The life of freedom

After tackling the question of animal cruelty, Michael Pollan gives us a discussion of animal happiness, drawing on his experience at Polyface Farm. To Pollan, this is where the animal rightists’ argument falls apart. He explains,

To say of one of Joel Salatin’s caged broilers that “the life of freedom is to be preferred” betrays an ignorance about chicken preferences that, around his place at least, revolve around not getting one’s head bitten off by a weasel. (320)

The quote about “the life of freedom” is one that Singer has previously attributed to Peter Singer, and it’s worth looking at the context of Singer’s remark. Singer writes (in Animal Liberation),

Now it is difficult to compare two sets of conditions as diverse as those of wild animals and those on a factory farm (or those of free Africans and slaves on a plantation); but if the comparison has to be made surely the life of freedom is to be preferred. (227)

Singer makes it exceedingly clear that he isn’t talking about Joel Salatin’s broilers when he says “the life of freedom is to be preferred,” but Pollan presents the quote in a modified context to make it appear to betray “an ignorance about chicken preferences.”

Pollan makes the point that most domesticated animals wouldn’t exist in the wild, so we’re to believe that a farm like Polyface actually increases animal happiness. Whether that would make it worth having farms like Polyface is a philosophical question that I’m not going to address right now — in recent editions of Animal Liberation, Singer acknowledges some uncertainty on the underlying moral question. Instead, I’ll raise questions about whether such a farm actually does increase animal happiness.

While Pollan is right to point out that there would be no chickens or cows if people didn’t raise them, that doesn’t mean there would be far fewer happy animals without farms like Polyface. Since raising animals for food requires more land than raising plants for food, plant-based diets leave more land for wild animals, and thus supports more of them. As Pollan has pointed out previously, though, intensively farmed land may support more animals than wilderness.

However, we might also attempt to compare the happiness of wild animals to those of Salatin’s domesticated animals. This is where the fact of domestic animals being unable to live in the comes to work against Pollan’s argument. Owing to natural selection, the behaviors that improve an animal’s chance of surviving and reproducing should tend to also bring enjoyment.

When we domesticate animals, artificial selection replaces natural selection, and the animals that pass on their genes are not the ones that can fend for themselves but the ones that can feed people more efficiently. Thus, even on a farm like Salatin’s we end up with Cornish cross hens which (unlike their red junglefowl ancestors) cannot fly (and which Pollan has told us “grow so rapidly…that their poor legs cannot keep pace” (171)) and broadbreasted white turkeys which have trouble reproducing sexually without human assistance. So it seems very likely to me that an animal that cannot survive in the wild has a greatly diminished capacity for enjoyment.

The way food animals are raised tends to exacerbate this effect. Notably, breeding is carefully managed by humans. As Pollan has pointed out, male food animals are castrated. Thus, even those animals whose breeding does not prevent them from having sex are prevented from having a normal sex life.

What this suggests is that when considering Singer’s point that “the life of freedom is to be preferred”, the relevant comparison is not be between a Cornish cross hen in Joel Salatin’s cage and another one left out in the pasture to be eaten by a weasel. Rather, we should compare Salatin’s hen to another animal that can survive in the wild — unless we see an obligation to preserve the domesticated species, as Pollan apparently does. I’ll address that argument in the near future.



  1. […] I wrote recently, while the domestic animal would not have a good life in nature, animal farms leave less room for […]

  2. […] is good for the animals that live on it, not that it’s good for animal happiness overall. As I wrote recently, the Good Farm uses land that might otherwise be home to happy wild animals. I doubt there’s […]

  3. […] Pollan then moves on to a discussion of animal rights philosophy. He claims to be debating Peter Singer, but he’ll quote Matthew Scully when it better suits his point, never acknowledging any significant difference between the writers. Other times, he’ll just quote Singer out of context. […]

  4. […] appetite. Pollan claimed that animals on certain farms live happy lives but have just one bad day (I’m not convinced). He then went on to argue that our system of meat production is brutal but added, […]

  5. Ahimsa said

    Pollan’s claim that there woul be no chickens or cows but for our breeding them is nonsense Chickens have lived in the lush jungles of Southeast Asia for eons. They live in flocks each led by roosters, who whork together to warn of predators. The chicks – unlike the Pollyface chicks, I gather – aren’t born in incubators; they’re raised by doting mothers and fathers. They forage in varied foliage, and sunbathe and dustbathe, and roost in high branches – because they’re proportioned to fly.

    The hens produce abour twenty eggs a year, not three hundred, as with laying hens on egg farms. Their bodies get a rest most of the year.

    Wild cattle in Asia have calves every two years, not every year as on modern farms, so they get a rest in between the long pregnancy periods. The cattle herds are led by protective bulls. No one is castrated without painkillers – standard animal agriculture procedure. Of course, no cows suffer the indignities and heartbreaks of dairy – calving every year, having babies stolen, being forced through intensive breeding to grossly overproduce milk, being shipped and killed if they can’t get pregnant or produce enough milk. Every day’s a bad day if you’re a dairy cow.

    • Whilst what you say is presumably right, Ahimsa, the varieties of these species that we see today are far from wild. And, the more we do to prevent their continuance the better.

  6. […] eventually crumble to despair and agony sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Likewise, Michael Pollan argues that we are doing animals a service by farming them because the life of a caged animal is not much […]

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