Afternoon Inquisition

AI: When Ethics are at Steak

This recent article in The Atlantic takes a look at the mindset that enables farmers to raise and kill thousands of animals and still consider themselves happy.

It outlines how ranchers raise thousands of head of cattle “in a way that typifies industrial animal agriculture. Cows are numbered, not named. Animals don’t eat food, they convert feed. The ultimate goal couldn’t be more straightforward: raise cows as quickly, efficiently, and safely as possible; transform them into well-marbled cuts of beef; and, throughout the process, minimize inputs while maximizing outputs.” And it explores the idea that many people in the business have on the ethics of industrial agriculture; the idea that the cows they fattened and slaughter are “of no more moral worth than the iron grates that enclosed them.”

But what do you think, oh wise and wonderful Skepchick reader?

Could you do this type of job and be a “happy person”? Did working with animals in closer proximity, as was required before say 1850, have a different effect on the ethics of raising animals for food? Is the factory farming of animals ethically justified?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

Related Articles

75 Comments

  1. I think that as a skeptic, I would naturally question the assumption presented here – that a trade which involves slaughter would have an inherent moral quandary, therefore people who raise cattle cannot be happy. It smacks of agenda-driven reasoning.

    Now, I have been vegetarian at times, out of curiosity and the spirit of experimentation, but I never made a moral judgement about those who chose to eat or raise livestock. And I have hunted and raised, and yes, slaughtered and butchered my food. When you are living from day-to-day in a subsistence environment, you set aside precepts of higher morality and squeamishness, and matter-of-factly (and quickly and humanely as possible) butcher your chickens, rabbits, steers, and swine.

    We are an omnivorous species. The small length of our guts is an adaptation for digesting cooked food, including meat. We have been raising and slaughtering meat as ranchers and herders for tens of thousands of years. Now consider that it is a part of the human genius to naturally inflate our survival skills through technology and know-how. Factory farming is just an extension of one cultural thread, magnified to ridiculous proportions. Yes, there are brutal and inhumane aspects to the industry – but such day-to-day details have never stopped anyone in any business from experiencing personal happiness, whether you’re a knocker at the slaughterhouse, or a prison guard, or a mortician.

    I really question the logical reasoning of this post. If there is a point to it, it is for the poster to prove, and he hasn’t. Come on, let’s be rational and skeptical about everything, even against our own biases. I think factory farming has serious ethical concerns, but that those concerns would preclude happiness for its workers? That’s a fallacy so wide enough to drive a truck full of hamhocks through.

        1. The first poster questioned the reasoning behind the post, jtradke explained that reasoning. Read the posts. No where has anyone said that someone who disagrees with you is not taking part in the discussion. Irony; you has it.

  2. I don’t think it’s ethically justified. Farmers are human beings, which means they’re flawed like everyone else. They just believe that what they’re doing is right, and necessary. And to a point, it is necessary. But it doesn’t make their actions any less immoral. We have 4 billion cows and 8 billion chickens on this Earth because it’s needed to support our overpopulation.

    Some soldiers are happy, even though they ruin the lives of countless others. Mining and drilling CEO’s are happy, even though they destroy the land that thousands of people rely on for food and water.

    Right now, we are supporting an unsustainable population. And when the pressure reaches critical mass, it’s going to be the poor and working class who suffer.

    The best, and more ethical option, is to just buy free range.

    1. I am not sure they believe what they are doing is right. It is very difficult, emotionally, to rebel from within a system that protects you. It is scary. Robert Jay Lifton wrote about this in his book about the Nazi doctors. Many of them knew what they where doing was wrong, but they rationalised ways to stay in it. From the outside it looks insane, but as Upton Sinclair put it best “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

    2. Free range meat is much more expensive. Are you going to tell a welfare recipient that he is unethical because he buys the factory-farmed beef that he can afford instead of telling his children they have to go without to keep from making the cows unhappy?

        1. For the welfare recipient that lives in the inner city, getting any type of nutrient-dense food can be very difficult(if not impossible), whether it’s meat or vegetables. Most of the time the only food choices are fast food and convenience store snacks.

  3. No way could I do this job. However I think it would be even harder on a smaller scale farm, where you interact with the animals individually. The huge number of animal in a factory farm makes it easier to see them as a commodity rather than an individual animal. This is similar to the studies that show that the larger the tragedy the less empathy we feel.

    As a side note I am a voracious meat eater that is trying to become a vegetarian (and failing) due to being ethically unable to justify killing an animal for my food when there is no necessity and plenty of other options. Unfortunately I love meat, every single type.

  4. I catch, kill, filet and eat dozens of delicious fish in Florida every year. Of course, these are free range, wild fish and not the result of what may be environmentally problematic aqua-culture which I won’t buy, cook or eat as they never seem too healthy.

    I eat meat and I am willing to kill, in a humane fashion, anything I’m willing to eat. I was once near a feed lot in Colorado and the smell alone has kept me buying only grass fed, free range beef and pork since.

    I’m not sure about the ethics question. I think food from factory farms tastes less good but it is cheaper and may make it possible for more people to have access to high quality proteins.

  5. Couldn’t your turn the question around? How could farmers in the 1850s (or 1650s or 1250s)have been happy, moral people when they not only had to live very closely with the animals they raised, but actually had to slaughter them themselves? How could the act of killing animals be any less demoralizing than the act of raising them?

