What will we do with all those cows?

Whenever people discuss issues like vegetarianism, my tendency is always to think in terms of how one could systematize or universalize it. For instance, granted that veganism is the most desirable diet (due to environmental sustainability, ethical concerns, better health, or whatever other reason), what would it look like if we made it mandatory and redesigned the entire food production system around it?

The first question I have is what ideas people have put forth in terms of “winding down” animal domestication. For instance, there are some breeds of various domesticated animals that simply cannot survive in the wild — they’re bred to produce the maximum amount of meat or milk and they can’t do much else. Would they be subject to further breeding or genetic modification to make them viable in the wild, would that breed be allowed to die out, or what other solution would there be? Similarly, would it be a realistic goal for all of these breeds of animals to return to their pre-human forms and live in the wild, or would we instead be obligated to continue caring for them insofar as we in a certain way “created” them in their current form?

Many readers know much more about these topics and debates than me — what are the basic proposals out there, if any? Do any seem to you to be more workable, desirable, etc.?

26 thoughts on “What will we do with all those cows?

  1. There is one well-know advocate of animal rights out there (forget the name) who argues that animals such as these (and I believe he includes other domestic animals as well, dogs and cats, etc.) should be allowed to die out. You could argue that since we created these hybrid breeds we can just as easily let them die out. While we feel a duty to nature to preserve the “natural” animal lines, we are not constrained in the same way with man-made specimens. Conceivably we could arrange for a gradual re-introduction into the wild, where we would give these poor creatures the help they need to survive and reproduce while also allowing for the exigencies of natural selection to eventually make them feasibly wild again. I have to admit it’s hard for me to think about these topics in a very sustained manner when we are equally clueless as to how our particular species is going to survive the next couple centuries. . . though I am glad that there are people who can. The questions of our animals and “all God’s creatures” is no doubt braided into our questions about ourselves.

  2. The premise, that veganism is the most desirable diet, for *any* of the reasons suggested “(due to environmental sustainability, ethical concerns, better health, or whatever other reason)”, is not defensible.

  3. AD is referring to Gary Francione’s “incremental abolitionism.” See Rain Without Thunder (Temple UP, reprint. 2007), chapter 7 and The Animal Rights Debate (Columbia UP, 2011), 62-83. A better view–at least as I see it–can be found in Sue Donaldson & Will Kymlicka Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (OUP, 2011), chapters 4-5.

  4. Under a vegan framework, when is utilitarian animal killing acceptable? E.g. euthanasia of animals or the extermination of a non-native species which threatens to disrupt an ecosystem. At this point, I appreciate the coherence of the no animals for food aspect, but when the killing of animals is either unavoidable or extremely difficult to avoid, what sorts of ethical framework is typically brought to bear? This is an honest question in good faith.

  5. The reason I ask is that the potential for negative impact of escaped domestic animals on ecosystems seems well established (e.g. pigs). I have a hard time imagining where one could responsibly dump off a bunch of pigs. It seems as though sterilization or euthanasia would be necessary aspects to the end of (at least) pig farming.

    For species like deer, which, while not domestic, don’t really exist within normal food chains anymore in most of the country due to the absence of natural apex predators, should we consider these de facto domestic species and take responsibility for similar issues?

    It seems like at some level, humans killing animals, directly or indirectly, is unavoidable, such that the deontological position that “killing animals is always wrong” would be irresponsible.

  6. “It seems like at some level, humans killing animals, directly or indirectly, is unavoidable, such that the deontological position that “killing animals is always wrong” would be irresponsible.”

    Fortunately no one–including deontologists–holds such a position. I encourage you to acquaint yourself with the literature rather than spouting crazy things at random. The three books I mentioned above are a good place to start.

  7. Whenever people discuss issues like vegetarianism, my tendency is always to think in terms of how one could systematize or universalize it.

    I just wanted to note that this is not a premise of all pro-vegetarian thinkers, so you cut a lot of thinking out at the start when you go all the way to the systematized universal.

  8. (Sorry not to have replied to anyone yet — our internet was down all day yesterday, and it’s really cumbersome to do it on my phone.)

