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.