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Why It’s OK To Buy that Steak

photograph of grocery shopper debating purchase at meat aisle

We’ve all been there. Walking through the supermarket, you’re suddenly confronted by a refrigerator cabinet full of plastic-wrapped chicken and prepackaged sausage, or the butcher’s display case larded with cuts of marbled beef, richly red. Gazing at these morsels of animal flesh, you recall all of the ethical reasons why you shouldn’t eat meat — meat production violates animals’ rights and ruins the environment. The right thing to do in this situation seems clear: skip the steak and buy lentils instead.

But while the arguments against meat eating present a compelling case for societal-level change to the composition of our diets, it does not quite follow from this that your individual decision to buy a steak is unethical.

Indeed, there is a plausible argument that, notwithstanding the wrongness of meat consumption in the aggregate, there is nothing wrong with individual carnivorous choices. In short, it might not be OK for all of us to eat meat, but it is still OK for any one of us to eat meat. This column will attempt to articulate that argument, with due acknowledgement of its limitations.

The argument’s major premise is a very general claim: faced with the choice to do either A or B, we are morally obligated to do B only if A is, or at least is objectively likely to be, morally worse than B. What makes one choice morally worse than another? It’s beyond the scope of this column to provide an exhaustive answer to that question, but clearly two things that make a choice morally bad are that it causes harm to a person and that it violates a person’s rights. By “person” I mean here an entity worthy of strong moral consideration, which could include animals. So, one choice can be worse than another if the former causes more harm or violates more rights. In addition, it may violate more fundamental rights — think of the difference between the right to life and the right to vote.

It follows from this premise that buying the steak is worse than not buying the steak only if the former is morally worse than the latter. This is the case if buying the steak causes more harm or violates more rights, or more fundamental rights.

The question, then, is whether buying the steak does any of these things.

Let’s consider harm first. Clearly, buying the steak does not cause harm to the cow from which the steak was harvested — that cow no longer exists as a subject capable of feeling pain. Perhaps, however, buying the steak causes harm to presently existing or future cows or the environment, since it sends a signal to meat producers — a signal that would otherwise not have been sent — to produce more meat, and meat producers may respond to that signal by increasing the number of cows they raise and slaughter.

The trouble with this argument is that it is almost surely false. Your sixteen-dollar purchase will have no effect on the meat producers’ decisions,  which are influenced only by the aggregate demand of hundreds of thousands or millions of consumers. Furthermore, if you don’t buy the steak, someone else almost certainly will. Thus, even if you choose not to buy the steak, the aggregate demand for steaks almost certainly won’t be reduced even by as little as sixteen dollars — a reduction that, to reiterate, wouldn’t make a difference to meat producers’ market decisions anyway. So, if buying the steak is morally worse than not buying the steak, it isn’t because the former causes more harm than the latter.

The same points apply to the issue of whether buying the steak violates more rights, or more fundamental rights, than not buying the steak.

If killing the cow from which the steak was harvested violated its rights, buying its meat does not cure the violation — but it also adds no new violation. Eating a steak does not constitute a violation of an animal’s right, although it may depend upon it.

And if buying the steak will not cause more harm to present or future cows or the environment because of the insignificance of my individual consumer choices to meat producers’ decisions, neither will it lead to more rights violations.

It appears, then, that buying the steak is not morally worse than not buying the steak. If the major premise is true, it follows from this that you are not morally obligated not to buy the steak. Now for the fun part: answering objections.

First, it may be objected that precisely the same argument can be made with respect to any moral problem that arises due to the aggregate effects of many individual choices. Pollution and unfortunate election outcomes are two obvious examples. Some philosophers are happy to “bite the bullet” here and accept that individuals do not have obligations to behave in ways that would make a difference only if many others followed suit, like voting or refraining from polluting.

Actually, bad election outcomes are quite different from meat consumption in at least one key respect.

In elections, there is no reason to believe that when one person omits to vote, another person, who would not have voted unless the first person made her omission, will vote in that person’s stead. This is unlike when one person chooses not to buy a steak.

In that case another person will very likely buy that very same steak, which she could not have done had the first person bought it.

This distinction is important because it means that any individual’s vote might make a difference to who gets elected — it just has a very, very low likelihood of doing so. However, given the profound consequences of many elections, even that low probability of making a difference arguably makes it likely enough that not voting is morally worse than voting to ground an obligation to vote.

It might be objected here that if the exceedingly small probability of casting the decisive vote is enough to ground an obligation to vote, then the exceedingly small probability of influencing others in some way by not buying the steak is also a sufficient basis for an obligation not to buy the steak. But this objection fails for two reasons. First, voting is only morally required if the election’s outcome is likely to have significant downstream effects. While this is plausible with respect to elections, it is not plausible with respect to the act of not buying the steak. Because someone else will almost surely buy the very steak you omitted to buy, we can safely say that your omission’s influence will be nil. Instead, what can be influential is some further act, such as talking to someone about your choice not to buy a steak.

Nothing I’ve said in this column means that you aren’t morally obligated to perform some other acts that help promote a large-scale shift to vegetarianism if you can. My claim is merely that you aren’t morally obligated not to buy the steak.

Pollution is a more serious problem for my argument, since unlike a single person’s vote, a single person’s quantum of pollution is certainly not going to have a decisive effect on the overall health of the environment. Suppose you are considering whether to dump one day’s worth of garbage in a nearby lake. That amount of garbage may have no perceivable impact on the ecological health of the lake — perhaps not a single organism will or is likely to be affected. That can be the case even if, had the entire city in which you live followed suit, it would have destroyed the lake’s ecology. This seems to imply that dumping your garbage into the lake is not morally worse than refraining from doing so, and so there is no moral obligation for you not to pollute in this way.

