About this Issue

What moral considerations do humans owe animals? 

You may or may not think that animals have rights. Yet even those who discount the more extreme positions on animal rights may still conclude that animals have some moral worth that we humans are bound to respect. It’s not necessarily the case that animals must get either full parity with human beings—or be the moral equivalent of paperclips. Middle statuses are possible, and these may propose relatively stringent rules or relatively weak ones. With that in mind, we ask, either with or without a rights-based framework, how it is we should treat the nonhuman creatures around us.

Our lead essayist this month is Michael Huemer, a leading libertarian philosopher who has never shied away from controversial topics. He argues that animals’ suffering—and humans’ indifference to it—represent serious tests of conscience that most of us are failing. 

Is he right? There are perhaps as many views on our focal question as there are philosophers who have devoted time to it. We’ve solicited a variety of different perspectives in reply; they will come from Professor Aeon J. Skoble of Brigewater State University, Prof. Shawn E. Klein of Arizona State University, and Prof. Andy Lamey of the University of California at San Diego. Comments are open through the month, and we also welcome letters to the editor, particularly from those with a background in ethics and other relevant fields. 

Lead Essay

The Conscience of a Human Being

I. The Test of Conscience

Sometimes, I wonder whether average human beings possess a conscience—an ability to independently judge and be motivated by moral truths—or if they instead possess only the instinctive disposition to conform to social conventions and the demands of the powerful. Most seemingly ethical behavior could be explained by such conformity—for instance, it could be that the reason why most refrain from robbing, raping, and killing other people is that those behaviors are contrary to the conventions of our society and the commands of our government. This would not require most human beings to possess a genuine conscience. The test of whether one has a conscience would have to be about whether one recognizes and is moved by moral considerations when those considerations fail to align with the social conventions, the law, or the commands of the powerful. The majority of human beings, by my read, fail that test about as badly as one could fail it.

For example, we know from the famous obedience experiments of Stanley Milgram that close to two thirds of people can be persuaded to electrocute an innocent person if ordered to do so by a man in a white coat.[1] We know from history that large numbers of people can be induced to participate in a genocide when so commanded by their government. In our own society today, most citizens are untroubled by behavior on the part of the powerful that would outrage us if performed by those without political power: If an ordinary person forcibly extracts money from his neighbors to fund his own charity organization, that person is a thief and an extortionist; if the government does the same, it is merely pursuing normal tax policy. If an ordinary person kills large numbers of people in order to bring about some political change, that person is a vicious terrorist; if our society’s dominant group does the same, this is a standard military operation.[2]

Those are all examples with which libertarians are familiar, and for which most libertarians can readily see my point. But the largest and most obvious example of the failure of conscience is one that many libertarians have difficulty seeing at all. It is the treatment we give to members of other sentient species. The most abject cruelty, cruelty that would horrify us if perpetrated against any other human being, scarcely troubles us when it is done to members of another species. Nearly all meat and other animal products available in the market today are produced on factory farms, under conditions that we would not hesitate to call “torture” if any human being were subjected to them. Worldwide, 74 billion animals are slaughtered for our gastronomic pleasure per year, nearly ten times the entire human population. It is a plausible guess that a decade of factory farming causes more total pain and suffering than all the human pain and suffering in history.[3] If non-human pain is even a little bit bad, therefore, the total quantity of suffering must make this among the world’s greatest problems.

Yet many human beings see nothing wrong with this situation and—even after being apprised of the above facts—will feel no compunction as they bite into their next burger. Many others will admit that buying factory farm products is wrong, yet will struggle to find the motivation to actually modify their own behavior in light of this. Why is this? My best guess is that the vast majority of human beings are motivated to avoid moral wrongs only when those wrongs either (a) are socially disapproved, or (b) conflict with the dictates of the powerful.

But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Perhaps I should first explain why the treatment of other animals is a matter of moral concern. I have addressed this subject in other work, to which I refer the reader for a fuller treatment.[4] Here, I very briefly address two questions: (1) Are animals moral subjects? (2) What duties to animals do we have?

II. Are Animals Moral Subjects?

What I mean by the first question is roughly this: Do non-human animals have experiences that are intrinsically good or bad (valuable or disvaluable for their own sake, not merely as means to something else)? The answer is obviously yes: Non-human animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens can experience enjoyment or suffering. Enjoyment is intrinsically good; suffering is intrinsically bad. Therefore, some non-human animals are subjects of intrinsically good or bad states.

How do we know that some animals experience enjoyment or suffering? Two reasons: First, they have similar physiological structures to those that explain enjoyment or suffering in us. Second, they behave as if they have enjoyment or suffering, in circumstances that would also induce enjoyment or suffering in us. Pigs, for example, have the same kind of pain sensors as you, and they squeal in pain and try to escape when stabbed, just as you would.

