Philosophy Bro explains complex ideas of philosophy in easy to understand language, created by Tommy Maranges, the author of Descartes' Meditations, Bro.

Mailbag Monday: Vegetarianism and Free Will Redux

Mailbag Monday: A weekly segment that covers readers’ questions and concerns about all things Philosophy, Bro, and Philosophy Bro that don’t quite fit anywhere else. Send your questions to with ‘Mailbag Monday’ in the subject line.

Audrey writes in the comments of my vegetarianism post:

Comepelling [sic] piece, but the main reasons behind my veganism are rooted in environmental reasons, not animal rights. I think it’s a bigger issue than people realize, or are exposed too.

It’s a fair point, Audrey, and one I’ll happily address.

So what are the environmental reasons that might motivate vegetarianism? Consider an example of the economic scenario known as 'tragedy of the commons’:

You’re pounding brewskis and playing video games, two things bros are fucking awesome at. Your bro gets back to the Bro-cave, decides he wants to join you because he can, and grabs a beer from the fridge himself. Soon there are four of you, drinking and playing Mario Kart, when suddenly you run out of cold beer. Nothing but warmies in the fridge. Fuck that.

What precipitated this crisis of epic broportions? If you had just gone slower, the beer in the fridge would have had time to cool down, and you wouldn’t be out. But bros don’t like to go slow - as rational actors, they want to maximize their utility, and in this scenario that means drinking as many of the cold beers as possible. If everyone had slowed down, everyone would have had more cold ones, but slowing down unilaterally isn’t in any one individual’s best interest. So you overexploited your resource, and now everybody loses.

Plenty of bros have suggested that this is happening with our global resources, and they offer compelling evidence to back up the claim that we are using resources faster than they replenish themselves. They suggest that meat consumption contributes to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, both by leading to deforestation for grazing land and the feeding and production of the livestock itself - cows give off a ton of methane as a by-product of their digestive system. I actually think it’s a Standard Metric Fuckton yearly. That’s the official statistic.

So we have two questions, which parallel the two questions in the original discussion of vegetarianism: do we have a responsibility to use a smaller share of global resources, and if so, does that responsibility include not eating meat?

In answer to the first question, note that no one did anything wrong in our example. They just went about their business of being bros, and the tragedy happened because no one did anything. But it’s hard to say we can blame any individual more than the others; the whole group shares it. What if one particularly talented bro drank twice as much as the others? Can the other bros get upset, knowing they were more impressed than mad at the time, and would have followed suit if they could? That is, they all followed the same rule, which was maximize individual utility; one bro just did it better than the others.

One difference between the example and the real-life situation is that some of our resources arecommoditized. Maybe we’re using up water faster than we can clean it, but it’s also traded as a commodity - what if we turned those beers into a commodity? Each bro has to pay a dollar for every beer more than one he wants in ten minutes. That forces a bro to slow down if he doesn’t have the money to pay for the beer, and ensures that the beers in the fridge have time to cool down. In short, it disallows a bro from consuming more than he produces. Companies have resisted the commoditization of resources like air through things like cap-and-trade, but it might be the best way of measuring what companies can consume. Similarly, if the price of beef went up to account for whatever environmental damage it does, then fewer people would consume it, all without recourse to a discussion of morality. As it is, beef is a premium; developed countries eat way the fuck more than third-world countries. Robert Nozick argues in his seminal Anarchy, State, and Utopia, that any state of affairs which arises from mutual cooperation and agreement is just; if a bro performed a service that some people found valuable enough to pay him money for, and then some farmers thought that he had enough money and agreed to sell him the steak, and everyone involved in those transactions was willing, then our bro has fulfilled his duties - he hasn’t forced anyone to act in any way. He has a right to eat as much meat as he can afford.

So if someone is using more than their 'fair share’ of resources, perhaps that’s a failure of markets and not a moral wrong. Opponents of this position think that the commoditization of natural resources doesn’t make any fucking sense - what does it mean to 'own’ the air or the water? Perhaps we really do have to cut consumption, and market regulation isn’t enough - or, the better way to use the markets is to demand ethical products. If I’m not mistaken, even with tax credits, it’s not economically beneficial to own a Prius in America - the extra cost of the car is more than savings in gas. Why do people do it? Because some of them see it as a more ethical product, which makes companies more willing to produce them.

Eating less meat might not be sufficient to solve a global crisis, and it may not be necessary; perhaps genetically-modified organisms can produce more grain with less water to feed livestock itself genetically modified, that produces more meat with fewer emissions. Fucking science, man, and a lot of people don’t see any problem with genetic modification as a potential 'supply-side’ solution to the problem of emissions. Other people object to genetically modified organisms as dangerous or untested. Still, with sufficient advances in water reclamation, land use, and meat production, we might viably sustain our meat output without hurting the environment. In the meantime, individuals have to decide if a tragedy of the commons is itself a binding moral issue - if so, vegetarianism seems like one viable response to the issue. Commoditization might be another. I don’t propose that this is an exhaustive list. The relationship of our consumption to the environment is an increasingly complex question.

wkstanley writes in the comments of the Free Will discussion:

There’s one other position worth noting – the “semi-compatibilist” view, which is the one that says “yeah, but whether we’re determined or undetermined, we’re still morally responsible.” … My favorite example is the Uruk-Hai – those guys were BAD, right? Born bad. No choice in the matter. But killing them was still right – as they say in Texas, “they needed killin’”.

Thanks bro - it’s a position I wasn’t familiar with, but it collects well objections to the idea that free will is necessary for moral responsibility.

I can’t find much on the position, but the gist of it seems to be this: even if we don’t have free will, we still have moral institutions of right and wrong. On what basis do we imprison people? Not even Johnny Cochrane could get up in front of a jury and say, “Ladies and gentlemen of this supposed jury, even if the glove does fit, my client was forced to choke that bitch by the laws of nature and the state of the past. You can’t hold him responsible; he had no other options. You must acquit.” The jury would deliberate and discuss - even if the verdict they return is dictated by the laws of nature, they will return a verdict. A sarcastic mother might say in response to the excuse, “I broke the window because physics made me,” “You’re grounded for a week. You can thank bosons.” That is, even in the context of hard determinism we still have frameworks for moral responsibility, and within those frameworks people are held responsible - they are as destined to be held accountable for their crimes as they are to be punished. To whom are we accountable? Why, other people in a determined framework.

This restores our notion of the necessity of responsibility without conceding free will. But the detractors say, “And what grounds your morality? From whence do these systems come? John Stuart Mill wroteUtilitarianismbecause he had to, not because utilitarianism is right. Perhaps the Uruk-hai do need killing - I’m no apologist for Mordor. But you’re not going to kill them because it’s right, you’re going to kill them because physics fucking says so. What we consider right is now a consequence of the laws of nature, but it may be completely separate from what is right. Our assessments are as baseless and as meaningless as ever; they think that semi-compatibilists can only restore a subjective, rather weak account of responsibility to the question.

Thanks for the responses, you guys!

For more information on vegetarianism, check out the Wikipedia links for Environmental Vegetarianism, and Tragedy of the commons. For more information on the Semi-compatibilism, Alternative possibilities is probably your best bet.

You can get Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, And Utopia from Amazon; quite possibly the Libertarian Bible. Bonus: in Socratic Puzzles he talks about libertarianism and free will, along with a host of other issues. Both are excellent reads.

Mailbag Monday: Ontological Arguments

Martin Heidegger's "Being and Time": A Summary