However, this conclusion would be overhasty. It might be true that your garbage dumping does not cause ecological harm. But there are other ways in which even a small amount of pollution can have a small, but tangible negative impact. For example, pollution can be an aesthetic affront to people who have a strong interest in enjoying “unspoiled” nature. More importantly, there is another way in which our choices can be morally bad: they can violate rights.

One can violate rights without making the rights-holder worse off in a particular instance. It may plausibly be argued that animals, plants, and even ecosystems have rights not to be polluted at all. This is one way of explaining the intuition many people have that natural ecosystems are in some sense “sacred.”

If that’s so, then even an ecologically insignificant act of pollution may violate those rights, and so may be morally impermissible, despite not making a tangible difference in terms of the well-being or functioning of the affected animals, plants, and ecosystems.

A second objection comes in the form of a question: what if everyone subscribed to the foregoing reasoning? Then the morally bad aggregate effects of meat consumption would be realized. The implication is that the test for whether an individual morally ought to do something is whether the result of everyone doing the very same thing is acceptable. Admittedly, as a sort of quasi-utilitarian sister of Kant’s Formula of Universal Law, as well as a distant cousin of the Golden Rule, this claim belongs to a very illustrious family of moral theories. Apparently, these theories simply deny the major premise of my argument: even if your choice of A over B does not cause more harm or violate more rights, if everyone’s choice of A over B would do so, then your choice is nevertheless wrong.

Philosophers have collectively devoted literally thousands of pages to some version of this disagreement, so I don’t expect to settle it here. Suffice to say that there is something odd about focusing on some hypothetical scenario when considering whether one’s act is morally wrong, rather than on the act’s intrinsic nature and effects.

It is worth emphasizing the limitations of the argument I’ve just defended. As I mentioned, nothing in this argument means that you are not obligated to promote vegetarianism in ways likely to have significant aggregate effects. This means that public officials, public figures, and prominent or influential members of communities likely have stronger obligations to promote vegetarianism than ordinary people. Indeed, since even their omissions may be influential, such people may have obligations to be vegetarians themselves.

In short, the argument I’ve outlined here does not get you off the hook for doing something to help reduce aggregate meat production if you can. And it does not dispute that there are compelling moral reasons for societies to reduce aggregate meat consumption. It simply suggests that you shouldn’t feel too guilt-stricken about your particular consumption choices.

The Smithfield Piglet Case: Factory Farms and Civil Disobedience

photograph of pigs vying to look out of chain-link pen

In the middle of the night sometime in 2017, members of the animal welfare group Direct Action Everywhere entered Circle Four Farm, a factory farm in Beaver County, Utah, that processes and kills 1.2 million pigs a year for Smithfield Foods, the largest meat production company in the country. One of their objectives was to film the way that the animals in the facility were being treated. A second objective was to rescue some of the most vulnerable animals that they found.

On July 6th, the group posted the video of their experiences that night on YouTube. As it begins, the filmmakers describe witnessing a sow who had collapsed with sickness and was no longer capable of feeding piglets being tossed headfirst into a pile of at least a hundred dead young animals. The footage goes on to document countless sows and their piglets kept in very small crates. It includes disturbing images of a sow in a gestation crate, feeding some piglets while surrounded by other dead and crushed piglets, covered in feces, crammed into the tight space. The group selects two piglets to take with them. The first was a piglet who was found with her face covered in blood. She was small and close to death. The nipples of her mother were so badly cut that they no longer provided milk and her piglets were drinking blood to survive. This piglet was not likely to survive without intervention. The second piglet was weak with starvation and had collapsed. Prospects for survival for this piglet were similarly bleak. The cash value of the two animals was $42.50 each.

The loss of pigs such as these is built into the business plan of Circle Four Farms since many animals do not survive under these conditions. These piglets in particular, because of the state of their health at the time that they were found, were likely to die and to be counted among these losses.

The group took the two piglets from the facility, and brought them to a waiting vehicle where they were immediately fed. They received veterinary services and were then taken to an animal sanctuary to live out the remainder of their lives in peace. At the end of the video, the piglets are shown healthy and seemingly happy, while a member of the welfare group explains that rescuing animals from factory farms is crucial for the animals involved, but also serves an important function for the movement; optimism and hope can serve as an antidote to the despair caused by the magnitude of the problem of animal mistreatment in the world.

After the video was published on YouTube, an FBI manhunt for the people involved ensued and significant resources were used. During a government raid of an animal sanctuary, FBI veterinarians sliced off a portion of a pig’s ear for the purposes of genetic testing. Eventually, the investigation led to the arrest of activists Wayne Hsiung and Paul Darwin Picklesimer. The federal government declined to prosecute, but Utah prosecutors elected to pursue felony burglary and theft charges for which the defendants could have potentially faced ten years in prison.

When the case went to trial, District Court Judge Jeffrey Wilcox made a series of admissibility rulings that shocked those watching the case closely. He blocked the jury from viewing the video that the group took that night, which was the very video that motivated the investigation and prosecution in the first place. He only let jurors see photographs of the scene in an edited form (for instance, he ordered an image cut in half that portrayed a piglet sucking from a cut and bloody nipple), and he did not allow any evidence about the motive for the removal of the piglets to be introduced.

In other words, the judge would not allow the jury to hear that piglets were removed to save their lives or that the group entered the facility to raise awareness about animal mistreatment and cruelty. His justification for these rulings was that the case was about burglary, not about animal rights.

These rulings were made in the political context of a state with an economy that relies heavily on industrial animal agriculture. In 2012, as protection for these institutions the state implemented an “ag-gag law” that made it illegal to document evidence of animal abuse on factory farms. That law was ruled unconstitutional in 2017.

Despite the evidentiary restrictions, on October 8th, 2022, the jury acquitted Hsiung and Picklesimer of all charges. This is now being treated as a landmark case in animal law and animal ethics in general, and as an important case study for discussion of a potential right to rescue animals in distress.

