Eating the Happy Dead


Image by yum9me via Flickr

In my previous post I mentioned that reading an  article in Newsweek entitled “Vegetarians Who Eat Meat”,  got me thinking about two issues. The first is whether a person can be a vegetarian and also eat meat. The second is whether the way the meat animal is raised impacts the morality of eating it. I addressed the first issue in that post and I now turn to the second issue.

Some folks who were (or still claim to be ) vegetarians have returned to eating meat and justify their consumption by making a moral argument. The gist of the argument is that the morality of eating meat rests not on the eating of meat but on how the animal was treated prior to becoming meat. To be more specific, the idea is that if the animal is lovingly raised in an environmentally sustainable way, then the consumption of its dead flesh is morally acceptable. In contrast, eating meat raised in the usual way (such as factory farming) is not acceptable.

There does seem to be some merit to this argument. If it is assumed that the unhappiness and happiness of animals matters, then a stock utilitarian argument can be trotted out. Treating food animals well generates more pleasure for the animals and, in contrast, treating them badly generates more pain. If pain and pleasure are the currency of morality, then treating food animals well would be morally better than treating them badly.

From this it would presumably follow that folks who only eat the animals who were well treated would have the moral high ground over those who eat animals who suffered before becoming meat. This is because the folks who eat the happy dead are not parties to the mistreatment of animals. Except, of course, for the killing and eating part. After all, both the happy cow and the sad cow meat…I mean “meet” the same end: death and consumption.

The fact that the animals, happy or sad, end up as meat might be seen as what is important to the ethics of the situation. This seems reasonable. After all, if someone intends to kill me my main concern is with my possible death and not whether the killer will be nice or not.

But it also seems reasonable to be concerned about what comes before. To use an analogy, imagine two legal systems. While both hand out the same punishments, one system treats suspects horribly: they are locked in fetid cells, poorly fed and treated with cruelty. The other legal system treats suspects reasonable well: they can get out on bail, cells are clean, the food is adequate and cruelty is rare. There seems to be a meaningful distinction between the two and this would also seem to hold in the case of meat.

As such, I do think that the folks who eat the happy dead can claim a slight moral superiority over those who dine on cruel food. But, there is still the obvious concern about whether the consumption of meat itself is acceptable or not.

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  1. The author Gary Francione writes a lot about the morality of “happy meat”. You may be interested.

  2. I’m not sure the “ending up as meat” is the key moral element – I as a veggie would in theory be happy to eat roadkill, though I don’t happen to in practice. It’s the act of killing. If a creature can be said to have an interest in remaining alive, then killing it is a wrong.

  3. Mike, Assuming the death penalty is wrong, do you really think supporting a humanely run prison just has a “slight moral superiority” over supporting a grotesquely run prison? (Say that citizens were asked to vote for funding one or the other.) For example, suppose that one prison is actually a little town where everybody lives a relatively normal life. In another prison, there are tiny cells, beatings, and surgeries without anaesthesia. To say there’s just a “slight” difference between the two, you’d have to be attaching very little importance to suffering.

    Even if there is a fundamental problem with killing animals for food, I think there’s a very big difference, suffering-wise, between a small, traditional farm and the totally grotesque factory farm. It’s about as big as the difference between the two prisons I just described. People who do eat meat surely should care which “prison” their meat comes from. It’s not a matter of wanting to feel morally superior (whether “slightly” or “very”), but of choosing between inflicting tons of suffering on animals and inflicting much, much less.

    Some rights-oriented animal advocates try to make it seem as if there’s no significance difference between “animal prisons” but if suffering matters (and it does!) that simply isn’t so!

  4. I’m on board with Jean’s comment, especially the second paragraph. I also want to point out that we need not be utilitarians to care about the massive suffering factory-farmed animals endure. Kantians and others can also have a moral concern for suffering.

    Phil makes an argument that killing an animal is wrong because it has an interest in staying alive. I think this is far too quick an inference: it does not follow that simply because I have an interest in x, then someone causing not-x has wronged me. One central question here is whether any non-human animals have some right against me that I not kill them, and another is whether, regardless of any rights, I have some moral obligation not to kill animals. Certainly this latter sort of obligation admits of qualifications. It is, for example, permissible to kill an animal in self-defense, and also, I believe, for the purpose of producing vaccines and for other important medical research that requires killing animals (i.e., has no alternative method).

    I’m a vegetarian because I can live a happy life filled with good food, and this doesn’t require eating meat. So, I think (though I struggle with the right way to draw the lines here) that it would be wrong of me participate in the causing of enormous amounts of suffering for no purpose other than simply my enjoyment of the taste. This doesn’t hold for everyone: a fast-food cheeseburger is one of the least expensive and most calorie dense foods one can purchase, so people with very little money have good reason to eat meat even given the genuine horror of our farming systems. In my own case, when they get around to producing good quality vat-grown meat I’ll be first in line for a vat-dog with vat-chili.

  5. Mike- Don’t forget there are two other potential sources of meat that do not ***support*** factory farming.
    First is lab created meat. Obviously no animal is really alive in labratory meat, just the tissue. So unless we’re going to be concerned about the welfare of individuals cells, ethical vegetarians would be allowed to eat lab created meat.

    The other source is garbage. Meat that is thrown away. If we don’t purchase it (and don’t steal it), then “freegans” are not supporting the factory farming of meat…. Rather they’re fighting waste. They create no demand on the corporations, thus do not perpetuate a cycle of cruelty. If there wasn’t meat in the dumpster, they’d eat the vegetables. If there wasn’t anything in the dumpster, they’d have to purchase something…. Then their choice would be the same as most people’s.

  6. Wayne, I wish they’d work on lab milk first. I can live without meat. Milk is a problem.

    Also–don’t forget about road kill.:-)

  7. Phil,

    Good point. However, it could be argued that the consumption of meat has moral significance no matter how the “meat donor” died.

  8. Jean,

    I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say that the superiority would be more than slight. 🙂

    Your point about the factory farms is quite reasonable. In fact, the reason I stopped eating veal when I was 18 (and it was my favorite meal) was because of the treatment of the animal prior to death. From a psychological standpoint, the suffering of the veal calf bothered me much more than hunting and killing animals. I’ll need to argue this, but a quick and clean death does have a moral edge over a horrible death (something I learned when I was a hunter).

  9. Wayne,

    True. Since vat meat is mere tissue, then there would be (one would hope) no suffering on its part. While the cells are alive, they presumably will not include a nervous system for the meat slabs.

    Scavenged meat would also seem to be okay, for the reasons you give. After all, they are just using the discards and taking the role that would otherwise be played by decomposition.

  10. Jean,

    With soy milk and such, there probably is not a compelling market for lab milk. Then again, maybe there are enough folks who want the real thing from an unreal source.

    Road kill is also an ethical option-the critter is already dead, so why not put it in a crock pot for dinner? There are actually road kill recipes: Here is one for Pan Braised Squirrel:

  11. you wouldnt kill and eat a person, so it kind of proves, since there are no differences in the mind or soul(?) of an animal to a human, that it is wrong to kill animals. meat eaters are simply in denial on a matter of conscience – killing and eating an animal is a psychoopathic act, and the response of angry pseudo righteous meat eaters is a text book symptom of psychopathy. dont be a parasite: dont kill and eat animals.

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