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Why It’s OK to Eat Meat


Vegetarians have argued at great length that meat-eating is wrong. Even so, the vast majority of people continue to eat meat, and even most vegetarians eventually give up on their diets. Does this prove these people must be morally corrupt? In Why It’s OK to Eat Meat, I argue the answer is no: it’s entirely possible to be an ethical person while continuing to eat meat—and not just the “fancy” offerings from the farmers’ market but also the regular meat we find at most supermarkets and restaurants. My examination forcefully echoes vegetarians’ concerns about the meat industry’s impacts on animals, workers, the environment, and public health. However, I show that the most influential ethical arguments for avoiding meat on the basis of these considerations are ultimately unpersuasive. Instead of insisting we all become vegetarians, I argue each of us has broad latitude to choose which of the world’s problems to tackle, in what ways, and to what extents, and hence people can decline to take up this particular form of activism without doing anything wrong.

Libertarianism and the Environment

B. Ferguson and M. Zwolinski, Routledge Companion to Libertarianism (accepted and awaiting copyediting)

Although libertarianism is often regarded as “weak” on environmental issues, the truth is more complicated. Because of its commitment to defending private property rights, libertarianism actually lends itself to aggressive protections against pollution—to the point where an interpretive challenge arises in establishing how to reconcile it with any pollution at all. To meet this challenge, libertarians must explicate how societies should delimit and allocate rights over the environment and identify who will be responsible for making these determinations. The most ideologically salient libertarian paths to addressing these questions demand heavy lifting from courts in adjudicating conflicting claims. However, there are reasons to doubt that courts would be up to this task. Libertarians might thus be well-advised to embrace a role for government administration in regulating environmental impacts. Although this would depart from the role libertarians have traditionally ascribed to governments, it would align in spirit with familiar libertarian arguments for government provision of policing, courts, and national defense. Libertarianism so understood would resemble more mainstream views on the environment, though with a stricter emphasis on the protection of individual rights. Libertarians thus have fewer deep disagreements with environmentalists than generally appreciated. To the extent these disagreements exist, they revolve specifically around the use of state coercion to protect the environment for reasons other than defending rights. Although environmentalists generally approve of such coercion, libertarianism opposes it as a matter of principle. Whether this is so much the worse for libertarianism or environmentalism is ultimately for the reader to decide.

Harm, Responsibility, and the Far-off Impacts of Climate Change

Environmental Ethics 43, no. 1 (2021): 3–20

Climate change is already a major global threat, but many of its worst impacts are still decades away. Many people who will eventually be affected by it still have opportunities to mitigate harm. When considering the avoidable burdens of climate change, it seems plausible victims will often share some responsibility for putting themselves into (or failing to get out of) harm’s way. This fact should be incorporated into our thinking about the ethical significance of climate-induced harms, particularly to emphasize the importance of differential abilities to get and stay out of harm’s way. Currently, many people face serious obstacles to reducing their vulnerability to climate change, such as poverty, lack of education, and political or legal obstacles to mobility. Climate policy discussions should do more to emphasize the alleviation of these sources of difficulties, thereby empowering people to choose what risks they will bear in a warming world.

Environmental Conflict and the Legacy of the Reformation

Environmental Politics 29, no. 6 (2020): 1042–1062

Liberal political theory seeks to enable diverse groups to coexist respectfully despite their differences. According to liberals, this requires embracing certain political institutions and refraining from imposing controversial views on others. The liberal formula has enjoyed considerable success. However, green political theorists insist liberal societies will precipitate an ecological crisis unless they are transformed in line with (controversial) green views. These perspectives highlight a longstanding gap in liberal theory. Liberalism rose to prominence only after Reformation-era Christians accepted that societal success did not require the ascendancy of any particular doctrine. Liberals never had to show how their recommendations could be reconciled with the once-common view that toleration would be catastrophic. Yet today’s greens once again anticipate catastrophe unless they can remake civilization around their doctrines. Liberals must find a way to respond to these concerns if they are to sustain their paradigm amidst environmental conflicts.

Public Justification and the Politics of Agriculture

A. Barnhill, M. Budolfson, and T. Doggett (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 427-448

In recent years, food activists have condemned industrialized agricultural systems for contributing to pollution, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, economic insecurity, and political inequality. On the basis of such concerns, they have advocated abandoning these systems in favor of more agrarian alternatives. Meanwhile, defenders of industrialized agriculture have argued that their favored techniques are needed to address major challenges to global food security. In their eyes, abandoning industrialized food systems would be catastrophic. Given the depths of these disagreements, one might question how any agricultural policy regime could hope to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of all citizens. This chapter explores the theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Rawls, and Gerald Gaus in order to show how these controversial issues can be resolved without abandoning a commitment to public justification.

Hayek’s Legacy for Environmental Political Economy

P. Boettke, C. Coyne, and V. Storr (eds.), Interdisciplinary Studies of the Market Order: New Applications of Market Process Theory (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), pp. 87-109

Defenders of “free-market” environmentalism have often appealed to the writings of F.A. Hayek to support their favored approaches to environmental political economy. Yet Hayek’s power to vindicate such perspectives is controversial. In fact, some writers have found in Hayek’s writings an invitation to extensive political interventions in the environmental arena. In this paper, I develop three environmentally relevant themes in Hayek’s writings in order to clarify his true legacy for environmental political economy. I argue that Hayek’s most important contributions to environmental debates can be found in his guidance for making public policies compatible with the functionality of the market order.

