Can We Eat the Animals To Whom We Grant Rights?

» August 20th, 2015

The phrase “animal rights” gets tossed around a lot these days. More often than not it’s mentioned in the context of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. But it really shouldn’t be—and those who reflect on the ethics of meat eating should understand why. Singer’s case against eating animals, influential as it is, never grants animals rights. It only acknowledges that sentient animals have morally significant interests and that, as a result, we should make decisions whereby the greatest good is achieved for the greatest number.

As I pointed out in my last column, the utilitarian calculus has two implications for meat eating. One, it makes eating meat sourced from agriculture pretty much a moral impossibility—the pleasure of taste can never outweigh the suffering of slaughter. Two, in its denial of inherent rights to animals, utilitarianism creates space for other forms of ethical meat consumption—so long as overall goodness is maximized (which, I argue, it can be).

Because of this latter loophole, “ethical vegans”—vegans who believe it’s always morally wrong to eat animals—often ditch Singer’s utilitarianism in favor of a rights-based approach to animal ethics. The defining text for this position is Tom Regan’s the Case for Animal Rights, an admirably readable and persuasive argument underscored by a key premise: Animals who are “the subject of a life” have intrinsic moral worth. That intrinsic moral worth grants to animals valid claims against being harmed. This includes, for starters, being killed and eaten for dinner by hungry humans.

Read more here.

7 Responses to Can We Eat the Animals To Whom We Grant Rights?

  1. Annie Leymarie says:

    Two points re your last posts: I agree to consider road kill for ethical meat, but – if it became legally possible – would we consider eating humans killed in accidents? If not, why not?
    As to your suggestion To “raise animals—preferably ruminants—on limited pasture with the utmost attention to their welfare (…), allow them to die a natural death, and then, and only then, consume them”.
    The trouble with ruminants is their huge contribution to climate change because of (mainly) methane emissions. The estimation made by two World Bank experts in a 2009 Worldwatch report that livestock farming contributes some 51% of all anthropogenic GHG emissions has never been seriously challenged. So by deliberately breeding ruminants we contribute significant harm to all life.
    I would go along with your idea but with poultry such as chicken, perhaps raised as ‘pets’, with some eggs taken away and, once dead from a natural death, chicken eaten (or fed to carnivore pets such as dogs if relevant).

    • James says:

      Also, more responsible and recent climate calculations have put the 51% figure closer to 14%, but your point still holds.

  2. James says:

    First, thank you for taking the proposals I present seriously rather than dismissing them on some dubious generalization. Second: eating humans. There would be nothing inherently wrong with doing so, although the vast majority would be put off by a natural disgust factor that has its roots in a quality unique to humans: we are the only species that can conceptualize death as the end of a continuum of life, and an event so unique that it can be symbolized through rituals. I know other animals practice some death rituals, but their is no real indication that they invest language-derived meaning in those acts.

  3. soren impey says:

    I expect “road kill” farming would essentially be a marginal luxury item. Freeganism for the rich? I also predict that “fermented” animal flesh (and possibly plant-based meat) will eventually be cheaper, tastier, and more sustainable.

    I’d like to see you expand on how these animals would die a “natural death”. Would animals receive palliative treatment? Rights-based vegans generally reject involuntary euthanasia but the idea of prolonging a painful death strikes me as very cruel.

    • soren impey says:

      I should emphasize that I personally already find plant-based meat to be cheaper, tastier, and more sustainable than animal-based meat. The above comment was my attempt to see this from the point of view of a steak-loving omnivore who craves animal-flesh even when good vegan options exist.

  4. Damodar says:

    For me (and perhaps others), the defining text on
    animal rights/animal liberation is Joan Dunayer’s book
    “Speciesism” (Ryce Publishing 2004).

    In Peace, Love, and Gratitude,

  5. Doug says:

    I have been rescuing horses, goats, and dogs, and have a few observations which I think would render the “natural death” scenario unworkable and extremely cruel.

    1. In my years of rescuing animals I have very rarely had an animal die a natural death. Almost all of my animals have been euthanized in order to prevent them from suffering. Allowing them to live until they died naturally would, in most cases, be a cruel thing to do. As I’m sure you know, chemical euthanasia renders the carcass inedible.

    2. As animals get older, they almost always lose a considerable amount of weight. Dental problems, digestive inefficiencies, and general loss of appetite contribute to this. Most carcasses of animals who died naturally would be emaciated and practically inedible.

    3. Transportation to a processing facility would be extremely difficult. Assuming that the animals died in the field where they lived, their carcasses would need to be winched onto a truck, taken to a processing facility and then somehow dragged into the facility to be processed. All the while, the carcass would be starting to decompose from lack of refrigeration. Field dressing would most likely be illegal.

    All in all, I think that this idea is no more ethical than any systems that we now are using.

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