Cattle Here and There

I’ve got a webpage for the animal rights course I’m teaching this semeter, with a corner for news stories. How’s this for an interesting juxtaposition? A student sent me a story about a camp in southern Sudan, where young boys spend time herding cattle. Watch the video (click on the picture) and you get the impression of a relationship between people and animals that’s mutualistic and respectful.


Another student sent me a major news story about the recall of 143 million pounds of beef in the US, spurred by an undercover video taken by the Humane Society. Watch this video (click on the picture) and you’ll see “downer” cattle–that’s the technical term for animals so sick they can’t stand up–being prodded and abused. The story attracted extra attention because the meat was being sold in school lunches.


I find the second scenario revolting. It’s because of this sort of gruesome animal abuse that I’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years. But the first scenario stops me from being a true blue animal rights advocate. I find it extremely hard to believe that what’s going on at the cattle camp is morally wrong. On the abolitionist end of the animal rights spectrum (occupied by folks like Tom Regan and Gary Francione), they say that it is.

Maybe a factor is that I know scenes like the one in Sudan have been part of human existence everywhere for thousands of years. Finding such a huge swath of life unethical is a tall order for me. But more seriously, there’s a survival factor in the Sudanese scene.

What difference does that make? That’s a tricky matter. I take it I can’t kill my neighbor to survive, so why can I kill cattle? The abolitionist crowd says I can’t, no matter what, even if my life depends on it…which is certainly a hard road to hoe.

If I could go along with Peter Singer’s Utilitarian approach to animals, it would be pretty straightforward. More total good comes from the Sudanese herding culture than would come from abandoning it—you get both happy cows and happier, healthier, more prosperous people. And you don’t, by the way, get the environmental damage that results from western farming. (What happens when western animal agriculture is imported to Africa? There’s a good article about that here.)

But I have problems with Utilitarianism. I can’t see how using people to maximize the total good can be morally right. Animals aren’t just like people, but they’re sufficiently like people that there’s also a problem with using them to maximize the total good.

It seems to take two ideas to defend the Sudanese, if you’re not going to buy into plain Utilitarian thinking. One, you’ve got to think using living things isn’t the only terrible thing you can do; it’s also terrible to neglect the survival of your family, friends, and self. Then I think you’ve got to think it’s especially important whether human beings survive.

But wait, the people of southern Sudan wouldn’t immediately die if they gave up their herds. They aren’t literally in a life-or-death struggle, like an explorer starving in the Arctic. Still, keeping livestock really is a vital matter for people all over the developing world. It can make the difference between living in extreme poverty, always hovering close to death, and having at least a minimally decent standard of living.

Of course if you’re happy to enjoy a hamburger for the taste and without regard for the animal it’s made out of, you’ll think the morality of Sudanese cattle herders it patently obvious. But I’m not, and I do have regard for the animal. So for me it’s all very puzzling.

Bottom line: they exploit animals in the right way, for good reasons, so while exploiting isn’t lily white and perfect, it’s the best they can do. We exploit animals in the wrong way, for bad reasons, so we should stop.

Leave a comment ?


  1. I wouldn’t romanticise non-Western animal rearing. Many many people in these situations work their animals into ground. But the stakes are rather higher for them than me so I withold judgement on the ethics.

  2. I’m not romanticising non-Western animal rearing. I’m making no generalizations, just talking about a specific scenario, as it’s revealed in the video and the article. It does in fact contrast enormously with the US scenario, as revealed in the other video and article.

    In some non-Western settings, animals are exploited “in the wrong way” –for example, I understand that cattle are worked to the bone in India, despite all the thinking about the sacred cow.

  3. Without romanticizing non-Western treatment of animals, it’s terribly hard for me, with my refrigerator full of food, none of it meat, to condemn
    those cattle raisers in the Sudan. I will not even try to justify my refusal to condemn them with arguments. I simply feel that from my position of relative affluence, when I’m wondering what I will choose to eat for lunch today, I don’t have the right to condemn them. Finally, although animal life is important, human life, for me at least, is more important.

