Pragmatic welfare policies for farmed animals – important, but is the very idea a red herring?

farm-welfare-bannerRecently I was sent a link to an article written by Temple Grandin in which she discusses the need for practical approaches to developing policies for animal welfare in livestock farming. Temple is an American professor of animal science at Colorado State University, world-renowned autism spokesperson and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behaviour.

I found this article quite interesting and agree with much that she says. However, I can’t help feeling that Temple has fallen into a trap that the vast majority of people fall into. That trap is quite simply the belief that human beings in modern societies such as the US, Europe and Australia MUST eat animals for health and nutrition. As a result, Temple’s ideas and philosophy are heavily influenced by that particular point of view. The question I would ask of her is whether she would reconsider her views were she to adopt the notion that we do NOT have to eat animals for health and nutrition. After all, it is a pretty well established fact now that humans can indeed live on a plant based diet AND that heavily meat leaning diets can pose risks to health.

Temple states early in this article that it is highly likely that farmed animals are conscious experiencing beings. If as Temple notes animals can suffer, and animals such as pigs and cows and sheep etc are intelligent, it seems to me to be very difficult to argue that we should kill them in large numbers without good reason. And the science is pretty clear on this – animals experience sensations such as pain, they have emotions, they can experience physical responses to stresses and negative as well as positive experiences and so on. In short, they are just like us in terms of the lived experience.

My proposition then is that when we know that humans don’t need to eat animals for sustenance and we also know that farmed animals are intelligent, experiencing beings that can suffer, surely it is the moral issue that becomes the deciding factor in whether or not we choose to eat them?

We believe ourselves to stand apart from other animals by virtue of our capacity to make reasoned choices and to practice moral behaviours. As far as I can see from both common sense grounds as well as observing the development of moral ideas over thousands of years, we should believe that our first duty is to do more good than harm. It’s why Jesus is claimed to have said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

Thus as moral agents we should have a charge of responsibility when it comes to dealing with intelligent, sentient and experiencing beings such as farmed animals. I suggest that when it comes to using animals for food and other products, we should do so as little as possible, only for the right reasons, and with the least suffering. In the modern livestock industry, we do the exact opposite. We do it as much as possible and seek to do more of it, we do it for all the wrong reasons, and we often cause far more suffering than need be.

Temple believes that we can ethically farm animals for food and that is probably true within the context I’ve outlined above, but I think a moral distinction also needs to be made when it comes to what we mean by “food”. As I’ve argued before, in Australia at least we have transformed eating into an entertainment. Much of our food consumption is for fun – Australians consume a lot of food simply for the pleasure it brings. Taste trumps everything.

There appear to be two opposing tensions here – on the one hand, as moral agents we should seek to limit harm to others as much as possible. If we must eat animals, then do so only as needed. Yet on the other hand, we have made eating a pleasure and a source of profit. The industry seeks to encourage people to eat as much as possible with no discrimination about what, how and when, or in what quantity.

Temple seems not to grasp this simple fact. When we turn the breeding and killing of other sentient beings into a mass production system to service the greed and gluttony of self-indulgence, I suggest we have well and truly crossed the moral divide. Temple isn’t participating in a thoughtful, welfare conscious process for feeding humans whilst limiting harm. She is in fact helping an industry that causes massive harm for little more than profits.

Simply put, our modern food industry isn’t a machine for good. It is a machine for bad. And that is the very basis for moral evaluation – morals are simply the distinction of good from bad. Which means that the modern food industry is immoral.

Temple goes on to attempt to establish some kind of gradient for moral value based on intelligence. Yet this seems to me to be rather arbitrary if not entirely self-indulgent – after all, the very yardstick for measurement is a human derived idea of “intelligence”. We establish the moral worth of animals according to an entirely human value system.

Why use intelligence? Intelligence really is neither here nor there. We have great intelligence and yet when we consider how we’ve applied it, we have done almost nothing of true worth. We have simply proven to be more fit in selective terms. No better than dinosaurs, and arguably far worse because in little more than one quarter of a million years we’ve brought the planet to brink of extinction. Dinosaurs ruled for several hundred million years without ruining the planet.

Given science tells us – as even Temple admits – that such creatures as cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens and perhaps fish appear to have the capacity to suffer, might this not be a more suitable measure of moral worth? After all, if a pig and a chicken can suffer equally, why discriminate because one performs better at human designed cognitive tests? I think this stance of Temple’s rests on solid ground pragmatically, but her choice of moral measurement seems weak and more designed to meet her own desire/need to eat animals while maintaining moral redemption. Simply put, she’s wrong and she knows it, but like most of us she will rationalise that away.

