Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Is being a vegetarian worse than being a flesh eater? (The vegan edition)

The short answer is no. Here is a slightly longer answer:

I figure while I am making certain subsets of the vegan community unhappy, I might as well continue. Gary Francione, as many of you know, has argued that there is zero moral distinction between someone who eats animal flesh and a vegetarian. More importantly, he often argues that a vegetarian might even be worse than someone who eats meat, ethically speaking. Which is a bit like this moment from The Simpsons. Anyway, to get a sense of his argument, you can listen to this podcast and/or read this blog post. Francione's argument is that (1) there is no moral distinction between eating an animal's flesh and eating the products of their bodies, (2) vegetarians will end up supplementing their lack of meat eating by increasing their eating of other animal products, (3) and that there is more suffering in a glass of milk than there is in a steak. These are all fairly good arguments, but it is the second one that has some real weaknesses.

After doing research on other things, I came across this article. This article is the only one that I have found to get data on what vegetarians actually eat. The article also pretty clearly points to two truths (1) Vegetarians (who eat no meat, not those self-identified vegetarians who also eat meat) consume far less milk, yogurt, etc than other categories. They consumed slightly higher rates of cheese. Overall, a vegetarian is likely to decrease her consumption of dairy and eggs by 15% compared to the normal meat eater in the US. So, in addition to decreasing their meat consumption to zero, the average American vegetarian will decrease their consumption of other animal products by 15%. Hard to argue that vegetarianism does not entail a net decrease in animal suffering.

Now, this does not address Francione's larger arguments of tactics and strategies. Francione's follow up argument would be something like, it doesn't matter if vegetarianism represents a net decrease in animal suffering, we should advocate for veganism only, and there will still be people who choose to go vegetarian, but there will be more vegans. I don't have any data to back up my next statements, but I find that unlikely. I just don't buy that animal movements are failing because we lack a clear message of veganism and only veganism. With that said, we should always strive to make clear that while vegetarianism might be ethically superior to flesh eating, it is just a small step on a broader becoming-vegan. I have written before against arguments that see ethical vegetarianism as being good enough. But in general I believe one can see vegetarianism as insufficient without seeing it as worse than flesh eating, morally incoherent, or useless.

Next up, Is being a vegetarian worse than being a flesh eater? The localvore edition. (The short answer, again, hell no).