Hunting as Trolley Problem Veganism

Here’s a common dilemma in moral psychology and philosophy: a trolley is barreling down the tracks, heading straight for a group of five people who will be killed if nothing is done. You could flip a switch and divert the trolley so that it kills one person. What would you do?

Most people say the right thing to do is flip the switch, saving five people and killing one poor soul.

Alternatively, let’s say you were on a bridge above the trolley, again certain to kill five people if nothing changes. Next to you on the bridge is a large man, a real husky fella, who if pushed over the bridge will land on the tracks and stop the train. He will die, but in turn the five will be saved. What would you do?

Most people would not push the man off the bridge, at least according to experiments in which participants were faced with this question.

But notice that both scenarios are identical in that you could kill one person to save five others. The difference is that in the second scenario you have to physically touch the person, hoisting him over the edge, sending him to certain death.

It’s discomforting to think about, and I’m not sure what I would actually do in the situation. But I’m a utilitarian, not a deontologist (who would say that we should never violate even a single person’s rights — such as the right to stay alive — no matter the trade-off), and I believe the right thing to do in both situations is to kill the one to save the many. (For the remainder of this post, I will presume that my judgment is the “correct” solution to the trolley dilemma for the purpose of making an argument.)

What if the choice between hunting and being vegan is — or could be — similar, with hunting actually being the more utilitarian (and thus more ethical) choice?

I know, I know. This is The Reasoned Vegan. Why would I argue in favor of hunting? Bear with me.

As we’ve discussed before, veganism is not cruelty-free. By being alive, all of us cause some amount of animal — including human — suffering. That is simply inevitable and, given our innate desire to not die, it’s also inevitable that no one is going to kill themselves to save animals and the planet. More specifically, the harvesting of crops kills small mammals, though the exact number per hectare unknown and at any rate variable.

Hunting obviously isn’t cruelty-free either. It’s ridiculous to claim that shooting something in the face isn’t cruel, but people actually try to convince others of that. In fact, hunting likely requires some willingness to do harm to others, and most people who are vegan would probably not be able to handle doing such a thing. But that says something about hunters themselves, and not necessarily the ethics of hunting in general.

What if it’s the case that hunting deer and eating venison results in fewer deaths than that contained in an equal amount of tofu (by weight, protein, calories, or whatever metric you want to use)?

This is actually plausible. Again, we don’t know the hectare-to-animal-death ratio, but it may be that more animals are killed during the harvest of soybeans than the single deer killed to make venison. At this point you wisely point out that it does not make much sense to apply the same moral weight to a mouse as a deer. Mice have pathetic, puny brains compared to those of a deer. So we might say that killing something like five or ten mice is as morally wrong as killing one deer. If that’s the case, then we’ll have to await more research to know whether tofu or venison is the more ethical choice, but it’s still possible that it’s the latter.

Even the possibility is a hard pill to swallow. If we ever do have a conclusive answer and it turns out that tofu contains more death, I’m probably not going to buy a rifle, wake up at 4am and sit in a tree waiting for some unsuspecting furry creature to prance along. But I would be a lot more forgiving of hunters who, despite their apparent willingness to do harm (read: psychopathy-lite), may sometimes do less harm than me.

There are reasons to be skeptical. Technological advances in crop harvesting are a constant, and perhaps some genius will invent a way to reduce the number of animals killed, such that if we ever do figure out the tofu-to-venison death comparison, the tofu will win out (like golf, a lower score is better). There also may not be a way to directly compare the death of a mouse to the death of a deer in ethical terms, though I am inclined to presume that there is.

Finally, in discussions of dietary ethics, it is presumed that we’re talking about the right way for everyone to be. It simply would not be possible for everyone to be fed meat from an animal that was hunted and killed; the economics do not scale in such a way. As a result, the “it’s more ethical to hunt than be vegan” argument is really a “it’s more ethical for me and some other people to hunt, and for everyone else to continue to consume factory farmed meat and animal products” argument. Veganism, on the other hand, has the benefit of scale.

In conclusion, it is theoretically possible that hunting and killing animals — as squeamish as it may make you — is the more utilitarian (ethical) choice. On the other hand, if we’re talking about the way society ought to function (should we all be vegan?) — and we usually are — then the only option that scales is veganism. So regardless of the temporarily more ethical choice that we as individuals can make — hunt or be vegan — veganism remains the more ethical choice for societies.


  1. Very thought-provoking post! I’ve often thought about this myself, that killing the occasional deer might result in fewer overall deaths than eating legumes, grains and fruits due to all the small mammals and insects that are killed from agriculture, but you correctly point out that veganism scales better. Also, shooting an animal deliberately for food or as a trophy is different from killing animals inadvertently during harvests.

    I also wish vegans would abandon this “cruelty-free” label, it seems naive and ignorant to imply no animals were harmed at all in the manufacture of many vegan products.

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