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Gutting the Real Meaning of Welfare

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Gutting the Real Meaning of Welfare

By James McWilliams
June 2012

This redefinition of “welfare” to include the act of killing an innocent animal who does not want to die is an object lesson of sorts. It teaches us how suffering obscured by language reverberates beyond a particular realm (in this case, agriculture) and infects society at large. When welfare is cheapened, after all, every one of us loses–whether we eat animals or not.

Consumers of “happy meat” are easily seduced by the ditzy idea that, so long as the animal they eat doesn’t come from a factory farm, they’re morally exonerated from the slaughter and suffering they’ve caused for no good reason other than to satisfy their palates. This sense of exoneration is not only dishonestly achieved, but it perpetuates something that advocates of “humanely” raised animals might not care to perpetuate: it hollows out the entire notion of “welfare,” thereby undermining the core meaning of an idea that lends grace and dignity to all relationships.

One major reason that the happy meat crowd opposes factory farming is because it violates animals’ basic welfare. They say it all the time. In industrial settings, pigs can’t be pigs; chickens can’t be chickens; and cows can’t be cows; (and, we could add, humans can’t be humans). So, the idea goes, move animals onto pastures where pigs can be pigs, chickens can be chickens, and cows can be cows. This transition, it seems safe to say, improves their welfare.

Indeed, putting aside for now the complexities of providing “proper” conditions for these complex animals on “happy” farms, and putting aside the question of the morality of animal ownership, it’s safe to say that there’s some merit to the idea that greater space equals greater happiness for farm animals. So, in free range systems, animal welfare, we can all provisionally agree, is improved and the concept of “welfare” is preserved in its basic form.

But then, on slaughter day, a carnivalesque flip-flop turns happiness into horror. “Welfare” is suddenly transformed into an excuse to kill. The happy farm becomes a very sad farm for the animals who pleasurable existence is now forced to end. The complicit producers and consumers will hone their rationalizations and say “oh, the pig lived a good life,” or “death is only one day,” or “hey, this was better than living on a factory farm.” And, however perverse their logic, it will all sound legit enough for the foodie press to turn these phrases into culinary gospel. Of course, it’s all predicated on the expectation that we never stop to truly think about what we are doing, and saying.What’s happening here is a tragic redefinition of welfare, one sadistically expanded to include the arbitrary killing of an animal whose welfare ostensibly matters enough to raise in a setting that increases her happiness.

What’s happening is that the entire idea of welfare is being gutted of its most humane and enlightened premise–the premise that animals are sentient beings with moral worth. Why else get so vexed about how they’re raised? Ah, but then that vexation is viciously contradicted by the decision to kill the animal and serve his flesh for dinner. Still, rather than contemplate that contradiction, the happy animal eaters simply feel smug in their false virtue. Unthinking is easier.

The upshot goes beyond animals and agriculture. This redefinition of “welfare” to include the act of killing an innocent animal who does not want to die is an object lesson of sorts. It teaches us how suffering obscured by language reverberates beyond a particular realm (in this case, agriculture) and infects society at large. When welfare is cheapened, after all, every one of us loses–whether we eat animals or not. Every relationship–be it based on love, friendship, or basic respect–is weakened. Yet another reason to fight back against this tyrannical activity.