Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tortured Beef, It's What's for Dinner

Let's say we accept an argument similar to a voter irrationality argument, but applied to the meat industry. I won't rehearse the argument in detail, but it's something like:

1. Given the extent of the meat industry and the amount of meat consumed by the average person, no single person's decision to stop eating meat will in any way affect the number of (we'll stick with cows here) killed over any given period of time.
2. Given this, no single person can, on their own, have any effect whatsoever on the number of cows killed over a period of time.
3. Thus, to stop eating beef for the purposes of saving the lives of cows is an entirely ineffective means to that end.
4. Thus, if one's sole purpose in not eating beef is to save the lives of cows, not eating beef is irrational.

OK, now, let's say that you accept the validity of this argument. Here's another:

1. It is worse to end the life of a non-suffering being than it is to end the life of a suffering being, at least in the case that one has no power to alter the amount of suffering in the situation other than through the being's death.
2. Thus, if one has decided to take a life, it would be better to take the life of a suffering being than that of a non-suffering being.
3. Thus, eating beef from a factory farm is prima facie better than eating beef from somewhere less tortury.

Of course, the conclusion here has two caveats. First, we are assuming that in eating meat one is taking a life at all; if the first argument is sound, this is not the case. Second, the ought generated by this argument is merely prima facie. It could be overridden by other moral considerations.

At this point, one might think that it just doesn't matter where the beef we eat comes from. If the first argument is to be believed, then we can have no effect either way, and thus barring the introduction of other moral considerations in favor of vegetarianism, eating meat, regardless of its source, is permissible.

But notice something: the number of cows killed in non-factory farms over a given period of time is much lower than the number killed in factory farms. Thus, when one purchases meat from a non-factory farm, one has a greater chance of affecting the number of cows killed than one does by purchasing meat from a factory farm. Of course, the chances still might be zero, but if non-zero, they are larger.

So, we are now in position for the following:

1. Assume that the only moral reason not to eat beef is for purposes of avoiding killing cows.
2. If Argument 1 is sound, then one cannot reduce the total number of cows killed by not eating beef.
3. If Argument 1 is unsound (because premise 2 is false), it is most likely to be because one can affect the number of cows killed in non-factory farms more easily than in factory farms.
4. Thus, if Argument 2 is sound, then either:
5a. It is impossible to affect the number of cows killed by not eating beef, and thus there is no moral argument (recall premise 1) for a single person to refrain from eating beef; or
5b. One can only affect the number of cows killed by refraining from eating non-factory farmed beef, and thus if one wishes to lower the number of cows killed, one has a prima facie duty to eat only factory farmed beef; or
5c. One can affect the number of cows killed by refraining from eating beef in all cases, though one's influence will be greater in the case of non-factory farmed beef. However, while other interests (such as the prevention of factory farming specifically) may override, one still has a prima facie duty to eat meat from factory farms.

If I am correct about premises 2 and 3, I think it most likely that either 5a or 5b is the case. But of course, we have something of an epistemological problem; we may be unsure of which actually is the case. If, however, we can rule out 5c (which I suspect we can, though I fully admit I don't have the numbers to back me up), then in the case where we are unsure whether 5a or 5b obtains, we ought to prefer eating factory farmed beef, since we will either be choosing one of two equally permissible options or will avoid killing non-suffering cows.

Even if 5c is still an option, however, we still have some reason to prefer eating the factory farmed beef, though I suspect many will argue that even the epistemic possibility that we are negatively affecting the factory farming industry overrides these other considerations. In that case, Herman, you may continue to ease your guilt with Chipotle.


  1. Nice post.

    I think your argument does well to point out the common and ridiculous assumption of many people that by refraining from eating meat they are saving an animal.

    The comparison to voter irrationality mostly works, but it's not a complete match. For one thing, a voter who breaks a tie becomes responsible for the entire outcome, but there doesn't seem to be a parallel case in the meat industry. So it might be more like the straw that breaks the camel's back than an election.

    Also, what makes voting so irrational is the enormity of the numbers involved. When the numbers come down to the hundreds, I think the situation becomes murkier.

    If eating meat is like an election, I think it's more like electing a local alderman. Me and the few hundred others who shop at my little grocery store affect the kind of products that the store purchases. My little store will buy cruel or humane beef based on relatively minor changes in buying behavior (I don't know the industry, but I would think even a dozen or two people choosing to switch from cruel to humane beef might change the store's ordering habits). If enough stores do this, change could take place at a higher level. Just like voting an alderman into office who then gets to vote about a bigger issue.

    I'm not claiming that I have a substantial impact into changing the meat industry, but the dynamics are such that I think my causal power is greater than zero.

    So, if this is right, your second argument comes into play. Here, I think the appropriate analogy is the world hunger problem. With all the starving people, do you put your resources into feeding and curing, or into long-term political change? The short-term fix seems never-ending, but if you go for the long-term fix you're letting a lot of people die in the meantime.

