Bioethics Briefing Note
08 Jan 2020
Our latest bioethics briefing note looks at the ethical and social issues around emerging meat alternatives.
It’s Veganuary! The name – which has been hard to avoid anywhere this month – has been coined to inspire individuals to try being vegan for January and indeed for the rest of the year. The charity using the name says that there is ‘a reason for everyone to try vegan’. And that is a great claim. For added to the familiar assertion that we should avoid eating meat to reduce the suffering of animals, are claims that eating meat is bad for us and bad for the planet. For instance, a report published last week in The Lancet urges human beings to adopt a healthy diet that will at the same time safeguard a healthy planet. This diet – spelled out for the first time and based on current scientific evidence – would consist largely of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts – and would dramatically reduce the consumption of ‘unhealthy’ red meat.
This is the background to two pieces of work being undertaken by the Nuffield Council. The first, that has just started, is an investigation of the use of genome editing in farmed animals. This will consider questions about product safety, animal health and welfare, and the most appropriate ways to meet societal challenges such as food security and sustainability. The working group met for the first time this month and will produce an in-depth report in 2020. This follows on from last year’s well-publicised report: Genome editing and human reproduction: social and ethical issues. The second piece of work in the pipeline is a policy briefing note, outlining the scientific and social developments relating to the human consumption of meat, that we will publish later this year.
Veganuarylooks like a great success and given the publicised rise in veganism it wouldbe easy to conclude that the case against meat eating has been won. However, itis worth pausing to consider what kind of case is being made and herephilosophy can help.
In thefirst place, people’s reasons for being vegan are different and it is worthspelling out their difference. One is a moral reason and has to do with what isowed to non-human animals. Moral reasons have a distinct character and aparticular strength. If it is wrong to eat meat because non-human animals havea moral status that would forbid their deliberate killing - or indeed even justthe deliberate infliction of suffering on them - then that would be enough tobe a vegan. Or at least there would have to be very good countervailing reasonsnot to be one. Maybe you could eat meat if that was the only way you could avoidstarvation.
By contrast, the claim thateating meat is unhealthy is not a moral one. I do have reasons not to do thingsthat are bad for me, e.g. I want to live longer or stay healthy. But thesereasons are of a different kind to the moral reasons not to be bad to others,including animals. Moreover, most of us believe that we should be free to dothings that are bad for us – so long as we know what we are doing. Most of us probablyate and drank too much at Christmas and woe betide the killjoy who would tellus not to do that if we chose to.
Of course it is not that simple. If everyone or enough of us make unhealthy choices then there are undesirable consequences. There are, for instance, increased burdens on the health and social care services. The whole subject of public health – tackled in a previous Nuffield Council report - is about what we can and what we should be allowed to do to intervene in the choices of individuals. We want both to encourage people to lead healthy lifestyles and yet to also permit individuals to make their own choices free of official interference in their lives. If the evidence against eating meat showed that it did represent a major public health concern then there might be case for intervening in the choices we have as UK consumers.
Finally, there is the claimthat eating meat is bad for the planet and that means bad for those who comeafter us, namely future generations. What we now owe these later persons is avery complex matter. But one issue is especially difficult. Each of us may becontributing to making our world a worse place for those who must live in itafter we are gone. Yet each of us may be doing so in a very small way. What allof us together are doing is very bad; what I am doing is insignificant. Howthen can we motivate everyone to change their behaviour when not only are itseffects hard to see as immediate, but also not particularly significant inthemselves?
Not only then are there very different kinds of reasons to be a vegan. Not everyone is going to accept every kind of reason. Moreover, even if we do, it is not clear how they stand in relation to one another. How, for instance, should we balance what it is wrong to do now to non-humans with what might be wrong to do to future humans? How do we balance moral reasons to promote public health with moral reasons to respect people’s choices? How do we balance all these moral reasons with what is in our interests?
But isn’t it better to havemore reasons to be a vegan than less? Not necessarily. The philosopher AntonyFlew once famously criticised a strategy by a well-known theologian for supposedlyproving the existence of God that consisted of the cumulative addition ofseveral arguments. His criticism was that inasmuch as each argument was a poorone it wasn’t much of a strategy. Adding up bad arguments – no matter how manyyou added - did not yield one overall good one. His analogy was that of a‘leaky bucket’. You can’t fill with water a bucket that has lots of holes init. Each poor argument does not so much add to the cumulative case forsomething as drain away its support. The overall argument does not hold water!
Now this is not to say thatthe distinct arguments for veganism are poor. Rather it is to caution againstseeing several reasons for being a vegan as amounting to one very good one.What we should do is analyse each argument and assess its merits.
Veganuary may well be worthcelebrating and taking part in. It is certainly good that we can have an informedand wide ranging discussion about what we should eat and about how we shouldtreat non-human animals. And that discussion should acknowledge the differentreasons to be vegan and avoid the temptation to simply add up those differentreasons to get a stronger overall case. The Nuffield Council looks forward to takinga major role in that discussion.
Many thanks! This all sounds very sensible to me and it's typical of the Nuffield Council (of which I'm no longer a member) to be tapping into a vein of important current social and ethical concern. One caution, however, is that whilst Flew's leaky bucket is a perfect metaphor for stacking up poor arguments, in the end I think Flew changed his mind about the existence of God. We need to remember that what we condemn as weak arguments at one time can at another time seem more convincing. All the more reason to have the Nuffield Council having a close look at these things!