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Utilitarianism, Vegetarianism, and Human Health

It is generally assumed that the link between utilitarianism and vegetarianism is relatively straightforward. However, a familiar objection to utility-based vegetarianism maintains that, given the massive scale of animal agribusiness, any given person is causally impotent in reducing the overall number of animals raised for food and, thus, in reducing the unfathomably high quantity of disutility engendered thereby.

Utilitarians have frequently responded to this objection in two ways: first, by appealing to expected utility and economic thresholds, and, secondly, by appealing to publicity effects. In this paper, I will offer some reasons for thinking that, however far these responses go in the direction of ethical vegetarianism, both leave an important normative gap between the dietary prescription they are capable of underwriting and a ‘minimally-genuine’ vegetarian obligation. What is needed to close this gap is a utility-based reason that (1) generates an ethical prescription for minimally-genuine vegetarianism and (2) circumvents the causal impotence objection.

As I see it, there is a straightforward and auspicious reason that can perform both of the required tasks — namely, an appeal to the well-documented welfare-reducing effects of eating animal products upon human health. For, if causal impotence is to work as a global objection to utility-based vegetarianism (rather than as a more local objection to certain reasons supporting that position), then it must operate as a general thesis about the incapacity for any given individual to bring about more utility solely through her own abstention from consuming animal products. However, for almost any given individual, the decision to maintain a vegetarian diet is causally potent in at least diminishing the expected disutility for herself of poorer health and a shorter life span associated with the consumption of animal products. Thus, it follows that (1) there are plausible, if not conclusive, utilitarian grounds for minimally-genuine vegetarianism and (2) the causal impotence objection fails as a general criticism of utility-based vegetarianism.

Utilitarianism, Vegetarianism, and Human Health