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Chris Belshaw makes the case for rearing animals for their meat and produce.
Vegans want us to think carefully about what we eat. Certainly the bad practices rife in intensive farming generate powerful arguments against meat, dairy, eggs. But it may be harder to build a case against what might be called ‘humane’ farming (though some think there is no such thing). Pain can be reduced or eliminated in the better farming practices. So then the emphasis concerns killing. But is it really clear that we absolutely ought not to kill and then eat animals? There are three main arguments against this: we’re told that the production and consumption of meat is bad for us, bad for the environment, and bad for the animals who get eaten. Here I’ll be interested in the third claim.
Before getting into the argument, there’s some shorthand that needs explaining. I’m going to say that death isn’t bad for animals. Yet this needs clarifying. It certainly is bad for cows to be made into burgers, just as it’s bad for trees to be turned into pencils. But our concern will be with things that are bad in a way that matters, or which give us reasons against that thing. I’m also going to discuss what is permitted, required, or forbidden. Again, this is shorthand. There will usually be some special circumstances in which there might be good reason to do what is in general forbidden; or reasons not to do what is in general permitted, or even required. Even most vegans will allow meat-eating if that is the only way a person can keep themselves, or their family, alive. My concern will be with what is forbidden in general, or forbidden, other things being equal.
Sheep © Chris Belshaw
Arguments Permitting Animal Killing
Here are three arguments that killing and eating animals is permissible. The first has affinities with anti-natalism, some versions of which say how we shouldn’t start lives that will involve suffering. Even the best lives are temporary and involve pain and grief, so the anti-natalist says that we shouldn’t even have babies. Apply this logic to animals and we shouldn’t breed them. Can we extend that argument to say that we should end the lives of animals already living, on farms or in the wild? There might be good reason to do so, since pain is certainly bad for them, and in their case pain is uncompensated by pleasure, even when it is outweighed by it. For no animal thinks, as we might think, that the present pain – it’s hungry, or caught in a trap, or distressed at losing its young – will soon be over. So, the argument goes, given the inevitability of pain, it’s better for animals overall if their lives are ended. But if we’ve decided now to kill them, it seems there’s no reason then not to eat them, especially if that might alleviate hunger in our own lives.
Not many people will be impressed with this argument. They may prefer, as do I, a second argument, surely less counter-intuitive, which says that even if animals can have overall good lives, such that the pleasure outweighs and compensates for the pain, it is nevertheless not bad for them painlessly to die. Give them a good life; end it with a good, clean death; and then feel free to eat them. But how can I claim that their death isn’t bad? Because, unlike us, animals lack a consciously-formulated desire for survival. In this sense, they don’t want to live on. So it’s not bad that they die prematurely. Maybe we should concede that self-conscious animals such as whales, elephants, chimps, even dogs, are different here. But these are not the animals we eat.
Perhaps, other things equal, we should ensure that animal don’t die prematurely, but rather live on and die of old age. Yet a third argument insists that other things aren’t equal, and so eating meat is permitted. Consider just humane farming, and the animals alive right now. Our options are: continue with business as usual; kill them all now; care for them into their old age and death by natural causes; or finally, set them all free. Given that these animals don’t have a bad life, there is no reason to kill them now. What about the third option, caring for the animals until their natural deaths in old age? It may be easy enough for animal rights activists to steal a new-born lamb and give it a life of bliss in someone’s garden, but it’s less easy to apply this ideal on a global, industrial scale. We can’t choose to breed tens of billions of animals, then give all of them life-time care. So even if we might occasionally act to keep a farm animal from death, we can’t make this into a rule. What then about just setting them free? This last would be the worst option for most farm animals. Domesticated animals generally can’t look after themselves in the wild – especially when the wild is littered with towns and motorways. If this is what animal liberation is about, so much the pity.
