Further Thoughts on Happy Meat

Spencer Lo

My last post explored the ethics of consuming “happy meat,” which was prompted by Nicholas Kristof’s recent NYT article on the matter—with great enthusiasm, he endorsed it as an ethical alternative to the consumption of factory-farmed animals. I attempted to show why this view is deeply mistaken by briefly sketching an argument from philosopher Jeff McMahan’s paper. Here, I want to raise the question of whether, from an animal advocates perspective, there is anything positive to be said about shifting the public consciousness away from consumption of factory-farmed meat to “happy meat”—encouraged by Kristof—notwithstanding the fact that both are problematic. In other words, although influential people like Kristof are ultimately advocating an unethical practice, is that nevertheless a welcome change in some respects? Should the change be encouraged to some extent?

One view is that the shift from factory-farmed meat to “happy meat” isn’t a welcome change at all—if anything, that makes things worse. By encouraging consumers to buy “happy meat,” and telling them—in various, subtle ways—that that’s perfectly fine, so enjoy, promoters are reinforcing deeply wrong views. Consumers may even feel good about consuming “happy meat,” believing that by buying such products, as opposed to factory-farmed products, they are in fact helping to reduce animal cruelty – and helping to support the raising of happy animals. Who could be against that? However, this just encourages the substitution of one wrong (killing tortured animals) for another (killing happy animals), and that’s not progress. The most prominent defender of this view is Professor Gary Francionesee here and here. Additionally, promotion of such products may have caused some vegans and vegetarians to backslide, who now view the consumption of animals, if humanely raised, to be morally acceptable. That’s clearly counterproductive. [Thanks to Ellie Maldonado for raising this point.]

Another view finds the endorsement of ‘happy meat” lamentable, even perverse, but sees the shift away from factory-farmed products to be a positive step in the right direction (a position held by Peter Singer). People like Kristof, unlike proponents of the meat industry, take seriously the cruelties inflicted upon animals—for him, their suffering matters. And to a nontrivial extent, so do their well-being and happiness. Thus, there appears to be less distance between “happy meat” consumers and animal advocates, on the one hand, and “any meat” consumers and animal advocates, on the other. Specifically, there is less distance in two respects: first, there are fewer dialectical obstacles. For people who consume “happy meat” but repudiate factory-farmed products, there are fewer argumentative steps necessary for them to take in order to reach the right result, for they already consciously accept several key assumptions underlying the view held by animal advocates—e.g., the well-being of animals matter intrinsically. Second, there are fewer obstacles in terms of moral psychology. Compare Kristof to an avid defender of factory-farming—who has more compassion towards animals? The answer is clear. Developing a more compassionate attitude towards animals is good, even if more development is needed, and developing compassion will only encourage greater compassion. Philosopher David Sztybel argues forcefully for this position here.

From an animal advocates pov, which perspective is right? Should we view the promotion of “happy products,” which involves the repudiation of factory-farming, as imperfect progress but progress nonetheless? Or rather, should we view it as an unacceptable move backwards that will only make genuine progress more difficult to achieve?

[Edit #1: For another thoughtful perspective, see this piece by Professor James McWilliams of Texas University State, who also wrote about related issues here and here. Columbia University Press blog published a response by Professor Francione.]

[Edit #2: Another relevant article by Paul Shapiro of Humane Society of the United States.]

[Edit #3: Doris Lin explores related issues here. Moreover, moral philosopher Gary Steiner wrote a provocative article in which he adopts a hard-line stance towards the consumption of “humanely” raised animals, one that’s virtually identical to Francione’s. ]

21 Responses

  1. A little bit of something beats a whole lotta nothing.
    -Little Richard

    From the second they are born until the day they die, animals on factory farms truly are in a living hell. While genuine progress is the ideal, “happy meat” will at least provide some relief to the horrific lives billions of animals must endure every single second they are alive.

