Can Killing an Animal Be Compensated For by the Creation of a New Animal?

By Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

This article was first published on the Animals 24-7 Website, November 6, 2020.

Old Dog and Sick Chicken Enter Heaven (Beth Clifton collage)
(Beth Clifton collage)

There’s a line of thought in moral philosophy that says “yes,” as long as the animal lived a pleasant life and the method used to kill the animal is humane – quick and painless. This is not about euthanasia, which means the merciful killing of a creature in irremediable misery. The other thought, by contrast, concerns killing an animal, not for the animal’s sake, but as part of a human enterprise or circumstance in which the animal is involved, but nonthreateningly, so that self-defense is not an issue. In this line of thought, the animal and his or her death are subsumed within a larger picture, purpose or project in which the animal as an individual is deemed incidental and replaceable in the overall scheme of things.

For example, William Howitt, in The Rural Life of England, defended sport hunting against charges of cruelty as follows:

The pleasure is in the pursuit of an object, and the art and activity in which a wild creature is captured, and in all those concomitants of pleasant scenery and pleasant seasons that enter into the enjoyment of rural sports; – the suffering is only the casual adjunct . . . the momentary pang of a creature, which forms but one atom in a living series.

Similarly, Washington Post columnist Ellen Goodman wrote in “Quality Time” that even though animal products were extremely important to her family’s enjoyment of Thanksgiving, it wasn’t “really” the turkey, chicken fat, and eggs she drooled over that drew them together. Rather, “it is really our appetite for togetherness that will bring us to the Thanksgiving table.” The birds who suffered and died for this get-together were merely the “casual adjuncts” of the pleasurable family gathering.

The absorption of animals into a human enterprise in which they are viscerally featured while simultaneously conceived of as not really there, not really important, not really themselves, or even complicit – be the enterprise religion, eating, cooking, laboratory experimentation, entertainment, or whatever – recurs thematically throughout human history. To this day, according to the scholar Basant K. Lal, an animal ritually sacrificed by Hindus “is not considered an animal” but is instead “a symbol of those powers for which the sacrificial ritual stands.” The sacrificed animals are incidental and replaceable; the symbol for which they stand is essential and enduring.

Absorbed into these human-centered worlds of thought and behavior, the animals virtually disappear, apart from how they are used. Our use becomes their ontology – “this is what they are” – and their teleology – “this is what they were made for.” Such maneuvering allows us to hurt and kill animals casually in many circumstances, with little or no compunction or care.

Replaceable units of production (Beth Clifton collage)
(Beth Clifton collage)

Why Does Killing Matter, If Another Mortal Is Born?

The predilection for conceiving nonhuman animals as incidental and replaceable creatures appears in an inquiry posed by utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, whose 1975 book Animal Liberation, revised in 1990, helped launch the modern animal advocacy movement. It goes like this: As long as the same amount of pleasure is maintained in the world, why is the killing of a dog or any other nonhuman animal a moral problem or a loss, if a new animal replaces the old one?

In J. M. Coetzee’s collection of essays, The Lives of Animals, Singer constructs a dialogue with his daughter about their companion dog, Max, to deliberate the matter. He asks what is wrong with painlessly killing Max as long as Max is replaced by a puppy. He tells her, “Our distress is a side effect of the killing, not something that makes it wrong in itself.” This statement suggests that Max likewise is only a “side effect” of his own demise, including the betrayal of those he trusted.

In Animal Liberation (1990 edition), Singer proposes that nonhuman animals – who because in his view they “cannot grasp” that they have “a life in the sense that requires an understanding of what it is to exist over a period of time” – are therefore incidental and replaceable creatures whose deaths are no big deal as long as the amount of pleasure embodied in the original animal is maintained in the new form of pleasurable animal life:

[I]n the absence of some form of mental continuity, it is not easy to explain why the loss to the animal killed is not, from an impartial point of view, made good by the creation of a new animal, who will lead an equally pleasant life.

It isn’t the animal’s point of view that counts here – “the loss to the animal killed”; but rather the “impartial point of view” from which standpoint the utilitarian philosopher casts an emotionless eye.

Nullifying the Living Creature

While conceding that killing a sentient creature could be “a kind of wrong that cannot be made good by creating a new creature,” Singer makes this concession less with conviction than with the intent to show that he’s aware of philosophic alternatives to the view he’s advancing, a view that essentially nullifies the living creature and reifies pleasure versus pain as more “real” and important by comparison.

One may ask how the view of animals as replaceable embodiments of pleasure and pain differs from the view of exploiters. For these utilitarians, the animals they exploit are replaceable, interchangeable units of production. Farmers speak of “replacement” cows, sows, hens. The individuality of these animals is not an issue. Free from any onus of acknowledgement of the flesh and blood creatures in and of themselves, of each one’s one and only life, agribusiness representatives can glibly glide into abstract discourse about the “welfare” they claim their units of production are receiving, including “humane” slaughter. What is wrong with killing an animal as long as the killing is “humane” and the continuity of “welfare” is maintained?

If exploiters are looking outside their profession for “justification,” Singer’s argument for dismissing the intrinsic worth of individual animals, including an animal’s right not to be killed merely to satisfy human desires, provides it.

