreciate the quality of argument here as well as the respectful tone that has been maintained on what I know from experience to be very hot topics. It's quite refreshing.

  60. @scott

    I don't believe an analogy is false. There are always difference in analogies by virtue of being analogies. But I don't believe that something being legal and normal makes it any less wrong morally. If murder and rape were legalized and normal, I would continue to see them as wrong, even. Therefore, I don't see how the practices being "institutionalized behaviors..." is very relevant, except to show how very far we have to go.

    "...you have to explain why the process of domestication itself cannot have been consensual."

    Nope. Imho, the burden of proof is on those taking others' stuff and killing them to prove it's "consensual".

    Do you believe that humans can consent for their offspring and their offspring's offspring to be someone else's property? I know some do, but do you accept that idea? If not, then it wouldn't even matter if some ancient cow who could somehow understand human language and their situation and what was being asked and could express that consent without doubt did so.

    And that is what it would take for me to believe that some animal consented. To truly consent, imho, one must have a reasonably informed choice made without duress. Those without choice cannot consent. Those who cannot understand what they're consenting to can't. Those who are under duress can't. Those who cannot make their wishes known can't. (If you have another belief about what it means to consent, please feel free to share. I think we both recognize that words have different meanings for others.)

    This, I might add, is why we don't let off child molesters because "Well, the 10 year old child" consented -- because at that age we don't believe that children truly understand what they are consenting to. And if a 10 year old child cannot consent to be used for another's pleasure, how can another animal with less ability to communicate?

    Of course we do make decisions for others who cannot consent. Parents/guardians consent to certain things on behalf of their children, for example. But there is a limit to what they can consent to. They can't (in the U.S.) legally consent for their child to be killed or raped. That is because the child has rights. The child is not the property of the guardian. Neither are the severely disabled the property of their guardians. And, while it does not work out perfectly, the general idea is that the guardians in both cases are supposed to do what is in the best interest of their charge.

    That is not the case with animals. Legally, they are property. But just as I believe that humans should not be slaves/property, I don't believe that animals should be either. That is what vegans generally mean by "animal rights".

    Of course, I understand that some people disagree with that. People have disagreed with similar ideas about other groups throughout history, and with much the same arguments. But, personally, I do see it as wrong. It's no more necessary than human slavery. It causes pain and suffering to billions and billions of sentient creatures every year. And most of it is simply for pleasure, whether it is taste, fashion, or entertainment. I think that's very wrong, but I understand that what is "right" or "wrong" is perhaps ultimately a matter of opinion.

    (Will continue this in another post. Apologies for the length.)

  61. @Darek

    HYPOTHETICALLY, if overnight universal veganism happened, imho, the best thing would be to let the domesticated animals we have live out their lives in animal sanctuaries or similar arrangements and we'd stop breeding more. It's not perfect, but even returning wild animals to the wild after captivity is often very, very difficult.

    Universal veganism is probably a fantasty, but maybe eventually veganism will be something that is considered normal. I think that would happen gradually. In that case, we wouldn't have the problem of billions of animals suddenly needing homes. More likely, over time fewer are bred as there is less and less demand. Of course, some animals will be killed if demand drops off suddenly, but that is already being done as demand drops in some places for a variety of reasons. And, of course, the animals would most likely be killed anyhow. I don't say that to excuse it. I think both types of killing are wrong. But I think that if we focus on reducing demand we will reduce the number of domesticated animals bred and that will be a very good thing.

    As far as predators, predatory animals are already killed when they attack farm animals, and often as a preventative measure. With fewer domesticated animals, though, I see less need to kill other wild animals as they generally do not attack humans. (And I am content to let other animals do what they do in the wild with each other.)

    Economically... Sure, some people would be out of jobs initially, but that happens all the time as businesses change. And, for the most part, people get by. There is a great story in John Robbin's Food Revolution about a seemingly brutal pig farmer who finally admitted to himself that what he was doing was wrong because he believed that the pigs DID deserve better. He then started farming vegetables and even opened a pig sanctuary and is now doing better financially. In any case, I don't think that such things should hold back progress. Despite initial protests from slave owners for economic reasons (among others), the U.S. and many other countries now outlaw slavery -- and the world didn't end. Though, of course, I'd certainly prefer to see things change more peacefully than they did with the U.S. Civil War.

