As the cruel realities of the dairy industry continue to come to light, people concerned about the welfare of animals are faced with a moral dilemma. Having to negotiate their existing and beloved dietary choices with their newfound knowledge about the gross mistreatment of animals can be distressing. Fortunately, for those who believe we ought to extend moral consideration to animals, but just love cheese too darn much to give it up, dairy companies have cleverly started to adopt “certified humane” labels.
Knowing that their milk comes from a “happy” cow, concerned consumers can absolve themselves of their guilt without compromising their gustatory pleasures. All the while, the dairy industry can continue to draw huge profits from the reproductive exploitation of female cows under this guise of humanitarianism. While this seems like a win-win for both humans and animals, these labels actually do more for the ethical ego of consumers, and the wallets of producers, than they do for the animals whose wellbeing is allegedly the subject of concern.
Using animal rights theory as a philosophical framework to assess the moral implications of “humane certified” dairy, I put forth the argument that the consumption of dairy products is morally wrong regardless of how the cows are treated in the production process.
Beginning with the assertion that it is morally impermissible to exploit vulnerable beings, as doing so causes harm, I claim that because animals are among the most vulnerable beings they ought to be protected from exploitation. I build upon Peter Singer’s case for extending moral consideration to sentient beings by suggesting that the extension of negative rights, which offer animals protection against exploitation, to animals is a necessary criteria for equal moral consideration.
When we fail to extend, at the very least, negative rights to animals, we fail to uphold our duty to protect them from exploitation, and consequently, fail to offer equal moral consideration of their most basic interests. In doing so, we cause harm. Using these claims to guide my moral analysis of the dairy industry, I expose the ways in which even “humane certified” dairy fails to extend negative rights to animals, making it an inherently exploitative industry. Finally, I claim that those who support the dairy industry via consumption of dairy products, be them “humane certified” or not, are morally responsible for the exploitation of vulnerable beings.
Moral Implications for the Exploitation of Vulnerable Beings
Vulnerable beings are individuals with a particular susceptibility to harm. Typically, a vulnerable being is in need of special protection because they possess certain qualities that make them easy subjects for abuse and manipulation. For example, an inability to consent, be it due to incapacitation or cognitive impairments, would deem someone a vulnerable being. Intuitively, most people recognize that children, the elderly, and those with disabilities, are groups uniquely vulnerable to exploitation. In light of their vulnerable status, there are special laws in place to protect the rights of children, elderly, and people with mental disabilities because their physical and cognitive capacities render them particularly susceptible to harm.
The United State’s laws against child abuse and child labor stem from a recognition that children’s limited capacities, be it their undeveloped brains or their inability to live fully independently, make them vulnerable subjects for exploitation in many aspects of their lives. Similarly, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted to offer extra protection to those living with disabilities. While United States citizens are all granted basic fundamental rights, the enactment of these additional laws suggests that we hold a moral obligation to not only give vulnerable beings rights, but also to grant them additional protections from the violation of their rights. Ultimately, these laws which protect the rights of vulnerable beings, which are for the most part widely accepted, allude to a societal recognition that exploiting vulnerable beings causes significant harm.
Negative Rights as a Tool to Protect Vulnerable Beings From Exploitation
To protect the most basic interests of all individuals, governments often set negative rights in place. In regards to vulnerable beings, negative rights are a necessary foundation for protections against the harms of exploitation. For clarity, when I refer to negative rights I am referring to individual’s rights, “not to be tortured, experimented on, owned, enslaved, imprisoned, or killed” (Donaldson & Kymleka). While humans identified as vulnerable beings are often granted additional positive rights (ex: children in the US are granted the positive right to education), I am focusing purely on negative rights because they form the basis for protection against exploitation. Additionally, I have chosen to appeal to negative rights because they pertain to our primary moral duties not to cause harm, rather than our secondary duties to help. When we fail to extend negative rights to vulnerable beings, consequently placing them in a position subject to exploitation, we fail to uphold our duties not to cause harm. For vulnerable being who are particularly susceptible to exploitative harms, failures to uphold these duties carry significant moral weight.
Animals are Vulnerable Beings
In regards to exploitation, animals are among the most vulnerable beings. Animals are unable to consent, making them especially vulnerable to treatments, situations, and industries that do not align with their interests. They are also unknowingly subject to human’s pervasive ideologies, specifically the idea that animals are here for us, which have so long naturalized their inferior status. Additionally, because animals do not possess language, and humans are unable to fully understand the alternative ways in which they try to communicate with us, animals are subjected to humans interpretations of their interests, feelings, and needs.
I turn to Donaldson and Kymlecka’s case for the extension of rights to animals to help demonstrate how this can cause harm. In their book, Zoopolis, they note, “Given that humans have a great stake in using animals, there is an omnipresent danger that they will adopt a self-serving picture of animals’ needs and preferences (135).” Animals vulnerability to our “self-serving pictures,” more often than not leads to the exploitation of their bodies for human benefit. Perhaps, their greatest vulnerability might be that they are unable to reason, as this is basis upon which many justify their exploitation. For these reasons, animals are among the most vulnerable of beings, surpassing many groups of humans.
