The Perfectly Humane Farm

At the end of the last thread we got to talking about "perfectly humane farming"--animal farming that yields a happy life for animals, ending in a painless death.  That doesn't seem like an oxymoron, like it's an oxymoron to talk about perfectly humane slavery.  Human beings resent being enslaved, and so almost always suffer under it; I don't think farm animals resent their lot in life.

There probably aren't any perfectly humane farms in the real world (Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma provides proof of that), but I think there are some that come close.  

The chickens in the first picture lived on an organic farm in Hawaii that I stayed at last summer.  The chickens in the second picture lived in the English Lake District.  It's reasonable to think these animals had lives that were 99.9% pleasant.  The problems remaining in their lives were two:  (1) At some point they were going to be eaten for dinner and the killing was likely to be painful (though quick). And (2) throughout their lives they were being used as resources.  The eggs they labored to produce were taken from them, though in return they were housed and fed.

Is there a problem with (1) and (2)?  I just want to make a "meta" point and not answer the question. The "meta" point is that this is a difficult question.   There are really difficult and perplexing problems here.  As the saying goes:  reasonable people will disagree.  I think that's what Peter Singer must have been thinking when he wrote, "I can respect conscientious people who take care to eat only meat that comes from such animals," in the last chapter of Animal Liberation, even though in chapter 4 he had already made many arguments that people ought to give up eating chicken--including "humane chicken."

The questions about (1) and (2) are difficult. Even those who say "wrong" and "wrong" can just have a flickering sense of wrongness, not a sense durable enough to survive the competition with their fondness for chicken and eggs. At the same time, I find that almost everyone sees a problem with what is being done to the third chicken--her life is being made a living hell.  And that's the fate of almost all of the 6 million chickens we kill for food in the US, every six hours.

To save that chicken from a miserable life, many people are prepared to act differently.  Maybe they'll pay a little more for cage-free or free-range eggs (which are better if not perfect), or go to the polls to vote for a referendum, Some will stop eating chicken altogether, or stop eating both chicken and eggs. 

Because of the difficulty of (1) and (2), I don't think the main thrust of animal advocacy should be eliminating the whole practice of using animals for food.  I'm (honestly) pessimistic about that campaign, but optimistic about the campaign to alleviate suffering.  Since it matters enormously whether animals suffer, whether or not there's also a problem with (1) and (2), I think that's a rational way to set priorities.

Just for fun: more happy animals, for your viewing pleasure.  The pig lives in Central Pennsylvania.  The sheep were grazing on a hill very near Hadrian's wall in northern England.  

UPDATE:  Maybe I didn't make this clear.  We cannot possibly make every farm animal as happy as a Hawaiian chicken or the pig and the sheep in these pictures.  To achieve much less suffering, there has to be at least a reduction of the number of animals eaten.  But suffering should be the main focus of arguments for veganism and vegetarianism, because (1) and (2) just aren't compelling enough to most people or even to most conscientious and clear-thinking philosophers.  I say this after many years of watching lots of people react to animal ethics messages.


Faust said...

This seems to me a solid summation, and one that I can sign on to. I'll add just one little bit here from Francione. On his podcast with Steiner he says (paraphrase):

"Some people think that the way to solve the problems with humane farming is more humane farming, I know it's hard to believe--but that's what they say."

He clearly thought this was an incoherent and ridiculous approach based on his tone and description. He seems to deny the very possiblity of the continuum you suggest in an earlier post (animal farming 1-5), and therefore would presumably have nothing good to say about your post here which is mostly about 4. But I'm not sure.

So as I see it there are two problems.

The one you clearly highlight here which is the tension between the "best possible humane farming scenario (4)" and the fact that it is still linked with a) killing and b) property status.

The other problem is that when people buy "cage-free" and "free-range" animals in the grocery store they imagine that the animals are living in (4) while in fact they are very likely living at best in (3) and maybe even only (2). There seems a valid concern that this could slow down/sap movement on the contiuum or encourage a net increase in suffering.

The hard line vegans seem to want to smash all these points together, reductively isolate all these problems to a single cause such as the property status of animals, or confusion about the necessary conditions of moral worth. But if they want to shift "new welfarist" thinkers and activists to their cause it seems it might be prudent to engage the "confusions" such thinkers have, though their response is doubtless that they already have.

Wayne said...

But reasonable people can't disagree! One of them must be unreasonable. (Still one of the best essay's I've read in a long time.)

