The Moral Status of Animal Suffering

Michael Huemer asks “are animals moral subjects?” I agree that this is an important question and that the treatment of animals is a significant moral matter. However, I think Huemer is wrong to base the argument on sentience and the intrinsic wrongness of pain.


Huemer argues that animals are “moral subjects.” Though he doesn’t explicitly define what he means by being a moral subject, he seems to mean a being that has some kind of capacity to have experiences of pleasure or pain. Further, it is this sentience that is the source for moral obligations towards such subjects.

While I certainly agree that all mammals, and likely many other classes of animals, are sentient, it’s not obvious what this implies about their moral status. Putting the point more strongly, I do not think that sentience is even the main basis of human moral status, so the fact that animals are sentient is not sufficient to address their moral status.

Humans (or more precisely, most humans[1]) are moral agents. Moral agents are beings that are capable of choosing and taking moral action. They are responsible for their voluntary actions; they can be praised or blamed for such actions.

Moral agents are capable of choosing what actions to take, and moreover they have to take actions to remain alive and to live well. We need to discover what those actions are: or, more precisely, we need to develop processes by which we can figure out how to act well in given situations. This is why we need morality; it is the moral agent’s tool for guiding action. This also shows us the basis for determining what is moral and what is not. The moral are those actions or processes that help a moral agent sustain and improve their lives. The immoral are those that hinder the agent’s ability to live or destroy the agent.[2]

We are social animals; we gain many important and central values from interaction with other moral agents (companionship, knowledge, wealth, etc.). This gives each of us powerful reasons to adopt and practice moral principles that are conducive to social harmony and interaction.[3]

Notice, however, that in this outline I haven’t mentioned pleasure or pain. These are important parts of our lives; that something causes pleasure gives us a reason to think that it is something beneficial. Similarly, that something causes pain is a reason to think it is harmful. In neither case, though, is that reason indefeasible. Some things (like a large dose of heroin) might cause pleasure but kill us, and do so without causing any pain. Some things might cause pain but be beneficial, like the pain of removing a splinter. Sentience plays a role in morality, but it’s not the central issue of morality, nor is it the foundation of human moral agency. And so it is hard to see just what conclusions are implied by animal sentience.

Intrinsically Bad States

Huemer is not making the claim that animals are moral agents. Rather, he argues, they are beings worthy of our moral consideration because they can experience pain. Pain, he claims, is intrinsically bad and so since it is wrong to do something that is intrinsically bad, we ought not to cause animals to be in pain.

Huemer claims it is obvious that enjoyment is “intrinsically good” and that suffering is “intrinsically bad.” Not only do I disagree that this is obvious, I think it might be incorrect. If we mean by intrinsic the idea that something is valuable in itself and never for anything else instrumentally, then pain and pleasure are not intrinsic; their moral value comes from whether they are an aspect of something that improves or damages our lives.

However, another sense of being intrinsically good is to be something that, all other things being equal, we would choose or prefer just for itself. We say that such an alternative is choiceworthy in itself. So if presented with two identical scenarios but one came with pleasure and the other did not, it is obvious that any rational person would prefer the scenario with pleasure. The same goes for pain; of two otherwise identical scenarios, we would prefer the non-pain scenario. If that is all Huemer means, then he’s probably correct. However, this choiceworthy-in-itself conception doesn’t do the work his argument needs. That something is intrinsically bad in this choiceworthy sense does not necessarily mean it is wrong, all things considered, to do.

There are cases where pain is part of a process to sustain or further our lives. So even though the pain itself might be intrinsically bad (in the sense of not being choiceworthy), the overall process in which the pain occurs can be good. For example, psychotherapy can be a painful, emotionally fraught process. But this experience is integral to healing, and healing is a good thing. If it was always wrong to do something that is not choiceworthy-in-itself, it would imply, absurdly, that such therapies were immoral. Something intrinsically bad, then, could still be instrumentally good and overall, all things considered, the right thing to do.

Treatment of Animals

I agree with Huemer that treating animals cruelly, causing them to be in pain unnecessarily, is morally wrong. And since many of the most painful practices of the conventional food production system are, at least on the surface, either unnecessary or reducible at relatively small cost, I also agree that the moral thing to do, other things being equal, is to avoid such products where it is reasonable to do so. And, at least in the United States, this is relatively easy to do with growing markets in meat alternatives and cruelty-free meat production.

I also agree with Aeon Skoble’s reply essay that in a choice between an affordable food supply for the poor and reduced suffering of animals, we ought to choose feeding the poor. However, I am not convinced we are stuck with this stark either/or. Markets and innovation, I think, will allow us to do both.

I think part of the reason animal cruelty is wrong is rooted in moral character. In general, the kinds of moral virtues and dispositions we foster to live better lives also likely dispose us towards more humane treatment of animals. To live well with others, we need to develop qualities of being sensitive to the well-being of others.[4] Though the sensitivity we need for other moral agents is more complex (since the nature of the relationship is more complex), these dispositions will also be a part of our interactions with other conscious life. An openness to being cruel is the opposite of what is required in developing the moral virtues.

Much more tentatively, I think we might also find a basis for humane treatment in the recognition that life is the ultimate source for all value. Recognizing this ultimate importance leads us, I suspect, naturally to recognize its importance for all living things. This doesn’t extend so far as to treat all life as equally important (which would make life impossible), just that life is the source of all value, and so we ought not to treat it lightly. If we are going to end the lives of animals for food or other purposes, this ought not to be done wantonly, cruelly, or without consideration and respect for that life.


[1] There are humans that fail to have the capacities necessary for moral agency: infants, the severely cognitively disabled, those in persistent vegetative states, etc.

[2] No doubt, many readers will notice the debt I owe to the broad range of neo-Aristotelian ethical theorists such as Ayn Rand, Philippa Foot, and Rosalind Hursthouse.

[3] I think some of these reasons can also extend to those humans (and possibly some nonhumans) who fall short of having the capacities that form moral agency. This, however, stands in need of an argument.

[4] See, for example, David Kelley’s Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis for Benevolence (The Atlas Society, 2003).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Michael Huemer argues that even if the pain experienced by nonhuman animals is only a little bit bad, the total quantity of pain that we inflict on animals must mean that we are committing a grave wrong in the ways that we use animals for food and clothing. Huemer addresses some of the key objections to this claim, and he emphasizes that while the full extent of our duties to animals isn’t entirely clear to him, we ought “at a minimum… to refrain from inflicting enormous pain and suffering on other beings for the sake of obtaining comparatively small gastronomic pleasures.”

Response Essays

  • It is not a moral wrong to eat meat, writes Aeon J. Skoble. Analogies between human suffering and the suffering of animals are facially implausible, and it is not obviously wrong, for a human, to privilege human well-being above that of other species. It is not from a failure of conscience that we eat meat, but from our natural inclination toward it, and from the nutritional benefits that meat provides. In this we closely resemble many other animals.

  • Andy Lamey argues that animal suffering is indeed worth taking seriously as a moral concern. So too, he adds, is animal killing. He observes that animal cruelty and the desire to hide it have prompted at least some policies that should be opposed on libertarian grounds, including farm subsidies and ag-gag laws, which prohibit reporting about conditions in factory farms.

  • Shawn E. Klein denies that the badness of animal suffering is such that we should always avoid it. Many types of suffering, he notes, are instrumental to higher values. While we should avoid suffering when other things are equal, that may not be the case for the uses that humans make of animals. While Klein agrees that animal cruelty should be avoided when it can be, he proposes that eating and otherwise making use of animals for human benefit is in keeping with an ethical code that seeks to further human life.