Introduction: Facts and Prescription

Utilitarian accounts of land usage and food production focus on the costs and benefits of practices. Erin McKenna offers some numbers: "The water used to grow the animal's grain, combined with their drinking needs and the water used in processing their carcasses, amount to some 2,500 gallons per day per person in the U.S. who eats meat…In contrast, one who eats no meat accounts for no more than 300 gallons per day for [their] food," (McKenna, 170). Some sources claim the widespread raising of cattle for food as one of the three most serious environmental problems, affecting land and water quality, atmospheric and climate conditions, as well as food supply for the world's hungry.

Thus, given a strict adherence to Peter Singer's "preference utilitarianism", we are assumed to come to the conclusion that something is wrong with our current meat-eating practices. I argue that Utilitarianism and Environmental Pragmatism are the best modes by which we can recognize the moral impulse toward vegetarianism, though Environmental Pragmatism provides the best method for avoiding cruelty to animals.

Utilitarian Approach: "Preference Utilitarianism"

If vegetarianism assumes some normative principle behind it, the question to be answered for someone courting or critiquing vegetarianism would be “Why should I become and remain a vegetarian?” Likewise, why choose utilitarianism and pragmatism as the guidelines by which we arrive at vegetarianism? One answer is that our current social climate implicitly embraces anthropocentric, simply “instrumental” utilitarianism; focusing on the effects of our actions rather than the motive behind them would speak more directly to the common American. A form of utilitarianism which has gained currency over the last 35 years is Peter Singer’s “preference utilitarianism.” This theory builds from Jeremy Bentham’s belief that all living creatures are “under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,” (Fellenz, 58). Thus, Singer presents the single interest which all sentient beings possess as “avoiding painful experience,” (61). By his inclusive construction of the goal of sentience, Singer seeks to override the current, lowly moral status attributed to animals. Avoiding speciesism, the arbitrary choice in favor of humans in moral deliberation, we can then begin to see our meat consumption practices as impinging upon the interests of other animals.

Critique of Singer's Account

The utilitarian calculus of tallying pleasures and pains runs into roadblocks almost immediately, in regard to our treatment of animals. Some people know full well that their current habits harm living things and that their meat-eating continuously contributes to a widespread system of animal exploitation. However, the utilitarian would be hard-pressed to show exactly what makes the moral status of nonhuman animals equal to that of humans. Issues of species solipsism, such as the comparability of suffering between these groups or within these groups, arise, as well as whether these considerations would affect the habits of someone entrenched in speciesism. The speciesist may take greater pleasure from a steak than the suffering induced to produce it, but this account seems wholly speculative. Preference utilitarianism ignores the question of whether the bare facts about our treatment of animals or the efficacy of alternative land uses would suggest vegetarianism.

Alternative Approaches

Surely some alternative, traditional ethical theory could offer something in the way of altering our habits. However, as McKenna notes, "Reason alone will rarely lead one to alter an ingrained habit, nor will sympathy," (McKenna, 170). This account of ingrained habits cuts at the perceived potential of Deontological or Care ethics to effectively alter our treatment of animals through meat consumption.

McKenna's approach derives from American Pragmatism, a viewpoint arising from frustration with traditional philosophical endeavors. The modern formulation, Environmental Pragmatism, shows that dwelling on metaphysical questions for precise and infallible answers ultimately prove fruitless for action. One's actions are largely dictated by unreflective habit, for the sake of simplicity in one's everyday interactions. Pragmatism seeks to cast our habits under a productively critical light, in order to alter them for the sake of our ends-in-view. Of course, both preference utilitarianism and environmental pragmatism assume that our goal is to lead moral lives. Pointing out, in the guise of a utilitarian, that one's eating habits lead to the widespread suffering of animals as well as inefficient and harmful land usage may only help to unsettle someone. The person may never view her habits alone as harmful, locking into a sort of tragedy of the commons. Thus, habits may remain, to a large degree, intact. Pragmatism, on the other hand, seeks to make explicit one's goals and to review actions in light of these well-articulated goals.

Goals and Habits in Pragmatism

As utilitarians seek to compare the effects of one's actual and potential actions in relation to moral judgment, pragmatists see one's habits as reflecting a web of values. Reflecting on the reasons for one's actions should bring other reasons to light. Anthony Weston explains, "to justify or to explain a value is to reveal its organic place among our others," (Weston, 311). Meat consumption is a deliberate action, which usually reflects our social situatedness rather than deliberation on the values informing the habit. When we order a dish containing processed pig parts, we often do so without an exercise in critical intelligence. If we were to press someone on her reasons for ordering a dish containing meat, we may get answers such as "it provides the day's protein," "it simply tastes great," or "Why does it matter?" We could press further, asking what goals are being fulfilled by eating meat. Here, the aims of preference utilitarianism or care ethics (or Humean sentimentalism) could take precedence, as pragmatists embrace moral pluralism in defining one's values. The purpose of exercising critical intelligence is to show how well our actions match with our goals, our ends-in-view. One's act of meat-eating, in this social climate, supports institutions which cause multifarious harm to ecosystems, the global climate, and human health. Thus, if one's articulated goals include health, ecosystem stability, etc, the fulfillment of these goals require certain actions as opposed to others. Vegetarianism would seem to satisfy this imperative. Following Environmental Pragmatism to the forming of this habit would allow a greater inclusiveness in articulating our values; as opposed to moral monism present in Deontological or Utilitarian ethics, the moral pluralism of Environmental Pragmatism grants validity to our widely variant goals. Those goals can include the standpoints deemed moral, economic, environmental, medical, etc.

1. Fellenz, Marc R. The Moral Menagerie: Philosophy and Animal Rights. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007.
2. McKenna, Erin. "Pragmatism and the Production of Livestock."
2. Weston, Anthony. "Beyond Intrinsic Value: Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics." Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Eds. Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
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