This article by Angelique Chao, arguing that eating humanely-raised meat is a morally acceptable choice, got me thinking about vegetarianism.
One argument against eating meat is “One is doing harm against this animal by purchasing this product. Therefore, one shouldn’t purchase this product.” When scrutinized, however, this claim doesn’t seem very straightforward.
Consider: will eating this particular chicken leg (say) cause harm? Not to the chicken, who is already dead. The chicken was killed regardless of whether I eat it. Perhaps the argument, then, is “One is causing harm to be done against a future animal by purchasing this product. Therefore, one shouldn’t purchase it.” This is because one is supporting a system of animal production.
Again, the reasoning here isn’t as straightforward as it seems: if you are dealing with a typical industrial poultry process (say) then one’s actions are miniscule compared to the scale of production. Is the system really sensitive enough to one’s actions to scale production up or down based on the purchase of one chicken leg (say)?
The response may be: “One’s actions in aggregate are causing harm to be done against a future animal(s) by purchasing this product. Therefore, one shouldn’t purchase it.” The idea here seems to be that cumulative purchases cause an increase in chicken production, say, and that there is a specific point at which one causes an increase in production, but it happens only because one also made purchases before.
Either this or the previous argument might be made into a probabilistic argument: “For any given purchases of these sorts of products, there is a chance that one is causing harm to be done against a future animal. Therefore, one shouldn’t purchase them.“
There are two things left out of this argument: first, the net effects for some future animal(s), and second, the net effects for all agents concerned.
Let’s imagine that the purchase of this chicken leg sets off an increase in chicken production, which leads to whatever harm is involved in raising a future chicken and killing it. Is this the whole equation? No. The relevant question here is rather: is the new chicken’s life worse than no life at all? The vegetarian might have a case here for some chicken production, but it seems more weak in other cases (are cows or sheep that spend their days grazing in a field free of natural predators really having a net negative life?).
However, even this isn’t an adequate analysis, because the chicken isn’t the only part of the equation. There are various other possible effects of the action, involving harm and good. How does the action affect the poultry company workers, other people in your society, other animals, and, of course, yourself? There is now a welter of possible effects that can be considered.
So, the argument can be given as: “For any given purchases of these sorts of products, there is a chance that one is causing net harm to the future agents affected by the purchase. Therefore, one shouldn’t purchase them.“
Suddenly, it doesn’t seem automatically intuitive that the argument is sound. In particular, various purchases of meat might trigger net harm, but others might be neutral or trigger net good. For example, what if purchasing meat in some cases caused an increase in idyllic cow lives?
If there were such cases, then following the logic of the argument, it would be immoral in those cases to be a vegetarian.