What a pain: the ethics of killing animals humanely

It may be “humane”, but is it ethical? Virginia Zuluaga/Flickr

Does a painless death harm an animal? Is it wrong to painlessly kill an animal?

These questions go to heart of the ethics of meat eating and humane slaughter, yet they have been largely absent in most of the commentary about exporting Australian cows to Indonesian abattoirs.

Many people believe that if a cow, sheep, pig or chicken leads a good life then so long as death is “swift and merciful” there is no ethical issue. But is this view really defensible?

This is an important question. If simply inflicting a painless death on an animal is wrong, then killing in any form of animal agriculture will most likely be wrong as well.

Community concern for animal suffering or cruelty is based upon a concern for the animals themselves. In other words, the experience the animals go through is the major reason for thinking suffering is bad and cruelty is wrong.

(We can therefore leave aside the rival view that says that animal suffering is an evil and cruelty is wrong because of what it says about human character or because such actions may lead to humans mistreating each other.)

Let’s assume then that the harm of suffering, and opposition to cruelty, is based upon a concern for the individual that is harmed. What does this say about the ethics of painless killing?

Surprisingly, a great deal.

The bad thing about suffering is not simply how it feels on the inside. It is also that it interferes with something that is otherwise valuable.

We would not take an Aspirin unless there was something to be said for a pain-free world. A world free of pain is a better world for us than a world in which we have a headache. It is not as if when we take a pain killer we do so because we are just “anti-pain”.

Similarly, when we oppose animal suffering or cruelty we are not simply registering an idiosyncratic or in principle “anti-suffering” or “anti-cruelty” predilection. Instead, suffering and cruelty are bad because they are a blight upon something that is worth not being blighted; namely, the life of the sufferer.

But, if the life that suffering impacts upon is worth being pain free, then it must be valuable for its own sake.

How can it be then that painlessly taking animal life is of little ethical consequence when we acknowledge that it is a good thing for animals’ lives to be as far as possible pain-free?

Even if we think that human life is more important than animal life and there is no sense in which we can equate the value of human and animal lives, our opposition to animal suffering points to animals having lives of significant value.

The multi-billion dollar question of course is: how valuable exactly are animal lives?

At this point is it tempting for people who cannot imagine life without meat to implausibly discount the value of animal lives. But the problem for people whose diet necessitates killing animals is there isn’t all that much room to move.

If human life is the most valuable kind of life and the lives of, say, insects the least valuable, then the lives of psychologically sophisticated animals like mammals and birds are going to be located on the “valuable lives” spectrum somewhere in between the two extremes. And given the extraordinary value we place on human life, even a location around the middle of the spectrum is going to mean that animals’ lives are quite valuable.

At the very least, you would think a reasonable assessment is that we should err on the side of caution and refrain from killing animals unless it was absolutely necessary.

And we know that, for the vast majority of meat eaters who reside in urban areas, with so many comparably priced and reasonably tasty non-meat options available, there is just no need to eat meat. Unless of course when we talk about “need” or what’s “necessary” we follow representatives of animal user industries and talk with our lawyers’ tongues.

So, painlessly killing an animal kills something that our ordinary everyday opposition to animal suffering and cruelty points to as quite valuable.

Is there anything else to be said about why painlessly killing an animal might be wrong?

Most cognitive ethologists and philosophers agree that animals have no concept of the future and cannot imagine themselves existing into the future. This lack of psychological sophistication, most ethicists contend, means that painlessly killing animals does them no harm and therefore painless killing does not raise much of an ethical quandary.

However, the same experts who agree that animals lack a desire to go on living accept that infants, at least until they are about 10 months old, also lack these desires. Yet, presumably, none of us would want to suggest that, based upon its impact upon the infant itself, there is nothing wrong with painlessly killing an infant.

But, if painlessly killing a human infant would be wrong, then it must also be wrong to painlessly kill an animal that has comparable psychological capacities to an infant.

Comparisons across species are inexact. But we know enough about animal psychological capacities to conclude, as Darwin did 150 years ago, that the differences between human and animal mental lives are differences of degree not kind.

We need to seriously recalibrate our relations with the natural world and live as philosopher Dale Jamieson once put it: “one species among many rather than one species over many”. At this time, double standards are difficult to sustain.

What follows from all this for the ethics of meat eating?

The fact that there might be less pain associated with “humane” killing as opposed to the kind of slaughter we saw on Four Corners, might mean that the former is a better ethical bet than the latter.

But, being better than something that is obviously bad won’t justify farming practices that involve killing animals.