How do we know that pain and suffering are bad? I think that is self-evident. If someone does not see what is bad about suffering, I don’t see how I could explain it. If someone only sees the badness of his own suffering, then that individual lacks a conscience, and, again, I don’t think anything I say could remedy that.[5] If someone sees the badness of his own suffering, and that of other people, but does not see the badness of suffering in other species, then I desire that person to explain why suffering would only be bad when felt by members of his own species. Surely that could not be a fundamental axiom; surely there would have to be some explanation for that.

The most popular answer is “Intelligence.” Your pain only matters if you’re smart. Animals are dumb, so their pain and suffering aren’t bad.[6]

This answer is arbitrary, like the claim that pain only matters if the subject of the pain has light-colored skin, or was born in America, or can recite the Pythagorean Theorem. It also entails that the pain and suffering of human infants and mentally disabled people does not matter. This would apparently license us in torturing babies and the mentally disabled, if we smart people could obtain some small benefit by doing so. That is absurd. If your efforts to defend the status quo lead you to a defense of baby torture, and if that seems fine to you, then I would question whether you understand moral concepts.

To be clear, I am not saying that an individual’s mere failure to agree with me, or even with the correct ethical theory, shows a lack of moral concepts. I can predict that some readers are going to ascribe that to me. No, I am saying that the inability to appreciate the most paradigmatic, least controversial of moral judgments—e.g., that it is wrong to torture babies for fun—suggests a lack of conscience. It is in any case not reasonable to demand arguments against baby torture.

Some people claim that the relevant characteristic is not one’s own intelligence, but the intelligence of one’s species.[7] Your pain matters if and only if your species is smart, whether or not you are smart. This avoids the absurdity of licensing baby torture, at the cost of taking the arbitrariness to an even greater extreme. It was not clear to begin with how intelligence is supposed to be relevant to the badness of one’s pain. But now we are supposed to think that the crucial features that make your experiences intrinsically good or bad are not even features of you or your experiences. This would be a particularly odd move for libertarians who, in other contexts, insist on the fundamentality of the individual and the moral irrelevance of unchosen group classifications.

Other theories are similarly arbitrary. Some argue that only humans possess the faculty of reason, or the ability to grasp abstract objects or universal essences. The religiously inclined may argue that only humans possess immortal souls that will join God in the afterlife. All of this, even if true, is plainly irrelevant. How would one’s ability to grasp abstract objects or to enter the afterlife have anything to do with the badness of suffering? If nominalism or atheism is true, would it follow that torture is fine?[8]

The defenders of animal cruelty typically make no effort to answer such questions. It is as if they are simply grasping for any feature that could be said to distinguish themselves from other species, whether it be morally relevant or not, whereupon they will declare it to be an inexplicable, self-evident axiom that pain only matters if one has that feature. In the last resort, they will directly appeal to membership in the species as a crucial feature. This, I submit, is exactly what a deep-seated prejudice would look like.

III. Duties to Animals

If animal cruelty is a problem, what, if anything, ought we to do about it? I do not know the full extent of our duties, either to animals or to other humans. But I know something of our duties; I know the bare minimum that we ought to do. At a minimum, we ought to refrain from inflicting enormous pain and suffering on other beings for the sake of obtaining comparatively small gastronomic pleasures. This is a special case of the general principle that one should not cause extremely bad things to happen in order to obtain small benefits for oneself. This is not a subtle or complicated principle. This is the basic core of morality. If we do not accept that, then I don’t know why we would accept any moral principles at all.

We not only should avoid directly torturing other creatures; we also should not pay other people for such torture. One does not avoid responsibility for a wrong by outsourcing it to others. If, for example, the president hires some soldiers to torture terror suspects, the president is at least as responsible for the torture as the direct torturers. Nor would he escape responsibility if he merely tells the soldiers vaguely to “get some information” from the suspects, while knowing that the soldiers will in fact seek the information through torture. The lesson is that it is wrong to pay another person for a product, when one knows that the other person has produced the product through extremely wrongful behavior and will continue to do so as long as he continues to be paid. Thus, at a bare minimum, a person of conscience must refrain from buying products from factory farms.

We may indeed have stronger duties, both to people and to animals. Perhaps we should not purchase animal products even from humane farms. Perhaps also we must speak out against cruelty and other severe wrongs. I do not focus on such stronger duties here, as there is limited space, and I think it most important to address the most clearly wrongful behavior that almost everyone is doing on a daily basis, particularly when most seem unaware of the wrongness of this behavior.

IV. Distractions

With that in mind, I will now mention some related issues that are likely to distract libertarians.

First distraction: Do non-human animals possess rights of the same sort as individual human beings? This is an intellectually interesting question, but it is not the best question to focus on now, for a number of reasons. One reason is that, in general, adequately addressing the topic of rights requires long and involved theoretical discussions, discussions many times longer than the word limit for this piece. Another reason is that, even after such long and involved discussions, hardly anyone will have been persuaded of any important conclusions. I know this because I have plenty of experience with such discussions among libertarians and philosophers. (This is partly because most libertarians and philosophers are absurdly overconfident about abstract generalizations. They will cling with dogmatic certitude to the first vaguely plausible speculation they think of, then reject any proposition, however obvious, that comes along later. But I digress.) A final reason is that, fortunately, the largest practical issues can be resolved without discussion of rights. Without mentioning the notion of “rights,” we can see that pain and suffering is bad, and that one should not cause an enormous amount of something bad solely for the sake of obtaining comparatively small benefits for oneself. Those points are enough to see that the behavior of the overwhelming majority of people is morally wrong.