    I think you're suggesting an obligation to go for the short-term fix. Animals are suffering, so we should put an end to their misery first. The long-term fix (under the assumption that I have some causal power) is to try to divert customers from the factory farms to the humane farms. In the meantime there will be more suffering, but eventually the problem could be alleviated.

    With world hunger, I'm in favor of splitting one's energies between short-term and long-term. Could that be the right approach here? One problem is that splitting one's energies with the beef industry (eating half cruel meat and half happy meat, I suppose) cuts in half any causal power that I have (which was pretty meager to begin with).

    Therefore it seems better to retain all my causal power and go for the long-term fix: support humane farms, hoping that eventually more people will do the same, resulting in factory farms raising fewer animals (because their business dries up), thereby torturing fewer animals.

  2. Arthur,

    Thanks for the comments. I'll take a couple of your points in order:

    First, I didn't mean to imply that there was a direct analogy to the voter-irrationality stuff; I mentioned that only because it's the same sort of "large numbers lower/negate your ability to influence something" argument.

    As to the local alderman stuff: I think that's correct, but we have to be careful to pay attention to how big the numbers are on the larger scale. If the numbers are big enough in the forum where the aldermen are voting, then their voting is susceptible to the same concerns, one level up. This seems like what might be the case in the story about beef. Sure, maybe my local market orders less because 12 of us stop eating beef, but if our store is one of hundreds or thousands that order from a single supplier, that in turn deals with one or several factory farms, then my effect on the store may still have no effect whatsoever on the industry as a whole, because my store itself has no such effect.

    I think at this point that your analogy to the world hunger case is interesting, but I have to be very careful. I don't think I can argue that, as you put it, "Animals are suffering, so we should put an end to their misery first." In none of these cases are we really ending an animal's suffering: In 5a and 5b, we have no effect on the factory farming industry, and thus we cannot really be said to end anything's suffering. In 5c, it turns out we do have an effect on the industry, but it doesn't really make sense to say that we are ending the suffering of these animals, because the time and nature of their deaths is still not determined by our eating beef.

    Actually, this brings me to something important about Argument 2 and 5c. After further reflection (and some talk; thanks Christian) I realized that the argument doesn’t really apply to 5c at all. In some ways, rather, the beef case in 5c is like a future generations problem. Say that I can affect the industry. Simplistically, by eating a humane cow now, that means one more happy cow will be raised and killed. By eating a factory farmed cow now, that means one more suffering cow will be raised and then killed. So, in fact, in 5c, it turns out that the opposite of what I claimed might be true. If it's better for us to bring about future cows that are happy before being killed rather than ones that suffer (yes, I know, they're not the same cows, blah blah), then we have no reason to prefer eating factory farmed cows in 5c.*

    Yet, I still think there is a point to be made here, so let me return to your comments: I agree that it is plausible to think that if we are in 5c (we can affect the industry as a whole) then we have some reason to eat only humane beef (if at all). But again, we still could be in 5b. But if we ARE in 5b, then there is some chance that we cause more death only in the case that we eat humane beef. Return to your local alderman example. Say that you have a choice between voting in one of two elections. By voting in the first, you would elect an alderman who would enter a forum containing 1,000,000 alderman. By voting in the second, you would elect an alderman who would enter a forum containing 50,000 alderman. You can see right off that it might be better to vote in the second, because your alderman has a much greater chance of being in any way effective. The meat case might be similar. Imagine that your local market buys factory farmed beef from a huge distributor but buys humane beef from a local farm. When you buy factory farmed beef, the numbers are too large for it to ever be the case that you influence the total number of cows killed. But if you buy humane beef, you might actually make a difference. But it would be the wrong difference to make, because it would mean that the local farm in fact raises and kills one additional cow! In that case, if you are in 5b, it might turn out that if you ate no meat at all, 1,000,000 cows would be killed this year (I know that's low). If you eat factory farmed beef, 1,000,000 cows will also be killed this year. But if you eat humane beef, 1,000,001 cows will be killed this year. It looks like if that's the case, then if you are going to eat beef at all, you have reason to eat beef that has been factory farmed.

    Ok, so what's the point? My real point, I think (and I acknowledge that this has morphed quite a bit from the original post) is that we might have something of a duty to find out whether we're in 5a, 5b or 5c. I think people have been tempted to argue as follows: "We may or may not have any effect on the meat industry, but we should play it safe and eat only humane beef so we at least don't encourage the factory farms if it does turn out we have the power to do so." If my arguments succeed, then it is not this simple. If we're in 5a or 5c, then this argument is correct, but if we're in 5b (which seems possible) then eating humane beef may do nothing beyond causing more death.

    *One caveat here: This all assumes that when we lower demand on factory farms, they raise and slaughter less cows. This seems a fair assumption, but it could turn out (and likely would in the short-run) that the same number of cows are raised and just less of them are killed. In that case, it would turn out that by purchasing humane beef, we would cause suffering cows to suffer for a longer amount of time. Argument 2 doesn’t address this directly, but the idea that we might have an obligation to end the lives of suffering beings as soon as possible seems relevant to both that argument and this worry.