I think the painless death might be an oxymoron.

Do you think its a problem that humanely raised meat is difficult to obtain? I agree with you that we should be advocates of humanely raised meat, but does that product really exist for the average consumer?

In my ethics class, I tell my students that the easiest way to get humanely raised meat is to go for exotic meats like alligator, rattlesnake, kangaroo, buffalo, etc. The demand for these meats are relatively low, and so there is no need to factory farm them, and some of them simply can't be factory farmed (like buffalo and kangaroo).

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I completely agree. I ate the eggs that came from those Hawaiian chickens. I can be completely sure what their lives were like. I shouldn't come home, buy cage-free eggs at the grocery store and be so foolish as to think those chickens lived the same life as the Hawaiian chickens. Just not so.

My point is just to isolate problems (1) and (2) and separate them from problems about suffering. There's a difference in ethical clarity, which I think bodes poorly for any campaign that aims to convince people that using animals for food is inherently wrong.

Wayne--Yes, I love that Feldman essay. I now use that phrase nervously. What I mean is that smart, good, clear-thinking people are going to take different positions on (1) and (2). It could be that ultimate one side isn't really being reasonable, but right now I can't say we know which side that is.

amos said...

Reasonable people certainly can disagree. Two perfectly reasonable doctors can disagree about what drug should be used to deal with a certain illness. Actually, it may be that both drugs successfully deal with said illness.

Brandon Becker said...

Humane farming means growing plants, ideally vegan organic. We shouldn't even call exploiting other animals for food as "farming." It's slavery: these animals are legally held as property, treated as resources to have their bodies violated through reproductive manipulation, bodily secretions stolen, and lives violently taken in the slaughterhouse before their natural lifespans. All are confined in unnatural environments, cannot have familial relations or create social structures, and are otherwise used without consent. Rather than attempting to rationalize this cruelty and injustice through arguing that's it's not "as bad as" intensive confinement operations, we should reject this false dichotomy and live vegan.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm publishing Brandon's comment just to use it as exhibit A--

This is a completely ideological comment. There's no engagement with the post or previous comments or previous posts. There's just repetition of Abolitonist talking points. So...no more! I won't publish comments like this in the future. Please read the comment policy.

Brandon Becker said...

Is not your comment ideological? Your ideology promotes speciesism, mine is opposing speciesism. To say your comments are unbiased or objective is to mislead. I responded to your blog post.

Jean Kazez said...

No, and now you're breaking another part of the comment policy--you're talking about the way I moderate this blog.

I made arguments in the post. You responded to absolutely none of them. You simply repeated abolitionist talking points.

It's very easy to throw around the word "speciesism." You don't understand the meaning of the word if you think that any moral differentiation between doing X to humans and doing X to animals is automatically speciesist.

Anyway--please read the comment policy before commenting again.

Faust said...

More on 1) and 2):

In your update you suggest that many people are responsive to suffering, but not 1 and 2. I won't speak to to 2), but I think the reason people aren't responsive to 1) is this:

Predation is a big part of the natural world, and people have predatory capacities and inclinations. The suggestion that we never eat meat (or use animal products) is the suggestion that we not be predators.

Now IS does not necessitate OUGHT. The fact that predation is part of the fabric of the natural world and that we historically were predators does not mean that we need continue to do so. But once you eliminate (in theory or in practice) suffering and focus only on the moment of "hunt and kill" you are going to run up against this question of predation. Some people are just fine with being predators. They think of themselves as being just "one more predator," like wolves, or tigers, or whatever.

The notion that we should "overcome our predatory instincts" and "evolve past them" involves the assertion that we should mature past our predatory natures, or that predatory natures are themselves somehow "wrong" or "bad." I find that there is a tension here: the world contains predators, we have predatory capacities/instincts/desires, but given the fact that we have evolved the ability to recognize sentience in other species, we should overcome our predatory natures. But what about all the other predators? Should we shut them down too? Or do they get a freedom that we shouldn't allow ourselves due to their "ignorance of what they do?"

I'm sure there are well thought out responses to this line of thinking, and I'm sure you've encountered it in your classes. Who responds best to this line of "defense," such as it is?

Wayne said...

Brandon- There's a difference between engaging in a dialogue with someone, and simply throwing out an opposing position.

You're playing John Cleese.

Jean Kazez said...

This sort of objection takes lots of forms and so gets lots of responses.

