Opposing In Vitro Meat for the Sake of the Animals

On Wednesday the New York Times ran an editorial called "Million Dollar Meat," in which it suggested that if PETA prevailed in its efforts (about which I blogged here) to end the raising and slaughter of animals for meat, this would represent a bad result for the animals as well as for the "cultural and historical bond between humans and domesticated animals." Referring to those who disagree with this position as "radical animal-rights activists," the editorial characterized the contrary view as follows: "better for animals not to exist at all if there is a chance that they would suffer." "It will be a barren world," the Times editors lamented, "if the herds and flocks disappear in favor of meat grown in a laboratory tank."

The position of the Editorial is faulty in a number of respects, of which I shall select two for elaboration, one having to do with the reality of modern "farming" and the other with the theoretical assumptions that underlie its claims.

As a practical matter, though the editors claim to be "disgusted by the [inhumane] conventional meat industry in this country," it is in fact that very industry that raises and slaughters the overwhelming majority of the billions of land animals who die every year in this country to satisfy people's appetite for flesh. PETA is accordingly not the one driving out the "herds and flocks" or failing to "treasure the cultural and historical bond between humans and domesticated animals" that so enriches our lives, according to the Times editors. It is the real-life meat industry (along with the consumers of meat who directly fund that industry) that does that. The editors seem to harbor an idyllic vision of what farming is or might soon be, a vision that may come from songs like "Old MacDonald had a farm" rather than the real world.

To make the question more difficult, however, let us assume reality away. Assume that the concentrated animal feeding operations that currently mass-produce the meat available at the supermarket could be successfully terminated in favor of the sort of farm that treats the animals with, as the editors want, the "least possible cruelty." Is it then better to live as an animal on such a farm than never to have been born at all? Consider, in answering this question, that most animals on a farm will be killed in the prime of their lives (for that is when they are most suitable for being eaten), separated from their young (for that is how people will be able to dine on lamb -- baby sheep -- and veal -- baby cows), and then killed in a manner that is intended to preserve their meat rather than minimize their pain (by contrast, for example, to euthanasia). Remember too that even the relatively small number of animals who currently live part of their lives in relatively benign conditions end up in a stockyard where the smell of death is palpable and where the eyes and screams of the animals tell us everything we need to know about the "chance that they would suffer."

The ultimate problem with the Times editors' position is that it accepts an argument with respect to animals that it would never accept with respect to human beings, no matter how compromised: that being born to be a mere "thing" for others to use and consume is necessarily better than not being born at all. Imagine for a moment a world in which the state used technology to produce severely compromised human children with the objective of farming these children for organs to service those requiring transplants among the rest of the population. Assume that the babies and children were treated relatively humanely until the need for their organs arose but that the priority would remain the organs, whenever a contest might arise between the wellbeing of the children and the viability of their organs for future transplant. The idea of such a system should rightly horrify readers, even if the babies and children involved would never have been created in the first place in the absence of the organ farming program. Better -- without a doubt -- for them never to have been born (or, if one is pro-life, to have never been conceived) than to have been born into that. We would, moreover, be horrified even though organ farming could save human lives, a far worthier end than satisfying the appetite for flesh in a world with so many healthful and delicious alternatives. (For a fictional account of the horrors of such a system even if rendered as humane as possible, consider Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, Never Let Me Go.)

So, why are we horrified? Is it simply because such babies and children are made up of human DNA? If so, that represents pure "species-ism", as arbitrary and baseless as decisions made purely on the basis of sex or race. If not, then mightn't it be because such babies and children, even though not as mentally able as other people, have experiences of being alive, including of pain and of pleasure, and thus deserve to be treated as valuable in and of themselves rather than as instruments for other people's use? And doesn't a cow or a sheep deserve as much?

Posted by Sherry Colb