The 'Interests' of Animals

There are two fundamental concepts underlying the arguments of animal rights philosopher Peter Singer that I find compelling as it relates to my own understanding of and relationship to meat animal livestock farming. The first is "speciesism," which is analogous to racism and sexism. We treat animals differently than we treat ourselves because we have declared them different and lesser than us. Singer believes that someday speciesism will be revealed for what it is in the same way that racism and sexism were. The second, which is a practical matter relating to the application of rights, is the utilitarian concept of "interests." Animal rights are rooted in the fundamental interests of animals. They have an interest in freedom from pain, an interest in freedom from close confinement, an interest in food and shelter, etc. Furthermore, Singer's drive and ground is the utilitarian idea of maximizing the good, and, therefore, minimizing suffering.

I am very much not a utilitarian (nor am I a proponent of animal rights, though I believe very strongly in the importance of animal welfare). I think that utilitarianism imagines away all of the infinitely impenetrable mystery and wonder that I believe truly exists and lays over the world a great abacus, and all one need do to navigate this world is slip and slide the abacus beads. However, I cannot argue with Singer on the question of speciesism. I do raise pigs and sheep for slaughter because they are different species, and because somewhere along the lines of my determination of their difference, I have declared that theirs are in important and permissive ways lesser species than my own.

I will rue the day we witness the real and undeniable appearance of Wilbur on our farms. A part of me believes he is already out there, hence the struggle over raising animals to be killed so we can eat their flesh. Until that day comes, however, I will continue to be a mildly trepidatious speciesist that likes the taste and appreciates the sustenance of meat. After that day, I do not know how I will live with myself. I suppose I will live with myself as I have lived with myself as a former racist. That is, with guilt and repentance for those that I hurt, and anger at having been made a tool.

I also cannot argue with Singer on this question of interests. Be it instinct or active consciousness, animals have and make known very compelling interests. Scientists studying the degree to which a chicken "wants" to lay an egg where she wants to lay it placed increasingly difficult barriers between her and her chosen laying spot, and gauged the depth of her "interest" by measuring the degree to which she struggled to overcome the barrier between her and her spot. She would struggle quite a bit before giving up and laying her egg in some other spot. When that hen's interest in laying her egg where she wanted to lay it was contravened, she suffered from psychological distress (I acknowledge this is, currently, a loaded anthropomorphism). Similarly, animals display an interest in such things as escaping the heat of a blazing sun, in not being hurt physically, in not being savagely killed, in the comfort of fellow species members, in being outdoors, and in a myriad other things. When the pursuit of those various interests is obstructed, the stress animals suffer as a result is clearly evident. Though I am not a utilitarian, I, too, would like to minimize suffering, especially of the animals in my care, even though I am raising them for the express purpose of killing them or their offspring, or both, so the very real psychological stress caused by obstructing animals' interests is of great concern to me.

If you ask almost anyone in the production -- think industrial -- livestock world, you will be told that while we should of course avoid and prevent egregious animal abuse, what matters most in terms of our farming practices is production efficiency. That is, how do we squeeze one more pig per litter out of a sow (gestation stalls and farrowing crates), how do we decrease the amount of grain it takes to put on one pound of flesh (antibiotics and closely tailored feed rations), how do we best distribute fixed costs (close confinement), how do we best decrease labor costs (slatted concrete floors, close confinement, and automation)? In this production-focused, intensive system, the production efficiency gained over the historical pasture-based model that I and others like me are emulating is stunning, and astronomical, and it has made pork broadly affordable (it is over four times cheaper to raise a pig to market weight in a CAFO compared to on my farm). However, while concentration of market hogs in crowded, concrete floored pens, and the extreme isolation and lifelong confinement of sows in cages hardly bigger than themselves improves production efficiency, what about the interests of the pigs? Do pigs have a strong interest in something other than life in gestation stalls and farrowing crates, or a life spent on concrete floors in crowded pens? That is the question I believe, with Singer, we need to be asking when making decisions about our farming practices.

The pigs on my farm, and farms like it, are free to express their interests, and they do so constantly. Whenever they have an interest in doing so, they roam, they bark and run, they spin and twirl, they bask in the sun, they lounge together in the shade, they sleep together at night wherever the mood suits them -- under the stars or in their shelters -- always in contact with another pig (pigs are intensely gregarious), they wallow in cool muddy water, and of course, they root, forage, and eat grain to their hearts' content. On my farm at any given time, there are pigs all over the place engaged in the untrammeled expression of countless interests.

Given the opportunity, then, to express them, the interests of animals are almost always clear and unambiguous. Making the argument, "but, look, production efficiency is improved from the introduction of x practice, which must mean that the animals are fine because an animal that is stressed will not perform well" does not adequately meet the value of the animals as sentient beings, whether conscious in our sense or not, with clear, intense interests and that are capable of physical and psychological suffering.

The interests of animals, by the way, are no mystery. Animals are simple beings, with simple interests: food, shelter, water, room to roam, to graze, to root, to copulate, etc. Provide lots of space outdoors and they will contentedly explore and make us of it. Provide forage and dirt beneath pigs' feet and they will -- happily, I believe -- shove their impressive snouts into the soil and plow great furrows, seeking tasty roots, and they will gobble up copious amounts of grass, clovers, and whatever else might appeal to them.

The question of livestock raising is one that transcends the hubris of production efficiency for humility, compassion, and empathy, which enable us to acknowledge and grant the animals' expression and pursuit of their own interests.

Bob Comis is a farmer who writes regularly on his blog