Eating the Ethical Way

by Kaitlyn Gilbert

Canisius College


Abstract: Every day we are faced with the choice of what we should eat.  Most of the food that is currently consumed by the average American comes from factory farming and from agricultural practices that are harmful to the environment.  Using a preference utilitarian approach, it becomes clear that Americans should strive for a more self-sustaining form of agriculture.  What cannot be produced in this way should be purchased from local farms that have better welfare conditions for their animals and agricultural practices that are less environmentally degrading.


GilbertPhotoIt is Saturday afternoon and you are at the grocery store.  All around you are young children screaming, old friends catching up, and the squealing of squeaky cart wheels.  You ponder what to make for dinner.  Grilling a steak seems like a good idea. It is an unseasonably beautiful day and taking advantage of the nice weather sounds like a logical idea.  Corn on the cob would go nicely as a side to the steak. The local corn crop is not ready yet, but the store had some shipped in from the warmer states.  Your stomach grumbles and decides the matter for you: steak and corn on the cob it is.  You swerve around a child throwing a temper tantrum over a candy bar and head towards the produce section.  You find the large display holding the ears of corn.  The store even supplied a trash can so that the customers can shuck the corn on the spot.  You shuck enough ears of corn for your family to eat, plus a couple extra for a later date since they are on sale.  Once you are satisfied with your selections, you head over towards the meat section.  You select a couple of steaks, pick up some chicken breasts for a meal next week, and head towards the front of the store to cash out.

Most Americans would not think that there is anything amiss with this shopping trip.  In 2012, the average American consumed 270.7 pounds of meat.  This is 168.2 pounds higher than the global average, with the United States only being surpassed by Luxembourg (Barclay 2012).  Most Americans do not critically analyze where their food comes from, but instead simply buy the meat that is made available to them at the grocery store.  The conditions under which these nonhuman animals are forced to live in factory farms in order for Americans to consume the level of meat that they are accustomed to are deplorable.  If one does research on the state of factory farms in the United States, it becomes evident that it is unethical to eat meat that comes from such places.  What is considered on an even rarer basis is where the fruits and vegetables that we consume come from.  The modern form of farming is highly detrimental to the environment.  The fertilizers and pesticides used in order to obtain a more profitable crop are causing pollutants to leach into the soil and water table.  The natural soil of the area is also being eroded to a point of essentially no return (Trautmann, Porter and Wagenet 2012).  In addition, land that was once the natural habitat of a myriad species of nonhuman animals is now being irreversibly transformed in order to feed the growing human population and demand.  It is not ethical to destroy and change this land, affecting all of the organisms in the surrounding area, so that humans can continue their unsustainable farming habits.  So then what should the ethical human eat?  When contemplating this question, the ethical theory that one should use is preference utilitarianism.  Using this ethical theory, it becomes clear that the most ethical way of sustaining oneself is to eat what one can produce and to purchase from small, environmental and nonhuman-animal minded farms.

Jeremy Bentham introduced the idea of utilitarianism.  Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, meaning that the consequences of an action are what are important rather than the action itself.  In order for an action to be good, the consequences must increase the good and decrease the bad for all of the parties of interest.  In this case, the good is equated to pleasure and the bad is equated to pain (Bentham 1907).  For example, it would be justified to cause the suffering of 1,000 mice due to medical testing if the end result was the saving of 1,000 human lives.  The consequence of the medical testing on these mice brings far more pleasure into the lives of those parties of interest than it does pain.  He also supports the concept that pleasure and pain are capable of quantification, and therefore can be measured (ibid.).  If pleasure and pain are quantifiable, then one can objectively measure the total amount of pain and pleasure that would be caused by an action and therefore decide if the consequences of that action warrant the action to be carried out or not.   This is the most fundamental type of utilitarianism, known as classic or hedonistic utilitarianism.  It serves as the building blocks of other forms of utilitarianism, such as preference utilitarianism.

Peter Singer is a notable preference utilitarian.  Preference utilitarianism “holds that we should do what, on balance, furthers the preferences of those affected” (Singer 2011, 12-13).  Preferences are defined as one’s “own wants, needs, and desires” (ibid.). In preference utilitarianism, the desires, not just the pleasure and pain, of those affected are taken into account when considering an action and its consequences.  This begs the question of who has the ability to have preferences.  The ability to have preferences does not vary amongst race, gender, or, when referring to sentient beings, even species.  The determining factor of whether an individual has the ability to have preferences lies in their ability to suffer (ibid., 50).  For example, it would be nonsense to say that a plastic ball has an interest to not be thrown across the yard.  A piece of plastic cannot suffer and therefore has no preferences or interests.  It would, however, make sense to say that a mouse has a preference to not be thrown across the yard.  Throwing a mouse would most likely cause him or her suffering and that would go against the mouse’s preferences to not be harmed.  Singer points out as well that the interests of all species must be considered equally.  If a child is hit with enough force to cause them to feel a certain level of pain and a horse is hit with enough force to cause that horse to feel the same level of pain, the suffering of each individual should be considered equally.  Which species each individual belongs to does not matter; it is only the interest of each to not have that level of pain inflicted on them that matters (ibid., 51).  The concepts found in preference utilitarianism are a logical lens to use while considering the diet that one should maintain.  Preference utilitarianism will be assumed throughout the remainder of this essay.