    I’ve known farmers, I’ve got farmers in my family. One thing you have to understand about farmers is that they don’t anthropomorphize animals. They raise animals for a reason, to be milked or shorn or eaten, and you’re not going to be a farmer if you get emotional over them. This is just as true for a dairy cow in a herd of 300 as it is of a prized hog that was hand fed and raised purely to be shown at the fair, much less a beef cow raised purely for eating.

    Here’s the story my father told me to explain it: When he was young he was out visiting his grandparents farm. One evening, his grandmother asked him which chicken he liked so he pointed out one that seemed the most friendly. She grabbed it, slaughtered it and cooked it up for supper. The idea that “like” implied emotional attachment to the animal never crossed her mind.

  6. “Could you do this type of job and be a “happy person”?”

    No. I wasn’t able to do telemarketing without feeling icky, I seriously doubt I could kill for a living.

    “Did working with animals in closer proximity, as was required before say 1850, have a different effect on the ethics of raising animals for food?”

    Never underestimate cognitive dissonance, plus you have a religion that explicitly gives the OK to do what you want with the animals. That probably gave some solace as it does now.

    “Is the factory farming of animals ethically justified?”

    I don’t think so.

  7. I have a question: do we treat other humans ethically because they are human or because they are sentient beings? I read a lot of science fiction as a child (still do), and it always seemed self-evident that sentient aliens or artificial intelligences would be due the same ethical considerations as humans. If it is not an intrinsic quality of humans that makes us worthy of consideration as individuals, but rather the quality of sentience or self-awareness, then we should treat other entities with self-awareness with the same ethical considerations we apply to humans. As a skeptic, I have always been unwilling to accept that H. sapiens is intrinsically different from other species, except in ways that can be measured. (I mean that the traditional view, of humans being in a separate class from all other species, is wrong; we are just one of many species of hominid that have evolved over the last 5 million years; we just happen to be the only one alive right now.) I think that, once you accept that humans have no special claim to being the paragon of creation, you have to find other criteria for determining how to treat other entities. A creature’s ability to feel pain, form social bonds, feel empathy, and demonstrate self-awareness seem to be reasonable criteria for determining how we treat that creature. Humans (I assume) all feel pain, desire, fear, longing, etc., like I do, so they deserve to be treated the way I would like to be treated. Horses, dogs, dolphins, and chimps clearly demonstrate social loyalty and some degree of self-awareness, and they are accorded more consideration than a cockroach or a frog. I think cows and pigs are clearly closer to horses or dogs than they are to insects, and should be treated better than inanimate objects or bugs. Fish are less self-aware, and causing pain to a fish is less morally troublesome than hurting a mammal.

    I’m a little confused by some of the other posters (such as TheGripester). Would there be accusations of agenda-driven reasoning if we substituted ‘cannibalism’ for ‘meat-eating’? I think it is a legitimate question. For example, here is one of TheGripesters paragraphs, fixed for people who judge cannibals for eating long pig:

    Now, I have been a non-cannibal at times, out of curiosity and the spirit of experimentation, but I never made a moral judgement about those who chose to eat or raise humans. And I have hunted and raised, and yes, slaughtered and butchered my family. When you are living from day-to-day in a subsistence environment, you set aside precepts of higher morality and squeamishness, and matter-of-factly (and quickly and humanely as possible) butcher your men, women, and children.

    Fixed.

    1. No, sorry, that is a rationally-retarded way of arguing. Replacing a word that you equate (“cannibalism” for “meat-eating”) in another’s text, and then using it to show a fallacy is in itself fallacious. You first have to prove logically that cannibalism equals meat-eating, and that animals are equal to humans legally and socially. You haven’t done that. With all due respect, you are arguing from a bias, and also insinuating, (despite all my statements to the contrary) that I somehow support factory farming. I don’t.

          1. (As a bystander: This thread looks like it’s heading down an unproductive pathway, both after “fixing” TheGripester’s post and then the response containing the word “retarded”.)

          2. I suppose it might to someone who doesn’t know that that the word “retarded” when placed after an adverb means “going backwards” – it does not in any way refer to a comparison of someone’s intelligence to that of someone who has a mental disability…which I would hardly do, having two relatives in such a condition.

  8. The first question, “Could you do this type of job and be a “happy person”?” can be answered empirically. I don’t doubt that the farmers (whatever that means in the context of factory farms) can self-report as happy, but I think it’s revealing to look at societal health indices that correlate with factory farming practices.

    Just looking at slaughterhouses:

    “Amy J. Fitzgerald has documented … the connection between animal violence and abuse as it relates to domestic abuse … in her recent sociology dissertation, “Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates, An Empirical Analysis of the Spillover From “The Jungle” Into the Surrounding Community.”

    Fitzgerald analyzed 581 rural counties in the study from 1994 to 2002, and found that counties with slaughterhouses “have higher arrest levels for sex offenses and more frequent reports of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson. This study also found that, compared with other industries, the slaughterhouse industry has a more significant effect on community crime rates.”

    Fitzgerald’s findings indicate what some call the existence of a “Sinclair effect” unique to the violent workplace of the slaughterhouse, a factor that has not previously been examined in the sociology of violence.

    Excerpted Data from Fitzgerald’s Report

    —> Only non-metropolitan counties not adjacent to metropolitan areas were analyzed, in order to remove the potentially confounding effects of urbanization and spillover from metropolitan areas to rural counties.

