Here’s my first conversation on the Letter.wiki platform. Bringing good old fashioned letter writing into the digital age.
I’ve pasted my first response below, but click “subscribe” on the Letter platform if you want to follow along. Refreshingly, you can’t comment on Letter, but you can below. Feedback welcome!
Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I’m looking forward to our conversation. Despite our different moral stances, I suspect we might find common ground on the biggest issue in this debate.
This can be a rich and complex topic, but I’ll start simply, because the core is simple. The production of animal products causes needless suffering. Using animal products encourages more production and therefore more needless suffering.
Avoiding animal products completely doesn’t equate to moral perfection and in many situations it may not even be possible. Yet still, doing what we can to avoid those products and therefore avoid causing needless suffering is morally preferable.
On a more emotional level, the way I feel about animal farming is probably similar to the way you feel about the farming and killing of cats or dogs for food. Some see killing and eating cats and dogs as completely moral – just as you see farming chickens, fish and pigs as moral.
Most people take this approach of categorising animals, then choosing to care about some categories (companions or pets, charismatic wildlife, endangered species) and not others (farm animals, vermin, “invasive” species). However, these categories seem drawn to justify our traditional practices rather than being based on any sound moral reasoning.
Instead, I prefer to focus on sentience, the capacity for subjective experience – the ability to suffer or flourish – as the characteristic we should use when deciding what to care about. Morality is about suffering and flourishing, so anything capable of suffering and flourishing warrants moral consideration. We might say that sentience is the morally salient component of consciousness. Some see pigs and dogs as fundamentally different morally because of how we have chosen to categorise them. I see them as morally equivalent because they are both sentient and are probably sentient to a similar degree.
This focus on sentience is at the core of a worldview called sentientism. The term was originally developed by philosophers including Peter Singer (who you mention in your letter) and Richard Ryder. I have been working to re-cast it as an explicitly naturalistic philosophy, committed to using evidence and reason, that grants moral consideration to all sentient beings. In that light it could be seen as an extension of secular humanism. You might find my introductory article in Areo interesting and I’ve gathered some more writing, seminar presentations and podcast interviews at www.sentientism.info.
Despite the apparent chasm between our respective ethics I suspect, from your letter, we will still find much common ground on the biggest and most urgent problem in this debate… factory farming.
Even those who haven’t seen the pictures and footage from inside these farms know the basics. Short lives in brutal conditions at industrial scale. It’s almost impossible to conceive of the hundreds of billions of deaths every year.
That’s why so many of us, meat eaters included, are against factory farming. This Sentience Institute study showed 49% of US adults surveyed supported a ban on factory farming. Sadly, instead of switching away from factory farmed produce, most instead prefer to kid themselves that they only buy from “humane” or “sustainable” sources. That just can’t be true, given over 90% of meat, fish and dairy comes from factory farms.
I’m sure we will continue our conversation about whether it’s possible to farm animals ethically, but hopefully we can both agree that the 90% plus that is factory farmed today is a moral abomination. We shouldn’t be blinded to the reality just because it seems so normal.
There’s so much more to discuss, including the climate impact of animal farming (a sufficient justification for veganism even if you don’t care about animal suffering at all) and the potential for plant-based and clean meat alternatives, but I’ll wrap up this letter for now.
I’ll close, as you did, by talking about the burden of persuasion. In practical terms you’re right that the burden rests on ethical vegans and sentientists like me. Sadly, that’s just how social change seems to work. Traditional ways of doing things are assumed to be “right” and justified, even when the ethical arguments for change seem so clear. We could progress faster with more open, scientific minds – starting afresh and thinking through what is better or worse morally. Instead, our progress is slowed by habit, tradition and dogma at every step. That’s true with respect to many aspects of human ethics. We’ve made progress on racism, sexism, homophobia, even slavery and adopting universal human rights – but could move faster and more confidently if we committed to evidence and reason and dropped the tradition and dogma. Our animal ethics will follow a similar path, and future generations will look back on animal farming with horror. So let’s make the change now – for the animals’ sake and our own.