Second distraction: What should be the government’s policy regarding the treatment of animals? Though this, too, is intellectually interesting, it is not the optimal question to focus our attention on. Again, an adequate treatment would require lengthy and involved discussion of political philosophy, which would produce no agreement. Again, however, the most practically important question for us as individuals—what we ourselves ought to do—can be addressed without resolving the public policy question.

Third distraction: Are the most extreme animal rights positions defensible? On this issue as elsewhere, human beings have a strong temptation to focus on our most extreme intellectual opponents. But, here as elsewhere, the rational approach is to focus on the most reasonable and difficult-to-answer positions that are contrary to one’s own. For example, in order to argue that most people are acting very wrongly on a regular basis, it is not necessary to claim that non-human animals have the same rights as humans, nor that their interests matter exactly as much as human interests. If animal suffering were even one thousandth as important as (qualitatively similar) human suffering, factory farming would still be among the most serious problems in the world today. (Imagine that 74 million humans were being tortured in factory-farm-like conditions each year. Unquestionably, this would be among the world’s greatest problems.) Therefore, a rational interlocutor, if he disagreed with my central contention, would focus on explaining why non-human animal suffering is not even a thousandth as bad as qualitatively similar suffering by humans.

V. Commitment to the Good

I am a committed libertarian. Yet my first commitment is not—nor should yours be—to libertarianism. Our first loyalty, as human beings, must be to the good and the right. Members of other sentient species on the Earth may not possess the same liberty rights as human beings (that is a matter for debate), and thus the ethical treatment of these other creatures may not be addressed in a distinctive way by our political ideology. Their mistreatment may also fall outside the range of what our society presently condemns or punishes. But it most certainly is possible to treat these other creatures wrongly, and when such wrongful treatment occurs on a massive scale, a scale to dwarf any suffering by our own species, that should be a matter of concern to all rational beings, libertarian and non-libertarian alike.

Notes


[1] See Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper, 2009).

[2] For discussion, see Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[3] On the conditions in factory farms, see Stuart Rachels, “Vegetarianism,” pp. 877-905 in The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), at pp. 877-83, available at www.jamesrachels.org/stuart/veg.pdf. On the number of animals slaughtered per year, see U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QL, accessed Sept. 5, 2018. By recent estimates, about 107 billion people have lived in the history of the Earth; see Wesley Stephenson, “Do the Dead Outnumber the Living?”, BBC News, February 4, 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16870579, accessed Jan. 22, 2020.

[4] See especially my Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism (New York: Routledge, 2019). (This book is an improved version of the article “Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism,” Between the Species 22 (2018): 20-135, available at https://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/bts/vol22/iss1/2/.) See also my contribution to Michael Huemer and Daniel J. D’Amico, “Debate: Libertarians Should Be Vegetarians,” Reason, October 2018, available at https://reason.com/2018/09/26/proposition-libertarians-shoul1/, accessed January 20, 2020.

[5] This is the situation of psychopaths, who are essentially incurable; see Robert D. Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (New York: Guilford Press, 1999).

[6] See Bryan Caplan, “Reply to Huemer on Ethical Treatment of Animals (including Bugs),” Econlog, Oct. 11, 2016, http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2016/10/reply_to_huemer.html; “Further Reply to Huemer on the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” Econlog, Oct. 14, 2016, http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2016/10/further_reply_t_1.html.

[7] See Richard Posner’s contribution to “Animal Rights” (debate between Peter Singer & Richard Posner), Slate, June 2001, available at https://www.utilitarian.net/singer/interviews-debates/200106—.htm.

[8] Nominalism is a position in metaphysics that denies the existence of abstract objects.

Response Essays

The Conscience of an Omnivore

Michael Huemer is an excellent philosopher, but he fails to persuade me that we do wrong to eat meat. He leads with the claim that those of us who eat meat are in the grip of some sort of failure of conscience, wherein we know what the right thing to do is, yet fail to do it. He speculates “that the vast majority of human beings are motivated to avoid moral wrongs only when those wrongs either (a) are socially disapproved, or (b) conflict with the dictates of the powerful,” and so, like the Milgram experimenters, we know it’s wrong to eat meat, but we do it anyway. But of course, a third possibility is that most meat eaters simply disagree that it is wrong. This is the position I will be defending here—it is not a moral wrong to eat meat.

