Why the ethical case against livestock is unbalanced

Vegan discourse is shaped by societal dynamics. This is often more informative about the messenger’s beliefs, fears, and hopes than about the actual well-being of the animals. From such anthropomorphic point of view, animals are portrayed as victims of exploitation rather than as being embedded in an ecological web (in which they may be better off than they would be in the wild, provided animal welfare criteria are in place). Also, the link between animal deaths and dietary choice is less clear cut than often assumed. Veganism does not guarantee less (and may even lead to more) casualties.  

Animal agriculture does not necessarily involve low animal welfare
The consideration of livestock animals as sentient beings and the need for animal welfare are rather uncontroversial assumptions, seen as morally justified [Bramble & Fisher 2015; Grandin & Cockram 2020]. Animals feel pain and have moral status, which does not imply that it is wrong to kill them for food [Belshaw 2015]. Neither is it fair to claim that eating ASFs causes maltreatment of animals due to more 'factory farming', as the proximate cause for the latter is on the 'supply' rather than individual 'demand' side, relating to decisions of producers and government policies [Almassi 2011; Budolfson 2015]. 
In the EU, animals are recognized as sentient beings [2009 Treaty of Lisbon; European Commission]. Its Member States are required to pay full regard to animal welfare legislation [EU Council Directive 98/58]. Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), of which the worst examples are diffused via social media and Netflix-type movies, are increasingly rare in Europe. But even in the US, it is important to bear in mind that beef cattle are typically raised on grazing lands for 6 months, after which they spend 3-5 months in a feeding operation. However, dairy cattle, pigs, and poultry are often confined during most of their lives [Kleppel 2020]. Whether or not animal husbandry meets sufficient welfare criteria is contextual.

Animal well-being of livestock may be higher than in the wild

In contrast to its portrayal as a form of 'exploitation', livestock farming can as well be appreciated as a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship between humans and animals [Callicott 2015]. Obviously, this is only the case for practices respecting animal welfare and where the animals have the possibility to have a good life and fast and clean death. It can be argued that such animals will be much better off than their 'wild' counterparts that are confronted with a nature that is 'red in claw and tooth' and may die after long agony or starvation [Belshaw 2015]. 
Farmed animals receive the comfort of shelter, are better fed during winter, benefit from better health due to veterinary care, and receive protection from predators. Except for a Darwinian advantage in numbers and reproduction, the bargain for the animal in the overall symbiotic setup would thus be a better life at the price of a shorter one [Callicott 2015]. 
From a utilitarian perspective, livestock farming would be net beneficial under appropriate welfare conditions, as the amount of pleasure may well exceed the amount of pain. Even in the case of 'factory-farmed' beef, cattle only encounter factory-farming operations once they are transported to feedlots, after being raised on a ranch. Moreover, the pain that may be inflicted during these last stages only affects some cows in a probabilistic manner [Budolfson 2015].
Activism is often more about the messenger than the animals
'Non-speciesist' activists oppose the killing of all animals for human use and do not accept good welfare standards as a sufficient condition. It is claimed that the morality of one's diet is inversely related to the proportion of ASFs consumed [Henning 2011]. Therefore, they argue for the radical elimination of livestock, which is seen as an immoral system of exploitation, even when welfare criteria are in place. Some activists wish to accomplish this through coercion, i.e., the legal enforcement of a 'vegan project' upon society [Deckers 2013]. Others, of course, have reasonable requests and are primarily invested in improving animal welfare standards through pressure and dialogue. 
Ethical evaluations, however, are not universal truths and should be carefully evaluated in terms of the perspective of the ones who brandish them. As they consist of personal endorsements of propositions, they may reflect the narrow interests or dubious motivations of their proclaimers. Compassion, for instance, may in some cases be a mere attempt to escape one's own pain by locking onto someone else. What is required is a genealogical approach to assess the value of values in terms of the social, political, or psychological circumstances in which they originated [Nietzsche 1887; Russell 2019].
Although driven by genuine concern, the vegan/vegetarian agenda is often more reflective of the beliefs and attitudes of its militants, within their specific social context, than of the needs and wants of livestock. Despite being presented as a universal struggle, it is culturally contingent, lacks majoritarian support, and is mostly discernible in the middle classes of Western cities [see elsewhere] or in strict religious environments that consider animal source foods (ASFs) as impure [see elsewhere]. Historical anecdotes and ascetic movements aside (e.g., Pythagoreanism and Gnosticism), it should be seen as a relatively recent cultural construct both in the West and - somewhat older - in the East. Taken together, the moral argument is used by some as a smokescreen for societal unease and identity discourse, while being amplified by ideological and politico-economic interests [see elsewhere].