  3. I just happened upon your blog and saw this post. Thought I'd add a correction to the overall argument since unfortunately your primary premises are, at least applied to the current general demographic of vegetarians, inaccurate.

    Firstly, your entire argument is built on one premise: that people (vegetarians) abstain from eating meat for the sole purpose of saving cows lives (whether individual or collective is irrelevant)

    However, if I may offer a new premise:

    1)Your previous argument correclty demonstrates that one cannot save an animal's life by refraining from eating the beef, lamb, pork, etc that the meat industry provides
    2)However, vegetarians/vegans do not abstain from eating meat to save cows lives.
    3)Vegetarians/vegans abstain from eating meat because it is an immoral thing to do

    Simply put, the actual motivation and your assumed motivation differ; the former being the correct one, at least for most of the demographic.

    One may ask a vegetarian: "but by avoiding eating meat, don't you on some level also wish to save animal lives?" The answer for vegetarians is no. If I were to ask you, "Do you refrain from killing and murdering humans in an aim to save members of the human race?" your answer would most likely be no. In fact the reason most of us do not murder fellow humans is because we know it be "wrong", "immoral", "inconsistent with our conventional ethical, legal and societal framework". We know that genocide and mass murder take place regularly and that our actions do not have a direct affect on the number of people being killed. Yet we do not do because it is an immoral act.

    This same assumption is applied by vegetarians to eating meat. Vegetarians operate under the following assumptions:

    1)Vegetarians abstain from eating meat because they believe it be immoral
    2)Eating meat is an immoral act since one is taking the life of an animal (whether humanely or not) against that animals will

    Actually I'm not going to get into the "case for vegetarianism". I'm not actually vegetarian myself but I thought I'd point out (in a somewhat disjointed way) that your original and primary assumption on the motives of vegetarians was in fact incorrect.

  4. McNally,

    First, let me say that I never intended to imply that the only reason people are vegetarian is to avoid killing animals. Notice that the conclusion of the first argument is a conditional. The antecedent, "if one's sole purpose in not eating beef is to save the lives of cows" was meant to address just this issue; my argument applies only to those who avoid eating meat in order to save the lives/avoid taking the lives of animals.

    Second, I am fairly certain that I know a number of vegetarians (if you're out there, those of you I'm thinking of, please back me up here) that do base their vegetarianism, at least in part, on a desire to save the lives of cows (even if that is only instrumental). For example, some utilitarians avoid eating meat because it causes suffering and death (aka loss of utility) and they believe that not eating meat has some effect on the amount of utility lost. Again, my argument was meant to address people like this.

    Ok, on to the substance of your argument. You make the following two claims on behalf of the vegetarian:

    "1)Vegetarians abstain from eating meat because they believe it [to] be immoral
    2)Eating meat is an immoral act since one is taking the life of an animal (whether humanely or not) against that animals will"

    I will grant you that it is perfectly possible for someone to accept (1) alone and thus avoid my argument. If one believes, for example, that eating the flesh of another sentient creature is inherently wrong, then one may believe that eating meat is immoral without needing to worry about whether or not they have actually killed anything.

    The trouble with your response is (2). If eating meat is immoral (only) because you are taking the life of an animal, then if you are not taking the life of an animal you have not met the standards for immorality. But this is precisely my claim; of course someone took the life of the cow you are eating, but in many or all cases it may turn out that that life would have been taken regardless of your purchasing or eating its meat, and thus we can in no real way say that through eating the meat you have taken "the life of an animal (whether humanely or not) against that animals will."

    You draw an analogy to killing humans when you say that people don't avoid killing each other in order to save lives, but simply because killing other humans is wrong. This might be true, but you still have to actually be doing (or somehow participating in) the killing. Imagine the following scenario:

    Through a freak accident we discover that human skins make absolutely fabulous sailboat sales. A group of rogue sailboaters slaughter 1,000 people and sell their skins on the black market. You, an avid sailboater, must decide whether or not to purchase one of these skins.

    Now, it is more then plausible that you will decide not to do so. You might not want to encourage such behavior, you might find it distasteful, you might not want to give money to killers, etc. But you cannot claim that you shouldn't buy a skin from them because it would be wrong for you to kill someone for their skin. You have not killed anyone, and those people would be dead with or without your purchase.

    Of course, someone might say, "Yes, but it is the fact that killing humans is wrong that leads me not to buy their skins just as it is the fact that killing cows is wrong that leads me not to buy beef." That's all well and good, but it is your desire not to support or profit from immoral acts that leads you to these conclusions, not your belief that you would be committing the initial immoral act yourself. You need some sort of bridge principle like "It is always wrong to profit from the results of an immoral act."

    Again, if one accepts such a bridge principle then I am more than happy to admit that one's vegetarianism is immune to my arguments, but such a principle would need to be defended on its own merits first.