A lot of people agree that we cannot morally justify the way we treat animals in factory farms and slaughterhouses. The question of whether there might be ethical ways of raising animals for food is more contentious. It is a widely held belief that if an animal is raised with kindness and lives a happy life, there is nothing wrong with killing it quickly and painlessly in order to consume it. Even one of the founders of the animal welfare movement, Peter Singer, thinks that there might be acceptable ways of raising and killing animals in some circumstances.
The belief that motivates this sort of attitude seems to be that while animals have an interest in not suffering, they don’t necessarily have an interest in continued life. Why is this? In Practical Ethics, Peter Singer claims that with the exception of dolphins and great apes, animals don’t have the necessary cognitive sophistication to have such an interest. They don’t have the requisite kind of self-awareness. They don’t have, in Singer’s words, “an understanding of what it is to exist over a period of time” or “the capacity to think ahead and have hopes and aspirations for the future.”
Before I actually examine in this claim, I have to make three quick points. First, claims about the cognitive capabilities of animals are empirical claims that we have often been wrong about in the past and may well be wrong about today. In fact, most farm animals are a lot more self-aware than we previously imagined. Second, “humane” farming is almost certainly not going to be economically viable in the long run – we simply don’t have the money, land or resources to give enough animals happy lives to feed billions of people. Finally, everything Singer said about the cognitive capabilities of nonhuman animals applies to some humans, such as the severely mentally disabled of all ages. So presumably there would be humane ways of raising them for consumption too, and I think very few people would be willing to accept this. These are all good reasons to give up animal products entirely, but I want to provide a more principled reason for why it’s wrong to end the lives of animals (and cognitively impaired humans).
Recall that the argument for why animals don’t have an interest in continued life goes something like this: Most animals don’t have the ability to see themselves as individuals or “selves” persisting over time – they don’t have the concept of “staying alive” or “continuing to live,” and hence cannot have the conscious desire to stay alive. And if a being doesn’t have a desire to stay alive (so the argument goes), it doesn’t have an interest in continued life. The problem with this view is that it takes an overly narrow view of desires and what constitutes a desire. In The Death of the Animal Paola Cavalieri gives the example of our desire to breathe oxygen. We almost never have the conscious desire to breathe oxygen, in the sense that we don’t go around thinking “I want to breathe oxygen” all the time. But it would be ridiculous to conclude from this that I don’t have the desire to keep breathing. In other words, in addition to all the conscious desires we hold, we also have background desires. In Do Animals Have an Interest in Continued Life, Aaron Simmons calls such a desire a dispositional desire: “we would likely experience this desire given the appropriate circumstances.” In other words, I might not consciously desire to breathe right now, but I would if I found myself suffocating.
A lot of our desires are dispositional desires. The desire for life, food, shelter, a financially stable future, love, companionship… We don’t consciously hold these desires most of the time. Simmons connects the concept of a dispositional desire with that of enjoyment. What does it mean to say I enjoy something? Simmons uses the example of art: to say that I enjoy painting doesn’t necessarily mean that I currently want to paint; I may not be in the mood to paint right now. But if it’s something I enjoy, it’s something I will keep returning to. To enjoy something means, to quote Simmons, that “one is disposed or motivated by one’s behavior to pursue that thing,” which in turn means that one has a dispositional desire for that thing. What different animals enjoy varies according to species. But roughly, we know they enjoy certain activities since they engage in them repeatedly – eating, sleeping, playing, sex, etc. Animals may not be able to tell us using language “I enjoy doing these things and want to stay alive so that I can do them,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t desire these things. And since animals have these dispositional desires, they indirectly have an interest in continued life. By killing an animal, you are indirectly thwarting his or her desires. Life is the means by which animals pursue everything of value to them.
If animals have an interest in continued life, overriding that interest without a very good reason is morally unjustified. Since most of us in modern industrialized nations can nourish ourselves in ways that don’t involve the death of animals, it would follow that killing them is morally unjustifiable – painlessly or not.