I’m a vegetarian for moral reasons. Animals raised for meat in this country are in general treated horribly (I think every meat eater should have some familiarity with factory farming of animals, since I think one should understand the consequences of a lifestyle one chooses). One question I’m occasionally asked is: is it OK to eat animals that you raise yourself in humane conditions, or that you hunt?
Clearly humans evolved hunting and eating meat, so it is in some sense natural. Obviously many other animals hunt and eat meat, but that is not particularly relevant since those animals are incapable of making moral choices. So one part of the question is whether something which is natural from our evolutionary history is therefore moral. I’ve argued in the past that the basis of our morality is our evolutionary history. However, it doesn’t follow that everything from our evolutionary history is moral. We are able to pick and choose. Observation of hunter gatherer tribes in New Guinea and the Amazon suggests that our evolutionary history included living in small bands and regarding people from other bands as subhuman others. We no longer accept that as a moral view–morally speaking, we now believe that all people are created equal.
Another side of the question is whether it is OK to use animals for anything. Some people have argued that keeping pets is immoral because it is unnatural for the animals. My view on that is that domestication is a choice. Humans have domesticated themselves–that is the choice we made in choosing agricultural and city living. I think it is morally OK for other animals to make the same choice, for all that they do it unconsciously. Some animals can not be domesticated–zebras are a well-known example. Some animals thrive on it, such as dogs. I think that keeping pets is OK, and, extending that slightly, I think it is OK to keep animals and use their byproducts such as wool, eggs, milk, and honey. That said, the details do matter: there are factory farms for dairy cows that are nearly as bad as the ones for meat cows, and that is not OK.
Would it be OK to raise a domesticated animal and then eat it after it dies of old age? Yes, I think it would. The only objection I see would be a sort of fastidiousness, the reason that we do not eat dog meat in this country. There is nothing wrong with that fastidiousness, but I don’t think it is a moral requirement.
Would it be OK to kill and eat an animal if you would otherwise starve to death? Yes, I think it would. I do think that humans have a right to life which somewhat exceeds that of other animals. This is a very hypothetical situation, though, and not only would it never happen today, it would be rather unlikely even in the distant past. For example, it’s not OK to head out into the desert with a cow and then conclude that you must eat the cow because there is nothing else around: you acted wrongly in heading out to the desert with that plan in mind.
This brings us to the real question, which is whether it is OK to raise a domesticated animal under humane conditions, and then kill it and eat it. This is close to the line between the morally acceptable and the morally unacceptable. Which side of the line does it fall on? It’s possible to imagine an animal making an informed choice to accept a domesticated lifestyle in exchange for an early death. Douglas Adams, himself a vegetarian, put a humorous spin on this in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In the real world, in some species of mites the mother never lays her eggs; instead, the mother dies, the eggs hatch inside her body, and the babies eat their way out.
Since animals can’t make that informed choice, we must make it for them. What I see is that animals struggle for life even in extreme conditions. I don’t think humans would make such a choice, except perhaps when in the depths of despair, and at base we are animals too. I don’t think animals would make that choice either.
So my conclusion is that it is not OK to raise animals for the purpose of killing and eating them, even if you do so humanely. It is close to the line of what is OK, but it falls on the far side.