There are many ethical quandaries that we face in our modern lives. Some of these problems may be small in scale and limited to our own personal universe, while others are vast in scope and affect not only our lives, but the planet itself. Unfortunately, much of our civic dialogue on ethics and morality tend to get stuck on a few big issues, like abortion and equal rights.
Against such a backdrop it is understandable, perhaps, that animal welfare gets short shrift. And when issues pertaining to animals do come up they tend to be part of a larger conversation about the environment. Or, as was the case a couple of years ago, some horrific incident of animal cruelty brings light and attention to our forgotten friends.
The discussion that I would like to have focuses on two separate issues pertaining to animal welfare. First, I would like to tackle the treatment of animals in zoos and circuses, which can be quite inhumane. Next, I will take up the debate over factory farming and eating animals in general. I should warn the reader- unlike many of my arguments, this one will not have neat answers and will leave many questions unanswered.
For the vast majority of Americans, their main contact with animals (outside of domesticated pets) is through circuses and zoos. [One point of clarification- I would lump petting zoos and other things of that nature in with circuses, as their mission is very different from stand alone zoos.] Thus, these institutions provide a valuable service in exposing people to nature. This does not apply only to urban and suburban residents, as zoos and circuses contain animals that are not native to the area. The thinking is that such exposure will more favorably incline people towards supporting conservation and environmental policies.
I assume that many people are already aware of the deplorable conditions in which many circus and petting zoo animals are kept. It is disgraceful and inhumane (in Massachusetts there has been a movement to bar the use of chains and hooks that circuses use to handle pachyderms). This seriously undermines any positive value derived from providing people access to animals they would not otherwise encounter.
Zoos are a different story, however. Their missions usually encompass not only exposing people to animals, but educating the public and managing breeding programs to ensure the sustainability of species. As such, zoos are more invested in handling and managing their animals in a healthy and humane manner. Yet, there still is the question– should we capture (or breed in captivity) wild animals and place them in cages or enclosures, deprive them of a natural life, in order to get more humans to support species conservation? Where one comes down on this issue really depends on personal philosophy. If you’re a consequentialist, zoos raise no major ethical problems as the end good (more conservation of species and habitats) outweighs the bad (emotional duress of the animals). If you’re a deontologist, like me, there is a very real concern about the morality of caging and confining wild animals, regardless of the potential benefit. [full disclosure: when I lived in St. Louis, I was around the corner from the zoo and went there weekly.]
The issue of factory farming raises these same issues of animal abuse and cruelty. It is no secret that factory farms can be brutal. The mistreatment of animals in such places has been well documented, therefore I will not cover it again. Suffice to say that if you thought animal testing of cosmetics was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
But what can consumers do, short of turning vegan? One might think she’s doing the right thing by purchasing cage free eggs or chickens. But cage free does not mean that these hens are running freely around a yard, living humane chicken lives. It just means they are not caged! So, cage free eggs could, and do, come from chickens roaming around a concrete floor in a factory. She might also think that buying only organic meat and dairy products means that the animals are treated humanely. Wrong again! Though many organic farmers do treat their animals with care, as demand for organic products has increased the big agri-businesses have entered the market. Should we trust that the same company that produces inhumane non-organic milk is going to treat their organic cows with tender loving care? One option consumers do have is to purchase their meats and dairy products locally, from farmers whose treatment and conditions they can view. Or, there are reputable online retailers of cruelty free products.
Of course, the other option- the more pure, some would say- is simply to become vegan. I say that this is a more pure option because no matter how humanely animals are treated, they are still mere commercial products that will be killed for our consumption. Which raises the question– is there an ethical way to consume meat (aside from hunting and killing your own wild animals)? I am not convinced that there is such a way, yet I remain a fairly voracious meat eater.
Regardless of where one comes out on these issues, it is important to keep them in mind. To be apathetic about the rightness of animal welfare is one step away from ceasing to care about human suffering.