What gives Huemer’s argument some traction is his frequent comparisons between our treatment of other people and our treatment of animals. “The most abject cruelty,” he notes, “cruelty that would horrify us if perpetrated against any other human being, scarcely troubles us when it is done to members of another species.” Two things are unsatisfactory about this move. First of all, that crushing a child would be morally objectionable simply doesn’t entail the wrongness of stepping on a roach or mosquito. That would require some additional premise, along the lines of “it’s immoral to treat an animal in any way that a human may not be treated,” but to insert that premise would beg the question. And second, I think he’s just mistaken to say that abject cruelty to animals scarcely troubles us. When news stories break about someone torturing an animal, the outpouring of indignation in the community is typically enormous, and in cases where it makes national news (e.g., the Michael Vick case), the outcry is national. People often call for harsher penalties for animal abusers than they do for thieves and muggers. There is no reason to think that most people “don’t care” about cruelty to animals, which is indeed a criminal offense in most jurisdictions, and deeply socially disapproved. What Huemer must mean, then, is that eating meat is morally equivalent to lighting a kitten on fire, but that we turn a blind eye to that. This is what I deny. It is not a moral wrong to eat meat.

Huemer notes (correctly, I should think) that animals can experience pain and that their pain is the same sort of thing as the pain we experience. So, he says, we ought to take that into consideration when we figure out what’s right and wrong. “If non-human pain is even a little bit bad, therefore, the total quantity of suffering must make this among the world’s greatest problems.” This is 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. So if a large amount of chicken pain is caused by the meal I intend, and the number attaching to that amount is larger than the quantified amount of pleasure I’d receive from that meal, the meal is immoral. Leaving aside the lack of any actual method for doing Bethamite quantification, this calculus implies that I ought not to remove a hornet’s nest from my attic or set out mouse traps in the basement. A Benthamite would reject this reductio ad absurdum, but this gets at the fundamental point: it’s not immoral for humans to count the good of humans as more important than the good of non-humans.

“If someone does not see what is bad about suffering,” Huemer says, “I don’t see how I could explain it. If someone only sees the badness of his own suffering, then that individual lacks a conscience, and, again, I don’t think anything I say could remedy that. If someone sees the badness of his own suffering, and that of other people, but does not see the badness of suffering in other species, then I desire that person to explain why suffering would only be bad when felt by members of his own species.” One possibility is that while the pain experienced by non-humans can arouse some level of empathy, we also measure the badness of non-human pain against human good. Nothing is just “valuable”; things are valuable to a valuer. Maybe humans value human well-being over the well-being of non-humans. If I came across three dogs attacking a child, and I needed to kill all three to save the child, I would not only do so, I would expect to come in for severe reproach had I failed to do so. Here I am prioritizing human good over dog good. That’s not to say dog good never matters—again, we disapprove of people who mistreat their dogs. But they’re not indistinguishable goods.

It’s not clear that this prioritization entails indifference to animal suffering, as Huemer claims. Many cultures practice a kind of reverence for the animals they consume. Other cultures may lack a specific practice to this effect, yet there too it’s not surprising to see individual farmers wanting to kill the animal as quickly and painlessly as possible. Huemer tends to elide “it’s morally permissible to use animals for human purposes” and “it’s fine to be cruel just for fun”—but these are very different positions. The duty not to be cruel for fun doesn’t entail “can’t use them for food,” nor even “can’t kill them to avoid annoyance.” Many animals eat other animals. There’s no natural duty not to do so.

Is it morally wrong for a fox to eat a chicken? Of course, it’s bad for that chicken to get eaten. But it would be bad for that fox to not eat. So the moral question isn’t just about whether it’s a bad outcome, since it’s a bad outcome for someone either way. The chicken is entitled to try to escape the fox just as the fox is entitled to chase the chicken. Whichever outcome results will be “bad” for one of them, but not immoral. Foxes eat chickens. Big fish eat little fish. Humans eat chickens and fish.

Humans are a subset of the larger category “animal.” We’re not somehow outside of nature, we are part of nature. In nature, everything consumes something to sustain its life. Some of the things we eat are themselves consumers of animals. Some of our prey eat plants. Indeed, some of our prey is plants. It’s in our nature to eat both plants and animals. When we eat plants we are also causing death and suffering. The “distress” caused to plants when they are killed may seem too alien or minimal to be relevant, but I don’t see how Huemer can use that as a distinction, given the numbers argument he invokes. It would be an odd model for right and wrong on which we must act against our nature. Our natural capacity for empathy is part of that nature; it gives us a way to know that cruelty-for-fun is wrong. But eating other animals is part of that same nature. It’s not merely that this provides optimal nutrition for humans, but the fact that we find them tasty is both a reason in itself and evidence for the naturalness of the connection.

Besides killing for food, we also kill for annoyance-avoidance, as when we use poison to kill carpenter ants or cockroaches, or swat mosquitoes. Arguably, the latter is self-defense, as the mosquito is literally attacking you, and depending on where you live, could well be threatening your life. But the ants can damage your house. We’re just as entitled to defend our houses as beavers or wasps are. Even if we concede that this causes some suffering, this doesn’t make it immoral.

