It appears to me that there is much greater agreement among us than one might have expected. One might think that my views about animal ethics and meat consumption are so far out of the mainstream of our society that it would be easy to find thinkers who disagree with my main points and who defend the status quo. Given that nearly every person in America buys animal products from factory farms on a regular basis, it should be easy to find someone to defend the morality of that practice. In fact, it is almost impossible to find anyone to do that. As far as I can tell, no one in this discussion is prepared to do that. (Please tell me if that’s mistaken.) This seems important to emphasize, because it means that nearly everyone is behaving immorally, nearly every day.
Comments on Andy Lamey’s Post
I will not spend much time discussing Lamey’s comments, because I simply find myself so much in agreement that I have little to add.
On the subject of un-libertarian policies supported by the meat industry: I agree with Lamey about the problems with subsidies and free speech restrictions. I would add that the meat industry also has huge negative (human) externalities that they are not paying for, including effects on global warming and the risk of introducing deadly diseases into human populations. The current coronavirus outbreak, for example, is a result of animal agriculture in China.
One place where it might appear that Lamey and I disagree is on the subject of killing. Lamey discusses the prima facie wrongness of killing other animals, whereas I have focused on infliction of pain and suffering. However, this is not because I see no problem with killing other sentient beings for trivial reasons. I simply do not emphasize this point, because there is an even clearer point to be made (the badness of pain) which suffices to indict a vast swath of current human practices. It is difficult enough to get humans to recognize even the most minimal obligations to non-humans, without going into (slightly) more controversial obligations.
Comments on Aeon Skoble’s Post
Aeon Skoble appears to strongly disagree with me on a number of points. However, there is not really as much disagreement as it appears.
To begin with, several of the ideas that Skoble addresses are ideas that I did not assert and that my arguments do not require. To wit, Skoble criticizes each of the following ideas (all of these quotations are from Skoble’s response essay, stating ideas that Skoble objects to):
a. “We know it’s wrong to eat meat, but we do it anyway.”
Comment: I did not assert this. I stated that most humans suffer from a failure of conscience. The inability to see the most obvious ethical truths is one form of failure of conscience. Another form is failing to be motivated by the ethical truths that one sees. I took no stand on what percentage of humans are suffering from each of these failures.
b. “It’s immoral to treat an animal in any way that a human may not be treated.”
Comment: I certainly do not think this. I simply think that it is immoral to inflict severe pain and suffering on animals for the sake of minor benefits for oneself.
c. “It’s … immoral for humans to count the good of humans as more important than the good of non-humans.”
Comment: I did not say this either. As I mentioned, the number of animals we are torturing and killing for our gastronomic pleasure each year is close to ten times the entire human population of the world. Even if you thought human good was a thousand times more important than animal good, this would still be one of the worst problems in the world.
d. “A utilitarian argument of the pre-Millian, Benthamite sort: pains and pleasures do not differ in any qualitative way but are substantively the same and only need to be added up.”
Comment: Those familiar with my work know that I am far from a utilitarian. Nor is the above idea in any way involved in my argument. Here is my premise: It is wrong to cause great pain and suffering to others for the sake of small benefits to oneself. Notice that that does not require claiming that nothing else is wrong. It does not require claiming that suffering is the only thing that is bad, or that there are no qualitative differences in suffering, or that maximizing the good is the only thing that matters.
Here is an analogy. Suppose you see a libertarian philosopher burning a baby with a cigarette lighter. You tell the libertarian that he should stop doing that, because he is hurting the baby. Now imagine this libertarian replies: “Aha, you appealed to the badness of pain; therefore, you are assuming utilitarianism! Furthermore, since the baby’s pain is purely sensory, you must be assuming a pre-Millian utilitarianism, wherein all pleasure and pain is of the same kind. But I reject utilitarianism; therefore, I am free to go on burning the baby!” My point here is not that animals are exactly like babies. My point is that you don’t have to be a utilitarian to be against inflicting great suffering for trivial reasons.
e. “The conflation of factory farming (or whatever other particular practices we should consider cruel) with the entire concept of eating meat.”
