The Free-Range Albatross

Terrific piece by James McWilliams in The Atlantic’s food section condemning free-range agribusiness without succumbing to mindless black-and-white thinking about animal welfare:

Relatively speaking, free-range animals experience less harm than do factory-farmed animals. It’s on this point that the vast majority of concerned consumers who choose free-range meat rest their case; if we’re content to think in these relative terms, there’s really not much to argue about. In fact, it’s on this point that nearly every popular media report on the benefits of free-range farming screeches to a convenient halt. And why not? When it comes to farming methods and harm, free range is better.

But this position—the idea that free-range is automatically a responsible choice simply because it’s more attentive to animal welfare—is morally blurred. Better does not mean acceptable. Consumers of free-range meat who oppose factory farming on welfare grounds (however partial) cannot escape an inconvenient question: Doesn’t killing an animal we don’t need constitute the very thing that factory farming perpetuates—which is to say, harm? This, as I see it, is the free-range albatross.


The predictable response to the conundrum is to note that there’s a difference between raising an animal in hellish conditions and killing it and raising an animal in idyllic conditions and killing it. Sure there is. But such a difference is less than it might seem, and hardly enough to justify the radical distinction we draw between free-range (good) and factory farming (bad). For one, in both cases the ultimate denial of happiness is the ultimate reason for and outcome of the farm’s existence. That’s a pretty strong common denominator.

and, finally:

In any case, by choosing death for an animal, humans choose the seduction of taste over an animal’s right to its future. Until someone can convincingly prove that this denial does not constitute unnecessary harm, I’ll continue to view free-range farming and factory farming as gradations on the scale of cruelty.

Too many vegans are incapable of thinking through these sorts of nuances, and they consequently address the issue in ways that repel meat eaters from giving animal welfare productive consideration.

Basically, it comes down to the fact that it’s possible for free-range to be a less cruel choice for someone determined to eat meat, but nothing about acknowledging this fact magically turns free-range into a morally unproblematic option. Link.


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