Why then do we object to people caught pulling the wings off flies for fun, or kicking puppies for fun? Because those examples indicate sociopathy: they are signs of vicious character, and the sort of person who would light a kitten on fire is the sort of person who would also harm other people, the sort of person for whom others—of all species—are merely a tool. The lack of empathy we see in the puppy-kicker is evidence of a general character flaw. But kicking a puppy because you find it pleasurable to inflict pain or see helplessness is bad, not because you’re doing it to a puppy, but because only a vicious character would find it pleasurable to inflict pain or see helplessness in the first place. None of this tells us about the entirely natural process of eating other living things.

To underscore this last point: saying that it is not a moral wrong to eat meat is not to say that there is no such thing as mistreatment of animals. Huemer conflates the worst examples of factory farming with the idea of meat-eating generally. But it’s not as if the moral space is completely exhausted by “I’m vegan” and “I kick puppies for fun.” We must avoid the conflation of factory farming (or whatever other particular practices we should consider cruel) with the entire concept of eating meat. The factory farming practices that might seem more morally objectionable are what make it possible for many poorer humans to have access to meat. Even if ceteris paribus we should prefer animals killed with less collateral suffering, it’s not obvious that denying meat to poor people is the more moral choice. Maybe ultra-minimal levels of animal suffering are a luxury that wealth allows people. But the fact of the eating itself cannot be immoral, any more than it’s immoral for an eagle to eat a fish.

Searching for Common Ground on Meat Eating and Public Policy

Michael Huemer’s essay is refreshing in its willingness to challenge genteel opinion regarding animals in the name of a more rigorous view. Two features of Huemer’s argument are especially attractive. First, it relies on parsimonious premises. The claim that pain and suffering are bad is much less controversial than its denial. Second, the argument is compatible with a range of political and moral philosophies. Libertarians, socialists, deontologists and consequentialists alike can accept Huemer’s conclusions, as his argument takes no stand on the issues that divide them.

Huemer is not the first philosopher to make an ecumenical argument on behalf of animals. Unfortunately, when presented with such arguments, defenders of meat-eating sometimes fail to address the issues at hand.

One common reply for example is to assert that a moral concern with animals must come at the expense of our concern for human beings. But we can accept Huemer’s argument and still rank a typical human life over that of a sentient animal. Even many vegans will agree that, had we to choose between running over a human person and a mouse, it would be appropriate to run over the mouse. Vegans just ask that we not kid ourselves in thinking a similarly tragic choice occurs in choosing between meat and plant-based meals.

Sometimes the claim that a moral concern with sentient animals is bad for humans is put in a different way: it is that every minute we spend advocating on behalf of animal interests is one less minute we can spend advocating for important human interests. But we are again fooling ourselves if we frame the dietary debate this way. There is no great human project that comes crashing down the first time you order the veggie burger.

Moreover, we don’t generally approach moral advocacy in a zero-sum way. When a candidate for municipal office asks for my vote, for example, I don’t ridicule their desire to solve local problems on the grounds that they should be devoting themselves to global poverty or some other issue from a different sphere of concern. It is perfectly acceptable to devote attention to a range of issues at various levels of scale and domain, as they pertain to humans and animals alike.

One reply to ecumenical arguments on behalf of animals that is not an evasion is the claim that species membership is morally significant. This is sometimes confused with the separate idea that beings who possess self-consciousness, moral agency, and other traits of personhood should enjoy a higher moral status than merely sentient entities. Being human and being a person are not synonymous, however, as is illustrated by the existence of human beings who are born with congenital conditions that prevent them from ever attaining personhood.

If the fact of being Homo sapiens matters, then the beginning of a defense of human favoritism presents itself. We might justify doing things to merely sentient animals we would never accept in the case of merely sentient humans.

A problem bedeviling many defenses of “speciesism” however is that they are formulated as assertions rather than arguments. Consider one such defense, by the distinguished philosopher Bernard Williams. “This is an ethical concept we already have,” Williams wrote of species favoritism. “This is the ethical concept that is at work when, to the puzzlement of the critics, we afford special consideration to human beings because they are human beings.”

The weakness of Williams-style views can be seen by asking to whom “we” refers. Williams suggests that it is just a fact about us all that we recognize species membership as morally important. But then how are there critics who reject this supposedly inescapable view? Defenders of the human prejudice, as Williams dubbed it, need to do more than appeal to a false consensus about the moral significance of being Homo sapiens. They also need to explain why, when species is swapped out for race or sex (or genus for that matter), these parallel defenses of prejudice do not also succeed.

Once speciesism is in doubt, it suggests a step that is consistent with Huemer’s argument but which his essay does not take. This is recognizing that sentient animals can be harmed not only by suffering, but also by being killed.

It seems obvious that merely sentient humans possess a very strong moral interest in not having their lives prematurely ended. Many people accept that something similar is true of animals they care for. Animal ethicists for example have asked us to consider a case in which a dog has a condition that, while painless, would prematurely end its life. Surely we would be helping the dog by giving it a shot to clear up the condition. But if so, this suggests it has a welfare interest not only in avoiding suffering, but also in continued existence: otherwise giving the dog a painful injection to extend its life would do it no good. Ethical vegetarianism is a way of making our view of the moral status of farmed animals cohere with cases in which it seems clear that we can wrong sentient beings by killing them. Ending animals’ lives because we prefer the taste of meat over easily obtainable plant foods seems an inadequate motivation.

