Tastes Great — Less Killing

There’s an animal rights discussion raging at Megan McArdle’s new digs at The Atlantic. The background is too detailed, and probably too boring to those not interested in the topic, to rehash. However, this statement from Ms. McArdle in response to earlier arguments offers an excellent glimpse at a common fallacy among omnivores.

But I’m still battling with the question of whether animals should have rights. I’m a utility maximizer for animals: I think that eating certified humane meat is a positive moral good, because it causes the creation of additional happy animals (insofar as animals can be understood to be happy). …

There’s a term within the animal rights movement that better explains the ridiculous notion of humane meat. It’s “happy meat”, as in, as long as I believe the animal lived a content life on a farm with ample room to move around and received proper handling and medical treatment, contributing to that animal’s eventual, gruesome death becomes trivial. That’s too simplistic.

The argument is not specifically that animals are treated horribly, making “humane” treatment hunky-dory. Basic laws should cover cruelty, regardless of whether it’s food production or dogfighting. Animals have an identifiable central nervous system. It’s rational to assume that they feel pain. How they process that, we can’t really know, but assumptions and observation indicate that their response differs little from that of humans. Hence, we have a reasonable starting point for laws prohibiting animal cruelty, even in a libertarian model.

The argument rests with the death of an animal. From Certified Humane:

Under the system, growth hormones are prohibited, and animals are raised on a regular diet of quality feed free of antibiotics. Producers also must comply with local, state and federal environmental standards. Processors must comply with the American Meat Institute Standards, a higher standard for slaughtering farm animals than the Federal Humane Slaughter Act.

The American Meat Institute’s recommended animal handling guidelines include this:

AMIF’s audit guidelines recommend that companies conduct both internal (self-audits) and third party audits using the following criteria:

Effective Stunning – Cattle and sheep should be rendered insensible with one shot at least 95 percent of the time. For pigs, electrical wands should be placed in the proper position at least 99 percent of the time. For gas stunned pigs, no more than 4 percent of gondolas may be overloaded.

Hot Wanding (Pigs only) – No more than one percent of pigs should vocalize due to hot wanding. Hot wanding is defined as the application of electrodes that are already energized.

It continues further, although it doesn’t get better. There is an acceptable level of inhumane slaughter within the “humane” standards. We needn’t worry about a potential 5% of cattle who are not effectively stunned on the first shot, making them insensible and unaware of what’s happening to them? I don’t accept that.

The certified humane label is merely a feel-good tool for omnivores. I’m not saying that’s enough to outlaw meat. The argument is more detailed than that, and can’t be summed up in one quick dismissal of non-vegans. I’m even willing to accept that “humane” meat is a positive moral good, as Ms. McArdle claims. The basic welfarist argument that a life ended (barbarically) after being spent not in complete agony is better than a life ended (barbarically) after being spent in complete agony is valid. But that positive gain is neither deep enough nor compelling to solve the full issue (animal death) or to ignore the blatant contradictions in animal cruelty laws that do seem to center more on a “fluffy/cute” test than any sort of principle.