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Banning Meat

I disagree with Keith Burgess-Jackson's post about a possible ban on meat in three ways, even though both of us are advocates of plant-based diets.

First, I disagree with his empirical prediction that we're likely to see a ban on (or even just serious restrictions on) raising animals for meat on environmentalist grounds. The world's major governments can't get it together to propose serious restrictions on fossil fuel use, which everyone knows are bad for the environment. So how are they going to make a move against meat eating, whose environmental impacts aren't even on the radar screen? The meat industry is a powerful lobby, and the general public is far more attached to the type of fuel they put in their mouths than the type of fuel they put in their cars. This is not to say that taking on the meat industry is not a worthy cause, just that it's not a cause I can confidently envision succeeding in the next, say, half-century.

Second, I disagree with his objection to an environmentalism-based rationale for anti-meat legislation, of which he says "the ground is improper." I agree that we ought to be skeptical of good policies that are implemented for incorrect reasons. The problem -- as I see it, which may not match Burgess-Jackson's rationale -- is not that it's intrinsically wrong to have a wrongly-motivated policy, but rather that the motivation for a policy will inevitably influence its implementation, quite possibly skewing it away from accomplishing the thing you hoped it would accomplish (hence my skepticism of using national security/anti-foreign-oil arguments for investing in renewable energy). I also agree with Burgess-Jackson's defense of sentience-centrist ethics and criticism of ecocentrism. The environment has no intrinsic value, only value to beings that care about what kinds of interactions they have with it. There is a long history of animosity between sentience-centric and ecocentric philosophers, which seems to have spilled over into Burgess-Jackson's thinking on this question. As I see it, there are strong sentience-centric reasons for environmentalism -- environmental destruction causes sentient beings to suffer. And reducing the meat industry would have serious sentience-centric environmental benefits in addition to its direct sentience-centric benefits. That is, it's good for sentient beings if the climate does not rise several degrees, because things like disruptions to plant agriculture and flooding of coastal areas are bad for sentient beings -- and restrictions on meat production would help avert that fate, since animal agriculture produces significant amounts of greenhouse gases and climate-causing land cover change. The benefits here seem significant enough to outweigh the concerns of mismatched rationales. This is particularly so given that I find it more likely that if any restrictions on meat were ever to be implemented, they would have a strongly anthropocentric basis, rather than the econcentric one Burgess-Jackson discusses. Anthropocentric-environmentalist concerns are consistent enough with (and are mostly a subset of) sentience-centric-environmentalist concerns that anthropocentric anti-meat policies deserve sentience-centric support despite some incompatbilities around the edges (i.e. the policy in question would allow small-scale organic meat farming, which is environmentally innocent (in the eco- sentience- and anthropo- flavors) despite still raising direct sentience-centric concerns). We all should be able to agree that it's bad if the people of Tuvalu lose their island, even if some of us don't care about their animals and some don't care about the ecosystem itself.

Third, I disagree with Burgess-Jackson's blanket dismissal of coercive policies in favor of social change purely by persuasion. Certainly there are cases in which coercive policies will be ineffective, and a situation in which the legitimacy of the coercion is not widely accepted -- as is the case for an substantial restriction on meat production at the present time and, to my mind, the foreseeable future -- is one such situation. And there are issues for which coercive policies would be inappropriate or overkill. Burgess-Jackson fears a backlash, which is a reasonable concern in present circumstances (ranchers recently got whipped up about an unsubstantiated rumor that there would be a cow-fart tax), but present circumstances are not the only possible ones. Further, I don't entirely buy the underlying ontology by which solutions consist in either coercion or persuasion. Burgess-Jackson's model of persuasion is a highly individualist one, by which individuals decide to switch their diets until nobody is eating meat anymore, and the alternative is for government agents to slap handcuffs on anyone caught with a hamburger. But policymaking is not so simple or individualistic. Is it impermissible coercion to cut farm subsidies and price guarantees that help maintain the size of the current animal industry? Is it coercion for a town to deny a zoning permit to a proposed hog farm? Is it coercion for the BLM to reduce the amount of land it offers for grazing leases? Is it coercion for a school administrator to decide they will only put vegetarian meals on the menu? Is it coercion to tax cow farts to pay for the damage they do to others? Any of these policies will result in people eating less meat without said people having been persuaded that meat eating is morally wrong, but they also don't seem to be coercive of those people in the same objectionable way as the "make meat a misdemeanor" type of policy would be.


Blogger Alon Levy said...

I think the major problem with environmental bans on meat is that chicken, fish, and eggs don't have a worse impact than most vegetarian foods. Methane-taxing cow farts would encourage people to switch to chicken and fish, not to grains or soybeans. It would be a net good if your goal were to prevent Bangladesh from drowning, but if it were to reduce meat consumption, it wouldn't.

3:24 PM  

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