Moral Status of Animals, Factory Farming and Ethics

Currently, I am working with my students on a unit regarding the moral status of animals and factory farming. It is always hard for me to teach this unit, because I struggle with finding a way to explain that the discussion is not about a person’s preference for eating meat, but whether we have a moral obligation to treat animals better. But I tend to fail in this aim because people feel (often) that I am questioning their right to eat meat. I get responses such as “squeal, squeal goes my dinner,” or “don’t you think a celery stock has a right to live,” or as a friend recently posted, “for every animal a vegan doesn’t eat, I’m going to eat three.” I adore my friend and my students, but the point is being missed.

The point I try to make is a simple one: Animals, being sentient beings that are capable of feelings, needs, wants and of creating a family, should be given moral consideration. I personally try to give them full moral consideration, but I understand that humans eat animals and so society tends to have a different relationship with the “potential” food.

Here is my problem, I know many people who are horrified regarding puppy mills, angry at the sacrificing of animals for religious purposes, and outraged at the athlete Michael Vick for his running a dog-fighting ring for five years where he personally killed and abused several animals. But these same people (again not all but many I have spoken to over the years) do not have a problem with factory farms. Why? Is it a form of speciesism where moral worth is assigned according to one’s perceived notion of intelligence for a species (a dog or monkey deserves more moral worth over a cow)? Is it because it is ok to have a personal relationship with a dog or a cat but not with our food? Or is it simply easier to ignore the realities of food production?

Factory farming started in the 1920s and owes a great deal of thanks to Henry Ford and his approach to building cars. In order to maximize the amount of product and profit, minimize the use of land and cost, factory farms keep the animals in small cages and pens where the animals are not allowed to move or roam freely. They quite literally often go to the bathroom (for lack of a nice way to say it) on themselves and stand in the filth. Because there is such a risk of health problems in factory farms, the animals are shot up with a great deal of antibiotics besides other lovely things such as growth hormones, and “vitamins,” and later salt-water (like those chicken commercials).

For me, there are two major considerations on the table (pun intended): 1) Our moral responsibility towards the earth and our fellow animals. 2) Our moral responsibility concerning our own health and well-being over the profit motive of corporations that practice factory farming.

Our moral responsibility towards the earth and our fellow animals: For this area of consideration, I use two forms of consequential reasoning–egoism and act-utilitarianism. Egoism because I am part of this earth, I live here with other people, animals, and nature and I want clean water to drink, food to eat, and a nice place to live. This means that I in turn must treat my environment kindly in order to get out of it what will take care of my own self-interest. Egoists often forget that self-interest should be considered from the long term rather than the short term point of view—I am thinking long term here. From an act-utilitarian point of view, I want to maximize the good for us all (people, nature, animals), because I love life. To do this, I must make choices that encourage a respectful interconnection of all things on earth. This trumps the profit motive for me because if we abuse our earth and its creatures, eventually we will not have what we need to make a profit (again, long term over short term satisfaction). If you REALLY want to satisfy your own self-interest in an Ayn Rand fashion, you have to take care of those around you (it is a catch 22 situation).

Our moral responsibility concerning our own health and well-being over the profit motive of corporations that practice factory farming: unless you were starving, would you eat a bruised piece of fruit or vegetable? Likely, no. Would you eat a vegetable grown with chemicals? Likely no. Why would you not take the same view with the meat you put in your mouth? I do not want a chicken that has been beaten, neglected, left alone to live in its own filthy and or pumped up with chemicals, growth hormones and antibiotics. Healthy meat is tastier and better for you. Let the animal pasteurize, run, and breathe. Further, there is proof that diseases, including the swine flu, are nurtured in factory farm environments, which is why antibiotics and other large quantities of medicines are needed on factory farms. Here I take an egoism point of view – I like my body and I want it to be healthy and so I would rather know what the hell is going into it, and I hope it is not a substance that has the potential to make me sick.

