Recently, famed chef and restaurant owner Wolfgang Puck attracted attention when he announced that his businesses were switching to the use of organic ingredients and meat from more humanely treated animals. He was commended by the NY Times for setting an example that reminded consumers of the "power of the choices they make," and for promoting the idea that "they can eat well and do right all at the same time."
This whole issue over treatment of animals that are soon-to-be-food is one I've always been a little confused about. For obvious reasons, we don't like bad conditions in slaughterhouses. Cruelty toward animals is a behavior that goes against our nature, and I hate it as much as the next guy.
Even taking that into account, most of us wind up rationalizing meat-eating along the lines of (1) it's natural for us to eat meat, (2) meat is tasty--very tasty, I might add, and (3) there are health benefits to eating meat--even if vegetarians can receive those same benefits through their diet and/or with multivitamins.
Whatever, to each their own. (Personally, if I was stranded on a desert island, the only two things I'd really want are a George Foreman Grill and a crate of bacon. My third wish would probably be for Reese Witherspoon.) But how exactly do Mr. Puck's actions, and campaigns like the free-range movement, have any effect on easing people's consciences? The farmer gives the chicken a couple more feet to run around, and all of a sudden you can eat well and sleep easy?
Whether cooped up in a cage or allowed to roam, whether fed too little or too much or just right, all of those animals are being raised for the express purpose of being killed for human consumption. Meat eaters have to come to terms with the fact that the basic moral argument aginst eating meat isn't resolved by treating dinner a little better before it's cooked.
Meat, by definition, is murder. Then again, I'm OK with that, and it's perfectly fine if you feel the same way.
Update - Thank you Neha, Andrew, and Greg for your insightful comments. After reading what you wrote, and thinking about the issue some more, I have become convinced that the killing of animals and the treatment of livestock are separate ethical issues. While I remain unopposed to the former as a biologically natural process (eating animals for the purpose of food), I now concur with the commenters' view that the humane treatment of animals raised for the slaughter is in fact a worthwhile goal.