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You might assume that animal-rights activists would be better at animal welfare than industrial slaughterhouses. I’ve recently seen two pieces of evidence this is not always the case.

First, are animal lovers that have it wrong. Officials in Valley Forge park outside of Philadelphia are planning on culling the deer population from 1,277 to under 200. Sharpshooters will kill 500 this winter and next,  and 300 to 250 in the winters after that. Animal rights activists “Friends of Animals” are arguing, however, that the deer population should be culled naturally by encouraging the number of coyotes to grow. Officials are objecting because it would take a long time to bring the herd population down and require a large number of coyotes. But from an welfare perspective it’s a little strange of an argument. Surely being chased down and killed by a pack of coyotes must cause much more suffering than being picked off by a sharp shooter.

Next is the industrial slaughterhouses that have it right. Two U.S. chicken producers have begun knocking chickens out with carbon dioxide before they kill them, resulting in a lower stress and lower suffering death. One problem they are havingis that it is difficult to advertise, since buyers don’t like to be reminded that the animals are slaughtered in the first place. This is not encouraging, because it suggests that the current state of advertising is an equilibrium where all firms are hiding information about the actual slaughter. If you can’t brag that you’re being more humane because consumers want to be uninformed, then the market incentives to be more humane aren’t there.

Fortunately there are some incentives, in the form of less bruised and higher quality meat from the lower stress death. Whether motivated by this or not, some firms have made the switch to lower suffering slaughter:

A Nebraska company, MBA Poultry, which sells under the Smart Chicken brand, has been using gas stunning technology since 2005. The company does not aggressively market the technology, but a label on the back of its packages contains the phrase “controlled atmosphere stunning.” The company’s Web site mentions the technology but does not explain what it is.

In Britain, although many chicken processors use gas stunning, store packages typically do not mention it.

For what it’s worth the owner of one of the two U.S. companies that is switching certainly claims to be motivated by animal welfare concerns:

Mr. Sechler said the system he chose, after years of research, was better than similar gas-stunning systems used in Europe. Those systems, he says, often deprive birds of oxygen too quickly, which may cause them to suffer. They are also designed to kill the birds rather than simply knock them out, something that Mr. Sechler is not comfortable with.

Of course as Tyler Cowen has argued, the utilitarian approach to animal rights has it’s limits. Illustrating his point nicely was a recent op-ed in the New York Times that argued that to reduce animal suffering we should gradually eliminate all predators. To me this illustrates we must weigh other values than suffering minimization. Nevertheless, I can’t see any other values that tip the scales in the two instances I’ve discussed above. I think the animal rights activists have it wrong and the slaughterhouses have it right.

Will Wilkinson asks, what things are we doing now that our grandchildren will condemn? Both Will and the op-ed that inspired him noted, among other things, industrial meat. I agree with this one.

On the dissenting side, Josh Barro argued in a recent twitter conversation that the slaughter of animals for food is morally equivalent to torturing animals. No, Josh is not a hard-core animal rights activist arguing against carnivorousness, he is arguing for the legality of torturing animals. In contrast, one could embrace his argument as support for banning the slaughter of animals, after all most people are against the legality of animal torture. But I don’t believe that taking an animals life for food is always ethically equivalent to torturing it.

For one thing most people, including those who highly value the utility of animals, are willing to call an animal “better off dead” and say we should “put it out of their misery” much faster than we would for a human. Despite putting not suffering before life, this is widely understood to be the most humane choice. Animals are unable to appreciate life qua life as humans can. A horse would not be content to rest on broken haunches and enjoy its golden years reminiscing and visiting with younger relatives. They want to walk, run, and be as a horse. When they are too injured to do walk we put them down because it’s the most humane thing to do. I don’t think you’d make the same argument for grandma. We seem to intuitively understand that for animals the moral calculus between suffering and dying is different than it is for humans.

This is not to argue that putting an animal out of its misery is the only time it is morally acceptable to kill them, it’s just to show that relative to humans one should weigh suffering higher than the value of life when considering the welfare of animals.

Likewise, I don’t think you can argue that we should be indifferent to the suffering of animals. What is it that privileges human animals such that we should consider their suffering but not other animals? There are surprisingly few mental characteristics that humans have which one could plausibly consider that some animals don’t also have. There are also few characteristics that most humans have that some percent of humans, especially the mentally disabled, do not.

There are also non-humans of the homo genus and non-human intelligent life to consider. Any moral system should be able to encompass previously existing and potentially existing creatures. By what criteria would we decide whether we should consider their suffering or not? Or, for that matter, by what basis should our vastly superior future alien overlords consider our suffering? Or shouldn’t they?

In one place I do think Josh is correct. He argues that there are many things we do to animals in leading up to the slaughterhouse that make the illegality of explicit animal torture hypocritical. As there are many animals in these situations that would be better off dead, I agree with him. Unlike Josh, however, I take the logical conclusion that those kinds of industry practices should be banned, not that animal torture should be legalized.

Because I don’t want to call Josh a monster, I have to presume he is deluding himself to justify egregious conditions in industrial meat industry. Here is why I don’t believe him: imagine if Josh walking down the street and came upon a man beating a perfectly healthy dog to death (it looks exactly like Lassie). Do I really think that Josh wouldn’t a) call out to the policeman, and b) be very, very glad that it is illegal to beat a dog to death. I don’t think this would be a momentary selfish attempt to end something he finds viscerally unappealing. He would go home and be glad it was illegal. He would wake up the next day, still glad it was illegal.

In reality, Josh probably eats meat that has been tortured every day, but rarely witnesses animal torture; it would be a lot harder to end the former than to rationalize the latter. My guess if Josh had to witness more than a little animal torture he would change his mind. And if not then, with all apologies, I actually do think he is a monster. Which would be a shame, since he seems like a nice guy.

As a final note I want to add that deciding the “correct” policies with respect to animal welfare is difficult. At a bare minimum I think explicit torture should be illegal, and that anything where an animal would be fairly judged better off dead should be banned as well.

Why won’t you consider my suffering

in your social welfare function, Mr.Barro? I too

have von NeumannMorgenstern preferences.

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