Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Price of Meat

The NY Times has an interesting article on meat production. I was puzzled by the following, though:
Perhaps the best hope for change lies in consumers’ becoming aware of the true costs of industrial meat production. “When you look at environmental problems in the U.S.,” says Professor Eshel, “nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production. And factory farming is ‘optimal’ only as long as degrading waterways is free. If dumping this stuff becomes costly — even if it simply carries a non-zero price tag — the entire structure of food production will change dramatically.”

What does consumer awareness have to do with the price of fish meat? I read Eshel as suggesting that we legislate to internalize the cost of pollution (and I would add a further cost for the harms to animal welfare, if this could be reliably measured). Fixing the system in this way would relieve the ethical burden placed on consumers -- and just as well, since I tend to think it unduly burdensome to ask individuals to address such concerns in their day-to-day lives. Much better if we can fix the market so that a trip to the grocery store need not be an occasion for grueling moral decisions.


  1. A vegetarian's grocery visit is hardly "ethically burdensome," and far from "morally grueling." The costs that the vegetarian must undertake are minimal to moderate.

    As a result I am surprised at your suggestion. Governmental intervention in markets is risky, and often the source of significant and foreseeable, if not intended, bad consequences: lobbyist groups, inefficiency, temporized reaction to market pressures and so on. You could reasonably suggest that a make-believe government--free from the fallibility, corruption, and mal-intent that plague our actual governments--intervene in the market. But for contingent reasons your suggestion seems unwise and contra-utilitarian.

    The least-cost path to a decrease in aggregate meat demand is a self-motivated change among consumers to become more morally aware.

    Perhaps you can help lead the way to decreasing aggregate meat demand by pledging to refrain from eating meat for a month?

    A second advantage of resisting governmental intervention in the market is that it is likely to bring about a desirable change in consumers. By purely market forces, consumers are likely to be more aware of their moral circumstances, and more sensitive to the moral demands upon them. So long as their moral sensitivity is non-extreme this has to be a desirable state of affairs. No? Things would be better if people more frequently acted on moral reasons.

  2. I'm inclined to agree with Jack being a vegetarian is fairly easy. It is hard to cross over, but once you are there life is pretty easy.


  3. Sure, once you've already decided to be a vegetarian, you're home free. I was instead talking about the moral burden on those who aren't vegetarian, and aren't likely to change their everyday habits anytime soon (which I expect includes most people).

    Jack - What's the intrinsic value of "acting on moral reasons"? That sounds fetishistic to me. We should want to bring about a better state of affairs. Acting on moral reasons is often our means to this end. If we can secure the end and thus relieve the need for this means, then that's great. To think otherwise would be like opposing safe-swimming flags at the beach, on the grounds that they reduce the need/opportunity for heroic rescues!

    On the pragmatic question, I see it as coming down to whether we are more likely to:
    (i) convince the masses (qua private individuals) to become vegetarian; or
    (ii) convince the masses (qua citizens) to support good legislation here [and guard against lobbyist takeover].

    Here my bet is with (ii), since I think I'm much more morally responsive and responsible qua citizen than qua individual, and can only assume the same is true of others.

  4. Richard--If you think that being a vegetarian is easy, I'm interested in what you think is grueling or ethically burdensome about non-vegetarian's grocery shopping. The non-vegetarians have at least one easy alternative: buy no meat.

    Q: "What's the intrinsic value of "acting on moral reasons?"

    A: In many ways, acting on moral reasons--moral sensitivity--is a skill that one develops. You're right that the output of moral sensitivity is intrinsically good: good consequences. But so too is the skill. Possessing moral sensitivity makes one's character better, makes one a better person, and that is intrinsically valuable.

    At the extreme your view that "acting on moral reasons" is of purely instrumental value collapses into an ugly paternalism. You aren't advocating an ugly paternalism here. But to avoid the paternalism we will need situations which are free of governmental intervention on which people can, so to speak, cut their moral teeth. It is hard to imagine a moral situation which is better suited for this kind of moral character building than the question of eating meat.

    We probably agree that there should be some moral domains which are designed for people to develop good moral habits. I think that the question of eating meat is one of them. Maybe we just disagree on which domain should be designed for people to develop good moral habits.

    I agree that on the pragmatic question (ii) is more likely. (Though, wouldn't it be better if (i) were more likely?!?)

  5. Jack - it may indeed be easy to simply "buy no meat". What's more grueling, I think, is the decision to do so. It requires effort to weigh the balance of reasons and determine whether they outweigh the comfort of habit, and to then deliberately change one's everyday habits is also burdensome (at least, to those of conservative disposition -- perhaps I'm an extreme case, but the state of the world suggests not!). You neglect all this when you focus only on the resulting acts. (I discuss this more here.)

    I'm not sure what "ugly paternalism" you have in mind. At the extreme, I'd be delighted if our societal systems were so well-designed that people rarely needed to consider impartial moral reasons at all in their daily living. There is plenty of room for that in the public sphere, and it seems a more personal focus (on one's close relationships, etc.) would do more to enrich the private sphere.

    So, in the ideal world, I really don't see any place at all for "the kind of moral character" that's built by abstaining from meat-eating. Perhaps you could say more about it?

  6. To me - being a vegetarianism is 'hard' - running a marathon on the other hand is 'easy'.

    The former requires constant thought to modify behaviors constant checking of labels and whatever else the latter is just about going somewhere and starting the feet moving and then keeping them moving until I reach some predefined end point (winning a marathon is another story!).

    So vegetarianism seems a pretty good example of 'hard'.


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