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.