If I may, I was wondering if I could get your take on a common objection concerning the raising of humanely treated animals, that the alternative is non-existence, and it's better for them to exist than to never have existed. Jeff McMahan says this claim is incoherent ("Eating animals the nice way"), but I'm struggling to understand why.
Suppose the cow Betty has experienced 100 net units of happiness, and one claims it is better for Betty to exist than to never have existed: because, if Betty never existed, she wouldn't have experienced any units of happiness at all. Thus the claim makes a comparison between existent Betty and non-existent Betty, claiming that the latter would have been worse off. Does the incoherency arise because, to say that non-existent Betty would have been worse off, we must assume that she would have somehow been an existing, non-existent individual who failed to experience any units of happiness?
-- Spencer LoMy answer--
OK, so there's a defense of benign carnivorism that says we are helping Betty (taking her from worse to better) by creating her, giving her a nice life, and then painlessly killing her and eating her. We'd actually be harming Betty if we kept her in the hell of non-existence, so to speak, and didn't let her into the actual world.
I think McMahan is saying* all that's sheer nonsense. To help Betty, she's got to already exist. If a being doesn't exist, we can't help her, can't make her go from a worse condition to a better condition. Likewise, we can't harm someone by creating her--she doesn't go from better to worse by coming into existence (even if her life will be full of pain). Bottom line--we should reject all the helping and harming talk.
This is very signficant, as we tend to think there are rather strong duties to help and even stronger duties not to harm. So if we were helping animals by creating them, treating them nicely, and then eating them, that would create a pretty strong case for doing so. If we were harming animals by keeping them out of existence, that would create a pretty strong case for getting busy and breeding more of them. So jettisoning all the helping/harming talk is a major step.
Now, even if we take that step, says McMahan, we're still left with some reason to keep breeding animals, treating them nicely, and eating them. That's because even if we don't help Betty by creating her, we can still say we do something good, assuming there will be a lot more happiness than misery in her life. In fact, we do something good for Betty, since she's the one who will enjoy that relatively happy life. We don't help her by creating her; we simply do something good, and it happens to be good that Betty enjoys. As McMahan says (p. 3) "Since benign carnivorism by definition aims to cause animals to exist with lives that are good -- in which the good elements outweigh the bad -- it is plausible to say that the practice is good for the animals it causes to exist, even if the ultimate aim is to make them available for human consumption."
Using terminology developed by Derek Parfit, McMahan later in the article says that our reasons to create animals are "impersonal" (p. 6). That is to say, they are not helping/harming type reasons, but just "doing good" type reasons. There's no victim if we don't create happy animals, and no beneficiary, in the sense of someone who winds up better off, if we do create happy animals. That then leads to the crux of the matter. He says our reasons for benign carnivorism consist in "the human interest in eating meat, and whatever impersonal reasons one might have to cause animals to exist with lives that would be good for them." He then says "In general, we assign little or no weight to impersonal reasons to cause individuals to exist." (p. 6) We don't think we need to get to work and make more babies, for example, if we prefer to be childless. It's fair to say we'd be "doing good" if we made more people, but that doesn't make much of a case for making more people. It makes even less of a case for making more animals, since animals have less good in their lives (on McMahan's view).
My reaction to this: it's actually a major mystery why "we assign little or no weight to impersonal reasons to cause individuals to exist," so this seems like a very shaky way to respond to someone defending benign carnivorism. Peter Singer doesn't respond to the argument this way, as he's a "total utilitarian" and does assign weight to these impersonal reasons. His very complicated discussion of this in Practical Ethics might be the thing to read next.
Hope that was helpful!
* Article is HERE.