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 Francione – see 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. ]
Filed under: animal advocacy, animal ethics, animal rights, animal welfare, Uncategorized, veganism, vegetarianism | Tagged: aminal advocacy, animal ethics, animal rights, animal welfare, David Sztybel, gary francione, Gary Steiner, happy meat, humane meat, James McWilliams, Jeff McMahan, Nicholas D. Kristof, Paul Shapiro, Peter Singer, veganism, vegetarianism |