The Meat Paradox

Vegetarianism is more popular than ever—but so is meat consumption. How can this be?

Chickens in cardboard boxes
Jacob Aue Sobol / Magnum

How do you persuade the whole world to stop eating meat?

I have been trying for half a century. My book Animal Liberation was published in 1975, when I was 29 years old. I argued that our treatment of animals is ethically unjustifiable: If it’s wrong to cause unnecessary suffering, then it’s wrong regardless of the sufferer’s species. On that basis, I urged readers to stop eating meat. Though I described how animals are forced to endure extreme suffering on factory farms and in laboratories, my appeal was to rationality, not emotion. I believed I had proved that there was no reasonable defense for animal cruelty.

At the time, my position was widely considered radical, even bizarre. Today it’s mainstream. And yet the paradoxical fact remains: Even as the ethical arguments for avoiding meat have become better known, meat consumption has risen not only in countries that are emerging out of poverty, but in the U.S. as well. I never could have predicted that vegan living and carnivorousness might rise in tandem in the same society. What should we make of that?

I have been asking myself this question recently while working on Animal Liberation Now, which renews and updates my earlier book. The process has made me wonder what my younger self would have thought if he had known that, 48 years later, meat consumption would be higher than ever.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the publication of Animal Liberation. It began as an essay in The New York Review of Books. Robert Silvers, the magazine’s legendary editor, told me that my arguments persuaded him to give up meat. This was immensely encouraging. If I, an academic philosopher, could win over the editor of what was then America’s preeminent publication for progressive ideas, surely millions of other converts would swiftly follow. It seemed reasonable to hope that the market for the products of factory farms would soon shrink or even collapse.

Measured against those expectations, Animal Liberation was a failure. Some of the rise in meat eating simply tracks population growth and increased prosperity in countries, like China, whose citizens were once too poor to afford meat. But even in the United States, per capita consumption of meat and poultry is 24 percent higher than it was in 1975. The average American is eating less beef, but that has been more than offset by higher consumption of chicken and turkey. That’s even worse from an animal-welfare perspective. More birds must be raised and killed to produce the same quantity of meat, and they are raised in more crowded and intensive conditions than cows are.

At the same time, I would have been pleased to know that the book would succeed at changing minds. Back in the early 1970s, the treatment of animals was a nonissue, especially on the political left, where it was seen as a sentimental concern limited to animal lovers. Animal Liberation seems to have helped change that. Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has written that the book “made people—myself included—change what we ate, what we wore, and how we perceived animals.”

In the decades since, the animal-welfare movement has achieved important reforms, especially in Europe. The European Union and the United Kingdom have prohibited keeping hens in bare wire cages that prevent them from stretching their wings. Veal calves and breeding sows used to be housed in stalls so narrow that they were unable to turn around or walk more than a single step; that is now also illegal. These changes fall far short of what is needed but they give hundreds of millions of animals a better life.

Perhaps the most obvious change is cultural: In the West, there are far more vegetarians today than there were in 1975. I did not dare advocate going vegan in the original version of Animal Liberation, because it seemed too extreme. Today, avoiding all animal products isn’t so daring.

Can we attribute this shift to the success of ethical arguments? Recent experimental evidence suggests that they did play a role. In 2016, the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel invited me to collaborate on a study designed to test whether a single discussion about the ethics of eating meat would make students more likely to choose vegetarian meals. Eric thought it would not. Based on my anecdotal experience, I thought it might.

We randomly divided more than 1,000 undergraduate students at UC Riverside into two equal groups. One was assigned to read an article arguing, on ethical grounds, against eating meat from factory farms, which was followed by a small-group discussion and an optional video advocating avoiding meat. The other, the control group, got a similar lesson plan about donating money to help people in poverty. Because many students at Riverside use their student-ID cards to pay for meals, we could track their food choices after the lessons. Meat consumption stayed the same for the control group, but declined among those in the group that discussed animal ethics. Another recent study found similar results using arguments about meat consumption’s role in global warming, rather than animal suffering. Remarkably, the researchers found that the effect persisted three years later.

The most awkward conversations I have had since publishing Animal Liberation have not been with people who reject my arguments, but with those who tell me that they think I’m right—and continue to eat meat anyway. I have always known that ethics are not paramount for everyone all the time. Only a bold person would claim that they always do what they believe to be right, no matter the sacrifice. Still, I will never forget when, shortly after I arrived at Princeton, a new colleague told me at dinner that she agreed with my views about the treatment of animals. She told me this, you see, over the factory-farmed chicken she had just ordered from a menu that included the perfectly adequate vegan meal I was enjoying.

My older, wiser, and reluctantly realistic self now accepts that most people can easily continue doing something they believe is wrong as long as they have plenty of company. I suspect that when these people say they agree with my views, what they’re really saying is that they care about animal welfare and climate change, but they’re not going to adjust their individual habits until everyone else does.

This doesn’t mean that ethical arguments are useless. It means, rather, that their effect is felt most powerfully at the level of the policy changes that voters will support, rather than in people’s choice of what to buy at the supermarket. Many people have a sense that their individual actions don’t matter, but are in favor of passing laws that would constrain their options. In 2018, 63 percent of California voters supported Proposition 12, which required that all products from farmed animals sold in California must come from animals who have sufficient space to turn around and stretch their limbs or wings. (Earlier this month, in a major victory for the animal-welfare movement, the Supreme Court rejected a claim by pork producers that Prop 12 violates the U.S. Constitution.) A similar 2016 initiative in Massachusetts passed by an even more lopsided 78 percent. In both states, most of those voting for change must have been consuming animal products produced under the very conditions they were voting to prohibit.

When it comes to public policy in the United States, however, the role that money and lobbyists play makes changing anything that agribusiness opposes very difficult. It’s telling that, of the 14 U.S. states that have required-minimum-space allowances for farmed animals, all but two provide for ballot initiatives. There is no such federal mechanism. This helps explain why animal-welfare laws are further developed in democracies where money plays a more restricted political role, and where improvements for farmed animals have come through national or (in the case of the EU) transnational legislation.

Political hurdles will be more surmountable if we invest in alternatives to meat that people want and can afford, making it easier for them to align their actions, and votes, with their ethics. The rise of more appealing meat alternatives is a major cause for optimism. Novel plant-based foods that taste and chew like meat help people switch to a more ethical diet, although these products need to get cheaper to compete with meat from animals. Lab-grown meat could be even more revolutionary. Chicken produced from cultured animal cells is already on sale in Singapore. In Israel, the biotech firm Remilk says it can produce “real” dairy products made by copying the gene responsible for milk production in cows and inserting it into yeast cells. The company received regulatory approval in April. But lab-grown products are even further from being affordable and sustainable at scale than plant-based foods are. It’s crucial for investors to support research and development, for regulators to ease products’ path to market, and for governments to encourage their production.

I was an idealistic young man when Animal Liberation was published. Today I am an idealistic old man. The world has changed since 1975 in ways I couldn’t have imagined, many of them for the worse. But I remain convinced that philosophical arguments can shape how people live their lives. As long as that is true, there is hope for a future in which we will cease to inflict avoidable suffering on any sentient being.

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