This post is part of an ongoing series called Most Common Justifications for Eating Animals where we seek to provide answers and resources to better address these justifications.
But I only buy humane animal products.
This response is becoming more and more common as more concerned people become aware of so-called “factory farming” and the solution that is presented to us: egg, dairy and meat products labeled and marketed as “humane.” But this framing of the issue naively relies on animal agriculture actually telling the truth rather than telling us what we want to hear and showing us what we want to see in an effort to make us feel better about consuming their products. This is our first big mistake since a truthful and critical look at the issue of humane animal products will never come from the fox minding the hen house. In the following analysis, we will look at, not just why the treatment and use of animals on so-called “humane” farms falls far short of what could be reasonably considered humane, but also why the logic of a humane solution itself is flawed.
1. The Unavoidable Paradox of Humane
The very existence of labels like “free-range,” “cage-free” and “humane-certified” attests to the growing concern for farm animal welfare. But any time consumers of meat, eggs or dairy advocate for “humane” treatment, they confront an unavoidable paradox: The movement to treat farm animals better is based on the idea that it is wrong to subject them to unnecessary harm; yet using and killing animals for their flesh and secretions when we have no need to eat them constitutes the ultimate act of unnecessary harm. When we have plentiful access to plant-based foods — and a choice between sparing life or taking it — there is nothing remotely humane about rejecting compassion and choosing violence and death for others just because we like the taste of their flesh, and because they cannot fight back. Might does not equal right. (1)
2. The Humane Double Standard
The dictionary definition of the word “humane” is having or showing compassion or benevolence. We apply this standard definition to our own species and to our companion animals, like cats and dogs, yet apply a vastly different standard to farm animals. In fact, the routine practices of even the most “humane” farms would constitute torture and even atrocity if performed on human beings or companion animals. What logical explanation could there be to exempt just a handful of species — namely chickens, turkeys, cows and pigs — from our customary humane standard? The fact is these animals possess the same fundamental capacity for suffering as our cats, our dogs, and ourselves.
3. False Humane Claims and False Dilemmas
Humane farming advocates claim to offer a clear alternative to “factory farming.” There are at least three problems with this position. First, the differences aren’t that significant. Many of the worst cruelties inflicted on animals in large industrial farms are also routine practices on small free-range farms. These include sexual violation and the exploitation of reproductive systems; the destruction of motherhood and families; routine mutilations without anesthetic; denial of the most fundamental behaviors and preferences; and brutal transport and slaughter conditions. Take a closer look at exactly what so-called humane farming standards really look like in our article, The Humane Hoax. As author Hope Bohanec writes, “The disheartening truth is that . . . the similarities far outweigh the differences. Most of the other horrors a farmed animal endures in animal agriculture still apply to any of these alternative labels.”
Second, humane farming advocates frequently present a false dilemma, an either-or scenario, that misrepresents or outright ignores other important solutions to alleviate animal suffering. You can buy from us or factory farms, they claim. But in this context, eating animals is a given, a foregone conclusion. The third and most obvious choice — replacing animal products with satisfying plant-based alternatives — is intentionally ignored, yet would virtually eliminate unnecessary animal suffering altogether!
Third, they compare their standards of animal handling with the worst, most abusive practices on large industrial farms, but anything looks better in such a comparison. In this case, better does not mean “humane.” Far from it. This mentality of trying to improve upon a practice that is inherently immoral is strikingly similar to the “mercy killing” and “euthanasia” programs of Nazi Germany, whereby gas extermination of millions of healthy adults and children was promoted as a “humane” alternative to shooting them point blank in the head and dumping their corpses into mass graves. To imply that mass extermination or genocide can be made “humane” is as ludicrous in the case of human atrocities as it is in the case of killing other animals because, let me repeat, we share the same fundamental capacity for suffering. Of course important differences between humans and other animals exist, but those differences certainly don’t justify exploiting, killing and eating them.
4. The Ultimate Betrayal
Imagine for a moment how we would judge someone who devised a plan to win the trust of a child only to betray that child by violently taking his life. And imagine that the perpetrator’s intent was to make a profit off of that victim’s body. Would we look for reasons to come to the perpetrator’s defense, saying perhaps that at least the child lived a good life? Or, would we say that at least the child didn’t know what was going to happen to him? Of course not. A perpetrator who premeditates a murder so as to benefit from that person’s death is considered far more culpable in the eyes of the law, and thus his punishment is more severe. The same is true when animals are visibly victimized. When we hear about, for instance, someone who tortured and killed a cat for kicks and then posted a video on YouTube, or a boyfriend who retaliated against his ex-girlfriend by killing her dog, or the busting up of a cockfighting ring, we are outraged and demand justice in such cases. This reaction is based on our belief that harming others without just cause is categorically wrong. And harming animals, particularly in the name of pleasure, offends our sensibilities.
Now consider the case of the “humane” farmer who claims to foster a caring and trusting relationship with his animals, treating them with kindness and respect, sometimes even naming them. His animals may respond in kind, bonding with and perhaps even becoming affectionate with their caretaker. But all along, the farmer has ulterior motives to kill them so he can butcher and sell their dismembered parts as soon as they develop to a certain size and weight. All along, his intention is to artificially breed them into this world only to slaughter them in their infancy or adolescence to profit from products procured from their flesh or bodily secretions that are unnecessary for human health. In no way does this constitute a humane intention, let alone a humane act. Again, in the words of author Hope Bohanec, “…the more humanely an animal is treated, the greater is the bond of trust, and the greater the bond of trust, the more severe the crime of betrayal.” What Bohanec refers to as the ultimate betrayal (2) is a betrayal not just to the animal, but also to our most deeply held values of justice, reciprocity and respect for others.