Finally, I’d like to highlight another weakness in Temple’s argument that I’ve previously touched upon. The old “nature versus farm” chestnut. This one suffers from a logical inequivalence.

Temple says “When animal issues are being discussed, people often forget that nature can be harsh. Predators kill other animals, and they may die a painful, lingering death. Storms and droughts can cause many wild animals to die. Much suffering occurs in the natural world”.

This is a misdirection. It matters not how animals might live in the wild because, as I’ve observed before, not one of these animals ever will, nor ever would have, existed in the wild. It’s like suggesting that harming a human being is fine, because worse harms have happened in some other time or place. One bears no relationship to, nor excusing role upon, the other. All that we can reasonably consider is the life and treatment of the farmed animal because that lies within our own scope of concern and effect. Not some unrelated circumstance.

Temple confirms she’s totally missed the point when she notes that “a flash of insight came into my mind. None of the cattle that were at this slaughter plant would have been born if people had not bred and raised them. They would never have lived at all. People forget that nature can be very harsh, and death in the wild is often more painful and stressful than death in a modern plant. Out on a western ranch, I saw a calf that had its hide ripped completely off on one side by coyotes. It was still alive and the rancher had to shoot it to put it out of its misery. If I had a choice, going to a well-run modern slaughter plant would be preferable to being ripped apart alive”.

This is a nonsense. A farmed animal’s entire life is at the whim of the farmer who caused it to be born. Whether it dies terribly through the predation of coyotes or “humanely” at the slaughterhouse after a short life, this lies squarely at the feet of the farmer. The choice isn’t between some awful natural death and some sweet benign “humane” death because there is no choice and no comparison.

Temple’s comment would be more correct had she said that her flash of insight showed her that all of the cattle being killed had no choice at all because the farmer gave them none. Whatever harm or death these animals suffered were directly caused by the farmer.

Temple seems to be arguing that the farmer has done a good by giving life to an animal that goes on to suffer. This is an empty argument. All we can ever do, in making moral assessments about lives lived, is examine the life that IS lived. And if the animal is a pig or a chicken in an intensive farm, or a lamb snatched from its mother to be killed for a taste, or a male calf killed because his cost outweighs his return, then it would have been better had that animal never lived in order to suffer. The farmer’s choice to give this animal life is not a good. Temple is wrong.

And that’s my feeling about this whole article. While I can see where Temple is coming from, and while I agree with many of her suggestions for how better to formulate pragmatic and more effective real world welfare policies, I think the basis for her argument is fatally flawed.

It is easy enough to see that the modern livestock farming industry does not have at heart the goal of feeding people for sustenance in the most responsible manner possible. In fact, it’s goal is to encourage more and more consumption for pleasure because that’s the only way to grow the industry and retain profitability. Like so much of modern consumerism, it’s a failed ideology.

Really, it’s a simple enough proposition. When we harm sentient beings, we as moral agents should have a charge of responsibility to ensure we do it as little as possible, for the right reasons, and with the least suffering. In the modern livestock industry, we do the exact opposite. We do it as much as possible and seek to do more of it, we do it for all the wrong reasons, and we often cause far more suffering than need be.

Plant-based alternatives are the better course for delivering as much of human sustenance, nutrition and pleasure as possible. We need to find ways to make that happen. If we must eat animals because there is some natural necessity in nutritional terms, then it should be as little as possible and only as needed. That would be the ethical approach.

As Temple herself says in closing, “People have the intellect to become good stewards of both the land and the animals, because they are aware that their actions can cause either suffering or destroy the environment”.

Perhaps we’d do well to take that advice far more seriously.


3 thoughts on “Pragmatic welfare policies for farmed animals – important, but is the very idea a red herring?

  1. Excellent article and brilliant responses to Grandin’s statements. Grandin calls herself a “visual thinker”, but she is not a thinker at all. She doesn’t have the intelligence nor the tools to logically address philosophical issues such as ethics and morality. Her nonsense arguments meant to to justify factory farming which is her gravy train. Plant based diet is not only ethical but also healthier. Studies have shown that societies and people who live on plant based diets are more healthy and live longer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with you Zahava. I also don’t know what she means about being a visual thinker. Aren’t we all? I certainly get exactly the same reaction that she describes in that linked article – if I hear something said, I immediately visualise what it means. Plus I suggest that no-one can think of anything spontaneously without a visual image to trigger that. Inner voice takes over, but we start with visual imagery. Particularly in times of stress.


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