Though many view the outcome of the trial as a victory, others are critical. They argue that trespassing, burglary, and theft are against the law for good reason. If a person or group has an important message to convey, surely they can do so without breaking the law. Some argue further that animals have a lesser or even non-existent moral status — they exist on this planet for us to do with what we will. We simply do not have the space to raise these animals on large farms where they can roam free and doing so would be impractical. If we want to feed the world’s population and to do so in ways that many people consider healthy and delicious, this form of meat production is our only choice. Critics also raise concerns that abandoning industrial animal agriculture would be devastating to the economy. The overriding principle to which many people on the other side of this case appeal is that our sole obligation is to do what is best for human beings. That animals trap and kill other animals is just a fact of nature, and there is no reason why humans should be exempt from that general principle.

Animal advocates argue that it is simply not true that this is the only way we can feed the human population in both healthy and delicious ways. Humans can satisfy their nutritional needs by eating plant-based foods.

Non-human animals, and farm animals in particular, can experience a full range of emotions, including suffering and joy. They form strong emotional attachments to their peers and to their offspring.

In light of this, if we can meet our food needs in other ways, we ought, morally, to do so.

The strategy employed by Direct Action Everywhere is nothing new. Their defenders argue that the actions of the group were an instance of justified civil disobedience — a strategy defended and practiced by figures like Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Thoreau, for instance, refused to pay taxes in support of a government that actively participated in the institution of slavery. He argues that if a law

is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.

Martin Luther King Jr. broke unjust laws on many occasions and was jailed 29 times. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he argues to the local clergy imploring him to change his tactics,

You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with the underlying causes.

The activists who broke into Circle Four Farm that night in 2017 made no attempt to keep their actions secret, indeed, they posted their activities on the internet for the whole world to see. They engaged in civil disobedience fully aware that they might face consequences. In their trial, Justice Wilcox ruled in ways that sought to prevent careful consideration of underlying causes and encouraged jurors to focus on only one effect — theft. The jury refused to do so. The powerful lobby for industrial animal agriculture does everything in its power to control public perception of food production in the country and worldwide. With such widespread manipulation taking place, if the well-being of animals matters, we arguably can’t afford to wait. As Thoreau says, of unjust laws and practices,

Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?

Meat Replacements and the Logic of the Larder

photograph of vegetable larder

Every year, tens of billions of animals are killed for food. This is morally objectionable for all sorts of reasons directly related to the experiences of the individual animals involved: the process of food production causes them pain and suffering; they are prevented from flourishing in the ways that are appropriate for members of their species; they live shorter lives full of more suffering and less pleasure than they would have if those lives were not cut short; and so on. In response, entrepreneurs have worked hard to bring alternatives to the market in the form of plant-based and cell-cultured products, neither of which involve killing animals. Humans do not need to eat animals or animal products in order to enjoy nutritious diets and live long, healthy lives. If a person can give up animal products, many argue that they should.

In response, some have raised an objection that has come to be known as “the Logic of the Larder.” A larder is a storage space for food, traditionally a place for preparing and containing meat. This line of reasoning is also sometimes referred to as the “Replaceability Argument.” In his 1914 book The Humanities of Diet, famous vegetarian thinker Henry S. Salt presents and responds to the objection at length, introducing it with a common idiom at the time: “Blessed is the Pig, for the Philosopher is fond of bacon.” The idea is that farm animals are made better off by the fact that humans breed them for food. The contention is that farm animals, on average, have lives that are worth living.

Generally speaking, it is better to exist than not to exist. If human beings did not raise farm animals for food, those animals would not exist at all. Therefore, human beings do something good for farm animals by bringing them into existence to be used for food.

If this argument is sound — if humans do a good thing when they bring billions of animals into existence for use as food — then human beings would be doing a very bad thing by replacing that source of food; the animals involved would never have had the chance to live.

In responding to this argument, Salt and others point out that the Logic of the Larder seems more like a bit of sophistry — an ad hoc rationalization or, as Socrates puts it, an attempt to “make the weaker argument the stronger” — than an actual argument that is ever used as part of a decision to raise animals for food. When someone decides to get involved in raising animals for slaughter, they rarely say, “boy, what I’d really like to do is bring a bunch of new animals into existence and give them a shot at life.” Instead, animals are treated as objects to be mass produced in the most efficient and profitable way possible. If the lives of animals were valued, they would be allowed to age and grow at the appropriate speed and rate; instead, they are given growth hormones to shorten the period from birth to slaughter. Salt powerfully provides this argument from the pig’s perspective,

What shall be the reply of the Pig to the Philosopher? “Revered moralist” he might plead, “if it were unseemly for me, who am today a pig, and tomorrow but ham and sausages, to dispute with a master of ethics, yet to my porcine intellect it appeareth that having first determined to kill and devour me, thou hast afterwards bestirred thee to find a moral reason. For mark, I pray thee, that in my entry into the world my own predilection was in no wise considered, nor did I purchase life on the condition of my own butchery. If, then, thou art firm set on pork, so be it, for pork I am: but though thou hast not spared my life, at least spare me thy sophistry. It is not for his sake, but for thine, that in his life the Pig is filthily housed and fed, and at the end barbarously butchered.

This colorful response also draws out the idea that the “better to exist than not to exist” justification condones breeding sentient creatures for any purposes whatsoever. If we follow this line of argument, it is better to bring a being into existence, horribly mistreat it, and show no mercy or respect for its dignity, than it is to simply not bring a being into existence at all. And this seems to justify bringing humans into existence for the purposes of selling them into slavery — after all, it’s better to exist than not!

The proponent of the Logic of the Larder, however, might respond by emphasizing that humans are cognitively very different from non-human animals, and this is why raising animals for slaughter is defensible, while breeding humans for slavery is not. Human beings develop identities, have a sense of their past and their future, understand concepts like death and dignity, and are capable of applying those concepts to themselves and of integrating them into their own desires concerning the future. Many, including Peter Singer in his book Practical Ethics, have argued that this makes a difference when it comes to whether it is a bad thing to kill an animal.