    —> The number of males in the county were ages 15-34.

    —> For every 4000 slaughterhouse employees there was a 2 percent increase in arrests.

    —> There was increased crime in communities where large slaughterhouses were recently opened to communities with smaller and older slaughterhouses.

    —> The control variables were grouped into three categories: demographic, social disorganization, and unemployment.

    —> This study cannot control for the possibility that work in slaughterhouses might attract people who are already predisposed to or involved in disruptive behavior and consequently that the work itself has not caused their anti-social behaviors. However, there is nothing in the literature on slaughterhouse workers to indicate that this is the case.”

    Article: http://blog.friendseat.com/link-between-slaughterhouses-and-crime

    Study: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://www.animalliberationfront.com/Practical/FactoryFarm/Slaughter/Slaughterhouses_and_Increased_Crime_Rates.pdf

    The large increases in domestic violence and child abuse are enough to plant me firmly in the “unethical” category, let alone the massive environmental impacts (http://bit.ly/12lhzQ), risks to our ability to use antibiotics (http://ind.pn/leiwY2), and the obvious injustice of killing sentient creatures when there are such easy alternatives. No one in the first world needs to eat meat to survive.

  9. I was raised rurally and had to slaughter chickens on a regular basis as a child. That means I held a chicken down a few times a week and chopped its head off with a machete, just to be clear.
    We also had goats which we ate, but we sent them to a butcher for slaughter as it is a lot more work to kill and clean a mid-sized mammal then a small bird.
    I know from experience that you do not name the animals you intend to eat.
    However, I do not think it is unethical to slaughter animals for food. We are omnivores and we eat meat. Get over it. It is no more unethical for me to eat meat than it is for a bear to eat meat.
    However, I think that hunting (which I do not do for the same reason that Ron White does not)is more ethical than factory farming as the animals have a chance to live in the wild first, but in either case, you are harvesting a crop.

    1. Tell me more about how you are so similar to a bear? Do you eat meat because it is the only option and without it you will die over the winter? Or do you eat it because like me when you walk into your supermarket that is the tastiest option?

      As human we have the ability to make moral decision we can think through the consequences of our actions and see that our choices can cause needles suffering to other species. Does a bear have the same capacity?

  10. Leaving aside the whole ethics of eating meat for a moment…

    I personally think that there’s a bit of an ethical dilemma whenever we systematize life. Whenever things are turned into simple systems designed for maximum efficiency. Like… the way corporations will regard their work force as “human resources” rather than as individuals. I think there’s something deeply disturbing about the way we design these linguistic barriers to the actual processes we’re engaging in… eating becoming “converting feed”, living creatures getting numbered, etc.

    If we’re going to be eating animals, we should at least have the dignity to acknowledge what we’re doing, right? And to not depersonalize it?

    Aside from the famers, how does it impact us, the consumer, when we cease to view our food as being life and connected to the world and ecosystem? What does it do to our internal lives and our way of viewing the world and our place in it when we’re simply eating these unidentifiable burgers that may have come from a dozen different cows? What does it mean to mentally distance ourselves from our physical situation that much?

    I’m not sure that last bit is an ethical concern so much as an existential one… and I’m probably sounding rather scatter-brained and loopy? But I guess I’m just trying to get at how much the way we treat life processes as nothing more than systems gives me the heebie-jeebies. I think it deprives us of something very important about being alive and what that means.

    But we are a HUGE population. A huge hungry population. People need to eat, and we can no longer all be fed by small, non-industrial farms where all the cows are personally raised and get names. So…ethically speaking? I’d rather that our farming be industrialized than that people starve (though I know that might be a bit of a false dichotomy there).

    But I guess I’d just feel a whole lot better about it if we were to not so deliberately and so casually conceptually remove ourselves from what’s going on. I’d feel better about it if people didn’t willfully remain ignorant to what it is they’re putting in their bodies. I’d feel better if people didn’t shut their eyes and cover their ears whenever anyone starts talking about where the hot dogs come from.

    I hope this rambly crazy scattered post makes at least a little sense. Sorry for not better articulating my thoughts.

      1. I’m not asking to be dense but were did you get that figure? I hear it all the time but have never seen a source, but then I hear that humans only use 10% of their brains all the time too. I know the latter is false, I would like to know the validity of the former.

        1. Yeah, I’ve heard the number lots. Before I wrote that I lazily checked if Wikipedia backed me up (from Vegetarianism):

          “According to the theory of trophic dynamics, it requires 10 times as many crops to feed animals being bred for meat production as it would to feed the same number of people on a vegetarian diet. Currently, 70% of all the wheat, corn and other grain produced is fed to farmed animals.[184]”

          Hum, the cite leads to this (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,992523-1,00.html) article in Time Magazine, which doesn’t state it. It does say

          “…in the U.S., 70% of all the wheat, corn and other grain produced goes to feeding herds of livestock.”

          and these kinds of numbers aren’t hard to find. Raising grain-fed cattle wastes the land – which could be used to grow human-food – by growing cow-food. The cite above that one (http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Aug97/livestock.hrs.html), a press release from Cornell, 1997, states

          “Animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than production of plant protein while yielding animal protein that is only 1.4 times more nutritious for humans than the comparable amount of plant protein, according to the Cornell ecologist’s analysis.”.

