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‘UP IN THE AIR’: Is there a convincing case for climate veganism?

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It is possible to follow veganism as a climate-friendly dietary option, but it is not possible to consistently hold that adherence to a moral obligation to avoid climate-harmful dietary choices would necessitate a vegan diet. In other words, it is hard to formulate a climatic argument that would convincingly create a moral obligation to strict veganism as a conclusion.

T. KORTETMAKI: Climate change compels us to rethink the ethics of our dietary choices and has become an interesting issue for ethicists concerned about diets, including animal ethicists. The defenders of veganism have found that climate change provides a new reason to support their cause because many animal-based foods have high greenhouse gas emissions. The new style of argumentation, the ‘climatic argument(s) for veganism’, may benefit animals by persuading even those who are not concerned about animals themselves but worry about climate change. The arguments about the high emissions of animal-based food, and a resulting moral obligation to abstain from eating such products, are an addition to the prior forms of argument for principled veganism grounded on the moral standing of, and concern for, nonhuman animals. This article examines whether the climatic argument for veganism is convincing…

It is possible to follow veganism as a climate-friendly dietary option, but it is not possible to consistently hold that adherence to a moral obligation to avoid climate-harmful dietary choices would necessitate a vegan (or veg*n) diet. In other words, it is hard to formulate a climatic argument that would convincingly create a moral obligation to strict veganism as a conclusion. We have in this paper evaluated the climatic argument for veganism (implying principled veganism), frequent in contemporary public discourse, and revised the argument to create a more convincing amended climatic argument for veganism. The latter obliges one to follow a predominantly, but not strictly, vegan diet and acknowledges several points for permitted non-vegan actions, like eating (some) fish or eating otherwise discarded foods.

Our main result is that sound arguments for animal-concerned principled veganism and for climate-concerned veganism produce partially different sets of permitted foods. There is a fundamental categorical difference: while veganism is commonly understood to imply a set of food (and other product) prohibitions, that is to say a categorical criterion, climatic arguments and consequent ethical principles are essentially based on harm footprints and are therefore of a comparative nature. This should be taken into account by those who wish to posit climate-concerned arguments for veganism and are primarily interested about promoting the animal cause and principled veganism. Notably, the arguments for veganism are, nevertheless, more consistent on climatic grounds than arguments for vegetarianism: vegetarianism prohibits the most notable non-vegan low-carbon foods (fish) but permits non-vegan high-carbon foods (cheese).

Some advocates of animal-concerned veganism, those who advocate strict principled veganism, may want to reject the climatic argument and return to the ‘traditional’ ways of arguing for principled veg*nism on animal-concerned grounds to keep their argumentation sound. They may also appeal to the ‘Rights First argument’ discussed above (though there are some weaknesses in this appeal). Others may consider adopting a pluralistic approach. This paper involves a strictly climate-oriented analysis. There can be, and indeed are, other reasons for adherence to veg*nism: the traditional ethical views that rest on utilitarian and Kantian ways of thinking. Moreover, there are many other views in favour of veg*nism (though not always in a principled version), from self-regarding health concerns to aspects of the common good including social fairness, efficiency of land use, and ecological sustainability. One can even stick to ecocentric arguments for veg*nism that would grant moral considerability to ecological systems, populations and/or species, rather than to individuals.

According to this viewpoint, the appropriation of land for large-scale and/or industrialised animal production degrades values in nature. On the other hand, traditional small-scale herding has produced and still maintains diverse habitats (and highly valued cultural landscapes): there is a potential conflict between non-anthropocentric views on the desirability of cattle keeping in food systems. Notably, even if almost none of the additional concerns listed here (health, social fairness, efficiency, ecocentrism) necessitates a veg*n, let alone a vegan diet, they all point towards endorsing a diet that significantly reduces the role of animals in the industrialised food systems and in Western diets. For some animal concerned vegans this may not be a desired outcome at the level of individual dietary choices, but for the animal kingdom and for addressing the challenge of climate change it is certainly good news. It is not the number of vegans but the amount of animal production that matters.

Our examination demonstrates broader implications and methodological challenges for the studies in food system values and ethical principles for individual action in these domains. The classical issues of food ethics often pose dichotomous and categorical questions to which one can answer yes or no: one’s dietary choices either violate the moral value of animals or they do not. In contrast, the more recent harmful impacts of food systems, whether environmental or social, are practically never dichotomous issues but constitute a continuum of more or less significant harms about which empirical research informs us. Moreover, the impacts of individual choices do not take place within isolated supply chains but in the broad context of food systems. These challenges pose new kinds of problems for food ethics and the ‘traditional’ ways to deal with ethical eating— either on consequentialist or deontological grounds—may provide empirically unsound or counterintuitive answers when their systems-level implications are considered. This era of new food challenges calls for collaboration between ethicists and empirical scientists, leading to better judgments, improved policies, and a more sustainable future for humans and animals. SOURCE…

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