Vegans refuse to eat animal products because of the
suffering that we cause to farm animals. They are obviously right to condemn
factory farming, which keeps animals in abominable conditions and causes vast
unnecessary suffering, but are they also right to refuse to eat products from
animals that are raised and slaughtered humanely?
A thought experiment can help make sense of this issue. Imagine that you had the choice of living
happily until the age of (say) thirty and then being slaughtered humanely, or
of not existing at all. Imagine that, like farm animals, that you would not
know that you are being raised in order to be slaughtered: you would just live
happily day to day, and then one day you would suddenly be led to the slaughter
and would be killed without understanding why. I think most people would choose
thirty years of happy existence over no existence at all.
This is the sort of choice that we face with farm
animals. If we did not use animal
products at all, they would not exist.
We might keep a few in zoos for show, but we would be choosing
non-existence for countless millions of animals.
Now, let’s try a similar thought experiment from the point
of view of someone observing the animals rather than of the animals themselves. Imagine a farm where animals are raised
humanely. It has chickens pecking in the
yard, pigs running up in to make friends with people who pass by, sheep grazing
in the meadow, geese becoming angry and territorial when strangers passes by - and
all of these animals will ultimately be humanely slaughtered for food. Would
the world be a better place if this sort of farm and all its different species
of animals were eliminated (except for a few specimens in zoos) and replaced by
farms growing soybeans to use for protein?
Again, I think most people would say no. The world is a better place with this
diversity of animal life than without it, even if the animals will all
ultimately be slaughtered and eaten.
This is true only because the animals are allowed to live
according to their natures. If we did similar thought experiments imagining
factory farms where chickens were confined in crates so small they could not
turn around and all the other animals raised in similar conditions, I think
most people would say that the world would be a better place without animal
It is interesting to try a thought experiment about natural
ecosystems that is similar to the thought experiment about farm animals living
according to their natures. Imagine a
natural habitat where, among other animal and plant species, there are deer
grazing on plants, wildcats preying on the deer, and wolves preying on both the
deer and the wildcats. Many of the deer
will die in a way that causes them great suffering: imagine what it would be
like running from wolves in a panic for hours, finally becoming so tired that
the pack gets closer and closer, still running in a panic though you know you
can’t get away, having a wolf nip your leg and hobble you, slowing you down so
much that the entire pack jumps on you, feeling your flesh being torn by the
wolves’ teeth before death ends your pain. And imagine what it is like being a
wolf or a wildcat in years when the deer population fluctuates downward, when
many predators die slowly and painfully of starvation.
Would the world be a better place if we eliminated the
animal species and had ecosystems made only of plants? We cannot eliminate just
the predators, because the deer population would outstrip the available food
supply, denude the vegetation, and ultimately die back because of starvation.
I think most people would say that it is better to have this
diversity of life, even with the suffering it involves, than it is to eliminate
the animal life from the world in order to eliminate the suffering. If this is
true, than doesn’t the same reasoning imply that it is better to have a
diversity of farm animals who are ultimately slaughtered than to eliminate this
animal life in order to eliminate the suffering of being slaughtered - which is
obviously much less than the suffering in nature.
These thought experiments raise a fundamental question in
If you are a philosophical hedonist whose goal is to
increase pleasure and reduce pain as much as possible, you might conclude that
the pleasure that these animals feel in their lives outweighs the pain, so the
world would be a better place without any animals.
Most of us would want to keep the animals despite the
suffering involved. Without knowing it, we accept the classical ethics of the
Aristotelians who believed that the key goal of ethics is the full development
of human nature - and, by extension, of animals’ natures. We find that the
flourishing of diverse natures in the farm and natural ecosystem of our thought
experiments is appealing, because we accept (most of us without thinking about
it) natural flourishing of life as the goal of ethics. And factory farms are repugnant because they
do not allow animals to live and to flourish according to their natures.
Nature is cruel and filled with suffering. Predator and prey species have evolved the ability to run quickly because of natural selection: the predators who could not run quickly enough died of starvation and the prey who could not run quickly enough died by being torn and eaten alive. If you didn't have the genes to run quickly, you died in a painful way and were eliminated from the gene pool.
Vegans say that we should eliminate the suffering, even if
it means eliminating the farm animals.
Most of them seem to be motivated by emotional sympathy for the animals
rather than by a reasoned view of the subject, and they do not realize that if
they carried their reasoning to its logical conclusion, they would also want to
eliminate animal life in nature too. We would not have chickens, pigs, goats,
geese, wolves, wildcats, or deer, except for a small number kept in zoos rather
than living according to their natures - with the wolves fed on artificial meat
made from soybeans.
All sentient life involves some suffering. We should do all we can to reduce suffering,
but we can never eliminate suffering entirely - except by eliminating sentient
life. The vegans’ philosophy, carried to its logical conclusion, is anti-life.