At some point, every semester in my critical thinking class, I issue a challenge to my students. For homework, they have to come up with their best possible argument for why it’s OK to eat factory farmed meat. Every class gives variations of the same handful of arguments and they are indeed the same arguments most people give. In class the next day, I formalize the arguments (i.e., break them down into their basic premises) put the arguments up on the overhead and ask them to criticize the arguments themselves. Here’s the thing about many arguments (on any topic): when you formalize them, their weaknesses become very apparent to often even their most staunch supporters.
In this post I’ll go over the most common arguments people give for why it’s OK to eat factory farmed meat. Before you read the arguments it is important that a few empirical facts be made clear. First of all, animals on factory farms undergo unimaginable amounts of suffering. They often suffer from the moment they are born and every moment they are conscious. This is no exaggeration. Arguably, when the animal is killed, this is the best part of its life because it finally ceases to suffer. It would not be hard to argue that these animals would have been better off never having been born than to having to endure the lives that they do.
Pigs are kept in gestation pens with barely enough room to lie down. They do not even have room to turn around. They develop sores from not being able to move from the same place. Their legs splay out when they attempt to stand because their underdeveloped muscles cannot support their weight. The unnatural density of animals confined to the same small space produces unsanitary conditions leading to the spread of bacteria such that the majority develop permanent diarrhea. When piglets are born they often are infected by the bacteria that causes the diarrhea, and die. The dead piglets are then made into a slurry which is mixed back into the pigs’ feed and fed to the mothers.
I will end the description here but if you doubt the severity and extent of nightmarish conditions and constant suffering endured by the animals, here are some links to videos. These videos are not the worst I’ve seen but they are sufficient to convey the point.
Pigs in Gestation Crates
Part I: The Standard Arguments
Before reading the following arguments I want to be clear that these arguments apply specifically to factory farming. The ethical implications of eating meat from hunting or “humane” farming practices requires further argument.
Argument 1: The historical argument
(P1) Historically humans have always eaten meat.
(C) It is morally permissible to eat factory farmed meat.
To see why this argument fails we need to fill in the missing premise.
(P2) If humans have done something historically then it is morally permissible.
(P2) causes the argument to fail because it is easily shown to be false. Consider racism, slavery, sexism, genocide, and war. Humans have historically engaged in these practices too. It does not follow from this fact that these practices are morally permissible. The argument commits the fallacy of appeal to tradition.
Argument 2: The Evolutionary Argument
(P1) We are designed to be able to eat meat. (Just look at my teeth! Look at my digestive system!)
(C) It’s morally permissible to eat factory farmed meat.
To see why this fails we fill in the missing premise:
(P2) It is morally permissible to act in accordance with whatever capacities we have.
This premise can apply even to those who doubt evolutionary theory. The origin of the capacities is irrelevant to the moral status of the capacities. The argument fails because (P2) is false. We have the capacity to kill, maim, punch, kick, etc yet the fact that these actions arise out of natural capacities is no reason to accept them as morally permissible. This argument fails because it commits the naturalistic fallacy.
Argument 3: I like it. It makes me happy.
(P1) Meat tastes good and eating it give me pleasure.
(C) Eating factory farmed meat is morally permissible.
This argument is so obviously weak it doesn’t really need to be addressed. I’ll fill in the missing premise and you can do the rest.
(P2) If I enjoy something and it gives me pleasure then it is morally permissible.
Consider for a moment the amount of pleasure you get from eating meat. In order for you to have that pleasure, a sentient animal suffered every single moment of its existence. From its first breath to its last, it suffered so you can say “yum.” I don’t see how a reasonable person could say that the lifetime of unremitting suffering endured by a sentient creature justifies the satisfaction one gets from a single meal.
Argument 4: We need to eat meat/We need protein.
(P1) We need to eat meat for protein.
(C) Therefore, eating factory farmed meat is morally permissible.
I was guilty of this argument. It was my last reason for not becoming a vegetarian. I mistakenly believed that I couldn’t be an athlete on a vegetarian diet (which in itself was a bad argument). For this argument we don’t even need to look at the hidden premise. (P1) is empirically false. Entire cultures have been vegetarian for millennia. We don’t need to eat meat for sufficient protein. I am a competitive athlete and I have more muscle mass than the average guy yet I am able to achieve this without consuming meat. When I went vegetarian I didn’t lose any muscle mass. It is true that there may be a very small segment of the population that might need to eat meat for medical conditions but by and large, this argument fails for most of us.
Argument 5: Other animals eat meat.
(P1) Animals eat other animals and we don’t say it’s morally wrong.
(C) Therefore, it’s morally permissible for humans to eat meat.
We can look at the hidden premise to see why this argument fails but it really isn’t necessary. But for fun I’ll put it down:
(P2) If other animals do something then it’s morally permissible for us.