Let us first consider the consumption of nonhuman animals using a preference utilitarian perspective.  The vast majority of nonhuman animals that are consumed by Americans come from factory farming, so these are the nonhuman animals of focus in this passage.  The conditions of the lives of chickens, cows, pigs, and other animals in factory farms are troubling. Egg-laying chickens are stuffed several to a cage for the entirety of their lives.  They receive less than one square foot of room to live in, never being able to spread their wings.  The cages are stacked several high, with the waste from one cage entering the one below.  They live in their own waste, and, even if they are not physically touching it, the aroma fills the air that they breathe (Solotaroff 2013).  This type of filth is exhibited in the majority of enclosures that contain almost all the nonhuman animals held in factory farms.  Broiler hens are not treated much better than their egg-laying counterpart.  These chickens are laden with antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically engineered feed so that they can grow as large as possible and be able to resist some of the infections and diseases that they are likely to encounter from being kept in such restrictive enclosures.  These chickens grow so large that they are double the size they would have naturally obtained in the wild.  They lack the muscle mass to waddle properly, let alone fly (ibid.).  The conditions for chickens alone are terrible and need to be reconsidered.

Pigs are also kept in terrible conditions.  Sows spend most of their lives in gestation crates.  The gestation crates are so small that they only have room to lie on their side and allow their young to nurse. Their sole job is to produce as many young as possible until they are deemed no longer of use.  They are fed actual garbage, such as shards of glass from light bulbs, along with feed that causes them to grow to unnatural sizes.  Since humans have caused the sows to grow to such a large size, the gestation crates are deemed to be necessary so that they do not roll onto their young and cause the loss of assets to the factory farm.  The sows are beaten if they do not behave in a fashion that aligns with the workers ideals.  It is not uncommon for the piglets to be taken away from the sows.  When motherly instincts kick in and the sow tries to protect and regain her young, the workers have been recorded abusing the sow, even to the point of breaking bones (ibid.).  These nonhuman animals are also kept in their own waste.  Life as a pig in a factory farm is no better than that of the chickens.

Cows have no easier a life than the nonhuman animals previously mentioned.  Cows in the wild graze for a large part of their day.  A cow in a factory farm never so much as touches a blade of grass until the day that they are moved to be slaughtered.  These nonhuman animals would not be able to graze even if they had the chance to, since their udders are too large to walk properly and their hooves are rotting from standing in their own feces.  Dairy cows suffer from high levels of mastitis, which is an infection of the udders.  They produce 22,000 pounds of milk a year, which leaves them “used up” after four years of work.  By then, it is not unheard of for their bones to be so brittle that they break under their own weight (ibid).  These cows are called downer cows and are deemed unfit for human consumption.  Due to this, the workers in factory farms will try every method possible so that the cows can stay standing long enough to be slaughtered.  While the situation may not be the same for every nonhuman animal in every factory farm, a large number of factory farms do treat the nonhuman animals in such an inhumane way.  If this is only a small portion of what has been seen to occur at factory farms, it is enough to show that there needs to be a change.

One can look at the situations that these nonhuman animals are in and use the preference utilitarian perspective to decide how these beings should be treated.  These nonhuman animals are kept in their own waste for a large portion of their lives.  Nonhuman animals have the basic desires of being housed in conditions that ensure the possibility of a healthy life.  A human does not desire to be kept in an environment that is detrimental to their health.  The same desire applies to nonhuman animals as well.  The owners of such large factory farming companies can make more money by not caring for the nonhuman animals’ basic welfare needs.  If the amount of work necessary is minimized, then the cost of employment can also be minimized and the profits of the company can then be maximized.  If these facilities had enough workers, keeping the cages and the animals clean could be made more of a priority.  Another benefit to humans is that the meat is cheaper when it is produced in such an inhumane fashion. The human desire for financial gain is not equal to the nonhuman animal desire to be able to have a healthy life.  Using preference utilitarianism, it is clear that the preferences of the nonhuman animals outweigh the preferences of the humans in this situation.  The concepts of preference utilitarianism show that the great discomfort that these nonhuman animals are put through by living in their own waste outweighs the benefit that humans obtain by the owners of the factory farms making a higher profit and by the consumers spending less of their grocery bills.

