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The Case for Veganism: An Interview with Alex O’Connor (Part 1)

Alex O’Connor is a prominent British advocate for animal rights and secularism. Over the past five years, he has frequently shared his views through his popular YouTube channel, Cosmic Skeptic, which has nearly half a million subscribers. On his podcast, O’Connor has conversed with many notable figures, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Peter Singer, and political commentator Douglas Murray. Additionally, he has appeared on BBC South and Channel 4 News, as well as at various conferences, radio shows, and universities where he has debated topics related to religion, politics, and ethics. He holds a degree in philosophy and theology from St. John’s College, Oxford University.

Alex Fasseas & Marcus Ellinas: Many of your arguments for veganism center on the idea of philosophical or ethical consistency. You argue that, for meat-eaters, their ethical stance toward their diet is inconsistent with many other ethical precepts that they hold, or actions that they take. Can you elaborate on some of these inconsistencies?

Alex O’Connor: One inconsistency is between how people view certain animals relative to other animals. Another inconsistency is how they view the human animal versus the non-human animal. In all of my years now of vegan advocacy, I’ve almost never had to convince somebody to care about animals. All I’ve had to do is to convince them to care about other animals than the ones they already care about. For instance, most people think that it’s wrong to force a dog into a gas chamber without sufficient moral warrant. But at the same time, they think that it’s morally permissible to force a pig into a gas chamber to produce bacon. Of course, we could talk all day about ethics, about building a meta-ethical foundation for saying whether either of these is right or wrong. But we could save a lot of time in terms of advocacy by simply saying, “Look, if you think it’s okay to put a dog into a gas chamber, but not a pig, then you have to identify the descriptive difference between the two. You have to identify what it is about that dog that makes it wrong and what it is about that pig that makes it permissible.” And if you can’t do so, then what you’re essentially dealing with is a purely descriptive inconsistency, not a moral one. You’ve essentially got two identical creatures in every way that matters, or in every way that people would submit would matter, and yet we treat them differently.

Let me put it this way: Take that dog and slowly metamorphose it into a pig—you can change its skin color, its furriness, give it a longer tail, all these kinds of things. Now, decide at what point it is wrong [to kill that animal by gassing]. Interestingly, you can do the same thing with human beings—you could gradually metamorphose a pig into a human being. It’s permissible to put a pig in a gas chamber, but what if we give that pig two legs instead of four, change its skin color, change its cognition? What we’ll find is that any of these traits—intelligence, skin color, number of legs, sociability—don’t seem to be relevant in determining whether or not we can force a being into a gas chamber. And yet we say it’s okay in one case and wrong in the other case.

AF & ME: Why do you think people exhibit this sort of cognitive dissonance, this inconsistency, specifically when it comes to meat consumption?

AO: It shouldn’t be surprising, especially if you consider the fact that we live in a world that has so normalized animal suffering. Animal products are absolutely everywhere: not just our food, but in our cosmetics, our clothing, the tarmac, guitar straps—even British bank notes have traces of animal products in them. Animal products are deeply embedded in society. But if this is such an evil, abominable thing, why are people acting like it’s perfectly normal? It’s because it’s both: It’s evil, but it’s also normal at the same time.

A lot of vegans like to compare animal exploitation to other forms of exploitation. When somebody says, “I’m going to give up meat on Mondays,” a common vegan response is something like, “Oh, well, that’s just as good as saying that you’re not gonna abduct anyone on Mondays or you’re not gonna beat your spouse on Mondays.” If it’s really that bad, you should stop doing it all together. The thing is, if we lived in a world where everybody, and I mean everybody, was beating their spouses—it was the just thing to do, such that not doing so was actually quite an unusual thing to do—then I think that rising above the norm, even if only partially, would deserve some encouragement and congratulations.

AF & ME: If someone is unconvinced by arguments for veganism which focus on animal rights, do they have a reason to stop eating meat out of concern for their fellow human beings?

AO: Yes. I usually list five reasons to be vegan, or at least to abolish factory farming. The first of which is the moral case, which, in my opinion, is the best argument for veganism and the only one that should be required. But as you say, a lot of people are unconvinced by it, so the second case is an environmental one. It’s becoming more and more clear that ditching animal products, or at least ditching factory farming, is one of the best things we can do to prevent climate change. Now, you can care about the environment because of its effect on all animals, as I do. But even if you care about human beings alone, climate change is bad news, and one of the best things you can do as an individual to offset your environmental footprint is to go vegan.

