Special to the Cape Charles Mirror. This is part one of a brilliant essay by Robert C. Jones, “How Not To Be Vegan”¹. See Robert’s bio at the end of the essay.
I believe that those of us living in affluent consumer culture under late capitalism, where plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy are readily available, are morally obligated to adopt vegan practice, though I will make clear just what I mean by ‘vegan practice’. The source of this obligation is grounded in a very widely held belief, namely, that—all else being equal—unnecessary suffering and premature death are bad things, and that acting with relatively minimal cost to oneself, we should all aspire to decrease violence, objectification, domination, exploitation, and oppression whenever and wherever we can. However, when I say that we are obligated to adopt vegan practice, not just any type of “vegan practice” will do, so today I want to argue for a specific type of veganism I call revisionary political veganism.
A Puzzle About Ethical Veganism: The Causal Impotence Objection.
To argue that the raising and commodification of other-than-human animals for consumption is morally bad is one thing; to argue that individual consumers ought not purchase animal products is quite another. The reason being that there’s a bit of a puzzle in the relationship between consumer purchases of animal products and the suffering of so-called “farm” animals, a question that few vegans address.
The assumption behind ethical veganism—and most likely the central reason why a vast majority of vegans go vegan in the first place—are the beliefs that (a) individual consumer consumption of animal products increases the production of animal products, and (b) that by going vegan we decrease animal suffering. Going vegan, according to the argument, somehow contributes causally and directly to decreasing suffering both on small and large industrialized ranches.
I recently ate at the Southern California vegan fast-food chain Native Foods, where, after ordering at the counter, I was handed a placard with my order number on it. The placard read, “Crispy Battered Native Chicken Wings: One order saves three chickens!” What exactly does this mean? It can’t mean that there are three chickens somewhere who are waiting to be slaughtered on a factory farm whose lives are spared when I order the Crispy Battered Native Chicken Wings.
Maybe what the placard means then is something like this: three chickens won’t be born, won’t come into existence, and won’t suffer the horrible lives and deaths of factory-farmed chickens because I order the Crispy Battered Native Chicken Wings. But how exactly does that work? It can’t mean that some egg producer is waiting for the thumbs up to hatch another three chickens whose plan I thwart by ordering this particular vegan dish. Besides, what exactly might it mean to save a non-existent being? I think the charitable read is something like this: when consumers—as a group—order Crispy Battered Native Chicken Wings instead of actual chicken wings, the demand for chicken decreases, causing the chicken market to produce less chickens. Translating this market decrease into number of chickens actually “saved,” and dividing by the number of consumers who order the Crispy Battered Native Chicken Wings, you get the average number of chickens that each individual consumer saves when ordering the Crispy Battered Native Chicken Wings, in this case, three. But is that really what is intended by the claim on the placard? And even if it is, is it all really that simple? The answer seems to be no.
Critics argue that this kind of linear causal story connecting individual consumer choice to changes in market supply gets the real-world facts all wrong. Markets like the chicken market are too massive to be sensitive to the purchasing behaviors of any single consumer. And since the overwhelming majority of individual consumers have nothing at all to do directly with agribusiness, or the raising or killing of “livestock,” an individual consumer’s choice to refrain from the purchase or consumption of animal products makes no difference at all in decreasing the number of animals suffering and dying on factory farms. This is known as the causal impotence objection to ethical veganism.
One might object on the grounds that this kind of challenge is too abstract; that it’s obvious that purchasing meat causes animal suffering and death, hence annoying “hypothetical” puzzles like this should be dismissed out-of-hand as so much philosophical sophistry. However, that would be too fast a dismissal.
First, it’s easy to imagine someone in the real world reasoning in the following way: Whether or not I order the chicken won’t change anything. Regardless of what I do, the ag industry will do what it’s going to do and the animal rights movement will do whatever it’s going to do, so what I do makes no difference. So I guess I’ll just order the chicken.
Second, it’s certainly true that, collectively, consumers of animal products (e.g., meat eaters) cause harm to animals. That is, it’s true that (a) collectively, consumers of animal products cause harm to animals. However, from the truth of (a), it does not follow that (b) a particular consumer of animal products causes harm to animals. An inference from (a) to (b) would be fallacious since it’s possible for (a) to be true while (b) is false. But let’s look more closely at the claim made by the Native Foods placard. It would seem that such claims make a kind of simplistic assumption, namely, that supply is sensitive to demand. But imagine the following case. I decide to prepare chicken for dinner, so I head to my local supermarket and purchase a frozen chicken. As Robert Bass points out, that purchase has “no effect on the killing, packaging, freezing and shipping of that chicken a week or two earlier…the decision weeks earlier to raise a certain number of broilers from eggs, or the decision months or years earlier to operate the chicken house where the chicken spent her life. Nothing I do brings it about that one chicken more or less is raised for food.”
At this point, you might think that my purchasing that one chicken reflects an increase in demand for chicken, and that an increase in demand will lead to a future increase in supply, and thus, one more chicken will be slaughtered as a result of my purchase. But you would be wrong for a few reasons. First, supermarkets order more chickens than they expect to sell since waste and spoilage are built into the ordering process.
