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A common objection not to what may be the strongest argument for veganism itself, but to its practical importance and relevance, says that even if we accept it, we surely (should) have other ethico-political priorities: Since our resources are limited, ignoring the interests of non-human animals is justified in practice, although it’s true that eating them is bad and we shouldn’t do it all else equal. Such a view acknowledges that the well-being of non-human animals matters too and that we indeed should not harm them unnecessarily. But – so the story goes – we unfortunately cannot direct our resources towards stopping the harms that animals suffer without thereby sacrificing the interest of the human animals that would otherwise have been the beneficiaries of these resources.
This claim, however, seems inconsistent with what we already believe and value, and with what a plausible standard of ethical importance and prioritization would suggest.
1) We already accept that it’s important to devote at least some resources to reducing the suffering of non-human animals. Otherwise we should presumably abolish many (if not all) animal protection laws. The laws regulating animal testing provide a particularly insightful illustration of this point: We accept the 3R Principles (Refine, Reduce, Replace), which forbids harming any animal in the laboratory if viable alternatives exist (which make the use of sentient animals unnecessary). Our state also accepts a duty to research, create and promote further alternatives, i.e. to spend significant resources on the reduction of animal suffering. It therefore seems highly inconsistent not to apply the same principle to animal foods: They harm animals – so the available alternatives should be used instead and resources should be spent on researching, creating and promoting additional ones.
2) Moreover, we are (ethically as well as legally) opposed to exclusion and discrimination based on irrelevant criteria such as race or sex. This suggests that we’re (at least somewhat) aware that what matters is not what a being looks like or what group it belongs to, but what its interests or needs are. It seems that species membership is no more ethically relevant than group-memberships based on race, sex, age, (dis)ability etc., i.e. that speciesism is no more justifiable than racism, sexism, ageism, ableism etc.
3) If we try to answer the question of what problems are most ethically important/urgent and should be prioritised (in an objective way), the following answer seems plausible: The weightier and the more numerous the interests or needs that are being violated (or: the more intense and prolonged the suffering involved), the bigger the problem.
The existence of non-human animal consciousness (and suffering specifically) is not in scientific doubt. (Radically doubting it would likely force us to similarly doubt the consciousness of infants or severely mentally disabled humans, too.) Each year, the consumption of animal foods inflicts severe harm upon more than 50 billion land animals worldwide. It’s therefore hard to deny that the animal cause has at least as great a claim to being a priority than the causes that are usually considered ethico-political priorities.
4) This would likely be so even if we had significant empirical doubts about the existence of non-human animal suffering. Suppose we put a (low) 10% probability on the hypothesis that animal suffering exists, then the expected amount of suffering ( = probability times stakes) we reduce by helping them drops by a factor of ten. The result is still huge and likely dominant, considering the enormous number of animals that we can help by promoting plant-based foods.
If speciesism is indeed unjustifiable, i.e. if equally important needs and equally intense suffering do indeed count for the same no matter whether they occur in a human or non-human brain (and why would it matter where the suffering occurs?), then what’s currently happening to animals is no less bad than if it happened to (cognitively comparable) humans. If it was happening to humans, there would be no question about priorities – in fact, many would immediately regard it as one of the greatest ethical tragedy in human history. So there shouldn’t be any real question about the priority of opposing animal farming either – unless we’re speciesists?
But even then: Speciesism requires determining for how much less the same suffering counts if it occurs to non-human brains. Two times? Ten? A thousand? (The inevitable arbitrariness here suggests that we’re on the wrong track with the idea that the same (!) suffering could be less ethically bad depending on the substrate it’s running on.) If it counts for a thousand times less, then the importance of the problem decreases by a factor of a thousand. But since we’re slaughtering billions of animals each year… So it’s hard to deny that the issue should be on our priority list unless we claim that the suffering of non-humans is infinitely less important. But why have any animal protection laws, why aim to reduce and replace animal suffering in labs, then, which inevitably uses up some resources that could have gone into human causes?