We all know where we’re at with regards to farming. It is a ubiquitous practice throughout human culture that has persisted for millennia.
But in modern times, as our collective ethical conscience has evolved and flourished, consternation and outrage towards the continued existence of the practice has begun to snowball.
We are seeing ever more intelligent, thoughtful people flock to join the ranks of die-hard animal lovers in their dogmatic abstinence from the consumption of animal products, as their ethical judgments lead them to conclude that such unrestrained exploitation of animals is morally unjustified.
And certainly, with the constant emergence of images and stories decrying the abysmal conditions suffered by many farmed animals, it is not hard to sympathize with the cause.
Yet, as we will see, a wholesale boycott of all animal products may not be the most ethically favorable option.
This article will demonstrate the somewhat counterintuitive idea that eating farmed meat can actually be a more ethical choice than not eating it.
And with that controversial bombshell, let’s dive right in.
A thought experiment, to kick things off
Consider the following scenario.
You are approached tomorrow, by a group of suit-clad agents and whisked away to some strange underground facility. A bespectacled man in a lab coat, with implacable eyes examines you in a small room.
“You are about to be culled, so that your organs can be harvested”, he says, without a trace of sympathy in his cold voice. “You were conceived and raised for this express purpose – your father was barren, so you could not have existed without our intervention.
Before we proceed with the harvest, I have an important survey question to ask you:
Are you happy that you were at least permitted to live the years we had allotted to you? Or given the choice, if such a choice was possible, would your preference be to have not existed at all – since your life is about to be terminated in a manner you undoubtedly consider premature?”
Reflecting upon the question, you should perhaps consider whether your life has, on balance, been one of flourishing, or suffering.
If your existence has been woven with threads of misery and depression – where you cannot recall a time when you would have considered yourself ‘happy’ – then perhaps you would tell the doctor that no, you would rather not have lived at all.
But most people, I suspect, have indeed lived a life that is, overall, a positive one. Thus, most people would grudgingly tell the doctor that they are grateful for the life they have lived up until this point.
Precisely the same question is relevant to the life of farmed animals.
Their entire existence would, well, not exist – were it not for the demand for their meat.
It stands to reason then, that if that existence was, on balance, a positive one – where the animal experienced the various pleasures proffered by life’s colourful palette – then, like the human in our thought experiment, it would prefer the farming industry to exist, so that it would exist too.
On the other hand, if an animal’s life was one, primarily, of suffering, then it would probably not care much for its own existence, and therefore, for the existence of farming.
Now, one might quite justifiably refute my assumption that, in my hypothetical scenario, people would generally prefer having existed, despite the sham nature of that existence.
If one were to be thrust into this cruel situation, they might find themselves overwhelmed with horror and disgust. They might bitterly resent the sudden curtailment of their dreams and aspirations – perceiving the meaning of their life to be smothered and starved under this revelation so that perhaps they would rather not have existed after all.
All of this is quite fair, and may indeed heavily influence your answer to the doctor’s question.
But a cow has no notion of life and death, and certainly no concept of ‘living a meaningful life’. These abstract notions are unique to fanciful creatures with a much more developed conceptual landscape – like humans.
Cows, and other animals lacking a hyper-complex frontal cortex, are very much creatures of the moment. Their concern is for satisfying immediate urges and emotional imperatives – running away from danger, or suckling their calf.
Therefore, when we evaluate the analogous question for a farmed cow, namely, whether it would prefer to have lived or not, then our consideration must be for the quality of that life; the number of positive experiences and whether they outweigh the negative ones.
What gives us the right?
You may be committed to the belief that we do not have a right to dictate and control the existence of other beings, and that the practice of farming can never be justified.
But I must point out that any notion of inalienable rights is not a part of a utilitarian moral framework.
If your opposition to farming rests on this presupposition of inherent rights, then you will not agree with the thesis of this article.