In addressing libertarians, Huemer asks them not to be distracted by questions of policy. Shifting the discussion to the policy realm can indeed be a way of avoiding a personal moral inventory regarding animals. But once we have accepted our individual obligations, most obviously by swearing off meat, questions of policy inevitably arise.

One overdue policy change is the abolition of agricultural subsidies. In his book Meatonomics (2013) author David Robinson Simon argues that when American meat and dairy subsidies are calculated correctly they total in the billions, while subsidies to plant agriculture are only in the millions. Perhaps Simon’s calculations exaggerate the difference. The fact that factory farming is subsidized at all however is a further wrong beyond that done to animals.

Contemporary animal agriculture is also a menace to free speech. Recent years have seen the introduction of so-called “ag-gag” laws in many states, which seek to criminalize whistleblowing that exposes animal abuses at factory farms. Enhanced animal welfare laws by contrast are difficult to get through legislatures because agriculture is a textbook case of regulators being “captured” by the industry they are supposed to oversee. (This is one reason animal welfare initiatives now often take the form of ballot initiatives, which routinely see voters demonstrate a preference that farmed animals be treated humanely.)

Most libertarians will readily grant the distorting effects of agricultural subsidies and regulatory capture. Some however have sacrificed their libertarianism on the altar of their omnivorism. “Factory farms aren’t designed to maximize suffering,” Daniel D’Amico wrote in a 2018 debate with Huemer in Reason, the libertarian magazine. “They, like all production chains, are emergent outcomes that look to maximize productivity within the constraints of prices, technological capacities, and consumer wishes.”

D’Amico’s description of the meat industry is a fantasy. The reason to note it is not to insinuate that other libertarians will necessarily agree. It is rather to see the power of the conformity to which Huemer refers. To be sure, ballot initiatives on behalf of animals raise the possibility that our conformity has limits. But if meat-eating is the result of socialization rather than careful ethical reflection, that would explain why full-throated defenses of omnivorism can come at the expense of basic value commitments that apologists otherwise accept.

There are no good arguments for factory farming, the American version of which is an enemy of both animal and human freedom. Huemer’s essay raises the welcome possibility that libertarians and non-libertarians will someday come together to bring such evil to an end.

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.

Sentience

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 were 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.

Notes


[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).

The Conversation

Carnivory as Conformity

I appreciate the calm and scholarly tone of Aeon Skoble’s defense of meat-eating, but as a piece of moral reasoning his commentary is disappointing in the way it repeats arguments that have long been subject to decisive criticisms. To cite but one example, the thought that we should eat meat because other animals do has obvious problems, as Peter Singer pointed out in the second edition of Practical Ethics (1993). They include the fact that it does not make sense to model our ethical behaviour on that of animals who lack moral agency. Skoble’s other arguments all similarly fail, for reasons that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the animal ethics literature.

Skoble mistakenly characterizes Huemer’s argument as Benthamite, when in reality a concern with reducing suffering is consistent with a wide range of moral views. Insofar as Skoble’s essay appears to defend speciesism, it exhibits the same problem I noted in my original commentary, that of assertion taking the place of argument (“Maybe humans value human well-being over the well-being of non-humans.”) Skoble mentions the permissibility of killing insects, which is only relevant if such animals are sentient, a doubtful claim for which his essay provides no evidence.

If Skoble’s essay has a central argument it is found in his characterization of meat consumption as an “entirely natural process.” One reason he may emphasize this is to suggest that avoiding meat is somehow unnatural. But if so, this claim lacks scientific support. As the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has long noted, “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy.” Our bodies are adapted to require protein, which can come in both animal and non-animal forms. A concern with what is natural thus provides no reason to favor meat-eating.

A second problem with Skoble’s appeal to nature is that, even if meat-eating were especially natural, that would carry no weight, as a phenomenon being natural has no bearing on its ethical appropriateness. The smallpox virus is perfectly natural, for example, but that provides no reason to permit its spread. Indeed, Skoble himself gives the example of dogs attacking a child. It is a natural fact that many animals have claws and digestive systems that allow them to hunt and eat human beings, yet that is not a reason to condone animal attacks. Even if meat-eating were especially natural, in short, that by itself would provide no defense against ethical criticisms such as Huemer’s.

A final problem with Skoble’s naturalness argument is that, even if nature could serve as a moral guide, that would call into question many aspects of meat production. Consider for example the description Temple Grandin offers of a commercial pig breeder who employs artificial insemination, a common industry practice:

Each boar had his own little perversion the man had to do to get the boar turned on so he could collect the semen. Some of them were just things like the boar wanted to have his dandruff scratched while they were collecting him. (Pigs have big flaky dandruff all over their backs.) The other things the man had to do were a lot more intimate. He might have to hold the boar’s penis in exactly the right way the boar liked, and he had to masturbate some of them in exactly the right way. There was one boar, he told me, who wanted to have his butt hole played with. “I have to stick my finger in his butt, he just really loves that,” he told me.

