The only strong argument against vegetarianism

Most thoughtful people I’ve debated vegetarianism with eventually come to the conclusion that it’s the right thing to do. Or they accept the weaker claim that it would be a good thing if they ate less meat. Some people don’t accept either of these things, but that’s usually because they don’t want to think about the issue very much.

I recently thought of one argument against vegetarianism that I haven’t been able to convincingly refute, and which I haven’t seen brought up too often, so I thought I’d write about it here in case anyone else had any thoughts.

To recap the pro vegetarianism case: the reason we care about other humans is that they are sentient and feel pleasure/pain. This same reason applies to animals: like humans, they feel pleasure and pain. The fact that animals are less intelligent than humans does not mean we should assign them zero weight in our utility calculations. Eating animals gives us some utility, but for the animal, the utility of living more is higher than the utility we would get out of eating it. (To put it another way, your desire to eat an animal isn’t a good enough reason to kill it.) Therefore, eating animals is bad and we shouldn’t do it.

Most arguments against vegetarianism aren’t very good. You either have to deny that animals have utility (which clearly violates our moral intuitions), or give a good reason why intelligence makes lives more valuable (difficult, and implies that e.g. killing people with low IQs might be OK), or else just bite the bullet and because a ‘speciesist’ i.e. argue that humans’ needs/wants are more important. This violates the basic principle of impartiality.

So what’s the strong argument? Well, it’s a version of ‘The Repugnant Conclusion’, an argument made by the philosopher Derek Parfit in a different context (population ethics). It goes like this:

Suppose that we have a population ‘A’. ‘A’ has few members, but they’re very happy and live in luxury. Now imagine A has the option to add some people to their population, but their quality is life will be slightly less good. They should take this option, because the value of the additional lives is enormous (existing is better than not existing) and the value of the luxuries A has to give up is tiny by comparison. So population A grows bigger.

Now keep repeating this procedure; each time, there is *some* number of additional people you can add to the population, such that whatever the loss in quality of life, it’s still worth adding that number of people to the population, because the total amount of utility in the world increases. The diagram shows the two scenarios:

So that’s the Repugnant Conclusion: no matter how bad life gets for each individual person, it’s always worth adding more people, even if in the end everyone is living a miserable life and barely subsisting.

How does this apply to vegetarianism? Pretty simple: yes, killing animals to eat them isn’t a tasteful practice. But animals do get some utility out of living. So if we bring into a being a cow that otherwise wouldn’t have been alive, let it live for X years, and then mercifully kill it while it’s sleeping and eat it, that is still better than if the cow hadn’t lived at all: it’s had a happy life, and we had a nice meal after it died as well!

On strict utilitarian terms, this seems hard to argue against. You could argue that the animal’s life is so bad that it’s better for it not to have existed at all: this seems plausible for e.g. chickens raised in factory farms. But ‘The Repugnant Conclusion’ still applies as long as the overall utility-value of the animal’s life was positive. This would imply that e.g. eating ethically-raised meat is perfectly OK.

I haven’t been able to come up to a good response to this that relies solely on utilitarian assumptions; you’d have to resort to the idea that killing is *intrinsically* bad somehow, or other ‘deontological’ (i.e. principles-based, rather than consequences-based) arguments such as the Buddhist exhortation to respect all sentient beings.

Does anybody know a good response?

4 thoughts on “The only strong argument against vegetarianism

  1. I remember writing about this question for a phil class. This is pretty much the logic of the larder argument, and I find it compelling too. You can bolster it by citing a few facts. I want to be provocative with you, so let me state these baldly.

    This could be controversial but one might take the fact that the farmed animals haven’t committed suicide, so ipso facto they prefer life. (Counter-argument is that these animals would prefer death, but aren’t sentient enough to commit suicide, or don’t have the means.)

    Maybe the greatest thing that can happen to a species is to guarantee that they won’t go extinct. Well what if farmed animals have sort of made that bargain, by adapting to be delicious? Cows and chickens will never go extinct as long as the dominant species is around, farming them. Isn’t this ultimately a wonderful thing for certain animals, even if neither they nor their ancestors directly made this choice? If they could choose, shouldn’t we expect certain species to make this tradeoff?

    Wild animals lead lives that usually come to a gory end. Is it obvious that the farmed life is worse? At least some animals killings are carried out painlessly by humans.

    There are others; see article cited below.

    Apologies if you’ve already dealt with any of these. For the record I try to eat meat as little as possible, for various reasons. On the margins I think we should be moving in that direction and also to pay more attention to slaughter.

    But I think that interesting questions abound on this topic! The best defense of the meat-argument I’ve found comes from Robin Hanson, take a look: http://mason.gmu.edu/~rhanson/meat.html. He’s challenged on his blog here: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2013/01/life-on-farms-may-be-worse-than-death.html.

    • Interesting – thanks for the Hanson links, I hadn’t seen that he’d written on this! Hanson is such an awesome thinker.

  2. So, I’ve made more or less this exact argument many times and you’ve called it, correctly I think, a rationalisation rather than a reason (which doesn’t neccessarily make it untrue of course).

    My own take on this argument is that it may well fail because of the fact that human livestock ‘outcompetes’ ‘natural’ life to a massive extent (outcompete is kind of a strange word to use and of course although Cows are bred by humans it is a bit strange to call them unnatural). The amount of land and resources that goes into rearing cattle, sheep e.t.c. definitely appears to cause a decrease in biodiversity (that said, purely intuitive argument).

    Incidentally, although it doesn’t have any impact on your argument, I strongly reject the premise the addition of humans makes the world worse for other humans!

    • Interesting! Yeah I said it *feels* like a rationalisation which seems fair.

      “I strongly reject the premise the addition of humans makes the world worse for other humans” – to be fair, it’s a hypothetical scenario, I don’t think Parfit is making an empirical claim here.

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