OK, here’s where I stand now on eating meat. We probably should eat less meat than we do, because, especially red meat, is not healthy in large amounts. But eating meat is not per se morally wrong. Some kinds of raising meat are morally wrong and environmentally wasteful, so we shouldn’t support them financially.
The permissibility of eating meat depends on the good treatment of animals. Only if you can say that a life of domestication is better for them than no life at all is it OK to raise them to kill them, and after a point you can’t credibly say a life of domestication is better than no life at all. For example, I don’t believe the life of broiler chickens is worth it for them (raised in sheds with little or no natural light; no individual space; debeaking; pumped full of chemicals; bad diet).
But I think there’s no question that the lives of sheep and cattle raised outdoors on pasture (as the are in NZ, the UK, Ireland and many other countries) is better than no life at all. They have their needs met. They are provided with food and shelter. If they get sick, they are given treatment. They are given freedom to live the sort of life they are capable of living. They can express their natural behaviour. They have the company of their own kind. Their lives are contented until the day comes when they are taken to the slaughter house. There are a couple of bad things that happen to them before that, for example, mother cows have their young male calves separated from them, and bulls may not actually get to mate with any cows, but compared to no life at all, they still benefit from domestication.
The relevant comparison is between a life of domestication and no life at all. We humans wouldn’t keep them around for charity. We wouldn’t care for them and ensure they had enough to eat and adequate shelter without an associated benefit for us. Obviously, the life of a cow in a ‘retirement home for cows’ that gave them all the benefits of domestication without the final end would be better for the cow, but that is not an option on the table. If there was no such thing as domestication, the lives of animals might be OK, or might be nasty brutish and short, but there would be far fewer sheep and cows than there are under the current arrangements. Potential sheep and cows that might otherwise have a pretty good life all things considered would miss out. They would have no life at all.
(Now, you could come back and argue that this reasoning might justify raising humans as food or for a life of slavery, because it would be better for them than no life at all, but there’s no comparison. The lives of such humans would not be fulfilling for them and would not give them the opportunity to realise their potential. They would be lives of suffering in a way not analogous to the domestication of animals simply because animals can’t suffer in the same way. They’re simpler creatures. So the argument can’t be turned back on humans).
I think factory farms and grain fed cattle are cruel and wasteful of resources. About the only thing that can be said in their favour is that they make cheap meat available for the poor, but then again, people shouldn’t eat so very much meat in the first place.
Another reason why I don’t think vegetarianism or veganism is the moral position is that I’m convinced that it is simply not possible to feed humans without killing animals, even if you don’t kill animals in order to feed humans. Providing grain for food and ale requires killing the pests and vermin that also want it. We’re in competition with them and they don’t know how to share. They’ll eat it all and have more babies, if we let them. Raising sheep and cattle on pasture involves less killing per calories of food obtained than arable agriculture because a single cows provides thousands upon thousands of calories. The individual lives of individual mice mean just as much to them as the life of the cow does to the cow. You can’t say the cow’s life should be worth more just because it’s bigger. So it seems to me the killings per calories comparison has a certain moral moment to it.
p.s. I should say that the person who did most to set my mind at ease on the permissibility of eating meat is a former colleague of mine Shane Glackin, who is now teaching philosophy at the University of Exeter. Most of the above is due to him.