As a Species, We Can Do Better

Shawn Klein and Aeon Skoble are in a bind. Throughout their contributions to this symposium they have conceded a central premise of their opponents, which is that animal suffering is morally significant. But after it was pointed out to them that an upshot of this view is, at a minimum, moral opposition to factory farming, they both launched a flurry of new arguments designed to evade this implication of their own stated views. There is a separate issue regarding the ethics of eating animals that have been killed humanely, but as we will see, that question is secondary. The central story of this symposium remains one of a significant consensus regarding animal suffering. It is just that Huemer and I are able to accept the implications of the moral premise we all share when it is applied to contemporary agriculture, while Klein and Skoble cannot.

In his most recent essay, Klein states: “There is agreement that animal cruelty is wrong, that there are practices in conventional food production that appear to cause unnecessary pain to the animals, and that to some extent we ought, if we can, to reduce such practices.” Stripped of the hesitancy and hedging, Klein here admits that animal cruelty is wrong, factory farming is cruel, and we ought to be against it. In other words, this passage minimally entails what I called conscientious omnivorism, or the view that one should only eat animals that had been killed humanely.

It is interesting to imagine an alternate universe in which Klein went on to forthrightly argue for conscientious omnivorism. To be sure, I have already criticized this view for failing to recognize the interests animals have in not being killed, quite apart from their interest in avoiding suffering. But Klein would at least be adopting a view in keeping with his belief that “we ought to work to reduce, if we can, the unnecessary painful [agricultural] practices.”

When conscientious omnivorism is maintained consistently, it is a reformist view with its own radical implications for contemporary agriculture. As Huemer points out, the vast majority of meat Americans eat comes from factory farms. Someone who considers it permissible to kill animals but not to cause them unnecessary suffering will likely cut down the amount of meat they eat, given how little of it is humanely produced. They might even go all the way to vegetarianism, but I admit there is a bit of wiggle room here. The surest way to ensure one is not encouraging animal suffering is to stop eating animals altogether. But someone who humanely raised and killed animals themselves could probably also practice conscientious omnivorism. Insofar as such a person was an outspoken critic of factory farms rather than an apologist, their view would be respectable, even if it would ultimately not be quite right, for reasons I have already mentioned.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Against the backdrop of American agriculture as it exists now, the difference between conscientious omnivorism and vegetarianism is small. Both views recognize factory farming for the moral crime that it is. On a practical level, the central question facing us is whether we should eat the meat that is available in the grocery stores and restaurants that we actually step foot in. Vegetarianism and conscientious omnivorism both entail a negative answer, their secondary disagreement over humanely killed animals notwithstanding.

Klein, alas, wavers in his commitment to conscientious omnivorism. This occurs when he asserts that humanely slaughtered meat “is more expensive, [and] that suggests that to some extent the pain in conventional production does not count as unnecessary pain. If we cannot reduce these practices in an affordable way, they are necessary to producing our food supply.”

It is strange to think that a practice is morally wrong, but unless we can get rid of it at no extra expense, we should allow it to continue. By that standard, it is hard to imagine any of history’s great moral reforms ever succeeding. Moreover, Klein himself admits that vegetarianism is no more expensive than omnivorism, a fact that will be obvious to any vegetarian. It is unclear therefore why he would muse about a dubious economic rationale for factory farming, except to avoid the implications of a moral reform his own premises set in motion.

Klein’s essay shades into science fiction in conjuring up a vegetarian dystopia lacking enough land to produce food for the earth’s population. Klein appears unaware that plant farming is more land efficient than animal agriculture (and somehow also overlooks that a transition to a vegetarian world would free up much land currently used to raise animals). By switching the discussion to a global scenario that does not allow for gradual change, Klein’s essay evades the more realistic and immediate question of individual implementation. Do I really need to point out that if Klein, Skoble or any other omnivore stops ordering pepperoni on their pizza, they will not be teleported into a Mad Max movie?

Klein is on stronger ground in trying to justify a different standard for animals and merely sentient humans. He offers a version of the so-called species life argument, according to which we stand in a different relation to animals than members of our own species. “It is not mere species membership that matters,” Klein writes, “it’s the nature of the relationships that can exist among humans. Such relationships are impossible with cows and pigs.”

A nice feature of the species life argument is that it is based on the recognition that species membership per se is morally irrelevant. A less nice feature is that it implausibly tries to make moral standing conditional on relationship status. I can’t have much of a relationship with people who will live three hundred years from now, as I will be dead. Even so, if I had the opportunity to set a bomb that would go off in 2320, that would still be morally wrong, the absence of any relationship across centuries notwithstanding.

