Ethical Vegetarianism is a Won Argument

Jamie in Chile

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Jan 3, 2016
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  1. Vegetarian
When I, as a meat eater at the time, read up on the ethics of meat eating in 2015/16, the arguments in favour of ethical vegetarianism seemed very compelling. However something held me back for a while, as I thought to myself, if meat eating really is ethically bad, why do most people not already agree? And more specifically, why did even really smart and ethical people (who take very ethical positions on other issues) still eat meat and defend it?

Over time, I think some of that has changed. When I first gave up meat the conversations I had in 2016 and 2017 tended to involve more robust defences of meat eating from people that genuinely believed it was OK. Now in 2022 in my experience people are slightly more likely to avoid the subject, put up a more half hearted defence, or even semi concede the debate (e.g. by saying I do have a strong argument, even though they then change the subject and continue to eat meat). A long enough exposure to the arguments seems to have had some impact. Are others seeing this as well?

I´m unclear whether ethical vegetarianism is winning throughout society. Meat consumption doesn´t seem to be on the decline globally.

However amongst smart and ethical thinkers and philosophers I`ve noticed a significant change in recent years to the point where vegan ethics tend to win out more in intellectual circles.

Leaders of the effective altruist organizations like Give Well tend to be either vegetarian, vegan, or at least unwilling to defend meat eating, whenever the topic comes up in their podcasts and articles. Same for 80,000 hours hosts and guests.

Environmentalist organizations such as Greenpeace now promote less meat or no meat which they didn´t do in the past. The more recent environmental movements, like XR and Just Stop Oil, have even more vegans in. When I went to an XR meeting vegan food was ordered for everyone automatically so as to be "more inclusive".

I listen to a lot of podcasts and if meat eating gets mentioned on the types of ones I listed to it is rarely defended these days. Some known public intellectuals/philosophers like Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Sam Harris have accepted the moral superiority of vegetarianism (even if they themselves have not always given up meat).

There is perhaps more acceptance - even promotion - of the idea of meat reduction or elimination - in the mainstream media. Such as Ezra Klein at Vox and the New York Times.

I can´t really think of a noted and respected thinker who is spending much energy defending meat eating, at least not in the ideological left or centre.

I think in practice once certain elitist segments of society (universities, educated city liberals, noted public thinkers) can agree on an idea then it may be extremely likely to slowly spread throughout the entire society. I think amongst smart and ethical thinkers ethical vegetarianism is now a won argument and I´m hopeful it will therefore spread more widely in the next few decades.

I was tempted to write "veganism" is a won argument. But I don´t think that is true. I don´t think the poor ethics of honey, cheese, free range eggs and so on are won arguments. I think there is less broad support there, and veganism still feels radical to many.

It´s worth noting that my list of people and organizations that are supportive are largely white, male, western and middle class. I´m not sure if there is any selection bias on my part or not, or on the part of society in promoting such voices. Or it could be that such people really are the leaders in promoting the idea of ethical vegetarianism. Or not. It could also be that discussions on meat ethics in recent years amount to the West just catching up to Asian culture where Buddhism, Jainism and Indian culture have led the way for a long time.

I noticed while going back and checking the dates that a few of the people/organizations I mentioned had come out in favour of meat eating, at least in theory, even before 2015 when I first started looking at it. It might be argued that the elite consensus hasn´t shifted as much in the last 5-7 years as I thought. It could just be to some extent that I didn´t realize at first that this consensus already existed.
Hmmm... I don't know to be honest. I don't really get around very much and as best I can tell, things haven't really progressed much at all. I think there is a general agreement that we should do less meat eating on the grounds of dealing with climate change. I think this is surprising given animal ag's somewhat limited contribution to greenhouse emissions, but the idea seems to have taken root within some groups such as the Rebellion groups. The animal ag industry is of course hitting back and I feel are making some headway.

I think the ethical case against the use of animals for food has been accepted within the sort of philosophical/ethical debate we see in academia, perhaps even the media, but I am not sure how well this is spreading within the general public. I'm not seeing people really take it on board. They do seem more aware, but that doesn't translate into different choices. I mean, I don't see less meat at the shops or fewer meat eating restaurants etc. I can't speak for say Asia/Africa/South America, but in majority white Western nations, I don't think much is really changing.

I still think that from my own observations here in Australia, we've seen "peak veganism" and the options for vegan meals have fallen away to a sort of background level. Vegan options - which really means plant-based options - are around, just not very much. At least, such options are available at a higher level than 10 years ago, but I don't think that is saying much.

I agree that veganism doesn't seem to be very well understood or endorsed, in fact I think most people actively reject the idea. Why, I really don't know. Most say it is because vegans are unpleasant people. On the whole, I really don't understand why people aren't more willing to endorse veganism. It's disappointing.
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Certainly the connection between climate change and animal agriculture increased a lot in recent years. In books written around 2005-2010 about climate change and the personal actions one can take it was sometimes not even mentioned at all.
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Jamie, I think you're correct that it's a mostly won argument in the kind of circles you mentioned. That said, veganism has also become part of the culture war, and it's much frowned upon by people and politicians on the right.

In general society, while I'm unsure the percentage of vegans has risen significantly, I still think veganism is more accepted, and there are more people who eat vegan food part-time. In my part of the world there are more vegan options at restaurants, cafés and grocery shops.

One group that is still trying to argue robustly against this development is perhaps certain writers representing more traditional farmers who fear what mock/synthetic animal products will do to their livelihoods, rural communities and way of life etc, although their arguments focus more on health and the worrying power and influence Big Ag. companies in this process.

Footnote: I say 'vegan' and 'veganism' as opposed to 'ethical vegetarianism' because the distinction is academic to most people and because I think what I said above is true in regards to veganism.
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