Hi everyone. Long post, but I’ve owed this to you for a while. I’m quite taken with this topic, and may be adding to these ideas as time goes on. Look for more posts in this series in the future.
Ethics of Eating Animals – Part 1: Animal Rights
Ethi-ics – (plural noun)
Ethics is a difficult subject to approach. I won’t beat around the bush that I am not a skilled writer, philosopher or theorist. I am not an expert. However, as an omnivore who is taking so much time to looking at other aspects of my food, the ethics of eating what once was a living, breathing creature is something I feel that should be addressed. And so, I present my attempt at rationally discussing the ethics of eating meat in this post. As the first in a series of posts over the next handful of months, I am going to try and deal with only the ethics in terms of rights of eating meat here. I will address Peter Singer, environment, health, etc. in later posts.
As asserted above, ethics are tough cookies to chew. We deal with philosophy, values, rightness and wrongness, goodness and badness. All highly subjective words to say the least, with strong connotations and even stronger opinions attached. To try to develop a reasonably balanced argument, I did some reading and research to fill out my limited knowledge of the topic. Some of my references included:
- Eating Animals, by Johnathan Safran Foer
- Meet Your Meat, by PETA
- The PETA website
- Various Videos on ChooseVeg.com
- Earthlings (I did, in fact, watch the whole movie. It was troubling, to say the least. definitely not for those who are weak in the stomach)
- Some resources that reviewed The Beekman Boys
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Rights
But for the bulk of this post, I am going to use the BBC Ethics Guide: Eating Animals Webpage as an intellectual jumping point. I liked the page, as it presented in a clear and stepwise manner the reasons for ethically not eating meat. I would suggest popping over and taking a quick look to familiarize yourself with the format, which may help guide your own thoughts about the matter..
To begin, “If you accept that animals have rights, raising and killing animals for food is morally wrong.” The major premise of this statement is that the individual (you) believe that animals have rights. But what are rights? As Americans we hear the word a great deal. What does it mean, and can animals have it? We’ll first discuss this from a very philosophical point of view, and then touch upon the more colloquial use of the term ‘rights’, which is in many cases a discussion of animal welfare.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines rights as “entitlements (not) to perform certain actions or be in certain states, or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or be in certain states.” Rights can, philosophically, be broken down into four forms: Privileges, claims, powers and immunities. Privilege rights are those that an individual is not obliged not to do. You are not obliged not to sit in an empty chair at the movies, nor are you obliged not to pick up a coin from the road. You have the privilege-right. Claim rights are almost like contractual rights. An employee has the claim-right to be paid by an employer. A child has the claim-right not to be abused. You have the right to be (or not be) treated a certain way by another party.
Claim rights and privilege rights are ‘primary rule’ rights, rights that require people to refrain from or perform certain actions. ‘Secondary rule’ rights specify how primary rules can be changed or annulled. These include powers and immunities. Powers are the ability to change another individual’s rights. These include actions such as buying, selling, abandoning, promising, sentencing, waiving, etc. A captain has the power right to order a sailor to work. Conversely, immunity-rights are when an individual lacks the right to change another individual’s rights. Confused yet? Think about it this way. When A has the ability to tell B to do something, A has a power-right. When A does not have the ability to tell B to do something, B has an immunity-right. An immunity right would be the freedom of religion. The U.S. government does not have the ability to force a citizen to worship a particular way, meaning the citizen has an immunity right.
I find this fascinating, if not rather mind bending. These rights can be active or passive, positive or negative or neither. Some rights are debatable as to where they might fit. Laws and societal norms have made some rights non-rights based upon social expectations. However, just understanding the forms of rights does not help us understand the functions of rights. There are two main theories of how rights function, which I think will help guide a decision about whether animals have rights or not.
First, there is the “Will Theory”. In this camp, the rights-holder has power over another individual’s duty. In this case, I am a small-scale sovereign! I have the power to decide if others may touch my things at my discretion. I have the right as a promisee to waive the duty of the promisor because I have power to do so. “In colloquial terms, will theorists believe that all rights confer the ability to control whether others must or must not act in particular ways.” Within this theory, animals do NOT have rights, because they cannot exercise sovereignty. This also means that infants, mentally handicapped and comatose adults do not have rights. Some may argue that infants have the potential to grow to have rights, and the other types of adults are people/humans and therefore have rights where animals not being human do not have rights.
In my opinion, this is where the vast majority of omnivores would logically find themselves when arguing for meat-eating. Animals do not have the sovereignty to have power over our decisions about what to do with them. The reasons for animals not having this power can vary, and include:
- They are not humans, cannot act/think/communicate/etc. like we do and cannot, therefore, have human rights.
- God gave us animals to care for and to eat. Therefore, we are doing what God intended for us to do with them.
