Carnivore morality

I appreciated this extended moral analysis and thought experiment regarding how — if at all — humanity should respond to animal suffering due to carnivorous animals. Most reader comments (that I read) were quite negative. But I largely agree with the author, a philosophy professor at Rutgers, who concluded:

If I had been in a position to design and create a world, I would have tried to arrange for all conscious individuals to be able to survive without tormenting and killing other conscious individuals….

It would be good to prevent the vast suffering and countless violent deaths caused by predation. There is therefore one reason to think that it would be instrumentally good if predatory animal species were to become extinct and be replaced by new herbivorous species, provided that this could occur without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation. The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species. I am therefore inclined to embrace the heretical conclusion that we have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species.

My 4-year-old son is fascinated with dinosaurs, and we’ve spent a lot of time discussing herbivores, carnivores and omnivores. When we learn about a new dinosaur, “What did it eat?” is always our first question… and we can almost always figure that out immediately by looking at its teeth. That some dinosaurs ate other dinosaurs simultaneously fascinates and disturbs my son, as it does me. It’s a hard topic to discuss but impossible to ignore because we can’t help but feel sorry for the poor triceratops being eaten alive by a pack of hungry T. Rexes.

I also have a hard time answering my son’s questions about the meat we’re eating having recently been a pig or a chicken. I explain that, hopefully, that pig or chicken lived a normal, happy life and died a quick and painless death before becoming unfeeling “meat.”

What haunts me — but I don’t share with my son — is that most animals we eat have suffered pretty miserably, due to the primacy of humans' concern for “economic efficiency.” I’ll go out of my way and pay extra for meat raised humanely, as much of Chipotle’s meat has been. But eating ethically raised meat is seldom feasible because “animal welfare” is practically a hippie, anti-American concept. It should be our primary concern, as the Rutgers professor notes:

We should start by withdrawing our own participation in the mass orgy of preying and feeding upon the weak.

Our own form of predation is of course more refined than those of other meat-eaters, who must capture their prey and tear it apart as it struggles to escape. We instead employ professionals to breed our prey in captivity and prepare their bodies for us behind a veil of propriety, so that our sensibilities are spared the recognition that we too are predators, red in tooth if not in claw (though some of us, for reasons I have never understood, do go to the trouble to paint their vestigial claws a sanguinary hue). The reality behind the veil is, however, far worse than that in the natural world. Our factory farms, which supply most of the meat and eggs consumed in developed societies, inflict a lifetime of misery and torment on our prey, in contrast to the relatively brief agonies endured by the victims of predators in the wild. From the moral perspective, there is nothing that can plausibly be said in defense of this practice.

Posted by James on Thursday, September 23, 2010