Some Comments on the Kristof ‘Happy Meat’ Editorial

Dear Colleagues:

Today’s New York Times had an editorial by Nicholas D. Kristof. The editorial was an ode to animal welfare and of the supposed progressive ethical development that welfare reform bespeaks.

Forgive me for not sharing Mr. Kristof’s enthusiasm.

Rather than make a point-by-point reply, I will limit myself to three general comments.

First, the examples to which Mr. Kristof points are leading candidates in the contest to identify the most futile welfare reforms of modern history. These include California’s Proposition 2, the European Commission Directive on battery eggs, and the unholy alliance between animal rights groups and Burger King. I have written about all of these previously and I have argued that they will do nothing to help animals.

Second, citing these various “happy meat” reforms, Kristof states:

For most of history, all of this would have been unimaginable even to people of the most refined ethical sensibility (granted, for many centuries those refined ethicists were also untroubled by slavery).

This is a rather astonishing statement. Mr. Kristof does not seem to be aware that Jainism, one of the three indigenous religious traditions of India, and arguably one of the oldest spiritual traditions in the world, has, for several thousand years, maintained that nonhuman animals have inherent moral value. Jains maintain that the observance of the principle of Ahimsa, or non-violence, requires that Jains be vegetarians and not eat meat, fish, or eggs, and Jains are increasingly adopting a strict vegetarian or vegan position. Buddhism and Hinduism also have strong traditions of vegetarianism. So despite the pat on the back that Kristof gives to Western welfarists, those of more “refined ethical sensibility” had, centuries ago, gone way beyond these supposedly progressive contemporary developments.

Mr. Kristof is also apparently unaware that animal welfare in Western civilization is nothing new. We have had animal welfare as a dominant legal and moral paradigm for about 200 years now, and we are presently exploiting more animals in more horrific ways than at any time in human history. It is quite simple: animal welfare does not work. Animal welfare regulations provide very little protection for animal interests. That is because animals are property; they are economic commodities. It costs money to protect animal interests and, for the most part, we do so only when we derive an economic benefit. So we will require that large animals be stunned before they are butchered so that we can decrease carcass damage and limit injuries to slaughterhouse workers. But if we do not get an economic benefit from protecting an animal interest, we don’t protect that interest. It is that simple and one must look far and wide to find a single significant counterexample.

Animal welfare rests on the notion that it is acceptable to use animals for human purposes because they are of lesser moral value than humans. This notion is reflected in the theory of Peter Singer, whom Kristof discusses approvingly in the editorial. The primary requirement of animal welfare is that we accord animals some consideration for their interest in not suffering. But given the view that animal life is of little or no moral significance, it should come as no surprise that the degree of that consideration is very low.

Third, Mr. Kristof, despite what are his obvious good intentions, misses the basic point that the “happy meat” reforms that he enthusiastically praises will only make the public feel better about animal exploitation and continue the consumption of animal products. For example, even if California’s Proposition 2 comes into effect in 2015, animals in California will continue to be tortured; the only difference will be that the torture will carry the stamp of approval from the Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary, and the other animal welfare corporations that promoted Proposition 2.

Mr. Kristof proves my point. In the penultimate sentence of his editorial, he states: “For my part, I eat meat, but I would prefer that this practice not inflict gratuitous suffering.”

That says it all.

Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione