The ethics of food-9: Does a good life compensate for an early death?

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

In trying to arrive at some ethical consensus on how humans should treat nonhuman animals, I think we might all agree on a minimal condition: that once born, every animal deserves to have a good life while they are living. So that means that the inhumane treatment of animals that currently takes place in the industrial farming system in the US and other developed countries cannot be justified under any circumstances. Those animals are kept in cramped, feces-filled conditions, force-fed with food that their systems are not designed to digest, and treated with drugs to combat the problems arising from an inappropriate diet and awful conditions. The very fact that such places are hidden from public view and guarded to prevent observers entering is a telling indication that those animals are being treated badly.

But if we did have cows and pigs and chicken raised in healthy natural environments where their interests are met while living, would that justify them being killed and eaten, if the alternative is that they never lived at all? In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan describes the way that animals are reared at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Virginia where the animals are raised in as good conditions as any farm animals could be. He said his experience threw the argument for eating animals into a new light.

To many animal people even Polyface Farm is a “death camp” – a way station for doomed animals awaiting their date with the executioner. But to look at the lives of these animals is to see this holocaust analogy for the sentimental conceit it really is. In the same way we can probably recognize animal suffering when we see it, animal happiness is unmistakable, too, and during my week on the farm I saw it in abundance. (p. 319)

In fact, it is likely the case that the death that these animals experience in such farms is far more humane than what they might experience naturally in the wild. The philosophical father of animal rights and utilitarianism philosophy founder Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), who was himself a meat eater, said that a happy life and merciful death can be used to justify meat eating since “The death they suffer in our hands commonly is, and always may be, speedier and, by that means a less painful one, than that which would await them in the inevitable course of nature.” (p. 328)

Since utilitarians like Bentham and Singer focus on increasing net happiness and reducing net suffering, and since the slaughter of an animal with no comprehension of death need not entail suffering, Singer tells Pollan that “I agree with you that it is better for these animals to have lived and died than not to have lived at all . . . I would not be sufficiently confident of my argument to condemn someone who purchased meat from one of these farms.” (p. 327) The problem, he points out, is that farms like Salatin’s form an infinitesimally small part of the nation’s food production system, which is dominated by the inhumane methods of the industrial farms run by agribusiness.

Not all animal rights philosophers will agree with Singer’s concession on this. Some animal rights advocates argue that the extinctions of domesticated species that would likely result from everyone ceasing to eat meat are in fact a desirable result, since these animals exist simply to be eventually eaten by others. There are some, like animal rights philosopher Tom Regan, who feel that we should always focus on the well being of the individual members of a species and not on the species as a whole and that the right to life of individual animals cannot be bargained away on utilitarian grounds.

In other words, once born, the right to life trumps all other considerations.

The ultimate test, again, is whether we would apply the same consideration to human interests that we apply to animal interests. For the sake of avoiding the charge of speciesism, would we humans also be willing to accept a healthy and happy and carefree life in exchange for a painless death at a definite time?

Thinking about these arguments made me recall Aldous Huxley’s futuristic novel Brave New World (1932) where, thanks to advances in medical science, people in the future have the looks and full unimpaired capacities of youth until they reach the age of sixty. They then die abruptly.

I wonder how people would respond if they were offered such a deal at the age of (say) twenty. Would they accept it? Would they want to negotiate a higher age of death? Or would they find that the very idea of a certain date of death is too high a price to pay, however good a life is offered in exchange?

POST SCRIPT: The conflict in South Ossetia

Out of the blue, there is suddenly a major conflict going on between Russia and Georgia. As usual, it is almost impossible to find in the US media any explanation of the history of the conflict and the proximate cause of the flare up that is not highly colored by the anti-Russian/pro-Georgian sentiment of the US government.

Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College London and a senior Fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC, gives a fairly concise account. In 1990-96 he was a correspondent for The Times in the former Soviet Union, including Georgia.

This conflict bears a lot of similarities to the one over Kashmir between India and Pakistan and, like that, could go on for years.


  1. Dean says

    On the question on whether people would pick a good life but a certain date of death, or take a gamble on quality of life and not know when they’d die, there is an excellent book called Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert that could address it. It’s been awhile, but the main thesis of the book is that humans cannot successfully predict happiness, but they also are able to manufacture happiness. For example, a year after the event occurs, a person who has won the lottery is just as happy as a person who has become a parapeligic. But no one would actually predict that.

  2. Simon says

    First, your ultimate test is the first thing that comes to my mind, but I suppose Singer would just side step that with his higher interests; which for me still smacks of speciesism.

    Also if we are to take into account interests I fail to see why being born has anything to do with these interests.

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