For a more recent discussion on this issue, see here.
A very subtle problem in animal ethics is the case of happy meat. Most people agree that the lives of animals in factory farms are not worth living in the sense that non-existence is preferred above having such lives full of misery. The well-being of those livestock animals is overall negative. If we had a choice to reincarnate, no-one would prefer to reincarnate as a livestock animal born on a factory farm. But what if there are happy livestock production systems where the animals have an overall positive well-being and hence lives worth living? Think of a grazing cow who enjoys several years on a beautiful pasture land, enjoys social interactions with other cows, has enough to eat, is protected from many diseases and predators, and is then, after a few years, painlessly killed for meat. It is possible that such lives are worth living. Even if I was painlessly killed tonight, I would prefer to have lived those 35 years above not having been born. So I consider my life worth living, even if I am killed tonight.
The choice we face is: if we abstain from eating meat due to animal rights reasons, it results in a world where those happy cows are not born. Would that be better? The situation where the cows are bred in a happy livestock system is preferred by the livestock farmers (they can sell meat) and the consumers of meat (they can enjoy the taste of meat), and it can be preferred by the cows (they have lives worth living). What can possibly be wrong with eating that meat if all humans and animals involved are better off? Perhaps we even have a duty to raise happy cows for their meat?
This problem of happy meat is a challenge to a utilitarian welfare ethic and was recently raised by Sam Harris in his conversation with Peter Singer. The usual response is that in practice, where livestock animals are treated as property, there is almost no guarantee that your meat comes from a happy cow. But for the sake of the argument, suppose that happy livestock farming was possible. Still I believe that killing the happy cows is not permissible, even if a prohibition of killing and eating happy cows results in a world where those cows no longer exist. This becomes clear from an antispecisist perspective: most people consider it highly immoral to breed and raise happy children (who have lives worth living) in order to kill and eat them.
My argument is based on the minimum complaint theory and the person affecting view in population ethics. Let’s apply this minimum complaint theory to the case of happy meat. We have a choice between three situations.
The first situation is a vegan world where meat consumption is impermissible and livestock animals don’t exist. In this world, humans have a preference (utility) of P(human, vegan world)=100. This preference measures how strongly humans want or prefer that situation. Livestock animals don’t exist, so they don’t have any preferences. The second situation is the non-vegan, happy livestock world. In this world, humans have a slightly higher preference P(human, non-vegan world)=101 because they can do everything they could do in the first situation, plus they can buy, sell and eat meat. The animals have lives worth living, so they also have a positive preference P(animal, non-vegan world)=50. This preference is lower that the preference of the humans, because the animals are killed prematurely. The third situation is the situation where humans breed animals and take good care of them as in the livestock system, but they don’t kill and eat them. Assume those animals are not used against their will as merely a means for someone else’s ends, and that no animal products are consumed, then this third situation is also a vegan world. As an example, consider a world with animal farm sanctuaries, where happy cows and bulls are put together on large pastures, can freely procreate, raise their calves in a save environment protected from predators by humans, being fed extra hay when hungry and taking care of by veterinarians. Those cows would not exist without human interference, so in that sense those cows are being bred by humans. In this situation, the animals have a much higher preference P(animal, animal breeding vegan world)=100, because they are not killed prematurely and can enjoy a much longer happy life with good care. But in this situation humans have a lower preference P(human, animal breeding vegan world)=95 because they can’t enjoy eating meat, they can’t make profit by selling meat, but they have to take care of the animals, which costs time and resources. So this situation is the least preferred by humans. It means that if humans are not allowed to kill and eat animals (as in the second situation), they will simply not breed animals.
With those preferences, we can calculate the complaints as the differences between preferences. The minimum complaint theory says that we have to choose the situation that minimizes the total complaint of both humans and animals. In the first situation, the humans have a small complaint P(human, non-vegan world)-P(human, vegan world)=1. This small complaint means that the humans have a slight preference for the second situation where they can sell and eat meat. The animals have no complaints because they don’t exist, so they don’t have preferences.