- Animals have no soul. Humans have souls, and therefore have rights. God made this distinction for a reason, and thus we can eat animals.
- Humans have always used animals for food. Humans have always had a more powerful right to eat animals for their nutritive benefit than animal did for living.
I am sure there are other ways of arguing that animals do not have rights, but I can’t think of them right now.
The other function of rights is “Interest Theory.” “Interest theorists maintain that the function of a right is to further the right-holder’s interests. An owner has a right, according to the interest theory, not because owners have choices, but because the ownership makes the owner better off.” This takes into account all of those types of individuals that can’t make decisions for themselves, including animals. In this case, ‘incompetents’ (not my words) are protected by their rights because they have interests to be forwarded. For example, infants have a right to food, shelter and a non-abusive home, even if they cannot ask for such things. There is some flaws with this logic, as we can have great interest in something (say, money), but have no right to it (you need to work for it). Conversely, we have rights without having strong enough interests in something to explain why we have the right to it. Within this theory, animals do have rights, because they exist with interests and the capacity to have a better life.
Philosophers and theorists have been arguing about the ‘correct’ function of rights for a very long time, so I think that it is up to you and me to decide where we fall. If you do tend to the “Will Theory” side, then it is possible to decide that animals do not have rights, or do not have all of the rights that humans have. Perhaps animals do have some claim-rights, but humans have power-right over animals. I will address this idea a bit more later. If you tend to the “Interest Theory” side, then there is a natural cascade of philosophy that leads to a very pro-vegetarian stance.
If animals have all rights as defined by the interest-rights theorists, than it is morally wrong to eat them, as it means that we are treating the animals as a means to an end, not as an end in themselves. We violate their most primal interest, to keep living, thus denying them that right. Animals have the claim-right to not be eaten, and the privilege-right not to not live. Animals have the power-right to decide how they will live out their lives, and the immunity-right not to be a product for human consumption. They have the same rights as we afford infants and comatose adults. This very plainly lays out that we violate an animal’s basic interest by raising them to be killed and eaten, plain and simple. In such a way, we should not utilize animals, or animal products in any way, shape or form, as we are violating the animals basic right, as well as their secondary rights:
- To live in natural (or at least, decent) conditions
- To make free choices
- To be free from fear and pain
- To live healthy lives without needing medical intervention
- To eat a natural diet
- To enjoy the normal social/family/community life of its species
By abstaining from animal products and pursuing veganism, we respect their rights to the highest degree (and according to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, we gain super powers).
I highly respect anyone who feels this way, and I applaud your decisions. You can philosophically explain why animals have rights, and therefore we cannot ethically eat meat. As is obvious, I do not necessarily agree with every aspect of this view. I will admit to falling into the “Will Theory” side of the rights argument, but with a strong dash of “Interest Theory” thrown in and some strong ideas about what ethics are. This might cause some rights philosophers to get a headache from my neophyte assumptions that they can be mixed, so I can also say that I fall more to the “Will Theory” side with a great deal of social responsibility on top.
I strongly believe that any animal I come into contact with in any manner has a right to lead a life in accordance with the list given above. They have the right to live in decent conditions, make free choices, be free from fear and pain, eat well and enjoy the company of others of its own species in a normal environment. Most people agree with me, and this is the more commonly thought of rendition of animal’s rights. This is PETA’s main goal, as I understand, reducing the suffering in an animal’s life. Animals should not suffer. We dote on our pets to no end, and lament when they are hurt. Likewise, farmed animals have a right to a content life with limited pain.
They also have a natural obligation to die. Morbid, yes, but mortality is a hallmark of life. You live, you die (maybe there is an afterlife depending on your views). I suppose that with pure ethics, we should let animals die naturally, but that is not always ‘humane’. If a wild animal breaks a leg and cannot provide itself with food, it slowly starves to death. If a wild animal is ill, it might die a long, lingering death from that disease. Dying peacefully in one’s sleep is a rare blessing, and if I had to guess, usually mixed with freezing to death at night. Even if we don’t eat animals, we only aid them in cheating death a little while longer. Crude? maybe. Realistic? Yes. Yet, the knowledge that animals die does not absolve us from respecting them. If we choose to feel that we have the right to eat animals, we need to accept the inherent responsibility that comes with such a position. Incompetents may have a right to be or not be in certain situations, but they almost always have a guardian to make the decisions for them. Children have a parent or guardian, and comatose adults have their family to make decisions of life or death for them. In a similar way, animals have guardians, humans. How many of us say that we have/own a pet? Either word implies ownership, which I believe is guardianship. We have the right to their lives, and the responsibility to respect that fact. As stated by Uncle Ben in one rendition of Spiderman or another, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Because of this, I feel that there is in many ways a healthy balance to eating meat. If we can provide an environment that allows the animal to live a contented, dare I say happy, life free from the troubles of living in nature, then I have no moral issue with ending their lives in a quick and humane manner at the prime of their lives. Some would say that this is not ethical, as we cannot ask the animals themselves if they would prefer this life to living in the wild. Perhaps this is true, but it is not a sticking point for me. Using the philosophical terms we discussed, I believe that animals have the privilege-right to a good life, they are not to not enjoy life. Animals have the claim-right to not be abused. But humans have the power-right to decide for an animal’s life, just the same as a parent has the power-right to decide what is best for a child and a guardian has the power-right to decide if the plug should be pulled or not for a vegetative family member. People will always disagree about what really is the best and most ethical way to handle these situations: to eat meat or not to eat meat, to spank or not to spank, to let live or to end a life.
