Industrial Farming is Not Cruel to Animals


(Originally published at World Animal Protection, Global Animal Network)

A recent paper published in the Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics with the title “Industrial Farming is Not Cruel to Animals” presents a weak philosophical defense of animal agriculture. However, the missteps of the essay are instructive as a way of helping us clarify our own arguments for the centrality of sentience in the struggle for animal liberation.

The commonsense moral argument against animal agriculture

The basic, commonsense moral argument against animal farming is simple and straightforward and does not rely on abstract philosophical notions like rights, rationality, or personhood. Indeed, the basic argument rests on a commitment to one simple, widely-shared principle, namely, that it is immoral to unnecessarily harm sentient beings (like pigs, cows, sheep, chickens, or Homo sapiens). Note the qualifier “unnecessarily”. The notions of necessary versus unnecessary harm are relevant here. Causing pain, suffering, or even death, may not always be wrong. In cases when such harms may be necessary—for example, the sharp but transient pain a child feels from a vaccination when no other means of delivering the inoculation exist, or in our euthanizing a beloved companion suffering from a painful and terminal condition—causing pain and suffering certainly is not morally wrong, and may even be obligatory. But when harms like suffering and death are gratuitous and unnecessary, as is the case with animal farming, then clearly, they are wrong.

For clarity’s sake, let’s break down the basic argument against industrial animal farming like this:

  1. The infliction of gratuitous, unnecessary harms—such as pain, suffering, and death—upon sentient beings is cruel and immoral.
  2. Industrial animal farming inflicts gratuitous, unnecessary pain, suffering, and death upon billions of sentient beings.
  3. Therefore, industrial animal farming is cruel and immoral.

(For a more detailed discussion of this argument, see my essay “Veganisms“.)

So the question of whether animal farming is cruel rests, in this context, primarily on (a) whether animal agriculture is nutritionally necessary, and (b) whether it causes harm to nonhuman animals.

Clearly, industrial animal farming is not nutritionally necessary since it is possible (and perhaps even preferable) for us to nourish ourselves without having to consume animal products. If that’s the case, then it looks like the question of the moral wrongness of animal farming rests on whether industrial animal farming inflicts gratuitous, unnecessary pain, suffering, and death upon billions of sentient beings.

Not so fast…

Now, before we fist pump over such an easy moral victory, it’s worth taking a look at the argument for why industrial animal farming is not cruel since, as I say, the missteps of the essay are instructive. Importantly, the confusion of the essay turns on a rather odd and idiosyncratic notion of harm, and the gist of the argument goes like this:

If the gratuitous infliction of pain, suffering, and death of sentient beings is cruel and immoral because such actions constitute a form of harm, then it looks like the notion of harm is what is doing the moral heavy lifting here. But lots of things can be harmed, not only sentient beings. For example, running a car with no motor oil harms the engine. But no one would claim that it is immoral to run a car engine without oil, so that means that there are both moral and non-moral harms. But if that’s the case, then why should we think that the harm of industrial animal agriculture is a moral harm rather than a non-moral harm like that of the oil-less car engine?

Sentience is not arbitrary

Of course, the obvious answer is that nonhuman animals are sentient, whereas things like cars are not. But that raises a question that lies at the heart of our moral treatment of nonhuman animals, namely, why does sentience make one matter morally? As Puryear, et al. argue, the answer is simple: the harms we cause nonhuman animals when we confine them, mutilate them, and inflict gratuitous, unnecessary pain, suffering, and death upon them are of the same fundamental nature as these same harms inflicted upon humans, beings whom all parties agree are morally considerable. Here the flaw of the essay becomes clear, namely, that it conflates two senses of the term ‘harm’. The so-called “harms” we cause in running oil-less motors are nothing at all like the moral harms we inflict on nonhuman animals. While it’s true that when we run a motor without oil we certainly damage the motor and cause the motor to cease to function well, we do not cause the motor to suffer. As I argued in an earlier blogpost, the choice of sentience as morally significant is not arbitrary. Sentience confers on its possessor an interest in avoiding pain, an interest that commands ethical attention. However, what is highly arbitrary is supposing that the harms caused to nonhuman animals are non-moral, while only the harms caused to humans are moral. Reason and commonsense require that we treat like cases alike, and avoid creating—as the essay in question does—an irrelevant, and speciesist moral distinction.