          We, as a country, used to eat meat a few times a week, sixty years ago. Now my friends eat meat twice a day…

  11. All I know for sure is that bacon tastes awesome, and a good steak isn’t far behind. Could I be happy running the slaughterhouse? I’m not sure that’s even remotely a valid question, since I can imagine hundreds of jobs that would make me unhappy, and some of them are absolutely vital jobs with little or no ethical quandaries attached. Yet, I am so fundamentally ill-suited for those jobs that they would make me miserable.

    I tend to view people who view food issues in very detached and philosophical ways as being extremely privileged and I automatically feel a bit of contempt. I’ll eat anything if I need to, but that’s because I’ve spent years of my life going to bed hungry and waking up hungry and eating a school lunch and still being hungry. A few years of that, and you’re maybe not opposed to eating horse and badger and cat if they cook it right.

    1. As the environment changes so do the ethics of an action. If i need to eat to avoid starvation i will eat anything.

      Luckily for me I have never been in this situation. I also suspect the majority of people reading this blog are not in that position. Hence why most people would balk if asked to eat “horse and badger and cat”.

      When you have the luxury of choice the question becomes. “Do i want to eat something that involves killing an animal because its tasty and a slightly easier way to aquire the protien and B vitamins. Or do i go for an option that may be less tasty but does not involve killing an animal.”

      1. You’re not considering the people who work in those jobs. Don’t they have a need to make a living and feed themselves? I know most of the people who post online are super-privileged people who get to choose their careers and diets, but that’s not nearly everyone. Ethics is always about weighing pros and cons, and MOST people need calories and cash more or less however they can get them.

        1. I think we are largely arguing past each other. I have really being ignoring the main thrust of the article, (About the people working the jobs.) I know that people will take what work they can get, especially in tough times.

          My girlfriend even spent some time caring for animals in an abattoir as part of her large animal work experience to get into vet school. She hated it but at least the place she worked seemed to be very well run.

          Where we disagree is you seem to be equating vegetarianism with rich white people. And while I don’t disagree there does seem to be a fad of people becoming vegetarian because it is in style, I do disagree that it is a more expensive way of living or that it is somehow elitist to make an ethical decision on what you decide to eat.

          1. The thrust of ImprobableJoe’s statement above about people needing jobs in abattoirs could be applied to anyone working in any unethical industry. My dollar, so I choose where it goes. It’s not like I’m magically creating less demand for food, I’m just choosing that the demand I shall create shall be for vegetarian food.

          2. And eating vegetarian is *incredibly* cheap, so don’t spout guff about poor families being unable to afford it. The time investment, maybe – although I get by on pasta most nights, with a varying accompaniment.

  12. Wow. Quite the loaded question.

    I consider the treatment of animals to be an ethical issue. I do not, however, consider the consumption of animals to be ethically unsound. These are not, in my mind, contradictory opinions. The line has to be drawn somewhere, it’s arbitrary as hell, and I’ve chosen to draw it around us and no one else. If I decide to include another species, or even other individuals, that’s my call, but I’ve yet to find any good rule of thumb for what I should and should not consider off limits.

    And … not eating meat doesn’t mean sparing lives. I grew up in a rural area, next to my grandparents’ farm. There’s a reason for why when a tractor tills a field or mows the hay, it’s shadowed by coyotes and flocks of gulls.

    Having said that … would I, personally, slaughter my own food? Hell no. But if I’d been raised as part of my grandparent’s generation, it would have been a way of life. And I’m sure I’d still be happy, just as they were.

    1. Agree to a degree; the whole moral issue is around how we should treat animals raised and bread specially for the purpose of becoming our food.

      ‘Could you do this type of job and be a “happy person”? ‘
      No, under the existing conditions.
      (for the record, i slew some chickens some time ago. It requires a straight hand)
      ‘Did working with animals in closer proximity, as was required before say 1850, have a different effect on the ethics of raising animals for food?’
      Yes. It would make them more in line with humanist morals.
      ‘Is the factory farming of animals ethically justified?’
      Yes.
      Morally, not. At least not for most people knowing the realities of industrial meat ‘production’.

      Ethics of farming should follow the morality of most individuals, which it doesn’t.

  13. Personally, I would not be willing to kill an animal and prepare it to eat, therefore, I do not eat meat since I have the choice not to.

    It doesn’t bother me that other people eat meat, except for the people who are vocal about how they don’t like eating meat that still looks like the animal it came from (e.g., a roasted chicken). If it bothers you that much, it’s pretty crappy of you to use grocery store packaging to ignore the issue of what you are doing.

    Also oysters. It’s super gross to watch people eat oysters.

  14. I have to say so far I see a lot of terrible fallacious arguments from people trying to justify why its ok that they eat meat.

    I guess as skeptics we know that this is what people do to protect their own beliefs and actions. However I would have hoped the people here would be a bit more open to investigating the motives behind their actions.

    I eat meat because I love it. There is nothing that I crave like I crave meat. I can’t justify choosing meat when I could choose any number of other things to get the nutrition I need. Yet if the choice was not pre-packaged meat but a pig I had to slaughter, there is no way I could do it.

    Now I’m not saying you can’t justify eating meat. It’s easy in fact. You just have to admit that the personal pleasure you derive from eating meat is worth the life of that animal to you.

