Mid-October I was spending an afternoon at a colleague of mine, and we paid a visit to a local cattle fair. Rows of cows were on display, representing different races and ages. From that fair I remember two things that really got me thinking. The first one was, as one cow was mooing constantly for a minute or two, as if in despair or agony. Not being an expert on cows, I can only guess for the reason, but it sounded as if the animal was in some way unwell. The second thing was a sign, standing in the beginning of one of the rows, saying: “Life-performance 90’000 kg”.
Seeing the sign and hearing the one cow mooing made me ask myself, whether we have the right to keep animals and use them for our own purposes of feeding and agriculture? Thinking from a human perspective, describing someone’s life performance with one figure seems harsh, even more so when the figure is decided upon by others. A counter-argument to this line of thought might be that we should or cannot humanize animals, since they do not make ethical judgments. On the other hand, shouldn’t we act and judge our own actions according to our standards, human standards, our own moral?
Taking my thinking a bit further, I was faced with the question, whether the very creation of agriculture and use of animals for food production had been a pre-requisite for our moral pondering. Before the invention of agriculture and animal husbandry later on, humans lived as hunter-gatherers, from hand to mouth. Then you would have little time to think about ethics, as you needed a larger portion of your time for finding food and shelter. As the resources needed for food production diminished with the introduction of agriculture, humans could start developing our modern civilization. There was more time for other things than taking care of daily sustenance and survival, so our ancestors were equipped to develop arts, science, philosophy, ethics and so on. In this view, I would argue that the question of the ethics of animal husbandry would be mute, hadn’t our predecessors developed animal husbandry in the first place. Not only, because there would be no topic to discuss, but also because our ancestors might not have had the resources required for developing modern culture and ethics. They wouldn’t have had the time to think, whether using animals as food is ethically acceptable.
The above argument can of course be countered by noting that plant-based diet is a possible choice for human beings, and I realize that. I do not claim that animal husbandry was absolutely necessary for the development of modern culture, although it most likely accelerated the process. My main argument is a more general one: when we face an ethical dilemma, it might be that the choices made in the past were required to give us the time and capacity to ponder about the ethics of those very choices. We might not have the tools for questioning and evaluating those choices now, had we not made those very choices in the past. Therefore, as we now have more and better food and are able to think about the ethics of animal husbandry, we should indeed do so. Since we have the ethical and moral tools for such thinking, we should use those tools to assess ethics in all areas of life, including animal husbandry.
Now, since we have recognized this potential ethical problem, we should try to solve it. If it requires reducing, or even abolishing animal husbandry, then we should do it, as a potential logical consequence of ethical ponderings. Being an avid user of animal products, I do not claim that any radical changes are easy. There are arguments for and against animal husbandry, and I have not educated myself enough in this area to take a definitive stance. But visiting that animal fair made me think, and I will try to find out, what I, as a consumer, ought to do. Furthermore, if we want to keep improving our moral character, we must eventually expand our ethical thinking beyond us humans to other life forms.