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Overwhelming Evil

Christopher Devlin Brown argues that our wholesale destruction of animals makes veganism humanity’s primary moral imperative.

Imagine you’re looking through a pair of binoculars at a park. At one end of the park you see a young person scribbling some obscene graffiti, while at the other end you recognize a serial killer from the news who seems to be creeping up on a fresh victim. Urgently, you grab a phone and call the police. First, you tell them about the youth who is scribbling graffiti, including their physical description, their location, and other information relevant to catching them. You make sure to be as thorough as possible, then ask the police to read their notes back to you to guarantee that they have correctly transcribed every detail. After all of this information has been properly checked, you then tell them that there is also a serial killer at the other end of the park, and provide them with the information relevant to catching the killer.

Have you done something wrong in this situation?

I believe so. There is a moral obligation to address significantly greater evils before addressing lesser evils, and the obligation becomes more pronounced as the relative difference between the evils increases. For instance, instead of a single serial killer, suppose you see a gang of psychopaths murdering dozens of schoolchildren at one end of the park, and again the graffiti artist at the other end. Trying to stop the graffiti artist before trying to stop the gang of murderers would seem a serious moral error.

When the resources available to address evils are limited, our obligation to use our limited resources to address significantly greater evils is increased even more. In the serial killer case, now imagine that your cell phone has a dwindling battery. With a phone that might die at any moment, it seems clear that you should immediately tell the police about the serial killer, and only if there’s still charge afterward should you tell the police about the graffiti artist (though it seems better to omit this information altogether, lest it distract them from catching the serial killer).

Hopefully all of this is eminently obvious. Now consider the following: many people take the genocides of the twentieth century to be the greatest horrors perpetrated by humans in history. One estimate for the sum of humans killed in all the genocides of the twentieth century is over thirty million people. If any events are overwhelmingly evil, surely these genocides are.

However, every single year, approximately seventy billion land animals are slaughtered for meat consumption, and perhaps over one trillion aquatic animals. In terms of the total number of beings killed, the slaughter of just land animals is over two thousand times worse every single year than the sum of all twentieth century genocides. Moreover, the majority of these animals live in horrible conditions, experiencing extreme discomfort, pain, disease, and terror throughout their lives. Even if, by whatever metric – for example, the capacity to experience pain and pleasure, or cognitive ability – the moral value of a typical animal life is only 1/100th the moral value of a typical human life, the evil we inflict on animals is still orders of magnitude greater than the evil inflicted on humans in all of the genocides of the twentieth century. It seems to me that the unnecessary violence we inflict on animals is therefore unequivocally the greatest evil our species perpetrates on an ongoing basis – far beyond any evils we currently direct or have ever directed toward humans.

This is not to diminish the horror of genocide. Nor am I implying that the lives of genocide victims are 1:1 morally equivalent to animal lives ended through factory farming. However, it is undeniable that most of the terrestrial and aquatic animals we typically eat are capable of pain and fear. For instance, consider that pigs and dogs seem more-or-less equivalent with regards to their capacity to experience pain and fear. I take it that most people would find it unacceptable to torture a dog to death, even if doing so might somehow yield some marginal amount of pleasure for the torturer.

In my eyes, the primary reason that we do not already treat the overwhelming evil we inflict on non-human animals as quantitatively greater than our human-directed atrocities, is because non-human animals lack the ability to self-advocate. If cows and pigs and chickens could talk, I suspect there would be worldwide (human) outcries against their abominable treatment. Yet, sadly, these beings cannot self-advocate.

Another reason that humans consistently underestimate the moral evil of the meat industry could be due to a deeper cognitive bias of ours. People are generally rather bad at thinking about and comparing very large quantities. Perhaps, to some people, it is hard to immediately see just how large the difference is between thirty million (humans) and seventy billion (animals). Hopefully, an analogy can help put this in a better perspective. Thirty million seconds is equal to approximately one year. However, seventy billion seconds is equal to two thousand, one hundred and seventy years – obviously a much, much greater length of time. To make it more salient: I take it that no one would like to be imprisoned for a year; but it would be astronomically worse to be imprisoned for over two thousand years. Such is the scale of difference, as measured in total lives killed, between the sum of the worst human-directed atrocities in our history and the killing we inflict on just terrestrial animals every single year.

Image © Venantius J Pinto 2023. To see more of his art, please visit behance.net/venantiuspinto

Vegan Activism Before All Else?