But some humility is likely warranted when it comes to drawing conclusions regarding which mental capacities farm animals have and which they don’t.

Animals can’t express themselves in human language and their beliefs likely do not have propositional content in the ways that the beliefs of human beings sometimes do. Nevertheless, animals are clearly capable of making plans that have temporal components.

They understand that things take place in sequence, and they rely on this understanding to get what they want. They exhibit personality and those traits are enduring. They avoid death and members of many species grieve in response to the death of loved ones. Instead of judging whether raising animals only to kill them by the standards of anthropocentric metaphysics and moral psychology, we might want to at least entertain the possibility that we’ve been thinking about identity, autonomy, and future-related cognition in idealized ways that are unlikely to correctly characterize human moral psychology, let alone set humans apart as uniquely entitled to continued existence.

Moreover, to suggest that it is better for a farm animal to exist than not to exist presupposes that these animals have a welfare that can be measured relative to their welfare in other possible worlds (for example, worlds in which they do not exist). This is to concede the most important point when it comes to discussion of the ethics of using animals for food — animals are the kinds of beings that can experience pain and pleasure. If we think it can be good for them to come into existence, then it can also be quite bad for them to exist under conditions of deprivation, slavery, and slaughter. We can’t defensibly bring them into existence and then force them to live lives full of more suffering than joy.

The Ethics of Animal Dis-Enhancement

photograph of chickens packed into pens at poultry farm

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

Human beings have long treated animals not as sentient beings, but as objects or products to be used and consumed. We do this in spite of the fact that animals demonstrate every sign of having mental lives. We have the same reasons to believe that animals have mental lives that we do to believe that other human beings have mental lives; the best evidence we have is behavior. Humans report having affection for animals. Nevertheless, we intensively farm them for food and use them for medical experiments, activities which are quite painful and lead to suffering, permanent disability, and/or death. Engaging in these activities requires compartmentalization and moral disengagement.

The tension arises because humans want to use animals for all of the purposes that they typically use them for, but they also don’t want the animals to feel pain or to suffer if it can be prevented. Under ordinary conditions, when faced with this choice, humans use animals rather than exhibit care for their suffering. Recently, some scientists and philosophers have suggested an alternative solution: genetically engineering farm and research animals to experience little to no suffering. Recent research on pain suggests that it is registered in the brain in two places. The first is in the primary or somatosensory cortex, which establishes the nature of the pain (burning, throbbing, etc.). The second involves the affective dimension which happens in the anterior cingulate cortex. This area controls not the pain itself, but how much the sentient creature minds the pain. Either area could be genetically engineered to reduce the discomfort experienced by the animal.

Advocates of this approach care about animal pain and suffering; if they didn’t, they would remain satisfied with the status quo. They are advocating what philosophers frequently refer to as an approach in line with non-ideal theory. The distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory is a meta-ethical distinction, that is, it is a distinction between different theories of what ethics is and how we ought to approach it. Ideal theorists argue that ethics should be concerned with identifying the correct moral theory and then directing behavior so that it conforms to that standard. The non-ideal theorist, on the other hand, acknowledges that everyone would follow the ideal theory in a perfect world, but emphasizes that we don’t live in such a world. As such, our ethical theorizing should situate itself in the world that we actually inhabit, with all of its flaws and imperfections — a world where we perhaps can’t or shouldn’t expect everyone’s compliance or agreement on all things at all times.

When it comes to dis-enhancement, these non-ideal theorists often acknowledge that it would be best if we simply stopped exploiting animals and using them as objects for human purposes. They also recognize, however, that animal advocates have been shouting their messages from the rooftops for decades, even centuries in some parts of the world. To the extent that these messages are being heard, they are also largely being dismissed. If we are going to continue to use animals for food and research, at least we could do so in a way that minimizes pain. This may not realize what true justice demands, but it may represent incremental change toward that ideal state of affairs.

Opponents of dis-enhancement make several different kinds of arguments. First, they argue that dis-enhancement leaves animals vulnerable. The ability to experience and to care about pain is an evolutionary mechanism that helps creatures to avoid danger. If there is no longer any fear of pain because dis-enhanced animals do not feel it, then animals could die from otherwise avoidable risk. In response to these claims, the non-ideal theorist might argue that the unfortunate truth is that these animals aren’t going to be venturing out into the wide world in which they might make bad decisions. Their fate is certain — they are destined to live lives during which they are imprisoned and used and then discarded. If this is the case, why not do what we can to make their existences less unpleasant?

Opponents argue further that our willingness to do this to non-human animals highlights the extent of our speciesism — our tendency to direct our moral concern only to members of certain species on the basis of species membership alone. Imagine that a scientist wanted to create a group of people to enslave and abuse. The scientist doesn’t want to cause the resultant humans any pain, so he creates them without the ability to experience it. It is reasonable to suppose that many people would object to this experiment. Would their objections be justified? How is this different from creating a horde of robotic slaves? If we react negatively to this thought experiment, but not to dis-enhancing animals, what could explain our reaction other than speciesism?

Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake takes place in a futuristic universe that is increasingly bioengineered. At one point, Crake, who is working in the “Neo-agricultural Department” at a research university takes the main character, Jimmy, to observe a new method of food production. They are growing parts of chickens — only the breasts — for the purposes of food. Crake says,

“You get chicken breasts in two weeks – that’s a three-week improvement on the most efficient low-light, high-density chicken farming operation so far devised. And the animal-welfare freaks won’t be able to say a word, because this thing feels no pain.”

Crake’s laboratory is experimenting with animal parts, but, at least at this point in the story, they are not creating sentient beings. They are just chicken breasts, they aren’t having lived experiences of the world, they don’t have preferences or a dignity to contend with. (Consider in vitro meat, which allows scientists to create meat and organs to eat or to test on without changing the genetic structure of future sentient animals.)

