In the past few weeks-in personal discussions and in the Twittersphere- I've heard three claims about killing animals that I'd like to address and, I hope, challenge. There's nothing unusual in these objections, in fact they're all pretty trite, but that's all the better reason to deal with them forthrightly.
The first came on a run with friend who conveyed a story about her cousin thinking it was justifiable, and even required, for humans to cull invasive species. The specific animal in question, as is often the case in Texas, is the feral hog. These aggressive creatures wreak havoc on agricultural acreage and eastern woodlands across the Lone Star state. Those who hunt hogs often do so under the guise of conservation. They are, they insist, serving the public good by keeping the ecosystem in check. My first reaction to this justification is that humans have historically proven incapable of replicating the largely hidden complexity of nature and, as a result, any attempt to restore the "natural" balance is a fool's errand marked by hubris. But my real objection comes down to something quite different: the proper relationship between resource consumption and punishment.
Here's how I see it: it's commonplace for certain sentient creatures to consume a disproportionate share of available resources. When I say sentient creatures I am of course including humans. It is often noted that the elderly and infirm consume an overwhelming majority of medical care resources. They are, in this respect, a sort of invasive species in the health care system. Their intention is hardly to be this way, but circumstances usually beyond their control have placed them in a resource-hogging position. Anyone who assumes that sentience is a baseline for moral consideration would, if I'm right here, have to accept the justifiable and intentionally administered death of the elderly and infirm (in hospitals) if they were also going to accept the intentional death of invasive animals as a just move. I'm not saying invasive species aren't a pain in the ass. I'm just saying that certain groups of humans, usually by no choice of their own, are also a pain in the ass. Sometimes we need to call on compassion, if not respect for basic rights (and I realize this can get complicated vis-à-vis land rights), to help us back off and deal.
The second claim came from a tweet sent by Andrew Gunther. After he posted a celebratory pic of himself with colleagues who had devised a bunch of animal welfare standards, I asked: "How do you justify caring for animal welfare and then killing the animal?" The back and forth went on for a bit and then Gunther dropped this little rhetorical gem: "Death is not a welfare issue. Quality of life is a welfare issue." Wha??!! After I picked my jaw off the floor, I wondered: are we this delusional in our logic? Or, as agribusiness does so well, have we started to sway to the rhythm of our own slogans?
Let's clarify. Gunther is saying-and I do wish he was alone, but he's not-that while sentience obligates moral consideration, that moral consideration does not have to be be consistent. In other words, if you treat an animal well you are dutifully fulfilling a moral obligation but, when you want to eat the animal, you can toss duty and moral consideration out the barn door and send the poor beast to an untimely and callous death. Needless to say, this inconsistency renders the moral obligation meaningless and, in turn, Gunter's supposed welfare concerns arbitrary. Gunther says death is "not a welfare issue." He could not be more wrong. Death is the ultimate welfare issue. If you kill a creature intentionally and unnecessarily, after all, you are denying his ability to enjoy the very welfare scheme that Gunther otherwise advocates as essential to an animal's life. Point being, if sentience is a baseline for moral obligation (and Gunther's interest in welfare per se proves his adherence to this premise), then it would be okay to treat any dependent creature well-your kids, your pets, your elderly parents-but then kill them when it struck your perverted fancy. Because, you know, death is not a welfare issue.
The final bee in my bonnet came in an essay by the English fox-hunting philosopher Roger Scruton. We read it in my "Eating Animals in America" class at Texas State (which I teach with the philosopher Bob Fischer). Scruton, who works with a fairly loose usage of virtue ethics, argues that if we did not eat farm animals they would not be here to enjoy the lives that they deserve to enjoy (assuming, as he does, they are raised on pasture). Scruton is no Gunther. He's a deeply thoughtful philosopher. This claim, as such, is thus trickier than it sounds to refute. I boil the issue down to this question: when humans control the genetic fate of "a being that is the subject of a life" (Regan) does that control confer on humans permission to use that being as a means to an unnecessary (and violent) end? If yes, then wouldn't a dog breeder be justified in killing dogs when it served a perceived interest to do so? Or a parent kill his kids when they pissed him off? Neither beings would have come into existence without the human choice to bring them into existence.
So why is it any different with farm animals?