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Does the meat industry harm animals?

Should we eat animals? Vegetarians often say “No, because the meat industry harms animals greatly.” They point to the appalling conditions in which animals are raised in factory farms, and the manner in which they are killed.

Meat-eaters often reply that this objection is ill-founded because animals owe their very existence to the meat industry. The meat industry cannot be said to harm animals, because without this industry these animals would not have existed at all. Implicit here is the idea that something can harm a being only if it makes her worse off in some way than she would otherwise have been. Without the meat industry, these animals would not have been, and so would not have had a level of well-being at all.

But the meat industry does not harm these animals by bringing them into existence. It harms them by giving them worse lives than they might otherwise have had. These animals are harmed by the fact that, once in existence, they are treated so badly, rather than given happy lives.

Defenders of meat might concede this point. Still, they might insist, it is only factory farming that gives animals worse lives than these animals might have had. There is no objection here to free-range farming, which gives animals plenty of green space to roam around in, good quality food, contact with each other, and then kills them painlessly in their sleep without their anticipation.

I disagree. Even animals raised in these sort of conditions would be better off living longer lives in such conditions. Free-range farming harms animals by giving them shorter lives than they might have had.

Now, some dispute that cows, pigs, chickens, etc., have anything to gain by extra days, weeks, years, etc. Since these animals have no future-directed desires—and certainly no long-term projects or plans—they cannot be harmed by a painless death.

"Gertie", by Ben Bramble. Image used with permission.
“Gertie” by Ben Bramble. Image used with permission.

But I think this is a mistake. One doesn’t need future-directed desires in order for more life to be good for one. It is sufficient, I think, that this extra life would involve qualitatively new pleasures (i.e., pleasures that bring something qualitatively new in terms of pleasurableness into one’s life).

Consider a family dog, Gertie, running around today in the local park, chasing sticks, meeting new dogs, having new olfactory pleasures, and exploring parts of the park she has never been to before. It seems clear to me, and I hope to you, that it was a good thing for Gertie that she lived on until today. If she had died peacefully in her sleep last night, this would have been bad for her, since she would not have lived on to experience all these wonderful qualitatively new doggy pleasures.

Likewise, it seems to me, cows roaming free in a green paddock with plenty to eat, even if they have no future-directed desires, may have evolving social lives with each other that are a source of qualitatively new pleasures for them as time goes on, slow dawning realizations about their lives or vague increments in understanding that are pleasurable in various ways, different or deeper appreciations of the field in which they are grazing as it undergoes changes during the shifting seasons, or experiences of watching their offspring grow into adulthood and reproduce that involve pride or satisfaction. To kill them when they are young or middle-aged would be to rob them of these qualitatively new pleasures.

I suspect that many who think these animals have nothing to gain by extra years believe this only because they think that the pleasures available to such animals are ‘just more of the same’. This, however, seems to me false.

Suppose it is granted that animals on free-range farms would be better off living into old-age than being painlessly killed in their sleep during youth or middle-age. Defenders of meat might object that there is no objection here to free-range farming in which animals are allowed to live into old age or until they die of natural causes.

This is true. But would there be much of a market for such meat? This is unclear given that many meat-eaters seem to be of the opinion that the flesh of older animals is tough and tasteless.

Suppose that all I have said is right. Free-range farming that kills animals prematurely harms them by depriving these animals of qualitatively new pleasures. It still does not follow that we shouldn’t eat animals. To establish that, we would need to show in addition that this harm is greater than the net benefit to humans of getting to eat animals. But this is a topic for another day.

Featured image credit: Cows, by glasseyes view. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Jules Levin

    To the extent that animals have motives, it is to propagate and continue the species. The species is everything, not the individual. The best way a large-animal species can ensure its existence is to be useful to Homo sapiens, or like pigeons or rats, live as symbiotic in human-made environments. The rock dove, native to the Adriatic Coast, is now the most wide-spread bird in the world. If it means that a few have to live in little cages…

  2. Rabbi David Sears

    Animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin, founder of AMI (American Meat Institute), is probably the preeminent figure in the development and implementation of higher humane standards in the meat industry, at least in America.

    She has stated, “I believe that we can use animals ethically for food, but we’ve got to treat them right. None of these cattle would have existed if we hadn’t bred them. We owe them a decent life—and a painless death. They’re living, feeling things. They’re not posts, or machines.”

    This is what it gets down to. And I don’t believe the lives and deaths of the millions of animals bred for human consumption are as idyllic as consumers would like to think, in order to enjoy their steaks with a clear conscience.

  3. Colin

    To the extent that animals have motives, it is to propagate and continue the species. The species is everything, not the individual. The best way a large-animal species can ensure its existence is to be useful to Homo sapiens, or like pigeons or rats, live as symbiotic in human-made environments. The rock dove, native to the Adriatic Coast, is now the most wide-spread bird in the world. If it means that a few have to live in little cages…

    This seems like a very “abstracted” perspective that is far from the life-world within which we interact and understand animals. The animals that I have any encounters with seem to want a whole bunch of other things–attention, contact, play, companionship, freedom to move and pursue their desires. Sure they sometimes seem to want to propagate, but I don’t know whether any actual animal has any occurent motivation to “continue the species” other than humans. They may be motivated to continue the species (by the pleasures of sex and attachment to their offspring in many mammals) or they may just have that as a consequence of their biology (laying millions of eggs), but motivations to “continue the species” is just a fallacy of popular evolutionary theorizing.

  4. Gerhard

    “It harms them by giving them worse lives than they might otherwise have had.” is a logical error, because “otherwise” they would have had no live.

  5. Katran Miller

    Vegetarianism doesn’t actually stop animals from being killed, unfortunately, although one can argue that the countless rodents, birds, insects, and other creatures nesting or burrowing or foraging in the paths of plows and harvesters aren’t as self-aware and sentient as a cow or pig. Until we succeed in growing entirely synthetic food — and the anti-GMO movement makes that unlikely — humans are stuck with the basic fact of life on this planet. that life consumes life to live.

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