This argument centres on the idea that animal exploitation is so vast, so widespread, that one person deciding not to consume animal products will make no real difference to how many animals are killed.
This is not an irrational position, and can be supported by statistics. Conservative estimates based on extrapolated USDA data places slaughter numbers at approximately 65 billion animals per year, this not including marine animals; whose lives are measured in tonnes. The abstinence of one vegan, in one country, cannot make any sizeable dent in these numbers, especially when we consider the fact that globally, meat-eating is increasing in popularity. While you would be hard pressed to find someone who does not agree that if large groups stopped eating meat (as they currently are), global demand would decrease, the argument is that this has nothing to do with an individual’s eating habits or abstinence from certain products. These animals will die anyway, if we do not eat them they will simply go to waste.
The classic counter-argument in favour of veganism would be supply and demand. It must be acknowledged however, that though this is taken as gospel by many people, there are criticisms of this concept that are worth taking into account. Daniel De Leon wrote that: “Under capitalism, Supply follows or lags behind Demand according as Profits may be swelled by an increase or a relative decrease of Supply,” or in shorter form “Not Demand, but Profits controls Supply.” Basic supply and demand theory works pre-capitalist market, but we now live in an age wherein companies like Tyson have a monopoly on production. When real competition no longer exists, profits may soar regardless of sales, as price can be controlled.
In What’s Wrong With Economics, Worrell explains that these misconceptions about economics come from a time where buyers and sellers operated in physical markets where buyers and sellers were constrained by supply and demand. We don’t live in such a time anymore, and haven’t for quite some time. This argument is not as harmless as it seems. It is not only stating that one vegan cannot make a difference, the implication is also that since one person cannot make a positive difference, one person cannot make a negative difference either. Therefore, one person cannot be held responsible for their dietary choices. Many people believe that an action cannot be wrong if the harms from performing the action, or the benefits from not performing the action, are imperceptible. Johnathan Glover’s thought experiment of the one hundred armed bandits clearly demonstrates the conclusions of such logic:
Suppose a village contains 100 unarmed tribesman. As they eat their lunch 100 hungry armed bandits descend on the village and each bandit at gunpoint takes one tribesman’s lunch and eats it. The bandits then go off, each one having done a perceptible amount of harm to a single tribesman. Next week, the bandits are tempted to do the same thing, but are troubled by the new-found doubts about the morality of such a raid. Their doubts are put to rest as follows… They raid the village, tie up the tribesman and look at their lunch. As expected, each bowl of food contains 100 baked beans. The displeasure caused by the loss of one baked bean is imperceptible. Instead of each bandit eating a single plateful as last week, each takes one bean from each plate. They leave after eating all of the beans, pleased to have done no harm, since no one has perceptibly affected any person…
It is not difficult to see the links between the logic of contributory responsibility within this thought experiment, and the idea that eating meat does not do any real harm. Glover argues that in this instance, each individual bandit is divisionally responsible for the hunger of one villager. It follows that the less bandits there are contributing to this unethical act, the less villagers have to starve. In the case of eating animals, each meat eater is divisionally responsible for the death of the animal they are eating. Similarly, just as the less bandits there are contributing the less villagers starve. we can extrapolate, the less people consuming animal products, the less animals have to suffer and die.
If we return to the supply and demand critique from the start of this post, we can see that economists who argue that supply and demand does not matter in the modern world, are speaking in monetary and in production terms. They are treating animals as mere commodities, and are treating profit as the only significant factor. This may mean that vegans are misguided in claiming to be economically sabotaging the industry by being vegan. But we must never forget, that when we are talking about the meat, dairy and egg industries, the “products” we refer to are living beings. We may not be able to effect profit in any real way, but we can and do effect the numbers of individual animals who will be slaughtered. I alone cannot stop Tyson from making profit, my spending power being taken away from their products will be accounted for and subset by increased prices in other areas of the market. However, irrespective of profit made, somewhere down the line, one animal may not have needed to die for me. A small difference, perhaps, but a difference nonetheless.
In terms of the difference vegans can make, there are several figures ranging from 60 animals per year to 900, estimating the amount of real animals a vegan saves per year. There is not enough data to make any such claim. Matheny however, points out that there must be some threshold at which point a unit of meat demanded by some group of customers is perceived by the grocer. At the very most, the size of this threshold unit is the difference between the demand for no meat and the current demand for meat. Likewise, there must be some threshold where a unit of meat demanded by some group of grocers is perceived by the butcher. And so on, all the way to the farmer. The expected consequence of completing a threshold unit that affects the production and slaughter of animals is thus the product of all the probabilities of completing each threshold unit. It is likely that the probability is quite small. However, the consequence of completing the threshold unit is the consequence of the entire unit, not some portion of it. This consequence is quite large and terrible, since it involves raising and slaughtering a significant number of animals. In short, if you are the buyer whose demand sparks the fulfilment of a new order of meat, you are collectively responsible for the deaths of all the animals in that unit. Just because an immoral action is performed by a group, that does not diminish the responsibility each member of the group holds for performing that action.
In conclusion, we must to some extent accept the carnist idea that a vegan technically could live their entire lives and never have actually prevented any animal suffering, as they did not individually lower actual production. Equally, a carnist could go through life technically never being individually responsible for the death of any living creature. However, in both cases, that individual vegan or carnist has no way of knowing that for sure. If any given action has unknown consequences, as most actions do, it does not follow that I am not responsible for the consequence of my actions. We cannot know if our boycotting all animal products will directly save an animal’s life; but that lack of knowledge does not excuse us from the moral obligation to do so.