Sunday, July 22, 2012

Meat & (Jewish) Ethics: Animal Welfare vs. Animal Rights

I was struck by a a section of Michael Pollan's book 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' and planned to type it up for your reading pleasure. Happily, I decided to google it first, which led to my discovering that in fact, the whole piece I wanted you to read had already been published in The New York Times Magazine in 2002.

Here's the link to the full article, entitled "An Animal's Place."

The part that I found most instructive was the distinction Pollan made between the ubiquitous 'animal rights' and what he is advocating, 'animal welfare.'
The vegetarian utopia would make us even more dependent than we already are on an industrialized national food chain. That food chain would in turn be even more dependent than it already is on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizer, since food would need to travel farther and manure would be in short supply. Indeed, it is doubtful that you can build a more sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature–rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls–then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do. 
There is, too, the fact that we humans have been eating animals as long as we have lived on this earth. Humans may not need to eat meat in order to survive, yet doing so is part of our evolutionary heritage, reflected in the design of our teeth and the structure of our digestion. Eating meat helped make us what we are, in a social and biological sense. Under the pressure of the hunt, the human brain grew in size and complexity, and around the fire where the meat was cooked, human culture first flourished. Granting rights to animals may lift us up from the brutal world of predation, but it will entail the sacrifice of part of our identity–our own animality. 
Surely this is one of the odder paradoxes of animal rights doctrine. It asks us to recognize all that we share with animals and then demands that we act toward them in a most unanimalistic way. Whether or not this is a good idea, we should at least acknowledge that our desire to eat meat is not a trivial matter, no mere “gastronomic preference.” We might as well call sex–also now technically unnecessary–a mere “recreational preference.” Whatever else it is, our meat eating is something very deep indeed. 
Are any of these good enough reasons to eat animals? I’m mindful of Ben Franklin’s definition of the reasonable creature as one who can come up with reasons for whatever he wants to do. So I decided I would track down Peter Singer and ask him what he thought. In an e-mail message, I described Polyface and asked him about the implications for his position of the Good Farm–one where animals got to live according to their nature and to all appearances did not suffer. 
“I agree with you that it is better for these animals to have lived and died than not to have lived at all,” Singer wrote back. Since the utilitarian is concerned exclusively with the sum of happiness and suffering and the slaughter of an animal that doesn’t comprehend that death need not involve suffering, the Good Farm adds to the total of animal happiness, provided you replace the slaughtered animal with a new one. However, he added, this line of thinking doesn’t obviate the wrongness of killing an animal that “has a sense of its own existence over time and can have preferences for its own future.” In other words, it’s O.K. to eat the chicken, but he’s not so sure about the pig. Yet, he wrote, “I would not be sufficiently confident of my arguments to condemn someone who purchased meat from one of these farms.” 
Singer went on to express serious doubts that such farms could be practical on a large scale, since the pressures of the marketplace will lead their owners to cut costs and corners at the expense of the animals. He suggested, too, that killing animals is not conducive to treating them with respect. Also, since humanely raised food will be more expensive, only the well-to-do can afford morally defensible animal protein. These are important considerations, but they don’t alter my essential point: what’s wrong with animal agriculture–with eating animals–is the practice, not the principle. 
What this suggests to me is that people who care should be working not for animal rights but animal welfare–to ensure that farm animals don’t suffer and that their deaths are swift and painless. In fact, the decent-life-merciful-death line is how Jeremy Bentham justified his own meat eating. Yes, the philosophical father of animal rights was himself a carnivore. In a passage rather less frequently quoted by animal rightists, Bentham defended eating animals on the grounds that “we are the better for it, and they are never the worse. . . . The death they suffer in our hands commonly is, and always may be, a speedier and, by that means, a less painful one than that which would await them in the inevitable course of nature.”

So that's what I wanted to clarify for readers of this blog. I think that we should be focusing on animal welfare. I am a meat-eater and I will remain a meat-eater. I just want to be an ethical meat-eater. And I think the best way to accomplish that goal is to ensure that I do not eat animals that were tortured until the time that they were killed.

In other news, this Shabbat Heshy and I ate our first sandwich steaks produced by Grow & Behold. They were delicious! What astonished me is that there really was a difference in flavor. If I simply licked a piece of the meat, I could taste flavor, in the same way that if you were to lick ice cream in a cone, you would get that delicious creamy cold enjoyment on your tongue. Normally, when I simply lick a piece of meat, I don't get that kind of flavor- I would have to bite into it first.


Sam said...

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that although animals do not have rights, we as humans do have duties toward them.

Observant Jew said...

OK. So after analyzing all these sources and comments I reached the following possible conclusion:

In order to increase the benefits of the human, we are permitted to cause some discomfort to the creature.
This would include for example working the animal (even with occasional limited whipping when needed) or shooting the animal (for a gentile, instead of shechting) or even confining the animal to some extent.
We are prohibited from causing the animal severe pain and/or anguish.
If however the benefit for the human is great then there is some margin that is permissible, but still frowned upon.

FYI There is a responsa from the Noda-beyehuda where he rules that hunting for sport is not technically a sin but is unbecoming for a Jew (and, I might add, a Gentile that practices Torah-style compassion).

We are also warned that when we do engage in permissible treatment of animals, we must avoid incompassionate behavior or attitudes. e.g. The story in the Talmud when Rebbe rebuffed the frightened calf without compassion and suffered pain for years until he was extra merciful to a cat.

I wonder if those countries that outlawed shchitta are so hypocritical that they allow these methods of animal farming.

The Polish government was on the verge of outlawing shchitta when WW2 erupted and most of the poles aided and abetted murdering the Jews and shipping them off to Auschwitz.