Further reading

Hawthorne, M. (2013). Bleating hearts: The hidden world of animal suffering. John Hunt Publishing.

Hsiao, T. (2017). Industrial farming is not cruel to animals. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 30(1), 37–54.

Jones, R. C. (2016). Veganisms. In Critical Perspectives on Veganism (pp. 15-39). Springer International Publishing.

Jones, R.C., (2013). Science, sentience, and animal welfare. Biology and Philosophy, 28(1), 1–30.

Proctor, H.S., (2012). Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading? Animals 2, 628–639.

Puryear, S., Bruers, S., & Erdős, L. (2017). On a Failed Defense of Factory Farming. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 1-13.

Singer, P., (2002). Animal Liberation, 3rd edition.

Why is Sentience Ethically Significant?


I forgot to link to another blog piece I wrote for the World Animal Protection / Global Animal Network site. The piece is titled “Why is Sentience Ethically Significant?”

Check it out!

Tom Regan 1938–2017


This tribute was originally posted at Animal Liberation Currents.

Like many animal liberationists, I came to an understanding of the plight of our animal kin through Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. Many people are surprised to learn that this “father of the modern animal rights movement” did not argue that nonhuman animals have rights, at least not in the moral, philosophical sense. That case was to be made powerfully and convincingly less than a decade later by Tom Regan. In The Case for Animal Rights, Regan presented what was basically one long sustained and rigorous argument for animal rights of the actual moral and philosophical kind.

Since its publication in 1983, in many ways, the book has stood in the shadow of Animal Liberation. Yet for those less-than friendly to Singer’s utilitarian framework, The Case for Animal Rights provided a sound foundation upon which animal liberationists could make a case for rights—inviolate rights—for nonhuman animals.

Though broadly Kantian, Regan’s approach rejected the notion (central to Kant’s moral framework) that only “rational” beings (i.e., for all intents and purposes, humans) possess moral value. By contrast, Regan argued that what mattered morally is not rationality per se, but the capacity to be the subject of experiences. However, not just any kind of subjective experience warrants inherent value. To possess inherent value and consequently, moral rights, requires that one has the capacity to be the subject of experiences that matter to oneself, what Regan famously termed being the subject of a life. This view, that the capacity for this kind of subjective experience confers upon its possessor inherent value, is both intuitive and meticulously argued for in the book. I cannot tell you how many times I have referred to that passage on p. 243 of his book (I know the page number by heart) where Regan outlines which physiological, emotional, psychological, and cognitive capacities—over and above mere sentience—make one the subject-of-a-life. So impressed was I by this aspect of Regan’s view that my doctoral dissertation, focused on the moral significance of animal cognition, came about in no small part due to my simply trying to flesh out the moral ramifications of that passage. Of course, critics rightly pointed out how even such a thoroughly worked out view had blind spots, lacunae that Regan himself eventually came to fill then build upon.

Tom Regan was a pioneer in the struggle for the liberation of animals from the bonds of institutional and systemic violence, oppression, and domination. Though I never met the man, by all accounts he was what Aristotle would have called a person of great virtue, a warm, kind, compassionate human being. The world is a darker place now that he has left us, but fortunately Tom Regan left behind a profound and indispensable body of work to act as a beacon for animal liberationists to follow.

Knowing Animals Interview


I was recently interviewed for the Knowing Animals podcast. The subject of the interview, “Is Vegan Enough?”, focuses on my chapter in the just-released Critical Perspectives on Veganism. Check it out!

Are Humans and Animals Moral Equals?


I have a new blog piece out today on the World Animal Protection / Global Animal Network site. The piece is titled “Are humans and animals moral equals?”

Check it out!

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Animals & Society Institute Fellow Travelers Conference


I just got back from the Animals & Society Institute Fellow Travelers Conference where I gave a talk called “Is Veganism Speciesist or Exterminist?” There were some really great talks there. Thanks to Lori Gruen and Kari Weil for organizing such a cool conference.

Global Animal Network


The Global Animal Network (formerly World Society for the Protection of Animals) has a new site. I am blogging there!