There is no post today because I have written a rather longer article and placed it elsewhere within my web page. So see an article on an analysis of copyright laws failings and my proposal for overcoming these at this page.
In arguments concerning vegetarianism very often questions like the following are raised:
1) Isn't it better that an animal gets to live at all?
2) If we raise an animal and treat it better than it would be treated elsewhere (such as in the wild or in a factory farm) doesn't that make it ok?
The assumptions behind these questions seem to be (a) that an extra animal or human in the world is necessarily a good thing and (b) that one can establish the morality of ones own behavior by comparing it against a commonly occurring alternative.
I will discuss both of these assumptions and explain why I think they are false. In addition I will give answers to these questions.
Point (a): Why might we prefer a world with more animals or more humans in it? Firstly animals or people might have more companions. However, once there are significantly more animals than that animal's typical herd size size none of those animals need want for companionship. Secondly cultural artifacts (such as music, ideas and novels) are more valuable the more people there are (everybody in a bigger society has access to more ideas). However, as animals do not have the sort of culture for which this benefit exists a cow will be no happier because there are 1,000,000 cows rather than 10,000. Thirdly we might prefer a world with 1,000,000 buffalo to one with 999,999 buffalo on strict utility grounds (one extra cow to enjoy the savanna). Fourthly we may prefer a world with an extra animal because of the ecosystem services it provides. Fifthly an extra animal might be helpful towards preventing the extinction of its species.
The first two reasons are no use. The third reason is problematic because more cows mean fewer people (because, for calorie production, almost all land is better used for some crop than for grazing). See also the comments to my last post particularly with regard to dairy production as an alternative. The fourth reason doesn't justify an extra farm animal but possibly an extra wild animal. For this reason to make sense, we need to consider a national park in which the land is being used for eco-tourism or for eco-services.
However, in a world in which the slaughterhouse is banned and in which the only killing of animals is for population control in national parks (which have no natural predators left) it would be necessary to ban the selling of meat from these animals because (i) there would be not nearly enough to go around and (ii) it would introduce the profit motive which could interfere with the ecological utility of the population control and might result in greater suffering to the animals than would otherwise be the case. Furthermore by the time we are in this situation (where slaughterhouses have been banned) we may be able to control wild animal populations using advanced biotech solutions which are less problematic ethically (and potentially very cheap given the rapid decline in genome sequencing costs etc.).
The fifth reason would require the maintenance of only a few groups of the animal in question. These populations could be held in check relatively cheaply by confining them to small national parks and sterilizing a large percentage of the animals.
Point (b): The correct comparison is not between an animal raised in captivity and an extra animal in the wild but between an animal raised in captivity and an extra person (not 1 animal per 1 person though). If we had fewer animals in the food industry we would have more people not more wild animals.
So now my answers to questions 1 and 2. (1) An extra animal generally means fewer people and so we should prefer raising fewer animals (this may sound strange from a vegetarian but as I've pointed out animals aren't any happier by virtue of there being many of them). We should maintain each species (which can be performed fairly cheaply) and we may need to maintain animal populations in national parks but we should put research into finding ways of doing this that do not boil down to killing animals. (2) This is offering a false comparison. One should try to provide the best life for people and for animals and saying that their life is better than it might be under some other circumstance should be no excuse.
I am a vegetarian but I am often intensely frustrated by the arguments and tactics of other vegetarians. They often seem to betray a twisted idea of vegetarian ethics. I want to put down my opinion on what vegetarian's priorities should be and how best those priorities can be achieved (without recourse to intimidation or criminal damage).
In the past decade there was a significant animal welfare movement arguing for (and eventually succeeding in) a ban of hunting foxes for pleasure. As the house of lords argued vociferously against this the legislation it took an age to pass and received a large proportion of parliamentary time. I argue that, although fox hunting does indeed deserve to be banned, that it was not the right fight to pick and probably set back the animal welfare agenda by squandering valuable political capital.
