First published 11 August 2017. Last updated 11 August 2017.
A common last-ditch argument against veganism (or vegetarianism, or lacto-vegetarianism, or reducetarianism) goes as follows:
The “I’m a utility monster” argument. “I’m a highly intelligent and emotionally sophisticated human, so my interests genuinely matter vastly more than those of lower animals, and eating animal products gives me so much pleasure that it’s actually worth the cost of the animal suffering.”
This argument must be distinguished from its cousin, which goes like this:
The “I just don’t care” argument. “I know that my pleasure upon eating a steak doesn’t really justify the requisite animal suffering from an altruistic lens, but I’m selfish, so I don’t care. That’s just how it is. Tough luck.”
Lest anyone think I’m putting words in people’s mouths, I have heard both of these arguments explicitly and often. Spend only a little while “debating” veganism with people and you will too.
The “I don’t care” argument defies easy solution, because it admits its own wrongness, in a twisted way. Anyone who’s read Famine, Affluence, and Morality knows that the canyon between moral obligation and personal motivation is wide and treacherous, and by no means specific to veganism. There are ways to build bridges across that canyon for people, which deserve further discussion elsewhere. But even the best bridges can end up looking rickety, because we are not wired for effective altruism. Deciding to cross the canyon, no matter how solid the bridge, is ultimately a personal decision.
The “utility monster” argument, on the other hand, is a total sham, and that fact is easily demonstrated. Actually, it may be that many people only make the “utility monster” argument as a dressed-up version of the “I don’t care” argument, because they’re ashamed to admit the latter. An unfortunate consequence of this is that debunking the “utility monster” argument may appear to do little to lead people toward veganism, instead ushering them safely into the comfort of the “I don’t care” argument. But rule number one of pragmatic persuasion is “different strokes for different folks.” Keep every argument in your back pocket, choosing the right ones for your present audience, and knowing when not to make an argument at all.
So, on to the debunking. Before we start, I want you to pick an explicit number for how much better you think an omnivorous life is than a vegan life. Go ahead and be selfish here. Is a non-vegan meal about as good for your overall well-being as a vegan meal? Is it twice as good? Ten times as good? Pick a number before reading on.
“In terms of days spent suffering per year, the average [American] meat-eater generates about 1,100 days of misery for chickens, an entire year for egg-laying hens, 120 days for turkeys, 90 days for pigs, 23 days for beef cows, and 12 days for dairy cows. Depending on what species of fish they eat, the average American also causes between 355 and 2,470 days of farmed-fish suffering each year (Farm Animal Welfare). […] Chickens and fish account for 92 percent of those days of suffering.”
–Nick Cooney, Veganomics
“Looking at the survey responses, we found that on an average day (2006-08), Americans age 15 or older spent 67 minutes in primary eating and drinking. An additional 23.5 minutes were spent eating while doing something else considered primary, and 63 minutes were spent drinking beverages while doing something else.”
Simple arithmetic yields the following aggregate figures: the average American spends 38.91 days eating or drinking per year, and demands 8.39 years of farmed animal life in doing so.
So to justify consumption of animal products on the sole basis of your pleasure is to suppose that each minute you spend consuming animal products (as opposed to vegan food) improves your life at least 78.7 times more than it worsens the lives of the animals affected.
Let’s make this explicit. You can choose between two scenarios:
(A) You spend 30 minutes eating a delicious non-vegan meal. When the check comes, you pay $10 and spend 39.35 hours as a farmed animal before getting on with your human life.
(B) You spend 30 minutes eating a delicious vegan meal. When the check comes, you pay $10 and go home.
Who can honestly say that they would choose A? Yet such a choice is implicitly made by billions of people every day, and explicitly advocated by those who voice the “I’m a utility monster” argument.
This is meant as a little reality check on our intuitions, not as a rigorous and thorough examination of the whole picture. There are plenty of factors not considered here, but most of them make the case less friendly to omnivores, not more. For example:
- Omnivores tend to overestimate how much their life would change if they went vegan. Our brains are highly skilled at getting used to things. Many people’s lives would be improved on balance if they went vegan – including, I think, many of the staunchest omnivores.
- Animal products have a lot of hidden costs that aren’t counted here, in terms of environmental harms, physical and economic inefficiencies, etc.
- The number I used above for total time spent benefiting from animal products is actually generous to omnivores, because it includes time when consumption is only the secondary activity, and it includes vegan ingredients and products.
- If you cut back on animal products pragmatically, you can exploit a kind of 80/20 rule. See this explicitly in my also data-driven Farm Animal Suffering Comparisons and Ethical Omnivore Calculator. The use of veganism per se in this thought experiment, rather than vegetarianism or lacto-vegetarianism or reducetarianism, is needlessly stringent. In fact, as my Ethical Omnivore Calculator shows, you can keep eating the same amount of turkey, dairy, pork, and beef as you always have, and cut out all other animal products, and you’ll have reduced the years of animal suffering in your food by over 90%.