I do not conflate factory farming with the entire concept of eating meat. I do, however, identify factory farming with the source of almost all actual meat—something like 99%—sold in the market today. I do that because that is factually accurate. Now, if Skoble’s view is that buying meat from factory farms is wrong, then he should start by forthrightly stating that he agrees with me that at least 99% of all meat purchases in our society are immoral. If Skoble thinks that buying meat from factory farms is not wrong, then he should try to explain either why factory farming is acceptable, or why it is acceptable to buy the products of an immoral industry.
Skoble may actually be in almost complete agreement with me. In his essay, he states that people are often outraged by stories of animal abuse, and that animal abuse is both illegal and “deeply socially disapproved.” (I think he is reporting these attitudes approvingly.) At the end, Skoble explicitly distances himself from the idea that “there is no such thing as mistreatment of animals.” That is where he makes the remarks about how factory farming should not be confused with meat-eating in general.
I see one way of making sense of this: It looks as if Skoble (i) agrees that animal cruelty is wrong, (ii) agrees that factory farming is cruel, but (iii) does not realize that factory farms are the source of almost all meat and other animal products that we buy. Once he realizes this, I anticipate that Skoble will draw the correct conclusion—that he is in near-total agreement with my position—and he will stop buying products from factory farms.
Here is an analogy. Suppose that 99% of all homicides are wrong, but perhaps 1% are justified. Then, in a discussion about the morality of homicide, you would not say, “It is not a moral wrong to kill people.” You would say, “Killing people is wrong,” or perhaps “Killing people is almost always wrong” (then perhaps add, “but a tiny minority of cases are okay”). You also would not use the 1% of cases that are justifiable as an excuse for going ahead and killing people whenever you want to.
That is like the situation with meat-eating. If—as Skoble appears to agree—animal cruelty is wrong, then at least 99% of animal products have an immoral source, and it is wrong to purchase them. Perhaps the other 1% are permissible. But one should not use that 1% to justify going ahead and buying whatever animal products one wants—which is what the overwhelming majority of human beings are doing.
Skoble makes a few other remarks in support of other practices. He states that it is permissible to kill a mosquito or cockroach, that it is permissible to kill animals in self-defense or in defense of one’s property, and that it is permissible to kill plants for food. Notice that all of these things are much less bad on their face than factory farming (and I don’t think Skoble disagrees with that). Therefore, these remarks are not relevant to defending factory farming.
Now, you might ask, why should Skoble have to defend factory farming? Why can’t he decide that the topic of debate is whether it’s okay to step on roaches, or whether it’s okay to buy Humane Certified, free range animal products?
The answer is that factory farming is the most practically relevant, important issue in the vicinity. This issue so overwhelms everything else that it is morally frivolous to talk about anything else in the neighborhood without addressing this issue.
To explain my point with another analogy: Suppose there were a practice of torturing and murdering babies in our society. Suppose that millions of babies were being tortured every year, and that almost everyone was patronizing the baby torturers on a regular basis. In that situation, if you are asked to comment on the treatment of babies in our society, the main thing you would want to do is take a strong stand against the torture. You would not set aside the question of baby torture and instead try to start a debate about whether it’s alright for parents to occasionally spank their children, or whether it would be okay to abort a fetus with Downs Syndrome, et cetera.
One other argument that appears in Skoble’s essay is an instance of what philosophers call “the naturalistic fallacy.” Skoble argues that it is “in our nature” to eat animals, and therefore (?) it is not wrong. In reply, I note that a thing’s being natural does not show that it is good, or even that it isn’t horribly wrong. For instance, some scholars argue that rape is natural, in the sense that it is an adaptation produced by natural selection, and it is found in other species. This does not entail, nor is it significant evidence for thinking, that rape is morally acceptable. Similarly, a strong case can be made that violence between neighboring tribes of humans is natural. Again, one could not reasonably infer from this that attacking neighboring tribes is morally okay.
Comments on Shawn Klein’s Post
Shawn Klein agrees with my main point, though some readers may have missed this because it went by quickly. My main point is that most people are behaving immorally and should stop buying factory farm products. Here is where Klein agrees with me:
I agree with Huemer that treating animals cruelly … is morally wrong. And since many of the most painful practices of the conventional food production system are … unnecessary … 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 ….
The agreement is striking, since it puts Klein and myself (and Lamey, and perhaps Skoble) on the same side in condemning the behavior of the overwhelming majority of our society—clearly over 95% of people.