This is well-trodden ground, famously defended by Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation (1975). Not quite as well-trodden is the conjunction of my first claim – that we have an obligation to address significantly greater moral evils before lesser ones – with the second claim – that the evil we do to animals far outweighs any evil we do to humans. But I believe that this combination of claims has a serious implication: that the moral evil we ought to primarily devote our resources toward addressing is the harm we inflict on animals. Insofar as we do not do so, resources devoted toward such things as improving public health, or ending racism, sexism, disease, exploitation, human trafficking, wealth disparity, and so forth, are resources which are being misspent. That is to say, anyone who takes on any moral project other than ending the harm which we inflict on animals, is making a moral error.

It’s not just a minor moral error, either. The harm we inflict on animals is so great that the graffiti artist vs psychopathic gang comparison does not come close to being an apt analogy. It’s more like caring about someone who is cheating on their taxes rather than caring about the Rwandan genocide. Indeed, I think that the evil of unnecessary harm inflicted on animals is so great that it makes all our human-directed evils insignificant in comparison.

The upshot is that all moral projects other than stopping the widespread unnecessary harm inflicted on animals ought to be put on a back-burner until that project is accomplished. Of course, there could be some even greater moral project that would supersede our obligation to end harm to animals – perhaps a global existential threat, such as a meteor coming to destroy all life on the planet. But as it is, I see no extant evil that approaches the magnitude of our intentional harm to animals. (The closest may be the global ecological catastrophe being brought about by climate change, but this seems to me another instance of a harm inflicted on animals, primarily – though of course climate change involves human suffering as well.)

I can imagine someone objecting: “Perhaps there exists an obligation to not engage in evils; but we are under no obligation to attempt to address any evils – significant or otherwise – being perpetrated by others. Any attempt to address evils we are not ourselves committing counts as an extra-moral act, like giving to charity. At best, we have an obligation to not directly partake in the meat industry, perhaps by becoming vegetarian or vegan. But this is not the same as an obligation to try to end the industry.”

One response would be to adopt Singer's view expressed in ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ (Philosophy and Public Affairs 1:3, 1972), that charitable acts are moral obligations. This would require us to try to stop evils which we are not ourselves perpetrating. But I will not argue for that position here. Instead, my argument turns on what our moral obligations are only once we have already decided to end some evil. That is, this argument is consistent with the view that acting to end an evil committed by others is not obligatory. The obligation I am concerned with only kicks in once you have decided to try to end some evil or other. At this point, the argument is that you have an obligation to spend your moral resources (wealth, time, mental effort, etc) on significantly greater evils instead of lesser evils.

Someone might push back here too. Let act L be an attempt at addressing a lesser evil, and act G be an attempt at addressing a greater evil. One might respond that since L taken individually is non-obligatory, and G taken individually is non-obligatory, it follows that the decision to do G instead of L is likewise non-obligatory. This view says that there can be no obligation to perform one non-obligatory act instead of a different non-obligatory act.

This reasoning is misleading. As I see it, once one decides to take on even a non-obligatory moral project, that person thereby enters a realm of moral obligation. In the serial killer example, once you pick up the phone and call the police (and so commit to some hitherto extra-moral course of action) you have thereby committed yourself to the moral domain – which means you’re obliged to spend your moral resources on greater rather than lesser evils. In the serial killer case the obligation is obvious. I believe the same reasoning concerning obligation tracks onto spending our moral resources on ending factory farming as opposed to, for example, ending human trafficking.

Perhaps someone might object on the grounds that there is an ought/can problem lurking around: we only ought to do things which we can do, and we cannot end the harm our species inflicts on other animals, so we have no moral obligation to try to end unnecessary human-caused harm to animals.

The problem I have with this objection is two-fold: (i) I think we collectively could successfully end the evil we do to animals; and (ii) No individual could single-handedly end any other major social issue, either – such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, or homophobia. Yet nearly no one takes the impossibility of a single actor ending racism to be good grounds for denying that we ought to end racism. The relevant ‘can’ in this case is the ‘can’ of society, not the ‘can’ of the individual. In other words, it’s a collective action problem, just as are nearly all the major problems facing our species. Only groups of people can make a difference to these problems. As a collective, we can plausibly put an end to racism, sexism, or factory farming.

Does this sort of ‘collective can’ carry the same normative weight that more ‘personal cans’ carry? Specifically, do we have an obligation to engage in collective actions even if we can only ever be a tiny part of the solution?