Reason number three is pandemic prevention. Our governments tell us to socially distance and avoid large crowds to prevent the spread of disease. Yet they simultaneously allow tens of thousands of livestock to be crammed together in factory farms, where diseases can easily spread between the animals. And then these animals are shipped around the world, moving any diseases they have with them. It makes a mockery of any government official saying that they’re doing everything they can to make sure that something like Covid-19 doesn’t happen again. Now, I’m not claiming that Covid-19 started in a factory farm, but what I am claiming is that factory farms are factories for viral disease. They are disease-ridden hell holes, and the conditions are so terrible for these animals, the hygiene so poor, that these viruses are having an absolute whale of a time with thousands of potential hosts, just exponentially increasing the risk of one of these diseases developing into a zoonotic one and transferring to humans. That’s another anthropocentric reason for veganism.

The fourth would be antibiotic resistance, which is the biggest fear in the medical community, as far as I understand it. The vast majority of antibiotics are going to farmed animals—they’re not being used on humans. Now, that shouldn’t be surprising, given that these animals are living in such horrendous conditions, but a consequence of this is that antibiotic resistance among humans is being propelled by factory farming

The fifth and final reason would be the health concern. Now, I think that if you’re already living a very healthy lifestyle, you’re not going to become more healthy by going vegan. But if you’re not eating a great diet right now, and you then switch to a healthy vegan diet, you’re likely to see a substantial health increase—you’re likely to feel better and be fitter. 

But I think the main reasons for becoming vegan would be the first three. I used to think that one of the reasons why people wouldn’t stop eating meat was due to some form of selfishness—we’re just so selfish as a species that we can’t give up our addiction to the taste of animal flesh and secretions. But it turns out that even when it’s in our own best interest, we still aren’t willing to give it up.

AF & ME: Given the abundance of reasons that you see for no longer consuming animal products, do you think legislation promoting veganism or discouraging meat-eating is justified, and what might that legislation look like?

AO: I think, ultimately, we have to advocate for legislation that protects animals from cruelty and suffering. We already have some laws in place that attempt to do that—for instance, in the United Kingdom, it is a legal requirement to stun animals before you kill them. So, it’s not unusual to have animal protection within the law. The only thing that needs to change is people’s perception of how much these animals need protecting and exactly what they need protecting from.

If there were some world in which the government suddenly made meat-eating illegal, it would raise some difficult questions about the fabric of a country as a democracy—how can a government just override the will of the people, given that a majority wouldn’t support a meat-eating ban? Well, one answer might be that the government is allowed to do this because we don’t live in a democracy per se, but a liberal democracy, that is, one that has certain protections of individual rights. Even if a majority of people thought that it was morally permissible to kill somebody, it doesn’t mean that the government would be illegitimate if it didn’t allow them to do so. So we seem to think there are certain base level rights that might override the democratic process, and this might be an example of one. And so we might say, although it’s still a very small minority of people who think that meat eating should be abolished, these animals have something like a right not to be killed, not to be tortured, not to undergo unnecessary suffering, and therefore, it doesn’t matter what the majority thinks.

But realistically, I think that the legislation would have to be about curbing factory farming, not prohibiting meat-eating; it wouldn’t make it illegal to eat meat or to purchase meat or anything like that. My biggest gripe is with factory farming. The real strength of the vegan argument seems to be not with regards to the fact that animals are dying, but the way in which they’re dying. So, legislation could come in and essentially abolish factory farming, and farming would revert to how it was a few hundred years ago. Now, there might still be a problem with that, I think we could still philosophize about whether it’s immoral to take the life of an animal if they don’t suffer, but it wouldn’t be the focus of my campaign, it wouldn’t be the focus of my career. I wouldn’t feel so fervently about it.

So really, the legislation that I would hope to see as soon as possible would be with regards to factory farming rather than just veganism per se. I think that’s the easiest to get through, because if you tell people they can’t eat meat, they’ll go loopy. But if you tell people, “Look, these animals are being treated horribly, if you can just sign my petition, you can keep eating your meat, but it’s going to be more humane,” then they’re more likely to sign it.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.