Veganism’s “Problem of Evil”?

Recently, veganism got a brief platform in one of the last places you might expect: A class about Administrative Ethics; more specifically, in a lecture about Administrative Evil. While introducing the topic, my professor was describing individual actions that might arguably be evil, and he touched upon how some vegetarians and vegans might consider the act of eating meat to be “evil.” He then asked the class if we agreed with this premise, which I took as an opportunity to offer my own take on the “problem of evil” when it comes to consuming meat. This wasn’t just an opportunity for me to promote veganism, however, it also gave me the chance to think about an issue that is a core dilemma in the vegan community.

Before I begin, this question of whether consuming meat is evil, it’s not directly applicable to administrative ethics, but it can be. Evan wrote about an employee of the USDA, Ed Murtagh, who wrote in an internal newsletter about people trying Meatless Monday; the backlash he received reflects an issue in administrative ethics. Murtagh’s newsletter was removed and the reason was because it hadn’t been given “proper clearance,” which after Evan’s inquiries turned out to be an empty, nonexistent policy. The ethics comes in here: The USDA invoked a nonexistent “policy” to prohibit the encouragement of a practice that promotes the values and virtues that the USDA exists to promote. There’s more in his piece about the interplay between the Secretary, some members of Congress, and a beef association, but I just wanted to extract that one theme as an example of the core of how ethics works in an organization. Now, administrative evil can arguably be present in the near entirety of agents in the regulatory and monitoring bodies that do not directly oppose and publicly disavow the animal agriculture industry, such as giving more credibility to a beef association than to a public servant. Administrative evil is essentially a theory to describe when the actions, policies, and programs of an organization – especially when carried out by their representatives – are deeply and consistently bad, whether through intentional ill-will, or extreme incompetence or deficiencies. But enough about boring organizational stuff, let’s turn the discussion towards if an individual’s act of eating meat is evil.

What I said in class is that many vegans do to feel that way, but there are others that don’t. This is an important point to emphasize because of the depth, breadth, and nuance of vegan life. I continued to say that there are other explanations for why people eat meat, ranging from psychological to traditional and cultural reasons, and that I believed in the psychological explanation. I didn’t elaborate more because I didn’t want to come on too strong and, well, it wasn’t my classroom – so I stopped there. I did really want to expand on this though because, like mentioned earlier, this is a significant question for vegans, and I also think there’s an assumption about how all vegans answer it (i.e. that it is evil to eat meat).

So, let’s address the question: Is eating meat evil? First, we should define evil. In this context, it basically refers to an act that is intentionally and absolutely cruel, malicious, callous, harmful, destructive, etc.; I define it as an action that is bad to its core, or bad through and through. So, are people who eat meat inherently those things? Mostly not. But in this day and age it has to qualify as something negative, right? This is because the openness and objectivity of the facts and consequences about our food system and animal agriculture demand acknowledgement and change. Everything from unmatched and excessive resource usage, environmental damage, antibiotic use, and unconscionable violence are all prevalent in this industry, not to mention the types of labor exploitation and poor treatment experienced by migrants that has been highlighted by Mike. These things must necessitate a response in anyone who wants to be ethically motivated and proactive because a lot of the bad stuff can be connected to individual dietary and lifestyle choices. And that isn’t meant to be an affront to my non-vegan readers and colleagues, but a moral calculus based upon worldly and tangible evidence.

So, when action isn’t taken, when people know these things (or even some of these things) but continue to eat meat, what is going on there? Is it evil, bad behavior, or some other mark against someone’s ethical character; or is there another explanation? Perhaps something more innocent, like the presence of carnism and the sheer triviality of eating decisions. First, carnism is basically the psychological framework through which we compartmentalize and categorize types of animals. Ultimately what it leads us to do is relegate farm animals to a morally unconsidered class of animals, where almost no regard is given for their well-being and they are valued as being means to the end of people’s plates. Secondly – the triviality of eating – is the foundation of what I argue is also a psychological inclination. What I mean by this is that eating is just such a simple and small-seeming thing, we do it a few times a day in a number of different forms and contexts. Because of this, the implications of what choices you make when you eat are easy to overlook; in fact, it’s initially quite abstract to draw a line from your individual dietary choices to the zeitgeist of the animal agriculture industry and the destruction and harm it causes. (Ironically, however, we draw lines between our individual choices and many other ethical issues such as purchasing sustainably sourced products, low emissions vehicles, items made under fair labor practices, etc.) Nonetheless, this triviality inhibits our ability to see those broader connections and to see veganism as an excellent, righteous, and easy solution. These explanations imply that there are deeper forces at play that are societal and nonconscious.

Of course, I am not attempting to apologize for meat-eating or to suggest that they deserve some absolution from their responsibility; rather, I am trying to understand what the conditions are that permeate within these behaviors, so I can frame how I engage with non-vegans and advocate for veganism. These are the same behaviors I exhibited until 3 years ago when I decided to become vegan and I certainly don’t think I was evil when I was eating meat, but when I began to connect the dots between myself, animal agriculture, and its global problems I knew that being vegan was the best choice. My hunch is that this is the case with many people, that just need to reframe their relationship with their food and farm animals, but no one is evil for not being at that point, even if they never get there.

Evil is a serious word to label someone as. I think it shouldn’t be assigned to people who choose to eat meat, but there is something to say about making that choice while knowing the badness associated with it all. What I say is that the tragic facts about this industry are known and the choice to contribute them is yours, just like the choice to adopt a vegan diet, when now it’s easier than ever before. The ethical merits of a vegan life are powerful and profound; I argue that it is a more moral choice, but ultimately it is each of our choices whether to buy-into or boycott animal agriculture. It is a regressive and unnecessary practice in general. Eating flesh just isn’t something we need to do anymore because there are ethical, affordable, and accessible alternatives, so again, this is another choice all individually make about whether to contribute that practice or not to. Frankly, it is that simple: The facts are out there and the choice is yours.

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