There is an excellent post over at Offsetting Behaviour discussing the reasons why people go vegetarian, and discussing the separation of moral and allocative issues that lead to this choice. The way I see it, there are three main reasons why a person may go vegetarian – these can be mixed and matched of course, they aren’t mutually independent.
- The person has an eating disorder
- The person gains disutility from eating a dead animal/causing the death of an animal
- The person gains disutility from the view that, given current institutions, the consumption of meat is unsustainable/damaging – specifically that the choice to eat meat lowers the lifetime welfare of future generations.
- Update: Health, I forgot health – some people do it for health reasons.
Now I have recently gone vegetarian myself. My reasoning was the second one. This is strange given things I have previously said, I know - implicitly I do believe that if the animal only lives because it is going to be consumed, and that the life it lives is a good one, then it is morally right to eat the animal.
However, I am viciously time inconsistent. When it comes to the final stage of the animals life where it must die, I can’t handle the personal disutility I gain from the idea that the animal died to feed me. As a result of my selfish choice not to eat meat, the animals I would have consumed never get to live those beautiful free-range lives that they deserved. Not to worry though.
Anyway, I haven’t come here to discuss myself, I’ve come here to discuss the sustainability issue.
Is meat consumption sustainable in our finite world?
Lets note something down here. Prices represent scarcity, as long as the “price is right” the consumption of meat is perfectly sustainable. As Eric says:
There’s no need for a moral imperative to reduce meat-eating. Get rid of subsidies in the agricultural sector, make sure effluent externalities are properly priced or regulated, then let relative price adjustments take care of the rest. The optimal amount of meat will be eaten, so long as we keep waving our hands about the moral questions.
However, people who do not eat meat on these grounds have exactly the same argument. They would say:
- Meat is subsidised.
- Externalities are not priced, regulation is not appropriate.
- We discount the future too strongly, relative to what we believe is morally right.
Given these sets of factors people turn around and say “what can I do”. With the price too low, there is a relative overconsumption of meat, an overutilisation of land into the production of meat, an excessive degredation of the environment. In this context, it is completely consistent of people to say they will go vegetarian to deal with it – however, instead of complaining about the unsustainability of meat in of itself, it might be better that they say that the “price is wrong”.
I would argue that governments should come together and ensure that the worst of these issues are fixed, namely that subsidises on agricultural production are removed. Then these people can get back to enjoying the consumption of meat, knowing that the higher price they are paying represents truly sustainable practices.