Is Not Eating Meat Only a Symbolic Act?

I dug up an old paper that is relevant to the point Rhys Southan of Let Them Eat Meat brought up in a recent post which I quoted on June 9:

But I recognize that my consumer choices are almost totally insignificant in this regard; like veganism, this is a symbolic gesture.

The paper is Expected Utility, Contributory Causation, and Vegetarianism by Gaverick Matheny (Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 19, No. 3, 2002. p.293-7.). In it, Matheny argues that act-utilitarians cannot know what the actual consequences of an action will be in many cases, and therefore they must base their actions on the probability of expected consequences. Matheny goes on to explain that by not eating meat for a year, you take a chance that you will be the person who causes a reduction of meat past a threshold which is felt to the farmers and causes them to raise less animals:

For example, take the case of The 200 Million Consumers. There are 200 million consumers, each of whom eats 50 farm animals each year. In this market there are only ten possible annual outputs of animals for farmers: one billion animals, two billion, and so on, up to ten billion. The difference between each of these annual outputs, one billion, is the smallest unit of demand perceivable to the farmer and is thus the threshold unit. Since there are 20 million customers per threshold unit, and only one of these customers will actually complete the unit of which his or her purchase is a part, the probability of my completing a unit is one in 20 million. That means by buying meat I have a one-in-20 million chance of affecting the production and slaughter of one billion animals. The expected disutility is then one-20-millionth times one billion, which equals 50 – that is, the disutility associated with raising and slaughtering 50 animals per year.

Matheny explains why this matters using the example of The 100 Bandits in which 100 bandits go into a village and each steals one bean from each of 100 villagers, each of whom has 100 beans. After this is done, the villagers have no beans left. However, the loss of only one bean cannot cause any perceptible difference to a villager. Since no bandit could have caused actual (perceptible) harm by stealing only one bean, none is responsible for the villagers going hungry, right?

No. One of the bandits stole the nth bean that reached the threshold of perceptible harm to a villager, and the probability of any given bandit being the one who steals the nth bean to reach that threshold is the same whether each bandit steals 100 beans from the same villager or 1 bean from 100 different villagers.

In other words, when divided into equal contribution units, any contribution of a unit towards reaching the threshold of a perceptible difference is as morally important as the unit that actually reaches that threshold.

20 Responses to “Is Not Eating Meat Only a Symbolic Act?”

  1. Jenny Says:

    Interesting, and a little confusing… but I think I understand both sides. I think it does make a difference to be vegan, but not nearly as much as I would like.

  2. Miles Says:

    For me, it’s more than that. Calling veganism a symbolic gesture is like calling being an abolitionist in the slaveholding days of the US a symbolic gesture. The odds of an individual stopping or even tangibly reducing the institution of slavery are small, but holding slaves is still outrageously immoral.

    Even if my boycott (which is what Rhys would call it) resulted in absolutely no reduction in the number of animals raised and killed for food, that wouldn’t make contributing to that system morally defensible.

  3. Jack Norris RD Says:


    I agree. But a lot of people we (Vegan Outreach) run into do not become vegan because they don’t think it will make any difference. So, it might be good for them to know that their one act of reducing meat could possibly be the one act that reaches the threshold of reducing the number of animals by millions.

  4. Miles Says:

    Oh, I totally agree Jack. I just think that Rhys’s argument is invalid on two levels.

  5. C.A. Says:

    Very interesting post I had been puzzling over this exact comment on Southan’s blog, and the reference to Matheny’s paper is very welcome. Both it and your post help me think more clearly about this, though I’m not sure I entirely understand how Matheny’s argument works.

    I had been thinking that the the ‘symbolic’ argument is weaker in the case of eating chicken, where the act it seems to me is not symbolic, but about as directly consequential as almost any consumer action, though I thought that cow might be different because of the relationship between a purchase and a unit of production.

    Might be interesting to separate this out by type of meat using Mark Middleton’s 1 million calorie data here:

    But, I wonder however whether the same argument works to defuse a claim that not eating dairy is largely symbolic, assuming act utilitarianism.

    Imagining that someone who eats dairy consumes 33% of calories from dairy (for 2000 cal diet that would be 660). Now it would take 1515 days to consume 1 million calories of dairy (approximately 4.15 years). The consumer is responsible for 1 death per 25 million calories of dairy (via slaughter, though an additional 100 deaths from harvest related deaths–but for the time being let me set aside harvest related fatalities (difference between 1 mil calories of dairy and vegetables is 1.3 harvest deaths). So over the life of one lacto-vegetarian they cause the death of .75 animal and thus 3/4 of the suffering of that animal over its life.