I’m not sure. But it turns out to be irrelevant. I am arguing that once we enter the moral sphere to end evils, we have a moral obligation to address the greatest evils first, so when deciding on which collective action project to engage with, we are obligated to engage with the project to end factory farming. This is consistent with the view that some non-collective-action efforts are sometimes more worthy of pursuit than any given collective action project. Utilitarianism is a brand of moral consequentialism under which we ought to maximize total utility, often measured in terms of the total amount of pleasure minus pain in the world, regardless of the means by which this utility is maximized (at least this is the case under act utilitarianism, which I see as more internally consistent than rule utilitarianism). From a utilitarian perspective, it may be the case that a utility calculation sometimes favors engaging in individual projects over trying to stop factory farming – as when a doctor can spend ten minutes saving a person’s life instead of spending that ten minutes as part of a protest against factory farming. Nonetheless, I am confident that the massive harm done to animals favors engaging in collective efforts to end factory farming over most personal moral projects, even if your individual contribution is relatively minor.

Let me spend a bit more time on this. Suppose that utilitarian calculations always favored non-collective action; that individuals should never engage in collective actions because we always create more benefit from more direct, personal engagement with the world (I’m suspicious of this assumption, but let’s bear with it for a moment). Even if it were the case that direct personal action is always more effective than collective action, it does not necessarily follow that we would lack an obligation to end factory farming. It would plausibly instead follow that we have an obligation to try to end factory farming directly. (Again, this claim assumes that we are already committed to engaging in a moral project of some sort.)

The argument I’ve provided is also not committed to utilitarianism. To see why, consider the well-known ‘trolley problem’. In the classic trolley concept, one innocent person is sacrificed to save five people. Act utilitarians seem committed to this being morally acceptable, even obligatory. By contrast, it is consistent with everything I have said that we ought not to end factory farming if innocent people need to be sacrificed to achieve that end. Thus, my argument does not require a commitment to utilitarianism (though, in fact, I doubt that any such immoral actions are necessary to stop factory farming). Indeed, the first premise of my argument – that we are obligated to address significantly greater evils before lesser evils – does not require any particular moral commitments, utilitarian or otherwise. This premise can for example be put in broadly deontological terms. For instance, the duty to address greater evils before lesser evils could plausibly be generated from Immanuel Kant’s first formulation of his Categorical Imperative, which says that we ought to act only if we could will the maxim of our action as a universal law. The law to address greater before lesser evils could coherently be made into a universal law. (Conversely, if we were to make it a universal law to address lesser evils before greater evils, we would only ever address the least of any given set of evils, which seems absurd.) Alternatively, the argument could be put in virtue ethics terms, by seeing it a virtue to address greater evils before lesser evils. This all seems rather straightforward to me.

That said, it is true that my second premise – that factory farming is far and away the greatest evil we are currently perpetrating – does rely on quantifying the amount of suffering factory farm animals typically experience, and comparing that suffering to the total suffering inflicted on all the humans in all the genocides of the twentieth century. However, I think this sort of reasoning should be acceptable for just about anyone regardless of the nature of their particular moral commitments, since we nearly always determine the relative badness of two states of affairs according to how much suffering is involved. I’m not sure I see a plausible alternative for ranking the relative evils of states of affairs. Admittedly, Dante (following Aristotle in spirit, if not in letter) gives such an alternative ranking in his Inferno, ranking those actions which misuse reason and knowledge (such as heresy or treason) worse than actions which are merely consequences of base passions (such as lust or wrath). However, the non-suffering-based ranking of evils as given by Dante is irrelevant to factory farming, since torturing and killing seventy billion animals is obviously vastly worse than any acts of betrayal (and if Hell were real, surely genocidal maniacs would occupy a deeper circle than mere traitors and heretics, anyway).

A final objection is that there may be some institution causally upstream of both factory farming and other human-directed evils, so we ought to spend our moral resources to end the causal source of all these evils. For instance, maybe racism, sexism, class inequity, as well as factory farming, are all consequences of capitalism. Frankly, I doubt that capitalism specifically is the cause of factory farming, since we would likely still engage in factory farming if society were radically socialist. But my doubt doesn’t matter much anyway. The current argument is that we ought to devote our resources to ending the greatest evil first, and that factory farming is the greatest evil. If the best way to end factory farming is via the destruction of capitalism (or some other purported source of many social evils), then so be it. All the better if other, lesser evils would also thereby be eliminated – though the elimination of these lesser evils will not be a significant factor in our moral deliberations, given the relative weight of factory farming versus that of all human-directed evils.

The argument I have presented deems it a moral obligation to end factory farming, so long as you are committed to engaging in some moral project. This means temporarily putting aside all efforts to end human-directed evils. This may be a rather hard pill to swallow for many people. I agree with Singer that this is due to a humancentric bias – our speciesism – which we should do away with. We ought to consider how our actions affect all sentient creatures, regardless of species. Once our humancentric bias is removed, it is eminently clear what course of action we’re obligated to pursue.

© Christopher Devlin Brown 2023

Christopher Devlin Brown is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at Xiamen University, China.

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