Turning Adversaries into Allies: Conciliation in Environmental Politics

D. Schmidtz (ed.), Interdisciplinary Handbooks in Philosophy: Environmental Ethics (Macmillan, 2016), pp. 243-268

Many environmentalists believe that humanity faces an impending ecological crisis. Yet many of their neighbors see such concerns as overblown and environmentalists’ proposals as counterproductive. Environmentalists have often responded to such opposition by “educating” dissenters and “exposing” pernicious influences on politics. Yet strategies like these send the message that environmentalists believe they have things essentially right, and that those who disagree must be either ignorant or corrupt. In this paper, I examine the prospects for an alternative approach to environmental politics that works around non-environmentalists’ priorities rather than trying to reshape or override them. I argue that such an approach is likely to be more effective in practice than environmentalists have appreciated, and that it can be employed without running afoul of environmentalists’ commitments to standing up for their personal beliefs and the victims of ecological degradation.

Treading Lightly on the Climate in a Problem-Ridden World

Ethics, Policy & Environment 19, no. 2 (2016): 183-195

Personal carbon footprints have become a subject of major concern among those who worry about global climate change. Conventional wisdom holds that individuals have a duty to reduce their impacts on the climate system by restricting their carbon footprints. However, I defend a new argument for thinking that this conventional wisdom is mistaken. Individuals, I argue, have a duty to take actions to combat the world’s problems. But since climate change is only one of a nearly endless list of such problems, individuals’ obligations to take action as activists do not specifically require reductions in personal carbon footprints. Moreover, this is true even in spite of the fact that we are personally implicated in causing climate change. This paper also argues that many of those who decide to combat climate change by reducing their carbon footprints are likely doing more than they can justify in this regard. Although most people are not doing enough to combat world problems, a proper devotion to activism would seek a balance with other life demands that many climate activists currently eschew.

Rejecting Eco-Authoritarianism, Again

Environmental Values 24, no. 3 (2015): 345-366

Ecologically-motivated authoritarianism flourished initially during the 1970s but largely disappeared after the decline of socialism in the late-1980s. Today, ‘eco-authoritarianism’ is beginning to reassert itself, this time modeled not after the Soviet Union but modern-day China. The new eco-authoritarians denounce central planning but still suggest that governments should be granted powers that free them from subordination to citizens’ rights or democratic procedures. I argue that current eco-authoritarian views do not present us with an attractive alternative to market liberal democracy even if we take a highly pessimistic view of our shared prospects under the latter sort of regime.

Integrity versus Expediency for Non-Anthropocentrists

Ethics, Policy & Environment 17, no. 3 (2014): 271-274 (open peer commentary)

Kevin Elliott observes that environmental protection efforts often benefit humans, not just because the natural environment is useful, but also because activities that result in environmental protections can also promote a range of other human values. Elliott argues that environmentalists could gain practical advantages by emphasizing these indirect benefits. He also insists that even for environmentalists who believe that nature ought to be protected for its own sake, deploying such arguments would not necessarily pose problems of integrity since more explicitly non-anthropocentric arguments could be employed to complement the ones he favors. In this paper I push back on Elliott’s proposal, arguing that the practical benefits he promises are unlikely to materialize if environmentalists do not reign in their moralistic non-anthropocentrism in public discourse. In practice, environmentalists who understand the demands of integrity in the way Elliott describes will see in his proposal a thorny dilemma, forcing them to choose between their practical efficacy and their integrity as environmentalists.

Free-Market Environmentalism Pace Environmentalism?

D. Schmidtz and E. Willott (eds.), Environmental Ethics: What Really Matters, What Really Works, 2nd Ed. (Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 438-446

“Free-market” environmentalists argue that attempts to promote environmentalist objectives through political channels should be abandoned, for they instantiate inappropriate forms of rent-seeking or moral oppression. On these perspectives, environmentalists should instead promote their distinctive goals through private market activities. In this paper, I show that free-market environmentalists’ arguments for this provocative position either fail to grapple with the moralized nature of many environmentalists’ views, or do so implausibly by ruling out as inherently illegitimate existing policies that seem uncontroversially acceptable.

Conflict and Comparison between Species

Ethics, Policy & Environment 14, no. 2 (2011): 163-166 (open peer commentary)

Paul Taylor has argued that all living organisms have equal inherent worth. David Schmidtz objects, insisting that there is little to be gained by talk of “equality” in interspecific contexts. On Schmidtz’s view, ethicists should be satisfied simply to say that all organisms deserve respect, while leaving unspecified how such claims to respect measure up to one another. Yet in this paper, I contend that Schmidtz’s position cannot be sustained in the face of predictable and ongoing conflict between species. When sacrifices of some organisms’ interests and lives are inevitable, it is facile to demand simply that all living things deserve respect. Ethicists must be able to say how such conflicts are to be resolved, which means that they must have something to say about how organisms and their interests compare to one another in their moral significance. Paul Taylor may be wrong to think that such questions should be answered by appeal to the moral equality of all living things, but his mistake lies in thinking that all beings’ natures as “teleological centers of life” captures all that is relevant from a moral point of view.

Justice and Climate Change: Toward a Libertarian Analysis

The Independent Review 14, no. 2 (2009): 219-237

Global climate change is one of the most widely discussed problems of our time. However, many libertarian thinkers have not participated in the ethical dimensions of this discussion due to a narrow focus on the scientific basis for concern about climate change. In this paper, I reject this approach and explore the kind of response libertarians should be offering instead. I frame the climate change problem as one which concerns potential rights-infringements and explore different ways in which climate change might be thought to infringe upon rights. I conclude that there are some ways in which climate change might be expected to result in rights-infringements, but that some of the current concern about climate change cannot be reconciled with a rights-oriented paradigm. Finally, I briefly outline some future directions for research, emphasizing that much remains to be done in order to formulate a complete libertarian perspective on climate change.

This paper was reprinted in J-M. Meij (ed.), Social Problems (Cognella Academic Publishing, 2014)