  4. The second video clip is truly horrifying, and if this is the result of industrial raising and killing of animals, then this is something we should not do. That’s plain. So we are responsible, if we eat meat, to know how that is produced from start to finish. I guess we tend to trust that care is being taken, and that this is something we don’t need to worry about, but obviously this we do.

    I don’t have a problem, like Jean’s, with using animals for food, so long as the animal’s life is as normal and as natural as can be, and its slaughtering is humane. In many respects, the domestication of animals was a good evolutionary deal for the animals involved. A world without cows and horses and pigs, etc. — and if we didn’t eat them no one would keep them — would be an interesting world. Would it be a poorer world, I wonder?

    Since some of the vitamins we need must be supplemented if we don’t eat meat, it seems that we are, at least, ecologically dependent upon animals for food. Certainly, the people in the first video clip are. They can’t pop over to the chemists for vitamins. Besides, there’s an important cultural element in the symbiosis of human beings and animals in this case.

    There are places, like the Arctic, briefly mentioned by Jean, where vegetable foodstuffs are hard to come by. It is both wasteful and expensive to ship vegetables to the north, so a lot of food in the north is animal protein. This, it seems to me, is unavoidable.

    What is avoidable is the massive carnage that takes place each day in North America and Europe? We don’t need that much meat. It is, I suspect, an important part of the human diet, but not in such huge quantities as has become so common. It is wasteful of land and resources, it contributes to environmental damage, and, clearly, killing such large numbers of animals must cause great suffering to the animals involved.

    Is there a middle way in the morality of eating meat? I’m puzzled too, but I’m not sure we do exploit animals in the wrong way for bad reasons. Some ways are wrong and reasons bad, but all of them? I don’t think the contrast between the two cases is as clear as that.

  5. I agree with Amos. You really must consider the options, and truly I have considered becoming a vegetarian many times. I had a friend (a Sikh actually)who would eat “nothing with a face” and we had many good times debating our opinions.

    I do understand where the author of this article is coming from. There is some huge difference between my watching my grandmother in Europe literally choke the chicken, or when she had me skin a rabbit after she cut its throat, and hanging cows by the back legs on a conveyor belt and severing their necks one by one with a huge saw as they proceed down the line.

    My argument has always been we have to eat something, and even asparagus is alive, and cheese and wool are stolen from their creators. I have had to question myself and ask whether if I had to make my own hamburger, if I could, and while it wouldn’t be easy for an animal of that size (no problem with a chicken or rabbit for me) the first time or so, I am sure my hunger would allow the job to be done.

    There is some lost reverence for these animals though. I don’t mean taking the cow to the extreme of the Hindu, what i mean is years ago (many years ago when most people killed their own livestock and wild animals both) people always thanked the gods for this food, or even donated or burnt some in homage to the gods and to the animal as well. It was a realization that we have to do this, and we thank you for being a cow and not gourging our eyes out, just standing there like meat.

    But we are human beings and as a humanist I have to prefer even the diehard bastards to the animals.

    On the other side, it is a sickness that people treat people just like animals, when they leave their fortunes to their dogs, when they care about a person beating their pet but step right over dying people in the street (hyperbole, maybe, but true and many times evidenced), when they p[otest Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring (hey, maybe that dog likes the competition…) and stand around like sheep while America runs around invading foreign countrues and dictating foreign policy like a reincarnation of the Tartars.

    Compare this to years ago, when a war like this would be protested in America by hundreds of thousands in the streets and in the colleges. In the univeristies today you will dind many ASPCA branches and adherents, and next to nil concerned with our pitiful and totalitarian global policy. All this to say there are bigger fish we should be frying….

  6. That was “find’ not “dind” (damned Alzheimers…?).

    And just a question…anybody know if any of these people who were starving in the wilderness who proceeded to hack up and devour raw their fellow men were previously vegetarians?

    I would be curious, because me, a meat eater, I’d rather die, because with my luck that would be the last thing I do before i eat old Charlie and then die.

  7. You might want to try reading “why I am a demi-vegetarian” by R.M. Hare (who coincidently was Peter Singer’s PH.D. advisor). I think his position might actually be the stronger utilitarian position on the ethics of eating, than Singer’s. Singer has even said that demi-vegetarianism or what he calls compassionate omnivorism in his book the way we eat and why it matters, is a morally acceptable stance.

