An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2008

Eating animals the nice way

Jeff McMahan

Jeff McMahan is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University and author of “The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life” (2002).

Many people are opposed to factory farming because of the terrible suffering it inflicts on animals, yet see no objection to eating animals that are killed painlessly after having been reared in conditions that are at least no worse, and are perhaps even better, than typical conditions in the wild. Let us refer to this latter practice, in which animals are reared for human consumption but in humane conditions, as ‘benign carnivorism.’ When philosophers discuss the morality of this practice, they sometimes argue that, unlike animals killed by hunters, animals that are raised to be killed and eaten would never have existed if we had not created them in order to eat them. If benign carnivorism enables these animals to have contented lives that they would otherwise not have had, it seems better for the animals as well as for the people who get to eat them. How, then, could such a practice be objectionable?

Those who object to eating factory-farmed animals but accept benign carnivorism generally believe that while animal suffering matters, animal lives do not –or at least not as much. They think that there is a strong moral reason not to cause animals to suffer, and even to try to prevent them from suffering, but not a comparably strong reason not to kill them, or to ensure that they have longer rather than shorter lives.

One possible basis for this view is the difference between how well off and how badly off it is possible for animals to be. Although animals are incapable of the depths of psychological misery to which most human beings are susceptible, their capacity for physical suffering rivals our own. Yet their highest peaks of well-being are significantly lower than those accessible to most human beings. While some animals–dogs, for instance –experience exuberant joy more readily and frequently than many adult human beings do, animals lack other dimensions of well-being that are arguably more important, such as achievement, creativity, deep personal relations, knowledge, aesthetic appreciation, and so on.

There is another, possibly even more important, reason why animal lives matter less than animal suffering. Not only do animals’ future lives promise less in terms of both quality and quantity of good than those of most human beings, but animals are also less strongly connected to themselves in the future in the ways that make it rational to be concerned about an individual’s future well-being for that individual’s own sake now. Because they are not self-conscious, or are self-conscious only to a rudimentary degree, they are incapable of contemplating or caring about anything more than the immediate future. They do not, therefore, have desires or intentions or ambitions for the future that would be frustrated by death.1

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  • 1For discussion of the relevance of psychological continuity within a life to the ethics of killing, see Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 39–43, 69–82.
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