Shared moral weight of animal husbandry

29 Aug

The Atlantic magazine published an article called “The Dangerous Psychology of Factory Farming“.  The article talks about how prior to that industrial agriculture farmers interacted with the animals they raised and subsequently, the same farmers were responsible for slaughtering the animals.  Now, in factory farms the animals are numbered and very little human interaction occurs, and even when it does how can anyone get to know the individual personalities of the animals when you are interacting with 4,000 of them on a daily basis. (Assuming you believe that animals have individual personalities.)

I agree that the current system prevents people form bearing the moral weight associated with slaughtering animals.  However, our system has transformed in more ways than one.  Not only has our system changed so that farmers interactions with their livestock is very minimal, but it has also shifted so that most people never interact with the animals that will become the meat on their dinner plates.  There are fewer and fewer farmers in the US.  Therefore each farmer is responsible for feeding more and more people.

The angle that is left out of this article is who is bearing the moral burden associated with meat consumption and how much of this burden can one person manage. There are a few things that need to be considered. First, prior to the 1850s, most people ate significantly less meat than they consume now.  People simply could not afford to eat as much meat as we eat today.  Also, many people that did eat meat had a few animals of their own.  Of course there were butchers where people bought meat, but it was much more common than today to have a few goats or chickens.  So you had a lot more people raising livestock and much lower meat consumption.  Therefore the moral burden was disseminated over a lot of people, making the moral burden one that could be carried.

However now, you have a much higher per capita meat consumption coupled with very few people raising a lot of animals.  If the farmers and workers were to development the emotional attachment to their livestock that is required to take on this moral burden then they would carry a huge weight.  The farmer in the article slaughters 4,000 head of cattle.  This seems like more than one person should or could bare.  However, the farmer is not consuming that much meat.  So he is carrying all of the burden and the consumers that are purchasing his meat still have no idea where their food came from.  They demand meat in their diet, but they will never see the face associated with it.

There are pros and cons with factory farming.  The benefits are that the system provides a lot more food than previous systems, which is required for a growing middle class that wants meat as well as a growing world population that needs to be feed.  But the animals are treated as objects, no different than a factory that churns out cars. And there are high environmental costs associated with the system.  The question is whose responsibility is it to internalize these costs and burdens?  I do not think a farmer should be solely required to shoulder this burden. However, I do not know how to share this burden with consumers that are so far removed from the system.

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Posted by on August 29, 2011 in Uncategorized


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