The arguments herein laid out consider only the concern for maximizing flourishing, and minimizing suffering of conscious creatures.
Such a utilitarian approach does not assume any universal ‘rights’ (though often, rights can, in general, be derived from utilitarian deliberations).
To accept the conclusions presented in this article then, you must grant that the only moral foundation and agenda is to create the best possible world – consisting of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ (though it never ceases to amaze me how people refuse to accept this as the ultimate project of morality).
Is a farmed animal’s life worth living?
Now, in light of our thought experiment above, we can see that the morality of farming boils down to the single, fundamental question: is a farmed animal’s life worth living?
If the answer is no, then the process of rearing the animal for our own purposes is morally unjustified. The well being bestowed on us – the beneficiaries of the animal’s suffering, is likely insufficient to outweigh the suffering itself.
If the answer is yes, then we must conclude that farming, and thus the consumption of farmed animal products is morally favourable. Because a reality which consists of more positive lives lived (i.e. where ethical farming exists), is preferable to the reality where less positive lives are lived (where ethical farming doesn’t exist).
So, what is the answer to the question?
Well, what would make any life worth living? In the case of humans, this question is somewhat more difficult to answer, since we are plagued with grand notions of purpose and success – which often become the metrics with which we evaluate our lives.
Yet no one would deny the inherent value of the ‘hedonic pleasures’ that we are capable of experiencing, from the more basal, yet lambent sensations like warmth, or sexual satisfaction, to the iridescent brilliance of such complex emotions as love, and wonder.
Most of us would agree that a life in which the vast range of life’s delectations (from the primal, to the transcendent) are experienced in high concentration, is a life worth living.
So we should apply a similar standard when evaluating the life of an animal.
Picture the life of Patrick the farmed cow who, unbeknown to him, has an inexorable appointment with death in a year’s time.
Of course, if you tried to tell Patrick this, he wouldn’t understand. He has no conceptual framework with which he could understand. And so he is doomed (or blessed) to blissful ignorance, never contemplating his end – because he does not know such a thing even exists.
Concepts of purpose, death, or philosophy are not part of Patrick’s simple existence.
For Patrick, his existence is dominated instead by the pleasing, crisp aroma of the grassy fields on which he spends his days.
He heeds only the warmth of the morning sunlight as it cloaks his body in a comforting, shiny brilliance – slowly warding off the numbness from the previous nights’ cold.
He sees only the dew-speckled grass, and tastes only its satisfying succulence.
He revels in the comfort of his herd-mates; he even has a best friend with whom to share his comfortable life.
And then eventually, sometime in the future, after countless days filled with these familiar comforts, Patrick finds himself in a strange new place. There is a sense of uncertainty, and a shimmer of panic that ripples through the herd as they stand inside a strange shed.
Patrick doesn’t enjoy this day – his final day.
But if he was able, he might reflect with warm satisfaction upon the days that he did enjoy – the pleasures he got to experience – and maybe, probably, he would agree that they markedly outweigh the discomfort of his final hours, and so, perhaps, were worth it.
Obviously that little vignette was a tad flowery and sentimental, but I believe it paints a reasonably accurate picture of the life of an ethically farmed cow.
Crucially, Patrick the cow was raised on an ethical farm in New Zealand, with free range over a wide expanse of fresh pastures.
However, Patrick’s less fortunate counterpart, Hubert – born and raised within the muddy pens of a Texas cattle yard, probably has a very different opinion of his own life.
And so we can see that the morality of farming depends on the specifics of the environment in which an animal is raised.
Specifically, the question we need to ask of a particular farming establishment is this:
Are the animals’ natural/evolutionary needs being met?
Natural selection was the programmer that instilled pleasures and agonies within the mental landscape of every creature, so that emotions and sensations like pleasure and pain would arise to promote behaviours that serviced (usually in some indirect manner) the creature’s survival and reproduction.
