Economics, Slavery, and the Humane Treatment of Animals

Wednesday’s New York Times contained a letter to the editor responding to a recent article attacking modern methods of pork production. The letter, composed by the President of the National Pork Producers Council, asserts that “America’s 67,000 pork producers treat their animals humanely. They do so because it’s the moral and ethical thing to do, and it’s in their best economic interest.”

Before even considering the merits of the claim, it is worth noting -- as I do in teaching my Evidence students about the impeachment of witnesses generally -- that the letter-writer has a bias that might render anything positive she says about the production of pork suspect. Beyond this general point, it is important to respond to the claim that those who traffic in animal flesh have an economic incentive to treat their animals humanely. For many well-meaning people who consume meat and other animal products, this argument has some appeal: why would one want to treat animals cruelly? Wouldn't such cruel treatment degrade the quality of the animals’ meat?

The flaw in this argument lies in the assumption that treating a large group of living creatures humanely increases their economic value to others. To put it most basically, those who raise animals for slaughter or other use have two separate economic goals: to produce as much meat (or cheese or eggs) as possible per dollar of investment, and to produce a high-quality product. Intensive farming methods -- which produce most of the meat and other animal products consumed in the U.S. -- emphasize the former goal over the latter. Per dollar of investment, intensive farming produces an enormous amount of meat. Even if many of the animals involved die in the process, enough survive to make the "yield," in terms of meat brought to market, more profitable than it would be at an analogous but less cruel farm in which the animals all survived until slaughter. (This calculus does not take account of externalities such as pollution, let alone the animals’ suffering, because others bear these costs.)

One farmer, quoted in the very readable The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason (2006), explained that he might pay for an anesthetic when castrating his bulls if it only cost a penny or so, but it costs more than that, so he doesn't. Just think about that for a moment: in one small part of the process of producing the beef that people eat, bulls are castrated without anesthesia. If such pain were inflicted on a human terrorist suspect, it would fall easily within the definition of "torture," even under the Bybee memo's stingy definition.

To see that economics will not generate the humane treatment of farmed animals, one need only look to a relatively recent institution in the U.S. in which sentient, intelligent and emotionally advanced human beings were bought, sold, and used involuntarily to serve the needs of other human beings, much as sentient, intelligent, emotionally advanced animals continue to be used today. I speak here of slavery. Some suggested, during the time of slavery, that slave-holders could not possibly be engaging in the sorts of brutality of which they stood accused by abolitionists. Slave-holders, they argued, had a built-in incentive to treat their slaves humanely, because a person who is beaten and injured cannot be as productive as a person who is treated well. As it turned out, however, maximizing the utility of slaves did not appear to entail their humane treatment, and brutality was a routine part of a slave's existence. Indeed, as I learned recently from Harriet A. Washington, the author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, some perpetrators of slave torture continue to be celebrated today. For example, James Marion Sims, the "Father of Gynecology" and the first doctor in the U.S. to have a statue built in his honor, made many of his important discoveries while performing unanesthetized surgeries on African-American female slaves. He could have given many of them (along with slaves whom he used in other medical experiments) ether, but he did not think it was worthwhile to do so. If one is concerned only with the cost to oneself, then, the moral difference between using anesthesia and using manual restraints becomes inconsequential.

What slavery does -- whether the slave is a human being or an animal -- is to render the subjective experience of the slave irrelevant. The reports of people outside the industry who have observed and examined feedlots, slaughterhouses, and other such places confirm the irrelevance of animal suffering to the industry.