Monday, April 23, 2012

Ethical Meat: An Essay

Recently, Jayson Lusk and I entered an essay contest hosted by the New York Times on when it is ethical to eat meat. Our essay was not selected, so I'm posting it here. I suspect people didn't like the idea of counting more happy cows as "more ethical" because the animals are raised to be killed for meat.

The finalists selected are here. It seems many contributors believe fertilizer comes mainly from animal manure when it comes almost exclusively from fossil fuels. Or, maybe people believe it is unethical to use fossil fuels as fertilizer.

The Ethical Omnivore
by Jayson Lusk and Bailey Norwood

Who is more ethical: a vegan whose diet prohibits the existence of suffering animals or an omnivore whose desire for meat brings into existence happy animals? Vegans have gained the moral high ground by pointing out that their choices prevent the existence of suffering animals, but seldom do we realize that their actions also prevent the lives of what would be happy animals. Making the world a better place involves more than just preventing the bad. It also means promoting the good.

An ethical justification for meat-eating must ultimately revolve around the actual outcomes experienced by animals—something too often forgotten when a dietary choice becomes a salient part of one’s identity. We can all agree that a sad animal is less preferred than a happy animal, and that two sad animals are less preferred than one sad animal. That is why vegans tout the absence of meat in their diet. Some farm animals live unpleasant lives and the less meat consumed, the less misery the world contains.

However, if we accept this premise, we must also agree that it is better for a happy animal to exist than no animal at all, and that two happy animals are better than one happy animal. While it is certainly true that many animals (farmed and wild alike) live miserable lives, it is also true that many farm animals experience more positive than negative emotions throughout life. Beef cattle, for instance, live most their lives with ample food, protected from predators, and in natural, comfortable habitats. In such cases, it is in the animals’ best interest that they live, and because livestock producers do not raise millions of cows as pets, these happy animals will only live if farmers are paid to raise them—paid by omnivores.

An omnivorous diet that includes food derived from happy animals—and only happy animals—is ethical because it brings into existence animals who live in merriment and precludes the existence of animals who would live in misery.

The ethics of meat eating are more vividly seen by imagining the reality of animal abolition. Attempts to ethically equate ownership of livestock and ownership of human slaves are shaky because the abolition of human slaves and livestock entail vastly different outcomes. Humans can care for themselves. Yet if livestock ownership ceased, we would not witness freedom-loving cows but the near extinction of a species. Farm animals are raised for profit. Animal abolition eliminates the possibility of profit, and implies that many millions of animals will not come into existence. So long as we believe two happy animals are better than one, and one happy animal is better than no animal, animal abolition is unethical.

It would be wrong to categorically assert that meat-eating is ethical. So too would it be wrong to universally claim veganism is the pinnacle of ethical eating. Meat comes from some animals who lead pleasant lives and some who did not. A diet is made ethical when it creates greater happiness, and the only way to effectively ensure that more happy cows exist is to buy meat from farmers who treat their animals well, and to refuse meat from farmers who do not. Instead of asking ourselves whether we should eat meat or go vegan, we should be asking which type of happy animal we will eat today.

—Jayson L. Lusk and F. Bailey Norwood are professors at Oklahoma State University and authors of Compassion, by the Pound: The Economics of Farm Animal Welfare published by Oxford University Press in 2011.