  8. “The abolitionist crowd says I can’t, no matter what, even if my life depends on it…which is certainly a hard road to hoe.”

    Who hoes a road? It should be “row”.

  9. Yes, I’ve read Hare’s article, and Singer’s book(s). As I say, for a Utilitarian it’s easy to approve of the Sudanese scenario, and both Hare and Singer (who are Utilitarians) certainly would. Since I don’t have entirely Utilitarian intuitions about ethics, their thinking isn’t exactly my thinking. I I do approve, but not on straight Utilitarian grounds.

    Singer doesn’t approve of so-called humane farming in the US. In Animal Liberation and “The Ethics of What We Eat” (formerly called “The Way We Eat”) he makes many arguments against it. (1) It’s not nearly as humane as you’d like to think–it’s different from the Sudan video in many important ways. That’s shown in great detail in “The Ethics of What We Eat.” (2) If you really want to act with resolve against all the animal abuse in the US you’re better off just taking the animals off your plate. Their tastiness tends to cloud the mind. I think these are both good points, and I choose not to be a compassionate omnivore. I certainly think people who go that route are doing better….but I don’t think they’re doing best.

  10. “Hard road to hoe” is wrong…

    My ear told me “road” and and after some googling I decided to go with that. There’s discussion here–

  11. I’ve hoed many a row, but nary a road did I hoe.

  12. Ah, but you see a row can be tough to hoe, but a dirt road is even tougher to hoe. Have you ever tried to hoe a road? Trust me, it’s tough.

  13. Hoe a road?
    You mean hog a road, of course.
    All the time.

    But if you’re talking about HOs, I won’t even go down that road.
    Whatever rowed your boat, I guess.

    I think I’m going to puke.

  14. Not an asphalt road, a hard dirt road. Hoe = rake-like thing. As in–you have a hard dirt road and you want to turn it into a garden. So you get out your hoe. It’s very difficult–back breaking work, in fact.

    OK, I’ll never use the expression again. I promise.

  15. “It’s a mighty long row that my poor hands have hoed”.
    Woody Guthrie. Pastures of Plenty. Great protest song. I’ll see if the full lyrics are in Google.

  16. (Oh joy!)

    I dunno,
    Having known mostly hoes that make rows…
    But lo there are those who hold
    That the row and the hoe are,
    Sometimes, you know,
    Neither row nor hoe,
    But rather hoes,
    In rows…
    (so it goes…)

    Here, a rose.
    [with apology :]

  17. It was the road
    less traveled
    That I did sow
    with my handy dandy hoe
    Now shall I reap
    what I did sow
    A great big pile of you know

  18. (1) It’s not nearly as humane as you’d like to think–it’s different from the Sudan video in many important ways. That’s shown in great detail in “The Ethics of What We Eat.”

    This isn’t a very good argyument against western-style farming in principle, though, is it? It’s just a technical point. We can address the deficiencies and corrupt practices. Also, aren’t we discounting rather heavily in this argument the barbarities of some Sudanese (and other third world) practice in farming? I am pretty sure, for example, that Sudanese butchery methods would strike most westerners as extravagantly cruel.

    (2) If you really want to act with resolve against all the animal abuse in the US you’re better off just taking the animals off your plate.

    Will Hodgkinson on his blog has some interesting points to make about this in a rather different context. He points out that any individual refusing to eat meat cannot make any difference at all to the meat industry and number of animals dying when it is on a US scale. So taking the meat off your plate will not improve the lot of animals. Its only utility is as a social signal to your immediate social group, either to advertise to others your superior ethical status (if that gives you pleasure) or as a possible example that others will follow or both. Only the second strikes me as rational and then only marginally given the apparant unlikeliness that that sufficient numbers will follow the example to make a difference.

  19. “He points out that any individual refusing to eat meat cannot make any difference at all to the meat industry and number of animals dying when it is on a US scale.”

    How can that be true? I understand the argument that any individual makes a negligible difference, and that’s obvious in a country of millions, and in a world of billions, but for the claim that it cannot make any difference to be true, then if all the vegetarians and vegans in the US suddenly started scoffing meat it would have to make no appreciable difference to the number of animals dying. Which seems to be a rather strong claim.