So by understanding something about the creature’s evolutionary origins, we can, in essence, peep under the hood of evolution’s handiwork, to see what kind of behaviours we need to facilitate, what environments we must provide, for the creature to thrive.
For example, we know that a chicken’s natural behavior is to scratch the ground. Deprived of this possibility, might the chicken therefore experience something like agony, or frustration? Are caged hens thus fraught with this perpetual dissatisfaction as they tread the cold bars of their metal prisons?
We also know that if any animal does not perceive itself to be in a safe environment, it will experience stress, and suffering.
A key requirement of any ethical farm should thus be the availability of shelter, for the animals’ protection from the elements and from predators, as well as a general commitment to taking whatever other measures are required to ensure that the animals feel safe.
Of course, there are a multitude of other considerations, each specific to different animals, but in essence the conclusion is this:
If you nurture the animal’s evolutionarily instilled desires, you will likely have a ‘happy’ animal – one whose life might be worth living.
Selecting for more ethical farming practices
We, the consumers are the ultimate arbiters of farming ethics. The market will shift to satisfy the dominant demands, so if enough people choose to buy free-range, ethically farmed animal products, then these are the kind of products we will be supplied with.
Thus, us meat-eaters should do our due diligence. We should ask ourselves questions like: is a free-range chicken’s life worth living? Is a caged hen’s life not? Would a pig immobilized in a tiny pen for a large chunk of its life reflect upon its existence with satisfaction, or misery? Does this steak come from Patrick the cow, or from Hubert?
You can indeed enjoy farmed animal products without moral recrimination – provided you are considerate to the life of the animals that provide them.
I would be remiss if I neglected to acknowledge the environmental concerns of farming, and the potential ethical consequences.
Obviously, if it can be demonstrated that the environmental consequences induce sufficient suffering to outweigh the pleasure, and well-being of the beneficiaries of farming – the (ethically-raised) animals themselves, and the human consumers – then a utilitarian morality must concede that farming is immoral.
But I have yet to witness such a demonstration.
Regarding greenhouse emissions: as of 2015, agriculture contributed around 9% of the total human greenhouse emissions, compared to around 60% from electricity and transportation.
Thus the most effective means of curtailing climate change would not be to target farming, but instead, for example, to implement non-fossil fuel energy generation, and to transition to electric cars.
Even modest success in either of these directions would significantly outweigh the reduction in emissions that is possible with a blanket ban on farming.
Yet the most ethical approach would not be to ban farming altogether, but rather, to impose regulations that would require the industry to mitigate these concerns. This is undoubtedly possible, and certainly more realistic than a wholesale ban. And better yet, this option ensures that the life of Patrick the cow is possible. Patrick thinks this a good thing.
I have encountered many arguments that condone the practice of hunting, usually though some sort of comparison with farming.
“Farmed animals lead unnatural lives, and are often killed inhumanely – whereas with hunting, the animal has lived a life of freedom and flourishing, and is usually killed with the same swiftness as a bullet’s supersonic velocity.”
Yet these arguments miss the point.
A hunted animal is deprived of the life and pleasures that it would otherwise have experienced – had you not killed it. Here there is a clear dichotomy: kill the animal, and destroy its ability to flourish, or let it roam free, and allow that flourishing.
The moral question of hunting boils down to this:
Is the pleasure the hunter receives from killing and eating the animal worth more than the animal’s experience of life, that it would otherwise have had?
I leave that as an exercise for the reader.
The consumption of a (farmed) steak is ethical, provided the life of the cow that produced it was worth living.
And it is up to us, the consumers, to demand ethical farming practices, so that we can ensure that the animals’ lives are indeed worth living. We should select for farming ideals that grant the experience of the farmed animals as sacrosanct.
By understanding more about the life and experience of farmed animals, and how they might be improved, we, the consumers, are in a powerful position to overhaul the agricultural industry such that it can rightfully claim to be, counter to prevailing notions, a morally righteous endeavor.
Aaaaand… cue the outraged retorts.