Least harm: a defense of vegetarianism from Steven Davis's omnivorous proposal
Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 16: 505-511, 2003
In his article, "Least Harm," Steven Davis argues that the
number of animals killed in ruminant-pasture production is less than the number
of animals killed in crop production.
Keywords: animal production, animal rights, animal welfare, least harm, vegetarianism, utilitarianism, population
Each year in the
In his article, "Least Harm," Steven Davis (2003) accepts
the common moral intuition that we should cause the least harm (the "least harm
principle") but challenges the empirical claim that vegetarian diets do in fact
cause the least harm.
eating animals who are grazed rather than intensively confined would vastly
improve the welfare of farmed animals given their current mistreatment,
There are 120 million ha of cropland harvested in
However, suppose this were not the case and that, in fact,
fewer animals would be killed under
Utilitarians, for instance, believe harm is done by decreasing the total amount of pleasure or preference-satisfaction in the world. Thus animals are harmed whenever they experience pain or are left unable to satisfy their preferences. The prolongation of life may be one of these preferences, but there are certainly others--for instance, a life free of confinement and physical mutilation.
Like utilitarians, deontologists are not concerned exclusively with killing. Regan, for instance, believes animals have a right to "respectful treatment" --which includes non-lethal mistreatment (Regan 1983). The violation of this right would qualify as a harm. We would say, for instance, a person who beats his dogs or cats without killing them has still harmed them.
Similarly, virtue theorists disapprove of non-lethal mistreatment of animals as such actions demonstrate a disregard for animal suffering. If we believe sympathy, benevolence, and compassion are virtues, then we would not expect a virtuous agent to ignore the suffering endured by farmed animals before their deaths (Hursthouse 2000).
In comparing the harms caused by crop and ruminant
production, we should compare the treatment of, say, a wild mouse up until his
or her death in a harvester, with that of a grass-fed cow. The wild mouse lives
free of confinement and is able to practice natural habits like roaming,
breeding, and foraging. In contrast, the grass-fed cow, while able to roam some
distance in a fenced pasture, may suffer third-degree burns (branding), have
holes punched in his ears (tagging), be castrated, have his horns scooped out
of his head (dehorning), and be kept from breeding naturally. Once reaching
market weight, he can be transported up to several hundred miles without food,
water, or protection from extreme heat or cold; then he is killed in a
conventional slaughterhouse. The conditions of slaughterhouses have been
described in detail elsewhere (Eisnitz 1997). Suffice it to say, it is hard to
imagine that the pain experienced by a mouse as she or he is killed in a
harvester compares to the pain even a grass-fed
cow must endure before being killed. Likewise, those who are concerned
principally with the treatment of animals, rather than simply the number of
animals' deaths, have more reason to become vegetarian. Again, this is because
vegetarianism causes the least harm, understood in terms of animal suffering,
compared to any system of animal agriculture,
As mentioned above, utilitarians are concerned not with the number of animals killed, but with their total pleasure or preference-satisfaction. This raises an additional problem with Davis's argument for "total-view" utilitarians, who believe we ought to maximize the amount of pleasure or preference-satisfaction in the world not only by increasing the happiness of existing animals, but also by increasing the total population of happy animals (Parfit 1984; Singer 1993; Hare 1993). A total-view utilitarian thinks, all else being equal, it is better to have two happy animals than one. In the past, this view has been used to justify the consumption of meat, since farmed animals would not exist if not for meat production. This argument, sometimes called "The Logic of the Larder" (Stephen 1896), is rebutted by recognizing that while a particular animal may have a life worth living, he or she may harm a number of other animals and/or prevent other animals from existing. In such cases, it may be better if that particular animal had not existed (Gruzalski 1989).
For example, consider an invasive species such as feral cats
on the islands of
These considerations typically are not germane to conventional animal farming. The conditions in which most farmed animals are now raised are believed by many to be so inhumane, it would be better had these animals not existed. Of course deciding what makes a life worth living is no simple matter, but we can think how we consider whether or not to euthanize a hopelessly sick dog or cat. I suspect the suffering experienced by animals in factory farms is greater than that experienced by many of those sick dogs and cats we choose to euthanize, as factory farmed animals often experience an entire lifetime of suffering compared with a few weeks or months of pain. If, for instance, we knew our dog or cat would have no choice but to be confined in a cage so restrictive turning around or freely stretching limbs is difficult if not impossible, live in his own excrement, be castrated, debeaked, dehorned, or have his teeth, tail, and toes sliced off without anesthesia, I suspect most of us would believe euthanizing the animal would be the humane choice. It would be better, then, if farmed animals who endure these conditions did not exist.
What should such utilitarians think about
We have a few reasons to think feeding a vegetarian
population allows more animals to exist than feeding an omnivorous population.
With only one-fifth of
As we already saw, ruminant production uses ten times as much land as crop production to yield the same amount of food. Thus, as long as the combined number of wild animals on nine wild acres plus one cultivated acre is greater than the number of animals on ten grazed acres, a vegan-vegetarian will allow the greatest number of wild animals to exist. This should not fully persuade the total-view utilitarian, as we have not compared the welfare of wild animals living on wild acres and among crops to those living among grazing animals. Nevertheless, assuming there are not broad differences in the welfare of these wild animals, it seems likely that a total utilitarian ought to adopt a vegetarian diet.
We have seen the case for vegetarianism is stronger than the
case for eating ruminants--namely, vegetarianism kills fewer animals, involves
better treatment of animals, and likely allows a greater number of animals with
lives worth living to exist. These arguments stand alone, yet it is worthwhile
to mention the additional benefits of vegetarianism to human health, which are
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