    1. Funny, because I see a lot of people avoiding the basic, outrageously irrational proposition that a meat industry worker is somehow incapable of happiness because of an ethical dilemma. Nobody has argued that notion successfully, yet many here have taken statements of dissent as being in support of meat-eating.

      If you want to talk about fallacies, there’s the biggest one on the page, a huge rotten-tomato splat of a fallacy. There are two separate issues – whether meat-eating or ranchery is ethical, and whether meat industry workers are capable of happiness. And the hugest fallacy of all is to assume that because one a). disapproves of meat-eating, and yet b). has no personal experience with rural life, that they are able to confidently judge the happiness quotient of a rancher. Get real.

      1. I agree and if you notice I have never argued that someone who works in the industry would be incapable of happiness . That is a stupid proposition because a) some people just wouldn’t be effected by it and b) some people take pleasure in killing things.

    2. Actually I agree. I do not think there is any absolute standard of ethics and everything is a trade off. I eat meat because I like it and the combination of pleasure and nutrition I get from it is worth the cost of having an animal killed or killing it myself if I have to. I think this sort of trade-off probably applies to other ethical considerations.

  15. I think many of you have missed a fairly basic fact of life for livestock farmers – they don’t kill animals themselves. They raise animals with whatever degree of contact they feel comfortable with, then one day they load them onto a truck and the animals go away. Shortly afterwards money arrives. There is no killing involved.

    The slaughterhouses, on the other hand, are killing factories. In the USA, they’re often staffed by immigrants on low wages with poor working conditions. And high injury and death rates. For those workers it’s a very unpleasant, and I doubt many of them are happy. As mentioned above, those slaughterhouses are usually in lower socio-economic ares, generally selected for their easily-bribed local governments and ready access to a pool of disadvantaged workers. Yup, it’s class warfare, USA style.

  16. I grew up on a small farm that fattened cattle for the local abattoir, and the only animals we ever killed were ones we raised especially for that purpose. We had pigs, chickens, cats and dogs. The latter mostly roamed about killing anything they could get hold of, while the former were raised, killed then eaten. Butchering a whole cow is a lot of physical labour and we only did that once. You get several hundred kilograms of beef out of a cow, and it starts as one piece – cutting it up, bagging it and freezing it is nontrivial. You need quite a lot of space and a large freezer, or a lot of friends who definitely will turn up that day to collect their share of the meat.

    In terms of personal happiness, living like that was great. I had a lot of personal freedom and space to do whatever random kid stuff I wanted, with minimal supervision. Killing animals was uncomfortable, and in a fairly distinctive way, I can’t liken it to anything else I’ve done. On the relatively rare occasions when I eat meat, I would much rather eat an animal that I’ve raised and killed myself than some anonymous meat machine produced in an unknown factory. That seems more ethical to me.

    My personal ethics have moved slowly to a position that is a long way from the dominant culture, largely on what are considered environmental issues. I don’t think it’s reasonable to eat meat, just because of the environmental cost of doing so. The actual killing is almost irrelevant, although I do think that if you can’t kill it yourself you shouldn’t be eating it.

  17. Hmm. There are very few people commenting here who have actually lived on a farm or that have worked with farmers. So let’s open a can of worms, shall we?

    That article is profoundly flawed; you can have meat production without it being “factory” farming. Same for dairy or poultry. There are many, many different ways to grow a cow or a chicken.

    The dairy farmers I worked with (and on our farm) know their cows intimately; not just because they stick their arms up her hooha regularly to inseminate her, but because they raised each one of the “ladies” from birth to putting them on the truck for slaughter when they are no longer healthy or unable to give milk.

    The best way I’ve heard it described is that cows are athletes; they have a job to do, and when they can no longer perform at the top of their game, they retire. And get eaten. (or landfilled/incinerated, if they are seriously ill)
    Animals on farms are working, even if their job is to simply gain weight so we can eat them. We have inbred them to the point that they are unable to really function without us.

    Temple Grandin has really done a lot of work in animal science and pushing forward a clear ethical duty toward animals that feed us:
    http://www.grandin.com/welfare/intro.welfare.html
    My favorite quote from her is: “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.”

    I was the official “fixer” at my former job for a period of about a year when we were between employees. I had to put down chickens, a snake, and some other animals that were either very sick, or were injured so badly they could not recover. I remember each death.
    It was absolutely the right thing to do.
    And I don’t have any regrets, other than I wish I had been more skilled/practiced.

    I would like to see more deer hunting, and maybe even mute swan hunting, with the meat shared to food banks if it isn’t used by the hunters. The hunters I know take great pride in killing with a single shot, and giving an animal a “good death.”
    It’s the ultimate eat local.

    I think that some of the issues in slaughter houses have less to do with the animal deaths and more to do with the automation, speed, and industrial way the human employees are treated. It’s a shitty job for shitty pay and shitty conditions. And it’s the way it is because we want our food fast and cheap.

    Also, vegetarians, make sure you pay as much attention to the conditions of the migrant laborer that harvests your fruit and veg as you do to beef/chickens. Both are worthy of scrutiny.

    1. I think you hit it with “we want our food fast and cheap”. Organic, free range meat is less problematic, and it’s much more expensive.

