‘Happy Meat’: Is It OK To Kill An Animal Who’s Had A Good Life?

Some say there are no ethical issues with killing animals as long as those animals were treated well whilst they were alive. The argument usually runs something like this:

Eating meat is natural – we’ve been doing it for thousands of years, and besides, animals eat other animals. But farmed animals should be given a good life and slaughtered humanely.

I think there are a number of problems with this viewpoint. For starters, the fact that we’ve been doing something for thousands of years doesn’t make it ethical. Humans have been killing each other for millennia too, but few would argue that this is acceptable behaviour.

Though eating meat may be natural, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s a good thing – there are plenty of natural practices which we now find unsavoury. Besides, the practices of imprisoning, mutilating and selectively breeding farm animals are not natural at all.

‘Animals eat other animals’ is one of the arguments which infuriates me the most. There’s a huge difference between a lion eating a zebra and someone in the developed world choosing to buy bacon rather than a plant-based alternative. Humans have no biological need for meat, and we in the developed world have an abundance of options when it comes to food – few of us truly need to buy animal products. Besides, we have moral agency – we can think about an action, decide it’s not morally acceptable and then stop doing it. We aren’t blindly bound to tradition or instinct (not that we have any real instinct to eat animals).

Personally, I would dispute whether it’s even possible to raise animals for food in a humane way. Most people who claim to buy ‘high-welfare’ animal products are pretty naive about how they’re produced. Certain practices like dehorning and castration without anaesthetic are widespread in meat production, regardless of how high-welfare the packaging claims it to be. Meanwhile, conditions on free-range farms are often little better than those on conventional farms. These labels exist mainly to make people feel better about buying animal products.

Even if conditions on all farms were optimal, I believe the production of animal products to be inherently cruel – after all, animals don’t (and can’t) consent to being used by humans. If they could, I’m sure very few would choose it. There’s no humane way to slaughter an animal who doesn’t want to die. It can never be humane to rob an animal of several years of her life, no matter how kindly she was treated beforehand. If someone was to argue that it was reasonable to slaughter and eat a dog which had had a happy life, people would rightly be horrified.

The same applies to the dairy and egg industries. Removing a newborn calf from his mother in order to take the milk she made for him can never be ethical. Neither can breeding hens which produce so many eggs that they end up with nutrient deficiencies and osteoporosis.

Even if none of this was true and there were no ethical issues with using animals, I still don’t believe it would be morally acceptable to do so. Why? Because the production of animal products is one of the main drivers of climate change and is contributing to a myriad of human rights issues. It simply won’t be possible for us to keep eating animal products at the rate we currently are. If you can’t see the need to change your diet for animal rights reasons, then at least do it for the environment and the rest of humanity.

It all comes down to one thing: if we can live healthily on a diet free of animal products, and suffering is inherent in the creation of those products, then what moral justification is there for continuing to consume them?

You may have noticed that I used the word ‘who’ rather than ‘which’ in the title of this post. I think it’s important that animals are recognised as individuals – the language we normally use refers to them as objects, as if they exist to be used. The title may seem jarring, but that’s just because we so rarely think about animals in this way.

Do you think it’s morally acceptable to eat animal products? Let me know in the comments.

23 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Do you think itโ€™s morally acceptable to eat animal products? – Product is something that comes out of…I’m not going to eat something that comes out of an animal. That’s disgusting.
    Great post again. If something lives a happy life, it doesn’t justify that it get eaten, leave it alone and let it die happily.

  2. It can never be morally acceptable to eat the flesh of a sentient being. Non human animals like us wish to live. They have as much right to their lives as we have to ours. Life is as precious to all creatures regardless of species. No matter how well treated, all animals wish to live in freedom as nature intended. There can never be anything humane about ending any animalโ€™s life to provide humans with a food that we do not need and is not natural. Great article, a good argument against meat eating.

  3. You have a very solid argument. I also question this on a regular basis. Is it okay to eat animals who led a good life? Who didn’t suffer? Even if they enjoyed their life, there are so many other factors to consider when we make the choice to consume animal-based foods. From the effect that animal agriculture has on our precious environment to the hormones fed to the animals (that we ultimately end up consuming), there are other factors to consider aside from the treatment of the animals. Thanks for sharing.

    1. True, and there are many more issues with consuming animal products that I didn’t go into in this post. It would have been very long if I’d listed all of them!

  4. Great piece, Bethany. ‘Happy Meat’ is happy only for one party: the consumer. No sentient being would be happy by betrayal with a bullet to the brain unexpectedly, whether it hurts or not. We all want to live — we are equally pre-wired for survival, pain avoidance, procreation.

