Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Eating Animals "Nicely"

The Benefits of Benign Carnivorism
The average citizen of a developed nation is not too aware of where their food comes from. They are far removed from the process which begins on the farm and ends on the market shelf. Groups such as PETA have made it their duty to expose certain stages of this process to the public for the sake of demonstrating the horrendous affect of mass production on the lives of animals. However, PETA’s solution to the problem of factory farms and the abuse of domesticated life forms is to ban all consumption of meat products. Although the treatment of animals in factory farms is unjustifiable, their solution is more damaging then beneficial. The aim of this paper will be to argue in favor of a system of benign carnivorism which regards ecology over traditional market economics and also explain how it is a much better solution then the outright ban of meat products.
Before we can discuss the benefits of benign carnivorism (or BC) a fundamental concern must be addressed. The purpose of this essay is to lay bare an ethical guideline for using meat products. Yet the question can be asked; what in the first place gives us the right to use meat? Prior to tackling this question, a step further should be taken to ask: what gives us the right to use anything? Not just meat products, but anything that infringes the potential future good of any life form. This would include activities like building on undeveloped land, pest control, and collecting natural resources. It would seem impractical to claim that humans are not allowed to use anything on the Earth because it may endanger the potential future good of a life form. Yet this is the basis for the argument against carnivorism.
Let us take a moment to understand why one would favor animal well being over plant, bacteria, or fungi wellbeing. The most explicit reason would be the similarity between us and animals, as opposed to us and other life forms. Although it seems we have nothing in common with plants, that does not mean we should disregard their interests. If one would want to affirm this reason, they would be forgetting that those who do not favor animal well being use this rationale as well. That is, people who don’t regard the welfare of animals do so because they do not see any similarities between themselves and other creatures. So the basis of similarity is not a good ground for an argument that favors animals life forms over all others.
A second reason one may support animal wellbeing over another life form is the subjective experience of pain or discomfort. It is widely believed that a brain is needed in order to feel pain. It may be true that to experience the kind of pain we endure (suffering) one would need a human brain. And it can also be said that all animals with brains feel some sort of subjective pain. But can it safely be said that a brain is needed to feel pain or discomfort? Jellyfish which lack a brain are capable of avoiding pain, which means they must feel some sort of hurt. If we take a look at some of the studies conducted in The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, we can start to better understand the possible interactions between ourselves and our distant cousins in the family of life. The book details empirical evidence on the rich inner lives of plants. For instance, many studies were done in which three plants, one control, and two experimental, were observed for growth patterns. One experimental group was repeatedly yelled at, while the other was talked kindly to; the control received no verbal stimulation. After a while, each plant grew differently. The control grew to average proportions, whereas the plant which received affectionate verbal stimulation grew larger then expected. Finally the plant which received negative verbal stimulation did not reach full development. This study concludes that the plants were receptive toward the feelings and actions of the individual researchers. It would seem that such a behavior or outcome would require a thinking brain, or some kind of mind to interpret such situations. But plants do not have brains, so we can start to see that in order to respond to discomfort or pain, which would seem the same as feeling pain, a brain is not required.
Continuing with the notion that brains are needed to feel pain or discomfort, one would need to consider how different brains produce different subjective experiences of pain or discomfort. Our brains are much different from most other brains, even the gap between us and our closest relative the chimpanzee is greater then the gap between chimps and apes; thus our brains are on a much different scale then all others. So when we experience pain, we have many more dimensions on which to perceive the pain then would a cow or chicken. One of the hallmarks of the human mind is to think abstractly, so one could say that suffering is pain in an abstracted form. Following this train a thought and applying to animals, their lack of a neo-cortex (which would allow one to think abstractly) would suggest they feel pain on a much different level then we do. Therefore there are levels of subjective pain and discomfort, from a bacteria avoiding danger to a human suffering over the death of a loved one. Who are we to discriminate between one kind of pain over another when the whole position of discrimination is what allows to say that animals have no rights in the first place because they are inherently different.
At this point we can understand in more detail the implications of the question: What gives us the right to use anything that endangers the potential future good of an organism? Clearly, one can cannot live in a vacuum, life involves “treading on others toes”. All organisms use life to their benefit. Creatures eat and absorb each other all the time. But the different between our egotistical use of resources and lets say a carnivore’s hunted meal is an a priori regard for ecology. To illustrate, after a lion has hunted a gazelle, it does not try to get another, while an over zealous sport hunter might kill a few deer in a day. What we have here is a natural balance of ecology taking place in the lions behavior, but not present in the sport hunter. Thus as reasonable and responsible beings, we need to figure out how to fit into to the “scheme of things” by developing practices which are sustainable ecologically.
A lot can be said about how to change our behavior as a society to better preserve the ecological balance, yet the focus here is on meat products. What is wrong with our meat industry today? Simply stated, we treat the industry like every other profit motivated business; and that is the problem. The commercialization of meat products are done in the same fashion as other profit-driven markets. The first step in creating a sustainable begin meat industry is to ignore traditional economic rule of supply always needing to meet demand. This rule is the source of all things erroneous with our meat products market.
The overcrowding, the abuse, the lack of sanitary spaces, the disease, all and more of these horrendous attributes of the modern day meat industry are created by the system of economics which regards profit over quality. Sustainable farming practices observe and maintain the natural state of the domesticated animal, yet this does not equal much profit. This means making sure the animal has a proper diet which reflects their natural one; to illustrate, cows naturally eat grass, their stomachs digest it well, yet today in factory farms they are fed corn which they cannot digest and causes intestine problems. Another example of a sustainable farming practice which is hindered by traditional economics is providing proper space for each animal such as free range grazing. The more one can produce, the more one can profit. This notion allows individuals to cram groups of livestock in to small place for monetary gain. As we can see without any doubt that many sustainable and humane farming practices are compromised by the conventional law of supply and demand. For a meat market that is sustainable and humane to operate under the kind of BC argued here, the demand must respect the supply. Thus, the supply of meat products will adhere to the rules of sustainable and humane farming practices; the demand will need to conform and understand that this market deals with living things and that it cannot be treated the same as any other commercial trade.