    Environmentally, the good would FAR outweigh any potential bad. The lower one eats on the food chain, the more efficient one's diet tends to be in terms of the use of resources such as land, water, energy, etc. Much of the pollution problems we're facing come from animal agriculture which is, on the whole, extremely wasteful. Even "green" grass-fed beef isn't without ecological problems, including being fairly land-intensive.

    For some more info on the ecological problems, as well as others, of animal agriculture, I highly recommend John Robbin's Diet for a New America. He does a good job of covering many different topics in that book and it is very well-written and researched, imho.

    Also, for those who are more interested in the problems of animal exploitation and are willing to "take the red pill", I recommend Earthlings. It's available online for free at: http://freedocumentaries.org/int.php?filmID=119
    I won't lie, it is graphic and hard to watch. But I hope that people will choose to see the consequences of their everyday choices so that they can ask for themselves, "Am I o.k. with being a part of this?" For my husband and I both, the answer was a very clear, "No!" And that is a big part of what led us to become vegan since, even though we initially thought that we could raise "cruelty-free eggs" or buy "humanely slaughtered meat", we finally realized those things were oxymorons and the much better -- and cheaper! -- answer for us was to consciously decide to do our best, as much as practical and possible, to live without exploiting animals.

  62. Julia: You say in your post that it would be a waste to not eat the pepperoni because the restaurant already have been paid. But is it really more waste to leave the pepperoni then to eat it?
    Say that you put it on a compost and then grow vegetables from the soil or made bio-gas from it. (I am aware about the minute volumes but just as a thought experiment)
    Also considering what it gives you (the body) when you eat pepperoni. We hardly need the extra fat, not even the proteins from it, many, not to say most, already eat to much of that.
    According to a lot of medical research the processed meat is not so healthy either.

    So, would it actually not be less of a waste and more ethically to not eat the pepperoni? If you instead throw it on a compost for example.


  63. Meg,

    It seems you did get my underlying point (I think) with regard to animal domestication - that is, all things considered, these species are, in a way, already extinct. Kept alive for our needs/wants - even if we weren't eating them, we'd have to help sustain them.

    Veganism can mainly spread in areas where choices of food are plenty. I can't see people likely to turn down fish in certain parts of the world where thats a staple.

    Economically... Sure, some people would be out of jobs initially, but that happens all the time as businesses change.

    Businesses change, but industries not so much. There is an awful lot of money in animal farms and frankly, we live in a world where people will choose whats most often cheapest, and if prices have to go down to keep people buying - decisions will be made not with peoples' morals, but with their money. Also - people will get by? There seems to be a 'two wrongs making a right' thing going on here. Veganism may have to cause people to suffer (lose jobs), but its ok because animals have suffered... and we'll just have to deal with the changes because people can (presumably) get by... All this is easier imagined than practiced. Just look a the issues related to energy use in the US.

    Re: environment. No doubt we'd have better things going on from what we see today. What I was getting at is if we turn the human population to centralize its consumption to align with veganism, what consequences would that entail? Surely you don't think it wouldn't come without its own costs and problems? I mean, current crop yields are focused on a population that is omnivorous - would they maintain herbivores? If not, that requires more land, more land can require forests to be knocked down. What of things like pesticide use? Its effects. Contamination, etc..

    I'm not simply trying to play devils advocate here. I'm just trying to suggest that if on the one hand, it costs me more to maintain a vegan diet (which on the whole, it does) than to buy 2 medium pizzas for 10 bucks... people aren't going to care about the origins of pepporoni. This is where we should focus the conversation. The moral argument is won, frankly.

  64. @Darek

    Yes, some remote areas are not suited for traditional plant agriculture. However, many of those areas already import a lot of their food and other crops are already sometimes are grown with the use of technology such as indoor hydroponics, etc. It does use energy, but then so does fishing. And whichever is more environmentally friendly isn't really the most important issue for me (though again, globally, veganism would be much better for the environment).

    No, two wrongs don't make a right. But every choice is going to have negative and positive consequences. We must, therefore, weight them. I'd rather see some people have to change their jobs than see billions and billions of animals exploited, harmed, and killed. People can get new jobs. It happens all the time. Most people won't have the same job their entire life. I haven't, but I don't believe I suffer greatly for it. But you can't give an animal back it's life.

    But again, the more realistic expectation is that the world would veganize gradually and many people would simply not go into the business to begin with. As it is, many are getting out for other reasons, much of it having to do with costs.