    After seeing undercover footage and glimpsing into horrific lives these animals must endure, my conscious tells me that I cannot deny them any opportunity to at least feel the grass under their feet and the sun on their backs.

    While not eating meat is the ideal, who could look a sow suffering in a gestation crate in the eye, see her unable to even turn around, and pass up the chance to at least give her that? I know I can’t.

  2. I respect Nicholas Kristof’s journalism for many reasons, but I think his belief in happy farm animals is more wishful thinking than reality.

    I don’t doubt that some producers are concerned with the animals they own, but it doesn’t stop them from their violating their physical and emotional interests. More likely producers are inclined to ignore, or remain deliberately ignorant, of animal interests that interfere with profit — because after all, “they’re only animals”.

    Alternative farms offer more space, but the rest is essentially the same, and let’s not forget that expanding farm land robs free-living animals of the habitat they need for survival. So to suggest that alternative farms offer animals an appreciable difference is a fairy tale.

    Let’s leave the fairy tales to cheese commercials. Instead of enabling agribusiness, advocates should be challenging the ideology of human supremacy, which is what makes it possible for producers and consumers to exploit nonhumans with a clear conscience. That is the root of animal exploitation.

    Henry David Thoreau wrote: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” We need to be the ones who strike the root.

  3. Hi Ellie,

    You make some interesting points worth thinking about. I’d be curious to know your thoughts on this piece here by Paul Shapiro: http://vegnews.com/articles/page.do?pageId=4916&catId=1

    “That is until the last five years, when American meat consumption began to take a nose dive—an unprecedented 12.2 percent drop, to be precise. During that same time period, the US population grew by millions, yet because of this drop in per capita meat consumption, we’ve been raising and killing several hundred million fewer farm animals each year, amounting to billions of fewer animals enduring inhumane factory farming practices than would be expected given historical trends.”

  4. Hi Spencer,

    Paul Shapiro doesn’t seem to be taking the recession into account — people may be eating less meat because they can’t afford it. That was certainly true during the depression, and at other times when money
    was scarce.

    I agree that animal rights advocacy discourages animal consumption, and some decrease may be due to that, but that’s not what HSUS does, so it shoudn’t take credit for it. HSUS and similar groups promote so-called “humane” farming; and for all we know, the number of consumers who stop eating animal products may be balanced by former vegetarians who have resumed. So all in all, I think the recession is probably the reason for the decrease.

  5. Hi Christine,

    I reject campaigns to ban gestation crates because they have been found to increase the production of pigs — i.e., more pigs are born for the purpose of being killed. Anothere reason is that I think the worst part of reproduction is the emotional pain that mother pigs and piglets experience when they’re separated. Banning gestation crates won’t change that at all.

    (For more information on the increase in pig prodution, see Professor Francione’s reply to Professor James McWilliams in “Vegan Feuds” in Slate magazine. This information comes directly from an HSUS study. Further information is also found in “The Philosophy of Food” by David Kaplan.

  6. Thanks Ellie; I’ll definitely check out that article, thanks for sharing it.

    If I can, I’d like to respectfully reply to this comment:
    “So to suggest that alternative farms offer animals an appreciable difference is a fairy tale.”

    I sincerely respect your viewpoint and please know that I’m not trying to dispute it, but in my own personal opinion, I can’t help but imagine that if I was a sow, any lessening of the torture of having to live in a gestation crate would be eagerly taken. This is just how I personally feel when I try to empathize with how it must be to be a sow living such a horrific existence. But as I’m only a human, my brain can only accomplish so much as far as how a sow might really feel and what she would ideally want.

    It’s defeating to me to admit there really are no clear black & white answers to this issue. My own personal conscious, however, says that any compassion is a good thing, and like the post states, “developing compassion will only encourage greater compassion.”

    In my personal experience, the divisiveness that is brought up by these two different viewpoints in the animal welfare vs. animal rights groups is almost as depressing as the original issue.

