A Consensus on Factory Farming

Michael Huemer is right that there is considerable agreement between participants in this symposium. Certainly I found much to agree with in Shawn Klein’s response essay. One of the few areas where Klein and I disagree concerns the ethics of killing sentient animals. I want to note the nature of that disagreement before outlining the best way to resolve it. I then want to stand back from the purely ethical questions that have been central to this symposium and ask what the right political response is to factory farming, given how widespread ethical opposition to it is. I suggest that the time has come to make the inhumane slaughter of animals illegal.

Klein acknowledges that sentience is a sufficient condition for possessing moral standing. He also singles out factory farming as morally indefensible. These refreshing elements of his essay both appear in the following passage, which also contains one of the few points of disagreement between us:

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 meatproduction.

Klein is admirably forthright in admitting that the cruelties we inflict on farmed animals are immoral. I also welcome the fact that Klein does not pretend that there is any significant cost to boycotting factory farming. But where Klein suggests that “cruelty-free meat” is an acceptable alternative, I submit that eating animals that have been killed humanely is also morally wrong, even if it is not quite so wrong as making animals suffer before they die.

The difference between Klein and myself on this point is likely due to a foundational disagreement over the ethics of killing merely sentient beings. Klein appears to suggest that “end[ing] the lives of animals for food or other purposes” is permissible so long as it is not done “wantonly, cruelly, or without consideration and respect for that life.” For my part, I believe that three considerations show the superiority of ethical vegetarianism over conscientious omnivorism.

The first is that killing sentient animals for food when nutritious plant foods are widely available is difficult to reconcile with our thinking about merely sentient humans. Surely we would never condone killing members of our own species for purposes as trivial as those for which we routinely kill cows, pigs, and chickens. Once speciesism is off the table, there are no principled grounds on which to assign sentient animals a lower moral status than merely sentient Homo sapiens. As Klein’s essay offers no defence of speciesism—another attractive feature—his view would appear to support either dramatically reducing the moral standing of merely sentient humans or raising the status of sentient animals. Surely the first option is too horrifying to warrant serious consideration.

A second reason to favour ethical vegetarianism over conscientious omnivorism is that characterizing animal suffering as morally significant without taking a similar view of animal killing generates counterintuitive outcomes. As animal ethicist Jeff McMahan has pointed out, one such outcome is that we would be morally obliged to euthanize as many pets and other animals as possible. For on the conscientious omnivore view, ending animals’ lives would prevent them from suffering without sacrificing anything of moral significance. Surely such a conclusion is absurd.

The above two problems are philosophical: they would apply even in a world in which food animals were always killed without pain. A third problem for the conscientious omnivore view, however, is empirical. It is that animal agriculture as we know it is far from painless.

This thought finds support in the work of Temple Grandin, whose work I drew on in a previous post, and who is a leading designer of humane slaughter facilities. Grandin’s system scores facilities on how many animals are effectively stunned before being killed and other welfare factors that can be measured and audited. When Grandin’s protocols are followed, they significantly reduce, but do not eliminate, animal suffering before death. In the words of a Government Accounting Office report for which Grandin was interviewed, “Dr. Grandin believes that effectively stunning animals on the first try 100 percent of the time is unachievable—that is why she proposed an objective scoring method as an alternative.”

Grandin’s guidelines apply primarily to an animal’s final hours during the slaughter process. There are thus many forms of suffering her system does not address. To take but one example, every year thousands of animals die in preventable barn fires, as there are no regulations requiring farmers to install sprinklers and other fire prevention devices. The industry itself appears to recognize that suffering is an inevitable aspect of animal agriculture: it has successfully lobbied most U.S. states to exempt farmed animals from animal cruelty laws.

Conscientious omnivorism in short has too many problems to be a cogent ethical view. When we approach animal agriculture in political terms, however, a focus on reducing suffering becomes more attractive. Even if painless killing is not the endpoint of our obligations to animals, and even if it is not possible to remove suffering from the slaughter process altogether, a system of animal agriculture designed to minimize suffering would at least be better than what we have now. We should hope to see contemporary agriculture move in such a direction, not because that would be ethically ideal, but because it is an achievable reform.

I have argued elsewhere that humane slaughter should be mandatory not only on a moral level but also a legal one. Grandin’s method is already widely used. It should be against the law for any slaughter facility to kill animals without taking even the minimal steps to ensure their well-being that Grandin’s system employs. Proponents of kosher and halal killing will object on the grounds that Jewish and Muslim dietary codes prohibit eating animals that are stunned before slaughter. But even if religious slaughter facilities successfully sought an exemption, such a change would be a major step forward for the billions of chickens and other animals that are killed every year.

Support for such a law is suggested by this symposium, in which no one has presented arguments that would justify factory farming. As Huemer notes in his reply essay, the vast majority of philosophical articles written on animal ethics unambiguously condemn factory farming. And as I noted in my original commentary, the public has frequently expressed support for enhanced animal welfare laws in the form of ballot initiatives. What keeps factory farming in existence is not popular support, but the regulatory capture of legislatures by powerful industry interests. But sooner or later, the intolerable conditions of farmed animals must come to an end.

Insofar as some readers of Cato Unbound may be anarchists, even they should support improved animal welfare laws. For it is possible to oppose all laws on an ideal level while still recognizing that particular laws can have value at the level of non-ideal reality. Much of the harm that is done to farmed animals is a consequence of a legal system that classifies them as property. Whether or not laws classifying animals as property are defensible, so long as such laws are in effect, the devastating harms to animals they not only make possible but encourage should be constrained. On any realistic view, increased animal welfare laws will be far easier to achieve than abolishing animals’ property status outright.

Legal measures to reduce animal suffering should be amenable to anyone who supports legal protections for merely sentient members of our own species. There are no principled grounds on which to support laws against the murder and abuse of merely sentient human beings while opposing laws that would still permit killing animals for food, just so long as it is done with a modicum of humanity. As this symposium has shown, there is no serious ethical debate over the ethics of factory farming. People of all political persuasions should support increased legal protections for farmed animals, whether in the form of ballot initiatives or normal legislation.

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.