Ethical meat: respect for farm animals

Ethics is a human science and is not given in nature. Even if animals are sentient beings but this condition is not enough to possess a moral state. Animals are not bearers of rights but subjects of our precise duties. Besides, food availability is a prevailing human interest, so meat consumption is morally justified.

The writings, positions, depth of the theme, ideal and, unfortunately, ideological contrasts on ethics and animals, are so abundant as to render any attempt to circumscribe the field and to draw judgments of merit anyway incomplete. Before anything else, ethics pursues the aim of improving the lives of men and other living beings while respecting the fundamental natural and cultural principles that govern the biosphere and human societies. This article chooses an operative position by discussing what good or evil means for animals and how this should be interpreted for positive purposes, including the production of food for humans.

Ethics is a human science and is not given in nature. Good and evil are cultural constructs, different in different social contexts, which evolve over time and which require solid dialectical bases to be affirmed and not slip into fallacious reasoning. To affirm therefore that a specific behavior is good as natural, is not an ethical reasoning, so to say that a natural behavior is good in itself, does not make sense.

Many examples could be given for this: for all it is enough to mention the unnecessary pain caused in animals which, if generated by Man, is considered reprehensible, if caused by other animals (carnivores, conspecifics, or competitors) is judged natural. From this premise, it follows that ethics is an exclusively human affair and that the moral behaviors deriving from it must be oriented by rational thought.

To circumscribe the field of discourse, this article tries to answer the question: is it right to raise and sacrifice animals to eat the meat, assuming that animals have rights and if so, which rights or if not, what are our obligations towards animals? (The recent Italian book by Andrea BertaglioIn defense of meat” (2018) addresses in a simple and rigorous way many aspects of the debate between supporters and detractors of the consumption of meat. With the quiet tones used in the various arguments, Bertaglio gives us a vademecum of “good education in dialogue,” in a World of which there is an increasing need.)

To begin to answer the question, we broadly follow the reasoning of the philosopher Hsiao (2015). (An exhaustive treatment of these themes can be found in the Italian book edited by Bertoni (2017).) Animals are sentient beings as different evidences have shown that it is possible to attribute their declarative knowledge without adopting an anthropomorphic perspective (Veisser et al., 2012). (The 2007 Lisbon Treaty in force since 2009, in art. 13, states: “In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.”)

Experimental data from research in animal psychology push to consider that in different species, there are subjective states of which animals are conscious (Rassu et al., 2005; Le Neindre et al., 2017). Animal psychologists are dealing with the concept of personality, defined as “consistent individual differences in behavior,” in which genetic effects are likened to irreversible developmental plasticity (Wilson et al., 2019). In a nutshell, animals experience suffering, so they are aware of it and try, as much as possible, to avoid it, but they have subjective emotions and have the ability to feel and pursue pleasure. However, being sentient, even with individual diversities, is not enough of a condition to possess a moral state.

Causing pain in an animal is wrong, but it is not morally wrong; a good reason is not necessarily a moral reason because, to be such, it needs to refer to a moral fact. Animals do not possess a moral state as they are conscious and sentient beings, but they are not rational beings. Rationality is the presupposition for belonging to a moral community, since only rational beings can act morally. Moral actions are free actions that require the agent to have the ability to know the reason for the action and evaluate the consequences: knowledge and action are two essential objects of ethics. Then, morality is an informal and public system that applies to all rational individuals to govern any behavior that can have consequences on others, in order to avoid evil and pain. Therefore, although it is widely recognized that other nonhuman animals are in various degrees intelligent, they are not rational agents at all and are therefore not belonging to the moral community that is formed exclusively by man.

Well-being is an interest of both humans and animals, but the interest of the first is moral; from this it follows that it is prevalent over that of the latter. Eating is a priority for human well-being, so it is a moral interest. Saving foods from animal pests, including mice, is morally justified. Similarly, eating the meat of animals is a priority for the well-being of man, so the moral interest of the latter prevails over the nonmoral interest of the former. The important thing is that humans do not cause animals unnecessary suffering during breeding and in sacrifice.

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Source: Animal Frontiers, Volume 10, Issue 1, January 2020, Pages 34–38

President Emeritus of the Association for Science and Animal Production, Professor of Special Zootechnics at the Department of Agriculture of the University of Sassari and President of the Sustainable Meat Association.