When it comes to farm and research animals who have been “dis-enhanced,” we are still dealing with sentient creatures that have experiences of their world. They may lack the ability to feel or to care about feeling their own pain, but they still have a set of dispositions to behave in certain ways and have the ability to develop preferences. This makes them different from robots or disembodied chicken breasts. They are aware of their own experiences. Some opponents argue that respect for the lived experiences of sentient creatures demands that researchers refrain from playing Frankenstein with their bodies in ways that have serious consequences.

In response, advocates of dis-enhancement might appeal again to the non-ideal nature of the theory under which they are operating. They might agree that it would be wonderful if everyone respected the dignity of sentient creatures. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen. Given this, dis-enhancement might be our best chance at reducing or eliminating the massive amounts of suffering that these processes entail.

Another objection to dis-enhancement comes from the perspective of environmental virtue ethics. Are we oriented virtuously toward the natural world and the living creatures on it if we respond to the crises that we face with dis-enhancement? Consider the following parallel case. One way of responding to climate change is to engage in geoengineering. One form that this can take is changing the chemical constitution of our atmosphere in such a way as to roll back or lessen the effects of global warming. Opponents of geoengineering point out that when a child messes up their room, the right thing to do is get them to clean it and teach them how to keep it clean rather than searching for ways to mess it up ever further without consequences. By analogy, we should limit our greenhouse gas emissions and try to clean up the mess we’ve made rather than pursuing geoengineering strategies that threaten to produce ever more mess.

Critics of dis-enhancement argue that we should adopt the same standard of responsibility when it comes to cruelty to animals. Instead of finding ways to engage in cruel behavior without causing pain, we should simply stop engaging in cruel behavior. Treating animals in the way that we do is an exhibition of vicious character. Even if it has little effect on the animals because they have been dis-enhanced and don’t feel pain, the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s observations may be useful here. He says that we “must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” If we behave callously toward dis-enhanced sentient animals because they don’t experience pain, the consequence may be that we are increasingly callous and cruel toward the beings that do.

The question of dis-enhancement is ultimately a question of how we should view the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Should it be a conqueror’s relationship to the conquered? Are we so depraved as a species that it would be naïve for us ever to expect broad scale changes? Or is there hope that we can someday view ourselves as empathetic fellow participants in biotic communities?

Under Discussion: Can In Vitro Meat Help Fix What Cattle Ranching Has Broken?

photograph of cows in empty arid desert

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: In Vitro Meat.

It is now clear that growing edible and delicious meat outside of an animal is not merely the stuff of science fiction. In vitro meat, aka cell-cultured meat, aka green meat, aka clean meat, has arrived. Regardless of how we want to brand it, our meat future could be slaughter-free if consumers express their support for it with their pocketbooks. There are many arguments that support this shift. Concerns about animal welfare are right out in front — our current system of industrial animal agriculture is terribly cruel and inhumane. There are also very compelling arguments related to environmental degradation and sustainability. The ways in which industrial animal agriculture harms the environment are too numerous to name and explain in this space. It will be useful to narrow the scope, so here we’ll emphasize environmental problems caused by cattle ranching.

People that live in rural areas are quite accustomed to seeing cattle grazing in vast pastures. In this setting, cattle seem wild and undomesticated. Their living arrangements appear to be peaceful — they have lots of room to move around, abundant fresh water to drink, and all the grass they can eat. They have the autonomy to socialize with peers or to venture out on their own. They also seem insignificant in the scheme of things. No one would think that the lifespan of a cow, or even a collection of cows could change the course of history. Because we have so much experience observing cows in these serene pastoral settings, many people do not know the life trajectory of most cows, whether they are destined to produce dairy, or their flesh will end up on a plate as someone’s dinner.

Though we may regularly see cows out on the pasture on our evening walks, we may not notice that they are not the same cows from year to year. Many cows do spend some portion of their lives grazing freely, but when they are roughly one year old, they are sold and shipped to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations — CAFOs. Even before they get to this point, cows make quite the impact. When land is set aside for grazing, it often becomes significantly degraded. Overgrazing diminishes the nutrients in soil. Cow manure is also high in salt and causes high salinity levels in soil. Grazing cattle cause soil compaction, which makes it more difficult for water to penetrate. Ultimately, cattle grazing leads to desertification — the soil becomes dry and infertile. Desertification leads to significant loss in biodiversity. The problem intensifies when tropical rainforests are chopped down to make room for grazing. It becomes difficult if not impossible to recapture what was lost. Preserving the quality of our soil is itself a compelling reason to switch to in vitro meat.

The environmental impact of cattle ranching increases when they are moved to CAFOs. Modern cattle traverse many more miles than their ancestors did prior to the introduction of industrial animal agriculture, but they do so in trucks. When data is reported on the topic of contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, transportation emissions are frequently reported as entirely distinct from the emissions caused by animal agriculture. This fails to take into account the fact that many greenhouse gas emissions caused by transportation are attributable to transporting billions of animals from local farms to CAFOs and then from CAFOs to slaughterhouses.

CAFOs are unpleasant places for many reasons, not the least of which are the horrific acts of animal cruelty performed at these locations. They are also the source of a great deal of pollution. The government has zoning regulations for them because of the harms that they cause. According to the United States Department of Agriculture,

“A CAFO is an AFO with more than 1000 animal units (an animal unit is defined as an animal equivalent of 1000 pounds live weight and equates to 1000 head of beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2500 swine weighing more than 55 lbs, 125 thousand broiler chickens, or 82 thousand laying hens or pullets) confined on site for more than 45 days during the year. Any size AFO that discharges manure or wastewater into a natural or man-made ditch, stream or other waterway is defined as a CAFO, regardless of size.”