'Animal rights' are largely anthropomorphic constructs 
Claims that farming activities are against the interest of livestock or - even more sweepingly - against ‘Nature’ should be seen as anthropocentric assumptions [Baggini 2014]. The psychologies of livestock animals comprise more or less discrete series of episodes, which they do not perceive and value as a coherent future-directed assemblage in the way humans do. In other words, the idea that an abrupt upcoming ending of mostly instinct-driven daily-life episodes would be a matter of regret is not valid for livestock animals, as they do not have self-regarding desires about their own futures [Belshaw 2015].
Killing an animal would normally not increase the net total pain it would experience over its life. It is true that animal husbandry usually leads to a premature death, which reduces both total lifetime pleasure and lifetime agony. In contrast to humans, however, future ideas of pleasure (or upcoming years of good life) cannot be contextualized mentally by animals as to compensate for even one day of agony, even if total pleasure would eventually be more than total pain. Since livestock animals do not have desires for more life (or for factors that would allow them to do so), premature death is not bad; it may even be considered as good when it is done pain-free, or with less pain than the agony that would lie ahead due to old age or disease [Belshaw 2015]. From a utilitarian perspective, one could also argue that an event is harmful for an individual being only when things go worse than they would have gone if the event did not occur [Bradley 2012].

Veganism does not guarantee less animal harm
The 'least harm principle', often endorsed by vegan philosophers, may as well imply worse ethical outcomes for plant-based diets with respect to the net amount of harm [Brucker 2015]. The number of sentient animals that are killed per unit of human nutrition and the total amount of agony could easily be higher than for ASFs. This is to be ascribed to the vast amounts of field deaths during crop production, involving such lethal actions as pest control, ploughing, harvesting with machines, and stubble burning [Tew & MacDonald 1993]. Casualties are due to the chopping up of rabbits, mice, ground-nesting birds, amphibians, and reptiles (not to mention insects, worms, and slugs), and their brutal exposition to predators. It has been suggested that the contrast is especially valid when comparing crop harvests to the slaughtering of large animals, such as cows, while it is also unnecessary to perform the frequent and vigorous operations on pasture compared to vegetable fields [Davis 2003; Archer 2011]. However, and although probably valid from a theoretical perspective, more robust empirical data are needed in support [Matheny 2003; Lamey 2007; Fisher & Lamey 2018].
Although the estimates of the total casualties are context-dependent and still uncertain, all food is produced with a death toll and habitat destruction, invalidating holier-than-thou perspectives. Similarly, advocacy for substituting animal fibers by synthetic ones, which are a cause of microplastic pollution, ignores the deaths caused by such pollution on marine mammals (Panti et al. 2019) - for whose liberation from zoological gardens activists advocate. It has also been argued that local extinctions of wild life populations may occur locally, including birds, which are are better sustained on pastures than they would be on arable alternatives (e.g., swallows chasing flies encouraged by cowpats) [Belshaw 2015], or specialized species as roller dung beetles [S├ánchez-Bayo, 2019]. 
A vegan food system would create other problematic trade-offs
It is usually not considered that many of the plant foods that are popular with vegans due to their compensation of part of the nutritional value of ASFs (especially with respect to protein and fat), can also generate harmful outcomes that will likely amplify if demands rise further due to a dietary switch. Quinoa, soy, palm oil, cashew nuts, avocados, and greenhouse farming may not only lead to environmental damage and wildlife destruction, but also to a variety of human welfare issues [Blythman 2013; Budolfson 2015; Wilson 2015; Posner 2017; Rippingale et al. 2019; Gray 2020]. However, more dedicated research on these matters is needed. We refer to the Planet and Health sections for a more targeted discussion.

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