This is the second part in my series on the ethics of benign carnivorism. The series is working off Jeff McMahan’s article “Eating animals the nice way”. Benign carnivorism (BC) is the view that it is ethically permissible to eat farmed meat, so long as the animals being reared have lived good lives (that they otherwise would not have lived) and have been killed painlessly.
In part one, I covered the main characteristics of BC; I offered a basic defence of BC; and I outlined two initial critiques. The defence of BC was based on the notion of comparative advantage: BC benefits humans, and allows for more and better animal lives to be lived than would otherwise have been the case. The first critique of this argument was formal, casting doubt on the permissibility of making comparative assessments of this sort. The second critique was more substantive, pointing out that the basic defence of BC seems to allow for a similar argument to made about human beings. In other words, that it allows one to defend the permissibility creating and rearing human beings for some beneficent purpose, e.g. organ donation.
In this post, we will continue the dialectic by looking a further critiques and refinements of BC. Following McMahan, we’ll end up with the conclusion that BC is probably only acceptable under extremely unlikely conditions.
1. Animals Rights and Interests
Let’s start by dwelling on the more substantive critique for a moment. As I said the last day, this can termed the “why not humans too”-dilemma because the intuition underlying it is that if BC is acceptable then so too are analogous practices involving humans. The argument then obviously depends on the analogy between the benign rearing of meat for human consumption and the benign rearing of humans for a beneficent purpose. But how analogous are these practices really?
It seems all too easy for the defender of BC to argue “not very”. “Surely”, they will say, “there are important differences in the moral status of humans and non-human animals”. Humans are moral agents, they are conscious, they possess a strong sense of self-identity, they have ongoing interests in their future projects and well-being. All of these qualities grant humans a robust right to life. As a result, it cannot be permissible for them to be created killed merely so as to benefit others.
This right to life argument is vulnerable to critique. The obvious riposte is to argue that animals too have a right life. In other words, to say that the differences between humans and other animals are not sufficient to deprive the latter of a right to life. This is a common argument in the animal rights movement, and McMahan has some sympathies with it. Nevertheless, he thinks it isn’t quite right.
The problem is that there are thought experiments that challenge the suggestion that an animal’s right to life is the same as that of a human beings. Consider:
Chimpanzees v. Humans: Suppose we are faced with a scenario in which the painless killing of a single chimpanzee could save the lives of two five-year-old children by making its organs available for transplantation. Would it be permissible to do this?
Suppose we are faced with a similar situation in which the painless killing of a five year old child could save the life of two others. Would this be permissible?
McMahan points out that most people think it is permissible to kill the chimpanzee in the first case, but not the human in the second. This suggests that whatever the moral status of a non-human animal is, it is not sufficient to grant it the same right to life as a human being.
I’m not sure that the intuitions are right here — I think I would struggle to condone either death — but McMahan prefers to highlight some flawed logic in this response: generally speaking, rights are thought to be invariant in their application across their possessors (i.e. if X and Y both possess the same right, then that right applies in the same way to both of them). This leads him to propose an alternative way of thinking about the issue. Instead of thinking about it in terms of the right to life, we can think of it in terms of the competing interests at stake (this isn’t a huge leap since interests and rights are closely associated).
If we make this switch to thinking about competing interests rather than rights, where does it leave us? Well, it leaves the defender of BC in an unwelcome position. Think about the interests at stake in the typical case of an animal being slaughtered for its meat. Suppose that this animal could supply 20 human beings with nutritious and tasty meals. This suggests that, when we consider the morality of killing this animal, we must weigh its interest in continuing its life against the interests satisfied by those 20 tasty and nutritious meals. It doesn’t seem like much of contest does it, especially when humans have other sources of nutrition available to them?
I’ve phrased this as a rhetorical question, but I think it captures the argument that McMahan makes in the article. And I’m almost inclined to agree with it, but it does rely on a somewhat questionable assumption, namely: that the animal in question has a morally protected interest in continuing its existence.
I’m guessing that McMahan is implicitly relying on the deprivationist account of the badness of death when making this argument (i.e. the view that death is bad because it deprives the animal of future positive experiences). This is presumably why the animal has an interest in its continuing existence. But this seems problematic to me for at least two reasons. First, it’s not clear (to me) that the deprivationist account of death is the correct one (this is something I’ve repeatedly explored on this blog). And second, even if it is correct, it’s not clear that it would apply to all animals. I think a sense of connection with one’s future self is necessary before the deprivationist account becomes truly compelling and it might be doubtful whether all animals experience this (though some no doubt do).
