It had been many years since I attended a party for philosophy conference participants and graduate students. My patience for what passes for social life in academia has been withering for years, but alas I found myself in such company before the pandemic shut down these gatherings.
Many guests were vocal vegetarians and their justification always circled back to the remonstrance that we are obligated to reduce suffering.
This is a bizarre bit of philosophical folk wisdom. Suffering accompanies every dimension of life. The aggregate amount of suffering at each moment is enormous and our feeble acts to reduce it a mere gesture, albeit one that makes us feel good. All the processes that sustain my life rob resources that others desperately need. Yet, ethics is not a suicide pact so we must choose the kinds of suffering that we find acceptable.
Of course, we should try to reduce suffering “when we can” or “as much as possible” but those ambiguous qualifications must do a lot of heavy lifting. An obligation to reduce suffering is meaningful only when particular—it is this suffering I must mitigate, not suffering in general over which I have no control.
When I purchase meat from the supermarket, I don’t cause suffering. The animal is already dead. What I do is make a small contribution to a system that causes suffering. But that is one among many such systems that we all help to perpetuate. Because all social systems cause suffering, mitigating it requires setting priorities and balancing competing demands.
One can intelligibly choose vegetarianism as a moral act, and doing so is good for the environment, but not because there is a general obligation to reduce suffering. The defense of vegetarianism as a moral obligation requires there be something distinctive about animal suffering in particular that we must mitigate.