Vegetarianism, Food Selection, and the Trolley Problem (Part 2)

Posted on June 2, 2012 by

Do stereo typical meat eaters value the lives of animals more than plants? As stated in an earlier post, I think that they do. If this is the case, then it seems that when making food selections it would be inconsistent for the meat-eater to choose animal meat over the vegetarian option assuming that they have such options available to them. What makes the selection of meat inconsistent if they value animals more than plants? Teasing out that answer will be my focus here.

We all seem to have a hierarchy of value that is internal to us. By ‘hierarchy of value‘ all I mean to say is that we value some things more than others. Circumstances may, and often do, play a part as to how we should act given our particular value hierarchy, but for the most part we have a fixed value schema that tends to change only when confronted with new information or a better understanding of the world. Some things we value are instrumental and others are intrinsic. The difference between an intrinsic value and an instrumental value goes something like this; something that has instrumental value is something that is useful to us as a means to an end. While something that has intrinsic value is an end in itself. Let’s call this distinction between values the ‘Value Distinction’ or VD[3].

The best way to think about this distinction is to think of yourself on a deserted island. On that Island would money still be valuable to you (assuming you have enough fire starter logs for a lifetime)? Now, would the life of your mother still have value on this island? The answering to yes in the latter case and no in the former case points to the heart of the VD distinction, that money is only valuable as long as it can get you other things – it’s instrumental; as long as it serves as a means to an end while the life of your mom seems to have value because it is an end in itself – intrinsic value. For our purposes here this generic distinction will do in order to facilitate the discussion of the inconsistencies within the stereo typical meat eater’s value schema.

To see the inconsistency I’d like for you to consider this thought experiment—let’s call it the choo-choo case. (It’s a variation of the Trolley Problem first offered by Virtue Ethicist Phillipa Foot and later by Judith Jarvis Thomson).

Imagine yourself in a runaway train car that is connected to a track. The track runs from one city to the next and has two adjacent tracks that you could ride on just in case there happens to be a problem with your track. The train car can not only detect items on the track over a mile before you near a particular point, but can describe exactly what they are and what kind of impact hitting those items will do to the car. Now, on your way home your car tells you that there is a pig on your track but hitting the pig only yields a 1% chance of damaging your car. Assuming you’d not want to hit the pig because you’d feel bad in killing it you ask the car for information on the adjacent tracks. It says that there is a pig on the right hand track which also yields a 1% chance of damaging your car. It then says that there is a bean plant on the left track that would also result in a 1% chance of damaging your car. In either case the car lets you know that whatever track you take you will end the life of that living thing. No matter what track you choose you will be killing something[4]. Now, it seems that most people, including meat eaters, would opt for the track that kills the plant. If this intuition is incorrect then my conclusion will be less salient than initially thought. However, if I am not, then it seems like the meat-eater has a moral conundrum on his hands, because, when entering the market the meat-eater has similar options.

In the choo-choo thought experiment he had the choice to kill a plant or animal, it seems that most would choose to kill the plant. At the grocery store he has a similar choice—the plant or animal?

If the example seems dis-analogous we can tweak it a bit to hit the point home. Initially, it seems that in the choo-choo case the agent would be actively choosing to end the life of an animal if he chose one of the tracks with an animal on it. In the market the animal is already dead. So, imagine the choo-choo example again but this time with no animals on the track. Imagine that if the agent stays on the track the computer tells him that a dog will die by having his neck slashed by a machine. The electricity generated from the car over that particular track doesn’t kill the animal right away but rather adds electricity to a machine that will kill a dog. The other track will produce energy that is stored to kill a sheep, and the third track will save the energy produced to crush a potted bean plant to pieces. It still seems intuitive to think that most meat eaters will opt to crush the potted bean plant. What would you do?

Most animals seem to have more value than mere instrumental value. Yes, we sometimes use animals as means to an end but they seem to have value beyond such means. Think back to the deserted island example. Would we think of animals in the same way as we thought of the money? Let’s assume we had all the food we needed (including an unlimited supply of marinated meat of your choice) would we see a living animal as we do a piece of useless paper?

If we look at the laws within our society they seem to be telling of an obvious answer. We have laws that aim to protect animals. In the United States there are laws in nearly every state (43 at last glance) that forbids the mistreatment and neglect of animals. Yet, in that same country the average meat-eater consumes 194 pounds of flesh per year[5]. It seems quite inconsistent that we want to protect these animals yet actively kill them to feed and nourish ourselves, often times mistreating them[6] before ending their lives and becoming dinner.

There was a time, not too long ago, that we had very few options other than consuming animal flesh in order to nourish our bodies. However, that time has come and gone. It seems that the only appeal that I’ve heard consistently from the meat-eater is that “it tastes better”. So, if someone claims to value the life of animals yet chooses to eat one because “it tastes good” and for no other reason, then it seems like the value of a life fluctuates depending on how it tastes? Can this truly be a warranted justification? In order to see if it is let’s try and apply this ideology (that the taste of flesh trumps the value of that living things life) to other live beings that we value? We have seen that this won’t work, for reasons detailed in the last 2 posts.

To recap – I have argued that the stereotypical meat-eater is inconsistent. It seems that they value the life of an animal more than that of a plant (generally speaking) yet choose not to eat a less valued plant when faced with what to eat for dinner. I tried to show how this is the case by way of the choo-choo thought experiment. The thought experiment posited a case in which a person was riding home in a car with the option of going on 3 tracks. One track had a potted bean plant; another had a dog laying on the track, while the other had a sheep on the tracks. If my thought experiment is attuned to how most will react in the choo-choo example then it seems the meat-eater is faced with a moral conundrum. If animals do have intrinsic value and it seems that they do (remember the examples of the protection they have under U.S law) then it is not consistent for humans to eat them. Even if one thinks that plants too have value, outside of their ability to nourish us, it still seems that the choo-choo example shows us that the plant has less value than that of an animal when considered on an individual case-by-case basis.

I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have.


[3] This is a widely accepted distinction. However, there is much debate regarding intrinsic value in environmental ethics. For our purposes here let’s assume that there is a difference and that difference is the means/end distinction that I’ve stipulated with the VD model.

[4] Let’s also assume that the car computer can also tell if the impact to each animal/plant will kill it. Let’s stipulate that the bean plant is in a pot that will shatter and tear the plant to shreds upon impact.

[5] For more on how this data was collected please see the United States Department of Agriculture web site at;

[6] Here I am appealing to factory farm conditions. Factory farming produces over 75% of the meat in the United States (See USDA Website above).