    In the end, though, we are fighting for the same thing, which is a better and more humane life for these animals. Whether you are striking at the branches or the root, at least you are striking! Together we WILL eventually create the compassionate life these animals so rightly deserve.

  7. Anyone concerned about the abuse of animals on factory farms should OPPOSE recently introduced egg industry legislation (HR 3798 and S 3239) that would keep laying hens IN battery cages forever, and eliminate the rights of states and voters to do anything about it! Visit http://www.StopTheRottenEggBill.org to learn the facts and take action.

  8. Hi Christine,

    I welcome your reply, as I know we’re united in our compassion for sows and other nonhuman animals. Because we empathize with their physical and emotional suffering, it hurts us as well.

    So I can understand why advocates want to ban gestation crates. I wish there were no problems with go with the ban, because I know sows would be relieved if they could move around a bit, and that part of their suffering would be reduced. This is why my first thoughts and feelings were to support the ban as you do — sigh — but I also know that these reforms tend to encourage animal consumption, or even offer a pathway for former vegetarians to resume meat-eating — and from what I’m now reading, a study shows banning gestation crates increases sow reproduction, which means more pigs will suffer and die.

    I share your sense of defeat in that there are no clear cut answers. Without extensive and objective research, we can’t prove that banning crates would ultimately reduce or increase suffering. It’s just that to the best of my understanding, I think banning crates would increase suffering, but if I find out I’m wrong, I’ll not only admit it, I’ll also will join the effort to ban them.

    If I may add a general clarification for those who may also be participating in Professor James McWilliams’ Blog, I really don’t expect everyone to agree with me 🙂 All I ask is that we be polite. My posts are not coming through on his blog, so I will be not able to respond to any commments there. I will be happy to continue posting here, if I may, as well as on other blogs, including the Professor’s most recent article for Slate magazine, “Vegan Feud”.

  9. Ellie,

    Your comments, of course, are always welcome. About Shapiro’s article, it claims – citing CME – that the significant decrease in meat consumption can be attributed, in part, to the efforts of large “non-governmental agencies that oppose meat consumption for reasons ranging from the environment to animal rights to social justice.” Shapiro acknowledged that saving money is a “compelling reason,” but not the only reason for the trend. If this is right, then we need to ask what role various “welfare reform” measures played, and the most plausible answer is consciousness raising. Many people learn about gestation crates (and other cruelties) via the campaigns to ban them, which may partially explain the resulting decrease in meat consumption.

    On whether welfare reform measures “ultimately” increase or reduce suffering, we need to distinguish between short-term reduction and long-term reduction. It’s certainly possible for a measure to reduce suffering in the short-term, but if it increases meat consumption in the long term, then the measure would probably increase suffering overall (or “ultimately”). So I agree we can’t know, right now, whether welfare reforms “ultimately” reduce or increase suffering. But I think it’s highly likely that welfare reforms reduce suffering in the short term, even accounting for negative factors such as backsliding. Moreover, add the benefits of consciousness raising and other forms of advocacy, then the prospect of long-term reduction as a result of welfare reforms (in conjunction with other forms of advocacy) becomes plausible. It’s important to note that people on the “welfare side” of this issue aren’t saying that reforms are, by themselves, enough. Thus the debate seems to be a divide between those who advocate a vegan-only approach and those who advocate a combination approach.

  10. Hi Spencer,

    I think the only way we’ll know if Shapiro is right or wrong is by comprehensive and objective research, that includes the rate of recidivism, which I think is very important.

    Clearly, some people resume eating meat because they believe farming is “humane”, but I don’t think we can rule out the “humane” factor for those who say they resume for “health reasons, because “free-range” are offered as a kinder alternative to factory farms. And that has to make it easier to resume, imo. If they didn’t believe the “humane” factor, they might have learned about vegan nutrition, and tried harder.

