Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Necessity and Animal Consumption

In a New York Times conversation, Gail Collins brings up the suffering of pigs on factory farms. Ross Douthat responds:

"I’m a unapologetic species-ist: I reject Peter Singer and all his works."

Since Douthat claims to be a speciesist, it is difficult to argue the morality of our treatment of animals with him.* I can, however, argue with his logic. He writes:

"I would leave a thousand pigs to die in conditions of absolute misery to save a single human infant."

OK, that’s what one would expect from a speciesist. However, how many pigs would Douthat let die for one human being’s pleasure? Because when we talk about animal consumption in the modern developed world, that’s what we’re talking about. Individuals don’t eat meat to survive, but because they think the flesh of dead animals tastes good. When we’re talking about animals consumption, we’re not measuring the life of an animal against the life of a human. We’re measuring the life of an animal against the pleasure of a human. If you choose to eat meat, your pleasure is more important to you than the life of an animal.

Douthat also claims to be "susceptible" to arguments like that of

"an American farmer, which defends modern agriculture on the grounds of human welfare: 'We have to farm "industrially,"' he writes, if we hope 'to feed the world.'"

According to Marc Bekoff in Animals Matter,

"It takes about 16 pounds of grain to make a pound of beef."

Bekoff also writes that

"it takes about nine acres of farmland a year to produce the meat that one person eats. By comparison, a person who does not eat meat can be supported by only half an acre necessary to grow plant food for a year. Twenty vegetarians could live for a year on the amount of grains needed to provide meat for just one meat eater!"

Even if you dispute Bekoff's specific numbers, you can recognize the logic: it doesn't make sense to use land and resources to create food to filter it through animals to create less food. If your concern is actually to feed the world, then it is more efficient to feed the world plants.

Douthat justifies poor treatment of animals on the grounds that human life is more valuable than animal life (or more specifically, that the value of human life is absolute and the value of animal life is not). His defense of poor treatment of animals is a familiar switch 'em change-o: instead of making an argument defending killing animals for pleasure, he makes an argument defending killing animals for necessity. In doing so, he hasn't actually addressed Collins' claim that

"We should channel some of our concern for dogs and cats toward factory farms that keep masses of animals in a state of permanent discomfort until they’re slaughtered."

He just thinks he has.

*Though I might ask a question about the morality of our treatment of other humans. Douthat writes

"I think that the value of animal lives is contingent and the value of human lives absolute."

Can a war supporter really claim that the value human life is absolute? War always makes life contingent, relative. The war supporter claims that one group of people or type of people can be killed for the sake of something else. There’s really no getting around this: the logic of war says that there are some reasons for which some people may be killed (and modern warfare often means the people being killed are civilians). Doesn't the claim that "the value of human lives is absolute" contradict the support of a war, which claims that there is sometimes reason enough to take human life (even the claim that killing in war will save other lives denies the absolute value of human life, because the lives of some are measured against the lives of others)?

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