Animals, killing, and veg(etari)anism

There was a surprisingly pro-vegetarian (even pro-vegan) review (which I’m only getting around to blogging about now) in last Sunday’s Washington Post of two books: Mark Caro’s The Foie Gras Wars (previously mentioned here) and Jeffrey Moussaieff Mason’s The Face on Your Plate.

The reviewer, Jennifer Howard, is a confessed vegetarian, but is willing to concede some of the points made in Caro’s book:

As a vegetarian, I was predisposed to find the subject upsetting, but Caro’s descriptions of foie gras production and preparation were less gruesome than I anticipated (though mention of pig’s blood did make me wince.) What that says about the cruelty of foie gras I don’t know, and Caro doesn’t either.


[Caro] doesn’t document mass avian distress on the farms he visits (although one is tempted to ask him how he’d like to have a tube shoved down his throat three times a day.) He does see a few “unpleasant sights,” i.e., dead or obviously injured birds. Ducks and geese cannot tell you what gavage feels like. Do they suffer? Is it cruel? After 300-plus pages, Caro still isn’t sure what he thinks. He may chalk it up to objectivity. It feels more like a cop-out.

Ms. Howard finds herself more in agreement with Mason’s book, though she is put off a bit by his “too heavy a hand with the new-age seasoning.”

“Humanely”-raised meat is an undoubted improvement over the factory-farmed variety, but there is still the business of the slaughter:

Masson’s message is, Think before you eat. If you believe that eating free-range or organically raised animals and animal products lets you off the ethical hook, think again. My conscience is not clear just because that milk comes in a glass bottle from a local dairy where the cows get to see sunshine and fresh grass. That’s a happier lot than dark barns and hormone-laced feed, but I doubt the cows have pensions to look forward to.

Now this gets at a divide among people concerned with the well-being of farmed animals. Some people argue that suffering, not killing, is what matters. It’s okay to kill an animal for food if it has had a pleasant life lived according to its kind.

Before addressing that issue directly, though, we need to be aware of at least a few things. First, the process leading up to and including the slaughter is rarely, if ever, free of pain and suffering for the animal. Second, it’s far from clear that it would be practicable, at least on a large scale, to institute a truly “humane” process of raising and slaughtering animals.

But let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that it’s not only possible, but practicable. Is there still something wrong with taking an animal’s life? Or is there at least a prima facie obligation not to kill an animal without good reason? And what counts as a good reason?

It’s hard to give a satisfying account of the nature of harm that death inflicts on a living being. After all, if there’s no experiencing being there anymore, how can it be worse off after being killed?

Yet, most of us, I presume, want to say that a human being is harmed by being killed. What does this harm consist in? At a minimum, I’d say it includes the frustration of our desires, preferences, plans, and projects and the foreclosure of future experiences, accomplishments, etc. (Let’s bracket the question of the afterlife for our purposes; in any event, most people who believe in some kind of afterlife also believe–or act as though they believe–that death is a harm.)

So, can we also say that an animal–even if killed painlessly–is also harmed by death? Well, it’s debatable to what extent animals have projects or long-term goals (it certainly seems true that many don’t). But it seems far more certain that animals have desires, preferences, and possible pleasant future experiences that would be frustrated by being killed.

Such frustration of all an animal’s desires, preferences, etc. certainly seems like a harm if the (admittedly rough and ready) analysis of the harm of death for humans offered above is at all on the right track. It may be less of a harm, impartially considered, but from the animal’s point of view it surely looks like a great harm. After all, they’re losing the possibility of any future pleasant experience and satisfaction of desires/preferences.

And this seems to cohere with at least some of our intuitions about killing animals. Surely most of us think that, other things being equal, it’s wrong to kill a dog or cat for no good reason. I remember reading once, for instance, about families who put their pets down before leaving for vacation, rather than boarding them. When they returned, they got new ones. Surely that’s wrong. And the wrong is something done to the animal, not just because killing it may make us more likely to be callous to the lives of humans.

