Causal impotence and reasons for vegetarianism

Scu at Critical Animal says:

I think a lot of people spend time explaining why we shouldn’t (or should!) kill animals and/or treat them as property. But where are explanations on the justification for vegetarianism/veganism as a necessary component of opposition, besides arguments about economic boycott?

If you define an economic boycott as something intended to effect actual change in the practices of using animals, then there are good reasons to think that personal vegetarianism/veganism is not a particularly good way of bringing about such change. The reason is that the market for animal products is nowhere near sensitive enough to register one person’s abstention. So, while everyone going veggie would presumably have the desired effect, it’s hard to see how my (or your) avoidance of animal products can be justified on those grounds.

Some philosophers, while accepting (at least arguendo) that personal vegetarianism won’t “make a difference” in the sense described above, have tried to offer alternative justifications.

One that I came across just recently is this paper by Nathan Nobis, a philosopher at Morehouse College in Atlanta. In it, he tires to marry consequentialism and virtue ethics to provide a justification for personal vegetarianism. A moral person, he contends, will exhibit virtues such as compassion, sensitivity to suffering, and a sense of fairness–all of which point to vegetarianism. But, he says, virtue ethics has a hard time explaining why the virtues are good–is this just a brute fact about the world? A better strategy, he says, is to ground the virtuous life as a whole in the consequences that it has for overall happiness. A virtuous person’s life is likely, all else being equal, to increase the sum total of happiness (or goodness more broadly). Thus, you end up with an indirect consequentialist case for personal vegetarianism even if it doesn’t directly reduce animal suffering.

Another approach, offered by Tzachi Zamir, whose book Ethics and the Beast I’ve blogged about before, is to argue that buying and/or consuming meat is, essentially, the completion of an act of wrongness. An animal would only be raised and killed for meat if someone was willing to buy and eat it at the other end of the chain of events. Thus, Zamir says, we are, in a sense, “commissioning” the killing and “completing a temporally extended wrong through consumption” (p. 48). A version of Zamir’s argument can be found here.

2 thoughts on “Causal impotence and reasons for vegetarianism

  1. I’m not sure how this fits into the spectrum of justifications for vegetarianism, but my reason for being (mostly) vegetarian is that I don’t think it’s right to eat an animal I wouldn’t be willing to kill myself. Thus, I’ll eat fish, but no other animal flesh.

    One thing I am sure of, however, is that this is just a way station in my evolving food ethics.

  2. When I wonder what good effect me being a vegetarian has in the grand scheme of things, I think of that story about the person throwing beached starfish back in the sea, one at a time. When asked why he bothered since he could never save them all, he siad as he threw one back, “Well, I saved that one.”

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