Philosophy or Sophistry?

Singer’s own consumption and approval of “free-range” eggs makes sense within this construct. In a recent interview, Singer said he eats bivalves like mussels and clams because he believes they lack the capacity to suffer. He eats “free-range” eggs as long as he feels satisfied that the hens who laid them were “raised in suitable conditions and humanely killed.” The interviewer thereupon notes “the struggles in our family, finding eggs that we are confident come from chickens who were well-treated.”

To which Singer replies, “Yes, that’s right,” and proceeds to contrast the relative ease of getting “genuinely free-range eggs” in his home country of Australia with the difficulty “in the big American cities” where “it isn’t always that easy to sort out which are labeled free range, but actually kept in big warehouses with small patches where they go outside.” (Notice how the hens and their eggs are conflated in this reply.)

The 1975 edition of Animal Liberation already opened the door to “free-range” eggs. Since then, the idea of ethical alternatives to industrial animal production has become a common excuse for consuming animal products, even pulling some former vegans back into the carnage. Ethical objections to free-range eggs are said to be “relatively minor,” even though free-range hens are killed when they no longer lay enough eggs to be considered worth keeping. The 1990 edition of Animal Liberation further notes the fact that the killing of male chicks is standard industry practice, free-range or otherwise.

Notwithstanding, Singer holds that ethical objections to free-range eggs are “very much less” than objections to intensively-produced eggs and other animal products, and that the question is “whether the pleasant lives of the hens (plus the benefits to us of the eggs) are sufficient to outweigh the killing that is a part of the system. One’s answer to that will depend on one’s view about killing, as distinct from the infliction of suffering.”

Turkey with Axe Standing on Human Skulls (Beth Clifton collage)
(Beth Clifton collage)

Killing is NOT Distinct from the Infliction of Suffering

This distinction is false. As I discuss in my bookThe Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities, killing is not distinct from the infliction of suffering. The word suffering is not limited to sensations of hurt and pain. Suffering encompasses the bearing of a wound or a trauma whether consciously experienced by the injured individual or not. It is possible to harm an individual in a way that is technically or temporarily painless, but it is not possible to do so in a way that will avoid causing the individual to suffer.

To kill an animal is therefore to inflict the ultimate injury on that animal. If, in discussions of this topic, concepts such as “humane slaughter” were placed in the category of humane harm, performed not for the sake of the animal, as in a surgical procedure to remove a tumor, but solely for the benefit of the exploiter , then the impertinence of many seemingly reasonable proposals involving the use of animals would be clear.

Free-Range Rhetoric versus “Free-Range” Reality

Finally, the distinction between “genuinely free-range eggs” in Australia and eggs so labeled in the United States is disingenuous. To confirm this, I emailed decades-long farmed animal activist, Patty Mark, who as the founder of Animal Liberation Victoria, developed the strategy of Open Rescue in Australia and introduced this strategy – in which the rescuers document the farmed-animal abuse and publicly identify themselves instead of acting anonymously – to U.S. activists at our United Poultry Concerns Direct Action for Animals Forum, June 26-27, 1999.

Patty wrote back to me on October 31, 2020: “We don’t have some mythical egg industry here in Australia where all the male counterparts of so-called free-range hens live magical lives roaming the hillsides crowing with joy. And while hens can lay eggs for most of their natural lifespans of 8-10 years, commercialized free-range hens are killed at 18 months to 2 years of age. And then there are the parent birds of the ‘free-range’ hens who are kept in horrible conditions to produce the fertilised eggs/chicks for all types of egg production.”

“Obscuring the Face of the Other”

It is often the case in anti-factory farming discourse that the detailed descriptions of standard industrial farming practices are not matched by an equally scrupulous description of so-called alternative production practices – practices and conditions that undercover investigations have often found to be as callous and cruel as the “factory-farming” of which they are, in fact, extensions – debeaking, culling by cervical dislocation, and more. The reality is that the cruelest, most brutal and atrocious industrial farming conditions and practices are the standard by which “a good life” and “humane killing” of chickens and other farmed animals are measured.

The effort to get people to care about animals, and particularly about farmed animals beyond a mere nod of agreement about “humane” treatment, is daunting. All of us working on behalf of animals and animal liberation are trying to figure out how to succeed. I believe we increase our hurtfulness toward animals by contending that they, in the fullness of their own being, matter less, or somehow exist less, than the amount of pleasure or pain they embody and magically transfer upon their death to other embodiments.

Animal-based rituals, ranging from religious to secular, involve a rhetorical and conceptual transformation of the animals into a manifestation of something else. They are, in the words of Carol J. Adams explaining her concept of the absent referent, “transmuted into a metaphor for someone else’s existence or fate” without ever being acknowledged in their own right. “Obscuring the face of the other,” wrote Maxwell Schnurer in his essay “At the Gates of Hell,” is “vital to the reduction of living beings to objects upon whom atrocities can be heaped.”

Reducing an animal, such as Max the dog, to a replaceable unit of pleasure or pain is yet another way we have of degrading animals in our own minds so that just about any abuse, including killing them for reasons unrelated to euthanasia or self-defense, can be rationalized as both humane and inconsequential. This line of thought undermines animal liberation, including our own. – Karen Davis