One of the things vegetarians often hear from meat-eaters is a claim along the lines of ‘Oh, I think I should probably be vegetarian, but I like the taste of meat too much; I couldn’t give it up’. Similarly, vegans often hear a claim from vegetarians about the impossibility of giving up cheese. Do vegetarians and meat-eaters who accept the soundness of the argument for animal rights really mean that they are unable to give up consuming flesh and cheese? If their claim were true, then presumably the old moral rule of ‘ought implies can’ would mean they out not be considered blameworthy because they cannot act otherwise than they do. If we cannot ϕ, then it is not wrong for us not to ϕ.
I’m not convinced this really is a case of ‘cannot’ though. In fact, I’m confident that were a gun pointed at them, veggies and meat eaters would be able to resist the pleasure of consuming animal protein quite easily. In other words, it’s not that they cannot give up meat/bacon/cheese, but that they feel insufficiently motivated to do so. What’s really at work, is that individuals judge the burdens associated with giving up animal products to be greater than the benefits they receive from doing so.
It’s true, there are burdens that go with going vegan: you have to devote more time and effort to shopping, people constantly challenge you about your ethical choices, you are mocked and excluded by society, many cultural practices revolve around killing and consuming animals, it’s impossible to buy a really nice suit, etc.. Good ethical theories are sensitive to the burdens that come with making moral choices. Deontological (rule-based) theories, for example, distinguish between acts that are required, acts that are permitted, and acts that are forbidden. Some acts are morally praiseworthy, but nor required of us; the classic example is the soldier who throws him or herself on a grenade in order to save his or her fellows from the blast. Such an act carries such great burdens, that it cannot be required. Similarly, whilst we may be required to rescue a drowning child if the cost to us is little more than having our shoes ruined, if we cannot swim, or the pond the child is drowning in is filled with crocodiles, then it is too much to require us to act – we may do so, but it would be wrong to force us.
Giving up on causing animals to suffer and die for our pleasure is not analogous to a duty of rescue however. We cannot point to the burdens associated with being vegan as good reasons for continuing to eat meat. In the case of the duty of easy rescue outlined above, the burdens are associated with action rather than inaction. We take on burdens by acting to save another, which is rather different from taking on burdens by ceasing to harm someone. The benefits I might gain by harming another are impermissible benefits, and so they ought not be counted in determining my duties. I cannot cite denial of the pleasure I get from spending money I steal as a burden to be factored-in when considering whether I ought not steal.
It is true that we can sometimes count burdens associated with negative duties (duties to refrain from things) not to harm when considering whether we are required to act in a certain way. If we are forced to chose between killing a loved one or a stranger, we would not be blameworthy if we chose to kill the stranger because it is simply too much to ask that we put aside our love – the burden of doing so would be too high. But using animals is not like this – it is not what’s known as a ‘forced choice’ situation. Rather, we are making a choice causing the death of another for our pleasure and not causing the death of another for our pleasure.
When thinking about whether the burdens we take on are sufficient to overcome a duty to act or refrain from acting, giving up benefits derived from causing harm should not count as a burden. The benefits gained from causing animals to suffer and die for our comfort and pleasure are impermissible benefits, and they therefore ought not count positively in a moral agent’s deliberations about how to act. The claim: “I know I should, but I just can’t” simply isn’t sufficient to excuse wrong-doing in this case. In other words: selfishness is a crappy justification for causing harm.