Meat: Sometimes 'Sustainable,' Never Okay


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My last post on the ethics of animal agriculture generated a firestorm of commentary. An especially compelling response came via e-mail from a noted food blogger. This person said not a single word about my argument per se but complained that anyone critical of free-range farming was implicitly in support of industrial agriculture. Why would I spend my time, this writer asked, tarnishing the only sliver of animal agriculture that provided animals a modicum of happiness when 99 percent of animals suffered under the cruelest conditions imaginable?

A fair question. My response is that, while I've been perfectly clear in my disdain of industrial animal production, the argument I'm working to develop transcends the conventional agribusiness vs. agro-ecology debate. I'm not saying my perspective is necessarily more important. Just that it's different.

The pig's sentience—its status as a non-object capable of suffering—morally trumps my desire to eat a BLT, no matter how much pleasure it gives. No life is worth a sandwich I don't need.

The fact that free-range animal husbandry is undoubtedly better than factory farming is irrelevant to my argument that raising animals for human consumption is, in and of itself, a morally problematic act. In attempting to illuminate the fundamental problems of animal agriculture per se, I'm engaging in a different sort of activism. The fact that it doesn't jive with the conventional attack on agribusiness really isn't my concern.

What I am concerned about is the fact that farm animals are sentient beings. As such, no matter what methods are employed to bring them to slaughter weight, they can suffer. Enlightened culture reached this obvious conclusion centuries ago when it rejected Rene Descartes's claim that animals were objects devoid of sentience. We can draw all the distinctions we like between humans and farm animals—we can produce operas, they cannot; we can do calculus, they cannot; we can send smug holiday greeting cards, they cannot. But none of these distinctions undermines the fundamental reality that we're both sentient beings capable of suffering.

If the ethics of eating matter in the least, then our understanding of animals must begin with this premise. Above all else, we must acknowledge that our shared sentience means that humans have a moral responsibility to treat farm animals differently than we treat objects. Specifically, as the philosopher Gary Francione has argued, all beings capable of suffering are entitled to the "principle of equal consideration." What this means is that, before using an animal in any way, we should evaluate what's at stake for everyone involved. We must do so, moreover, on the primary grounds of our shared sentience, thereby downplaying the many differences between humans and farm animals. Just because a farm animal cannot do math or send greeting cards doesn't mean that its capacity for suffering is in any way fundamentally different from our own.

I admit that making this distinction can be hard. Human accomplishments and abilities seem to so obviously distinguish us that downplaying our differences might appear to be nothing but a philosophical gambit. But consider: The ultimate problem with giving primary moral consideration to the amazing feats that humans can exclusively accomplish is that doing so requires us to assess all humans in such terms as well. In other words, we would have to undertake different evaluations of suffering for the mentally ill, the infirm, infants, the elderly, those with low IQs, etc. If sentience took a back seat to cognitive ability or skill sets, the moral value of human life would become dependent on variations in intelligence and ability. Needless to say, such a moral code would have horrific consequences.

James McWilliams: Free Range Isn't Better
Nicolette Hahn Niman: Dogs Aren't Dinner
Corby Kummer: Who Should Eat It?

Let me try to bring this argument down to Earth. Say I'm stranded on an island with a pig. And say the island is stocked with an endless supply of fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts—enough to feed us both. Am I justified in killing the pig?

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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