On collective injustices: Why your vegetarianism doesn't matter
An ex-colleague of mine once told me that he was a vegetarian, but that he didn’t know why. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about animal suffering. Nor did he doubt that factory farming methods were causing a great deal of it. The issue was that he didn’t believe that his actions made any difference. The meat industry was simply too big to notice that he had opted out. For all his concerns about animal welfare, he might as well have carried on eating meat.
I often replay this conversation in my head, thinking through the various things that I might have said back to him.
‘But what if everyone thought like that?’ I could have said. ‘Sure, maybe your behaviour on its own doesn’t make any difference to animal suffering. But if lots of people stopped eating meat, then it would make a big difference.’
No doubt he had thought of this, and his reply probably would have looked like this: ‘Just because a good thing would result if lots of us were to act a certain way, that doesn’t mean that I should act like that. If I know that other people won’t act that way, then it could be (at best) pointless or (at worst) counterproductive for me to do so. Imagine you’re sharing the road with several other drivers, and that you’re all going around 80 mph. You know it would be safer if everyone were to slow down. But you also know that if you were to slow down, then everyone else would keep on driving at 80. Should you slow down? No, that would be pointless (in fact, it might make things even less safe). The situation with the meat industry is similar. I know that if large numbers of people were to stop eating meat, then animal welfare would significantly increase. But I also know that most people won’t stop. So isn’t it simply pointless for me to stop?’
I could have tried a different tack. ‘How do you know that your action makes no difference? Suppose you buy a chicken from the supermarket. Is one more chicken going to be slaughtered tomorrow, because you bought that chicken today? Probably not. Most likely, the supermarket will order a set number of chickens every week. But their ordering must be sensitive to changes in consumer demand. Granted, they’re not going to order one less chicken next week just because they sold one less chicken this week. But there must be some number which would cause them to increase/reduce their order, if chicken sales were to rise/fall by that much. Let’s say that this number is 100. Now suppose that you’re standing in the poultry aisle, deciding whether or not to buy a chicken. You don’t know how many chickens will be sold by the end of the week. But you do know that if you buy the chicken, and 100 are sold in total, then your purchase makes a difference – if you hadn’t bought the chicken, then the supermarket’s order wouldn’t have increased. So, whilst you don’t know for sure whether your purchase will make a difference, you know that it might. But if there’s a chance that your purchase will cause more animal suffering, then you shouldn’t make it.’
There’s something to this line of thought. But it also oversimplifies the way in which consumer markets work. Here’s how I think my ex-colleague could have replied: ‘Let’s suppose that you’re right about the supermarket: it will increase/decrease its weekly chicken order whenever its sales increase/decrease by 100. But now think about the poultry company it buys from. Are they going to raise and slaughter more/less chickens next week, just because one supermarket has increased/decreased their order this week? No. Largescale producers use “buffers” – strategies which enable them to maintain steady production levels over relatively small variations in sales. Let’s say that the poultry company would scale back production only if it saw its sales drop by more than 5%. Tyson Foods estimates that it produced an average of around 40 million chickens per week in 2019. So, if our poultry company is operating at this kind of scale, then it’s going to need to see its weekly sales drop by around 2 million chickens before it scales back production. This means that it’s extremely unlikely that, by opting not to buy a chicken this week, I’ll make a difference to the number of chickens slaughtered and killed – much more unlikely than you initially made out. But if the chances are that slim, then is it really plausible to think that I shouldn’t purchase my chicken?’
Lots of contemporary social problems involve cases where many tiny contributions combine to cause big harms: the meat industry, the climate crisis, micro-plastic pollution etc. Many of us feel that there is something morally problematic with contributing to such collective harms. My ex-colleague seemed to share this feeling (I presume that this is what initially moved him to stop eating meat). However, because of the scale of these harms, a single action is highly likely, maybe even certain, to make no difference. This is what gives rise to the kind of worry which my ex-colleague had: ‘If my contribution makes no difference, then what reason do I have to abstain?’
I don’t know if this worry has an answer. Some moral philosophers think it does. But I’m sceptical – as I run through the possible ways I could have responded to my ex-colleague, I find that they all have problems.
Where does this sort of scepticism leave us? Does it ground a kind of moral indifference about collective harm? I don’t think so. Even if I can’t make a difference to largescale collective harms on my own, there are people who can: namely, people in government who have the power to change laws. Legal changes can do a lot to mitigate collective harms. For instance, farming subsidies can incentivise farmers to invest in sustainable and humane methods; taxes on fossil fuels can incentivise banks to divest. Given the huge difference that they can make, lawmakers are morally obligated to implement such legislative changes.
But large companies aren’t the only legitimate targets of legal change. Legislation can also incentivise individual consumers to alter their behaviour. Wouldn’t it be arbitrary and oppressive for a law to try and change my behaviour, if I have no independent reason to change it? Not necessarily. Some laws regulate activities which are independently wrong - murder, sexual assault, blackmail, all of these would be morally wrong even if they weren’t illegal. But not all legislation is like this. Take traffic laws. If there’s no law about which side of the road to drive on, then there’s no reason to drive on one particular side – you should just try to avoid a crash. Does that mean that it’s illegitimate to have a law which tells us to drive on the left? No. We have reason to want laws which coordinate our actions for the better – even if, in the absence of such laws, we wouldn’t have any reason to act as they prescribe. Similarly, I think we have reason to want laws which push us away from collectively harmful patterns of action – even if, in the absence of such laws, a given individual would have no reason to avoid contributing to collective harms.
Let’s go back to the issue of vegetarianism. Maybe it’s true that one ordinary consumer makes no difference to the harms caused by the meat industry. And maybe it follows from this that an individual consumer has no moral reason to become vegetarian. But this doesn’t imply that no one ought to do anything about these harms. Lawmakers have a duty to implement legislation which mitigates the harms of the meat industry. This could take the form of enforcing higher welfare standards for livestock. But it could also target consumer behaviour directly.
Am I saying that it ought to be illegal to buy and sell meat? Not necessarily. One thing policymakers need to take into account when planning new legislation is the likely rate of compliance, and its consequences. Yes, it would be best if everyone were to stop eating meat. But would that happen if purchasing and selling meat was prohibited by law? Probably not – most likely, we would see a strong black market in meat products. And would that improve animal welfare? Probably not. A better strategy might be to tax meat products in a similar way to tobacco and alcohol - though we would have to ensure that this kind of policy doesn’t place an unfair burden on the least advantaged, making meat a luxury of the rich.
So I think my ex-colleague was right to feel ambivalent about his own vegetarianism. It could well be true that he had no moral reason to stop eating meat. However, he did have reason to support laws which would disincentivise him from eating meat.