(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:
- The infliction of gratuitous, unnecessary harms—such as pain, suffering, and death—upon sentient beings is cruel and immoral.
- Industrial animal farming inflicts gratuitous, unnecessary pain, suffering, and death upon billions of sentient beings.
- 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.
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.