The long comment thread triggered by Gary Francione's Philosophy Bites interview degenerated in predictable ways, but did get me thinking about one of the standard abolitionist "moves". Francione and another commenter toward the end of the thread argue that supporting "humane" animal products is like supporting "humane" rape, or supporting "humane" child molestation. I got to thinking about whether this makes any sense at all, and ... no, it doesn't.
First, some thoughts about the ethics of using animals for food. What many say, despite varying ethical orientations, is that the animal eater is guilty of causing "unnecessary harm". The phrase suggests a balance that's "off". There's a certain harm done--H. And there's a certain benefit to the consumer--B. The wrongness owes to the fact that H is a serious harm, B is a trivial benefit. Bad H:B ratio, in some sense or other (there are many ways to spell that out). If you think in those terms, then you implicitly allow that the balance can be worse and it can be better. So there are degrees of wrongness, and there also degrees of rightness.
If you think about eating animals in terms of what's "necessary" and
"unnecessary", you'll probably wind up saying that some people actually ought
consume meat. The harm, H, is relatively trivial, considering the
benefit, B. Take a poor mother who has no other good source of protein
for her children but goat's milk. The goat seems to not mind being
milked and lives outdoors (low H); the children get health-saving
benefits (high B). She ought to milk that goat and feed her children.
Lots of people think this way about eating animals-- in terms of what's necessary and unnecessary, or implicitly in terms of the H:B balance. I talk about unnecessary harm in my book Animalkind. David DeGrazia talks about unnecessary harm in his excellent book Taking Animals Seriously. Any utilitarian implicitly thinks in terms of balance, though there's a lot more to utilitarianism than that, and utilitarians have a particular view of how to balance H and B. Even Francione talks in these terms, in that Philosophy Bites interview, though maybe that's just loose rhetoric for him, and not what he really has in mind (since in his writings he says animals are persons who cannot ever rightly be used as resources).
Now (getting to the point!) on the balance analysis, it clearly does make sense to encourage humane omnivorism as an improvement over indifferent omnivorism because humane omnivorism involves a better balance. H is decreased, so the H:B ratio is improved. So the humane omnivore has got to be morally better than the indifferent omnivore.
So ... must we go down exactly the same road and see humane rape (absurdly enough) as exactly the same sort of improvement over brutal rape? There are some ethicists who apply the same concepts to every single moral problem. So if the "unnecessary harm" analysis of wrongness applies to animal consumption, it has to apply to rape as well. But there are lots of possible reasons not to go that route. Perhaps we are pluralists about ethics, so recognize that all problems don't yield to the same analysis. Perhaps we think rape is in a unique moral category. Whatever the ultimate explanation, no, I would not say rape is wrong because it's a case of "unnecessary harm." Its wrongness is not a question of an imbalance. Forced sex is inherently wrong, and not because of an H:B ratio that's unfavorable. Or so it seems to me.
If you reject the balance analysis of the wrongness of rape, then humane rapists aren't morally analogous to humane omnivores. Switching to humane omnivorism goes to the heart of the matter, reducing the core wrongness. In the case of rape, it's certainly better to be more humane and worse to be more cruel (the crime of rape does come in degrees), but the "how" doesn't go to the heart of the wrongness. You do reduce the core wrongness of eating meat by treating the animal more compassionately. You don't reduce the core wrongness of rape by treating the victim more compassionately.
Glad we cleared that up! This is one of those cases where an analogy looks demented on the surface, and if you think about it for a couple of hours, it still looks demented. So you've basically thrown out those hours of your life. But maybe making the argument here will convince a few people (I'm an optimist!) that they need to retire the humane meat/humane rape analogy.