Thursday, October 20, 2011

#4 - Earthlings. And why I am a Vegetarian.

So I just finished watching 'Earthlings'. It's a documentary about Speciesism and particularly the treatment of non-human animals by humans. I am already a vegetarian so I didn't experience quite as much self-hate as the first time I watched a documentary of this kind, but it was still good to re-enforce my ethical position. Part of the reason I started this blog was so that I didn't drive my housemates psychotic by engaging them in non-consensual philosophical discussion. It didn't work. Immediately after watching 'earthlings' moey and I started talking again about why I am a vegetarian. (or rather I spoke at moey about why I am a vegetarian). People ask me this question a lot, so i'll do my best in explaining my position the best I can whilst trying to avoid seeming too self righteous (which is, I think, a common perception of vegetarians).

NOTE: I would like to first alert the reader that I am purposely adopting a position of epistemological skepticism for this bit of writing. This is because I do not want to seem biased in any way. Because of this I've made some assumptions that probably allow a little too much skepticism into my argument. I figure if I can get an successful argument going whilst remaining skeptical at all times I will have done ok.

When I talk with some meat-eaters they are supremely charitable in their descriptions of factory farms. I hear things like 'But if we didn't farm them they'd be left out in the elements and that is worse than factory farming' and 'They are given all the food they need without needing to search for it, how great is that' and 'All the bad factory farms are overseas, it's not like that in Australia'. Conversely I'll admit that documentaries like 'earthlings' probably intentionally highlight the worst parts of the farming.

There is a fairly steadfast empirical solution to all of this - Simply start visiting slaughterhouses and farms and don't stop until you've visited them all. After investigating all of them you'd hopefully have a pretty informed and trustworthy hypothesis on the ethical status of factory farming as a whole. Unfortunately however, I do not have the means nor the time to conduct such an investigation so I will have to attempt to give a charitable generalization. This generalization would have to place the wellbeing of animals within factory farms as being somewhere in between zero suffering (as some meat-eaters would like to believe) and severe suffering (as the vegetarian documentaries portray). So let's generalize and say that there exists both types of factory farms; those in which animals do not suffer at all and those in which animals suffer greatly. There is also a middle ground (which I would assume represents the bulk of factory farms) in which a moderate amount of suffering is felt.

NOTE: You may have noticed that I chose to use the terms Zero, Moderate, and Severe suffering rather than something like Blissful Existence, Neutral Existence, and Agonizing Existence. I have adopted to avoid prescribing the possibility of animals having a Blissful Existence in a factory farm and instead accepted the lesser claim that they might experience Zero Suffering. (which by some definitions, i.e. negative hedonism, is equal to pleasure anyway).

I'll assume that you accept this generalization and I'll move on. I'd like to also take on the optimistic assumption that as human beings we do not want to cause undue suffering. Given the generalization that there are 3 types of factory farms out there (Suffering Free Farms, Moderate Suffering Farms, and Severe Suffering Farms) It would be causing undue suffering to choose anything other than the 'Suffering Free Farm'. I think this is fairly self explanatory: To choose anything other than the Suffering Free Farm meat would be to incur suffering that could be easily avoided (namely by purchasing the Suffering Free Meat).

The problem is that the average consumer simply isn't given enough information about whether or not the meat they come across at woolies or coles has come from a 'Suffering Free Farm'. Nor does the average consumer  have the drive to investigate the source of their meat themselves either. So more often than not the consumer simply picks up whatever is on the shelf. If this is the case then each time the consumer picks up a cut of meat they are taking a gamble on whether or not the meat was humanely raised. If one has accepted my above generalization then a meat buyer is taking a gamble between buying meat that has come from a Suffering Free Farm, a Moderate Suffering Farm, or a Severe Suffering Farm. In keeping with my intentional perspective of epistemological skepticism, and having avoided the task of exhaustive empirical investigation, I have to assume that I have no knowledge whatsoever of the percentages of meat produced by the three aforementioned farms and therefore must make my decision under conditions of extreme ignorance and uncertainty.

I would argue that a logical approach to making a decision under complete ignorance would be to simply assume that each possibility has equal odds of occurring. Under this account there are 2 unacceptable results (Moderate and Severe Suffering) adding up to a percentage chance of 66.66% chance that you have chosen one of these cuts of meat and a remaining 33.33% chance that you have chosen meat that has come from a Suffering Free Farm. It seems that the chances of getting meat from a Suffering Free Farm is less than the chances you will get inhumanely raised meat.

NOTE: If I had decided to go with the alternative scheme of Blissful Existence, Neutral Existence, and Agonizing Existence my argument would probably have become quite interesting as the value of a Neutral Existence would come into question. Ultimately though it doesn't really matter either way because as I am about to explain having just one unacceptable option in the realm of possibilities amounts to the chance to cause undue suffering, which is something that we have agreed we want to avoid.

We are now stuck with the dilemma that we want to avoid inflicting undue suffering but have no control over knowing whether or not we will do so. I reached this dilemma myself and came up with a few solutions:

1) Just don't eat meat.
2) Investigate the source of all meat that I buy to ensure it is ethically raised and slaughtered.
3) Raise my own animals for slaughter so I can personally ensure that they enjoy a healthy, happy, natural life with a painless departure.

All of these options seemed pretty difficult to me but I ended up going with option one. I decided that if skipping meat was a tremendously awful experience I would move on to option two and then again, if awful, on to option three. As it happened however going without meat was pretty easy and I don't really even miss it now. I still do occasionally eat meat, for example if my housemate has purchased too much meat for dinner and is about to throw it out I may eat some if I'm hungry - I don't see the harm in consuming meat that would otherwise be waste material. I just don't gamble on my chances of supporting an inhumane industry when I'm at the supermarket.


  1. A really interesting exploration!

    You should definitely check out 'Eating Animals' by Jonathon Safran Foer. Such a great book.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, coincidentally I've actually got 'eating animals' at home on my bookshelf but i haven't got around to reading it yet! I'll get onto it soon though. :)

  3. Just out of curiosity, how would you respond to the argument (that people actually make) that vegetarianism is also harmful to animals cause it means supporting vegetable farming practices that are injurious to things like mice?

  4. Eli, that is a difficult question. I think a lot of objections to this argument are outlined here:
    There are a few arguments in the above document that cover deontological concerns, but i'm more concerned with the utilitarian side of things.

    First of all the animals welfare must be considered as an aggregate over their lifespan, rather than just the suffering incurred at the termination of their lives. A field mouse may die when the crops are harvested (indeed it might be an excruciating death), but the rest of it's life would have been lived in natural conditions (i.e. free movement, natural reproduction allowed, sunlight, etc). Contrast this with the life of most factory bred animals where their lives are far from natural and enjoyable.

    Looking just at suffering it might be discovered that it would take the painful deaths of 25 field mice to equal the suffering felt by one cow in a factory farm (I just made these figures up btw). The point is that there are further complexities than what initially appear.

    The second argument refers to the fact that factory farming involves bringing into existence animals that may not have existed otherwise. The question is whether or not there is any value to a factory farmed animals life due solely to the fact that we have caused them to exist. I would argue that given the current conditions of factory farmed animals it would be better off that these animals had never existed in the first place. It seems bad to harm an animal that already existed naturally, but it seems intuitively worse to bring into existence an animal and then cause it harm.