The animal rights debate has necessitated much philosophical re-evaluation of our relationship with animals as pets, consumable livestock, and involuntary test subjects for human medical experimentation. I will take the position that it is permissible to eat the flesh of non-human mammals when there has been both an equal consideration of these animals interests as well as their capacity for pain, and the consequent mitigation of unnecessary suffering alongside the enhancement of these animal's lives preceding their deaths for human consumption because 'animal rights' does not preclude animal husbandry or killing for consumption on an ethical basis. This paper will not explore the vast bodies of literature regarding the subjects broached and will thus not address all possible supports and objections central to this very complex debate, but will instead rely on two primary arguments to demonstrate its points.
The first is Peter Singer's prescription for universal animal rights as addressed through his utilitarian approach within the framework of the rights debate itself, and the second is the interpretive eastern philosopher Alan Watts's simultaneous rebuff of both the commodified industrial slaughter of factory farms as well as vegetarianism in its uncompromisingly abolitionist forms, evaluating it to be an evasion of the central truth that life does, ultimately, feed on other life. Despite his critique of vegetarianism, Watts' did later take up the dietary habit himself; when asked why he had done so, he famously quipped, “because cows scream louder than carrots.”1 In this paper, I will be extrapolating, rephrasing, and, at some points, re-interpreting Watts's main philosophical arguments and contrasting them with Peter Singer's position in favor of full animal rights as the equal consideration of individual interests. What results is a position supporting animal welfare in a very broad sense, wherein the basic sanctity of these lives is deeply respected and the death is swift and painless when the time for consumption arrives. As such, it is permissible to eat the flesh of a non-human mammal if the life of said mammal has been given equal consideration not only in an ethical death, but in the life preceding said death; and, as will be demonstrated, this should logically also apply to an equal consideration of the interests of plant-life, insofar as it is known that plants do feel pain—but do not have the same complex psychological capacity to consternate over said pain in the same way humans can. More complex animal life, with some exceptions, cannot be said to 'consternate' (as in, become filled with anxiety over) pain in any anticipatory way entirely analogous to humans, unless they are being physically harmed or threatened with such quite visibly. Their reactions to pain, like ours, are hardwired in as basic instinct. The difference is that our pain is often amplified into many different forms of often uselessly or involuntarily prolonged psychological (and thus physiological) suffering through excessively 'creative' processes of thought and worries about the future or the past, thus able to—and often—anticipating future pain or suffering, causing greater commensurate suffering in the subjective life of the individual.
In its universal prescriptions for the total abolition of animal agriculture and consumption, extreme elements of the animal rights debate project anthropocentric characteristics on non-human beings in a way similar—but not directly equivalent—to the exploitative anthropocentric prejudices born of the Judaeo-Christian psyche, in which animals, plants and everything else are made for 'man,' whether in exploiting natural resources including non-human mammal flesh, or acting as their benevolent suzerains as designated by Judaeo-Christian, or Western, cultural orthodoxy. Resting on such assumptions, abolitionists ultimately choose to privilege the rights of animal life based on an evolutionary proximal relatability in the form of sentience and an ability to feel emotions often uncannily like our own. If we can relate to animals based on Singer's definition of equality as extrapolated from a criteria established on the 'lowest common denominator' of similarities between humans and animals, we can (and, by Singer's logic, must) do the same for plants; though just as 'equal consideration of interests' is dependent on the contextual 'interests' of the beings or people involved, so would we reach a separate criteria of 'lowest common denominator' similarities between humans and plant-life.
What this yields is not the same moral sensation of equality in consideration of interests as established between humans and animals, but a new set of considerations relative to a separately measured criteria wherein we do not treat plant-life and its capacity for pain with an anthropocentric guilt complex, but instead recognize and respect plant-life's capacity for pain within its own unique context. Does it then inevitably follow that such consideration would preclude us from consuming plant-life? Or does it simply imply 'ethical consumption'? It has been shown that plants do indeed feel pain insofar as they have some sort of nervous system, but that they do not 'consternate' over such pain, just as many animals do not. The difference is that non-human mammals still have a nervous system centralizing and interpreting signals in the brain, thus able to feel pain in a much more consolidated, self-conscious sense that does, ethically, require a deeper consideration as regards the animal's right to life and freedom from useless and unnecessary suffering. Now, the question that is begged is whether this likewise should preclude us from consuming non-human mammal flesh, or if this too is a case requiring ethical consumption. It could even imply a more nuanced measurement based not on broad generalizations (such as 'animals' or 'non-human mammals'), but on species in particular. This does not imply that we are thus able to kill and eat our pet dogs and cats as that would be said to be abrogating not only an established convention of affection for these animals as pets in this context, but an embedded cultural norm as well, as selectively discriminatory as it is or may seem. Within differing parameters, it is not inherently wrong to consume cats and dogs as livestock like we do other non-human mammals providing they are given an equal consideration of interests under such circumstances. This may almost seem Kantian insofar as animals are portrayed as mere means to human ends and never as ends in themselves, as Kant asserted humans to be. What I would like to propose is not treating animals as mere means to human ends, but as ends in themselves (just as plants are) who can still ethically be a means to human consumption sans being neurotically moralized from an elevated place of anthropocentric moral indignation which extrapolates and overlays too much of our manufactured rights debate onto our relationship with animals in a way that suggests direct equivalency in context. Animals are seen as being almost lower-format humans who operatively yearn for equivalent treatment, as distinct from an equal consideration of each being's interests.
Though this is not the explicit message pushed by Singer, it seems to be the implication of his musings on the matter that animals must be considered not only with the same ethical weight, but through the same complex social lens of the 'rights' debate. What reveals the anthropocentrism central to such opinions is the fact that rights will always be extrapolated, delegated, and applied to these animals from 'on high'—as in, from humans socially contextualized enough to consensually sign the implicit 'social contract' that comes with the constructed rights debate. This is not to suggest the rights debate is totally null or useless in regards to animals, but simply to point out that our relationship with animals is deeply contextual and our considerations of their interests must occur within this understanding of said context just in the same way we find ways to sustainably interact with, cultivate, and grow plant-life with a consideration for its effect on a wider environment, its vague capacity for pain, and the basic fact that it is life, the sanctity of which must be deeply respected most especially as regards consumption. When all is said and done, however, life does—and always has—fed on other life. Our best hope and highest calling as human beings is to make such a cycle of consumption an ethical one for all life involved.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN AS A SHORT ESSAY PIECE FOR A PHILOSOPHY CLASS I AM IN ON THE "MORAL PROBLEMS OF CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY" AT THE BEGINNING OF MAY OF 2017.