On Factory Farming, What’s the Argument?

In his last post, Aeon Skoble clarifies that he does want to defend factory farming. Unfortunately, the crucial parts of his argument remain unspecified, and the questions I raised in my first post remain unanswered.

I will pass over Skoble’s unlibertarian proposal of a right to eat meat that is violated when meat is too expensive. As best I can understand it, this is Skoble’s main defense of factory farming:

  1. Human suffering is infinitely more important than animal suffering.
  2. If we stop factory farming, poor people will not be able to have meat.
  3. This would cause human suffering.
  4. Therefore, we should continue factory farming.

There are several problems with that. The minor problems:

  • (2) is false as I’ve stated it (and my statement is fair to Skoble’s text): it is not the case that, if the price of a product that poor people are presently consuming a lot of goes up by a little bit, they will then consume zero of it. But one could just change (2) to “People will reduce their consumption of meat.” That’s true.
  • (3) confuses a slight reduction in pleasure with suffering. But one could change (3) to “this would cause a reduction in human pleasure” and change (1) to “human pleasure is infinitely more important than animal pain.”

Here is the major problem: I think (1) is absurd on its face. In any case, it is obviously the claim that needs defense. In my initial essay, I asked for a reason why human interests should be vastly more important than animal interests. No one has given any such reason. One cannot simply assume that as a premise; that is the central point of dispute.

As a related point, Skoble defends his characterization of me as a “Benthamite” utilitarian or some such. As far as I can see, the only thing that is allegedly “Benthamite” about me is that I think suffering in other species is bad, to some (non-infinitesimal) degree. True, Bentham also thought that. But this is a little bit like saying that Skoble is a “Kantian” because he thinks there are rights. More importantly, no actual argument has been given against this view. (And again, note that I do not have to claim, and do not claim, that all suffering is qualitatively the same, or that pain and pleasure are the only things that matter, or that the right action is always to maximize the good, or that animals are equally important as humans—i.e., I don’t make any of the more disputable claims that Bentham made.)

Skoble goes on to defend his appeal to “nature.” But the defense is unclear and seems to misconstrue what I said. It looks as if Skoble thinks meat eating is “natural” in some sense, and therefore it is permissible (regardless of how much suffering it may cause). But what does “natural” mean? Here are four interpretations:

  1. Natural = occurs in nature. In other words, “x is natural” = “x exists.” Skoble seems to think that I am interpreting the word in that way, as when I say that scholars have argued that rape is natural. I am not, and neither are those scholars. (That would indeed be very dumb.)
  2. Natural = is an adaptation selected for by evolution. Something like this is the sense in which rape may plausibly be natural. It is also the sense in which meat-eating is natural (“we are evolved to be omnivorous,” Skoble writes).
  3. Natural = necessary for our health, survival, and/or well-being. In this sense, neither rape nor meat-eating is natural. Many vegans have long, healthy, and flourishing lives, as do many non-rapists.
  4. Natural = part of the most “efficient” and pleasurable way of meeting our needs. If this is what Skoble means, we should drop the ambiguous, vague term “natural” and just talk about whether meat-eating is justified because of its “efficiency” and greater pleasure. The point about pleasure is just a repeat of the argument discussed above. I’m not sure what the point about efficiency amounts to, but I suspect that it is at best a generalization on the previous argument—one that claims that human interests in general are infinitely more important than animal interests. Again, some sort of reason for that is needed.

I note a few other implications of Skoble’s arguments:

  • Remember that Skoble’s position is that factory farming is permissible because it lowers the price of meat. So, in order for the appeal to nature to help, he would have to be saying that our nature demands low priced meat, in fact, meat at a lower price and a higher quantity than was available at any time in our evolutionary history.
  • He would also have to be claiming that, whatever this naturalness amounts to, it is so important as to justify any amount of suffering inflicted on other creatures.
  • It would also have to be that it is not natural (in whatever sense is relevant to ethics) for human beings to make even minor sacrifices to their own interests out of ethical concern for other (non-human) creatures.
  • Finally, if Skoble’s view is really that human pleasure is infinitely more important than animal suffering, then I don’t see how he can oppose standard cases of animal abuse—beating one’s dog, forcing chickens to fight to the death, and so on. If there is even the tiniest bit of human pleasure caused by such cruelty, then that, on Skoble’s view, infinitely outweighs the suffering of the animals. Perhaps Skoble would say that these forms of cruelty can harm one’s character and cause human suffering too. It’s unclear why they should harm one’s character if there’s nothing independently wrong with them. But if they do, then why wouldn’t factory farm cruelty also harm our character?

In sum, the main parts of Skoble’s arguments are missing. He hasn’t explained how meat-eating is any more natural than rape.He hasn’t explained why animal suffering doesn’t matter or has only infinitesimal weight. He assumes the main point in dispute and does not address my main questions.

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.