Comments on Magnus Vinding's “Why ‘Happy Meat’ Is Always Wrong”

Par David Olivier Whittier

The series of five comments below are those that I published on Peter Singer's Facebook page, under his June 28, 2014 post announcing Magnus Vinding's essay “Why "Happy Meat" Is Always Wrong”.

My comments were, essentially, the only ones on the post. I publish them unedited, except for typographical style.

Additional note (Dec. 2021): I have been brought recently to reread Magnus's article, and, despite not having changed my mind regarding the substance of my comments, I regret their overall negative tone: there is much of value in the article, particularly Magnus's important analysis of how the “happy meat” paradigm always works to maintain the barbaric status quo.

This does imply a serious problem, in my mind, for the animal movement: If, as I hold, “happy meat” is not wrong in principle, but is damaging in practice, should we attempt to conceal the truth and insist, publicly, that it is indeed wrong in principle? Or can we find a way to remain sincere, while defusing the damaging effects of the paradigm?

First comment

I have started reading both parts of Magnus Vinding's essay. I must say that I already feel that it fails to prove that “happy meat” is wrong in principle, though I do agree that it is wrong in fact, within the framework of the speciesist society we live in. I agree with the author that today, and probably for a long time in the future, “there are good reasons to doubt that it is possible in practice for any institution or system that brings beings into existence in order for them to be killed to really provide anything that can be considered good lives for these beings”. This is why I agree that the “happy meat” paradigm is wrong in practice: because it misleads people into thinking that there is indeed something like happy meat, while such a thing in fact doesn't exist at all, or doesn't exist enough to be worth speaking of.

The reason that I feel that “happy meat” is not wrong in principle has to do with my Parfitian position on personal identity and the non-wrongnes of death. But more simply, it is plainly not true that we do not accept that to bring a being into existence can be right, even if we know in advance that that being will someday die. We do that all the time to children. To give birth to a child is to kill em, that is to cause eir death at some future time. If the choice was between bringing a thousand chickens into existence, allowing them to live five years of a happy life, and then killing them (without suffering), or doing nothing of this, without our decision having any other consequences, I don't see how we could justify prefering the non-existence option, unless we also believe it to be wrong to give birth to human children.

In practice, as I noted, I still believe “happy meat” to be wrong, or rather close to non-existent. I also agree that the “happy meat” idea is very damaging to the movement, because it is misleading. But for a position to be damaging doesn't make it wrong, and I suspect that Magnus is heading into that fallacy in his second part. It may be wrong to hold that position, or to publicly express it, even if what that position asserts is, in fact, true.

Second comment

I've finished reading the first part, and I think it confirms what I anticipated above; that it is based on a mistaken appraisal of our common moral intuitions. It claims that “If we imagine we had an institution that brought children into existence in order to provide good lives for them and then kill them painlessly when they have reached a certain size (...) would we then be tempted to say that their happy, albeit short, existence justifies this entire practice? Clearly not; merely making the suggestion seems outrageous.” This, I think, is plainly false, if we consider that we do, in fact, kill our children, albeit in advance, when we bring them into existence. The author adds that “We must be able to bring happy humans into existence without having to kill them.” That is simply not possible, as long as human beings remain mortal.

There is also a confusion between two issues: 1. Given that a certain being is in existence, is it right (or acceptable) to kill em, for a certain reason? and 2. When the choice is between not bringing a being into existence, and bringing em into existence and then killing em at a certain age (or letting em die - I think it is morally equivalent), should we chose the former or the latter option?

Third comment

An imaginary example, to make my point clearer. Suppose we discovered that humanity is actually under the control of an extraterrestrial power. They raise us - or rather, just let us reproduce, like no doubt some extensive farmers do for their animals - and typically around 75 years of age they kill us, through what to us appear to be “natural” causes. If they didn't kill us, we might live to 900, like some of our purported ancestors. They kill us at that early age in order to harvest grurph, an invisible substance that our bodies emit when we die, when we are not too old. They don't really need grurph, but they like the taste of it.

Now let's suppose that before discovering all this, we believed that the existence of humanity, altogether, is a positive thing. Suppose that most people live lives well worth living, and die rather satisfied. We brought children into existence, despite knowing that they will die someday, because we believed it to be good for them.

How can it be that after discovering that we are actually farmed by these aliens, we should change our minds and believe that humanity's existence is wrong? That the aliens should not do what they do?

Perhaps we might believe that they should farm us and let us die our natural deaths at 900. But suppose that they simply won't do that, for some reason; perhaps they actually couldn't do that. The options are: humans exist, and live to around 75; or humans simply don't exist. If we previously believed that humanity is a good thing, I don't see how we could change our minds about it just because we learn that some aliens - and not our genes, or God, or Vishnu - are the ones who cut our lives short.

Fourth comment

I've now read the whole piece, and despite some interesting points I find it on the whole unconvincing. The second part, as I suspected, confusing the wrongness of an act and the wrongness of (publicly) justifying that act. The reasoning is flawed at several points. The “we can do better” argument seems puzzling. It seems to argue that we could do better than raise animals and kill them, since we could raise animals and let them live, in a sanctuary for instance, and so should not raise animals and kill them. But the practical conclusion is that we should not raise animals and kill them, period; the obligation to do better - to raise them and let them live - somehow vanishes.

Fifth comment

The conclusion of the piece is a crescendo of personalism - the idea that we have an unchanging personal identity, that is a “further fact” (as Parfit's puts it) relative to our mere stream of consciousness, and is really what matters. This is a flawed view, in my opinion, and there is no attempt to justify it, apart from a flurry of rhetoric.