Problems with "Eating Animals"

2021-04-21 • 8 min read

Drawing by Viktoriia Shcherbak of cow.

Mindy Isser used to hold the unnuanced opinion that eating animals is wrong and one should not do it. Now she holds the much more nuanced opinion that eating animals is wrong and one should not do it, except sometimes when it’s kinda okay; besides, choosing veganism is far less important than working for systemic change.

I want to make some points related to this article that I think Isser ignores or is unaware of. But first let me say this. There is a lot that I agree with in it. Some obvious examples include: factory farming is a blight upon humanity; people are often inconsistent and hypocritical in which animals they support and how; working conditions in slaughterhouses are terrible; no person is perfect along every moral dimension; and much more. Also, Isser relates having been mostly vegan for over 15 years and that is something that I admire deeply. She is probably a better person than I am. But her piece, I think, is flawed.

She begins by making the case that it is not enough to care about non-human animals, one must also care about humans:

But even beyond the specific tonal failures of some of PETA’s campaigns, animal rights’ activists have often faced criticism for their priorities – in a world with so much suffering, with millions of people hungry and homeless, it can be grating to see people singularly focused on non-humans. […] And yet many of these animal activists have very little to say about the workers in meat processing and packing plants […] This unfortunately includes groups like PETA, who commit a kind of specieism [sic] of their own: not caring about humans.

Now, I am no fan of PETA. It is a lame and crass and probably ineffectual organisation; I think their work pales in comparison to, say, the Humane League or the Good Food Institute. But it was easy for me to find a blog post by PETA advocating for slaughterhouse workers’ rights during the COVID-19 epidemic, another arguing that slaughterhouse workers deserve our sympathy and yet another one deploring the working conditions in several large chicken factories. I found these with a simple internet search for “peta slaughterhouse workers”, which by the way did not turn up anything negative about said workers. I am curious which evidence Isser relies on here, but since she does not cite any I will tentatively suppose that she just didn’t do any research here. Either way, it seems unfair to criticise an organisation for not doing something that isn’t part of its mission. In fact, we are probably better served by organisations that specialise in animal suffering, others that specialise in global health, and others in political advocacy and so on. It is counterproductive to make everyone responsible for everything.

What’s more, she writes, veganism is a kind of consumer ethics, like not buying sweatshop-produced fast fashion:

It would be easy to label [a situation where vegans buy fast fashion] hypocrisy, but it’s really just a function of our society and the globalized industries that help create it. No matter how hard one person may try, our consumer choices rarely fully align with our values.

Having now set the stage, Isser proceeds to what I take to be her main argument: what we need is not individuals choosing veganism; what we need is systemic change. What we need is a system where people aren’t faced with these moral choices every day, for the system will be set up in such a way that clothes are not made in sweatshops and animals don’t suffer needlessly.

To change this, to understand the history of every single living being involved with our ability to clothe and feed ourselves, we need to do a lot more than to just ask people to buy the right stuff.

Individual actions, while powerful in their own right, don’t carry the weight or the power to fundamentally alter the systems which they’re attempting to impact, unless they’re carried out as part of a broader, collective effort. Production of all kinds – including food and livestock – is part of an expansive and intricate globalized economy. Anything short of a massive, international movement that moves a large number of people to adopt a vegan diet and simultaneously brings forward demands on the livestock industry as a whole would be unlikely to have much if any impact on the lives of the animals sent to slaughter, the workers involved in their slaughtering, and the accelerating climate impacts which are intensified by meat consumption and factory farming. In order to effect the kind of change that is needed to address the heinous conditions in factory farms, nothing short of systemic change – that treats humans, animals, and the planet itself as worthy of dignity and respect – will be enough.

Of course it is true that we have limited resources and that we need to allocate those resources well in order to produce the best outcomes. Isser and I have the same goals in mind: we want people and other animals to flourish, to be free and to not have to suffer. But I think she makes a few mistakes here.

First, if you want to effect systemic change, you need some sort of theory of change. Only then do you work backwards from the goals through the proposed chain of causality to the actions that could produce them. But Isser says nothing about what the systems in question are, how they should look like once they have been changed or what actions can be taken to bring that change about. Maybe this is obvious to the audience of Current Affairs, but it is not obvious to me. To me, it is a serious weakness in her argument. Actually, it is a gaping hole where the argument ought to be.

Veganism is different. The theory of change in going vegan is obvious: buying fewer animal products reduces demand, which in turn reduces production, which in turn reduces animal suffering. There – I have stated a proposed chain of causality; you are now free to disagree with it, a courtesy which Isser does not grant her readers.

The second mistake she makes is assuming that veganism is competing against those unspecified actions for bringing about systemic change. It is not clear to me what the limited resources are that we spend both on our diets and on bringing about systemic change, such that we have to choose between the two. In fact, veganism itself contributes to systemic change in several ways, as I have mentioned previously: (1) by buying vegan, you encourage grocery stores and restaurants to offer more vegan options, which in turn may encourage other people to eat vegan food more often; (2) the more people buy vegan, the smaller the meat industry gets and the larger the plant-based food industry gets, meaning that, due to economies of scale, and all else being equal, the price of meat will increase and the price of plant-based foods will fall; and (3) by eating vegan, you can influence friends and family to do the same, for instance by inviting them over for succulent vegan dinners or taking them to high-quality vegan restaurants.

