Anyone who has read Kristof’s work knows how compassionate he is toward the suffering of other human beings with his tireless coverage of the genocide in Darfur. But when he tried to share those torn feelings about the suffering of animals, many of the huge outpouring of reader comments from animal rights supporters slammed him mercilessly.
When it comes to issues, those surrounding animals may well be as much of a hot-button for as many people as some of the other more traditional wedge issues like abortion or gay rights. Especially for those of us who have been close to animals either as pets or on a farm, they have a special place in many of our hearts.
But for all of us who care about animals, there is a fork in the road where we must choose where we want to go. Do we choose to support animal rights?
Or animal welfare?
Animal rights, also known as animal liberation, is the idea that the interests of animals, such as the interest in avoiding suffering, should be afforded the same consideration as the interests of human beings. Although animal rights advocates approach the issue from different philosophical positions, they argue, broadly speaking, that animals should no longer be regarded as property, or used as food, clothing, research subjects, or entertainment, but should instead be regarded as legal persons and members of the moral community.
Animal welfare refers to the viewpoint that it is morally acceptable for humans to use nonhuman animals for food, in animal research, as clothing, and in entertainment, so long as unnecessary suffering is avoided. The position is contrasted with the animal rights position, which holds that other animals should not be used by, or regarded as the property of, humans.
Especially after reading some of the comments by animal rights people to Kristof’s column, I am well aware and accept that there is likely nothing I could say on the animal welfare side that would be persuasive to them. But since this blog is about opinions, I will nonetheless share why I am in the animal welfare camp.
I admit that I like Kristof am torn on this subject. While I am sensitive to the feelings of animals and was especially moved by a beautifully written essay A Piece of Meat, I am also a passionate foodie who gets tremendous enjoyment from good food — including meat.
In addition, I will admit that there are a number of compelling health reasons to consider giving up meat. But for humans to give up meat or other animal products as a moral way to change the world is to me, ignoring much of the reality of the world. For one thing, in nature the animal kingdom includes a large number of carnivores (who eat meat exclusively) and omnivores (who eat either plants or animals based on opportunity or choice). And even a scientist who is a vegetarian agrees that Humans Are Omnivores.
So even in the extremely unlikely event that all humans were to give up eating meat and using all animal products, the food chain in nature would still go on. If we are all part of the same animal kingdom, why is it not immoral for other animals to kill and eat other animals but immoral for us?
And since religion and morality are so often intertwined, it deserves a mention here. While some religions forbid the eating of certain creatures, very few take the sanctity of life to the point where the use of all animals is prohibited. For example, the New Testament (John 21) tells us that Jesus prepared roasted fish for his disciples (and presumably wore leather sandals). And while Hindus especially in India are often vegetarians, the religion does not expressly prohibit meat. In addition, while cows are almost never eaten in India, dairy products from them are an important part of their diet.
For those who would like to listen to George Carlin’s totally irreverant take on the sanctity of life, check out this video link.
But even for those of us who accept that animals must die to indulge our desire for meat, there is still the issue of whether food animals are treated as humanely as possible given the circumstances of their existence. Factory farming has drawn a great deal of criticism over questions about humane animal treatment along with their effects on the environment due to the large scale waste problems of handling so many animals in such a confined space. Now California Proposition 2 will be on the ballot in November to follow other states who have enacted similar laws to promote more humane treatment of our food animals.
While more humane animal treatment is something we should all be sensitive about, there are both advantages and disadvantages to factory farms. As repulsive as they may be, they are providing affordable food to a growing world population. We need to be careful that any changes we make will not result in some food becoming unaffordable for those who are the most needy. In addition, if some states pass laws that put their own farmers’ food products at a competitive price disadvantage compared to those from other states without such laws, some producers may be forced out of business or just move to another state to stay in business. For the worthwhile changes to factory farms we can agree on, perhaps national legislation can address this issue — if we also agree to regulate imported products based on the same considerations.
In many ways this is similar to issues surrounding other products that come to market. We all want the lowest prices possible, but hopefully not so much that we will agree to inhumane labor conditions. For those of us who care about animal welfare, can’t we at least try our best to do away with the inhumane conditions of those creatures we rely on for our daily food?