In the second situation, the humans don’t complain (they have the highest preference for this situation), but the animals have a huge complaint, because they strongly prefer the third situation. Their complaint equals: P(animal, animal breeding world)-P(animal, non-vegan world)=50. The third situation is best for the animals (no complaints), but the humans have a lower preference and hence a small complaint P(human, non-vegan world)-P(human, animal breeding world)=5.
The first situation is the situation that minimizes complaints. The second situation is the worst, because it has the highest level of complaints. That is the reason why happy livestock farming is impermissible.
Some further reflections: the minimum complaint theory looks at valid complaints. Some complaints of humans and animals are less valid or invalid. In particular: a complaint becomes less valid when the complainer wants to use other individuals as means against their will. This corresponds with a rights-based ethic where individuals (humans and animals) have a basic right not to be used as a means against their will. In the second situation described above (the non-vegan world), humans use animals for meat, and this usage is against the will (the preferences) of the animals, because the animals prefer not being killed. So the basic rights of animals is violated. Without the animals, a human could not enjoy their meat. But does that mean we have to choose the third situation? Are we morally obliged or forced to choose the third situation that is most preferred by the animals? No, because in that situation, the humans have a lower preference P(human, animal breeding vegan world)=95. Basically that means that now the animals are using the humans against the will of the humans, so the basic rights of humans are violated. Without the humans, an animal could not enjoy their care. The first situation is the only situation where basic rights are not violated.
A second reflection: suppose that humans are indifferent between the first and third situation: they have P(human, animal breeding vegan world)=100. In that case, the first and third options are equally good. But it becomes tricky if there are several animals in the third situation. In that case, there will always be at least one animal who can complain at least a little bit. An animal would have a maximal preference for a situation where the humans take maximally care of that animal. But then the other animals receive less care, so they can complain. It is impossible to make all animals maximally happy, because it is impossible to simultaneously take maximum care for all animals. This means that in the third situation, there will always be some complaints, whereas in the first situation there will be no complaints. Does this mean that the first situation is always better? Does this mean – taken more generally – that we most often have to choose the situations where new animals (and humans) are not born and hence will not exist? No: a situation with newborn happy animals is not worse than a situation without those animals, if that situation with the newborn animals is the one that minimizes complaints, i.e. if in that situation those animals have a smaller complaint than in all the other possible situations where those animals exist. If a world with animals has the lowest possible complaint, this world with animals is as good as a world without those animals. And if humans have a stronger preference for that world with animals (where animal complaints are minimized) than for a world without animals, the world with animals is the best.
There is one situation where breeding and using (killing, eating) happy animals would be permissible. Imagine as a thought experiment that we discover that a God exists and that he caused our existence: God caused the pregnancies of our mothers, without God’s intervention we would not exist. God intentionally created us, because he wants to use us for his own objectives. So that is why we are imprisoned on this planet (we can’t leave to another planet), we get sick from time to time (as a result of God’s mysterious experiments on us) and we die prematurely at the age of 80 years instead of 1000 years. In fact, we are all bred as slaves by God, to be used for his purposes. However, I think I have a fulfilling life. God gave me a rather good health, good food, friends,… I am a happy slave. If I’m going to complain against God, saying that I prefer to live 1000 years instead of 80, without diseases and with a possibility for interstellar travel, God would decide not to breed any more people who could complain. That means no future generations. I do not want that: I prefer a future with happy slaves in the hands of God above an empty future where no-one exist on Earth. And that is why I would not complain against God. My complaint becomes invalid. I have a preference for a continued existence of future happy people, even if we discover that we are all slaves. Similarly, if livestock animals would have a preference for a continued livestock farming, for the existence (the breeding) of future generations of happy livestock animals, those animals could not complain against the livestock farmer or the meat consumer, even if they die prematurely, have a limited space and do not feel well from time to time. But in real life, livestock animals do not have such preference for a continued livestock farming. So when these animals are bred and used, once these animals exist, their complaints do become valid.