Vegan activists have been spectacularly inconvenient lately. The average Australian looks on and wonders: What the heck do these people want? And activists offer an answer: What do we want? Animal liberation! When do we want it? Now!
But this chant is unhelpful to anyone who doesn't already know what "animal liberation" is. (Peter Singer, the world-famous Australian philosopher, published Animal Liberation in 1975, but it's a safe bet that the average Australian hasn't read it.)
So, again: What do the activists want? For a start, they want you to stop consuming animal products—to go vegan. As a professional ethicist, I'm in a position to offer some small assistance in thinking about the reasonableness of that particular demand.
The activists make a straightforward argument. They argue that consumption of animal products fuels an industry that is cruel and exploitative, killing many tens of billions of animals annually, and that mere gustatory pleasure cannot justify our support for such an industry — especially given that nutritious and delicious vegan food is becoming ever more abundant to serve the growing vegan market.
And it's not just activists making these arguments. Recent survey evidence suggests that a majority of professional ethicists believe that consuming meat is immoral. That said, there are some interesting arguments against the vegans' view.
Consider this. You are just one consumer among millions. A single farm can confine hundreds of thousands of animals. The market is vast. Given this, producers do not and cannot calibrate production in response to any one individual consumer's purchasing habits. Therefore, some have argued, you as an individual consumer can rest assured you will not make any difference.
That's what's known in the ethics literature as the "causal impotence" response. I hate to be a wet blanket, but it simply doesn't work. Matthew Halteman (a philosopher) and Steven McMullen (an economist) have recently made a good case against the causal impotence response. They describe an empirically plausible economic model in which individual consumer decisions in grocery stores and restaurants are likely to make a significant difference.
Now consider, if it's granted that consumers cause animals to die, it should also be granted that consumers cause animals to come into existence. Farmed animals wouldn't exist at all if consumers didn't eat them. Perhaps farmed animals should be grateful to consumers of animal products? This touches on some meaty philosophical questions. Surely it can't be possible to wrong someone by bringing them into the world?
Actually, it is obvious that you can wrong someone by bringing them into the world. Imagine a place where human children are kept in miserable conditions so that their organs can be used for medical transplantation. If you were to deliberately bring a child into existence in that situation, you would wrong her. This doesn't automatically mean it's wrong to bring farmed animals into existence; but it does mean that this argument fails justify consumption of animal products.
Perhaps there is some other response that can successfully rebut the activists' stand. But my own considered view is that the activists are fundamentally correct. I doubt that there is any way to morally justify routine consumption of animal products given it is both harmful and unnecessary; I think we ought to go vegan.
But veganism is one thing. Vegan activism is another. Even many vegans find vegan activism objectionable. Vegan activists invade farmers' private property, occupy restaurants, block traffic for hours on end, and so on. Even if we grant that consuming animal products is wrong, isn't it also wrong to illegally disrupt society in these ways?
Not necessarily. Many of our greatest heroes are lawbreakers: Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi. Illegal activism is in fact a time-honoured tradition. Some philosophers, such as Candice Delmas, have argued that it is not only acceptable but even obligatory in some cases to violate the law in order to resist injustice. If animal agriculture is indeed a massive systemic injustice as many have argued, then I submit vegan activists can reasonably claim to be part of a long tradition of morally justifiable civil disobedience.
But even if law-violating, confrontational vegan activism can in principle be morally justifiable, it might nevertheless be ineffective in practice. Perhaps these confrontational tactics backfire, repelling more people than they attract. I won't argue otherwise here. But I would like to observe that questions about the effectiveness of different forms of activism are tremendously difficult psychological questions. We should not often be confident in our opinions about such questions, and we should usually be skeptical of others who exhibit such confidence.