The process Grandin describes is a form of bestiality. It is unnatural in the obvious sense that human beings and pigs are not capable of breeding. The sexual element may make us squeamish, but it typifies the larger truth that contemporary meat production has long involved many unnatural processes.

Most meats are cooked before consumption. As such eating them presupposes the human control of fire, a skill we owe not to nature but culture. Similarly, neither chicken nor cattle are indigenous to North America: their presence in the average American diet is in that sense unnatural. Factory farms are only possible in cultures that have refrigeration and other technologies that make possible the slaughter of animals far from where they are eaten. Animal agriculture systematically violates animals’ own natural behaviors, as by debeaking them, separating them from their mothers and confining them in conditions in which they cannot turn around or see daylight. If what is natural is what is right, most meat on display in the grocery store is morally heinous.

Skoble’s dog-attack example obliges us to consider cases in which we must choose between animal and human interests. But if we have a human person in mind, a strong concern with animals still permits saving the person over the animals. In The Case for Animal Rights (1983), for example, Tom Regan wrote that if we were faced with a choice between saving four human persons or a million dogs, it would be appropriate to save the people. What such cases show is that persons have a higher moral standing than merely sentient beings. But as I noted in my commentary, we do not face such a tragic choice when it comes to our diet. A more analogous scenario would be having to choose between causing the painful death of three dogs or uprooting three or more plants. Given than plants are not sentient, it seems obvious that we should save the dogs.

A strange feature of Skoble’s essay is its unsupported assertion that plants can suffer. One does sometimes come across headlines to that effect. But when we read the actual news stories, let along the research on which they are based (which I discuss in my book Duty and the Beast) it becomes clear that recent findings in botany do not support the view that plants are sentient. Certainly Skoble’s essay does not present any evidence for such a view, which, even if true, would not justify meat eating. Given that animals’ bodies inefficiently convert plants into animal protein, we would save plants and animals alike by replacing meat with plants.

Skoble writes that “the factory farming practices that might seem more morally objectionable are what make it possible for many poorer humans to have access to meat.” But who cares if anyone has access to meat? Insofar as equally nutritious plant protein is widely available, meat is strictly optional. Even if the food system were structured so that respecting animal interests had to come at the expense of helping poor people, that would be grounds to restructure the system, not an excuse to cause animals unnecessary suffering.

But is the food system in fact structured in this tragic way? On a global level, the poorer a person is the less meat they eat. This is why meat consumption has risen in China, for example, as large numbers of people have escaped poverty and entered the middle class. Here in North America, there is no evidence that meat is an economic means of feeding anyone. One peer-reviewed study for example found that a vegetarian diet costs $740 less per year than an omnivorous diet. Skoble again presents no evidence to support a different view.

Skoble’s appeal to nature has something in common with his unsupported empirical claims about plant pain and the price of meat. In most other contexts these kinds of arguments would be too obviously deficient to bear mentioning. No anger management counsellor for example has ever said that because some animals throw their feces at one another when enraged we should too. Similarly, Skoble’s assertions about plant suffering and home economics fail to meet basic standards of empirical adequacy, standards that are taken for granted not only in the natural and social sciences but in much popular debate. It is as if, when the goal is defending meat, normal standards of rigor and evidence do not apply.

I believe this lends support to Huemer’s suggestion that conventional thinking about animals is the product of conformity rather than conscientious reflection. Human beings engage in meat-eating for reasons unrelated to their capacity for unbiased moral inquiry. As such, even when omnivorism is defended by distinguished and capable academics such as Skoble, such defences inevitably rest on unsustainable claims, philosophical and empirical alike.

Is Eating Meat Bad? For Whom?

In his response to my essay, I fear Andy Lamey has misread me in some instances, and in others is responding fallaciously. By the latter I mean, for instance, Lamey’s claim that my positions have already been “subject to decisive criticisms”—surely it’s begging the question to cite Singer’s book as pre-emptively refuting my argument, when the entire point of my argument is that Singer’s position is mistaken. That would be as if a Rawlsian claimed that Nozick’s argument couldn’t be right, because those views were already subjected to decisive criticisms in A Theory of Justice. Actually, I’ve seen Rawlsians make just that move, so perhaps that’s not the best analogy. But to go to the substance of the Singerite objection: it looks like the argument goes something like this:

Skoble says it’s ok for humans to do X because other animals do X.
But other animals are not moral agents.
So what other animals do can’t be a model for human action.

That argument presupposes that our moral agency, perhaps a function of our rationality, imposes on us duties to act in ways that can be rationally justified, an expectation we do not have of non-human animals. That’s true, but this by itself doesn’t undercut my point, partly because it’s misconstruing my point (and maybe this is my fault, if I wasn’t clear enough). I wasn’t arguing that because foxes eat chickens that therefore it’s right for us to eat chickens. I was noting that all animals consume living things, and that humans and foxes are both animals. The question then is, what determines what sorts of living things an animal eats. The answer is, the animal’s evolved nature. Different organisms have different nutritional needs. There is no moral component to that.

