The Ethics of Eating Animals
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 agriculture.
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 philosophical ethics.
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.