Consider this, in a different world, animals were mostly pasteurized or hunted. We had a relationship with our food outside of the plastic separating us from the beef we are eying. We knew often how the animal was treated before slaughter and we also knew that they were killed quickly and humanely. Can we say that today? Is it really better to keep our eyes closed when important factors such as our health, as well as the animal’s moral worth, are being ignored? I do not eat meat because I have decided that I cannot support factory farming conditions, and I am no longer certain what I am putting into my mouth when it comes to food (transparency become less of interest over the years). I also give animals, all of them, full moral worth. With this said, I try to eat only organic food when I can get my hands on it, because I want to be healthy. Since I stopped eating meat and started eating organic fruits, vegetables and grains, I now remember my dreams (not always a good thing), sleep better on average, have a healthier looking skin color and feel stronger in general. Oh yeah, in two years of not eating meat and going organic, I have only gotten terribly sick once. Percentage before? At least 3-4 times every 6 months. I find this interesting.


7 thoughts on “Moral Status of Animals, Factory Farming and Ethics

  1. thought provoking as usual. I will make more of an effort to buy my meats at Whole Foods from now on. Its something that's been on my mind for a while. I have drawn a line in the sand over what I will and will no accept when it comes to my food. Perhaps its time to redraw parts of it.

  2. Do you mean Whole Checks?! LOL I would stick to local farms if you can find them. Also, a trader Joes if you have it. I also know that our Fred Myers sells local produce and meat as well. I thank you for reading my blog! R

  3. I share your revulsion at factory farming, and would love to avoid any and all unnaturally produced foods, but the simple truth is that I cannot afford to. I try to avoid processed foods and to teach my children the same, and to take heart in the fact that there are people who eat much worse than I do, and seem to survive just fine. Bottom line though, as long as I live in a large city, any spare money I have goes towards affording a house in a neighborhood with decent schools. Hopefully, I'll have pointed my children in sch a direction that they will improve their diets as they gain adulthood.I feel for the animals (and I am of the persuassion that animals are a lot more aware than people give them credit for being), but for the most part prefer not to think about it. It's not a survival mechanism I'm proud of, but at this point I'm kind of stuck.You might take heart in the idea that factory farming practices are based on the availability of cheap energy, something we know cannot last forever (or, at least, will take a break between forms). In the future, locally-grown goods will probably become a necessity again.(I also have a personal theory that exurban tract homes will be the basis of this local farming economy, as poor, displaced, inner-city people move out to the abandonned suburbs and use the large yards to supplement their diets, eventually selling off the excess at "farmers" markets.)As a related aside, have you ever seen the show "Good Neighbors", and old English sitcom about a couple who decide to "leave the rat race", living a home-grown, self-supporting lifestyle, all the while remaining in their suburban home? It's amusing, and ahead of it's time (or, considering the era, right on time, we just went backwards from there).

  4. Dave,A gentleman, retired farmer, contacted me after I made this post and we are going to have an email conversation on the two different points of view regarding factory farming and animals for the market. After our conversation is done, I will be posting it here – I thought it might be healthy to get more than one side of the picture.As for "Good Neighbors," I had not seen it but I shall check it out. Hope all is well with you. R

  5. As a former vegan, I can attest to the fact that I was a lot healthier when I didn't eat meat. I try to buy 'our meat' at Trader Joe's. The whole factory farm angle makes me physically ill.I eat a lot less meat than I used to, although that doesn't really make a difference does it? Eating meat is eating matter how are eating animals that suffered for the most part. Whole Foods is a joke.

  6. Brilliant article. I absolutely agree with everything mentioned in this article. As a nine-year vegetarian, I can't stress enough the benefits to a hormone and cruelty free diet. It changed my life, not only physically but mentally. Give it a whorl, just for a month. You'll feel the difference. I'm no animalist, just has I'm not rascist or homophopic. Simple as that.

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