Thursday, September 24, 2009

Voluntary Exchange and Morality of Eating Meat

Guest Post by Jayson Lusk

I read with great interest Bailey’s recent post, where he attempted to resolve the supposed contradiction present in the actions of pet owners and meat eaters. Bailey’s answer was that no contradiction exists because he uses his dog and a pig for two different purposes – because they supply different needs they are treated in different ways. Two commenters rapidly replied by indicating that Bailey was a speciesist and by pointing out that justifications for uses of beings based on their purposes could very well justify some gruesome activities that no one would condone.

I agree, in part, with the comments but see a glimmer of truth in what Bailey had to say. Here is my take.

What line of logic or code or ethics can reconcile the supposed “moral schizophrenia” Francione finds distasteful? Bailey does not expect the same thing from his dog and a pig. Does that make him a speciest? I do not expect to receive shoes from my baker or bread from my cobbler, but does that make me a speciest or an “occupationalist?” I expect and receive different things from different people. But I do not mandate people to give the fruits of their labor. In a market based economy, people freely trade the results of their productive abilities and we accept them because they satisfy our wants and needs.

Here is an ethical and moral rule: Each man (and animal) is entitled to their own life and to the results of their labor, and no other man may infringe upon those without consent.

I have no right to a baker’s bread and he has no right to my income. The baker gives me bread voluntarily because he expects something in return: part of my paycheck. The same goes for the cobbler. They satisfy different needs for me, but that is of no concern to them – only that I am willing to give them something they want in order to engaged in a mutually beneficial and voluntary exchange.

Now, Bailey engages in an exchange with his dog. His dog is provided with comfortable housing, ample food, and nightly walks. And, I hope Bailey doesn’t mind me saying, but his dog was also provided with four very expensive leg surgeries. What does the dog give in return? Companionship and entertainment. Bailey and his dog engage in mutually beneficial and voluntary exchanges that enhance both lives.

What about the pig? The pig is provided shelter, food, water, comfortable temperature, and protection from predators. What does Bailey get in return? Ultimately, the pig’s life – its meat. But, wait a minute – this is hardly a voluntary exchange – did the hog engage in a trade that was of its own free will of its own consent? Hard to say. The hog owed its very existence to the fact that Bailey, and others like him, want to eat pork. Is the hog willing to trade a short and uneventful existence for the sake of life itself? Would the hog trade ample food and shelter and a certain but short life in the factory farm for the random and capricious conditions of the wild?

We simply don’t know. The cognitive capacities of the hog prohibit a definitive answer to whether they are willing to engage in the exchange. But here is my presumption: that the hog is indeed willing – that if they could say, they would chose life in a factory farm to no life at all, and that they exchange this meager existence in return for their meat. No doubt an animal rights proponent would argue that I have no right to make this presumption, but the activist is simply exchanging my presumption for theirs: that the hog would rather willingly never exist than live on a factory farm. Both positions are based on presumptions that cannot be validated. But, the truth is this: farm animals can never be placed in a situation where their lives are solely determined by their own actions – their lives are invariably affected by the decisions of humans. Dealing with farm animals will always entail some degree of paternalism and presumption about what is in their interest.

Without schizophrenia or moral confusion, I eat meat and condone the keeping of pets. Such actions are morally defensible based on a conception of mutually beneficial trade, and on the presumption that farm animals would voluntarily exchange the product of their efforts (e.g. milk, eggs, and eventually their life) for what they are paid in return (e.g., ample feed and water, protection from predators and weather, and in all likelihood their very existence).

P.S. Such reasoning does not condone hunting. Many hunters have given nothing to a wild animal in exchange for their life, and thus the presumption of mutually beneficial exchange does not hold.