    And that's another point. Meat, because it is such an inefficient use of resources, has not normally been so cheap. In many places in the world it is still considered a luxury. In the U.S., we take cheap meat for granted and see veganism as elitist. In other times and places, meat is the elitist choice. That is in large part due to government subsidies at various stages in production here. I would love to see those subsidies either 1. give back to the taxpayers directly or 2. go to buying fruits and vegetables. Nevertheless, even despite subsidies, it is VERY possible to eat as cheap a diet when vegan or an even cheaper diet -- so long as one doesn't live in a food dessert or depend on charity handouts. Most people could eat cheaper as vegans. My husband and I have definitely seen our grocery bill go down. But if one is used to eating out a lot and eating many t.v. dinners at home, well, yeah you may pay more if you insist on maintaining that lifestyle (which is rarely healthy anyhow). Or, you can learn to cook. (I know, scary thought for some people, I used to be among them .)

    I don't think you're understanding the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Animal agriculture as it is done conventionally takes more land, more pesticides, more energy, more water, etc., plus often antibiotics and hormones. Grass-fed agriculture does a little better with some of that, but it also takes a lot more space (as well as other resources), space which could still usually grow a lot more food in plant form. The bottom line, though, is that before we can eat a cow we have to feed a cow and much of the calories and nutrients are lost in conversion, having been used to keep the cow alive and not made into the final meat products that humans consume. It is much more efficient to use the land to grow plant foods for us instead of filtering the nutrients through another animal.

  65. Hi Meg,

    I'm glad you're taking my contributions in the same spirit I'm offering them.

    I should emphasize that in my last post, I didn't intend to express disagreement with your statements about consent; I was just trying to sum up my understanding of your position.

    My point about domestication was simply that either you're arguing that no animal can ever give consent, or you leave open the possibility of consensual domestication. But at this point it's quite clear that you're arguing the former, so it's not relevant.

    Finally, I'd argue that my point about institutionalization still holds. The fact that these practices are institutionalized does not make them more ethical; I agree with you there. What it does do, however, is make impracticality less ethical in cases when there's a practical partial solution that reduces harm more quickly.

  66. Hi again, Scott!

    "What it does do, however, is make impracticality less ethical in cases when there's a practical partial solution that reduces harm more quickly."

    Well, I think we need to address, then, what is making veganism "impractical", then, because, frankly, I believe that 1. animal exploitation is wrong and is a problem (this is what veganism is about), and 2. the only real solution is to try to avoid it as much as practical and possible (which is what it means to be vegan).

    For starters, is it impractical because people *can't* avoid buying products and doing other things that exploit animals, or because they *won't*, whether because they don't think that animal exploitation is wrong or because they value other things more (pleasure, convenience, etc.).

    I don't think there is a simple answer. Sometimes being vegan can be a real pain in the you know what because we don't live in a perfect world with perfect choices. And people are often misinformed or just ignorant about vegan choices -- even just thinking that vegan food is all iceberg lettuce and tofu.

    But what "practical partial solution that reduces harm more quickly" do you see? What such "solutions" do you see?

    I know that some people do promote stuff like "happy meat", "humanely slaughtered" meat, "cage-free eggs", etc., as a sort of compromise. However, in reality, such so-called solutions do nothing to actually stop animal exploitation itself and even make people feel better about continuing to exploit animals. They rarely even do what is advertised for the animals. As bad as battery cages are, the vast majority of cage-free facilities are arguably about as bad except that the owners can charge much more for the eggs.

    Besides being, imho, a waste of money and other resources, I don't believe that so-called "humane" animal agriculture is practical. The prices are usually much higher and the products are very hard to come by in some areas. These, ironically, are some of the same excuses given for why veganism is supposedly impractical. However, I believe that compared to that, veganism is MUCH more practical AND MUCH, MUCH more powerful in ending animal exploitation.

    But, until prepared vegan options are more widely available, we need to teach people about nutrition and how to cook -- and since we need to do that anyhow, I think this is not so much a problem but rather an opportunity on many levels. If we can do that, we can show people that veganism IS practical wherever people have access to simple plant foods, even cheap stuff like rice and beans. There is a lot of truly wonderful stuff one can do for cheap with rice and beans! Trust me, I know! My husband -- who used to be a committed steak and bacon guy -- now calls me from work to tell me that he's craving rice and beans! And it's been great for our health and our budget, too!

    And also, I do want to stress, that veganism is NOT just about diet, but about ALL forms of animal exploitation. Diet just happens to be probably the most visible act of veganism since people generally don't go around asking "Are those leather shoes?" or "Is there lanolin in your moisturizer?" or "Have you been to the zoo recently?".

