Thesis: Is it Ethical to Raise Animals for Human Consumption?

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¶ … ethical to raise animals for human consumption? That question can have many different answers, depending first upon one's concept of ethics and morality. Moreover, answers will depend upon in what period of history one has lived, where one lives, what culture a person is part of, and what food is available for consumption. In the interest of a thorough examination, this paper will approach the question from a purely ethical standpoint, and from the perspective of ethics and morals employed through the process of raising animals for human consumption. The second question to be addressed: When animals are indeed raised for human consumption, what ethical considerations should come into play?

Any discussion of ethics and morals with reference to the relationship between animals and humans should include a look back into history and philosophy. Aristotle believed that there is a natural hierarchy of living beings; he believed that while animals and humans are capable of conscious experience, humans are "superior to animals" because humans "have the capacity for using reason to guide their conduct" according to University of Connecticut research (http://clacc.uchc.edu). Hence, Aristotle reasoned, since animals lack the ability to reason (and rely on instinct) their function is to "serve the needs of human beings" (UCONN), which includes raising animals for human food.

Author Angus Taylor explains the views of several philosophers and leading thinkers such as philosopher Immanuel Kant, who believed that "we have no duties to animals because they are not rational" (Taylor, p. 31). On page 32 of his book Animals and ethics: an overview of the philosophical debate, Taylor references the early Christian doctrines of Saint Augustine [354-430] and Saint Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274] as to the relationship of humans and animals. Those two religious icons believed that "animals, lacking as they do the faculty of reason, have been placed here on earth by God for human use." Another Christian leader, Francis of Assisi, who passed away immediately after Aquinas was born, believed that to place esteem on animals was a way of "honoring God" (Taylor, p. 32).

Confucian philosophy puts forward the notion that "the virtuous person has a feeling of oneness with all living things" and hence the virtuous person "is pained to see the suffering of others, including the suffering of animals" (Taylor, p. 32). As to Islam, being cruel to animals is forbidden and yet in some circumstances the religious sacrifice of animals is permitted; the Koran, however, suggests that "animal consciousness is not limited to instinct and intuition, and that non-human creatures worship God in their own ways" (Taylor, p. 32).

Charles Darwin, meanwhile, believed that many non-human animals "possess the power of abstract thought and can form general concepts" (Taylor, p. 51). Darwin also believed that animals exhibit morality in a sense because they have "social instincts, including parental and filial affection… [Which] lead an animal to take pleasure in the company of its fellows, to feel sympathy for them, and to perform services for them" (Taylor, p. 51). Many animals, including birds, "sympathize with each other's distress or danger," Darwin believed; hence, the legendary author of evolutionary theories was diametrically opposite of Aristotle when it came to morality and animals.

B. Why is This Issue Important?

This issue is important for several reasons, including moral, ethical, ecological / environmental, and health-related reasons. Jeffrey Masson (Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food) points out (p. 33) that "Strange as it seems" humans are the only species on earth that do not have "an instinctive ability to know what food we should eat to stay health." All other animals do understand (instinctively) what food is necessary for them, Masson writes, and yet humans, the superior species, do not know what is best for them and worse yet, humans are "endangering our very existence" through our lack of stewardship and by the way we use animals to provide food for our tables (Masson, p. 33).

As background for the points he wants to make, Masson first runs though the fallacies with reference to humans vs. animals; to wit, humans are: "the only animals with culture" (false, wolves learn wolf culture at an early age); "the only animal to use language" (false, broadly described, animals have communication tools as a kind of language); the "only animals with complex emotions" (false, Darwin demonstrated that animals have emotions in 1872); the only animals "with a sense of death" (false, "elephants mourn their dead perhaps as deeply as we do"); and humans are the only animals who can project into the immediate future (false, look at the face of a dog when the owner gets the leash out in preparation for a dog walk).

Masson makes more points that contribute thoughtfulness to the question of why this issue is important, and the author not just alluding to the age-old debate between vegetarians and meat-eaters in this genre. For example, Masson (p. 34) points out that the "mega-animal farms" (also called "factory farming") are polluting "our air, our water, and our land." He is talking about large pens packed with pigs, cattle, chickens and other animals "trapped as they are fattened up for slaughter." Of course Masson is alluding to the grossness and cruelty of factory farming but he also brings science and environment into his argument.

Scientists worry about the large quantities of methane and nitrous oxide that is produced by industrial farming (Masson, p. 35); indeed "Methane has 23 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide" and nitrous oxide has 296 times the effect that carbon dioxide has on climate change, the author explains. A "full three quarters of the nitrous oxide emissions" in the U.S. come from fertilizer used in agriculture and about two-thirds of all methane emissions worldwide originate from "the massive waste lakes created by giant animal farms" (Masson, p. 35). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the world's 1.3 billion cows account for about twenty percent of methane emissions (Masson, p. 35). The 2.5 billion cattle and pigs on the planet excrete "more than 80 million metric tons of waste nitrogen" each year, Masson continues (p. 36). In the U.S. The animal excrement is 130 times greater than the amount of human excrement, and moreover, factory farm animals in the U.S. produce "87,000 pounds of waste every second" (Masson, p. 36).

Clearly, the contribution to global warming by factory farms and other places where animals are being raised (to be slaughtered and eaten by humans) is substantial, and should be taken into consideration in the discussion of ethics and animals. And this is not an issue that suddenly popped up in the news. In 1991, journalist Gene Wunderlich wrote in the journal Livestock Production and Marketing "…ethical issues are a crucial factor for the livestock industry today… [Including] all aspects of animal use in our food production system, including humane handling, sheltering, feeding, watering castrating, dehorning, docking, breeding, transporting, slaughtering, and preventing and treating illness" (Wunderlich, p. 25).

Wunderlich quotes Albert Schweitzer: "Whenever an animal is in any way forced into the service of man, every one of us must be concerned with the sufferings which for that reason it has thereby to undergo. Let no one regard as light the burden of that responsibility" (p. 26).

The ethical and health issues involved in factory farming come forward on a regular basis thanks to a reasonably vigorous news media. The Sacramento Bee (Fitzenberger, 2004) covered a California State Senate report; "large dairy operations…pose a threat to California's air and water," the report explained, which is highly relevant because California is the "top milk producer in the United States with more than 2,200 dairies" (producing 3.5 billion gallons of milk annually). Dairy lagoons "can break," the report explained, which then sends wastewater into lakes and streams. "Cows and their manure produce gasses that help form ozone and tiny chemical specks that can lodge in human lungs and cause health problems" (Fitzenberger).

C. Arguments For and Against Animals Grown for Human Food

Arguments Against: Many arguments against raising animals for food relate to the allegedly unfair and inhumane conditions employed in the process of raising food. It was reported in U.S. Newswire (October, 2005) that Foster Farms is guilty of "systematic animal neglect" at its poultry operations. The East Bay Animal Advocates (EBAA), quoted in the story, point to the following problems in the chicken "factories" that Foster Farms operates: "stunted grown (broiler Runting syndrome)"; "severe ammonia burns on breast, legs, feet"; "heart attacks (sudden death syndrome)"; "leg abnormalities"; "high newborn chicken mortality"; "fatal respiratory infections"; feather loss and "bloody fecal samples" (www.fosterfacts.net).

EBAA alleges that Foster Farms places "approximately 20,000" chickens in a "growout house" and those chickens reach "slaughter weight" at about six to seven weeks; while waiting to be slaughtered (they are "hung by their legs and their throats are slashes…the jugular vein and carotid artery cut with a sharp, hand-held or mechanical knife") they are "forced to stand on accumulated fecal waste and breathe… [END OF PREVIEW]

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