      In Australia we have far fewer migrant workers on farms, what we have is industrialised agriculture where cost is the only thing that matters (we have two supermarket chains here and they set prices. Guess who wins?). But again, if you can afford to buy your way out of that problem it works quite well. I think it’s telling that our local organic market is open bankers hours, and not every day (1000-1600, Wed, Thu, Sat). And if you have a large, fertile back yard plus the spare time and money to invest in it you can grow some of your own veges.

      So, ethically, is it better to take a high-paying job that exploits other workers and damages society in order to eat more ethically, or to take an ethical job that means you can only afford less ethically produced food? The tradeoffs are many and varied.

    2. Thanks, bug_girl, for your usually sane, experienced, and reasoned perspective. The hunters I have lived with all believed thusly – to kill their game with a single shot, instantly. The primary reason was to be humane, but there was also a selfish motive – game that was filled with adrenaline from fear and flight responses tasted wrong…at least that from deer and other large game.

      I also want to say that I have lived on and visited cattle ranches large and small, and in almost every case the ranchers took care of their stock with concern, wisdom, and humanity. They ensured that the animal would have the best possible life before being slaughtered. And a good deal of these ranchers opposed the feedlot system, where the cows gorge on meal and have to be injected with antibiotics as they stand knee-deep in their own waste. I think you could cut the cost of misery to these animals by 99% just by eliminating this abusive, unhealthy process and going back to lean, grass-fed beef.

      Having said all that, I still don’t particularly approve of the meat industry or the high proportion of red meat in American diets. But that is just the way it is now – if we set aside our biases and just look at the problem rationally, we’ll have more control over the argument when it’s our turn at the megaphone.

    3. @bug_girl – I really liked your post. It’s pretty close to how I feel about things. I grew up on a farm, and we raised cows for food as well as for dairy, and we raised chickens for food as well. We did hunt (and my family still does, even though we no longer raise cattle or chickens for food) and the clean kill was incredibly important. That’s why being a good shot as a hunter is important! Once my dad had to “finish” a deer after a missed shot, and he said it was one of the most awful experiences ever. Not because he was killing the deer, but because it had to suffer.

      I DID have named animals that were slaughtered. A rooster named “Outlaw” I killed myself – we had a family dinner coming up, and the rooster had torn up my face and arms. I wasn’t so sad about that because I hated it. I felt guilty afterwards, though, not because I had killed it but because I had felt justified – I think I was around 8 years old, and I knew it was going to die either way, but I felt like I shouldn’t have been pleased to be the one that did it. It wasn’t respectful.

      Steers that we had named – my family called them Ham and Burger, but I knew one of them as Brownie and had trained him to hug me and let me ride him. I wasn’t there the weekend he was butchered (my dad did it to be kind – I was maybe 10 or 11), but I knew it was going to happen eventually.

      Was I sad? Yes. Did I appreciate having food to eat for the rest of the winter? Most certainly. We lived on not a lot of money, so we got a lot of food at home, and in Pennsylvania when you don’t have a lot of money, if you have a bad season with veggies, you end up with corn and beans. Not enough to get the nutrients you need. So you eat beef or venison.

      There are a lot of movements to make slaughtering more “ethical” (I’m not sure what word would be more appropriate… it’s more of “less painful and stress inducing for animals”), including redesigns for slaughtering aisles – a woman designed a path that cows will follow willingly to go up to the box where they’re bolted. Which, from what they have studied, is a pretty painless death.

      There are types of slaughtering I do find issue with, but I think the real thing is that these animals have a purpose. They were specifically bred for this purpose, and while I do agree that reducing the amount of meat eaten can be beneficial, I think that it’s still one of the best ways to get nutrients (in moderation!). What would happen if we just stopped eating meat? What would happen to the cows? I have always wondered about that (I’m sure there’s a study somewhere).

      You said:
      “I would like to see more deer hunting, and maybe even mute swan hunting, with the meat shared to food banks if it isn’t used by the hunters.”

      From what I know, locally to where my parents are, this is not allowed. No hunted animals or home-canned foods. It’s super unfortunate, because there’s a wealth of deer (as in, too many – they cause probably a hundred car accidents a year) in the area.

      I admit I don’t go out of my way to justify it. I know that when I eat meat in moderation, I feel far better than when I just eat fruit and veggies.

      tl;dr

  18. BTW, I use the word “hooha” instead of vagina because it amuses me, not because I’m concerned about anyone’s fragile sensibilities.

    I also realized I could have summarized that long comment with a facebook status:

    “Relationship between humans and food animals: it’s complicated.”

  19. Sorry, I just think they taste good and I’m glad that someone else has to do the dirty work.

    I’ve seen videos of factory farms and videos from a family run farm; the family farm definitely looked a lot nicer and as they explained exactly what they were doing, they did seem to really care about the animal. But it was also a lot slower so I don’t know if that method would feed the masses.

    In the end, both of them made meat so there’s really no difference to the cow. As long as they are sanitary, I’m good.

  20. Right now seems like the best/worst/best again time to bring up my personal slogan, the epitaph on my tombstone, the phrase that pays…

    “There’s good eating on a fetus!”

    Its my answer to vegans/vegetarians, AND my answer to anti-abortion activists. If human fetus were yummy, abortion would be respected, and the product would be a delicacy. And I swear that I’m at least 49.9% serious when I say that I believe that a not-insignificant percentage of rich white privileged asshat hipsters would switch from trendy veggie diets to trendy fetus-based diets. Organic and locally-gestated, of course.

