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A Curious Case Of Vegan Moral Hypocrisy

Are vegans concerned with reducing suffering per se?

I’ve decided to take one of my always-fun breaks from discussing strictly academic matters to instead examine a case of moral hypocrisy I came across recently involving a vegan: one Piper Hoffman, over at Our Hen House. Piper, as you can no doubt guess, frowns upon at least certain aspects of the lifestyles of almost every American (and probably most people in the world as well). In her words, most of us are, “arrogant flesh eaters“, who are condemnable moral hypocrites for both tending to do things like love our pets and eat other animals. There are so many interesting ideas found in that sentence that it’s hard to know where to start. First is the matter of why people tend to nurture members of other species in a manner resembling the way we nurture our own children. There’s also the matter of why someone like Piper would adopt a moral stance that involves protecting non-human animals. Sure; such a motivation might be intuitively understood when it happens to be people doing it, but the same cannot be said of non-human species. That is, it would appear to be particularly strange if you found, say, a lion that simply refused to eat meat on moral grounds.

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She might be a flesh-eater, but at least she’s not all arrogant about it.

The third thing I find interesting about Piper’s particular moral stance is that it’s severely unpopular: less than 1% of the US population would identify as being a vegan and, in practice, even self-reported vegetarians were more likely to have eaten meat in the last 24 hours than to have not done so. Now while diet might often be the primary focus when people think of the word ‘vegan’, Piper assures us that’s there’s more to being a vegan than what you put in your mouth. Here is Piper’s preferred definition:

“Veganism is a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life. It applies to the practice of living on the products of the plant kingdom to the exclusion of flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey, animal milk and its derivatives, and encourages the use of alternatives for all commodities derived wholly or in part from animals.”

Accordingly, not only should vegans avoid eating animal-related foods, they also should also not do things like wear fur, leather, wool or silk, as all involve the suffering or exploitation of the animal kingdom. Bear the word “silk” in mind, as we’ll be returning to it shortly.

Taken together, what emerges is the following picture: a member of species X has begun to adopt all sorts of personally-costly behaviors (like avoiding certain types of food or tools) in order to attempt to avoid reducing the welfare of pretty much any other living organisms, irrespective of their identity. Further still, that member of species X is not content with just personally behaving in such a manner: she has also taken it upon herself to attempt to try and regulate the behavior of others around her to do similarly, morally condemning them if they do not. That latter factor is especially curious, given that most other members of her species are not so inclined. This means her moral stance could potentially threaten otherwise-valuable social ties, and is unlikely to receive the broad social support capable of reducing the costs inherent in moral condemnation. I would like to stress again how absolutely bizarre such behavior would seem to be if we observed it in pretty much any other species.

Without venturing a tentative explanation for what cognitive systems might be generating such stances at the present time, I would like to consider another post Piper made on October 21st of this year. While in her apartment, Piper heard some strange sounds and, upon investigation, discovered that a colony of ants had taken over her bedroom. Being a vegan who avoids all form of cruelty and exploitation of animals, Piper did what one might expect from one who displays a reverence for life: she bought some canisters of insect poison, personally gassed thousands of the ants herself, then called in professionals to finish the job and kill the rest of them that were living in the walls. Now one might, as Piper did, suggest that it’s unclear as to whether insects feel pain; perhaps they do, and perhaps they don’t. What is clear, however, is that Piper previously stated a moral rule against wearing products made from silk. Apparently the silk production is exploitative in a way mass murder is not. In any case, the comments on Piper’s blog are what one might expect from a vegan crowd who condemns cruelty and reveres life: unanimous agreement that mass killing was an appropriate response because, after all, people, even vegans, aren’t perfect.

“If it’s any consolation, I felt bad afterwards. I mean, c’mon; no one’s perfect”

This situation raises plenty of debatable and valuable questions. One is the matter of the hypocrisy itself: why didn’t Piper’s conscience stop her from acting? Another is the matter of those who commented on the article: why was Piper supported by other (presumed) vegans, rather than condemned for a clear act of selfish cruelty? A third is that it is clear Piper did not reduce or prevent animal suffering in anyway in the story, so is she, and the vegan code of conduct for generally, truly designed/attempting to reduce suffering per se? If the answer to the last question is “yes”, then one might ask whether or not the vegan lifestyle encourages people to engage in the proper behaviors capable of doing more to reduce suffering. While these are worthwhile questions that can shed light on all sorts of curious aspects of human psychology, I would like to focus on the last point.

Consider the following proposition: humans should exterminate all carnivorous species. This act might seem reasonable from a standpoint of reducing suffering. Why? By their very nature, carnivorous species require that other animals suffer and die so the carnivore can continue living. Since these murder-hungry species are unlikely to respond affirmatively to our polite requests that they kindly stop killing things, we could stop them from doing so, now and forever. Provided one wishes to reduce the suffering in the world, then, there are really only three answers to the question regarding whether we should exterminate all meat-eating species: “Yes”, because they cause more suffering than they offset (however that’s measured); “No”, because they offset more suffering than they cause; or “I don’t know” because we can’t calculate such things for sure.

Though I would find either of the first two answers acceptable from a consistency perspective, I have yet to find anyone who advocated for either of those options. What I have come across are people who posit the third answer with some frequency. I will of course grant that such things are incredibly difficult to calculate, especially with a high degree of accurately, but this clearly do not pose a problem in all cases. Refusing to wear silk clothes, for instance, seemed to be easy enough for Piper to calculate; it’s morally wrong because it involved animal suffering and/or exploitation. Similarly, I imagine most of us would not refrain from judging someone who slowly tortured our pet dog because we can’t be 100% sure that their actions were, on the whole, causing more suffering than they offset. If we cannot calculate welfare tradeoffs in situations like these with some certainty, then any argument for veganism built on the foundation of reducing animal suffering crumbles, as such a goal would be completely ineffective in guiding our actions.

Still having trouble calculating welfare impacts?

All the previous examples do is make people confront a simple fact: they’re often not all that interested in actually “minimizing suffering“. While it sounds like a noble goal – since most people don’t like suffering in the abstract – it’s too broadly phrased to be of any use. This should be expected for a number of reasons, namely that “reducing suffering per se” is a biologically-implausible function for any cognitive mechanism and, even if reducing suffering is the proximate goal in question, there’s pretty much always something else one could do to reduce it. Despite the latter fact, many people, like Piper, effectively give up on the idea once it becomes too much of a personal burden; they’re interested in reducing suffering, just so long as it’s not terribly inconvenient. But if people are not interested in minimizing suffering per se, what is actually motivating that stated interest? Presumably, it has something to do with the signal one sends by taking such moral a stance. I won’t discuss the precise nature of that signal at the present time, but feel free to offer speculations in the comments section.

Jesse Marczyk, M.A., is a Ph.D. student at New Mexico State University; he studies evolutionary psychology and writes the blog Pop Psychology: The Internet's evolutionary psycholo-guy.

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