Nonhuman animals have other basic needs and desires, such as the ability to move around an enclosure and to be able to walk in a comfortable fashion.  Chickens who are kept several to a cage and individually have less than the area of a piece of paper to move around in cannot fulfill this desire.  Sows who are kept in gestation crates cannot even turn around.  Cows who have evolved to walk for long periods of time while grazing also are not even afforded the ability to turn around in their cages.  Yet, these nonhuman animals are not given larger cages or the ability to live in a free range situation.  Humans benefit because it is easier and cheaper to control nonhuman animals that are confined to a small area.  The meat is tenderer in a nonhuman animal that does not have the ability to properly work its muscles.  Sows cannot risk rolling over on their young when they lack the ability to even roll over.  The basic physical needs and desires for nonhuman animals to have some form of movement far outweighs the convenience that workers get and the tenderness of the meat that consumers are able to purchase by keeping the animals in close quarters.  By looking at the consequences to keeping nonhuman animals in such small enclosures, it is clear that the benefits to humans are again outweighed by the pains and unfulfilled desires of the nonhuman animals.  While there are several other problems mentioned that are related to factory farming, it is clear from these two examples that preference utilitarianism points towards better living conditions for nonhuman animals.

Treating the nonhuman animals in a more humane fashion will be beneficial to humans and the environment as well.  Factory farming is a higher contributor to carbon dioxide emissions than the whole transportation sector (Waldau 2011, 13). All of the sentient beings of Earth have a desire to live their lives undisrupted by the effects that high carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere will have on their habitat.  Regardless of one’s opinion on climate change, most humans can agree that emitting large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is not beneficial to human health or to the health of the global environment either.  The preferences of all of the sentient inhabitants of the planet to not have their habitat negatively affected by high levels of carbon dioxide outweigh the preferences of humans to have a cheap and easy access to high levels of meat.  It is clear using preference utilitarianism that, even from an anthropocentric perspective, factory farming is an unethical act against all of the sentient inhabitants of the globe, including humans.

Modern farming techniques also need to be changed according to preference utilitarianism.  Modern farms have one crop planted over a large field.  That one crop depletes a large amount of nutrients from the soil.  Fertilizer is put into the soil in order to restore some of these nutrients and the plants are also sprayed with pesticides in order to keep bugs from eating them.  These compounds are degrading to the environment that they leach into.  The fields soon become too overused to produce a large amount of crop, so more fertilizer is mixed into the soil or the field is left to lay fallow and a new field must be used in its place.  The soil is being overused to the point that it is eroding and what was once farmland is now turning into desert.  In order to create large enough fields to supply the large demand for these crops, forests are being cut down.   The land is also being burned so that it can then easily be used for farming.  The way that the crops that most Americans eat are farmed is very harmful for the environment.

Soil erosion is a large issue that the agriculture industry faces.  The current farming practices cause a large amount of soil to erode from the fields.  It can take up to 300 years for one inch of topsoil to be formed, so eroded soil is essentially irreplaceable.  This soil runs into streams and reservoirs where it is damaging to the fish and other aquatic life forms found there.  The soil carries high levels of nutrients due to the introduction of fertilizer.  These nutrients are not normally found at such a high concentration in the water (Trautmann, Porter and Wagenet 2012).  This can cause a boom of plant growth, specifically algae.  Since algae is found in high concentrations at the surface, the algae absorbs all of the surface light and little light can filter down into the lower levels of the water in order to sustain other plant life.  As the algae on the surface dies, it decomposes and releases carbon dioxide.  An increasing level of carbon dioxide is released into the water and this causes an increased death in the fish populations.  The decaying fish intensify the levels of carbon dioxide being released into the environment.  Eventually, the body of water affected is devoid of life besides the algae at the surface.  This process is called eutrophication.  Eutrophication is a natural process, but it is being accelerated at an alarming rate due to agriculture.

