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Dec. 29, 2020

You are what you eat... but can you eat what you are?

As a newcomer to veganism, one thing I’ve found puzzling is the argument in favour of cultured meat propagated chiefly by self-identifying ‘utilitarian’ vegans. I understand and respect their prioritising of the pain-pleasure calculus as their primary motive for abstaining from animal products. So far as motives are concerned, I find two great advantages to this position: empathy and consistency. Extending the same rubric of pain equally to non-human animals is, in my view, a noble concern which puts to shame my own anthropocentric and self-serving motives for maintaining a plant-based diet. Applying the minimising pain principle indiscriminately to animals also ensures some consistency without the need to construct vague moral premises of ‘rights’ or ‘innate value’—pain is pain, regardless of species or genus. Why cause suffering if it we have a choice? The simplicity of this provocation is what enables such ostensible consistency of argument.

Yet the smooth sailing ship of utilitarian veganism—like utilitarian anything really—runs into a reef when pain is eliminated from the equation. What if no animals suffered in the making of real animal meat for human consumption? One could imagine a variety of hypothetical cases in which this could take place. Exemplorum gratia...

(1) Livestock are well taken care of, they live happy lives doing happy animal things, and then administered a swift and painless death.
(2) Animals bred in a coma-state without the capacity to feel anything, are painlessly butchered.
(3) Humans develop technology to harvest animal products artificially without the need to breed, raise and kill actual animals.

Barring elaborate loopholes, utilitarian vegans must gladly grant these options and any others that bypass the pain principle. (1) is a timeless counter example that leading UVs express support for, such as in the case of free-range eggs. (2) is my idea of an animal Matrix scenario, and I have no idea whether it is feasible or desirable in the real world. (3) is the subject of much recent discussion among vegans. Is cultured or so-called ‘clean’ meat permissible and consistent with a vegan lifestyle? The UVs eagerly nod in favour, but I would like to hear out their rationale a bit more. Is this allowance a practical concession with the aim of reducing the aggregate pain caused by animal products made via conventional means (hence a sensible compromise rather than their ideals)? Or a prioritising of logical consistency in maintaining their specific ethical position? I would personally be quite concerned if the latter were to have any part in their decision—consistency for its own sake is hardly a cause to fight for. Let’s follow (3) to its extreme conclusion. For example, I decided that, instead of causing harm and suffering to innocent cows, pigs and chickens, I would much prefer to clone my own stem cells and eat my own flesh for lunch and dinner everyday. Would eating ‘me steak’ be a mistake? What explains the immediate repulsion from even the thought of the idea? And if we decide a line must be drawn, how far can we expand the circle of prohibition? Can we eat cultured chimp, or ‘clean’ canine, or do we draw the line at ‘lab’ lamb? Until I’m able to find a convincing answer (so far the closest seems to me the practicality argument), I find it difficult to stomach this particular alternative.