Why Veganism isn't Obligatory

I’ve written a bit about animal ethics on this blog, and most of it has been about animal rights. The sorts of rights that seem most plausible to ascribe to animals are negative rights, such as the right not to be unjustly harmed. If animals have rights, they probably have positive rights as well. For example, if you’re cruising around on your new boat with your dog, and you see that your dog fell overboard, it seems like your dog has the right to be rescued by you, assuming that you’re capable without endangering yourself or others. You’re obligated to rescue your dog, assuming that he has rights that can generate obligations for you. So, animals can have both positive and negative rights.

An interesting question that arises when we consider animal rights is if they generate obligations for us to become vegans. I take veganism to be a set of dietary habits that exclude almost all animal products. On my view, vegans can consume animal products in very specific situations. For example, if a vegan comes across a deer that has just died by being hit by a car, it is permissible for her to consume the deer and use its parts for whatever purposes she sees fit. However, circumstances like the dead deer are very rare and it’s doubtful that most vegans can survive off of those sorts of animal products, so most vegans will not consume any animal products. The sorts of vegans who hunt for the sorts of opportunities to consume animal products like in the case of roadkill are called, “freegans”. Other instances of vegan-friendly animal products are things found in the trash and things that have been stolen.

Most vegans would agree that purchasing chickens for your backyard and consuming the eggs they produce is impermissible. If they think animals have rights, then having backyard chickens might seem akin to owning slaves. In both instances, beings with rights are considered the property of people. So, owning chickens is a form of slavery according to this view. I want to challenge this view by using some arguments developed in a recent paper called, “In Defense of Backyard Chickens” by Bob Fischer and Josh Milburn.

Imagine that a person, call her Alice, studied chicken cognition and psychology such that she understood the best way to house chickens according to their needs. She builds the right sort of housing for chickens, she purchases high quality, nutritious feed for her chickens, and she makes sure they are safe from predators and the elements. Alice really cares about animal welfare, so her project is done in the interests of the chickens she plans to buy. She sees herself as giving the chickens a life they deserve in an environment best suited for their welfare. She then goes and buys some chickens and lets them loose in their new home. She tends to their needs and makes sure they’re comfortable. She then collects their eggs they lay and consumes them in various ways. I don’t think Alice done anything wrong, but some vegans may disagree.

To some vegans, it may seem like Alice has built slave quarters for her new egg-producing slaves. However, it seems to me that Alice has liberated the chickens in a way that’s analogous to an abolitionist buying the freedom of an enslaved human. If it’s permissible to buy the freedom of a slave by paying into an unjust institution like the slave-trade, then it seems like the same holds for buying the freedom of chickens. But, you may object, the chickens aren’t free! They’re still enclosed in Alice’s backyard, unable to leave. If you bought the freedom of a human and then put them in a backyard enclosure, we could hardly praise you as a liberator! Well, in the case of humans it’s wrong to force them into backyard enclosures. But that’s because the interests of humans are such that we make humans worse off by forcing them into enclosures in backyards. Humans aren’t the sorts of beings that need restrictions on their movement to guarantee their well-being. If anything, humans need free movement to have a high level of well-being. One of the reasons human slavery is so bad is because of the restriction on the freedom of movement of humans. Humans enjoy being able to go where they want; preventing that is to harm them.

When it comes to chickens, restricting their movement is actually in their interests. If we bought chickens and then just let them loose, they would probably die pretty quickly. Depending on where you release them and what time of the year it is, they could die of exposure or from predation. They could also walk into traffic and die, or they might end up starving because they won’t be able to find adequate nutrition. So, it seems like chicken interests don’t include complete freedom of movement, but rather some level of confinement for protection. Obviously not the level of confinement found in factory farms or even smaller commercial farms, but something that keeps predators and the elements out. So, the analogy between confining chickens and confining humans doesn’t hold, because it is in the interests of chickens and not humans to be confined to some extent.

One objection that might arise is that by buying chickens, Alice feeds into an unjust system that will only be perpetuated by your actions. Fair enough I guess, but it seems like the act of purchasing a few chickens is causally impotent with respect to furthering the unjust system of selling chickens for profit. If Alice didn’t buy those chickens, I doubt the store would have felt it, and the industry at large definitely wouldn’t feel it. The chickens probably would’ve been bought by somebody else, anyway, and they probably wouldn’t have been treated nearly as well as if Alice had bought them. But leaving that aside, this seems like a consequentialist objection. However, we’re in the land of the deontic with all of this rights talk, and it seems like chickens have a right to be rescued from their circumstances. So even if Alice somehow feeds into an unjust system by buying her chickens, that badness is outweighed or overridden by the right to rescue that those chickens have. If anything, Alice has an obligation to buy those chickens, given her ability to provide them with the lives to which they are entitled.

