Some critics of veganism and animal rights advocacy claim that if we stopped eating meat, many species of farm animals would go extinct. The extinction of a species is seen as a bad thing, and so it is argued that we ought to keep breeding animals for food.
It isn’t obvious to me that many farm animals would go extinct if animal farming came to an end, but let’s ignore that. I want to challenge the claim that it’s an instrinsically bad thing if a certain species ceased to exist. The first thing to note is that “species” is a concept. A species is not an individual. It isn’t conscious, it has no experiences, and hence it cannot have an interest in continuing to exist. An individual who is sentient, on the other hand, does have an interest in continued existence and not being killed.
Consider the following scenario: animal rights activists have their way and industrial farming comes to an end. The existing cattle at the time are taken care of and live reasonably good lives. A few generations down the line, cattle go extinct, due to low rates of breeding. What exactly about this is unethical? Is this a bad outcome? If it is, who exactly is harmed by this state of affairs?
It can’t be the species of cattle. As I stated earlier, a species has no interests, and hence can’t be harmed. It can’t be the individual cows of the last generation either. They lived out their lives and weren’t harmed in any way. Perhaps it’s all the future cows that could otherwise have existed, but didn’t, that were harmed? But this doesn’t make sense. A being can’t be harmed by not being brought into existence – because there isn’t anyone to be harmed in the first place. If not bringing individuals into existence is somehow harmful, then we ought to maximize procreation and have as many children as we can, and that sounds pretty absurd. Perhaps the environment is being harmed in some sense? Again, it isn’t clear how the nonexistence of a certain species of farm animal could harm the environment more than industrial farming.
In the above scenario, no one is harmed. If we continue to slaughter cows for food, certain beings are harmed, since cows have an interest in not suffering and in staying alive. So if the goal is to avoid harm, our choice is obvious.