    Applying Matheny’s argument seems to result in something like: Each time I buy dairy there is a chance that I am responsible for the ‘threshold’ of the disutility (last drop of milk before being deemed spent? last drop before impregnation that results in veal calf production? another day on the Conklin farm being tortured? replacement of milk cow with new cow?). So the expected disutility of eating dairy is something like calories consumed/25 million * 1 dairy cow’s life of suffering and life. Even eating a dairy at this rate for a whole year contributes to 250,000/25,000,000 or a 1 thousandth of the threshold of harm. I think I’m not getting the role of the multiplier right here.

    It may be that this case is a different case of “contributory causation” “the probability of single individual’s affecting [dairy] production is slight” but unlike the meat case “the expected disutility of affecting that production is [not] substantial.”

    If eating vegetables makes us responsible for 1 harvest death a year, it isn’t clear that being responsible for 1/1000 of a dairy death is a dramatic increase. This doesn’t mean that it is merely symbolic, just perhaps a very very minor disutility we can avoid by replacing dairy with other food sources.

    I need to think more about this, I feel I’m missing something in his argument.

  6. beforewisdom Says:

    A friend of mine recently asked me how to answer a student of hers who was in the beginning stages of going vegan/vegetarian. He asked her if there was any point in turning something away at a restaurant that already has meat in it. The damage is done.

    I told her to remind him that the Nazis made soap out of human beings during WWII and that she should ask him that if he had inadvertently bought such soap, should he still use it. That settled the issue for him.

  7. beforewisdom Says:

    I read the best quote I’ve seen in a long time the other week:

    “Complaining that a protest won’t change the world is like complaining that giving out your phone number won’t make someone marry you. It starts a conversation and opens up a world of possibilities.”

    — Drew Winter:

    Too many run what they do down if they don’t see fast, obvious and dramatic results. That isn’t how the world works. Good stuff takes working at things for a long time without seeing big rewards right away.

  8. Lisa Says:

    Becoming a vegan not only affects your own consumer choices, but those of others around you. I doubt that one person becoming a vegan will stop at that. Typically, his choice to stop eating animal products will affect his family, friends, co-workers and maybe acquaintances. And it happens naturally; not that this person is trying to prove that veganism is the way to go at every opportunity.

    After a person becomes vegan, he also starts consuming numerous vegan products. And that also signals companies in the food business that there is a unmet demand. And hopefully we would see some established companies taking out some animal ingredients from their products. I believe that happened with some of the Boca burgers.

    The overall impact of one person becoming a vegan can be substantial. Even if the industry producing animal products doesn’t notice some consumers that are refusing to buy their products, vegans can trigger a whole chain of other reactions that might eventually influence production of animal products and alternatives to them. And change doesn’t happen because everybody decided to do something at the same time. Change happens when people wake up one by one, eventually affecting the larger population. That is exactly what happened with a lot of cases of oppression throughout our history.

  9. Gary Loewenthal Says:

    I usually tell people: if something is wrong, you don’t do it, regardless of what others do. I almost always get agreement on this, maybe because it’s so simple to understand.

    “The damage is already done.” In addition to not feasting on ill-gotten goods, foregoing the meat option at a restaurant helps prevent future damage from being done.

  10. Redwood Says:

    I guess I don’t understand writing off people’s ethical acts as useless. Often times I see even ethical philosophers skim over the very notion of intentions as if they mean nothing.

    “Bringing an animal into the world to be used is okay so long as it lives a happy, if short, life.”

    Why is the intention of the actor never in question? Farmers don’t raise animals to make happy lives, they do it to exploit them and kill them. The reasons are thin and lacking, and alternatives are abundant. Getting into these obscure equations measuring happiness is besides the point. If treating animals well matter, than it’s insidious to plan systems of exploitation and harm if one can choose otherwise.

    Perhaps I do or do not make a difference to the animal husbandry industry. I do make a difference in my own life by following through on my choices and that difference is huge. People know this, but they all of a sudden become obtuse about it when talking about veganism.

    Rhys Southan is no longer vegan because he felt that a plant-based diet wasn’t working for him nutritionally. Okay, that’s fine, he gave it a fair enough try. I’m not a fan of his vegan trash talk, but he’s entitled to his opinion. A plant-based diet works for just fine for me and there are plenty of long term examples and nutritional research and backing from even conservative organizations that I can continue to pursue it. So unless I reach the unlikely day that it doesn’t work out, I’m obliged to be vegan to satisfy my own standards.