Eutrophication has a detrimental impact on many of the nonhuman animals that live in and near the affected body of water.  The fish and other aquatic life that live in the body of water will most likely die due to the disappearance of food sources and low oxygen levels.  Animals who live around the body of water, such as frogs, will either have to move or will also face the same end.  Nonhuman animals who use the body of water as a food resource, such as birds that fish or fish eating mammals, will either have to move to a new body of water, find a new source of sustenance, or will also perish.  A body of water that has been affected by eutrophication will affect most, if not all, of the surrounding nonhuman animals.  These nonhuman animals have a desire to survive and to not suffer.  If the nonhuman animals do not have the option of moving away from the affected body of water they will suffer as a consequence.  Some nonhuman animals do have the ability to move to a different location, but they have a desire to remain in their territory or home range and to continue living as they had before.  Predators who use the water to obtain food would most likely also desire to be able to use the body of water and not starve or have to sustain themselves off of a different food source.  Eliminating a food source for these predators increases the competition for the other possible food sources that this predator is able to consume.  This increased competition negatively affects both the predator and the prey which has become more heavily preyed upon.  The interests of all of these nonhuman animals to not suffer, to continue living in their initial home range, and to be able to consume their routine food source outweighs the human preference to be able to continue using the modern farming practices that are causing this detrimental soil erosion.  Some farms do take action against soil erosion by letting some weeds stay in the soil between plantings.  Though this may appear to be more beneficial, the farmers usually use more chemical herbicides to remove these weeds instead of manually cultivating the land (ibid).  These chemicals are harmful to the soil and the surrounding environment that they seep into.  Soil erosion is one of many issues with the large industrial farms that modern Americans use to obtain food.

Deforestation is another issue that is partially caused by the farming practices that are used today.  Around 80% of the new farmland created in the tropics is caused by the deforestation of tropical forests (Bergeron 2010).  Deforestation caused by the desire to plant crops such as palm oil is putting many already endangered species at an increased risk.  An example of such a species is the orangutan.  Another crop that is causing a large amount of damage is the soybean.  Soybeans are mainly grown in the tropics, such as the Brazilian Amazon.  China imports a large amount of soy.  This is not only used for soy sauce though.  Soybean meal is used to feed the livestock in factory farms (World Information Transfer 2012).  Areas of the rainforest are then being cut down in order to create more farm land in order to meet the increasing demand for soy products.  This is displacing many species that call the Amazon home.  Deforestation is a large problem in some areas of the world and it is caused by the high demand of crops that are farmed using environmentally destructive methods.

Preference utilitarianism suggests that we should think more deeply about the effects that our crop demand has on deforestation.  Americans tend to have a high demand for crops and crop derivatives that cannot easily be grown in our own climate.  These crops come largely from poor countries with large amounts of deforestation as the result.  The nonhuman animals affected by deforestation, such as the orangutans, have a desire to live in the habitats in which they are best adapted.  Once orangutans lose their habitats, they are more likely to be poached, taken as pets, or killed.  Large numbers of nonhuman animals, besides orangutans, are killed in the deforestation process.  These nonhuman animals have an interest to survive as well as to be kept from the illegal pet trade.  These nonhuman animals are adapted to a life in the forests, not to a life under human control.  If these nonhuman animals are not killed in the process of deforestation, their habitats are severely limited, putting stress on the carrying capacity of the remaining forest area.  The competition for resources will be higher and that will put stress on these nonhuman animals.  These nonhuman animals’ preference to not have their habitat destroyed, to not be needlessly killed, and to not be sold as pets outweigh humans’ desires to produce a large amount of crops at a cheap price.  Once again, the scale is tipped towards the nonhuman animals’ preferences over the humans’ preferences.  The convenience to humans does not justify the death and suffering of the countless nonhuman animals that are affected.

If factory farming is not ethical and if industrialized agriculture is also not ethical, then what should humans eat?  It is neither practical nor advantageous to ask all of humanity to abandon eating meat and become solely herbivorous.  What is advantageous is minimizing the amount of meat consumed by humans as a whole and raising the nonhuman animals that are consumed in a way that promotes their natural behaviors and limits unneeded suffering.  Benign carnivorism would be the most ethical way to consume the nonhuman animals who would still be found in a farm setting.  This practice emphasizes that it is allowable to consume nonhuman animals as long as they are raised without suffering, with the ability to act as they would in their natural environment, and as long as they are killed painlessly (McMahan 2008).  The best way to go about this would be to have these nonhuman animals raised on small, sufficiently staffed farms.  For this system to be more ethical, on these types of farms the nonhuman animals must receive more individualized care and must be afforded a more naturalistic amount of living space.  These nonhuman animals must be able to go outside and exhibit their naturalistic behaviors, such as grazing in a large field.  Social nonhuman animals must be afforded the ability to interact with other conspecifics in a manner that represents how they would naturally interact.  These requirements would have to be afforded to these nonhuman animals in order for the farm to be considered ethical and meet appropriate standards for ethical human consumption. While these nonhuman animals would still be killed in order to feed meat-hungry consumers, it would be done after they had been allowed to carry out a life within the natural lifespan of the species and would be done in a quick and painless manner.  This would minimize the suffering in both the life and death of the nonhuman animal and maximize the interests fulfilled in the lifetime of said nonhuman animal.  This method of farming would not be able to produce the same high volume of nonhuman animals at a cheap cost.  Humans, especially those in wealthy nations, would need to significantly lower their demand for meat.  In consuming only minimal amounts of meat produced at these types of small farms, the costs to the humans’ standards of living are significant.  This cost is still outweighed by the liberation from suffering of the billions of nonhuman animals used for consumption.  The net fulfillment of even the simple desires that these beings have, such as being able to walk around a field, outweighs the cost of humans having to alter the much more minor desire of eating meat at a high level.