This is a very polarizing topic, and many people find themselves on either end of a dichotomy, trying desperately to prove that they are ‘right’ or ‘correct’, without respecting or even listening to other’s opinions. I really dislike when vegans and vegetarians get holier-than-thou with their life choices, or don’t really understand the situation and animal. Conversely, I dislike people who relish in their factory farmed meat as though they are proving that they are mentally stronger, or at least less sentimental, than vegetarians. I think that my choices are striking a middle ground, a gray area if you will, that makes me happy and does not weigh on my mind. I can respect that some choose to improve the world by abstaining from meat and animal products while relying on produce shipped from all corners of the globe and synthetic supplementation, but I choose to improve my world by eating local, humane and sustainable products that support a person I can get to know while eating animals. Is one choice better than the other? No, not at all. I simply prefer limiting my food by region and season. At least you can’t accuse me of not thinking long and hard about my food choices. 🙂
Laura and I have already gone to meet the animals that provide us with the meat that we eat. I had a brief conversation with Kate Stillman of Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm, and she was kind enough to send me this information about her slaughter houses:
“We use three slaughterhouses: Lemay and Son’s Beef in NH [no website], Hilltown Pork in NY and Westminster Meats in VT. I have been to all three and toured the facilities. Part of the reason we use these places is their record, the cleanliness, the fact that they are small “mom and pops” much like us, and for their care and attention to details. The NH and NY facilities are older, but really great folks, and I feel more than confident in the practices and always feel good about leaving our animals there… its even tough for us. In fact the NY facility just became “humane certified” if I want to go through the process and pay the additional fees for the label… but that may be a winters’ project. The VT facility is brand new… and no expense was spared. By far the nicest and the most modern facility. …but still most of this work is all done by hand… which is not the case for the larger facilities. I have met the USDA inspectors, and they are very tight in regards to their rules.
We really do care about the facilities and the care in which our animals are treated as much as anything. In fact, I have decided to not go back to facilities for those reasons. (… but do not want to get into details, just that we made the decision to not go back. They are still functioning as a business and I do not believe in bad vibes amongst local businesses.) I know the owners at all of the facilities and I appreciate that they are part of the entire process from start to finish.”
The fact that Kate is willing to talk to us about the slaughter of her animals is a good sign to me. Transparency is crucial. Evil things happen when people believe no one is looking. We feel no fear or hesitation asking Kate about her farm, her practices, her animals. We trust her. I trust her, and nothing can beat that.
One of the complaints against ethically grown and humanely slaughtered animals is that the meat is expensive. Yes, it is expensive. But it is damn good, and we shouldn’t be eating so much meat anyway. Peter Singer, according to Micheal Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “would not be sufficiently confident… to condemn someone who purchased meat from [a humane] farm” though he doubts the large-scale practicality (pg. 327). We would have to eat less meat, reducing the burden on small farms, so that they could continue to live up to their original standards. Jonathan Safran Foer said that “Any ethical-meat advocate who is serious is going to be eating a lot of vegetarian fare” (pgs. 256-257). And we do just that. A survey of our blog shows that we eat probably twice, if not three times more vegetarian meals that we do meat meals, though this will probably change in the winter. Why not make the transition to full vegetarianism? Because we would have a hard time sustaining ourselves as locavores. No, it would not be impossible, but we choose not to, at least right now.
We would, instead, ask people to think about their choices, and make an active decision in their life. If you want to advance good in the world by being a vegetarian or vegan, I applaud your decision. If you decide that you want to continue to eat meat, but want to promote goodness by choosing humanely grown and slaughtered meat, I applaud your choice to advance a more humane system of omnivory. If you decide to continue to eat McDonald’s, I ask that you go visit a CAFO, an industrial slaughtering facility and a pig processing plant cesspool. Then we can chat.
As a humorous wrap up, a friend once told me that she rationalized eating meat by being okay with the idea of vampires eating humans. Nom nom.