Cows © Chris Gill please visit cgillcartoons.com
What we should think about well-tended farm animals, then, is that even if their lives aren’t the best possible, they are nevertheless worth living, and generally the best lives available for them. A short, good life with a pain-free death; or no life at all. Which would you prefer?
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go there are two kinds of people. Most have lives more or less like ours, but some are clones, created and raised as a source of replacement organs. The clones could live into their eighties or nineties or beyond, as do the others, but instead they are pressured to ‘donate’ organs in early adulthood, and are ‘completed’ at the latest by their early thirties. Horrible? It seems so. But although a melancholy air hangs over their lives, there’s no suggestion that they think it would have been better if they’d never been born. And at the end of the novel, the main character suggests that on reflection their lives are not very different from those of other people. Shorter, yes; but death is pretty much the same for all of us – it’s usually bad that it happens, and it usually happens too soon.
I can’t decide whether we’re supposed to think there’s self-deception here, and that these lives, even if worth living, are in fact much worse than ours. For the clones are aware that death is coming sooner for them than it will for most of the people they see around them. They can think about, imagine, regret the longer life they’ll never have. Melancholy is the least we might expect.
But it’s not at all like this for animals. The sheep on the farms around here appear completely unaware that other animals – the dogs and cats, perhaps the horses – have long and cossetted lives. That they fare less well is no concern to them. So far as we can tell, they don’t think about it at all.
Arguments Requiring Animal Rearing
If killing and eating animals is in some circumstances permissible, and you want to eat meat, then go ahead. But three more ambitious arguments have it that this killing and eating of animals is morally required. The first of these is in certain respects a bad argument. The two that follow are better.
According to the so-called ‘Logic of the Larder’, we actually benefit animals – do them a favour – by bringing them into existence, even if for a short life. As Leslie Stephen put it, no one has more interest in bacon than the pigs who provide it (Social Rights and Duties, 1896).
Sophistry? Well, there are things wrong here, but not as much as may seem. Any actual pig, it will be said, is harmed rather than benefited by being killed, brined, and sliced. But if it’s good for non-actual pigs to be made actual – to be brought into existence – and this happens only if we’re going eventually to eat them, then indeed our appetites are also working in their favour.
On this view, a short life really is better than no life at all. Yet even if we allow that good lives should be continued, we can still deny that such lives should be started. There’s nothing speciesist about this. Many of us feel more secure with the claim that we should make existing people happy, than that we should bring new people – similarly happy – into existence.
Deer © Chris Gill please visit cgillcartoons.com
Yet it still might be good – but this time good for us – if certain animals are deliberately brought into existence, quite apart from whether we plan to eat them or not. We regret the threat of extinction that hangs over many rare breeds – Saddleback pigs, Ryeland sheep, Chillingham cattle, to name only three – and would prefer to keep them in existence. We acknowledge our connectedness to the past this way, and preserving these breeds through humane farming allows this connectedness to continue into the future.
A third argument, somewhat similar, focuses on landscape and environment. It reflects a simple but important aesthetic concern. The countryside we like, feel at home in, and want to explore, is very much shaped by farmers and their animals, and has been so for centuries. Remove the animals, and much of what we value in the countryside disappears. There is also a future-facing practical concern to take into account. It’s been recently rediscovered that in various ways the animals we rear can stimulate the regrowth of ancient woodland, increase biodiversity, help mend broken habitats. So these animals also have a more straightforward instrumental value.
This is all presently achieved by farm-rearing animals for meat and produce. Are there vegan-friendly routes to the same ends? We could keep a few examples of rare breeds in animal sanctuaries, charging for admission; and we could, at some cost, manage the landscape so as to preserve its traditional appearance, even without the help of animals. But those objections often raised against zoos and theme parks also apply here. Divorced from their long-standing rationale – and that involves, of course, most aspects of farming – these animals, and these environs, lose in meaning and value.
The Vegan Counter-Attack
Finally, I’ll consider three counter-arguments to the effect that we should believe that eating animals is wrong. There’s no spoiler in my saying now that these arguments fail.