I won’t even address (P2) because it’s obviously silly. Consider these other disanalogies instead: (a) animals in the wild (and true carnivores in captivity) genuinely do need to eat meat or they will die. They don’t have a choice whereas we do. (b) Humans are capable of moral reasoning while animals are not. (c) Wild animals are not running factory farms.
Argument 6a: What if plants feel pain?
(P1) If plants feel pain then no matter what we eat we’ll cause pain and suffering.
(C) It’s morally permissible to eat factory farmed meat.
I think people with philosophical tendencies appeal to this argument. I’ve actually seen it used in the comments section of a philosophy website for philosophers. I probably used it in undergrad. This is the point where philosophers need to get out of their armchairs and read some basic science. The missing premise for this argument to work is:
(P2) Plants can feel pain.
In order to feel pain an organism needs to have a central nervous system. We know plant biology down to the molecular level. They do not have central nervous systems and so cannot feel pain (despite what some crank websites will have you believe).
Argument 6b: How do we know that the animals are suffering? (Yes, people actually make this argument)
(P1) Suffering in an internal phenomenon and so we have no direct way to verify its truth conditions.
(P2) It follows that we can’t be sure that animals are suffering,
(C) Therefore eating factory farmed meat is morally permissible.
This is yet another case of undergrad philosophers needing to take a basic science course. The reason why animals are used for medical testing (pain killers included) is because their physiology closely resembles ours. This in itself should undermine the objection. We can go one step further and ask how we know that a fellow human is suffering. The answer is behavior. One might respond that “no, it’s because we have language and we can communicate our inner condition this way.” But this is clearly false, we don’t need someone to tell us they are in pain if we lock them up in a cage and poke them with a cattle prod.
If you are still unconvinced, I recommend you watch the following short video.
Argument 7: But it’s hard!
This isn’t so much of a argument as it is an excuse. To see why it fails consider how you’d respond to someone who owns a slave that gave you the same excuse.
Part II: Why Give Animals Moral Consideration of their Interests? (I.e., why should we include animals in our moral circle.)
“The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Basic Argument: Here’s an obvious question, what is worse: kicking a dog or kicking a stone? I hope you answered the former. Why do we say it’s bad to kick the dog and not the stone? Well, the simple answer is that the dog can feel pain and will suffer while the stone cannot. The dog has an interest in avoiding suffering because suffering is bad. If suffering is bad then it’s bad for anything that experiences it. It would seem strange to say of any animal capable of suffering that the (unconsensual) suffering it endures is good or value neutral.
Some people might respond but sometimes suffering is good, like when we work really hard for something or train hard in the gym to get gainz. But this is to confuse the contingent consequences of the suffering with the suffering itself. The suffering itself is bad. Its consequences (in these cases) are good, however, they could have turned out bad (e.g., you get a ‘D’ on the paper you suffered through, you don’t make any gainz after your intense workout). Given the choice between achieving the desired consequence through suffering and achieving it without suffering, most would choose to achieve the consequence without suffering.
We give moral consideration to the dog because it can suffer and we don’t give it to the rock because it can’t suffer. In short, if a being has the capacity to suffer then it has the right to have its interest in avoiding suffering taken into account.
There are several possible objections to the claim that me must include animals in our moral circle. I want to deal with only one line of these objections:
But They Aren’t Human!
The assumption here is that there is some morally relevant property that humans have that animals don’t have. Common answers are “rationality” “intelligence” “self-awarenss” and “language”.
Reply 1: If these are the relevant moral properties then we should exclude human infants and severely handicapped humans from our moral circle. They do not have these properties. We do not have to consider their suffering in our moral calculus. Adult chimps and other mammals (and some birds) exhibit some of these traits in greater degrees so we ought to consider their interests more than the interests of infants and the severely handicapped. Nevertheless, we do included infants and the severely handicapped in our moral circle because they have the capacity to suffer.
Reply 2: If these are the relevant moral properties then it could follow that one’s interests should be considered in proportion to the degree to which one has the relevant properties. The moral interests of highly rational, intelligent, self-aware, and linguistically skilled individuals should be given more consideration that those who have these to a lesser degree. Few people agree with this and so the aforementioned properties are not relevant to moral consideration.
Reply 3: Suppose a severely handicapped human or infant and a normal human were both in a equal amount of pain. You only have enough of a pain killer for one. Splitting the dose will render it ineffective. How do you decide to whom you will administer the dose? Is intelligence, rational thought or capacity for language relevant to your decision? Most people would say no.
Counter-Reply 1: We include infants and the severely handicapped in our moral circle not only because of their capacity to suffer but because they are human.
Reply: This only pushes the same problem back one step. What properties do humans have that distinguishes them from animals in terms of worthiness of moral consideration of interests? You haven’t told me yet what’s so special about the category “human” as it relates to moral consideration of interests?
Counter-Reply 2: The infant is a potential human.