CAFOs came into existence to commodify animal bodies in order to maximize profits. Tremendous numbers of animals are kept in these spaces and they produce a lot of waste. Members of human communities understand that human waste can potentially make us sick, so over the years we have created and continue to improve upon sewage systems and waste treatment facilities. Animal waste created by CAFOs is not treated as the same health threat. Animal manure from CAFOS frequently ends up in both surface and groundwater and makes other living beings in the area, including humans, quite sick. These facilities are often located near poor communities and communities of color, raising concerns about environmental racism.

The system of industrial animal agriculture also contributes to climate change in two significant ways. The first is that it produces lots of greenhouse gases. The Humane Society, drawing on work from The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, reports that industrial animal agriculture is responsible for

“9% of human-induced emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), 37% of emissions of methane (CH4), which has more than 20 times the global warming potential (GWP) of CO2, and 65% of emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), which has nearly 300 times the GWP of CO2.”

CAFOs burn lots of fossil fuels for the purposes of heating, cooling, and ventilating facilities as well as to run farming equipment used in the production of feed for the animals. As manure decomposes, it releases methane, and it stands to reason that facilities that house lots of animals are going to produce a lot of methane. Methane is also produced during the digestion processes of ruminant animals such as cows and goats. Ruminants have multiple stomach chambers that allow them to digest in such a way that they can consume tough grains and plants. Fermentation processes occur in the stomach chambers which produce methane that these animals release into the air.

The second way that our system of animal agriculture contributes to climate change is the role that it plays in deforestation; it contributes to the cause of global warming while also demolishing our planet’s natural defenses. Healthy forests are critical for clean air — during photosynthesis trees and other plants take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Human beings are eliminating forests at an alarming and expanding rate and animal agriculture is the primary cause. Trees are chopped down to allow room for cattle to graze and to grow soy to feed to cattle and other farm animals. The World Resources Institute predicts that only 15% of the Earth’s forest cover remains intact. As a result of deforestation, ecosystems are destroyed, species are pushed into extinction, and greenhouse gasses warm the planet and acidify our oceans. Each of these considerations on its own is enough to justify producing meat in vitro instead.

Industrial animal agriculture also uses alarming amounts of water. The production of beef, in particular, is very water intensive. It takes nearly 1,800 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. Many countries suffer from water scarcity. This can happen because of drought, poor water infrastructure, or pollution in water supply. The result of this is that many people and other animals do not have enough clean water to drink and to use in other ways that sustain life and health. When we consider the impact of the water consumed by raising cattle for food, taken together with how much water raising cattle pollutes, it is clear that, if human beings won’t give up eating red meat, producing meat via an in vitro process is much more compassionate and environmentally sustainable.

This argument has focused on beef but raising other animals for food presents related environmental challenges. In an ideal world, recognition of these problems would motivate everyone to become vegetarian or vegan. We do not live in such a world. Due to the efforts of dedicated animal rights and welfare advocates, vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise. Unfortunately, commitment to this lifestyle has not grown as sharply as has the worldwide demand for meat. If we are going to stop these environmental problems before they get even worse, we’ll need another strategy. In vitro meat may be an important part of that strategy.

What’s In a Name? The Morality in “Meat”

close-up photograph of a raw cut of meat

In 2018, Missouri banned the use of the word “meat” to describe products that are “not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” As punishment, “Violators are subject to up to one year in prison and a fine of as much as $1,000.”  The law was written in response to the rise in popularity of realistic meat substitutes such as Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat and to the emerging technology of cell cultured meats. Similar laws followed in states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

The concerns don’t stop with use of the term “meat.” Last summer, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb expressed concerns about the use of “milk” to describe products like soymilk, almond milk, and oat milk. Such terms are misleading, he claims, because “An almond doesn’t lactate.” 

Supporters of these laws offer a range of arguments, some of which appear to be in better faith than others. The first argument is that use of terms like “meat” and “milk” to describe products that are plant- rather than animal-based is misleading and perhaps even deceptive. Consumers have a right to know what they are putting in their bodies. They need to make nutritional decisions for the sake of their health, and the labeling of products like “meat” and “milk” may get in the way of their ability to make such choices effectively.

Opponents of the legislation are unconvinced by this argument for several reasons. First, this kind of figurative language has been used to describe replacement products for many years, and consumers are well aware of this. There is no reason to believe that they arrive at their grills angry and nutritionally deprived when they realize that their “veggie burger” isn’t made from a cow. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the new legislation came about because lawmakers were receiving letters or calls of complaint from confused consumers. Instead, they seem to be motivated by complaints that they are hearing from the animal agricultural industry—an institution that is understandably nervous about the rising success of meat replacement products. What’s more, these products are not packaged in such a way that would render consumers unable to tell that the “burger” they are consuming does not come from a slaughtered cow. They say “vegan” or “vegetarian” in no uncertain terms on the package. They also include a list of ingredients and nutritional information. Consumers know how to access nutritional information. There’s no plausible reason why confusion should exist. There is also no deception if there is no intent to deceive. These products do not claim, in any way, to be animal-based. What’s more, many opponents of this kind of legislation argue that it’s the industry of animal agriculture that is not transparent with consumers about the nature of the products that they sell. The conditions under which these products are produced—in factory farms—are neither appetizing nor ethical. 

One argument in favor of the legislation is more straightforward: these labels harm the agricultural industry, and that might be a very bad thing. Animal agriculture is important for the economy. It is also important on a more personal level. Farmers and ranchers have families to support. The labeling of these products hurts their bottom line and, as a result, has a real impact on the quality of their lives. There is nothing wrong with plant-based food, but such products should stand on their own merits, rather than riding the coattails of popular animal-based products by using the same language. 

