Meat: Sometimes 'Sustainable,' Never Okay


Ali San/flickr

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?

The application of equal consideration would require me to consider if the suffering I would cause the pig—indeed, taking its life—was worth satisfying my own taste for pork—something that I hardly need. My answer would have to be no. 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.

But say I'm stranded on a vegetation-free island with a pig. There'd be no question as to who would feed whom. Applying the principle of equal consideration, I would decide that, given that my own life is at stake, and given that somebody was going to eat somebody, the pig's suffering would be worth the continuation of my life. Thus the pig would die.

I would make this choice based not on the idea that Homo sapiens are inherently superior to Sus scrofa domestica, but rather on the basis that, even though our capacity to suffer is shared, I'm the sentient being more likely to accomplish something like find a cure for cancer (of course, I'm also the one more capable of causing mass Armageddon, but we'll leave that alone for now). In other words, it is at this extreme point—a clear-cut case of life or death—that I'd be justified in identifying the positive differences in intelligence, ability, and potential. Of course, in order to be consistent, I'd have to apply the same equal consideration to a human being who was, say, excessively old, sick, or debilitated (assuming that I was capable of resorting to cannibalism to save my own life).

I realize that this argument against eating farm animals isn't airtight. But my motivation here, once again, is not to pick on free-range systems, but to highlight a new set of questions. After all, given that this idea of equal consideration is so central to an ethical understanding of our relationship with animals, why do we so rarely think about it? In a food culture that's become quite obsessed with producing and consuming food in ways that are morally just, why do we consistently avoid the issue of animal sentience, and the basic rights that such sentience guarantees? Why do otherwise socially conscious consumers fail to ask if an animal's death is a fair price to pay to satisfy our carnivorous palates?

My sense is that we've avoided these questions for a single reason, one that Gary Francione identified decades ago: Farm animals are legally property. And their status as property poses an enormous, and enormously unrecognized, barrier to our recognition of their basic right to equal consideration.

Objects are legitimately property. Sentient beings—beings capable of suffering—should not be. There's no denying that free-range systems are generally more concerned with animal welfare. But it's very difficult (if not impossible) for the owner of farm animals to give their "property" equal consideration because their status as property skews all consideration toward the owner's interest. There are gradations of freedom, and an owner of an animal raised to produce meat is only going to go so far down that scale. Otherwise, there would be no need to own the animal.

Our entire discussion of animal welfare and the comparative humaneness of free-range farming has taken place behind the protective veil of property status. Lift this veil, if only as a mental exercise, and you'll be amazed at what a radically different question you'll be forced to contemplate.

Presented by

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.

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis. The only problem? He has to prove it works.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?


The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Health

From This Author

Just In