Over half the households in the U.S. include pets. Most live a good life with food, shelter, and companionship readily available. In fact, $22 billion is spent on their food. Since cats and dogs are carnivores this means many animals are used as food. Most of these animals are farmed animals. Their lives have nothing in common with the lives of the pets; they are referred to as livestock and kept at some distance from most humans. Like pets, these animals have particular needs when it comes to food, shelter, and companionship. But unlike pets who have foods aimed at maintaining their health and extending their lives, livestock face feeding practices that cause health problems. The confined housing situations — often justified by the need to provide shelter from weather and predators — spread disease and result in respiratory, eye, and skin problems. And finally, while companionship is important to almost all animals this is not a priority in livestock production. Offspring are weaned at unnaturally early ages, animals are housed in numbers that inhibit natural bonds and hierarchies, and animals are moved with little concern for herd or flock structure.
While there is growing recognition that dogs and cats have complex physical, psychological, and social needs fewer people recognise that livestock animals are similarly complex. One reason for this is that the philosophical discourse around animal issues has been polarised. Some philosophers argue for the need to respect animal rights (Tom Regan, Gary Francione). Groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) take this approach stating that it would be better if there were no domesticated animals of any kind. Some argue for the need to address animal welfare (Peter Singer, Bernard Rollins). The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) seeks to improve but not end human relationships with animals — livestock included. Still others focus on the need to extend empathy and care (e.g. Carol Adams, Josephine Donavan). The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) is in line with this approach. I think these deontological, utilitarian, and care approaches have been helpful but can be too rigid.
The rights approach results in calling for an end to relationships with animals. This does not make sense since humans and animals have co-evolved and continue to fulfil vital physical and psychological needs for each other. It alienates people who actually care about animals. The welfare approach’s focus on mitigating suffering is a position more people are comfortable with, but it supports the idea that some animals are rightly valued for their use as food and others for their companionship. As long as needs are met, and suffering addressed it is fine to understand livestock animals as existing primarily for the benefit of humans and their pets.
The care approach does understand animals as complex beings in relationship with each other, with humans, and the environment, but often relies on the emotional pull certain animals can elicit. This approach can be strengthened by mixing in American Pragmatism. Pragmatism understands human life as being in relationship with the environment and other animal life. It stresses an experimental approach that accounts for pluralistic and changing circumstances. It may make use of the rights, welfare, and care approaches, but it does not reduce the issue to any one of these. Rather than seek absolute moral stands on the relations between human and other animal beings, this approach seeks to make actual relations better and seeks to create dialogue and cooperation among currently opposed groups in order to effect change. Examples of this might be the HSUS working with livestock producers rather than alienating them and getting people with pets to connect with the livestock whose lives and deaths provide food for their dogs and cats.
The U.S. will probably never become a vegetarian society, and dogs and cats are unlikely to disappear. This means we need to think carefully the lives of livestock. We need philosophical views that promote dialogue, acknowledge historical and social contexts, and recognise that human fallibilism undercuts any claims to have “the” answer. Promoting absolutistic positions grabs headlines and gives people some sense of moral righteousness, but it rarely promotes actual lasting reform in people’s views or habits. What we need now is new understandings of how humans are interrelated with the rest of animal life. No simple extrication from these relationships is possible or desirable. We need a more pluralistic philosophical approach to these issues instead of using animal issues as a battleground for opposed academic schools of thought.
Recommended Reading: Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production, Nicolette Hahn Niman (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014).