In response, opponents argue that, though it is unfortunate that people might lose their livelihoods, society has no duty to protect this industry in particular. Some ways of earning a living are harmful, and moral progress requires that we get rid of them. For example, if we let concerns regarding the livelihood of slave traders and slave owners win the day, we’d still have slavery. What’s more, no one is trying to go this far. Animal agriculture isn’t being shut down, it’s simply competing against other products in the marketplace that use some of the same words as part of their marketing and advertising campaigns.

Legislation restricting the use of the “meat” label also faces constitutional challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with The Good Food Institute, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed suit on behalf of Tofurky in response to the law passed in Arkansas. The lawsuit contends that the legislation was constructed to protect the business of animal agriculture in violation of the first and fourteenth amendment rights of the producers of other kinds of food. So long as they aren’t misleading consumers, they can exercise their rights to name their product whatever they want.

Complicating the issue is in vitro meat—a new product that has many meat producers very concerned. The current system of animal agriculture is cruel and inhumane to the animals involved, it contributes substantially to climate change, and it delivers a product that can be unhealthy for consumers. In vitro meat can potentially solve all of these problems. Instead of producing, raising, and slaughtering animals in order to consume their flesh, in vitro meat is produced by taking a biopsy from an animal and then culturing the cells. In this way, meat can be created without causing animals any significant harm.

Legislators are eager to ban the use of the word “meat” for this kind of product as well (though it is not yet on the market). But it’s harder to see the rationale here. After all, cell cultured meat is meat, if what it is to be meat is to be animal flesh. Despite this fact, the Missouri law, for example, bans the use of the word “meat” for in vitro meat as well as for vegetable-based meat products. The takeaway seems to be this—if the product isn’t part of the corpse of a slaughtered animal, it isn’t properly designated as “meat.” This is much harder to defend. Meat produced in a lab could be engineered to be much healthier, so concerns about consumer nutrition and health wouldn’t apply. Transparency concerns may make it important that the product is labeled as cultured, but perhaps, for similar reasons, the conditions under which factory farm meat is produced should also be listed on the package. 

The existence of this legislation, and of other proposed legislation like it, speaks to the power that animal agriculture wields in state legislatures. The fear that motivates these legislative changes may also clue us into something about the future of food.

Inconsistency in Animal Abuse

photograph of dog's face behind chain-link fence

On March 8, Anita Cullop-Thompson died in Virginia at the age of 67; roughly two weeks later, her dog Emma was euthanized per the direction of Cullop-Thompson’s will. Despite the fact that Emma, a Shih Tzu mix, was healthy and the shelter personnel were confident in their ability to find her another home, Emma’s last owner had indicated her desire to be buried with her pet. Because such animals are considered property, there was nothing clearly illegal about Emma’s killing, but the story (and public outrage regarding it) spread quickly after the news broke online in mid-May – even reaching countries on the other side of the Atlantic (English comedian Ricky Gervais had a particularly indignant summary of the story).

In general, it might be unsurprising to see a majority of people respond negatively to the seemingly unnecessary death of a healthy creature simply because of the particular wishes of a single human being. Animal abusers are routinely subjects for local news stories, such as the Pennsylvania woman who “debarked” her dogs by damaging their vocal cords with a rod shoved through their mouths, the New York man who locked and ignored several dogs in two cars that had been “gutted to the seat springs,” and the Arkansas man jailed after dozens of dogs, snakes, and exotic birds were found stashed inside his house – and that’s just within the week prior to this article’s writing. The Rhode Island state legislature recently approved the creation of a new animal-abuse registry to track and publicize offenders found guilty of animal cruelty and, within days of Emma’s story going viral, Virginia state lawmakers expressed interest in reforming the loopholes in the legal system which allowed for her death.

However, the most curious feature of public outcry against animal cruelty is not its prevalence, but its ignorance of the vast majority of animal-abuse cases available for discussion: namely, the literally billions of animals who are mistreated as a matter of course within the normal functioning of a concentrated animal feeding operation – colloquially dubbed a ‘factory farm.’ For example, the nearly nine billion chickens raised and slaughtered for their meat each year (as well as the millions of other birds raised for consumption) are excluded from all animal protection laws and are regularly crammed into small, stacked cages where each bird has roughly as much space to live as a sheet of letter-sized paper. Female pigs raised simply for breeding purposes are routinely confined to so-called ‘gestation crates’ for the majority of their lives, despite these cages being too small for the sows to actually turn around. If cats or hamsters were found in such conditions, the public would be rightly outraged; when farm animals are mistreated, the story is often quite different (if even told at all).

Decrying the abuse of dogs and not pigs, or of parrots and not chickens, is, at best, inconsistent and, at worst, hypocritical. It might seem wrong that Emma the Shih Tzu was executed because of her owner’s wishes, but this is a normal thing to do with an owner’s property. Any sadness or anger we might feel about Emma’s death is as irrationally emotional, as it would be if we cried over literal spilled milk, because only ‘property-owners’, and not ‘property’ itself, have rights. Emma – as property – can be disposed of legally, just as the millions of chickens, cows, and the like owned by corporate agribusinesses are “disposed of” to make our hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets.

The creatures funneled through CAFOs daily to feed hungry people are manifestly treated simply as the property of the agricultural corporations that profit from their processing; consider how animal rights activists who remove creatures from industrial farms in the interest of saving their lives are routinely charged with grand theft felonies, not animal abuse. Yet if those same activists had a change of heart, bought a cow, and began to torture her by stabbing her with sharp knives, they would indeed be charged differently – certainly in the court of public opinion.

Melanie Joy has dubbed this inconsistent attitude towards animals ‘carnism’, defined in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism as “the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals” and not others. But either domesticated animals are property or they are not – and this distinction requires a choice. If the well-being of a pig can be ignored because the pig is simply property, then pigs (and other animals) cannot be ‘abused’ in any manner that matters – Emma the Shih Tzu’s death, then, was not wrong. But if dog abuse is wrong, then it seems like (upon pain of inconsistency) we must affirm that the mistreatment of all animals is wrong – regardless of how delicious they might taste when grilled.

