Rethinking ‘humane meat’
- Published: 13 November 2010
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An analysis of ‘humane meat’ exposes the concept for what it really is: a self-serving attempt to satisfy our selfish desire to keep eating animals and to disguise this selfishness as a truly ethical commitment, writes Alex Melonas.
14 November 2010
A New York Times article, Meat labels hope to lure the sensitive carnivore, details the “animal compassionate” trend, or the movement towards “humane meat” as it is better known.
An advertisement for this might read: ‘Humane meat’: satisfying the taste buds and consciences of the ‘conscientious omnivore’.
But “humane meat” seems to be a contradiction in terms. Let me begin though, by correcting the NYT. Humans are not carnivores. I understand that saying you are a carnivore means you don’t have to justify eating animals (because carnivores have no choice in the matter), but shouldn’t we open this conversation with some honesty?
Moving on, humane is defined as: “done without inflicting any more pain than is necessary; showing the better aspects of the human character, especially kindness and compassion” (emphasis mine).
Let’s deal with the first definition because “humane meat” suggests at once that eating animals is in fact necessary? But is it?
Essential, needed, and required are synonyms for necessary. Optional is an antonym. Separating need from desire may be helpful. Need denotes a requirement (e.g. I need to drink water to live). Desire suggests a preference (e.g. I need water, but I prefer/want cow’s milk).
The conservative American Dietetic Association (ADA) found that a well-planned vegan diet is healthy at all stages of the life cycle.
Indeed, its latest report suggests that a vegan diet has health benefits. Carl Lewis is one of the most prolific Olympic track and field athletes in history, and Robert Cheeke is a professional bodybuilder. These men found athletic success as vegans.
Eating animals, then, is not necessary as a nutritional matter.
Convenience, habit, and tradition aren’t synonyms for necessary. If someone argued that killing humans was ethical because doing so was just easier than not doing so, or because, like drinking coffee every morning, it is just something I do, or because, in this area, fathers and sons have always killed humans together, would that sit right with you?
It follows that any pain, or harm and death more generally, that an animal experiences to become our “food” is unnecessary.
And since eating animals is not necessary (by any reasonable standard), the practice is inhumane, by definition.
With this background then, what about the second definition of humane, emphasizing kindness and compassion. I might add empathy to this list, which, I agree, are all the better aspects of the human character.
The kind and compassionate thing to do, I maintain, no, I insist, is not to cause unnecessary harm and death. That is, don’t be inhumane. I doubt I’ll get much criticism on that point.
Deconstructing “humane meat,” as I’ve briefly done here, seems to expose the concept for what it really is: a self-serving attempt to satisfy our selfish desire to keep eating animals and to disguise this selfishness as a truly ethical commitment. As Gary Francione writes,
“the [“humane meat”] movement is intended to make the public feel more comfortable about animal exploitation and to ensure that social discussion about animal ethics remains focused away from the relevant question—why are we eating animals in the first place given that it is not necessary for human health, is an ecological disaster, and, most importantly, results in our imposing suffering and death on sentient nonhumans?”
For the sake of argument, however, perhaps the assumption made by the “humane meat” advocate is that eating animals is a given.
And therefore with this fact at hand, the treatment of the animals we will exploit is the open question. The largest animal welfare organizations who advocate for “humane meat” certainly make this argument.
It seems to me that the only sensible way to interpret this assumption is literally – “we” just do eat animals, period – and/or to suggest something about need, as in nutritional need. Since I have already refuted the “argument from need,” I will turn to the first interpretation.
Of course, “we” just do rape and murder other people. So I think there is some question begging here. Why do we respond to one fact – “we” eat animals – with a conversation about the humane treatment of those animals, while we respond to other facts – “we” rape and kill – with a firm commitment to abolishing those practices?
Someone might respond that while rape and murder happen, they are not nearly as widespread as eating animals, and so we have to respond differently. But notice that this concedes that eating animals is wrong, as a moral matter. The only difference is the scope of the problem, and so for purely practical reasons, our response changes.
This pragmatism raises questions about moral consistency and the empirical matter of whether or not humane practices actually help animals, but those issues are beyond the scope of my inquiry.
In the end, then, perhaps the title of this article should have been “Thinking about ‘human meat’,” because the weaknesses of the “humane meat” trend should be obvious to anybody who does actually think about it. No rethinking required.
Alex Melonas is a second-year Ph.D. student in political theory at Temple University in the US. He occasionally writes about animal rights at That Vegan Girl.