Moving on, there are three major oppositions to this system of BC: 1) The pleasure of eating meat does not validate the right to eat it. 2) The life of an animals outweighs the need to kill it. 3) It is wrong to use a domesticated animal for the benefit of people.
Regarding the first counter argument, if all animals which eat meat derive pleasure from it, then are we to stop them if we were able to replace their diets with a meat-free one. It would seem absurd to regulate the diets of animals, yet this is the principle of the counter argument. A mouse has the same right not be killed by a snake as does a cow in the same situation with a farmer. It is worthy to mention though that morality does not extend to animals as they are not agents capable of ethical thinking. Yet if one were to adopt this counter argument, it would become their moral duty to replace all carnivore diets with non-meat ones. Does not the hunted have a right not to be killed by the hunter? As one can see, this counter argument would suggest that animals in nature are behaving immoral; but the reasonable person would say that morality does not extend toward animals because they work within a system which is instinctual and ecologically self-maintaining (nature). However, why cannot humans find their sustainable place in this ecological system, just like the animals have; it is wrong to assume that we are somehow cut off from this ecosystem. Yet this counter argument assumes that we are different; and the basis that we are different from other creatures, as stated before, is the ground for animal cruelty.
The problem of the second opposing claim is that it does not observe the tacit agreement between domesticated animals and the farmer. Our shortsightedness will mislead us to thinking that such a practice is equal to slavery. But the modern person is mostly aware of the benefits gained by the farmer and not by the domesticated animal. Contrasting the fight for survival which wild animals face everyday with the relative ease and comfort of living on a traditional farm (which practices sustainable and humane farming) it is easy to see how the latter is not worse off then the former. Sure, in the wild an animal retains its autonomy, but it deals with the lack of security that a domesticated animal has plenty of; thus, the creature gives up its independence for the security of living on a farm. Surveying a conventional farm, it can be said that those animals live in much better conditions (because of the access to food, shelter, and safety) then many of the people in the world who live on less then a dollar a day. With that said, we can view farms which practice the principles of BC not as a slavery plantation, but as a place which reflects an agreement between humans and animals.
The final counter point to BC holds a considerable dilemma. To illustrate, if we are to affirm that one life using another for its own gain is wrong as in the case of domesticated animals, then the same can be said for a cheetah which hunts antelope. The predator is using the prey for its own good. Although the cheetah acts on instinct, this fact does not challenge the notion that all life absorbs life; so what makes some life ok to absorb and others not? If humans are to consume meat according to the rules of BC, keeping in step with the balance of ecology, what reason is there against eating meat? If the cheetah has the right to enjoy its meat meal, humans should as well. Even though we lack the cheetah’s instinct that makes certain it keeps the eco-balance, we should not let that stop us from finding our own meat producing eco-niche. Understanding the ecological restrictions of our meat consumption can help us enjoy this pleasure while at the same time keeping true to eco-sustainability and humane values.
So far we have discussed the design of BC along with some of the contrasting issues. Lets move on to imagine the ramifications of outlawing meat products.
If hypothetically all industries producing meat goods were outlawed, where would the domesticated animals go? Well if they cannot be held captive anymore, then they would be released into the wild. Yet would this really be the best thing for them? Domesticated animals, through the process of artificial selection, have evolved to require a human counterpart for their survival. If these animals were sent on their own, it would be impossible for them to ward off predators or find food easily. This is because the animals eco-niche has become human care. So it would be in their best interests to remain on the farm, yet was not this slavery? This brings us back to the tacit agreement mentioned before. In other words, outlawing meat will not be beneficial for the domesticated animals themselves as they would be forced to survive on their own, where previously everything was handed to them.
Another consequence of outlawing the meat market would be the excessive use of plants. The demand for non-meat food will skyrocket, causing farmers to grow more plants. This will result in more widespread use of monoculture farming techniques. The problem with that is it goes against the plants natural defense strategy of variation. This will cause the use of stronger and stronger pesticides and/or genetically modified seeds which have unknown affects on health. Be it as it may that this is the case now, but with the outlawing of meat the problem will only get worse. Thus banning meat products will increase the likelihood of plants becoming detrimental to our health.
Finally the greatest negative outcome of prohibiting the eating of meat will be the black market which would be spawned. Visualize for a second the underground farms and how much worse the conditions will be then the factory farms. Just because something is outlawed does not mean the demand for it stops, the drug trade is a prime example. If the principle which the law is upholding is humane, then how would it be humane to allow profit driven individuals to now control the lives of illegally domesticated animals. If there is a demand along with people who are willing to make a fast buck, then the supply will come regardless of any legislative action.
All things considered, the outcome of the meat industry switching from a profit based incentive to sustainable humane ecological one will be more practical then the outright ban of meat products. Although the price of meat will rise dramatically, the imitation meat trade will become ever more sophisticated; thus resulting in meat like products that virtually taste like the real thing. Even cutting edge science could develop ways of growing meat in the lab on a Petri dish for example. Technology is one of the greatest gifts to humanity, allowing us to transcend the problems we face. So with the aid of innovative tools we could all enjoy our meat and care for it too.