15 February 2007

LOW-LEVEL MONSTERS: MEAT-EATERS

Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 2, 2007

Much of the meat sold in supermarkets and other stores has been grown via factory farming. Factory farming occurs when industrial conditions are used to grow large numbers of chickens, pigs, and other animals. In this column, I argue that you should not buy pig- or chicken-meat that has been grown in these conditions.

The factory-farm conditions are often cruel. Animal-welfare groups like People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and GoVeg.com report that piglets have their testicles cut out, tails cut off, and the ends of some of their teeth broken off with pliers. This is all done without anesthesia. The adult sows are confined to small metal crates that don’t allow them to turn around. Citing industry reports, PETA and other groups claim that they are transported under harsh conditions that cause frequent death and injury (more than 1 million per year die and 420,000 are crippled during transport).

These groups observe that other animals like chickens are packed into small wire cages without enough room to spread out their wings. These cages are stacked on top of one another so that the excrement of the chickens in higher cages falls on the ones below. Their sensitive beaks cut off so they don’t peck each other and the hens are sometimes not fed for fourteen days in order to get them to produce more eggs.

I will assume that the majority of the pigs and chickens raised under these conditions do not have lives that are not worth living. If this is incorrect, then my argument fails.

Now imagine you saw a group of young teenagers torturing a stray pig. They’ve tied it to a tree and are carving into it with a rusty nail. You’d likely ask them to stop. If they refused, you might even give them the pimp hand (a hard slap to the side of the head). Why? Because it’s morally disgusting to torture animals. This is even more offensive when you realize that we would feel nauseated at the thought of persons torturing dogs and cats and the pigs are probably more intelligent than dogs and cats. Now there is a theoretical issue as to whether torturing animals is wrong because it infringes on their rights, reflects a vicious character, or makes the world a worse place. I’ll sidestep this theoretical issue and proceed on the assumption that you wouldn’t tolerate the pig-torturers.

Now consider what happens when you buy pork products in the supermarket. You’ve in effect paid the factory farmer to grow the pig under torture-like conditions. That is, in purchasing the meat you’ve in effect paid the factory workers to torture the animals. In short, the pig-torturers now act in a way similar to the teenagers only now they do it more frequently and efficiently and they work for you. In short if you or your employee is purchasing factory farmed pig- or chicken-meat, you’re a low-level monster. Plain and simple.

One obvious objection is that you are paying the factory farmer to torture the pigs for food, whereas the teenagers are doing it for pleasure. However, eating factory-farmed pork or chicken isn’t necessary for health, it’s merely consumed for taste, that is, for pleasure. In fact, given the number of fat people one sees walking the streets, less meat consumption is arguably a good thing. In any case, I’m not arguing that it’s wrong to eat pork or chicken, just that it should be purchased from producers whose animals have lives worth living. My argument is also consistent with hunting. Nor does it rely on any paternalistic claims about what foods are healthy or similar claims from nanny-types who are always trying to get us to stop smoking and drinking and to wear seatbelts.

A second objection is that human beings only have duties to their own kind. In response to such ignorance, one feels the pimp hand stirring. The fact that an individual is a member of a biological category (for example, human being) is no more relevant than the fact that an individual is a member of a racial category (for example, white). What matters is whether an individual has a morally relevant feature, such as the ability to feel pain or the ability to experience emotions. Both categories are had by non-human beings, most obviously by apes. To allow them to be brutalized in ways that we would never allow done to severely retarded human beings is unprincipled.

A third objection, this time a sophisticated one, is that the consumption of factory-farmed meat is permissible because for every animal you eat, you in effect pay for his replacement. The problem here is that the animals you are substituting in for your dinner meat do not have lives that are worth living. Hence, paying others to torture animals can’t be justified just because they regularly switch victims.

A fourth argument, and another sophisticated one, is that your purchasing of meat has only a negligible effect on the profits of meat producers and hence doesn’t affect the world. The problem here is that it might be wrong to do an action that has a very small role in bringing about an injustice. For example, consider a starving man who has a plate full of life-saving rice. It is wrong for each of a thousand individuals to steal a grain of rice from his plate, thereby killing him, even if no particular theft endangered the man. In the case of meat purchases, the objection also fails for a second reason, namely that if you purchase factory-farmed pork and chicken year in and year out and do so for family and friends, then your multiple actions will affect producers’ decisions because you will now be consuming many pigs.

Some people respond that no matter what animal defenders argue, pork and chicken just tastes too good and only factory-farmed meat is affordable. I’m sympathetic to this. I’m ashamed to admit that I occasionally buy it. However, let’s be clear about what’s going on. That meat on you or your child’s dinner plate came about because an innocent animal was tortured. Enjoy your meal but don’t worry about the bill, an innocent creature already paid it.

4 comments:

rightwingprof said...

You're making unwarranted assumptions. I was raised on a cattle farm. We butchered our own cattle. I have no illusions about where my T-bones come from -- and I don't care at all.

The Constructivist said...

RWP, was it a factory farm?

O, you'll no doubt enjoy this critique of the way libertarians argue.

The Objectivist said...

Dear Right Wing Prof:
I don't argue that it's wrong to raise and kill cattle under humane conditions. My claim is a narrow one, which is that if a person purchases factory-farmed meat you're acting wrongfully. In addition, I would further claim that a person who does so either doesn't know the facts or is a low-level monster.

I do appreciate your comments.

If someone, like a few of my students, say they don't care, I'm not sure how this is relevant. The same could be said for some prison rapists and other bad guys. I'm not saying that you are making this claim.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
I read the article about how libertarians argue. I didn't find it too convincing. After all, I didn't see any argument that extensive government isn't unjust and inefficient.

Given that I don't think there is a sense of equal opportunity that is both coherent and attractive and that equality of results is undesirable, I think the intellectual foundations of libertarianism are superior to many of its competitors.

I should also mention that libertarianism is consistent with a concern for animal cruelty. One can see the concern as either one for rights (assuming that animals have rights - and I'm not sure that's the case) or a statement of how persons ought to purchase food.