Thirdly, presumably the benefits of systemic change do not come into effect until after the system has been changed. Even if we could use those unspecified means to effect the unspecified change in the unspecified system, when can we expect that to happen? and with what probability? Is it supposed to be change initiated for the benefit of animals exclusively, or is it meant to be part of a larger socialist shift? If the latter is the case, how do we know that utopia will be brought about for animals in it? Socialism is, after all, very much compatible with animal cruelty, as history has shown. More generally, if we are unsure when and whether the proposed systemic change will succeed, focusing energy on concrete, incremental steps that we know work seems like a pretty good option.

I am open to changing my opinion here, but for that to happen, an actual argument beyond “the scale of the problem is huge, therefore individuals cannot have an impact” needs to be made. Which brings me to the final point I want to make, namely that it really is possible to have an impact on animals’ lives as an individual. It is not true that “[a]nything short of a massive, international movement […] would be unlikely to have much if any impact on the lives of the animals sent to slaughter”. Each person’s decision to eat or not to eat meat matters, concretely, for a real animal.

So much for the core of Isser’s argument. The other thing I want to comment on is that, as part of making it, she also mentions a few reasons that veganism, according to her, is not always the absolute moral imperative it is made out to be. The first reason is that veganism involves costs to the person who chooses it:

Food is more than sustenance, more than taste – it’s family, memories, community, ritual, culture. If your family eats meat, choosing to stop eating it is a disruption. Maybe not the biggest disruption in the world, but it’s a change, a small gap between you and the people you love. If it isn’t just your family that eats meat, but your entire community, the gap widens. Vegan activists have often come under fire for oversimplifying how easy it is to become vegan. For many people, giving up meat is not just giving up meat: it’s giving up a connection to the people you love, the rituals you practice, and to everything you may know. […] Many people, myself included sometimes, think it’s okay for animals to die so humans are able to use them for food or other supposed necessities – the circle of life and all that.

There can be social costs to not eating meat. I know this well: I did not have to pay these costs myself, but my wife did have to pay them when she grew up. But, shit, these are all weak and selfish reasons to eat meat. We do not usually think these are good reasons not to do the right thing – to, say, not repudiate racism or gay bashing. Isser admits that it is a small thing. So what point is she trying to make? Does she think these reasons weigh heavily enough that they can render null one’s duty not to kill animals? I am not sure.

Drawing by Viktoriia Shcherbak of seal.

The second reason she mentions is that some non-Western cultures sometimes have relationships with animals that are different from ours, different in such a way that killing and eating animals can be permitted:

Many Indigenous groups, who have historically maintained a different relationship to the land than industrialized societies, have often had a very different understanding of animal rights than most western vegans. Animal rights activists have clashed with Indigenous communities over seal hunting, whale hunting, and sled dog racing (along with the general use of working dogs), believing these practices to be unnecessary and cruel. But the Indigenous communities in question depend on these activities for food and trade, want to maintain their history and traditions, and generally have a completely different perspective on what it means to care for animals. An article in Indian Country Today explains that “policy makers and animal rights activists whose knowledge is based on positivistic reasoning, see animals in a paternalistic manner – as ‘helpless’ creatures that must be protected from the ‘savage and cruel exploits’ of human beings … Meanwhile, Indigenous people such as the Inuit agree that ‘animals also possess rights – the right to refuse Inuit hunters, to be treated with respect, to be hunted and used wisely.’” Yes, animals in these societies are hunted, killed, and eaten, but the relationship between human and animal is seen as reciprocal, another kind of social relationship.

I would like to say, and who wouldn’t, that I am not one of those extremists who see red at the mere mention of an animal being killed for food. If an Inuit needs to hunt seal because there is no other food source within a ten-kilometer radius, or no other source of vitamin D, that is a difficult moral question that philosophers have and are grappling with. But it is a special case. Usually even Indigenous people do not need to kill animals. And precisely because this is a special case, nearly all animal activists – certainly in effective altruism – rightly focus their money and energy on factory farming, a far larger issue and a greater cause of suffering than hunting.

That said, the idea that animals can have the right to be “hunted and used wisely” one of the most misguided things I have heard in a long time. The refutation is right there in the quotation: these activities involve using the animals – using the animals as mere means, without considering what is good for them, and solely to benefit the human who uses them! But I should try to be charitable. I suppose these relationships really are reciprocal, in the sense that humans receive food, skins and labour and the animals receive exertion, pain and death. See, give and take!

No, I think it really is wrong to kill an animal to eat it. I think that using an animal as a mere means is disrespecting that animal, because it involves disregarding what is good for it and preventing it from pursuing its own ends, simply in order to bring about what is good for oneself. That is much worse than paternalism: it is paternalism without even the pretension of acting in the interest of the other party. It is wrong to kill animals needlessly; veganism and vegetarianism are intelligible, familiar, tried-and-tested ways of not doing that, steps which most people in the West can take today, as Mindy Isser admirably did 15 years ago.