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When is it ok to eat your pet, The ethical dilemma...


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The Ethical choice – are we blind to the suffering of others


For me this was originally the least important of my motivations for moving to a plant based diet however it has grown into a compelling consideration over the two years since I became vegan.  Let’s unpack and review the moral case. 

Billions of humans eat meat. To provide it, we raise animals. We control, hurt, and kill hundreds of millions of geese, nearly a billion cattle, billions of pigs and ducks, and tens of billions of chickens each year.


To feed these animals, we raise crops. To raise crops, we deforest and use huge quantities of water. To quench these animals, we use still more water.

In turn, these animals produce staggering amounts of waste, waste that poisons water sources and soil. They also produce staggering amounts of greenhouse gasses.


To raise these animals and produce this meat, farmers and slaughterhouse workers labour in conditions from onerous to brutal.  If controlling, hurting, or killing animals is wrong or if the production of these environmental effects or effects on people is wrong or if consuming the meat produced is wrong, then it seems that a breath taking level of wrong-doing goes on daily.  The ethical view so called 'ontological veganism’ seeks to clarify the moral stance that should be considered when making such important personal choices.


One way of summarising the argument goes like thus:

1.  Causing animals pain while raising them for food when there are readily available alternatives is wrong.

2.  Industrial animal farming involves causing animals pain while raising them for food when there are readily available alternatives. Hence,

3.  Industrial animal farming is wrong.


The “while raising them for food when there are readily available alternatives” is crucial here. It is sometimes permissible to cause animals pain: You painfully give your cat an injection for inoculation, or painfully grab your dog’s collar, to stop him from attacking a toddler. The first premise is asserting that causing pain is impermissible in all other situations. The “when there are readily available alternatives” is getting at the point that there are substitutes available. We could let the chickens be and eat rice and kale. The first statement entails that it is wrong to cause animals pain while raising them for food if there are readily available substitutes.


However it says nothing about why that is wrong. It could be that it is wrong because it would be wrong to make humans suffer to raise us for food and there are no differences between us and animals that would justify making them suffer.  It could, instead, be that it is wrong because it’s immoral or even just cruel to the animals.


So long as we accept that animals feel and are not as Descartes suggested ‘automata’ it is uncontroversial that industrial farms do make animals suffer. No one would rightfully deny the second statement, and some others (Norwood and Lusk) go so far as to say that it is impossible to raise animals for food without some form of temporary pain, and you must sometimes inflict this pain with your own hands.  Animals need to be castrated, dehorned, branded, and have other minor surgeries. Such temporary pain is often required to produce longer term benefits but all of this must be done knowing that anaesthetics would have lessened the pain but are too expensive.


There is also the physical suffering of tail-docking, de-beaking, de-horning, and castrating, all without anaesthetic. Also, industrial farms make animals suffer psychologically by crowding them and by depriving them of interesting environments. Animals are bred to grow quickly on minimal food. Various poultry industry sources acknowledge that this selective breeding has led to a significant percentage of meat birds walking with painful impairments (see the extensive citations in HSUS 2009).


This is the case for the second statement, namely, that industrial farming causes animals pain while raising them for food when there are readily available alternatives.


The same argument can also be adapted to apply to free range farming and hunting.  Free range farms ideally do not hurt, but if we consider more carefully, they actually do: For one thing, animals typically go to the same slaughterhouses as industrially-produced animals do. Both slaughter and transport can be painful and stressful.


The same goes for hunting: In the ideal, there is no pain, but, really, hunters hit animals with non-lethal and painful shots. These animals are often—but not always—killed for pleasure or for food hunters do not need.


Taken together the arguments allege that all manners of meat production in fact produce suffering for low-cost food and typically do so for food when we don’t need to do so and then allege that that justification for producing suffering is insufficient. Against the arguments, one might accept that farms hurt animals but deny that it is even wrong to do so on the grounds that animals lack moral status and, because of this, it is not intrinsically wrong to hurt them (or kill or control them or treat them like mere tools).  However if animals lack moral status then why do we find it morally abhorrent to hurt or harm our own pets?  Perhaps the food industry does a good job of de-personalising the meat that you eat – if it’s just a product then there is no need to see what goes on behind closed doors. The pet industry by contrast emphasises the moral value of our pets by humanising them to us.  Both perspectives can’t be true at the same time though.


So perhaps its better to re-phrase the argument as such:


1.  Killing animals while raising them for food when there are readily available alternatives is wrong.

2.  Most forms of animal farming and all recreational hunting involve killing animals while raising them for food when there are readily available alternatives. Hence,

3.  Most forms of animal farming and all recreational hunting are wrong.


There is some disagreement about whether the first line in this argument is always true. The “readily available alternatives” condition matters: Everyone agrees that it is sometimes all things considered permissible to kill animals, e.g., if doing so is the only way to save your child’s life from a surprise attack by a grizzly bear or if doing so is the only way to prevent your pet cat from a life of unremitting agony.  Animal farms however are in the business of killing animals simply on the grounds that we want to eat them and are willing to pay for them even though we could, instead, just eat plants.


There are two types of view that support the killing of farm animals.  The first is the idea is that we have somehow made a “bargain” with animals to raise them, to protect them from predators and the elements, and to tend to them, but then, in return, to kill them. Moreover, the “bargain” renders killing animals permissible (defended in Hurst 2009, Other Internet Resources, and described in Midgley 1983). Such an argument might render permissible hurting animals, too, or treating them merely as tools.


Secondly, even conceding that it is to such an extent wrong to kill animals, it might be all things considered permissible to kill farm animals for food even when there are ready alternatives because, in so doing, we are supporting an industry that is too big to fail, supports many jobs and is in line with decades of government policy.  Besides, what would happen to all the cattle that currently exist if they weren’t still to be used as product inputs in the food industrial complex?


Anyone who endorses the views in the paragraphs above needs also to explain whether and then why their reasoning applies only to animals but not to humans. It would not be morally permissible to create humans on organ farms and harvest those organs, justifying this with the claim that these humans wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the plan to take their organs and so part of the “bargain” is that those humans are killed for their organs.   A common response would point to the difference between humans and animals as being sufficient justification for the difference in reasoning.  Once again however we suffer the circular argument associated with pets and the care and attention lavished versus the cruelty of the farm industry generally.


As you can see above the further we go down the rabbit hole of the ethics of meat consumption the murkier and more susceptible to challenge it becomes.  The preceding paragraphs have laid out some arguments according to which certain products are wrongfully produced and the consumption of such products bears a certain relation to that wrongdoing and, ipso facto, is wrong.  Ontological vegetarians/vegans then argue that meat is such a product: It is typically wrongfully produced and consuming it typically bears a certain relation to that wrongdoing. 


If consuming meat is wrong because it usually bears a certain relation to production, it therefore must be consumed only unusually to stand a chance of being permissible.  For example in a survival situation it would not only be permissible to eat other animals but as we saw with the 1972 Andes plane crash; when only two members of a stricken Uruguayan rugby team survived by eating the remains of their dead comrades in order to hike out of the Andes to safety, humans as well.


For the vast majority of the population in the world we live in today there are many readily available alternatives to meat consumption, indeed in the poorest nations meat consumption is either extremely rare or non existent due to it’s highly valued nature and high costs. 


The ethical arguments against meat and dairy consumption are still debated however when taken with the scientific facts surrounding the environment and personal health outcomes presented earlier the motivation for change is persuasive.  It is hoped that this article has provided some much needed clarity on what is becoming the increasingly relevant set of discourses for our time.

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