This thought originally came to me some weeks ago in the midst of an impromptu, informal, semi-moderated discussion with friends about the nature of vegetarianism, animal cruelty and a variety of other related issues. I have spent some time rolling it around since, likely mostly in the depths below conscious thought, as when it occurred to me again it had much firmer structure and stronger lines than the halting genesis of the half-formed argument in the midst of a much larger discussion. Though I don't think it could ever amount to anything approaching a substantive argument on the subject at large, I believe it to be an ethical misstep.
The basis of the argument goes like this. Many vegans and vegetarians do not consume meat products due to the cruelty and suffering caused to the animals raised and slaughtered for human consumption. Certainly there are other reasons, but that is a big one and I want to concentrate exclusively on it here. So the opposition to consuming meat is often based on a moral opposition to the slaughter and suffering of food animals raised exclusively for human consumption. Videos of animal cruelty and heartless beatings were cited in argument and I don't disagree - such treatment of animals is abhorrent and intolerable.
I agree. Animal suffering should be lessened to the largest degree possible, particularly where humans have absolute control over these animals from conception to slaughter. I don't accept the argument that nature is cruel and therefore we should have no concern about domesticated animal suffering; that a larger percentage of humans died due to violence done by other humans 60,000 years ago is no reason not to do everything we can to lessen human violence and suffering today. I have never found the uncaring nature of the cosmos to be a particularly convincing reason that humans shouldn't care. As such, I support the lessening of animal suffering wherever possible, though I am unwilling, at this point, to forgo eating meat. Part of the reason is that I do not accept that meat consumption and prevention of animal suffering is a zero-sum game. It is possible, I believe, to have both, although we clearly have a long way to go. In this particular argument, I cited the work of Temple Grandin's slaughter facilities as among the ways that we can reduce animal suffering, and I support the expansion of such efforts. I should note here that I will be an eager supporter and consumer of lab-grown meat, when we get that worked out. It's really the best compromise I can at this point imagine.
Yet here we come to a rub. It was stated by someone who does not consume meat that while they oppose large-scale slaughter facilities, they don't have a problem with individuals hunting, killing and consuming wild animals for food, so long as they hunt at least in part for food. I have heard this argument before from hunting advocates or otherwise used in defense of hunting as somehow more acceptable than a meat slaughter facility, and I have a problem with this argument. To put it bluntly, there is no reasonable way to judge that being shot and killed amounts to less suffering than a standard cattle stunner. A deer is optimally shot with a firearm of varying destructive force (depending on location and weapon season) somewhere in the anterior chest cavity or neck and dies over the course of minutes or longer. This says nothing of the far lower killing power of bows and arrows. By contrast, a properly-administered high-powered electrical shock or captive bolt knocks the animal unconscious prior to the kill. Personalize it, if that makes it easier to envision. In a circumstance where either injury will inevitably lead to your death, would you rather be shot randomly in the chest so that you can limp and stumble away only to eventually lose strength, fall to the ground and bleed out, or be subject to a sudden shock that knocks you unconscious before your brain could even register the event, let alone injury or pain, before you are fatally injured? For me, this would be an easy decision.
I think it is beyond question of which instance of death is less traumatic for an individual animal. Keep in mind that up to this point, I have discussed the fatal injury only.
I believe part of the issue here is that of volume. Hunting has become romanticized in some sense, even among many otherwise in favor of gun control and ethical treatment of animals. It is in many ways the last remaining domain of the hunter-gatherer in our society. Somehow it evokes a sense of a contest between man and beast, the ingenuity of man against the faster, stronger denizens of the wild. But I believe that to be a lie. Hunted animals are completely outmatched in every sense of the word. Humans have had intelligence and technology outmatching whatever animal it was most expedient to kill for probably a hundred thousand years. In today's world of high-powered rifles and pheromone attractants it is delusional to think any animal any human seriously wants to kill has a real chance. The only thing that prevents the wholesale slaughter of animals is hunting licenses and restrictions put in place by government agencies tasked with preserving some part of the environment that existed before the United States moved from sea to shining sea. And if you want to cite deer overpopulation and the necessity of killing off some of them, I will remind you of the 100,000,000 buffalo that roamed the Great Plains 200 years ago as an example of what happens with unrestricted human hunting.
And yet modern meat consumption allowed by the current meat industry dwarfs even that number, with billions of animals slaughtered every year to supply meat consumed. But the question is not whether there are more animals killed or more total suffering caused by one method or the other. The question is whether there would be more or less suffering if one method were completely exchanged for the other. That is, would there be less suffering if billions of animals were hunted and shot in semi-open preserves rather than slaughtered in the current method? No.
Now there are other arguments here. Individuals hunting for their meat would probably lessen overall meat consumption and might reduce total suffering by reducing total animals killed. The lives of food animals may be distressing and uncomfortable for their entire lives up to the point of the kill (although I have a hard time thinking, absent deliberate human cruelty, the life of even a feedlot animal is substantially worse than, for instance, a deer experiencing winter food scarcity, disease, injury and substantial risk of being hit by a car). But the fact is that people are eating meat, they will continue to eat meat and I believe the best approach is a balanced one that includes efforts to lessen suffering of animals rather than simply writing off the meat industry as an incurable machine of cruelty more deserving of rank castigation and demonization instead of real efforts of compromise and incremental animal welfare improvements.
But my main point here is this. If there are 12.5 million hunters in the US (2007) and they each manage to kill only one animal, can we really say that those 12.5 million animals suffer less than if they were killed in a modern meat slaughter facility specifically designed for their humane destruction? I think they suffer substantially more, and I think the acceptance of hunting as somehow better than modern, humane animal slaughter is a mistake in ethical judgment. Usually, probably, because people just don't think about it that much.