Lamey notes that the smallpox virus is natural, but we combat it when we can. I don’t see how that’s a criticism of my position—all creatures resist threats when possible. But in any case, I’m not arguing “whatever is natural is good.” I’m simply arguing that we have the evolved nutritional needs we have. Our evolved nature as omnivorous is not moral or immoral—it just is. Is there a place for a nature/reason split? Of course: acting on instinct may not always be optimal. Our rational faculties allow us to solve problems more effectively than merely relying on instinct. That’s how it is that early humans developed agriculture and livestock—these are more efficient than foraging and hunting.

Lamey suspects that I note the naturalness of meat-eating because I want to “suggest that avoiding meat is somehow unnatural,” which he then says is absurd, because nutritionists have figured out that meat-avoiding diets can be made to be healthy. I’m not sure that works; even if meat-free diets can be shown to be nutritionally adequate, that wouldn’t make them not unnatural. But it doesn’t matter: just as I am not arguing that whatever is natural is good, I am also not arguing that whatever is unnatural is bad. If a person chooses a meat-free diet that meets his or her nutritional needs, that’s fine, although, as even Lamey notes, it will require additional work to ensure that this happens.

So at this stage, I imagine the response is, “Ok, if you admit that meat-free diets can meet human nutritional needs, then shouldn’t we prefer those to omnivorous diets, because then we don’t have to kill non-human animals?” But why do we think it’s wrong to kill non-human animals in the first place? Because they’re sentient? Lamey thinks I’m being silly to analogize killing insects, because they’re not sentient, but I’m not sure where that line is—how sentient are shrimp? But in any case, why would sentience mean “it’s wrong to kill them”? I almost want to say “it’s their job to be our food,” but the howls of derisive laughter that would elicit are too certain. Nevertheless, food chains exist. The irrelevance of “naturalness” cuts both ways I think. It won’t give us a moral reason to justify meat eating, but neither will it give us a moral reason to condemn it. So we’d need some other reason—what makes it wrong to kill them? What seems to be my “speciesism” implies that if we’re killing them for food, that means we’re prioritizing our good over theirs, which I don’t yet see a moral argument against, other than the Benthamite.

Lamey thinks I’m wrong to characterize Huemer’s argument as Benthamite, because it’s really just about reducing total suffering. I think if reducing total suffering is the main point, that is Benthamite, but in any event, arguments like this invariably end up conflating cruel practices that happen to be used in some kinds of killing with the mere fact of the killing. I objected to this in Huemer, and Lamey is doing the same thing. He documents some examples of gross abuses, and then implies that it’s all abusive. Consider, for contrast, the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments. You could give some examples of punishments that are exceedingly cruel, but that wouldn’t imply that the very concept of punishment is cruel. So, in this case, can we even imagine slaughtering livestock in a quick and relatively painless way? If so, then the fact of cruel slaughterhouse practices doesn’t imply that we can never kill. This would give us an argument against cruelty, not against eating meat per se.

Lamey says “A strange feature of Skoble’s essay is its unsupported assertion that plants can suffer.” Here I fear he has misconstrued me, and again perhaps I was unclear. I didn’t mean to imply that I think plants are sentient and experience the kind of pain humans or dogs do. I simply meant that they do get torn up and killed. Plants are diminished in their flourishing when you rip off their leaves, or peel the bark off a tree, or cut it down. When a mass of tent caterpillars eats up the leaves on the tree, we describe the tree as suffering without implying that it’s sentient or conscious of pain. In some cases, eating flora is conducive to the plant’s flourishing. Berries are the obvious example; when you eat berries, you not only do not kill the plant, you’re helping it. But lots of plant consumption involves killing the plant. I’m not saying it’s bad because the plant feels pain; I’m saying it’s not bad at all, not in and of itself. Animals eat living things, some plant, some animal. Now: when the tent caterpillars destroy a tree, is that “bad”? This is the question I was getting at in my essay. Bad for whom? It’s certainly bad for the tree. It’s good, though, for the tent caterpillars. If it’s a tree in my yard, it’s also bad for me. So I might choose to destroy the caterpillars. That’s bad for the caterpillars, but I don’t see why this is a moral concern for me. If I were to kill six shrimp because they’re a delicious source of several vital nutrients, that’s similarly bad for the shrimp, but I don’t see why that’s a moral concern for me either. This brings us back to the moral agency argument: if animals are not moral agents, then we can’t look to them as models for human behavior. But if they’re not moral agents, why can’t we kill them?

Lamey concludes by saying “Human beings engage in meat-eating for reasons unrelated to their capacity for unbiased moral inquiry.” That’s probably true. That doesn’t make it immoral, though.

Replies to Lamey, Skoble, and Klein

I would like to start by thanking Aeon J. Skoble, Andy Lamey, and Shawn E. Klein for their very stimulating and important contributions to this discussion of animal ethics.

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.

Notes


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] See Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000).

[4] See Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), pp. 509-20.

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.