Saturday, July 31, 2004

Animal Ethics

It goes without saying (doesn't it?) that torturing animals is wrong. The resulting minor benefit of a cheap and tasty meal does not excuse it. So if the reality of factory-farms is anywhere near as bad as what I've heard about them, then they are surely immoral.

Does anyone know if there is any legislation to protect animals from severe suffering at the hands of the meat industry? There should be, in any case.

I don't think meat-eating is necessarily wrong, however. It is bad to the extent that it supports the unethical industries which inflict suffering on animals. But if that suffering could be minimised, then this objection disappears. The Ethical Werewolf outlines the practical conclusions reached by this line of reasoning:

I divide meats into 3 categories: the Normal, the Weird, and the Fallen. Unethically farmed meats that someone else would eat if I didn't eat them are Normal (Normal here isn't a normative term that attributes any positive value, it's a descriptive term that is appropriate because these meats are the most common). Weird meats are those where the animals live under non-cruel conditions. This gets its name because it includes many of the unusual things that I'm happy to still be able to eat, like squid, shrimp, and alligator, as well as most fish. Fallen meat is any kind of meat, Normal or Weird, that would go to waste if I didn't eat it. When my roommate left for two weeks and a sausage was in the fridge, it became Fallen meat. By eating only Weird and Fallen meat, I generate no economic demand pressures on factory farming. So that's what I do.

But some might argue that to kill animals painlessly is still wrong.
Would it be acceptable to humanely raise and painlessly kill humans if there were a use for their body parts, or if, all of a sudden, many humans acquired a taste for human flesh? ... Just as each human life is precious and irreplaceable, so is each animal life.
(See also his Animal Ethics blog.)

I'm not so sure that animal-friendly farming is wrong, though. There are, after all, some pretty significant differences between humans and other animals that are worth bearing in mind here. A good life for an animal will (obviously) not be the same as that for a human. Human flourishing requires freedom, opportunities for intellectual stimulation and creativity, etc. Animals, by contrast, wouldn't seem to have their quality of life in any way impaired by living in a pleasant captivity.

Notice that we have few qualms about killing a suffering animal to put it out of its misery. This suggests that it's not life itself which is intrinsically valuable, so much as the quality of life. There is no absolute 'categorical imperative' against killing animals.

Killing a person is wrong because it impedes their flourishing. We have future interests, many of which we have heavily invested in throughout our lives. Death thwarts those interests. So killing us (usually, though not always) makes us worse off than we otherwise would have been. Can the same be said of farm animals?

The animals in question simply would not exist were it not for the farms. It seems odd that someone who cares about animals' interests could wish them non-existence - thus precluding the possibility of any of those interests being realised!

Compare the following options: (a) non-existence, or (b) life on an animal-friendly farm, where during their lives animals can 'flourish' as much as possible given their nature, followed by a painless death at human hands. Isn't it clear that (b) is better for the animals in question? It seems so to me, anyway. Though one might object that evaluating non-existence is an impossible (perhaps even incoherent) task.

Even if we restrict our focus to dealing with animals already in existence, we can still defend the practice of farming as being in an animal's best interest. It seems altogether possible that the quality of life an animal would enjoy on a good farm could far exceed that it would endure in the wild. A painless death, in particular, would be a very welcome blessing.

I think the extreme anti-farming view rests on a mistaken view of morality. It requires that 'killing' be intrinsically wrong. But it is not. It is wrong to cause harm. Death is generally a harm, and so killing is generally wrong. But in the case of animals, it is not so clear that death is a harm to them. Taking a broader view of things, it actually looks like an animal-friendly farm would be in the animal's best interests. If this is so, then eating meat from such farms would be morally permissible (perhaps even praiseworthy, odd though that sounds). The opposite conclusion can only be reached by focusing on abstract rules of human conduct, to the exclusion of the animals' own interests.

Update: See also Fake Barn Country


  1. Richard,

    You said: But if that suffering could be minimised, then this objection disappears.

    Correction, if that suffering could be eliminated, then this objection disappears. So long as suffering exists at the hands of humans, there exist ethical problems (perhaps if we don't even encourage the flourishing of the animal). This could also extend into biomedical testing, in which case the suffering is much more difficult to eliminate.

    A good life for an animal will (obviously) not be the same as that for a human.

    This is not so obvious if you mean all humans. Many humans, such as the mentally deficient and the extremely senile are not capable of the type of enjoyments that we attribute to normal humans. They thereby do fall under the category of human flourishing as you have defined it.

    Accordingly, your principle that it is wrong to kill a person because it impedes their flourishing fails to imply ethical problems with killing the mentally deficient or senile. Even worse, we might have good reason to kill them to save money. I have yet to hear a response to this other than mere stipulation of human rights, which is philosophically vaccuous.

    The animals in question simply would not exist were it not for the farms. It seems odd that someone who cares about animals' interests could wish them non-existence

    You cannot care about the interests of something that does not exist, since a nonexistent entity has no interests. For those that already do exist, we would care about their interests; but we cannot thereby place care on a null set.

    It seems altogether possible that the quality of life an animal would enjoy on a good farm could far exceed that it would endure in the wild.

    From a Utilitarian standpoint, this would be good, since there would be more happiness. However, we must also take into consideration broader concerns, such as world hunger. If we use valuable grains and other products on animals, when hungry people exist all across the globe, there might be a need to doubt that the issue is so cut and dry. But we needn't get into this too much.

    I should also point out the near practically impossibility of this "pain free" system of animal production that is absolutely vital for your argument to even begin to succeed. I have to admit that I am generally in agreement with your position from a theoretical standpoint, although you and I have both failed to offer justification for the wrongness of euthanizing the mentally deficient or severly senile.

    In addition, the way you have laid out your position seems to commit you to vegetarianism as of now. Virtually no animal products exist today are pain free. For (reduced pain) non-specialty sources, such as fast food, restaurants etc. the pain factor of meat is tremendous. For some info on the pain involved with places such as KFC, go to

  2. Maybe we can get round the (philosophical) problem of the very senile and the mentally deficient in this way. Senility itself is not a bar to flourishing. My very old father, in his last weeks of dying from dementia, nevertheless made a friendship with another patient. There can be flourishing, positive change, positive experiences, in severe senility. When there is insufficient awareness or freedom from pain to acknowledge and relate to other humans in the room, perhaps euthanasia is no longer wrong. I don't of course mean it should then be supplied as the default treatment, just not ethically wrong

  3. On what basis do you say that animal cannot have any future interests of which killing can deprive them, or do you make such self-serving generalizations about the value of their lives? Most of the animals that people eat are evolutionarily closely related to humans (from most to least: mammals, birds, fish). The capacity to experience suffering, and to a lesser extent to enjoy life (e.g., to play), which is what is relevant for moral reasoning, is evolutionarily ancient. _The Symbolic Species_ suggests that language is what distinguishes humans from animals. To mistreat someone deprived of language is barbaric. Animals can experience not only emotions such as fear but conditions such as depression, which is why they can be used as model organisms in research on mental illness. Given our close evolutionary relationship with animals, and the tendency for people to rationalize what they want to do anyway, the burden of proof is on you.

    I think your nonexistence argument has been adequately rebutted in other comments. By that argument, people would have to have as many children as possible, which is absurd since the planet has a finite capacity.


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