... victorian follies like Walter Potter’s creations: “The Kittens’ Wedding” (featuring “20 kittens in black morning suits and cream-colored brocade dresses”), “The Guinea Pigs’ Cricket Match” and a re-enactment of the funeral procession from “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.”There's the 1890 diorama above. Those are real kittens! If Walter Potter had asked "is it necessary?" he would have had to say "no". That's really clear.
"Is it necessary?" provides a more permissive standard than "animal rights," but a less permissive standard than "animal welfare". There really is plenty of space between welfare and rights, a fact that seems to be anathema to both rights supporters and conservative welfarists. Both sides wants us to think "if you reject this, you'll be stuck with that," and it's not true. Rights OR welfare is a false dichotomy.
If we ask "is it necessary?" we'll have to stop doing many things to animals that we normally take for granted. We'll have to stop making dioramas out of kittens, upholstering sofas with leather, creating pretty hats out of baby seal fur, putting animals on display at circuses, etc.
What about eating animals? Is it necessary? I've been rereading Tom Regan's 1983 opus magnum The Case for Animal Rights, and it's interesting to see how adamant he is that animal products are unnecessary. Every single nutrient in meat (he focuses on meat) can be obtained from plant foods, he says.
The latest thinking on this seems to say otherwise. If you only ate plant foods, the nutritionists now say, you would wind up deficient in vitamin B12 - a vitamin that grows from bacteria in animals and has no plant sources. Long term, B12 deficiency can cause serious problems, so vegans are advised to make up for what they're missing by taking a vitamin supplement that's grown from bacteria in a lab.
When Regan said meat isn't necessary, he meant other foods deliver the same nutrients. A revised version of the book would have to say that meat and other animal products aren't necessary, because we can get the same nutrients from a combination of plant foods plus a pill. Some will say--but if plant foods don't deliver all the nutrients we need, then animal foods are necessary after all!
Which goes to show: the rough notion of the "necessary" is serviceable, up to a point, but then we need to clarify what we mean. When we say X is "necessary," partly we're saying that we get some important benefit from X. We'd lose something that means a lot to us if we gave up X. Inevitably, we also have to make a judgment of balance--are there enough benefits to justify the cost? We can think about costs, benefits, and balance in lots of different ways, the utilitarian way being just one. But those are the key ingredients when we judge that X is necessary (or not): costs, benefits, balance.
So--what do we gain by getting our nutrients from food (and just food)? Michael Pollan says food is more trustworthy because it delivers packages of nutrients, without our having to analyze what exactly is in the package. But when he urges us to "eat food" (his first commandment), what's at stake is partly "existential." What are we going to put inside of ourselves--earth's bounty, so to speak, or a chemist's concoctions? Pollan thinks it's good to continue being what we are--animals--and continue that elemental connection animals have to food.
What weight should we give to eating food and just food? I have always followed Pollan's first commandment, and I'm also a reluctant consumer of medicine. So the food argument has some attraction for me. Are we entitled to get our B12 from real animals, instead of from lab-grown bacteria? Not if the costs to animals are enormous. But what if we treat animals humanely, as Pollan urges us to do? How far must we go toward artificiality in order to be ethical?
UPDATE: Who was Walter Potter? How did he come by the kittens? This is informative.