2. The Practice versus the Act?
Here’s another argument that the defender of BC could make: We can accept that, all else being equal, it is wrong to kill an animal with an interest in its future existence, but all else is not equal in this instance. We have to keep in mind the comparative aspects of BC. It is central to the BC defender’s view that the animals being killed would not have existed without the practice of BC. Thus, the future interests of the animal should be set off against the overall benefits they accrue from the practice. So long as their lives are, on balance, good, it is not wrong to bring them into existence, and then kill them.
McMahan rejects this argument. The problem is partly structural. The argument appeals to the impersonal goods of the overarching practice and claims that those goods are sufficient to give us reason to bring animals into existence and kill them, (the impersonal nature of the goods was discussed in part one LINK). But we usually assign very little weight to goods of this sort. For example, few of us (with the exception of certain fundamentalist religionists) think that we have a positive obligation to bring any being into existence. Consequently, even if the practice of BC increases the amount of impersonal good in the world, it seems like we don’t have any strong reason to engage in that practice (apart from satisfying our desires for eating meat).
The lack of a strong reason to engage in the practice must then be weighed against our obligations to the individual animal once it has come into existence. Once any particular animal exists, we would seem to have an obligation to refrain from killing it purely for our pleasure. So the result is that the impersonal goods of the practice of BC are insufficient to defeat the argument outlined in the previous section. The balance of animal interests over human interests still gives us strong reason not to kill the animal.
This then raises the question: if we must refrain from killing the animal, must we also work hard to maintain its comfortable and pain-free existence? This would seem like a step too far to many. Surely releasing them into the wild would be permissible? But this raises a problem. The defender of BC contends that the animals being reared by that practice are likely to die in the wild, presumably under much more distressful and painful conditions. If so, isn’t it more humane to painlessly kill and eat them, as the practice of BC mandates?
This would, at best, be a Pyrrhic victory for the defender of BC. After all, it could only work for extant domesticated farm animals. It provides no reason to continue the practice of BC into the future. Furthermore, there is reason to think it fails to even provide a Pyrrhic victory. For starters, as was pointed out in the comments section to part one, some domesticated farm animals can survive okay in the wild. More importantly, it is likely that we accrue obligations to the animals we bring into existence through the practice of BC. If they are so weak and dependent that they cannot survive in the wild, then surely we have an obligation to protect them? Just as parents have an obligation to protect their children until they become strong enough to fend for themselves.
3. An outlandish possibility?
There is one last roll of the dice for BC. The problem that has emerged so far is that it seems impermissible to bring into existence and then kill an animal that could live for longer, merely to consume its meat. This is because the animal, once alive, has an interest in its future existence, and are we are obliged to respect that interest. But what if the animal were genetically programmed to die at an age when its meat was still good to eat? Would it not then be permissible to kill them (painlessly) just prior to their genetically programmed death?
In such a scenario, the animal’s death would be determined before it came into existence — i.e. prior to our developing any obligations toward it — and so in dying its future interests would not be thwarted. By bundling together the act of creation and the act of killing, this suggestion neatly sidesteps the objection we’ve been developing so far. Maybe scientists should get to work on engineering the appropriate animal genome?
Not so fast. McMahan argues that if we did accept this scenario we would run right back into the “why not humans too”-dilemma. Would it not then be permissible to genetically engineer into existence a class of humans that would die at age 50 and whose organs could be used for transplants?
He thinks most people would reject this. His suspicion is that they would do because they rely on a comparative, and impersonal, value judgment to the effect that there are better sorts of human beings that we could bring into existence. The problem is that the same sort of comparative and impersonal argument would apply to animals. There are better sorts of animals we could bring into existence, to deliberately engineer a set of animals with inferior lives just doesn’t seem right. (I’m not entirely sure about this argument).
That leaves one final possibility. What if instead of deliberately engineering them into existence the relevant genetic mutation arose by chance? If this happened in the case of human beings (as it actually does, e.g. Huntingdon’s disease), we’d probably say we had an obligation not to bring such human beings into existence. But if it happened in the case of animals, the situation is less certain. We would probably be less strongly opposed to bringing them into existence (FWIW: I don’t think the judgment is that clearcut in all human cases).
Thus, McMahan accepts that BC may be permissible in just this sort of scenario. So long as a relatively young death is foreordained by a random genetic mutation, and so long as the animals who have this are reared in humane conditions and painlessly killed (just prior to their, possibly more painful, genetically pre-programmed death), it is permissible to rear and consume them for their meat. But this a highly fanciful scenario. It is certainly not enough to give the stereotypical defender of BC any consolation.