Second is the issue of market insensitivity, that is, supermarkets in particular, and agribusiness more generally, are so huge that the chicken market is insensitive to individual consumer decisions.
You might reason that if 1% of the population is vegan, then, as a result, 1% of animals will not be tortured and killed. But here, once again, you’d be wrong. In the short run, instead of decreasing animal suffering, a reduction in demand merely drives down the commodity price of animal products. Markets based on the commodification and sale of animal bodies and their byproducts don’t function in the way that we might imagine where decrease demand creates an oversupply which then creates excess inventory which then triggers a decrease in production. In the case of “livestock” production, animals considered “excess inventory” are not liberated and given happy lives, but continue to live lives of misery, suffering, ending in painful execution.
But if all this is true, then why would it be wrong for individuals to purchase or consume animal products like frozen chicken? Just how responsible are we in causing suffering and harm to other animals when we consume their bodies produced in the industrialized system, and what difference might we make as individuals? It seems that individual consumers are powerless as individuals to cause change in such an enormous market. If so, then it looks like individual vegans make virtually no difference whatsoever in decreasing animal suffering; therefore, ethical vegans who believe that their individual purchases have direct causal efficacy on the lives of nonhuman animals (as the Native Foods placard suggests) are, at best, confused. This causal impotence objection stands as a challenge to the obligation for individuals to go vegan.
Vegans have a number of responses to the causal impotence objection. I want to discuss just two.
1. Deny the claim of causal impotency
The first response is simply to deny the claim of causal impotency and ask: How can an individual make no difference if together we make a difference? If collective action has causal impact (which it does), then at least some individual instances must have causal impact. Collective action is not some kind of “spooky metaphysical” occurrence, but a combination of individual actions that can each have a variety of impacts. Though seemingly imperceptible, there is nonetheless some impact (albeit, very small) that, when combined with the very small impacts of other consumers, results in causal effect.
For example, it may be that my action serves as a trigger or threshold. Suppose that the butcher only makes a call to order more chickens when the 100th chicken breast is purchased, or the poultry industry only reduces production when a threshold of 10,000 people stop purchasing chicken. It may seem that if you are not the one who purchases the 100th chicken breast or are not the 10,000th person who gave up chicken products, your refraining from such purchases makes no difference. However, your refraining affects the timing of slaughter or the cessation of slaughter. This is an impact, even if it is not a direct impact on any particular individual. So buying or not buying animal bodies does make a difference. Further, no matter what the causal impact of your refraining from consuming animal products, what is certain is that your not going vegan is practically certain to delay any threshold event happening and therefore practically certain to result in excess animal suffering.
2. Role Modeling
A second response revolves around the notion of role modeling. Many involved in vegan practice influence others who, in turn, influence others, and so on. This kind of role modeling may be understood as a species of the broader phenomenon of social contagion in which an action of a particular type makes another action of that type more likely. Thus, veganism can increase the probability that others become vegan, which increases the probability that the collective action of the aggregate more quickly brings about a reduction in the number of animals produced for food and other consumer goods, decreasing animal suffering, and bringing about a decrease in violence, exploitation, and domination.
With regard to private actions like eating leftover chicken when no one else is around (or will ever witness or even find out about), doing so may actually increase the chance that one may, in the future, eat more chicken. Veganism urges us to conceptualize chicken or pig bodies, for example, as “not food,” much the way many in Western cultures think of dog bodies as “not food.” As people begin to view the corpses of others as inedible, the probability that they will want to consume “leftover” bodies is lowered. Someone aspiring to be the kind of person who acts to minimize suffering and oppression will thus adopt strategies that will stabilize their ability to act on their values and refrain from consuming animal products even in the case of private consumption.
3. Rejecting Animal Bodies as Food
A third response involves the very conceptualizing of animal bodies as food. Lori Gruen² argues persuasively that the very act of ontologizing animals as food, of putting animals in the category of the edible, strips them of their individual personalities and interests. Animals have interests beyond not suffering that matter—e.g., being allowed to live their lives with their family members, and not being killed simply to satisfy someone else’s culinary desires. Being categorized as edible, in industrial societies, renders these beings as disposable and consumable. Though none of these (or other³) responses individually provides a knockdown rejoinder to the causal ²Lori Gruen, Ethics and Animals: An Introduction, (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 101-4. ³See, for example, Russ Shafer-Landau, “Vegetarianism, Causation and EthicalTheory” in Public Affairs Quarterly 8(1), Jan. 1994, 85–100, or Adrienne M. Martin, “Consumer Complicity in Factory Farming” (203–14) and Elizabeth Harman, “Eating Meat as a Morally Permissible Moral Mistake” (215–31), both in Philosophy Comes to Dinner: Arguments on the Ethics of Eating, eds. Andrew Chignell, Terence Cuneo, and Matthew Halteman (NY: Routledge, 2015). “How Not To Be Vegan” RC Jones Page 7 of 16 impotence objection to veganism, taken together, they do provide a rational basis to adopt vegan practice. Just what that vegan practice should look like is the focus of the following section.
¹Much of the content of this essay comes from Lori Gruen and Robert C. Jones, “Veganism as an Aspiration” in The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat, eds. Ben Bramble and Bob Fischer (UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), 153–171. I would like to thank Lori Gruen for her support and encouragement to expand on that essay.