I’ve focused on the alleged badness of death, and assumed that we can eliminate the anxiety, distress, and pain in killing animals. But, it is objected, this is wishful thinking. It’s inevitable that animals will in some ways suffer as they die.
Suppose I concede this. What follows? Is this intended as an across the board reason to keep animals out of existence? Then we’re back to the anti-natalist argument I mentioned earlier, and whose conclusion I said most people will surely view as extreme – that it is better for many farm animals to never have lived. It’s also hard to see how the argument can target just farm animals, as their lives in general, and their deaths in particular, are usually less painful than those of equivalent animals living in the wild.
There are also concerns about a slippery slope. People may say, give the all-clear to free-range chickens, and it’s just a small step to factory-farmed birds, lark pie, and roast albatross. A similar argument suggests that if voluntary euthanasia is permitted, we’ll soon be back with death camps. It’s hard to believe these arguments are ever made sincerely, and are not just rhetorical devices wheeled out to support foregone conclusions. But since they are so hopelessly pessimistic about human nature, such arguments are never made well.
Closely connected is what I’ll call the ‘splitting hairs’ argument. Even allowing that we won’t descend into murder and mayhem, still, ethical meat-eating demands that we busy ourselves with some rather fine distinctions. Mightn’t we instead agree with Peter Singer when he says, “Going vegan is a simpler choice that sets a clearcut example for others to follow”? However there are also suspects practices in tea and coffee production; similarly with avocado and soy; and notoriously so in clothing manufacture. No one suggests that we should therefore go about thirsty, hungry, and naked. My point though is that the requisite responses are not ones we all need to make personally. Surely governments and regulatory authorities can and should do much of the spade work here, as they ought to do with the other industries, determining which animal husbandry procedures should be permitted, which proscribed, and enforcing these decisions by demanding frequent and effective inspections, insisting on clear and useful labelling, and so on. Then, as individuals, we can more easily avoid getting things hopelessly wrong, while still having some choice about what to eat.
Some will say we shouldn’t eat meat whatever the cause of the animal’s death, because in doing so we show a lack of respect. But how is this disrespectful? More detail is needed here. If the suggestion is that there’s fault in eating something just because it was once alive, then it seems we should give up our fruit and vegetables also. Perhaps then synthetic food is the future?
I’ve said there’s no reason, for their sake, to bring animals or indeed people into existence. Nor is there good reason to keep animals (though often there is reason to keep people) in existence. But if we do bring animals into existence, there are good reasons to give them a good life.
The second of these claims is the most controversial. So suppose it’s false, and that there are reasons to keep animals in existence. Farming, I say, is still permitted. It’s not ideal for the animals, but it’s not bad for them either; as indeed it’s not bad for people to have a good but short life.
So I’m against veganism as an absolute principle. But is there nothing, other than the concessions I made at the beginning, to be said for it?
Think about pacifism. We might agree that total and implacable opposition to war in all its forms offered an important and necessary corrective to attitudes prevailing almost everywhere right up to the twentieth century, even while thinking that the complexity of our imperfect world calls for a more nuanced position. It’s the same with veganism. There’s much that needed to be, and has been, learned. All of us who care about animals are indebted to the vegan flag-flyers, even if we disagree with them.
Those who care about food are also indebted to them, for another benefit of veganism is its encouraging the development of good alternatives to a meat-based diet. No longer are the options simply the pretentious but dreary omelette aux fines herbes, or the less pretentious but equally dreary nut roast.
© Dr Chris Belshaw 2021
Chris Belshaw is an honorary Fellow in Philosophy at both the Open University and the University of York.
Question of the Month
Do you think you can do better than these arguments, or counter them? You still may have time to submit an answer to ‘Question of the Month’ for Issue 147. The question is: Can Eating Meat Be Justified? Please justify it, or reveal it as unjustified, in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 18th October 2021. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address.