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Should We Kill Happy Animals?

Tatjana Visak asks how can it be that we cannot kick them but we can kill them?

A few weeks ago I was asked to write an endorsement for Dr. Tatjana Visak's forthcoming book called Killing Happy Animals for the Animal Ethics Series of Palgrave MacMillan. It will be published in September 2013. I'd read her Ph.D. thesis of the same name some time ago and remember how it raised all sorts of interesting, challenging, and complicated questions about how we interact with and treat nonhuman animals (animals) in a wide variety of venues. I was taken by the simple title and how it really unsettled me.

Is animal-friendly animal husbandry a contradiction in terms?

A brief description of Dr. Visak's argument is:

"I start with the observation that it seems to be broadly accepted (at least in theory, if not in practice) that animals matter morally and that we need to take into account their welfare. That motivates the ideal of ‘animal-friendly animal husbandry systems’. However, I continue to ask, how can it be justified that we have to protect their welfare but not their lives? If animals matter morally, how can it be justified to routinely kill them merely in order to satisfy our gustatory pleasure? Isn’t the ideal of ‘animal-friendly animal husbandry’ a contradiction in terms?"

Dr. Visak notes that the broadly accepted moral ideal of animal-friendly animal husbandry maintains that it is okay to keep and routinely kill animals for food, provided that they are granted "pleasant" lives. Along these lines she asks, "How can it be justified that we are not allowed to kick them, while we are allowed to kill them?"

Our relationships with other animals are extremely challenging and all too often contradictory. Needless to say, our interactions with other animals in a wide variety of venues pull us all over the place and Dr. Visak is specifically concerned with animal husbandry, AKA factory farming, and the utterly horrific ways in which billions of sentient beings are routinely and casually abused and brutally killed for mostly unneeded meals.

Dr. Visak's book provides a detailed discussion of utilitarian ethics and she parts ways with the world-renowned utilitarian philosopher Professor Peter Singer. She argues "a utilitarian need not accept that animals are replaceable as Peter Singer has it. I present a version of utilitarianism that does not accept the replaceability argument and thus accords animals a stronger protection against killing." You can read more about the replaceability argument here and here.

In all honesty, even for a non-philosopher like myself who has enjoyed working with a number of philosophers of different stripes, Dr. Visak's book was not a difficult read. However, all the philosophy in the world would not have led me to any other conclusion, namely, that there is something very wrong about killing happy animals and that the answer is surely not an easy "yes" because they can be replaced by other individuals or because they would not have lived had someone not chosen to bring them into the world even if their goal is eventually to kill them "humanely".

Raising "happy animals" and then killing them is an easily avoidable double-cross

I've written about the "humane" slaughter of happy animals before, and summed up some of my ideas in an essay called "Dead Cow Walking: The Case Against Born-Again Carnivorism". I concluded then and still do that these animals are merely a means to an end, a tasty and for the vast majority of people an unneeded meal. No matter how humanely raised they are, the lives of animals raised for food can be cashed out simply as "dead cow/pig/chicken walking." Whom (not what) we choose to eat is a matter of life and death. These beings are "someones", not somethings. I think of the animals' manifesto as, "Leave us alone. Don't bring us into the world if you're just going to kill us to satisfy your tastes."

I recently wrote about the beef over beef I have with Dr. Temple Grandin who also freely supports killing happy animals. In fact, Dr. Grandin works hard to make their lives "happier" before they are brutally killed by designing what she calls a "stairway to heaven" along which they plod to their ultimate death before which they sense the death of many others.

When pondering the question "Should we kill happy animals?" millions upon millions of other non-food animals also enter into the discussion. For example, should we kill happy dogs or cats (a question that is of central importance to those who run animal shelters)? Should the happy and playful yearling cubs of the mother bear who has lived around my house for the past three years, all of whom just re-appeared last week, be killed because they scare me or because one of them chased me last year? Of course not, an easy "no".

The teaser is the cover for Dr. Visak's thesis.