Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Critique of Veganism as Reducing Suffering

There is a quite prominent picture of Veganism that I think is profoundly mistaken, and this is the idea that the intention behind Veganism is the reduction of suffering. Thus, it is said that the Vegan lifestyle is ideal because it reduces the amount of animal suffering in the world.

It is a simple enough objective and it would not surprise me at all if the majority of Ethical Vegans are Vegans for this very reason. But despite the good intentions that these Vegans might have, I think that the goal of reducing suffering is incompatible with Veganism and actually anti-vegan in its implications.

The reason that I feel this way is very simple: The principle itself does not necessarily morally obligate anyone to take up the Vegan lifestyle. Let me explain what I mean.

Consider the possibility that every Carnist in the world has a sudden moral epiphany and realizes that it is morally obligatory to reduce the amount of suffering in the world as much as possible. They all then research the most effective way to do this, and they find out that adopting a Vegan lifestyle is the solution. The overwhelming majority of them do not want to make such a transition, but they realize that they can achieve the goal of reducing suffering by coming up with an ingenious plan. What they do is completely revamp the Animal Holocaust so that instead of it being a holocaust in which the animal's lives are solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, their lives are now completely free, euphoric, and free of any hardships. When it is time for the animal to be killed, the concentration camp workers ensure that the animal is killed suddenly and without any suffering whatever. Indeed, we can even suppose that the concentration camp workers do this without letting any other of the animals see the act.

Now the important question to ask here is: In our scenario, would it be morally obligatory for people to be Vegan? The answer is no. The reason that this is the case is easy enough to spell out. For if our only obligation is to reduce suffering, and if going Vegan in our scenario does not actually do this, then going Vegan would not be morally obligatory.

In fact, for many people it would be morally binding on them not to go Vegan. We all have heard the stories from people who go Vegan about how difficult adopting the lifestyle is. There is no question that these difficulties cause some amount of suffering to the people involved, and the suffering that these people endure is actually greater than the suffering endured by the animals in our scenario. Therefore, if these people adopted the Vegan lifestyle, it would actually increase the amount of suffering in the world.

We might note that bringing the reasoning behind the Argument from Marginal Cases to bear on this question also leads to some stark conclusions. For we can just replace the animals in our example with marginal case humans. If the goal behind Veganism is merely the reduction of suffering, then there would no ethical reason to refrain from eating either the marginal case humans themselves or the excretions that come from their bodies, so long as they are treated precisely as the animals are in our scenario.


So we can see that if we take the view that the goal of Veganism is to reduce suffering, then the question of adopting a Vegan lifestyle is not actually a moral question at all, rather, it is merely a question of practicality. Indeed, we might not even need to appeal to the above hypothetical scenario, for it might possibly be the case in the actual world that Veganism is not the most effective way to reduce suffering in the world. If that is in fact the case, then Veganism becomes merely a matter of personal preference., with no moral weight behind it at all.

For one illustrative example of this, we need look no further than Brian Tomasik's recent decision to start consuming dairy products. He outlines his decision in response to this reddit post , and you can see how he uses the exact same sort of justification.


If we actually want to convince everyone to go Vegan, and to thereby create a Vegan world, then we need to stick to the morally binding nature of Veganism. Trying to base our efforts on reducing suffering in the world is not sufficient, since that makes Veganism merely contingent on whether or not it is the most effective way to do this. As I see it, we would do much better if we focused on notions like Justice and Respect for Life, rather than suffering.

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