The goal for most humans from developed nations would ideally be veganism.  Some of the crops needed to support a vegan movement would be planted on these types of farms.  These pastures would be planted using a more sustainable method than is currently used in the large monoculture fields system.  A combination of crops would be planted in one field so that they could grow in combination with each other and grow off of each other.  Nitrogen-fixing plants would also be planted so that some of the nutrients could be returned to the soil.  Another way to return nutrients to the soil would be to allow the farm animals to graze the field after the harvest.  The animals would consume the weeds and the remaining plants in the pasture and in doing so would excrete waste into the pasture to return nutrients to the soil.  This practice would allow these nonhuman animals to carry out the natural act of grazing as well as benefit both the farm owner and the environment.  The grazing of nonhuman animals would be much less harmful to the environment because fertilizers would not be needed.  These nonhuman animals would benefit the farm that they were living on as well as the environment, making the ownership and use of these nonhuman animals more beneficial than not having them at all, even if it does result in their eventual consumption.  These farms could also be on land that has been previously deforested and is not being used for any specific purpose.  This would limit the amount of deforestation and conversion of other habitats that would take place.  Crops produced in this way may be more expensive, but the benefits to the nonhuman animals as a result of the decreased amount of eutrophication and deforestation far outweighs the benefit that humans receive by having a decreased grocery bill.

Some of the food that humans consume can also be produced by personal efforts.  Every small effort towards self-sustainability has a long term benefit to the environment and the nonhuman animals that would otherwise be affected if that effort had not been made.  Planting an apple tree and eating the fruit that it produces is a simple step that can be taken towards self-sustainability.  Making a small garden and planting the vegetables that one individually consumes most often is a significant contribution.  Small household herb gardens are another simple and easy step that can be taken.  One can even go strawberry picking in a natural strawberry field.  These little steps can make a large difference when it comes to helping the nonhuman animals whose environments would otherwise be negatively impacted by unsustainable farming practices.  Even hunting in order to provide one’s own meat is an alternative that is more ethical than factory farming.  That nonhuman animal who was hunted was able to live a natural and full life until its end.  The suffering that the nonhuman animal feels from being hunted is much smaller in comparison to that of a nonhuman animal who lives his or her life in a factory farm.  Buying from the small local farms mentioned above is a beneficial method to provide a source of income to many as well as a method to supply what one cannot grow or hunt on their own.  Granted, full self-sustainability may not be possible for those living in a city environment.  One should attempt to do as much as they can in their ability to grow their own crops, but then rely more on the types of farms mentioned above in order to reach a sustainable amount of food consumption.  These strides to become self-sustainable with buying as little as possible from ethical small local farms is the most ethical way to eat using a preference utilitarian perspective.  While this method may not appeal to the preferences of all humans, more than just the preferences of humans must be taken into account when making decisions that affect other nonhuman animals as well.

Humans are just one species on this planet.  With everything being related to everything else, nothing is independent of the natural order of life.  Many nonhuman animals have knowledge of the natural world that humans lack (Vine 1997).  Using preference utilitarianism to choose how we should sustain ourselves will lead us to a more ethical method of living.  Factory farming does very little to fulfill the desires of the billions of nonhuman animals that are consumed a year.  These farms cause significant amounts of suffering to the nonhuman animals that are unfortunate enough to be forced to call them home.  Humans’ preference for cheaper meat does not justify the treatment of nonhuman animals in this way. Modern farming techniques are also highly detrimental to the surrounding environment and nonhuman animals.  The death and suffering caused by deforestation and eutrophication cannot be justified by humans’ desire for cheap crops.  Humans should work towards being more self-sustaining, purchasing what they need from small farms that supply the nonhuman animals with as close to a natural life as possible.  If we weigh the desires of all of the parties involved in our food choices, it is very clear that there needs to be a change in the consumption patterns of most Americans.  Critical thinking and education about these issues is the key to changing the American outlook on food.



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