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What We Owe to Animals
It’s possible to respect animal rights without banning animal products altogether.
Animal products are fundamental to many people’s visions of the good life. Think of the pâtisserie chef who finds good, life-defining work baking with dairy and eggs. Think of the foodie for whom the pursuit of new tastes and textures represents the height of aesthetic appreciation.
And yet, to produce dairy, eggs, meat, and more, we inflict immense harm upon animals. Every year, some seventy billion terrestrial vertebrates are killed for food globally. We don’t have precise numbers for fish, but the best estimates suggest trillions are killed annually.
Many of these animals live short lives of intense suffering. They are closely confined, physically mutilated, and selectively bred for fast growth. Cows need to be kept pregnant to produce milk, and the dairy industry needs very few bullocks. They—and the male chicks of laying hens—are killed when young. And older, less “productive” hens and cows are a drain on resources. They, too, are killed.
There are forms of animal agriculture that involve less suffering than others. But this is very much the exception, rather than the rule. Around 99% of animals farmed in the United States are farmed intensively—or, to use the colloquial phrase, in “factory farms.” Based on the level of suffering involved, the philosopher Michael Huemer suggests that factory farming may represent the “world’s greatest problem.”
In response to the harm we inflict on animals, many have come to endorse the idea of “animal rights.” Sometimes, people describe this as a concern of “the left,” but I don’t think there’s any reason to restrict concern for animals to left-wingers. In fact, I’ve always thought that animal rights align naturally with liberalism.
At its core, liberalism is a philosophy about leaving others be. You have your gods, hobbies, and sexual proclivities; I have mine. And that’s fine. Provided we don’t use anyone against their will, we are free to pursue our passions. I might think your worship blasphemous, your pastimes inane, your sex perverse. But, if I’m a liberal, I’ll accept that that’s no reason to interfere.
Animal rights, too, is a philosophy about leaving others be. It’s just that those “others” are animals, not humans. A philosophy of animal rights doesn’t call on anyone to reorient their lives around animals, or even—frankly—to like animals. It just says: Treat them with respect. Don’t imprison them. Don’t torture them. Don’t kill them.
Some might balk at the idea of extending rights to beings beyond humans. But animals are thinking, feeling beings who have lives of their own. These lives can get better or worse, as ours can. Plants, rocks, and rivers, by comparison, don’t have a perspective on the world. To paraphrase the philosopher Thomas Nagel, there’s nothing that it’s like to be a sunflower, but there is something that it’s like to be a chicken. In a word, chickens are conscious.
A chicken—like a human but unlike a sunflower—has an interest in avoiding things that make their life become worse. In my view, it’s our possession of interests like these that give us rights. So if animals have interests like these, then, on pain of inconsistency, they have rights too. Admittedly, my interests and a chicken’s interests vary, so our rights will look different. But we share certain core interests, so we share certain rights.
But liberals have practical and philosophical reasons to worry about recognizing animal rights. Doing so means telling many people that the way they live is unacceptable. And that’s something liberals—quite rightly—are wary of doing. For example, respecting animal rights presumably means telling the pâtisserie chef that they’re wrong to cook with dairy and eggs, the foodie that they’re wrong to seek out new meats, and the Jew that they’re wrong to eat chicken soup.
I seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, I have my liberal intuition that I should, as far as possible, leave people to pursue their own vision of the good life. This suggests I should be ready to tolerate the eating practices of others, even if I disapprove. On the other, I have my commitments to animal rights. This suggests that a lot of the food people eat is produced in ways that are fundamentally unjust and illiberal.
For a long time, I thought that a vegan future was the only solution. After all, I reasoned, producing animal products involves violating animal rights. And as much as liberals shouldn’t tolerate people’s activities when they violate human rights, so liberals shouldn’t tolerate people’s activities when they violate animal rights. But then I saw there was another way. Though it’s not easy, we can envision a society in which we respect animal rights and people can consume the animal products valuable to them.
Building a food system in which we can respect animals while still having animal-based foods would be difficult, but not impossible. I suggest that there are four potential pillars of a future food system that might allow us, to coin a phrase, to have our cow and eat her too.
First, the account of animal rights I’ve laid out applies to all conscious beings. But there’s a difference between a conscious being and an animal. There may be some animals—oysters, perhaps—that lack sentience. It needn’t be contrary to animal rights to farm, harvest, cook, or eat these animals, even though products made with them could never be “suitable for vegans.”
Second, we can make meat, milk, and eggs with plants. While I appreciate that some people will find the phrase “plant-based meat” paradoxical, the point is that food producers can increasingly replicate meat to the degree that they are nearly indistinguishable from meat from slaughterhouses. Even “the experts” are increasingly unable to tell them apart.
Third, the last decade has seen rapid developments in “cellular agriculture.” This allows scientists to grow animal products at the cellular level, rather than the organism level. Instead of growing a whole cow for beef or milk, cellular agriculturalists can instead produce meat or dairy with no—or very minimal—bovine input.
Scientists can, for example, take a small number of cells from a living animal, and then use them to grow meat in a bioreactor. As of yet, this meat isn’t available to most consumers. It’s for sale only in Singapore, but the FDA approved it for human consumption in the U.S. in November 2022.
Cultivated meat is only the start. Cellular agriculturalists are developing almost every animal product you can think of: meat and fat from all kinds of animals, dairy, eggs, honey, gelatin, collagen, and more. Dairy products made without cows are available to consumers in the U.S. The production method is similar to the one bioengineers have used to make insulin for decades.
There are important questions to answer about the role of animals in these processes. One concern is that early efforts to produce cultivated meat used fetal bovine serum, a slaughter by-product, to proliferate cells. This is a clear violation of animal rights.
We must also ask about the well-being of the animals who are the source of the cells that are the “seeds” for the creation of cultivated meat. For example, we might worry that a cultivated meat industry would still be complicit in the violation of animal rights: that animal “cell donors” would be locked away in sheds; be subject to invasive, painful procedures; be sent to slaughter when no longer useful; and more. But I don’t think this is a necessary outcome. If done correctly, small-scale, slaughter-free “farms” for cellular cultivation could be a part of an animal-rights-respecting food system. These institutions would probably look more like animal sanctuaries than contemporary for-profit enterprises.
Fourth, perhaps if we could have slaughter-free “farms” producing cells, we could have slaughter-free “farms” for other products. For example, we could imagine a kind of egg farming that respects chickens’ rights or milk farming that respects cows’ rights. This would mean giving animals appropriate living conditions and veterinary care. More than this, I suggest, it would involve reconceptualizing animals as “workers,” protected by workers’ rights, rather than “livestock.” This would be challenging to get right, but given the importance that many people place in animal products, it seems worth the effort.
Maybe I’m being idealistic. In the jargon of political philosophers, I’m engaging in ideal theory. But I think what I envision is achievable, if only we collectively decided to pursue it. And I think we have every reason to do so.
In the future society I imagine, vegans and meat-eaters can live according to the liberal idea of mutual respect. The animal products that meat-eaters value, and the good work associated with these products, will still be available for those who want it. But we won’t force animals to suffer and die for these products. As far as I can see, everyone wins.
Josh Milburn is a Lecturer in Political Philosophy at Loughborough University. He is the author of Just Fodder: The Ethics of Feeding Animals (2022) and Food, Justice, and Animals: Feeding the World Respectfully (2023).
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