Every now and then, you will get a carnist invoking some form of non-factory farmed animals, claiming it is morally superior to veganism, because of the crop deaths involved in veganism. So supposedly you could design certain relatively plant based diets where you grow plants in your garden and have some meat every now and then that is acquired via grass finished or regenerative grazing methods and perhaps if you do the math you might end up with a diet that causes less harm than your average vegan diet that has mono crops in it, pesticides and they will make the argument that pests are shot on purpose to maintain these crops.
However, even if we granted this argument, you would still need to concede that factory farming animals vs. conventional farming plants – plants are the clear winner and that already excludes 99 percent of the animals farmed in the US.
Still, let’s be even more charitable and assume my sources are biased and wrong. Veganism strives to exclude as much as practical and possible all exploitation and killing of creatures with a subjective experience, otherwise known as sentient beings. Let’s say hypothetically we had no practical limitations and compare ideologies. If we took the principle of veganism to its logical end point, we would end up in a vegan world where all food is sourced via veganic farms where no animals are ever killed or exploited. If we took the principle of farming animals via regenerative grazing or some sort of method that allows the animal to have a wonderful life until the day it is killed, that would still be killing and exploiting that animal.
That’s the difference between seeing animals as products vs. seeing them as sentient beings, which by virtue of being sentient beings, someone who has a subjective experience, while not necessarily being as morally valuable as a human that probably is capable of more well being (though you could also counter with that how some of these less intelligent species are more important for the eco system, whereas humans seem to behave like a pathogen to the eco system) still does not have such low level of ethical consideration to be morally consistent in seeing it as a product whereas humans are people. If you have a subjective experience, you have a moral value larger than zero, which needs to be weighed against other moral values.
Once you acknowledge that non-human animals have some moral value and they are not products, then you start asking practical questions of how you can reduce death, exploitation and suffering to the greatest extent while maintaining your survival and standard of living consistent with the compromises you would do for humans, whereas the non-vegan looks for excuses, for flaws in the ability of the vegan to reduce death, exploitation and suffering as a “gotcha” that allows them to continue their contribution to said industries.
Some vegans might not think about these things or try to deny them when confronted by them, but that isn’t an attack on veganism per se, which strives as much as practical and possible to reduce death, exploitation and suffering. Again, the end point of veganism taken to the logical end of its guiding principal would be a world where everyone got their food via something like veganic farming, where no deaths, exploitation or suffering resulted from their food. It’s doubtful we will ever reach such a pure level of veganism, however – I think there is a difference between doing your best to get there vs. saying we aren’t there yet, so it’s ok not to try.
Ah, but what if you are one of those special non-vegans who don’t contribute to factory farming, have a backyard where you can grow plants and can afford the occasional regenerative grazing meat and thus cause less harm than the average vegan? Well, that’s great – but why not just use your backyard to grow only plants and not kill any animals at all? You could do better. The average vegan probably doesn’t have a backyard where they can grow their own plants. Maybe they are doing the best they can with what’s available to them, maybe they could do more… but veganism itself is a principle that pretty much strives to always do more.
You can also again look at it from moral consistency as a place to draw the line – if you participate in transportation which kills humans accidentally, you can participate in plant agriculture that kills animals accidentally. Ah, but animals are killed on purpose to preserve the crops! Well, if I was already doing my best to reduce death and suffering because I can’t grow my own plants where I live but I’m buying plants instead of animal products, I still need to eat something to survive. By choosing the option with the least suffering and death available to me, I am pretty much in a case of self defense. The animals won’t listen to me if I tell them to go away, they will just eat my crops which are the last option I have to survive while causing the least death and suffering possible from my available options.
If I had a way to make them go somewhere else I would advocate for that instead, but if I don’t own those crops and can’t control how they are maintained and I can’t grow my own food – the best I can do is choose the best option from what is available, and beyond that, it becomes a case of self defense. It would be like someone was out on the road trying to run me off the road and I couldn’t talk to them to make them stop and I tried everything I could to make them stop without killing them but I might end up having to run them off the road to save myself which might end up killing them. Sure, in the crop deaths case I know I am killing them, but I still need to eat something to survive and I can’t find an option to do so with less death.
Again, it’s the difference between constantly looking for ways in which you could have done better, vs. looking for ways in which you could justify what you’re currently doing. Taken to its logical extreme, the end point of veganism in an ideal world would be something like veganic farming for all.
So what would happen to the animals? You would let them go extinct?
Ideally, and most likely what would happen in practice, is that demand for animal products would go down gradually as veganism becomes more common. Various industries that rely on byproducts of the animal industry would have to find alternatives, making it easier to be vegan. The general awareness of the value of treating non-human animals as people, not products – not in the sense of giving them things like voting rights that are irrelevant to them, but in the sense of giving them right to life, freedom from exploitation – this awareness would help propogate more veganic farming and thus reduce crop deaths further. As a vegan once I knew about crop deaths, I always acknowledge they are bad and say that I would love to reduce crop deaths too, but as long as we are making excuses to continue seeing animals as products, we aren’t going to get there. We can peel only one layer of the oppression onion at a time.