This, by the way, is no accident. When you cover animal ethics in your philosophy classes, it’s virtually impossible to find any article for students to read defending the status quo. What you can find is people who address some other issue, such as whether animals have “rights,” or whether animal lives are just as valuable as human lives, or whether there are possible circumstances in which meat consumption would be alright. But virtually everyone who actually addresses the question “Is the thing we are doing right now okay?” answers “No.” That is worth taking note of, especially if you happen to be among the overwhelming majority of people who are actively supporting that status quo.
That said, Klein and I tend to disagree about more theoretical questions, such as ethical egoism. I won’t discuss egoism here, except to note a tension between the following two remarks of Klein’s: (i) “The moral are those actions or processes that help a moral agent sustain and improve their lives”; (ii) “life is the source of all value, and so we ought not to treat it lightly.” The first remark suggests that all that one should care about is one’s own life. The second suggests that one ought to have at least some level of respect for all life. (As an aside, my own view is that consciousness, rather than life, is at the foundation of ethics.)
I am not sure whether Klein disagrees with me about the badness of pain. This remark makes it sound as though pain is only instrumentally bad: “[P]ain and pleasure are not intrinsic; their moral value comes from whether they are an aspect of something that improves or damages our lives.” That remark seems to imply that, if you had two scenarios in which there was the same amount of improvement and/or damage to your life (whatever that might mean, as long as it can be defined independently of pleasure and pain), but one of them was much more pleasurable than the other, the two scenarios would have to be equally good. (If X only matters because it affects Y, then when Y is held fixed, X does not matter.)
Yet the following remark, also from Klein’s essay, makes it sound as though pain is intrinsically (and not only instrumentally) bad: “[I]f 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…” I am not sure how to reconcile the two remarks.
To clarify my own view, I think that when all else is held equal, situations with more pleasure are better, and ones with more pain are worse. I find that self-evident. But I do not claim that pleasure and pain are the only things that matter; I only claim that they matter. I also do not claim that they are the foundation of morality; I only claim that they are part of morality.
That leaves open that inflicting pain and suffering could sometimes be justified. So, if you had to hurt a chicken in order to survive, you had best hurt the chicken. But humans are not hurting animals in order to survive, nor for any other serious reason. We are tormenting vast numbers of other creatures for trivial reasons. (Pace Aeon Skoble, even the poor do not need to buy factory farm products. If you are too poor to buy Humane Certified products, you have an excellent alternative: vegetables. They’re cheaper than meat.)
Lastly, I turn to the question of why cruelty is wrong. Klein, like Skoble, suggests that animal cruelty is wrong because it interferes with developing virtues that are good for some independent reason (“the kinds of moral virtues and dispositions we foster to live better lives also likely dispose us towards more humane treatment of animals”). This seems to be suggesting that the animals’ pain isn’t actually bad; it’s just that hurting them might cause you later to start hurting humans. If that’s Klein’s and Skoble’s view, I want to hear why pain is only bad if you’re human.
I agree, of course, that virtuous people don’t hurt animals needlessly, and that animal cruelty is likely to worsen one’s character in other respects. But I think all that is true because animal cruelty is wrong, not vice versa. Contrast another sort of case: many young people enjoy violent video games, in which the player kills simulated people. Now, I think there is nothing at all wrong with enjoying these games. I also think that they have no adverse effects on one’s character. They are just good fun. You do not need to worry about your child if you find him playing Grand Theft Auto, in the way you should seriously worry if you find him torturing a cat. What is the difference?
The difference is that the video game characters have no actual feelings. When you shoot a simulated person, no one actually suffers, no actual life ends, and the player is perfectly well aware of this. The player therefore knows that he is not actually causing anything bad to happen. That is why a normal person can enjoy such a game without damaging their character. A normal person cannot enjoy animal cruelty without damaging their character, because they know that they are causing actual harm to an actual conscious being—which they know, or ought to know, to be wrong.
 David Cyranoski, “Did Pangolins Spread the China Coronavirus to People?”, Nature, February 7, 2020, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00364-2, accessed February 15, 2020.
 See Nil Zacharias, “It’s Time to End Factory Farming,” Huffington Post, December 19, 2011, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/its-time-to-end-factory-f_b_1018840, accessed February 15, 2020.
 See Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000).
 See Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), pp. 509-20.