  20. “How can that be true? ”

    A single consumer changing behaviour would be lost in the general market noise of changing consupmtion patterns week on week, the signal would be too wqek and would not feed back therfore making no difference. No fewer animals will be killed if you or I stopped eating meat. I suppose this would be true for a small group, too, but I don’t know where the threshold would be in a market the size of the US, but in the thousands, I imagine. I don’t know how many veggies there are in th US but it may well be the case that there is a enough flexibility in the current meat supply to accommodate them without changing production patterns. I bet there is a study on this somewhere.

    It should have said ‘Wilkinson’ in my original post, not ‘Hodginknson’, by the way. Apologies.

  21. Re (1)–I talk about the Sudan video just to say that I can’t agree with the abolitionist who says it’s always wrong to use animals for food. I’m not praising non-western farming in general.

    Could you fix all the problems with humane farming and make truly humane? It would take a lot of expensive land to put an end to all the overcrowding. Maybe if people were willing to consume a lot less meat…

    Re (2)–I do think each little refusal to eat meat adds up so that there’s less demand and fewer animals killed. Beyond that, it’s a way of making the stance against animal abuse part of your everyday life–it’s a constant reminder. And beyond that, watching videos about factory farming has taken away my appetite for meat. I think that happens to a lot of people, at least for a time.

  22. John M–That Humane Society video got a lot of news coverage and is completely horrifying. There’s also been some great stuff about the environmental harm of the meat industry in the newspapers recently. There have also been some popular new vegan books. Say that as a result of that there are 10,000 more people who stop eating meat this year. How is it possible that won’t have an impact on the number of animals bred and killed next year?

    People’s tastes for beef vs. pork vs. chicken affect the amount of each meat produced and consumed, which fluctuates. I can’t see how the preference for meat vs. no meat could make no difference.

  23. “Say that as a result of that there are 10,000 more people who stop eating meat this year. How is it possible that won’t have an impact on the number of animals bred and killed next year?”

    I’m not sure what the threshold is and maybe that sort of figure would make a difference (is it realistic, do you think?). But even if it is, it is irrational for any one individual to stop eating meat becuase 9,999 is likely to have the same effect as 10,000 and so any single action makes no difference. This is a common problem with mass actions, I know. If all 10,000 agreed to take action together, that would be rational, but that isn’t how it works, I don’t think.

    “People’s tastes for beef vs. pork vs. chicken affect the amount of each meat produced and consumed, which fluctuates. I can’t see how the preference for meat vs. no meat could make no difference.”

    The point is that no single preference can make a difference and so it is irrtional to act on it. If I have shares in pork, I won’t drive up their price by stopping eating chicken because I am too small an actor by myself.

  24. These are interesting things to think about, but if I swallowed all this reasoning whole I wouldn’t vote. I do vote and will continue to vote while I try to sort out the voter’s paradox.

  25. I must admit that I vote although I can’t see past the voter’s paradox either. But the cost to me of voting is small, or may actually constitute a slight benefit since I quite enjoy it. But the cost of not eating meat would be very large, in comparison at least, so it inevitably gets more attention.

  26. The thing about voting is that it takes 5 minutes to do it, but lots of time to figure out who to vote for. I sometimes wonder why I bother…but then try to suppress the thought and not share it! We all need to have the illusion of making a difference for the electoral process to work. But yes, giving up your preferred diet every day is a pretty big sacrifice to make. I think I chose to do this for a whole bunch of reasons, sheer repulsion at factory farming being important motivationally (but not ethically).

  27. I wonder whether the claim that for one person to not eat meat the signal is lost in the noise versus the claim that the signal is very small but actually there, is ultimately unprovable in a forum of this nature.

    Of course being vegetarian is probably also a social signal that gets past the voter’s paradox by saying ‘I’m not going to eat meat, you won’t be the only one, therefore your actions will contribute to a mass effect’.

  28. Will nobody assert the virtues of a nice rare T-Bone?

    Just curious.

  29. Maybe nobody’s asserting them because they’re not in dispute.

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