Lets look at the figures. Fox hunting in its hey day resulted in fewer than 30,000 fox deaths a year. This is less than a thousandth of the number of animals killed for food every year in the UK. Foxes have a frightening time in the chase but the animals raised for slaughter in the UK live in terrible conditions their whole lives. Given all these facts fox hunting should never have been a priority.
Many other animals are hunted for food or pleasure. I think that killing an animal for pleasure or food (a type of pleasure really) is wrong. However, we should note that most such animals are free range and have a longer life than captive bred animals. All else being equal then hunting animals is better than conventional factory farming (and many free range farms for the matter). Overall then whilst I agree that hunting for pleasure and food should be banned they are not priorities for the welfare agenda.
There have been many violent campaigns in the UK against the use of animals in the laboratory. Animal testing for cosmetics is now banned and there are tight rules in place regulating what experiments can and cannot be performed. I argue that the use of animals in experiments may be justifiable and we should not be looking to ban it. Lets look at the figures again (figures from the USA here). Millions of animals are used in experiments every year. This is a significantly higher figure than the number killed in hunts, however, billions are slaughtered for food every year. Much more importantly animal experiments are responsible for saving many saved human lives and for the amelioration of much human suffering. Seeing as the medical industry cannot yet function without animal testing one is not weighing a luxury item against an animals life but a human life against an animals life. I do not think that a human life is worth infinitely more than an animal life but I do think human life is worth much more than most animal lives lost in experimentation.
That does not mean that we shouldn't try to reduce the number of animals used in experiments and reduce the deaths and suffering of those that are. We can certainly fund the development of alternatives to animal testing.
I would argue that ridding this world of slaughterhouses should be the main priority of the vegetarian movement. Eating meat is considered a luxury and marginally improves the quality of lives just as many other unnecessary items do. Both the American medical association and the British medical council say that there is no significant overall risk to a vegetarian diet (although both vegetarian and meet including diets should be varied). It had long been assumed that meat was necessary or beneficial to the health. However, the risks of meat tend to cancel the benefits (which do exist). Here one might argue that a vegetarian diet is easy enough to maintain in the UK but that the developing world needs to raise meat. This is dangerously wrong as meat requires much more water per calorie produced (and also per gram of protein). Almost all land in most developing nations would be best used for crop production and some would be best suited to bio-fuel production (the more marginal land). In fact a very good ancillary argument for not raising animals for food is the dramatic ecological gains and increased food production that would result. Factory farms are the worst form of animal farming around and working to close these should be the first step in our battle against the meat industry.
Despite the growth and power of the vegetarian movement our numbers are still relatively small and we have not succeeded in banning even the worst excesses of meat production. We should concentrate our efforts on making more progress in this area. However, past experience has shown that people are reluctant to give up luxuries even if they result from terrible abuses. This is most true when there is no alternative source of those luxuries. Part of this is no doubt a culture of denial and detachment where people deny the ethical status of animals or mentally detach the act of eating meat from the killing of an animal. No doubt carefully designed advertising campaigns could help here. However, I think a more radical solution is more likely to succeed and offers a greater hope of complete success. This a topic I've mentioned before on this site... "In vitro meat". In vitro meat is animal muscle tissue grown outside of any animal. In vitro meats should eventually become very similar to today's meat products in their texture, flavour and nutrient value. The main problem with this idea is that we lack the necessary technology. However, with the coming biotechnology revolution there's never been a better time to take up the challenge. I think when people have a cheap, tasty and ethical alternative to meat they will stop eating it in their millions and the stage will be set for banning the slaughterhouse and funding retraining for those that are currently involved in the meat industry.
So in conclusion I think that efforts to ban hunting for pleasure are currently a waste of time, that alternatives for animal testing should be researched but that our first priority should be ridding the world of the slaughterhouse. Finally the best way to proceed towards that goal would be to fund and encourage the development of high quality in vitro meat.
The research problems we must solve are difficult but shouldn't be beyond the capacities of 21st century science. It would probably be wise to keep an eye on how efficient any new technologies are in their use of raw materials particularly grain and water. We don't want to be making our ecological problems worse.
See also my posts under the topic vegetarianism particularly "Rules of thumb for vegetarian ethics".