We all agree that it’s wrong to put cats in microwaves. Animals’ welfare matters to us. (I don’t think Damon Linker has it right when he says our moral concern for animals is simply a natural “expansion of the sphere of human concern and empathy.” My concern for my fellow human beings dictates precisely nothing about how I should treat a cat. If I think I ought to treat a cat well, that conclusion must be based on some concern for the animal’s well-being. At the same time, I agree with Linker that animals do not have moral rights, because they lack the ability to understand moral claims themselves. There is a middle position between animal rights and no-intrinsic-value-for-animals: animals have intrinsic value in virtue of their ability to suffer and to form basic social ties.)
How much should animal welfare matter? If it’s wrong for me to microwave a cat because it gives me a thrill (let’s assume), is it OK for me to eat a pig because I like its taste? But eating a pig is not the same as killing a pig. Still, eating a pig delegates the killing to others, and is that wrong? I have posed essentially this question before, without coming to a particular answer. Since then, I have come across good reasons to believe that it is impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others, but that still doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and forget about the issue.
It’s impossible not to delegate some amount of animal killing to others because even vegetable farming involves some amount of animal killing. Eating grains means delegating the killing of rodents to granary operators. Packaged, washed greens available at the supermarket are grown with a surprising degree of animal killing (and ecological destruction). One philosopher has even argued that harm minimization principles suggest it is better to eat large mammals than lots of plants. If we should try to reduce the amount of animal suffering our eating practices cause, what follows?
While it’s difficult to come to any settled view of the matter, given the empirical controversies about precisely what does minimize harm, I believe I have found one area of clear ethical guidance, at least for North Americans. It is, as it were, a “moral free lunch.” If we are to be omnivorous, we should try, as much as possible, to eat invasive species.
In the United States, some game animals are particularly problematic for the environment: nutria, wild boar (“feral swine”), axis deer, and nilgai antelope among them. In some places the native white-tailed deer has also become a pest, because of the temporary absence of apex predators previously hunted out: wolves and cougars. It is beneficial to other animals to try to control invasive fauna’s spread, which inevitably involves hunting. If the animals are to be killed anyway, why not eat them? Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas sells most of these wild game meats. They shoot the game with high-powered rifles from long distance and butcher them on site, so the stress on the animals is minimal. We recently placed a small-ish, sampling sort of order from them and were surprised to pay, with shipping, about what we would pay per pound for frozen wild-caught salmon at the local grocery store. I can attest so far that the meat we have tried is very tasty. You can also find Dartagnan wild boar meat at certain supermarkets; the sausage is very good.
Shifting your animal consumption from domestic cows and chickens to these invasive species seems like a clear ethical gain. Yes, you will pay a little more than you would for grain-fed, factory-farmed meat, but for those of us who can afford it, it seems like a worthwhile tradeoff. What do you think?