Monday, June 3, 2019

Veganism and Subjective Morality


Throughout the history of philosophy there has been a divide between two broad ethical camps; on the one side we have ethical theories which can be broadly categorized as objectivist (Note: This is not at all the objectivism of the Ayn Rand variety). These theories all make the claim that moral statements are either true or false independently of the existence of any subject. On the other side, we have those theories which may be called subjectivist. These theories hold that the truth or falsity of ethical statements depends upon the existence of subjects.

As a concrete example, say that we have an ethical proposition like the following: "Murder is bad." Call this proposition P. An objectivist might say that P is 'objectively true,' and what they would mean by this is that even if there were no subjects at all in existence, P would still be true. The subjectivist, on the other hand, might also say that P is true, but this is the case only when he is existing. If he were to go out of existence, then P would no longer be true.

Now, as you might very well imagine, this split has shown up within veganism as well, for there have been both objectivist vegans (including Tom Regan and Gary Francione) and subjectivist vegans (including the early Peter Singer, and both Vegan Gains and Ask Yourself on YouTube). This had led to several different and interesting approaches to veganism.

I fully recognize that one can coherently hold to both veganism and to moral subjectivism, but I have some serious reservations about the usefulness of the subjectivist approach for vegan activism, and I would like to explore these reservations briefly.


To begin, we should note that the activist strategy for objectivists will most likely differ from that of subjectivists. If the objectivist wants to promote veganism, then he will most likely express to his interlocutors that they have moral obligation to go vegan. This will be the case because he will hold both that veganism is objectively obligatory, and that it is also objectively obligatory for us to follow the moral law.

However, the moral subjectivist cannot use the same sort of approach. This is because, while the moral subjectivist might very well subjectively believe that veganism is the right approach to life, his interlocutor might not feel the same way. So the only real option that the subjectivist has at this point is to probe the ethical beliefs of his interlocutor and try to do one of two things:

1. Find a contradiction in his interlocutor's ethical system.

2. Demonstrate that the carnists' ethical beliefs have certain implications that most people would regard as either absurd or highly offensive.

If the vegan manages to succeed with the first strategy, that is all well and good. But let us assume that the carnists ethical position is consistent, but that it has some untoward consequences. I feel that this is especially problematic because the effectiveness of this tactic is wholly contingent on the majority opinion of humanity. We might very well imagine that our subjectivist vegan has demonstrated that the carnists ethical system implies that it is morally acceptable to kill and eat marginal humans. This might very well turn many people away from the sort of system advocated by the carnist and closer to a vegan position, but perhaps it won't. What is more, it could have been the case that the vast majority of people in the world believe that it is morally virtuous to kill and eat marginal humans.

If this were the case, and if the subjectivist vegan did show that the carnists ethical system had this sort of implication, then this would only serve to turn the peoples attention away from the vegans position and towards the carnists position.

So that is why I am quite hesitant with regard to a subjectivist meta-ethic. I don't think for a moment that my observations in this post have conclusively demonstrated the ineffectiveness of that sort of meta-ethic, so I would like to know if there might be another way for the subjectivist vegan to proceed.

As well, I fully recognize that I have also not shown the objectivist meta-ethic to be correct, but that is a topic for another time

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