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.