1. If animals can do it, we can do it. (well, no, obviously a bad argument).

2. If we stop ourselves from being predators, then consistency says we have to stop animals too (well, no, because even if it's "the same," we don't have the resources to spread around vegan lion chow, etc).

3. If we condemn our meat eating, we have to condemn lion meat eating, and that seems weird (but it's different, because lions are killing to survive, while most of us eat meat just for the taste).

4. If we get ourselves under total rational control, aren't we dividing ourselves from the natural world and losing our "inner animal"? (this is something Michael Pollan says, more or less, and I don't find it completely dismissible).

amos said...

The abolitionists are good at painting themselves into a corner.
Actually, they should have attacked your premise that most people are not going to give up eating meat as false. I agree with you that most people are not going to give up eating meat, but there is no way to prove that. Extrapolation from the current curve is not an accurate way to make predictions about the future: in fact, there is no way to make accurate predictions about the future. However, instead of disagreeing with your (and my) sense that meating-eating is here to stay, they reiterate the bad analogy between any kind of farming, be it humane or not and slavery.

Jean Kazez said...

Actually, I didn't say that people aren't going to give up meat. I said they aren't going to steadily and confidently sign on for the wrongness of (1) and (2). They instinctively care about the suffering of animals, and might do things differently (maybe even give up meat) but seeing fundamental wrongness in (1) and (2) is another matter.

amos said...

Correct. The abolitionists should have argued that the majority of people would sign on for the wrongness of 1 and 2.
In any case, arguing with them is a bit like teaching chess to my 8 year-old step-son. I'm not a good chess player, but I'm constantly telling him: "I wouldn't make that move if I were you".

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, That clip is hilarious--a great way to explain to students what's wrong with trying to rebut someone by simply saying something different. I think I'm going to show it to my next class (we've got cool high tech classrooms).

Faust said...

Monty Python: Best Comedey Troop Ever.

Gary said...

Humane eggs and dairy are virtually impossible at the present time. In nature, hens lay enough eggs to propagate the species and occasionally ingest some themselves; cows produce enough milk for their young (and have babies less often than they do on dairy farms); there is not enough left over for a dairy industry. IOW, hens' and cows' bodies were not designed to produce so much reproductive secretions. Through intensive breeding, we've upped their output, which takes a toll on their bodies and increases the chance of painful complications and (in hens) the risk of certain cancers.

Painless killing of farm animals is easier said than done. (One consideration of many is the effect on the not-yet-killed animals, who may be deeply bonded to the animals being killed.)

Although suffering is an urgent and paramount concern, it's not the only concern. Cutting short a life is still considered wrong, animals like humans have a strong will to live and meaningful lives, and it's unlikely that "meat" animals on a "humane" farm will be allowed to live a normal lifespan. Most chickens on so-called humane farms are killed as babies.

FYI, I agree that we cannot always equate the effect of something done to a human and the same thing done to non human. But sometimes we can, and often we can draw parallel lessons. Tangent question: Is it ok to enslave someone if they don't realize they're being enslaved?

Maybe not so tangential; it leads to my next point. I'd like "humane" - or a word we agree upon, perhaps "compassion" or "empathy" - to include not only the effect on the target but the attitude of the perpetrator. If we're looking upon a sentient being in terms of how his or her body can satisfy our habits and (at least in some cases) arbitrary and indulgent choices, will we inevitably compromise that being's welfare? Will that attitude hamper our ability to be sympathetic and respectful to the other being?

I'd like to get past "How can we exploit them humanely?" and on to "How can be be as compassionate and respectful to all sentient beings as much as practical and possible?" I understand that people move incrementally, but let's aim high. We can do this and still be practical and polite with our advocacy.

People are searching for "humane" ways to eat hens' eggs mostly because they're so vested in eating eggs and so conditioned to think of hens as egg producers. I believe we can change that perception in time. We don't look at robins' eggs and think "How can I get some of those?" Rather, we're vicariously pleased that mama robin is raising a family and we wish her and young ones well. If the nest were to fall, we'd probably pick it up and carefully place it back in the tree, out of compassionate concern. Hens are birds. We can one day see them as wee see robins. Especially with all the alternatives that are growing every day in quality, diversity, and availability. With a starting point of moving away from exploiting animals, we'll probably develop satisfying, diverse, and healthy plant-based alternatives more rapidly. (Where there's a will, there's a way.)