5. The Humane Conflict of Interest
It is important to realize that animal agriculture is a profit-driven industry just like any other. Efficiently turning animals into commodities is the business of animal agriculture, regardless of how they market their products. In the words of former pig farmer and writer, Bob Comis, “Livestock farmers, no matter what kind — from the largest, most cynical, and inhumane factory farmers to the smallest, seemingly most ethical pasture-based farmers — traffic in death. It is death that is our aim, our purpose. Death is the end. Life is the means. Money the reward.” What Comis points to here is the inherent conflict of interest between treating animals with respect and using them as commodities. Even under the best circumstances, the incentive to treat animals “humanely” is limited to the extent to which it is necessary to raise them to market weight (which is just a fraction of their natural lifespan). Any humane practice beyond this would be seen as inefficient and unsustainable by today’s business standards.
6. Beyond Humane Treatment
As discussed earlier, humane branding seeks to focus attention squarely on humane treatment, but if how an animal is treated during the short time he or she is permitted to stay alive is so important, then clearly the animal’s very life is all the more important. If we are going to think critically about what constitutes humane treatment, it logically follows that we also question what their lives mean to them and why we even continue to exploit animals for food in an age when it is rarely necessary any longer and when the alternatives are more accessible all the time. If we insist that our only obligation to animals is to treat them humanely, then, by that logic, we must also accept the systematic exploitation and killing of humans if and when another species emreges that claims to be more intelligent and powerful than ourselves. In other words, we must accept for ourselves the same standards we apply to other animals who share our same basic capacity for suffering. The fact is that serving as a piece of property to someone else imposes forms of suffering on humans and other animals that are all too often overlooked. With every animal product we buy, we contribute to the following inhumane circumstances.
The inhumanity of breeding. We have intensively bred and biologically manipulated today’s breeds of farmed animals to “optimize” their milk and egg production and flesh tissue growth, exacting a heavy toll on their bodies and resulting in abnormalities, diseases and premature death. As a result, many are frail and highly susceptible to disease. Weak, sickly or injured animals are a liability to farmers who will not incur the high cost of treating the medical condition of an individual animal; instead they will be taken out of production and either left to die or sent to slaughter. Again, consider the vastly different ethical standard we apply to our own species: We oppose, both on principle and in practice, experimentation on or biological manipulation of the human body that knowingly causes harm, particularly when it is conducted covertly and without our consent.
The Inhumanity of Commodification. Until very recently, we have failed to recognize that use is indeed a form of abuse. Being used as a resource against their will for someone else’s gain causes great physical and psychological suffering to animals who clearly demonstrate their desire to live freely and who resist being dominated and denied the ability to express their essential interests and preferences. Any type of farming requires that animals be stripped of their freedom and subjugated to the will of their owners.
The inhumanity of commodification is further reinforced culturally and linguistically when we refer to an animal as “meat” or some other consumer product. Words like “meat” intentionally strip animals of their identity, dignity and value beyond the commodification of their flesh. “Meat” represents the annihilation of someone who had a lifetime of experiences: finding the right mate; building shelters; giving birth; finding and storing food for the family; raising and educating offspring; thwarting off predators and other environmental threats; negotiating and communicating within intricate social groupings; forming bonds, friendships and maybe even enemies; learning important survival skills from past experiences; expressing moods and emotions, likes and dislikes, pains and pleasures, loves and losses.
The Inhumanity of Total Dependency. Unlike wild animals raised by their own and taught essential survival skills, we intentionally breed and raise farmed animals under captive conditions that render them subservient, submissive, defenseless and totally dependent on us for their basic survival needs (food, water and proper shelter). Regardless of any “humane” claims, Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary reveals the many overlooked ways that their total dependence on us harms them, As their owners, we dictate “where [they] will live; if they will ever know their mothers; if, and how long, they will nurse their babies; when, and if, they will be permitted to see or be with their families and friends; when, where, or if they will be allowed to socialize with members of their own species; when, how, and if, they are going to reproduce; what, when, and how much they will eat; how much space they will have, if any; if, and how far, they will be allowed to roam; what mutilations they will be subjected to; what, if any, veterinary care they will receive; and when, where, and how they are going to die.” (3)
“If these were the circumstances of your brief and unfree life,” asks author Ashley Capps, “at the end of which you would be forcefully restrained, attacked, and slaughtered against your will, at a fraction of your natural lifespan, all for completely unnecessary reasons — would you maintain that you had been humanely treated?”
The inhumanity of taking life. The gravest harm to any animal is not treating him badly, but taking his life. In agriculture, animals’ lives are taken violently and cut drastically short. Animals can recover from some harms, but death is permanent. To follow the argument of humane farming advocates to its logical conclusion, if how we treat animals matters, then their very lives matter even more — not less. Nothing matters more to a sentient being with a subjective sense of self-awareness than his own life which he will fiercely fight to protect against all odds.
7. The Dehumanization of Farm and Slaughterhouse Workers
Finally, raising and slaughtering animals for profit has implications beyond the suffering of animals as well. Numerous studies of slaughterhouse workers have demonstrated striking links between animal and human violence. Yale University author Timothy Pachirat provides a compelling, in-depth analysis of the psychological dynamics of working in a slaughterhouse in his recent book, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Colleen Patrick Goudreau and professor / journalist James McWilliams provide a very thought-provoking analysis of the connections between violence against humans and other animals and the implications it has for workers and society at large. Based on the evidence, it may not be the high-profile, egregious acts of cruelty but the everyday, “normal” practices of slaughterhouses that are most disturbing.
(1) Ashley Capps
(2) Hope Bohanec, The Ultimate Betrayal: Is There Happy Meat? (iUniverse (June 13, 2013)
(3) An excerpt from the brochure, Humane Animal Farming? Take a Closer Look, published by Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary, 2011