The way that we think about death can have a profound impact on our answers to the moral questions we encounter in ordinary life. Take the case of humane meat farming. Those of us who feel repulsed by contemporary animal-rearing as practiced in grotesque “factory” farms have a few options. We can transition to vegan diets – which are becoming more popular and feasible by the day – or we can choose to source our meat and animal products from humane farms, from animals in decent-to-very-good living conditions. At first glance, humane animal products strike many of us as ethically sound – we picture an idyllic pasture with cows and chickens roaming free, a far cry from your typical factory farm. But, as vegans will point out, meat farming, humane or not, involves the slaughter of sentient creatures. Can humane meat, then, possibly constitute an ethically acceptable alternative?
Our answer to this question will turn on a great many factors – the environmental impact of humane meat, the ethicality of imposing human control on animals, the possibility of animal rights, and so on – most of which I will not discuss here. Rather, I intend to focus in on one particular aspect of this ethical debate. In recent years, some critics of humane animal farming have argued that death itself constitutes a harm to farm animals. Assuming that we are opposed to harming animals (otherwise, why oppose factory farms?), humane farming cannot then be ethical. This position has power, both emotionally and philosophically. In my recent article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, however, I argue that typical humanely raised animals are not, in fact, harmed much by their deaths. This finding may vindicate humane meat farming – or it may give us reason to change the way we think about death.
Philosophers have, by and large, settled on a conceptual picture of the harmfulness of death. On this account, called the “deprivation account,” dying is harmful to the one who dies because and to the extent that in dying she misses out on valuable life. In order to assess the harmfulness of a particular death using the deprivation account, we compare the world in which the victim dies with the nearest possible world in which she goes on living – where the “nearest possible world” is a possible world which is identical to the real world, except for the minimum number of changes required to make it so that our victim did not die. In recent years, the work of figures like David DeGrazia, Elizabeth Harman, and Ben Bradley has convincingly established that the deprivation account applies to many nonhuman animals, including the vast majority of animals we are interested in farming.
Our task, then, is to actually apply the deprivation account to the nonhuman animals in which we are interested –humanely farmed ones. For these purposes, let us imagine a cow named Annie, who up until recently lived a generally pleasant life on a typical humane meat farm, and who was slaughtered for her meat this morning. What would most likely have happened to Annie, had she not died as she did? First, I’ll survey the good and bad possibilities that await Annie in possible worlds in which she survives, then I’ll talk briefly about how likely these possibilities really are.
There are a number of good alternative possibilities for animals like Annie. We can imagine worlds in which her farmers or some other caretakers (perhaps a farm animal sanctuary), continue to furnish her with a high standard of living until her peaceful death in old age. As I discuss below, however, neither of these is especially likely.
There are also a number of not-so-good possibilities. One possible world in which Annie was not slaughtered this morning involves a malfunction in the slaughterhouse Annie’s farmers employ, only briefly delaying her slaughter. Another involves Annie escaping, at the last second, to the wild – where she, the descendant of generations of domesticated animals, is unlikely to fare well.
Annie is owned by typical humane meat farmers – a group with, in general, neither the resources nor the inclination to take care of their animals long-term. Further, though there are cases in which farmers have converted to veganism and sent their animals to a sanctuary, these cases are relatively few and far between (not least because there are not very many farm animal sanctuaries). On the other hand, slaughterhouses – complicated systems of machinery notoriously staffed by overworked and underpaid employees – face regular delays. Similarly, as anyone who reads “feel-good” news stories knows, animals escape from slaughterhouses surprisingly often. Given that Annie’s farmers are not exceptionally kind-hearted, then, the alternatives to death she faces are most likely quite bad for her. If we think that the deprivation account as presented above correctly describes the harmfulness of death for animals, then Annie’s death must not be very harmful for her. Humane meat farming, then, is vindicated against one line of attack.
Or maybe not. This result is, for many of us, very counterintuitive. It just doesn’t seem plausible – at least, not to this author – that slaughter can be as morally inconsequential as this discussion makes it seem. And if this intuition is strong enough, it may push us towards searching for a new way to think about death, one which can handle analysis of the deaths of animals like Annie more plausibly. In the full paper, I propose four starting points for such a new account of the harm of death. Generally, these are inspired by the spirit of the deprivation account, but with minor tweaks that allow us to rethink humane animal slaughter. Further reflection on the nature of the harm of death, on the sorts of harms to which we subject the animals under our control, and on the many other relevant questions will be required before we can come to a definite conclusion on humane animal farming.