Reply: Again, this only pushes the same question back one step: What property do humans have that animals don’t have that confers moral status?
Last Resort Counter-Reply: You don’t get it. WE ARE HUMAN, THEY ARE ANIMALS!!!
This is circular reasoning. Lets lay the argument out to show why:
(P1) We are human and they are animals.
(C) Humans interests are worthy of moral consideration while those of animals aren’t.
The only way this argument works is if you add the hidden second premise:
(P2) Human interests are worthy of moral consideration and animals’ interests aren’t.
Notice that the conclusion of the argument is contained in (P2). The only way the argument works is if you have the conclusion already in the premises. This is the very definition of circular reasoning.
Part III: Argument for Moral Consideration of Pigs and Cows
Watch the following video clip.
Do you think the way they are treating the dogs is wrong? If you do, consider this. Pigs are every bit as intelligent and social as dogs. They are every bit as capable as showing affection for their young and fellow animals. They remember people and other animals. There are very few differences between pigs and dogs in terms of social and cognitive skills. If you think it’s wrong to treat dogs in this way what morally relevant property do dogs have that pigs don’t? Imagine if we did to dogs what we do to pigs. Would you stand for it? What would you say to some who said: But I really like the taste of dog! or But I need protein! or But we’re designed to eat meat–look at my teeth! or But they aren’t human!
Think about it.
Part IV: Practical Advice for Becoming a Vegetarian (Or Possibly Vegan)
First an aside on ethical living: When it comes to ethical behavior I favor the Aristotelian approach. That it, we should aim to be virtuous but recognize that we will screw up sometimes. The good life is the activity of virtuous behavior. If you take a rule-based approach (i.e., all or nothing), psychologically, once you’ve broken the rule most people will just revert to their old habits. Ethical behavior requires daily effort and practice. We will make mistakes but that is no reason to give up the cause.
I’m not ready to give up meat but don’t want to support factory farming: What should I do?
There are meat producers that adhere to humane practices and there are many supermarkets from which you can buy meat from humanely raised meat. I’ll list a few below. First, there are a couple of distinctions that should be kept in mind to avoid falling prey to marketing hype.
The label “All Natural” means nothing no matter what product it’s applied to and (depending on the jurisdiction) “organic” when it is applied to meat might only refer to the animal’s diet, not its treatment.
Eggs: Best is “free range.” This means the chickens are able to walk around outdoors and have enough space for a normal chicken social life. “Cage free” means that the chicken are kept in a large barn rather than in cages. They may or may not have access to the outdoors. The cage free eggs tend to be priced fairly close to conventional eggs. The free range eggs usually run about 5.00/dozen at Smith’s.
Chicken: The same “free range/cage free” distinction applies here too.
Beef: “Grass-fed Free range” beef means the cows got to live a life outside eating grass. Unless indicated otherwise, most beef is from cows confined to feed lots with minimal exercise.
Pork: Look for “pasture-raised” pork. This mean the pigs got to have a somewhat normal life free from the suffering endured in gestation crates.
Meatless meat: Over the last few years as more and more people are going vegetarian/vegan there’s been a profit incentive to create good “meatless meats.” You can find several brands that make fake chicken, beef, pork, sausage, hot dogs, and cold cuts. The taste and texture of these products is very good and they are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
The Hard Part
Moving to a vegetarian diet was actually much easier than I thought it’d be. By far the most difficult part was eating out and late night meals after going out, so I will only address those.
Eating Out: Most restaurants offer seafood. The problem is that it usually costs 2 dollars more to get the shrimp or scallop option than it does to get the chicken, pork, or beef. If you’re like me and not fabulously wealthy (when’s this philosophy thing going to pay off?) then you’re price sensitive. What to do? Here’s what I do. First watch this short happy video.
Now ask yourself. Would you pay an extra $2.00 to prevent Little Miss Sunshine and chickens just like her from enduring a life-time of suffering? Is it worth $2.00 to you? When I frame my decision in this light, the decision is easy.
Late night: Often after a night out we’re tired, hungry, and possibly a bit drunk. Not a good combination for ethical decision-making; trust me, I know! If you go to most fast food restaurants (which are the main type of place open late) you’ll find beef, beef, chicken, beef, chicken, and more beef. Luckily, most fast-food places have one fish burger. Maybe it isn’t your first choice but it’s a way to avoid supporting factory farming. Another solution is to go to a Denny’s or IHOP and order eggs and toast/waffle/pancake. Yes, the eggs are probably from battery hens but it’s likely the lesser of the available evils.
EDIT: Several commenters have noted that fish should be excluded as a menu option because there’s growing evidence that (several species) are capable social cognition and of (most importantly) experiencing pain. This is a legitimate issue in regards to the permissibility of killing. However, the scope of this article is confined to evaluating the moral permissibility of factory farming in relation to the amount of suffering the animals endure over the course of their lifetimes.