    So consider survival. Starvation is also extremely painful and will cause any animal (yes, including us) to kill another necessarily. Ethics (as with laws) is purely a human construct; a hungry shark or lion doesn’t think one iota about anything but good for survival.

    The question is whether taking a life (or exploiting another) is even necessary. There are plenty of us living out healthy, productive days without exploiting others, so why is it then everyone isn’t already vegan?

    Oh how I wish I knew.

    1. I’ve encountered a surprising number of people who don’t think it’s possible for humans to live without animal products. They must not be aware that vegans exist! Very strange.

  5. great post, totally agree with you. Have you listened to Gary Yourofsky talk on this topic? I think he brings up some great points that are good references to make when nonvegans bring this up, you should check him out on youtube

    1. I have seen his videos. I’m not always comfortable with his style as he can come across somewhat aggressively but he does make some very good points ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. totally agree, definitely not media that I would use with a non-vegan for that reason, but i feel like once you have embraced veganism its easier to get past his presentation of the info and hear what he’s saying. love your blog btw!

  6. It is definitely not morally acceptable to eat animals, and I find it curious that when the victims are animals, suddenly killing becomes a question of “is it okay if they had a good life?”

    If we were to say that killing a human is morally acceptable so long as that human has lived a “good” life, whatever that even means, then we can see the problem with that kind of thinking. No matter how great my life has been thus far, I don’t want to die.

    And what defines a “good” life, anyway? Particularly when we consider that a dairy cow can live into her twenties but is usually slaughtered around, what, six or seven years of age? After she’s no longer useful to her owner because she no longer produces enough milk for her owner to profit. Or a calf, who could live into his twenties, who is slaughtered at six months old for “veal”….even if they frolic in verdant meadows, is it really a “good” life if it ends far earlier than it should? When people try to console themselves that the animals they’ve had killed so they can eat them had “good” lives, they mean “at least they weren’t beaten”, or something, and that simply does not, in my mind, qualify as a “good” life. I mean, would you use that measurement in your own life?

    And how can someone ever truly have a “good” life when they are used/treated as property?

    Even my dogs, who I love with all my heart and treat like family, don’t really have “good” lives. I love them, feed them, walk them, play with them, pet them–but it’s all done on MY terms. They have no say in their lives and are slaves. Is that “good”? I say no, but most dog “owners” would argue me until they are blue in the face about how loved “their” dogs are. And at the end of the day, the best loved dog is still property, yours to do with pretty much as you please. You are, after all, your dog’s “owner”.

    People want to eat animals and not feel guilty about it, so rather than doing the logical and moral thing by becoming vegan, they comfort themselves by buying wholeheartedly into the myth that the animal who was needlessly slaughtered to tickle their taste buds lived a “good” life. As if that makes up for anything.

    Thanks for another great post ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Honestly, I think that over the millenia, humans have started to think that we’re a kind of God, that we have the right to control and decide the fate of other living things. Even if an animal lives a “good” life, nobody has the right to decide whether it should live or die. Yes, obviously we would rather an animal was killed humanely than brutally – but that doesn’t make either of those options ethically correct. The animal shouldn’t even have to be killed in the first place.

  8. I found your post whilst searching the phrase “is it possible to get meat farmed from animals that had a good life?”
    I would love to be in the position of having my own farm (like my Grandad) and to be able to say, hand on heart that until the moment of slaughter, my chicken or cow or pig enjoyed it’s life.
    I try to buy from local farm shops promising this but, find increasingly, that their promises must be empty.
    The scale that they are providing their meat leave me dismayed, as they cannot possibly be meeting their demands without maltreating animals.
    I’m an avid meat-eater but, I also feel a deep compassion for animals. It doesn’t help that we are so far removed from the process of rearing and slaughtering the animals that we consume. It makes it almost surreal to consider the suffering that went into producing our steak and bacon. You have to actively meditate upon it, as packaged meat, in the shop removes you from all feelings of guilt.

    Does anyone know of any local farm shops that actually do care enough to ensure that their animals meet more than the piss-poor minimum government requirements for meat to be classed as ” free range” or “red tractor standard”.

    Do I need to start my own farm or are there reasonable options out there?

  9. Yes — maybe vegetarianism is even better but what is most important is that animals are not tortured. We all die. Native peoples all over the world hunt, fish etc. This is okay. Torture of anyone or any animal is not okay. That needs to be stopped.

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