So, if, other things being equal, death is a harm for an animal, what would count as a good reason for killing one? Or, to address the topic at hand, is the satisfaction of certain pleasures of the palate a good enough reason?

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument and because for many–if not most–people in the developed world it’s actually the case, that there are plentiful, nutritious, and tasty non-animal-based food alternatives available. Killing an animal is no longer, by stipulation, a matter of survival or even good health. The only thing at stake (you’ll pardon the expression) is my preference for the taste of meat over a comparable plant-based dish.

Assuming that the death of a non-human animal is at all a serious harm (even if not as serious as the death of a human one), it’s very difficult to see how this harm could be outweighed by whatever pleasure I get from, say, eating a steak, over and above the pleasure of eating some roughly comparable plant-based dish.

I now find this argument pretty persuasive. However, when I first went vegetarian it had more to do with suffering than death, specifically the suffering inflicted on animals by our system of factory farming. Only later did I start to see the persuasive force of arguments against killing animals for food, however painlessly.

Which makes me wonder if attending to the suffering of animals tends to open one up to being persuaded that killing animals for food is, in itself, morally questionable. That is, once you get used to seeing animals as subjects with lives of their own that are owed some degree of respect, the justification for killing them, even “humanely,” starts to seem shakier.

I’m not prepared to mount the moral high horse just yet, though. For one thing, I’m no vegan and thus am at least indirectly responsible for the deaths of many animals, even if I limit myself (as I try to do) to “free range” and “cage free” dairy and eggs. (And I recognize that these alternatives are problematic even with respect to animal suffering alone.)

I still think that the first priority, one that can unite vegans, vegetarians, and “compassionate omnivores” alike, should be to reform our system of factory farming which, in addition to inflicting untold amounts of suffering on countless animals, contributes to environmental degradation and economic ruin among rural communities. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth considering the fact that, as theologian Karl Barth put it: “If there is a freedom of man to kill animals … [he] obviously cannot do this except under the pressure of necessity” (quoted by Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology, p. 130).

For an argument similar to the one presented here, see this excerpt from Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State & Utopia. I’ve also drawn on some ideas from Mark Rowlands’ book Animals Like Us, particularly chapter four.

For a different, but extremely thoughtful, perspective on all this, see this piece from Sharon Astyk on “Eating Animal Products Ethically.”

One thought on “Animals, killing, and veg(etari)anism

  1. Lee,

    Thank you for that link to Sharon Astyk’s excellent essay. As a vegan of 20+ years, animal foods are not a choice for me, but she presented a very thoughtful, extremely well researched article that shows her vast knowledge base on all the issues involved with food production (and reminded me of what I’m already painfully aware of — that I am not feeding my canine family members ethically at all).

    What saddens me is that responsible animal husbandry folks like her are so very minuscule in numbers.

    A major hindrance for most “regular” folks (ie, folks working 9-5 jobs, with overfilled afterwork schedules) is that the US food delivery system makes ethical eating choices so difficult. Once can easily run through any drive through and get a filling, meat/dairy based meal for the whole family. But to get a similarly filling vegan meal is another thing. And if one tries factor in sustainability issues, one feels even more overwhelmed.

    As someone who brown bags every meal to work (out of necessity .. about all my workplace’s cafeteria has for vegan options is the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce salad), co-workers drool (figuratively, and sometimes literally!) over my lunch items. I’ve had several folks say that if I would cook for them, they’d be vegan in a minute.

    While much of that talk is no doubt “just talk”, it highlights 2 underlining problems: the lack of availability of well prepared, filling, tasty vegan meals, and the increasing number of people who have lost the knowledge of how to prepare meals from scratch.

    In my job as a registered nurse, I do a lot of diet teaching, and am finding fewer and fewer people who know how to cook. Even my older patients … I’m surprised at the number who don’t/can’t cook. A number of my co-workers say their parents did not know how to cook and so never taught them this skill.

    Ahhh … another topic for another blog post perhaps!

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