So as demand gradually goes down, we will breed less and less of these animals. Those that can be in the wild and live as feral cows, feral chickens, etc. will be allowed to do so and let go into the wild. Those breeds that we have artificially created them to be dependant on humans? We just stop breeding them and let them die off. Is that a tragedy? A form of extinction? I could argue it isn’t extinction because the species still exists, just not that specific human dependant breed.
Should we intervene on the behaviour of predatory species? No, they have no moral agency, unlike humans who do have moral agency, so we are obligated to act on our moral agency but not interfere in the manners of non-moral agents unless we have good reason to do so – for example, if they are threatening the eco system, threatening our environment, our ability to survive and maintain our civilization. This would fall under self preservation, where we need to protect the environment we need to survive. I admit I am pretty ignorant about which species are needed for the eco system, which are less or more essential, but this is a practical problem, not an ethical problem.
Such practical issues aside, our moral obligation ends at not doing something active to kill, hurt or exploit other sentient beings. Forcefully breeding animals is a form of active interference in the fate of that species. Stopping to actively breed them is not killing them, it’s stopping our interference in the fate of that species… and again, we aren’t actually talking end of species, just end of breeds of said species.
To demonstrate my consistency regarding this issue, let’s use people like myself – trans people. You could argue trans people are often less privileged than cis people and on average will experience less well being than cis people, regardless of whether that’s their fault or not, whether it’s inherent to who they are or due to external circumstances, you could argue that’s the reality. Therefore, you could argue we should actively avoid breeding trans people. I am against that.
You know what I’m also against? Actively breeding trans people.
Would I want to breed out people who have certain disabilities or diseases? Well, if that disability or disease is genetically inherited, I would want the parents to consider that risk but I wouldn’t want to take away their freedom to decide to have or not have a child… I would perhaps argue to them that we have no shortage of people right now on planet Earth. so if you know there is a high chance you will be giving your child a bad deck of genetic cards that will increase their suffering, maybe you should think twice about making a contribution to the gene pool. I still want them to have the freedom to breed if they want, because I value freedom of choice and I don’t think the potential suffering of people with disability outweighs that freedom.
I myself am childfree, not for ethical reasons, but just because I think there are enough people in the world already and I personally don’t want to have children. I would prefer if more people chose not to have children given our current climate crisis, but I am not in favor of forcing anyone to do so.
In the same way I am not in favor of breeding for more trans people or breeding for more cis people, I am not in favor of forcefully maintaining a certain breed of animal that is dependant on humans, especially if there are variants of that species that can live without the care of humans.
There was a hypothetical I was posed to test my consistency about this:
Say someone kills you, then you are brought in front of a divine being who asks if you would rather have lived and be killed, or rather never be born… and if you say yes, I would rather have lived, the timeline remains as it is, if you say no, the timeline changes so that you would never have been born.
I honestly answered yes, and this was supposed to be a gotcha that I’m inconsistent with my principles, because I’m saying I would want to live but I am denying that life of the animals who would never be bred.
Firstly, I don’t believe the hypothetical properly tests the consistency of my principles, because in one case I have a form of divine knowledge, whereas in another I do not.
Secondly, the hypothetical requires the existance of two timelines for me to make that decision, something that is logically inconsistent with the situation with which it is compared to where there is only one timeline.
Thirdly, it does not necessarily follow that if I answer yes that I am being logically inconsistent, because in the human context if I answered yes, I would not be obligated to breed as many humans as I possibly could. Lots of people would answer yes to that question and still not want to breed as many humans as they could.
As a moral subjectivist who is vegan and values base moral axioms of well being, will to live, freedom of choice, I try to be consistent with how I treat humans and non-human animals, unless there are relevant traits and situations that would lead me to act otherwise. I’m sure many people who value freedom of choice who answered yes to this hypothetical, would not think the free will of this two timeline hypothetical sentient being that wants to live does not override their free will to not be constantly breeding every moment of their lives.
Therefore, since it doesn’t follow from answering yes to the hypothetical that I would infinitely breed humans, it also doesn’t follow I would justify infinitely breeding non-human animals.
This is just going down the rabbit hole of excuses people look for to not do their best in reducing death, exploitation and suffering. For 99% of people this is totally irrelevant because they don’t care to actually stop eating factory farmed animals, they are just using these niche omnivore diets as a “gotcha” for vegans and excuse to continue eating factory farmed animals. Personally, I think if you are arguing for niche omnivore diets you should be comparing them to equally niche vegan diets. If you’re a non-vegan who is actually not supporting factory farms, well – that’s much better than the average omnivore! But arguably if you have access to non-conventionally farmed produce, you could probably do better than most people can, better than most vegans can.
We generally can’t engage non-human animals as deeply as with humans and they don’t deserve all the rights humans do merely because many of them are not relevant to non-human animals and their abilities. Nevertheless, when it comes to will to live, subjective experience, ability to experience well being and suffering – non-human animals are people just as much as humans…
…and you can look for a specific type of diet that causes less harm than most vegans do, but you would still be making excuses to view non-human animals as products, and while it’s true many vegans could stand to learn how to be better vegans – it is not a refutation of the principles of veganism: non-human animals are not products, always try to reduce the death, exploitation and suffering you cause as much as possible.