Saturday, August 23, 2014

Are we morally obliged to eat some meat? (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second part of my series on Donald Bruckner’s article “Strict Vegetarianism is Immoral”. The article claims that if we accept the premises of the leading arguments against factory farming, we may be obliged to eat certain forms of meat (specifically: meat from animals killed in accidental vehicular collisions, aka “roadkill”).

Bruckner defends this view by looking at the two major arguments against factory farming — the factory harm argument and the environmental harm argument — and suggesting that there is a gap between the conclusions of those arguments and the endorsement of strict vegetarianism. I covered his treatment of the factory harm argument in part one. Today, I’ll cover his treatment of the environmental harm argument.

I highly recommend that you read part one before reading this. The basic pattern of argumentation there is very similar to what will be presented here. This is because there are only minor differences between the factory harm argument and the environmental harm argument. Since I’ve already covered the former, I think it’s acceptable to go over the latter in less detail in this post. This may leave you somewhat unsatisfied if you haven’t already read part one. The real novelty in this post will be the range of objections and replies covered toward the end.

1. The Environmental Harm Argument
The environmental harm argument says that purchasing and consuming factory farmed meat is wrong because it harms the environment. The full argument looks like this (numbering follows on from part one):

  • (12) Factory farming causes extensive harm to the environment.
  • (13) This harm is unnecessary (we do not need factory-farmed meat to survive).
  • (14) Therefore, factory farming causes extensive and unnecessary harm to the environment.
  • (15) It is wrong to knowingly cause, or support practices that cause, extensive and unnecessary harm to the environment.
  • (16) Purchasing and consuming factory-farmed meat supports a practice that causes extensive and unnecessary harm to the environment.
  • (17) Therefore, it is wrong to purchase and consume factory-farmed meat.

This argument is almost identical in structure and content to the factory harm argument. Consequently, I won’t discuss its premises in any great detail. Suffice to say, Bruckner is just as willing to accept the premises of this argument as he was the premises of the previous argument. The only thing worth discussing is premise (12) and the precise nature of the “extensive” environmental harm caused by factory farming. Bruckner has two main examples in mind. One is the pollution caused by farming. He gives four examples of this: CO2 from farm equipment; methane from the animals; manure run-off; and nitrogen run-off from fertiliser. Second is the problem with the overconsumption of natural resources: raising crops to feed animals is less efficient and more wasteful than eating those crops directly.

Given that this argument is practically identical to the factory harm argument, it is no surprise to find that Bruckner’s response is practically identical. Once again, he points out that there is a gap between the conclusion and the endorsement of strict vegetarianism. That gap would have to be plugged by something akin to the following premise:

  • (18) The only less-harmful (to the environment) alternative to eating factory-farmed meat would be strict vegetarianism.

But any such premise would presuppose a false dichotomy. There are meat-eating alternatives to factory farming that involve less harm to the environment. The roadkill example is to the fore once more. Of course, that isn’t a hugely interesting conclusion since it only suggests that eating roadkill is permissible. The more robust conclusion is that eating roadkill might be obligatory. That conclusion can be reached if we stick with the moral principle that we ought to avoid causing unnecessary harm to the environment and add the factual claim that the harm done to the environment by eating the available roadkill is less than the harm done to the environment by producing the same amount of nutrition through vegetable farming. Bruckner thinks that this factual claim may be supported on the grounds that the environmental harm done by the fuel expended in transporting and butchering roadkill is likely to be less than the environmental harm done by growing an equivalent volume of vegetables.

So once again, we have an argument for thinking that we might be obliged to eat (at least some) meat. Are there any major objections to this argument?

2. Objections and Replies
Bruckner looks at six different objections in the article. I’ve already raised an objection in part one that he did not address (as well as a possible reply). I’ll add another objection that Bruckner seems to have overlooked today as well. That makes for eight objections in total, seven of which will be dealt with below.

The first objection is:

Slippery Slope Objection: Bruckner’s argument simply encourages us to eat meat which, given our weak-willed nature, will lead us to eat more and more meat. Best to cut out the practice entirely in order to avoid the slide down this slippery slope.

Of course, when it comes to meat-eating, we are already at the bottom of the slippery slope. A gradual ascent out of the mire might be more successful than an abrupt transition. Even still, there are problems with the slippery slope argument if you accept it on its own terms. First, it seems to commit all the sins of fallacious slippery slope arguments. Bruckner likens it to an argument for celibacy based on the (absurd?) notion that having sex with one partner will lead you to have sex with many. Second, it relies on some pretty outlandish armchair psychologising which illegitimately foists the burden of proof onto the defender of Bruckner’s position. They are forced to argue that people won’t be tempted in this way, even though there is no evidence to suggest that they would be in the first place. Finally, the objection implies a false dilemma: it implies that the only way to get more meat would be through factory farming, but as we saw in part one there are other means of doing this that may be more acceptable.

I’ll add in my own objection here:

Perverse Incentive Objection: By providing people with an “excuse” to eat animals that are accidentally killed in vehicular collisions, Bruckner’s argument will provide an incentive to people to take less care while driving (to be more “accidental”).