Another objection is that by purchasing chickens, Alice is treating them as property. Even if that’s true, it still seems better for the chickens that they are treated like property by Alice than by somebody less interested in their welfare. The chickens may have a right not to be owned, and perhaps Alice’s relationship to them is one of an owner, but it may still be in their interests to be owned by Alice. Their right not to be owned is outweighed by the potential harm they will experience if they’re bought by anybody else. Alice is their best bet. However, it is unclear that Alice is treating them as property. Another way of looking at this is Alice is buying the freedom of the chickens. They will no longer be the property of others. Instead, they get to live out their lives in the best conditions chickens can have. Now, you might respond by saying that living in Alice’s backyard isn’t true freedom because the chickens’ movement is restricted, but I already dealt with that objection above.

One last objection is that by obtaining and consuming eggs, Alice is illegitimately benefiting from something she’s allowed to do. This objection concedes that Alice can keep backyard chickens as long as she tends to their well-being sufficiently. But, the objection goes, Alice is illegitimately benefiting from her chickens. Perhaps the chickens also have a right to raise families, and by consuming their eggs Alice is depriving them of families. However, Alice could allow the chickens to procreate within limits. Obviously they cannot overpopulate the land they inhabit, because that would cause an overall decrease in well-being. In light of these considerations, Alice cannot allow every egg to result in a new chicken, so it seems like she can remove excess eggs from the chickens’ homes.

Maybe the chickens have property rights over their eggs. By taking the eggs, Alice is effectively stealing from her chickens. It isn’t clear to me that animals have property rights, but maybe they do. Even if the chickens own their eggs, it seems like Alice can collect some of them as a form of rent. There is, then, mutual benefit between Alice and the chickens. Alice gives the chickens a place to live and food, and in return Alice gets some of their eggs. The relationship between Alice and her chickens is closer to people renting a place to live and their landlord than it is to a thief and her victims, or squatters and a landowner.

Could the eggs be used for something more noble than as Alice’s food? Maybe, but it still seems permissible for Alice to eat the eggs. Sure, she could donate them or use them to feed other animals, but it seems like a stretch to say that Alice has an obligation not to consume the eggs and instead give them away. Even if it’s better that she gives them away, she’s still allowed to consume them. There are actions that are permissible even if they aren’t optimal, and Alice consuming the eggs seems to qualify.

If I’m right, and Alice is allowed to consume the eggs she collects, then Alice is not obligated to be a vegan. Eggs are animal products and pretty much every vegan would say that you shouldn’t eat them. So, it seems like veganism is not obligatory. Consuming animal products can sometimes be permissible if they’re obtained in the right way.

This post has been heavily influenced by a recent paper by Bob Fischer and Josh Milburn. Their paper articulated a lot of the thoughts I’ve had about veganism and moral obligations better than I could. Pretty much all of the arguments, objections, and responses draw from their paper. I wrote this post to summarize some of their arguments, and to draw attention to their paper. Bob Fischer is my favorite philosopher working on animal ethics. I recommend all of his stuff.

Check out their paper here.
Check out Bob Fischer’s work here.

A Problem for the New Consequentialism

In a previous post, I outlined a non-deontic form of consequentialism that was supposed to avoid what I called the extension problem. The extension problem plagues deontic consequentialism, which is the view that the rightness, wrongness, permissibility, and impermissibility of actions are determined by their consequences. So, a simple hedonistic act utilitarian will say that there is one categorically binding duty, and that is to maximize pleasure when we act. But such a view suffers from intuitively compelling counterexamples. So it seems like hedonistic act utilitarianism gets the extension of our deontic concepts wrong.

Non-deontic consequentialism is designed to avoid the extension problem, because it defers how those concepts are applied by a society at a given time. By doing so, the theory allows for the extensions of our deontic concepts to pick out what our society takes them to be, which seems to preserve our intuitions about particular cases, like the drifter being killed by a surgeon for his organs. Hedonistic act utilitarianism requires that, if the surgeon is in the epistemic situation where he can rule out negative consequences, and he knows that he can use these organs to save five patients, then he is duty-bound to kill the drifter and harvest the organs. Non-deontic consequentialism avoids this because your typical person who is not a thoroughly committed act utilitarian would not agree that the extension of DUTY covers the surgeon’s organ harvesting endeavor.

An alternative that avoids the extension problem is scalar utilitarianism, which does without deontic concepts like RIGHT and WRONG. Instead, we judge actions as better or worse than available alternatives. The problem with this view is that it just seems obvious that it is wrong to torture puppies for fun. But a scalar utilitarian cannot give an adequate account of what makes that act wrong, so she must explain why it seems so obvious to say that it is wrong to torture puppies, even though it’s false.

Setting aside both of these forms of consequentialism, I want to discuss the non-deontic consequentialism I outlined in my other post. On the view I described, the rightness and wrongness, along with other deontic properties, of actions are a function of the social conventions that obtain at a given time in a given society. The consequentialism comes in at the level of critiquing and improving those social conventions.

Moral progress occurs when we adopt social conventions that are better by consequentialist standards. So, for instance, it used to be a social convention in the United States that we could have property rights over other human beings, and transfer those rights for currency. Those conventions are no longer in place in the United States, and at the time they were, they could have been critiqued by consequentialist standards. Those conventions were not better than available alternatives at the time, so it would have been better not to have the institution of chattel slavery. But these facts about betterness do not determine what is right or wrong. Rather, they should guide efforts to improve social conventions, and thereby change the extensions of our deontic concepts.

