AR-FAQ - #13

#13 But isn't it true that the animals wouldn't exist if we didn't raise them for slaughter?

There are two ways to interpret this question. First, the questioner may be referring to "the animals" as a species, in which case the argument might be more accurately phrased as follows:

"The ecological niche of cows is to be farmed; they get continued survival in this niche in return for our using them."

Second, the questioner may be referring to "the animals" as individuals, in which case the phrasing might be:

"The individual cows that we raise to eat would not have had a life had we not done so."

We deal first with the species interpretation and then with the individuals interpretation. The questioner's argument applies presumably to all species of animals; to make things more concrete, we will take cows as an example in the following text. It is incorrect to assert that cows could continue to exist only if we farm them for human consumption. First, today in many parts of India and elsewhere, humans and cows are engaged in a reciprocal and reverential relationship. It is only in recent human history that this relationship has been corrupted into the one-sided exploitation that we see today. There IS a niche for cows between slaughter/consumption and extinction. (The interested reader may find the book Beyond Beef by Jeremy Rifkin quite enlightening on this subject.) Second, several organizations have programs for saving animals from extinction. There is no reason to suppose that cows would not qualify. The species argument is also flawed because, in fact, our intensive farming of cattle results in habitat destruction and the loss of other species. For example, clearing of rain forests for pasture has led to the extinction of countless species. Cattle farming is destroying habitats on six continents. Why is the questioner so concerned about the cow species while being unconcerned about these other species? Could it have anything to do with the fact that he wants to continue to eat the cows? Finally, a strong case can be made against the species argument from ethical theory. Arguments similar to the questioner's could be developed that would ask us to accept practices that are universally condemned. For example, consider a society that breeds a special race of humans for use as slaves. They argue that the race would not exist if they did not breed them for use as slaves. Does the reader accept this justification? Now we move on to the individuals interpretation of the question. One attempt to refute the argument is to answer as follows:

"It is better not to be born than to be born into a life of misery and early death."

To many, this is sufficient. However, one could argue that the fact that the life is miserable before death is not necessary. Suppose that the cows are treated well before being killed painlessly and eaten. Is it not true that the individual cows would not have enjoyed their short life had we not raised them for consumption? Furthermore, what if we compensate the taking of the life by bringing a new life into being? Peter Singer originally believed that this argument was absurd because there are no cow souls waiting around to be born. Many people accept this view and consider it sufficient, but Singer now rejects it because he accepts that to bring a being to a pleasant life does confer a benefit on that being. (There is extensive discussion of this issue in the second edition of Animal Liberation.) How then are we to proceed? The key is that the AR movement asserts that humans and nonhumans have a right to not be killed by humans. The ethical problem can be seen clearly by applying the argument to humans. Consider the case of a couple that gives birth to an infant and eats it at the age of nine months, just when their next infant is born. A 9-month old baby has no more rational knowledge of its situation or future plans than does a cow, so there is no reason to distinguish the two cases. Yet, certainly, we would condemn the couple. We condemn them because the infant is an individual to whom we confer the right not to be killed. Why is this right not accorded to the cow? I think the answer is that the questioner wants to eat it. DG

It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery. Percy Bysshe Shelley (poet)