  21. I don’t have time to read all the comments, but as a person who grew up on a farm, and still has family who own very large farms, I have never, ever, heard anyone say animals “convert” instead of feeding. It made me laugh. Also never been on a farm where there are no named animals. I’ve been on hundreds. I’ve also eaten a cow that I personally raised, took care of, and named.
    I gave it a good life, and she in turn provided some good meat.
    We’re all very well aware that they get turned into food. Some animals do get named. Maybe it’s different in the States. I know Americans tend to be a little more crazy in general. I would avoid American dairy, just because I know their laws are not as strict as Canada. Canadian milk is basically ‘organic’, labelled or not.
    I just think there is a huge disconnect between where food comes from, and the average person. If people want to choose to become vegetarians, then that’s totally awesome. Farmers will grow whatever you pay them to. If you want cheap meat, milk, and eggs, then that’s another story. My family that has the big farms, they love the idea of people growing their own food on little farms. My family history had people starve, so food security is always in the back round.
    We need to change our farming practices in some areas, but we have to have industrial farming. Unless someone else knows how to feed the 10 billion people of the future on less food…

  22. I think when it comes to emotionally charged discussions like this it is very easy to remember that almost everything we do involves an ethical trade-off of one sort of another.

    If you use electricity you have to know that you are contributing in one way or another to the degradation of the environment, if you drive you are in some way adding to pollution, and if you eat meat you have to deal with the fact that most food animals lead short and brutal lives, that food workers are underpaid for dangerous and back-breaking work, and the animals that we eat now did not exist only 50 years ago because of increasing mono-culture; where you draw that line is personal and the only thing that bothers me is when someone decides that another person’s ethical line is in the wrong place.

  23. I agree with @mrmisconception that there are always ethical trade offs, the omnivore’s dilemma so to speak. But when it comes to the difference between factory farmed meat, and rice and beans for supper, it is no longer fuzzy what the more ethical choice is, is it?

    The grey area is in hunted, or smaller scale farmed meat, but what % is that? Probably so small that it is negligible, and it is difficult to scale it, so it is unlikely to feed everyone and become a large %.

    Quick thought experiment:
    If we could grow meat in labs, and it was equivalent or better than what we could currently farm, would buying farmed meat be ethical? (assuming the workers who produced the meat where treated ethically etc.)

  24. Could you do this type of job and be a “happy person”?

    Depends. In a regulated industry where the physical health of the cattle is prioritized I could, even if the cows were numbered and the industry argument for a health focus was increased production and quality.

    Did working with animals in closer proximity, as was required before say 1850, have a different effect on the ethics of raising animals for food?

    Possibly, but I don’t think there’s as simple a correlation as that. Some people have always considered their animals, or even servants and family members, property to do with as they would. Working in closer proximity to them made no difference. Personally I’ve raised rabbits for food, and the only reason I didn’t eat the named ones was that they were much older animals and there was more than enough younger and tenderer meat.

    Is the factory farming of animals ethically justified?

    I think we should do our best to keep animals healthy until we kill them. If we do I do not have a moral problem with any kind* of farming. I can understand those who draw the line elsewhere, but in my book killing animals for food isn’t wrong.

    *I.e. I can’t think of any problems now. Feel free to prove me wrong.

  25. I have friends who raise pigs and cattle (which I’ve owned a portion of) for their own meat and they name the animals and treat them respectfully and make sure their end is quick and immediate. As for farmers I’m constantly amazed at the ignorance of the general population as to what constitutes good farming/business practice. Farmers (non-organic) try as hard as they can to use as few chemicals, pesticides and drugs as possible because they know excess hurts business and any more than the minimum necessary costs them money. Also anxious and poorly treated animals are harder to manage and don’t grow and reproduce as well which costs money, especially with dairy cows. And as for the mental health of the farmers and ranchers I’ve met, they all seemed pretty happy when their business was going well and anxious when it wasn’t, same as most folk. And as for those who work in slaughter houses I’d have to say I’m fairly ignorant and could only guess that the ethics of killing animals and processing meat is not likely an employment consideration or moral dilemma for most. The most recent “No Reservations” Anthony Bourdain show is all about a community party that starts with the killing of a pig and all the dishes everyone makes during the day leading up to a feast. I personally think that should happen more often so everyone knows where there food comes from. And if I had property in the country I’d probably raise chickens and pigs and would have no problem doing the slaughtering myself.

    Mining, logging, sawmills, refinery/chemical processing, trucking/transportation, waste management, metal fabrication, car & truck manufacturing, commercial fishing, wholesale warehouse work, construction, and crop farming are all much more dangerous occupations than working in a slaughterhouse. And many more people die while working in grocery stores and gas stations than in meat packing, yet we never hear arguments that these are evil unethical businesses because of these statistics. I always find some perspective always helps in these discussions and we should all realize that the manual labor and blue color jobs that are necessary for our standard of living are often dangerous and miserable occupations.
    http://stats.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cftb0250.pdf

  26. * Could you do this type of job and be a “happy person”? *

    Yes. I do do this type of job. And the job does not contribute in any way to unhappiness, in fact, quite to the contrary, unhappiness often arises from outside the farm and outside of our immersion in the cycle of life and death, the interdependence of plants, animals, micro-organisms and ourselves.

    *Did working with animals in closer proximity, as was required before say 1850, have a different effect on the ethics of raising animals for food?*

    Possibly. I wouldn’t like to posit without evidence that prior to 1850 there was some universal experience that is now lacking.