Our treatment of vulnerable humans and animals is morally inconsistent. The qualities which render humans vulnerable are seen as grounds for additional protections from exploitation. On the contrary, these are exact qualities (inability to reason, consent, use language, etc.) are used to defend the exploitation of animals. People defend the permissibility of animal exploitation because their vulnerabilities supposedly justify their inferior. In opposition to this popular opinion, that animals’ inferiority permits their exploitation, Peter Singer suggests that it is their “capacity to suffer,” which necessitates that animals are given equal moral consideration (106).
To give equal moral consideration, then, is to protect the interests of animals not to suffer. Yet, given their status as vulnerable beings, it is not solely their capacity to suffer that matters, but their unique subjectivity to exploitation. Protecting animals from suffering, when we chose what constitutes suffering, does not ensure protection from all forms of exploitation. Thus, the first step to moral consistency is extending negative rights to animals. Any practice that fails to extend these rights to animals is morally wrong. This is not say that animals do not deserve any positive rights, but rather that the extension of negative rights is a primary step towards total animal liberation. Before the discussion of animals and positive rights can be had, we must first accept that animals deserve basic negative rights.
Moral Implications Regarding the Production & Consumption of “Humane” Dairy
Despite their attempts to appeal to the conscious consumer, the “humane certified” dairy industry falls short of its claims to the ethical treatment of cows and their calves. The entire dairy industry, “humane certified” included, fails to extend negative rights to some of the most vulnerable of beings – animals. Even in the most “humane” conditions, where cows are given lots of land to frolic and affection from their caregivers, female cows remain enslaved, imprisoned, owned, tortured, and sometimes even killed. Cows being bred and milked for the purpose of human consumption are legally the farmer’s property (owned), reproductively exploited to make profit for someone else (enslavement), stripped of their agency and mobility (imprisonment), repeatedly forced to endure the pains of labor only to have their calves stolen from them time and time again (torture), and in some cases, when they can longer produce, sent to slaughter (killed). Can a practice that ignores some of the most basic rights extended to humans really be called “humane?” After all, what is more “humane” than the most basic rights not to be unnecessarily harmed.
The moral wrongness of the dairy industry depends not on the physical conditions upon which cows are “raised,” but in the very fact that them being raised for the purpose of profit is inherently exploitative. As Tom Regan notes, “The fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as our resources, here for us” (841). While their are important differences between the industries of slavery and dairy, there are some staggering similarities worthy of exploration. In both, bodies are resources, used as a means to an end, seen as commodities void of intrinsic value, and exploited for the benefits of those in power. Slavery cannot be justified by the master’s treatment of slaves in much the same way that eating dairy cannot be justified by the “humaneness” of a cow’s raising.
Just because a master does not beat his slaves does not mean slavery is okay. Similarly, showering cows with love and providing them with an abundance of land, does not make exploiting them for human pleasure okay either. Regardless of how slaves and cows are treated, the institutions of slavery and dairy alike, are wrong in that they maintain oppressive and exploitative relations where those deemed superior. The fact that they reap benefits at the greater expense of those deemed inferior (vulnerable beings) only furthers this wrong. Ultimately, both industries share the wrong of failing to extend negative rights to beings whose interests depend on them. Like the industry of slavery, the dairy industry can only be made “humane” by its extinction.
The moral responsibility does not fall solely on the industry. The consumer, who pays for and perpetuates this exploitation is also responsible for the harms caused. Like any industry, the dairy industry would not exist without the consumers driving demand. While some might argue that it is morally permissible to consume dairy because the industry will continue defying negative rights to cows whether a sole individual consumes it or not, this argument is flawed. Yes, one individual’s choice not to consume dairy will not single-handedly abolish the enslavement, imprisonment, torture, and other forms of exploitation cows are subjected to; but would we tell someone not to vote in the upcoming election because their one vote will not sway the outcome?
When we put our money towards dairy products, we are casting a vote for the continuation of exploiting vulnerable beings. We are voting against the extension of moral consideration to animals. Regardless of the outcome of the election or the future of the dairy industry, our individual votes matter. On a similar note, choosing not to own slaves would not end the institution of slavery. The industry would not perish by this one single choice, people already enslaved would still exist in a world without negative rights. Yet, when we look back on history, we do not consider this adequate justification for the moral permissibility of owning slaves.
In short, both the dairy industry and the consumers who fuel the industry fail to extend negative rights to animals. Since negative rights are necessary to protect vulnerable beings from exploitation, to fail to extend negative rights to animals is to fail to protect vulnerable beings from exploitation When we fail to protect vulnerable beings from exploitation, we cause serious harms. Since it is morally wrong to cause harm, it is morally wrong to not only produce, but also to consume dairy.
The notion of “humane” dairy is a dangerous illusion that poses ethical concerns. The fact that the enslavement, imprisonment, torture, and murder of innocent beings can even be labeled “humane” remains mind-boggling. If human rights work to protect the interests of vulnerable groups like the elderly, the poor, and the disabled, then animals should also be entitled to the same protections on the grounds that they, too, are vulnerable beings with interests that ought to be protected. Their status as vulnerable beings necessitates that they be granted negative rights as means of protection against the very exploitations they are most vulnerable to. Ultimately, it is impossible to extend equal moral consideration to animals while at the same time denying them the basic negative rights we extend to all humans.