The UK Novocaine Shortage and Animal Welfare

close-up photograph of two chickens poking their heads out of cages.

Currently, the United Kingdom is facing a rather unique problem. Due to a plant failure and seasonal high demand, they are experiencing a shortage of the anesthetic Novocaine. Novocaine is widely known as the main pain management drug for dental practices however, the real effects of the shortage are seen in the veterinary and farming practices. Humans won’t be affected because there are many approved alternative anesthetics as options. Unfortunately for animals, there are fewer approved options for pain relief medication. In fact, The British Veterinary Association (BVA) president, Simon Doherty, says that vets have been able to only purchase a fraction of the required anesthesia needed for their practices.

Novocaine is used in many farming practices in the UK and across the world. There are many major causes of pain for farm animals including: disease, housing and handling, parturition, and routine practices like castration, tail docking, dehorning, ear-tagging, branding, teeth clipping, nose ringing, and beak trimming. According to a summary of pain research in 2018 by Agriculture, researchers looked to see if these procedures caused animals’ pain by looking at the long-term effects in their behaviors. Due to the nature of farming animals, who are prey animals, they have evolved to hide their pain in order to avoid opportunistic predators. The study was motivated by public concern for animal welfare and hope for finding ways to access animal’s pain levels since basic facial expressions are not enough.

The study found that pain has a significant negative effect on farming production and the animals’ quality of life. Lambs who had undergone castration and calves who had their horns cut off are less likely to engage in playful behavior. Animals with injury eat, move, and interact with children less, all indicating lingering pain. With the current shortage, the pain levels are increasing throughout the UK for animals that still have to undergo these painful procedures. The study supports the theory that it would be better in general to farm without inducing pain for the livestock.

The BVA has declared that the shortage will have “a very acute impact on animal welfare.” The term “acute” however could be misleading. Pain can be described in two ways, as acute or chronic. Acute pain is caused from injury, infection, or inflammation. It is short-lived and responds to effective pain relief. Chronic pain is long-lasting pain that continues after the healing process. With this shortage of pain relief medicine, the farm animals in the UK will be experiencing an increase of acute pain across the nation. This shortage has raised the question, should we give pain relief to farming animals?

Moral vegetarians would argue that causing animals pain while raising them for food, especially when there are other alternatives, is wrong. It is frequently seen that the conditions that the animals raised in are inhumane and animals suffer physically and psychologically.  For example, pigs distressed will bite their own tails, so farmers often cut them off. Chickens in tight spaces will peck at each other so farmers slice off the edge of the beak. While the European Union mandates that farmers first try to improve an animal’s conditions, this rule is frequently ignored. There may be a moral obligation to discontinue these practices given that farming creates unnecessary suffering. If one accepts this, then, some vegetarians argue, isn’t it an obligation to not consume the food that is unethically raised and produced?

The anesthesia option challenges this picture as Novocaine lessens the harm animals experience in the process. The goal of reducing animal harm is met with near universal acceptance. It applies to any kind of work that involves animals including veterinarians, medical research, zoos, farming, and more. The veterinary code of ethics states that, “A veterinarian shall provide competent veterinary medical clinical care under the terms of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR), with compassion and respect for animal welfare and human health.” Novocaine is a solution to pain management and can diminish the challenges that the profession of farming has for the animal’s well-being.

Another bonus from reducing harm for farm animals with anesthesia is that it can increase farming production and result in higher profits for farmers. Pain weakens the immune response, makes animals sicker, eat less and grow more slowly, and leads animals to reject their offspring. With less pain, the risk of these conflicts is dramatically lowered.

The main pushback towards using Novocaine for farming animals, even in countries where there is a wide range of pain relief options, is that it is expensive. There are more than 50 billion animals raised and slaughtered for agriculture annually. Paying for  all of those animals’ pain relief would be extremely costly and unrealistic. Ultimately these animals are going to be raised to be eventually killed for consumption. In fact, in the US, pain relief isn’t used. It wasn’t until 2017 that the FDA approved the drug banamine transderm to treat the painful disease foot rot and pyrexica (a fever) associated with bovine respiratory disease. One contributing factor to this policy is the limited number of approved anesthetics for animals given the challenging nature of the drug. Variety in animals’ anatomy, life style, and behavior create an extra challenge for scientists to find drugs that will be effective in reducing pain and last long enough to do so.

This is not to say that farmers who do not use anesthetics act unethically. As previously mentioned, it can be difficult to recognize pain in these prey animals. Further, assessments will differ on whether temporary pain has a justifiable benefit for the future well-being of an animal. US policy may be defensible, but it could be worth considering if anesthetics should be a more common practice for all farming practices worldwide.

The Puppy and the Snapping Turtle

An image of a snapping turtle's mouth

On March 8, 2018, an abandoned, terminally ill puppy was brought into the classroom of Idaho high school science teacher Robert Crosland.  Crosland, known for taking in sick animals, could tell that the puppy was beyond saving.  After school, in front of a handful of his students, Crosland placed the sick puppy inside the tank of his snapping turtle.  It drowned and was then eaten by the turtle. Crosland was reported for animal cruelty. The snapping turtle, a member of an invasive species, was confiscated and euthanized by the Department of Agriculture.

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Lab-Grown Meat: A Moral Revolution?

A close-up photo of a hamburger.

In 2013, Dutch scientists announced that they had produced a lab-grown hamburger.  Scientists generated the muscle cells comprising the burger—no animals were killed as part of the process.  Many are hopeful that this “cultured meat” is the solution to many societal problems.  Earlier this year, author Paul Shapiro and director of The Humane Society released a book called Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals will Revolutionize Dinner and The World. The book provides a history of the development of meat produced in labs and discusses the moral benefits of a future that includes meat produced in this way.

Continue reading “Lab-Grown Meat: A Moral Revolution?”