Moral offsetting

Can money cancel out meat consumption?

Ariel Pontes


Imagine there’s a non-profit that claims to offset the meat, dairy, and eggs consumption of one average omnivore for X dollars per month. In other words, the amount of suffering that they manage to prevent with those X dollars every month is exactly the same as the amount of suffering that you would prevent if you went vegan. Now imagine two average omnivores just watched some documentary about animal cruelty and decided to do something about it. One of them decided to go vegan, and the other decided to offset their consumption of animal products. Are their decisions morally equivalent? Or is one decision better than the other?

From a strictly consequentialist perspective, their decisions are perfectly equivalent. Many vegans, however, feel uncomfortable about the idea of offsetting one’s consumption of animal products. If this is permissible, they argue, people might as well rape and then offset the harm by donating to some NGO that helps rape victims, organizes educational programs to prevent rape, etc. But does this argument really stand?

As sincere as this argument may be, it is a type of appeal to emotion. If “reductio ad Hitlerum” attempts to invalidate somebody’s position on the basis of it being somehow linkable to Hitler, today a perhaps even more common strategy is “reductio ad stuprum”, in which any action can be attacked as morally monstrous simply by doing some linguistic gymnastics to categorize it as rape, or at least analogous to rape in some crucial way. If you manage to corner your opponent in such a way that they have no choice other than to bite the bullet and say “well, maybe sometimes rape is permissible”, the debate is over and you won. But under sufficiently unusual conditions, any action can be framed as permissible. It is permissible, if not an obligation, to commit one genocide to prevent five others from happening in a perverted trolley-problem-like situation, for example.

Part of being rational is being able to accept emotionally uncomfortable realities instead of finding excuses to preserve a fairytale world. If somebody puts a gun to your head and tells you to decapitate a child or else they will decapitate five, of course you don’t want to decapitate the one child. You will desperately grasp for excuses not to do it…