For about two years, Jeff Leslie, Julie Roin, Martha Nussbaum, and I have been working on a project on animal welfare (under the leadership of Saul Levmore and with the assistance of a large group of students). The project has focussed on the following question: Is it possible to activate market forces in a way that might promote animal welfare, not because some moral account requires protection of animals, but because (many? most?) ordinary people already want to protect animals against serious suffering, at least to some degree?
The simple idea can be illustrated with a thought experiment. Imagine that every consumer of food could know, instantly and automatically, about the treatment of the animal that is being purchased as food. Imagine, that is, that every consumer could know if the animal was treated very well or very cruelly. It is likely that a certain percentage of consumers would be willing to pay some kind of premium to ensure better treatment. (Of course we don't know what percentage, or how much they would be willing to pay.)
On this view, a serious underlying problem is that mistreatment of animals, and cruelty to animals, are largely invisible. If they were more visible, at least some people would object, and their objection would be registered in their consumption choices. Our motivation, then, is modest; it is not that people's moral convictions are wrong or insufficiently reflective. It is that people's behavior ensures practices that already violate widespread moral convictions. The trick is to help bring people's consumption patterns in line with their existing moral judgments.
To accomplish that trick, we have been considering ways to increase the likelihood that consumers will actually know about the treatment (whether good, bad, or somewhere in between) of the particular animals that they are eating. Certification practices of various sorts provide a start. (One of the more interesting and widely unknown stories of the last decade has been the largely voluntary, and often expensive, efforts by large companies to reduce animal suffering.) But there is no consistency in those practices, and it is hard for ordinary people to learn a lot about them.
Labelling and related practices do a good deal more; consider free range chicken. It would surely be possible to build on such labelling to give consumers relevant information in an economical form. The ultimate goal would be to create a kind of market with respect to animal welfare, just as we have markets in other product characteristics that matter to consumers. (Jeff Leslie and I are now working on a paper on this subject, slated for Law and Contemporary Problems.)
Of course a well-functioning market of this kind will hardly satisfy everyone who is concerned with animal welfare and animal rights (and it will not satisfy everyone who is involved in this project). Why -- it might be asked -- should the protection of animals against cruelty and abuse depend on how much human beings are willing to pay to prevent cruelty and abuse? And for those who believe that animals should not be eaten, even if they live pretty decent lives, our proposal will seem hopelessly inadequate. (But perhaps it would be a step in the right direction, among other things because it would increase information and discussion.)
For those who do not much care about animal welfare, there are other objections. Why single out animal welfare? Why not have labelling for every product characteristic with moral dimensions, such as the treatment of workers in the relevant plant, the level of wages, the number of accidents, the level of ecological damage? What makes animal welfare so special?
All of these questions are legitimate. But it is nonetheless a real problem if human beings inadvertently contribute to forms of suffering and abuse that they would seek to reduce if they had better information and knew how to help. Almost everyone agrees that animal welfare matters at least to some extent, and that it would be good if we could find ways to reduce the suffering of animals raised for food. The question is whether some kind of disclosure regime, preferably voluntary, might enlist market pressures in that endeavor -- and do so without any kind of government mandate or ban.