  67. Hi Meg,

    "But what "practical partial solution that reduces harm more quickly" do you see? What such "solutions" do you see?"

    This seems to be our sticking point. I don't see any yet; but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist or isn't worth seeking.

    I should also reiterate that I'm not calling veganism impractical. I'm calling trying to get everyone to go vegan impractical. Perhaps I'm wrong.

  68. Think no animals were harmed in the creation of cheese? What happens to the male calves? Think it’s a pleasure for an animal to be harnessed to a milk pump twice a day for years then made into doggy chow? Think no worms, insects, mice, chipmunks, rabbits, birds, and deer were harmed in the clearing and burning of forest, plowing of fields, pesticiding, harvesting, and grinding the flours and tomatoes for that pizza dough?

    This is the real heuristic: I feel like a righteous person because I sacrifice something. I want to keep feeling righteous, and don’t want to admit that I am a fool, so I will continue to cling to my heuristic in spite of any evidence that I am actually no more righteous than other people.

    This is when you will see people dance around on the three pillars of veganism. Prove that they’re not really saving any animals, they will say it’s healthy. Point to the millions of years of healthy carnivorous humans, and they will say they’re saving the planet. Talk about the pollution of monocrop vegetable farming, they will go back to saving the animals. Rinse and repeat.

  69. @jon w

    You seem to misunderstand veganism and are perhaps are mistaking it for other forms of vegetarianism.

    First off, vegans don't eat cheese. We know that it comes from animal exploitation. Vegans are against all forms of animal exploitation (treating animals as property, as things for human use). That includes using animals for food, entertainment, clothing, personal care products, entertainment, etc.

    There are no "three pillars" of veganism. People who think that don't know much about real veganism or they are just bad at arguments.

    *The* pillar of veganism is simply this: animal exploitation is wrong, and therefore we should try our best to avoid contributing to animal exploitation. Now, people can disagree on whether animal exploitation is wrong or not (and some non-vegans believe that certain forms are o.k. but others aren't), but if you're a true vegan (i.e. not just someone eating the vegan diet or a poseur) you believe it is wrong and try to avoid it as much as possible simply because it is wrong. It is not truly about "reducing suffering" or "saving lives" anymore than freeing human slaves is about those things. We all suffer. We are all going to die. It's not a numbers game. But if you believe that animals shouldn't be treated as things and the property of others, then you go vegan -- unless you really don't care much about doing things that you feel are wrong.

    As for the health and environmental stuff...

    These are not reasons. Veganism is not necessarily healthy or good for the environment. It depends how you do it and what you're comparing to. But, on average these are benefits of eating a vegan diet (which is just one small part of veganism), especially when compared to the Standard American Diet.

    The reasons, though, why these things are brought up so much is that:

    1. People think, "Well, if they won't actually go vegan for the sake of ending animal exploitation, maybe they'll at least eat fewer animals for selfish reasons."

    2. It is widely assumed, despite vast evidence to the contrary at this point, that even a well-planned vegan diet is somehow awful for one's health, even deadly. It's not. But yet when my husband switched from eating hamburgers & hot dogs to fruits & veggies and finally got back down to a pretty darn perfect weight we kept hearing from his family how "worried" they now were about his health despite the fact that he is far healthier now on all accounts. So, this is why we reassure them about the health benefits of a vegan diet, though unfortunately they seem to have misunderstood us and now thing that is *why* we are vegan. It is not. But they can't seem to understand that anyone would actually think exploiting animals is wrong and that people would give up steak and cheese to do what we consider to be the right thing.

    3. Likewise, people insist that going vegan is going to have serious environmental impacts when everyone starts eating plants. See discussion above. It's not. But, unfortunately, people don't realize how wasteful animal agriculture is compared to growing plants for direct human consumption.

    As for animals that are unintentionally harmed in agriculture, it's certainly not something that we laugh off. However, our moral responsibility as vegans is to -- as much as possible and practicable -- not directly cause animal exploitation (doing it ourselves intentionally or having others intentionally do it for our benefit). Accidents fall outside of that. So do things that are pretty unavoidable. But that doesn't mean that we should just give up anymore than we should give up on not enslaving and murdering our fellow humans because some get accidentally killed.

    Hope that helped clarify!

    For more info on the logic of veganism, please see http://www.abolitionistapproach.com


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