A second problem with the species life argument is that it is simply not true that we can have relationships with all members of our own species but no other sentient beings. Consider the case of Clive Wearing, a British man who developed an extreme form of amnesia, which prevents him from remembering events that happened more than 30 seconds ago. As Wearing’s Wikipedia page describes his condition, “he spends every day ‘waking up’ every 20 seconds, ‘restarting’ his consciousness … If engaged in discussion, Wearing is able to provide answers to questions, but cannot stay in the flow of conversation for longer than a few sentences.”

There are animals with whom we can have richer relationships than with Wearing. Consider Esther the Wonder Pig, as she is called, a commercial pig who was adopted by a Canadian couple in 2012, and who has since become a social media presence. As one account of Esther’s relationship with the couple notes, “Esther was playful, cuddly, and as affectionate and smart as their dogs (she could open any locked cupboard, for one thing, and, when being housebroken, quickly learned to pretend to pee in order to get a treat). They fell in love with her, and after just a few weeks, she had taken over their lives.” The same article notes that pigs have greater cognitive abilities that Wearing and some other atypical humans, “including understanding simple symbolic language, playing video games, having excellent long-term memories, and possibly exhibiting empathy.”

In recent years not just pigs but chickens and many other species have been found to have greater cognitive abilities than they have traditionally been credited for. This suggests that we are still in the early days of discovering what kind of relationships with other species are and are not possible. As a result, even if we employ the broken standard of the species life argument, Wearing and many other human beings will likely be excluded from the protection of morality, while Esther and many other animals will likely be included. In this way the species life argument again functions as a distraction from the needless cruelties inflicted on other members of Esther’s species. Here as elsewhere, Klein fails to refute the conclusion that factory farming is indefensible even by Klein’s original standard.

Like, Klein, Skoble has maintained throughout this symposium that animal suffering is a legitimate moral concern. Hence his example of lighting a kitten on fire being morally wrong. But also like Klein, he cannot bring himself to admit that by his own standard, factory farming is immoral. He began by making an argument from nature, reminding us that other animals also eat other animals. When it was pointed out to him that we have moral agency that puts us in a different category from other animals, he conceded the point, but wanted to continue to suggest that out “evolved nature as omnivores” is relevant to the discussion. At least he sometimes wants to suggest that. At other times he seems not so sure. “The irrelevance of ‘naturalness’ cuts both ways I think,” Skoble writes. “It won’t give us a moral reason to justify meat eating, but neither will it give us a moral reason to condemn it.” Here Skoble would seem to admit that his appeals to nature have been off topic all along. Yet somehow in his next essay Skoble says that “our nature implies certain oughts.”

Is there an argument from human nature that can be stated in a more stable manner than Skoble presents it? One possibility is that the human capacity to eat meat is a morally significant aspect of our nature. But if so, it is unclear why our capacity to lead healthy lives without eating meat is any less significant (contrary to a suggestion by Skoble, I don’t think this takes additional work). It is also unclear why we would invest a capacity that is not central to our sentience or personhood with moral significance. To borrow an example from Huemer, many men have the capacity to overpower and rape women. That capacity does nothing to reduce the wrongness of sexual assault. Talk of our nature, evolutionary or otherwise, again serves only to avoid admitting that if torturing kittens is wrong, the same is true of chickens and pigs.

Many other claims by Skoble are also off topic or contradictory. Insofar as plants are not sentient, they are irrelevant to a discussion about the ethics of meat eating. Even after his mistake has been pointed out to him, Skoble continues to falsely label Huemer’s view that animal suffering is morally significant as Benthamite. Skoble overlooks that a concern with animal suffering is part of common-sense morality and many other non-Benthamite views—including Skoble’s own, given his admission that animal torture as wrong. To get to Bentham one needs to also affirm that moral goodness is based on maximizing utility and that it has no other component, controversial claims that Huemer does not make. Skoble admits that unnecessary animal suffering is wrong, but also says we should “open the markets” allow more of it.

In his most recent response essay, Skoble introduces a new argument based on intentions. What distinguishes lighting a kitten on fire from chopping the head off a chicken is “the agent’s intention. It’s morally relevant that thereasonfor the former is itself illegitimate, while the reason for the latter is not.” By that standard it would be fine to chop the heads off merely sentient humans. Skoble tries to avoid this ghoulish implication by endorsing Klein’s argument from species life, overlooking all the problems noted above. As with Klein, Skoble’s distraction strategies all fail to undercut the fact that factory farming is wrong even by Skoble’s own view that gratuitous animal suffering is wrong.

Skoble concludes that our symposium has ended in an impasse. I draw a different lesson. It is that the common sense of our society regarding animals is based on a contradiction. On our everyday view, animal cruelty is wrong, but confining, slaughtering, debeaking and killing animals for food is fine. Defenders of common sense, even when they are as philosophically well trained and sophisticated as Skoble and Klein, inevitably end up bringing out the inconsistency in conventional morality. In this way their arguments illustrate what Bernard Williams, in a different context, called the “cruel superficiality of everyday thought.” As a species, we can surely do better.

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.