Some say there are no ethical issues with killing animals as long as those animals were treated well whilst they were alive. The argument usually runs something like this:
Eating meat is natural – we’ve been doing it for thousands of years, and besides, animals eat other animals. But farmed animals should be given a good life and slaughtered humanely.
I think there are a number of problems with this viewpoint. For starters, the fact that we’ve been doing something for thousands of years doesn’t make it ethical. Humans have been killing each other for millennia too, but few would argue that this is acceptable behaviour.
Though eating meat may be natural, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s a good thing – there are plenty of natural practices which we now find unsavoury. Besides, the practices of imprisoning, mutilating and selectively breeding farm animals are not natural at all.
‘Animals eat other animals’ is one of the arguments which infuriates me the most. There’s a huge difference between a lion eating a zebra and someone in the developed world choosing to buy bacon rather than a plant-based alternative. Humans have no biological need for meat, and we in the developed world have an abundance of options when it comes to food – few of us truly need to buy animal products. Besides, we have moral agency – we can think about an action, decide it’s not morally acceptable and then stop doing it. We aren’t blindly bound to tradition or instinct (not that we have any real instinct to eat animals).
Personally, I would dispute whether it’s even possible to raise animals for food in a humane way. Most people who claim to buy ‘high-welfare’ animal products are pretty naive about how they’re produced. Certain practices like dehorning and castration without anaesthetic are widespread in meat production, regardless of how high-welfare the packaging claims it to be. Meanwhile, conditions on free-range farms are often little better than those on conventional farms. These labels exist mainly to make people feel better about buying animal products.
Even if conditions on all farms were optimal, I believe the production of animal products to be inherently cruel – after all, animals don’t (and can’t) consent to being used by humans. If they could, I’m sure very few would choose it. There’s no humane way to slaughter an animal who doesn’t want to die. It can never be humane to rob an animal of several years of her life, no matter how kindly she was treated beforehand. If someone was to argue that it was reasonable to slaughter and eat a dog which had had a happy life, people would rightly be horrified.
The same applies to the dairy and egg industries. Removing a newborn calf from his mother in order to take the milk she made for him can never be ethical. Neither can breeding hens which produce so many eggs that they end up with nutrient deficiencies and osteoporosis.
Even if none of this was true and there were no ethical issues with using animals, I still don’t believe it would be morally acceptable to do so. Why? Because the production of animal products is one of the main drivers of climate change and is contributing to a myriad of human rights issues. It simply won’t be possible for us to keep eating animal products at the rate we currently are. If you can’t see the need to change your diet for animal rights reasons, then at least do it for the environment and the rest of humanity.
It all comes down to one thing: if we can live healthily on a diet free of animal products, and suffering is inherent in the creation of those products, then what moral justification is there for continuing to consume them?
You may have noticed that I used the word ‘who’ rather than ‘which’ in the title of this post. I think it’s important that animals are recognised as individuals – the language we normally use refers to them as objects, as if they exist to be used. The title may seem jarring, but that’s just because we so rarely think about animals in this way.
Do you think it’s morally acceptable to eat animal products? Let me know in the comments.