I was wondering recently about a generally acknowledged vegan axiom which stipulates that it would be objectively better if human beings had not domesticated animals, and it is this conviction which often underlies the conviction that we ought not use animals today for any reason whatever. Now, putting aside the question of whether nature and evolution are set up in such a way that domestication by one species of many others is inevitable (such that, if we hadn’t done it, it would nevertheless have happened – this is an interesting question which begs the question of teleological readings of evolution such as the reading of Teilhard de Chardin, but I digress), the question I want to ask is: “is it true that the world would be better if human beings had not domesticated animals?”
Usually the argument would go something like this: since human domestication has lead to extreme animal suffering, there would be less animal suffering if human domestication had not existed. How sure can one really be that if human beings had not domesticated animals there would be less animal suffering in the world? Perhaps there would have been, but perhaps not. Consider it in possible world semantics: Are there logically possible worlds on which human beings did not domesticate animals and there was more animal suffering than there would have been if animals had been domesticated by humans? It seems clear to me that the least mental exercise demonstrates that there are (for instance worlds with many earthquakes or natural disasters which caused the slow death of many animals, etc). Perhaps to be fair the question ought to be posed: “Are most or all relevantly similar logically possible worlds where animals are not domesticated worlds which contain less suffering than all or most relevantly similar logically possible worlds where animals are domesticated?”
Supposing that in some logically possible worlds life on this planet goes extinct in the case that animals are domesticated, earlier than it would have in the case where animals were not domesticated. Certainly if animals went extinct there would be less suffering, so maybe we need to shore up the argument again – take ‘suffering’ to be defined as ‘the ratio of pain to pleasure is >x’ or something like that. Then when we look back at the argument, it isn’t so clear which way to go. Since, plausibly, the pain to pleasure ratio in most or all relevantly similar worlds on which animals are domesticated is plausibly <x. Since human beings have a greater capacity for both pleasure and pain than other life forms, it seems that causing pain to others which causes pleasure to humans may not yield the same amount of pain relative to pleasure as, say, when a lion causes the pain of its prey for its pleasure. Since human beings generally qualify as ‘animals’ for the purposes of most Vegans, then animal ‘suffering’ (as defined above) may be false in most worlds where animals are domesticated by human beings.
If one is Utilitarian it seems that this argument must be addressed, and it isn’t so clear which way Utilitarianism (in general) will yield. This is perhaps another good reason for a Vegan who wishes to retain her convictions about vegan ethics to ground them on something more plausible than Utilitarian ethics, such as, for instance, Catholicism.