This seems all well and good, but I am a bit worried. This view entails that social conventions have normative force, no matter what. So, just because something is a social convention, we thereby have at least some moral reason to abide by it. Take slavery again; such an institution was once enshrined in many social conventions. Does it follow that at the time, everybody had at least some moral reason to abide by the conventions that said we ought to return escaped slaves to their so-called owners? It seems to me that slavery is and always was wrong. There was never a time at which it was right to own another human being. I think that the basis of my concern is that deontic judgments, especially when applied to important things like slavery, are not indexed to times and places. Just because a human being is sold in a marketplace in 1790 Virginia does not change the deontic status of the situation. What exactly is the morally relevant difference between that time period and today? Why is it wrong now to sell another human being but it was not in 1790s Virginia?

One potential response to my worries is to point out that I’m making these judgments from a particular time period when the extension of our deontic concepts rules out slavery being permissible. So, perhaps I find the entailment of this theory appalling because my intuitions are shaped by the extension of the deontic concepts I use. Since 1790s Virginia, we have undergone moral progress, and now it is wrong to own slaves because of the shift in social conventions. It could even be that according to our deontic concepts’ extensions now, it was wrong in the 1790s to buy and sell slaves.

I think these considerations certainly make my concerns less worrisome. But I’m experiencing a residual anxiety. It still seems counterintuitive to say that, if we had grown up in 1790s Virginia, our claims about the rightness and wrongness would be flipped. We would have an inverted moral spectrum when it comes to deontic judgments about slavery. That is what I find counterintuitive. The theory was developed to explicitly address the extension problem, which was that deontic consequentialists seem to get the extensions of our deontic concepts wrong. The reason I think that they get those extensions wrong is because their theories entail counterintuitive results. They end up having to bite a lot of bullets, such as the organ harvesting surgeon. But if non-deontic consequentialism also generates counterintuitive entailments, like slavery being permissible in 1790s Virginia for people at that time, then is it any better than its deontic consequentialist competitors?




 

A New Consequentialism

Consequentialism is a family of theories that takes the consequences of actions to be the location of the right-making or good-making features of those actions. For the sake of simplicity, let’s work with a very basic consequentialist view, which is that ought to maximize the good. The good is identified with happiness. So, we ought to maximize happiness with our actions.

The problem with this view is that it says the right thing to do, what we ought to do, is maximize happiness. However, intuitively, there are situations where maximizing happiness is not what we ought to do. For instance, nobody but the most committed act utilitarian would say that it’s ok to kill a homeless person to supply his organs to five needy recipients, even if nobody would ever find out.

So, this simple consequentialism fails to give a satisfying analysis of deontic concepts, like RIGHT and WRONG. In other words, it gives the wrong application conditions for RIGHT and WRONG, because it entails that certain actions which fall within the extension of WRONG actually fall within the extension of RIGHT.

What could we do to revise our simple consequentialism? Well, we could try not giving an analysis of deontic concepts. So, we could become scalar utilitarians, which is to say we could be people who think actions are ranked on a scale from best to worst. Maybe moral judgments that involve deontic concepts are just wrongheaded. We could just do without concepts like RIGHT and WRONG. Instead, let’s just talk about better or worse actions; actions which we have more or less reason to do.

This just isn’t satisfying, though. Clearly torturing children for fun isn’t just worse than not torturing them for fun, it’s wrong. We ought not to torture children for fun. There’s nothing wrongheaded about that moral judgment. So, we need to give an account of deontic concepts if we want a theory that captures what we do when we engage in moral discourse and deliberation.

Here is what I take to be the best way to deal with this problem. If we try to give a consequentialist analysis of deontic concepts, we get the extensions of those concepts wrong. If we try to avoid giving an analysis, then we exclude a large portion of our moral discourse from our theory. So, we should analyze deontic concepts as conventions based on contingent social arrangements. We still should employ deontic concepts in moral judgment, and they play an indispensable role in our moral lives. But they do not reflect some fundamental structure of the moral world; rather, they reflect contingent social arrangements.

The role that consequentialism can play in this theory is as a means by which we can critique these contingent social arrangements. So, we could give consequentialist critiques of the ways in which deontic concepts are deployed in specific classes of moral judgments. For instance, if the concept RIGHT once had within its extension returning escaped slaves to their so-called owners, then that deontic concept could be revised according to a consequentialist critique of the institution of slavery. Our deontic moral judgments, judgments of right and wrong, permissibility and impermissibility, are ultimately subject to a consequentialist evaluation if the need arises.

Is this just rule utilitarianism? I don’t think so. Typically, rule utilitarians think we ought to obey a certain idealized set of rules which pass the consequentialist test of goodness-maximization. What I’m proposing is that we work with the rules we already have, and revise as the need arises, rather than reason according to an idealized set of good-maximizing rules. Besides, a rule utilitarian analysis of deontic concepts will probably fall victim to the extension problem I raised above against our simple consequentialist analysis.

Check out Brian McElwee's paper on consequentialism for a similar account of non-deontic consequentialism that I based this post on.