    Richard, I chose veganism as the starting point because it was conceptually simpler.

    Gerry, That has always puzzled me — why this principled objection to a solution that would be universalizable? If vegetarianism is a good idea, why wouldn’t it be a good idea for everybody? I know Craig has embraced something like the anti-universal position in past discussions, so maybe he could weigh in.

  9. What do you mean by universal in this context? It is a generally accepted premiss of ethics that “ought implies can.” No doubt there are certain circumstances where such an obligation is nullified, perhaps because of poverty, famine, and so on. The issue is, overwhelmingly, a “first world problem.” For instance, of the roughly 60 billion animals killed annually for human consumption globally (not counting aquatic species, who are measured by the ton–estimates put that at roughly 120-150 billion fish, shellfish, etc killed annually), 10 billion of them are killed in the United States or roughly 32.3 animals per American (again, not counting those who live in rivers, lakes, and oceans) and 1 billion of them are killed in Canada or about 29.4 per Canadian. Numbers are in that range for other developed European and European-derived societies, although Americans are exceptionally bloodthirsty. As countries develop, they become more reliant on animal products for survival–it’s estimated that if China’s rate of growth continues, it will account for half of all animals killed globally for human consumption within a few decades and, obviously, this is not because of the Chinese working at FoxConn and so on, but the middle and upper middle classes running the cities.

    While it is as much a harm to the chicken or pig killed in America as it is a harm to the goat killed in Somalia (or, indeed, the gazelle killed by the lion), it seems reasonable that Americans, given their on average better options than Somalians, are held somewhat more responsible for the consequences of their actions.

    Of course, if Americans weren’t devoting so much arable land to the extremely inefficient methods of calorie and protein production–i.e., growing grains to be fed to animals–there’d be more than enough food to not only feed every American cheaply, but also every starving African.

    Beyond all of this, it is plainly obvious that nearly all possible ethical relations are mediated by technology in some respect.

  10. You really took that in a strange direction, Craig. But it seemed to me from past conversations that you’d object if the Radical Vegan Party took power in the US and outlawed the consumption of animal products.

  11. I took “universal” to, you know, refer to everyone, everywhere. Hence, “universal.” But it’s true: I’m not fond of using state power in such ways, being rather suspicious of the state. This doesn’t preclude, for instance, a radical revision of government food–by that I mean “agribusiness,” of course–policy.

  12. The thing about a universal application of a rule is that it would affect people more in proportion as they’re currently violating it. The idea that America would have more work to do in this respect is obvious and was assumed.

  13. It’s amazing that veganism hasn’t caught on with all of Craig’s compelling apologetics. I was under the impression that only ornery cranks were vegans prior to this.

  14. It’s surprising that vegans would be so combative when they uniformly find their interlocutors to be as receptive and respectful as Hill.

    I was worried my post would be viewed as an attempted “gotcha” given past interactions, but that wasn’t my intent. I remain sincerely puzzled that Craig reacted to my question as though I was saying that we first of all need to shut down Third World meat production — clearly my examples in the post refer very much to First World factory farming type of situations. I also appreciate the cynicism about state solutions and even share in it, yet I don’t understand the apparent principled objection to any discussion of how to spread a position you believe to be ethically correct beyond a self-selecting group of volunteers.

  15. I admit my “drive by” comment was kind of trolly and dick-ish, for which I apologize, especially since I had no trouble recognizing that stating a premise as given for the sake of an argument is not the same as accepting the premise. *And* since the question about what to do with the animals still holds, it seems to me, in the eventuality that we cut down drastically on our meat intake and eliminate factory farming, as I believe we should on both counts.

    However, I also believe that the premise, that veganism *is* the most desirable diet, for a variety of reasons, is both widespread, even among those of us who are not vegans, and wrong, if obviously well-intentioned. Arguments against factory farms are important and accurate. Arguments against eating animals *as such* are ahistorical, specious, and misleading. Fact is, we need animal fats. We just don’t need nearly as many as most of us get, of course, which is indeed a serious problem. We also don’t need the carbohydrates we consume in massive quantities. And mass grain production depends on destructive industrial agriculture and air conditioning and destructive long-distance shipping. All of which are themselves harmful to animals (how many mice or insects are killed in the industrial production of grain? I know, we’re not supposed to care about rodents and insects, but why not?).