    In the grand scheme of things nothing makes any difference, nothing really matters on this insignificant rock spinning through the vast vacuum of emptiness.

    I, we, have to decide what matters and act on it as best we can. Otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be any point to this human capacity for reason, judgment, and empathy that supposedly separates us from other species.

  11. Rhys Says:

    I responded to this entry here:

  12. Jack Norris RD Says:

    As always, Rhys has an interesting take on things. I imagine some, or maybe even most, of my readers would say that vegans should just ignore Rhys and other outspoken ex-vegans. My thinking is that at some point, possibly only a decade or two into the future, the USA is going to consist of mostly vegetarians and people who used to be vegetarians (or tried the diet for awhile). So I think it is important to pay attention to what the ex-vegetarians and vegans are saying, both about nutrition and other aspects of the lifestyle.

    I have found a better way to express the point I was trying to make in my original post above: Each vegetarian or vegan is removing a certain amount of support from the animal industries such that at some point one vegan will cause millions of animals to be saved. At that point, each vegan will have contributed materially, not just symbolically, to the magnitude of that change.

  13. Nicholas Pokoluk Says:

    Doing what is right is NEVER symbolic.

  14. Mr. Bill Says:

    I think most things in life are like this. I doubt not eating meat will ever be the norm. I think it’s a very natural thing for an animal to eat an animal and I personally don’t have any ethical problem with it.

  15. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Mr. Bill,

    I think it would be a big mistake to base ethics on what is natural.

  16. tina still Says:

    Evolution is a force we are all subject to and involved in whether we believe in it(evolution) or not. big changes in activity and development of the human race have occurred as a result of small cell-by-cell reordering over thousands of years. if it feels right for you to abstain from animal products, maybe you are just one of those many but less than the whole, cells, that will someday be in the majority, evolving to a world that will someday consider obtaining sustenance from animals barbaric. in other words, doing what you feel is right can and does serve an evolutionary purpose.

  17. Laura K Says:

    I think arguments like this are interesting, because they expose how economic calculations work. I don’t think they’re all that persuasive to the average person though because they are hard to understand.

    Personally, I think of being vegan as similar to voting. My one vote does not make a difference in an election, but the only way an election works is if people vote.

    As far as food goes, you don’t have the option of not voting. Every time you eat, you vote; I want to make sure my votes reflect my values instead of working against them.

  18. James Kimbell Says:

    Hi, Jack, good job quoting the “100 bandits” example. For anyone who is interested, it was also discussed pretty reasonably in Peter Singer’s “A Vegetarian Philosophy,” which is in many collections and probably online, too.

    I commented on Rhys’s blog, too, but I’ll say it here too since the math (or even just the logic) is obvious: no matter how much you spread out the utility, it’s still there. You can’t wave it away when each person’s share seems small to you – they still all add up to the same problem.

    This is true whether there are several smaller tipping points or one big one. Because from the perspective of one vegan, as the probability of making a difference becomes smaller, the payoff of making a difference gets bigger. The point of the 100 bandits is that this all evens out, and your expected utility is the same – having a small chance of making a big difference is not inherently worse than being sure of making a small difference.

  19. Joe Espinosa Says:

    There is no way to eat a piece of a chicken’s body without many hours of terrible suffering going into that dish.

  20. Scotty Says:

    We don’t like war and other insanities, right?

    Well, when we eat meat, although it may not contribute directly to war, etc., we are eating something born of violence so we are contributing to war – small as it is – and though no war may be raging currently. (Or is it always raging?)

    We don’t generally think of it as violence but eating plants is likewise such an act. Shouldn’t we all be breathairians?

    Breathairians? Possibly. And maybe in the future we will be.

    The next step after that is? Well, can breathing air be an act of violence, contributory of war and actions insane?

    But to get back to breathairianism, my sister said she saw a breathairian eat a hamburger and this she felt was hypocritical. At least she didn’t understand it.

    In fact though, we are all breathairians, if just for the time between “meals”. Just like I am vegan most of the time except for those once or twice a month times I have a chicken burrito. Most of the time I like beans and rice, or spaghetti and tofu and marinara sauce, or gyoza and beans, most of the time. What will it take to get us to be full-time breathairians?

    I leave that to “Breathairian outreach”.

    Scotty, CScott_himself

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