    I agree that people can learn about other cruelties via advocates who campaign for reforms — and that’s absolutely a good thing.

    In any case, I don’t think we can know whether reforms help or hinder until there are objective studies.

    The only thing I can say for sure is that from my experience (blogs, family, friends), people only buy “free-range” meat and dairy products if they can afford it. And the way things are now, I think many, if not most people probably can’t. So another thing we need to ask is how many animals are effected by reforms. If they will always be the minority, which I think is likely, then that’s another limitation.

    Anyway, the sad thing about abolition is that it’s so marginalized, we can’t do much good.

  11. I think the following articles from Gentle World are very informative:

    “The Myth of Eco-Friendly Animal Products”, by Alisa Rutherford-Fortunati, addresses the habitat destruction and deliberate killing of free-living animals to accomodate pasture-based farms, and protect the profit of farmers and ranchers:

    “Something Almost Primal”, by Angel Flinn, addresses the promotion of “humane” products:

    More on animal ethics: http://gentleworld.org/category/ethics/

  12. Thanks for those links, Ellie. Your point about vegans and vegetarians backsliding is an important one, and so I edited the second paragraph of my post to include it.

  13. You’re welcome, Spencer. I’m glad the links are helpful.

  14. Feeding large urban and suburbanite populations on meat from animals that are truly free-range and raised on ideal, pastoral farms is next to impossible anyway.

    Hence, the rise of factory-style agri-industry, to meet the demands of a huge population removed from the land, and self-sufficentcy.

    If civilization is to remain largely urban (which is apparently the case), then it stands to reason that vegetarianism is the wave of the future. But even that can be problematic from an ecological standpoint.

    I understand community gardens are gaining popularity. They seem like a sound idea to me.

  15. Another disadvantage to free-range or “organically” raised animals is that it actually may increase suffering in certain instances where therapeutic relief from injury or pain may be withheld. If certain drugs are administered the flesh from these animals wouldn’t remain viable for the labeling criteria so the ranchers ignore the pain or send the animals to slaughter sooner. Either way (again) – Meat consumption is never a win for nonhumans…

    Hi HAL 9000 – I agree with you about community gardens only on a much larger scale. http://www.fastcoexist.com/1680394/vertical-farms-start-to-take-root-in-reality

    What I don’t understand is with the certainty of an increased population – Perhaps double by the end of this century why more funding isn’t going into these vertical farming projects. Almost on a weekly basis I read of more money being poured into animal agriculture “science” and new ways to “improve” meat production… And so little going into what the real solution is. I fear someday there will be much regret in dragging our feet so reluctantly towards this people-feeding, life-saving concept.

    Pondering the possibilities in a Star Trek frame of mind Gene Roddenberry envisioned a world without money, religion, or the use of animals for food. Trapping ourselves in the debate of “happy” meat hinder that progress even more.

  16. Despite the huge amount of press “happy meat” gets, the vast majority of omnivores do not confine themselves to consuming it. The organic meat market is only a very tiny (we’re talking single digits) percentage of the meat industry as a whole.

  17. So if most animal consumers don’t buy happy meat, then these reforms are only effecting a small percent of farmed animals, at best. Meanwhile, according to D’Agostino supermarkets, the addition of “certified humane” products increased meat sales by 25% — so apparently, they’re also making some consumers feel comfortable with meat eating.

  18. Provoked,

    Thanks for sharing that link — vertical farms do indeed look like an exciting idea.

    Changing the status quo is never easy. But there needs to be a collective shift toward true open-mindedness. Simply aping tradition will not work any longer.

  19. […] Further Thoughts on Happy Meat (animalblawg.wordpress.com) […]

  20. […] Question is, will anyone fall for it? ___________________________________________________________________ Coming to bookstores in June: The Ultimate Betrayal: Is there happy meat?  Also: What’s wrong with happy meat? at Animal Blawg; and Further thoughts on happy meat […]

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