    But certainly, working in close proximity with animals, plants, soil, and the abundant micro-life web that inhabits and unites all these, places the raising of animals, including sometimes for food, into a bigger context.

    Perhaps not the most important aspect of that wider context, but an aspect, is the fact that I myself fully expect to become food upon the conclusion of my own life.

    Because, it turns out, everything kills, everything eats – plants eat animals and other plants, animals eat plants and other animals, micro-critters eat everything – and, importantly help feed everything. Death, and being eaten (when micro-critters do it we call it decay, but it is still being eaten), are absolute essentials without which life simply can’t happen. It is the ultimate destiny of every living thing, including me.

    To farm for bio-diversity and for soil building, taking only one’s fair share of every harvest, so that all the other critters in your ecosystem can do the same, is to know this.

    Can anyone realistically propose a way for living things NOT to die and be eaten, that doesn’t perform a robbery on the whole cycle of life?

    *Is the factory farming of animals ethically justified? *

    Absolutely NOT! Divorcing ruminants from their millions-of-year-old tight ecological relationship with grass is cruel, biocidal and suicidal:
    1) it is cruel to the animals, as it prevents them living out their lives in accordance with their own nature and divorces them from their natural ecological relationships with grasslands, insects, insect-eaters, and other bio-partners, including their own bacterial digestive complements.
    2) it wrecks the grasslands themselves, as lack of regular grazing in conditions of low rainfall is nearly guaranteed to turn them into desert (a phenomena very visible in many parts of Texas, I might add)
    3) or worse, it clears animals off grasslands only to allow them to be converted to soil-wrecking, biocidal grain mono-cropping
    4)it robs the soil and the soil biota of the continual refreshment of ruminant biological “waste” turning an essential biological resource into a toxic waste instead
    5) it relies on the feeding of grains to ruminants, which is not healthy for the animals (it totally transforms the bacterial contents of their digestive tracts and makes them sick)
    6) it is ultimately suicidal. Factory farms are, in the end, only a side effect and symptom of our increasing dependence on grains for food (and for international political dominance) Our reliance on grains and on grain-fed meat for food, destroys the very soil, rivers and ecosystems on which we will always rely for our lives. Like I said, suicidal.

  27. Wow! Good stuff!

    If I haven’t commented, it does not mean I’m not reading and following the discussion.

    Thanks, everyone for contributing thoughtful and civil replies.

    I’m particularly pleased to get input from people like Bug Girl and scotlyn. Living in Texas, I have passing experiences with cattle ranches and chicken farms (my great uncle was a supplier for the Golden Fried, Church’s, and Popeye’s chains for many years), but I’ve never really lived or worked for an extended amount of time in such an environment. So an “insider’s” views are appreciated.

  28. Vegetables are living things as well. Those folks who put on a cloak of superiority because they don’t eat animal products are all still killers. They kill plants indiscriminately, but go on among us decent people as if they are not wanton killers. The only morally defensible option is to consume edible proteins and other nutrients from non-living sources. Those kale-killing “vegan” jerks are an abomination. Look up phototropism or thigmothropism you plant-hating fiends.

  29. Speaking on farming factory and happiness:

    working in any environment that is a factory conveyor-belt hyper industrialized (efficient), faceless, low wage scenario could never be rationally claimed as an environment that makes people happy. our systems create these jobs to maximise profit over dignity. This is our human culture as defined by the powers that be, and generally embraced by the majority.

    i don’t actually think chopping and killing animals matters much in that equation. people are very capable of detaching themselves from “awful” work. its rather going to be the fact of a low wage, no appreciation and a work routine that is the exact same everyday that makes people depressed (though i suspect a bloody environment probably makes it worse)?

    to kill animals and/or eat them is an entirely different issue. i think.

  30. Okay, I’m going to be outspoken here, but basically, I think everyone is missing the point that these animals are KILLED.

    Put yourselves in their shoes for a moment, you’re on an alien planet, you were born for meat. You’re kept pregnant in a field with other humans and when you get too old to produce milk, they put a bullet in your head. Meanwhile, all your baby boys are killed anywhere from 5-18 years old and your girls are destined to suffer constant impregnation until there’s something wrong with them, at which point they’re killed.

    Sound fucking horrible doesn’t it? Well, IT IS. Even if you’ve “lived on a farm” or “killed a chicken” that animal died when it didn’t want to.

    So I personally have an ethical dilemma with eating meat products and keep strict vegan. And yes, contrary to the hooplah about that being “so unhealthy” I’m VERY healthy.

    The key thing here is that we’re elevating our importance above animals, and I think that’s wrong. For indigenous cultures that need to survive on it that’s fine, but I’m pretty sure most people here came from an upper middle class upbringing and have had little problem with food security in their lives.

    It honestly makes me laugh how we can debate how oppressed a woman is when she’s hit on in an elevator, but can smile and put meat that came from a concentration camp in our mouths. Not that I don’t agree with feminism, but I just think it’s hypocritical to turn around and oppress other living things.

    Also, most of us don’t eat free range meat as we so eagerly profess here, most of what we what we eat is concentration camp meat.

    If you have any doubts, see below:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNu6sY2duAY

    My taste for meat is simply not worth that type of suffering.

Leave a Reply

You May Also Enjoy

Close
Close