  16. In the US, I wonder if things might be worse in Democrat-controlled jurisdictions. Perhaps Republicans have fewer qualms about saying, “Protest all you want — you can still go fuck yourselves,” whereas protests make Democrats genuinely uncomfortable.

  17. Show me the part where I was disrespectful or unreceptive. I actually spent a lot of time trying to formulate a question that might lead to having some issues clarified for me, possibly even exposing myself to things I hadn’t thought of, the outcome I was actually hoping for. At this point, I was accused of “spouting crazy things at random.” I would suggest reading this thread again, without presuming bad faith on the part of people who may or may not agree entirely with every position you espouse, and then ask yourself who the asshole is. I have nothing against Craig personally, and I’ve actually learned a lot from his comments, but this is all in spite of the fact that, by and large, in the context of comments on this blog, he routinely goes nuclear as a first response. One would think that if the issue of ethical veganism were in fact an important issue for someone, that honest questions about it could be met more effectively than by responding with “read a book, asshole.” I realize vegans get concern trolled a lot, but that’s not what I was doing. My question was precisely of the same sort Adam is asking in the original post, on topic, and one I genuinely am open to considering. I don’t know anything about animal ethics.

  18. i’m coming to this conversation a bit late. but i’m a little disappointed that the thread AD started in the first comment died out and got a bit highjacked by the conversation about eating animals. the ethics of keeping pets are, in some ways, radically distinct from the ethics of eating animals. but there are uncomfortable overlaps in these ethical conversations as well. massive puppy mills are horrific in the same way that chicken factory farms are horrific. but they turn our stomachs for different reasons. to be sure, i don’t think it’s safe to say that puppy mills turn our stomachs. i guess it would be more accurate to say that they turn our affects, they affect us sentimentally.

    at any rate, when it comes to “winding down” the domestication of animals… i think you see multiple attempts to (in various ways) “wind down” the proliferation of pet dogs. the campaign to sterilize pets is old. now there are campaigns (via the human society, et al) to convince the USDA to regulate unregulated puppy mills. perhaps, in the future, there will be caps and limits on the breeding of dogs. or perhaps it will become totally illegal to try and “have a hand” in dog reproduction. i don’t think that any of these possible outcomes would be shockingly detached from the kinds of regulatory patterns that have already begun to develop. nor do i think they’re inevitable.

  19. The connection with pets is interesting, because one possibility that came to mind was that former food animals would effectively become our pets — but I wasn’t conscious of all the new questions of breeding, etc., that come up in that connection. It seems that being a pet is somewhat analogous to being a citizen of a “real” functioning nation-state — it’s a great status to have if you’re an insider, but it seems to presuppose abandoning a lot of others to a near-zero status.

  20. Adam: the Donaldson & Kymlicka book I mentioned above discusses animals in terms of citizenship, but they include all domesticated animals under the heading of citizens. Their other two categories are “wild” (those which have limited to no contact with humans at all) and “liminal” animals (those which live among humans, have co-evolved with human settlements, but which aren’t domesticated–e.g., raccoons, skunks, groundhogs, coyotes, foxes, rats, mice, and so on). The problem with pets in terms of current law is that they are neither animals nor humans. That is, they are something like “animals plus” or “humans minus.” I’ve often considered doing a Zero style book on “Why Pets Aren’t Animals.”

    Hill: “I don’t know anything about animal ethics.” Then read a book, asshole.

    Adam’s comment @ 7:26AM is referring to something I said on Twitter yesterday. Henceforth, I’m not particularly interested in discussing these issues with people who haven’t bothered to do the minimum amount of groundwork prior to saying the first idiotic that comes to their “minds.” As such, Hill is out; Richard is borderline; and Adam’s well-intentioned questions could do with a bit more thinking-through–but at least he’s thinking through; unlike Hill.

  21. I’m going to go back to slathering kitten blood on my face and stalking squirrels for dinner outside of my apartment. I’ll leave the veganism to the ornery cranks. Best of luck.

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