I’m actually surprised Bruckner doesn’t deal with this in his paper as it seems like the strongest objection to his position. To support it, I have in mind analogies with past alterations in people’s incentives. For example, the claim (common among economists) that compulsory seatbelt wearing actually increased the total number of car accidents when it was first introduced (though, to be fair, it also reduced the number of fatal car accidents). It seems to me like Bruckner’s policy could easily have a similar incentive effect: it could encourage people to take less care while driving. And surely that would be a bad thing: it would lead to more unnecessary (albeit “accidental”) harm being done to animals (and possibly humans). I’m not sure what the response would be to this. I guess you could argue that the incentive effect is unlikely because people wouldn’t run the risk of a collision with a deer, elk or moose. But I’m not so sure about that.

The third objection is:

Fences Objection: The argument doesn’t imply that we should eat roadkill; rather, it implies that we should do more to protect animals and ensure that they are not killed in accidental vehicular collisions. One way of doing this would be to put up more fences along roads.

Bruckner responds by saying that this would be pretty costly (and probably politically unfeasible). Furthermore, it would only be something to be considered in addition to his argument, not instead of it. In other words, we would still be obliged to eat any roadkilled animals prior to the construction of these fences (and after, if they are still being killed despite our best efforts).

This leads to another, more general, objection:

Absurdity Objection: The argument has absurd implications. It means we shouldn’t do anything that risks unnecessary harm to animals. So, for example, we shouldn’t drive our cars to the cinema because cinema trips are unnecessary and increase the risk of harm to animals. Likewise, we should engage in all manner of other “crazy” freegan practices like foraging in dumpsters and eating other dead, wild animals.

Bruckner tries to sidestep this objection. He does so by pointing out that he is not directly arguing for the thesis that eating roadkill is obligatory. Instead, he is arguing that if the standard arguments against factory farming are correct, then eating roadkill is obligatory. The conditional nature of the argument is important. If it has absurd implications, that could be because the arguments against factory farming are flawed. Bruckner says no more about this in the article.

A less absurdist objection would be the following:

Health Risk Objection: The meat from animals killed in vehicular collisions is not perfectly healthy; it poses a greater health risk than eating vegetables.

This is pretty contentious and gets us beyond the scope of the original objections to factory farming (which weren’t about human health at all). The empirical data on vegetarian versus meat-eating diets is pretty messy (from what I’ve seen), with no clear evidence favouring one over the other. Still, Bruckner argues that venison is pretty lean and low in saturated fat. He notes that some deer carry the cervid version of BSE, but there is no evidence of transmission to humans (that could be because of low consumption though). Also, he is not arguing that we eat old or badly decayed animals. He is only arguing that we eat freshly killed animals.

That brings us to the penultimate objection:

Scavenger Objection: Eating roadkill is not harm free. Doing so deprives scavengers of food.

Bruckner argues that this isn’t quite true. In the US, roadkill is typically removed by local authorities and dumped in a landfill. So the meat is being wasted anyway (though perhaps there are scavengers, such as rats, at these landfills?). Furthermore, he suggests that certain parts of the animal carcasses could be left for scavengers (e.g. viscera and internal organs).

And the final objection then is:

Disgust Objection: Eating roadkill is disgusting

Of course, this isn’t really an objection; it is an emotional response. Even if people did find it disgusting, this wouldn’t mean that it was not obligatory. We are often obligated to do disgusting things.

3. Conclusion
So that’s it. To briefly recap, the two main arguments against factory farming may be persuasive, but they fail to support the strict vegetarian lifestyle. This is because there is a gap between their conclusions and the endorsement of strict vegetarianism. This gap can only be plugged by appealing to a false dichotomy: it’s either strict vegetarianism or factory farmed meat-eating.

In reality, there are other forms of meat-eating that may not fall foul of the factory farming arguments. Quite the contrary in fact. Some forms of meat-eating might be obligatory if we endorse the premises of the arguments against factory farming. Bruckner argues that this is particularly true of eating roadkill.

I think the perverse incentive objection is the major challenge to this position: if Bruckner is right, motorists will be given an incentive to take less care when driving. Although this mightn’t seem like a significant problem in any one case, the statistical impact could be great. Of course, we don’t know for sure at this point in time.


  1. The conclusion should have been:
    eating roadkill and any animal killed by accident (by land cultivation or some other way) is obligatory.

    The perverse incentive objection can be equally used against strict vegetarianism: by giving a justification or excuse to eat animal products, strict vegetarianism arguments provide people with more of an incentive to to take less care in avoiding the harmful ways of exploiting animals to produce these products.

    1. Correction:

      given the vegetarian equivalency in moral status between man and animal, and the moral equivalence between consuming an accidentally killed animal and consuming an animal dead from natural causes, then the conclusion should have been:
      eating roadkill (including humans freshly killed in car accidents), animals (including humans) freshly killed by other accidents (by land cultivation or some other way), animals (including humans) freshly dead from natural causes is morally obligatory.