On Buying Absolution

From Kip I learned of this brief essay by Michael Dorf. Here are the first two of its three paragraphs:

In my FindLaw column yesterday, I argued that Al Gore undermines his ability to act as a spokesman for combating global warming by living in a very large house and jetting around the world — even though he “carbon balances,” i.e., pays green causes to plant trees, cover landfill and take other actions that compensate for his own generation of greenhouse gases. I compare these compensating measures to the purchase of papal indulgences and the payment of substitute soldiers by Civil War draftees. (I go on, however, to praise Gore’s policy proposals.)

Here I want to add another example. Suppose I think that it’s wrong to eat animals and animal products (as in fact I do) but that I really like the taste of meat. Could I discharge my moral obligation (as I see it) to be a vegan by continuing to pack away the hamburgers and steaks but pay a carnivore to convert to veganism so that I “meat balance?” The very idea seems absurd.

Such a transaction is far too utilitarian-at-the-expense-of-principles for me personally, but I don’t think it’s absurd to consider this.

Animal rights vegans, of which I am one only tangentially┬╣ through my primary health justifications for being vegan, tend to fall into two camps: welfarists and abolitionists. The distinction isn’t perfectly applicable here because the distinction has more to do with approach to the treatment of animals, but it’s useful anyway. Welfarists believe that marginal improvements in how we treat animals is useful. Free-range chickens and cage-free hens, for example, reduce the suffering of animals while they’re alive. If a pig has the ability to stretch her legs in her gestation crate, that’s better than her being pinned to the floor by the constraints of her crate. The treatment may still be despicable, but the animal suffers less.

Abolitionists view this distinction more as a black-or-white issue. It does matter how compassionately you treat the animal, the animal still suffers. It doesn’t matter how compassionately you slaughter the animal, dead is still dead. Since humans do not need meat and alternatives exist for animal products, there is no justification that renders the use and abuse of animals acceptable.

I tend to side with the abolitionists. There is value in the welfarist approach when it exposes people to the horrible practices involved in animal “agriculture”. Every change must begin somewhere. But I agree that such concessions may lead to as much or more animal consumption. I’ve had discussions where a carnivore will say “but I buy only free-range meat”. So? The animal still suffers, although that’s not apparent in the marketing. (How many singing cows do we need to see to believe something untrue?) Again, dead is dead.

Which gets back to the question at hand. Would a barter of money for veganism work? I don’t think it discharges the buyer’s moral obligation, but it could work to reduce animal suffering. For every new vegan, n animals will not die or suffer. That’s the beauty of capitalism. Reduced demand will lead to reduced supply. Over a lifetime, that could be a tremendous individual impact.

There are drawbacks, of course. The buyer may now consume more meat because he is “offsetting” his consumption. The buyer may be a large man with a vociferous appetite, while the seller may be a petite woman with a small appetite. The balance falls heavily against significant improvement. The net effect from the person with a moral qualm is potentially less than if he had the character to act according to his beliefs.

I suspect this drawback is more likely than the optimistic outcome from buying veganism. A bit like Al Gore’s energy consumption for his home, for example.

┬╣ I care about animals rights enough to do the basics. I don’t buy animal products such as leather. I don’t buy products tested on animals. You just won’t find me actively protesting and agitating for change. I care about it, but I’m not passionate enough. I’d get in the way.