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Industrial Farming is Not Cruel to Animals

Abstract

Critics of industrial animal agriculture (also known as “factory” farming) have argued that its practices are cruel, inhumane, or otherwise degrading to animals. These arguments sometimes form the basis of a larger case for the complete abolition of animal agriculture, while others argue for more modest welfare-based reforms that allow for certain types of industrial farming. This paper defends industrial farming against the charge of cruelty. As upsetting as certain practices may seem, I argue that they need not be construed as cruel or inhumane. Any link between industrial farming and cruelty or inhumanity is contingent on certain cultural, behavioral, and psychological facts that are person-dependent. For many people working in animal agriculture, these facts do not obtain. To be sure, industrial animal agriculture has real moral hazards that must be carefully avoided, but all that this shows is that working with animals is not for everyone.

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Notes

  1. See for example Engel (2000, 2001), Norcross (2004), Rachels (2004), Nobis (2008), DeGrazia (2009), Hooley and Nobis (2015).

  2. To my knowledge, only Weir (1988) and Hsiao (2015a) deal specifically with the cruelty objection. Carruthers (1992, 2011) indirectly considers the objection in his discussion on animal suffering.

  3. Interestingly, Schwitzgebel and Rust (2013) found that “ethicists were much more likely than non-philosophers to rate eating the meat of mammals [as bad]… However, when asked about their last evening meal, ethicists reported eating meat at approximately the same rate as did the other groups”. It appears that the allure of eating meat is just too tempting—even to ethicists with doubts about its morality!

  4. In doing so, this paper builds on earlier arguments first put forth in Hsiao (2015a, b).

  5. Indeed, even critics of animal rights grant this (Scruton 2000; Cohen 2001).

  6. Piazza et al. (2015) found that those who offer common justifications for eating meat (what they call the “4Ns”—natural, normal, necessary, and nice) tend to adopt speciesist and objectifying attitudes towards animals.

  7. Moreover, the causal impotence objection does not seem to mesh adequately with the reasons that meat eaters typically give in defense of their practices. Most people who consume meat tend to think that both their eating meat and the practices by which the meat they ate was obtained are morally permissible, a claim that the causal impotence objection, even if successful, simply cannot show.

  8. Singer (2011: 50) seems to deny that beings can have welfare interests apart from conscious interests: “The capacity for suffering and enjoying things is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way”. I see little reason to accept this. Certainly, suffering may be required for having conscious interests, but why think (apart from stipulating as such) that conscious interests are the only interests there are? Plants do not have conscious interests, but they certainly have welfare interests in certain things (e.g. nutrition) in that they are required for them to flourish. Indeed, this is the same sense in which animals have interests: the capacity to suffer confers interests in that it bears on whether animals live well or ill. Note that Singer himself appears to waffle on this point. He first speaks of sentience as being a prerequisite for having interests at all, but then speaks of sentience as conferring meaningful interests.

  9. “Why does a preference matter in a way that other conditions don’t? Why are preferences important? By definition, a preference means that there is something that matters to someone, that there is something that is important to someone. With a preference, there is someone who wants or likes something. Without subjective preferences, nothing would matter to anyone” (Bruers 2015b: 714).

  10. For this reason, Puryear’s (2016) distinction between “mattering-to” and “mattering-for” is irrelevant. There may be a conceptual or linguistic distinction to be drawn, but morally this a distinction without a difference. Ultimately both senses of mattering point towards the same thing. Why does preference satisfaction matter to an animal? Answer: Because it is an integral part of that animal’s welfare. Why does hydration matter for a plant? Answer: Because it is an integral part of that plant’s welfare. It makes little difference whether we speak of mattering “to” or mattering “for”. Factoring preferences into the question adds nothing beyond another way in which something’s life can go well or ill.

  11. This is not to deny that activity is wholly relevant to moral standing, only that activity as such cannot be the basis of moral status. As I shall argue in the next section, a certain kind of activity provides the basis of moral standing.

  12. As Tollefsen (2011) observes: “keeping in mind Aristotle’s understanding of ‘good’ as ‘that at which all things aim,’ it seems that of any entity with a welfare, it is true that that entity will, if all goes well for it, be able to act for the sake of that welfare”.

  13. “[I]ndividuals are subjects-of-a-life if they have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference and welfare-interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them” (Regan 1983: 243).

  14. Oderberg (2000b) makes this same point in criticizing Regan.

  15. Others who advance this argument include Adler (1967), Oderberg (2000b), Scruton (2000), Reichmann (2000), Cohen (2001), Machan (2004), and Lee and George (2008). The idea that rationality is required for moral standing, however, goes as far back as Boethius.

  16. Hence Aquinas’s observation that the first principle of practical reason is that the good is to be done and evil avoided.

  17. Craig (2012) puts this point nicely: “When a lion kills a zebra, it kills the zebra, but it does not murder the zebra. When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her but it does not rape her—for there is no moral dimension to these actions. They are neither prohibited nor obligatory”.

  18. There is a certain irony to the argument from marginal cases. The argument usually takes the form of a reductio ad absurdum: “It is ridiculous to deny that marginal humans have moral status, so animals must have moral status as well”. But the same thinkers who endorse this approach are often sympathetic to the arguments of others who argue—contrary to what is typically regarded as moral common sense—that infanticide is morally permissible. And rather that being dismissed outright as ludicrous, these arguments are deemed to merit serious consideration despite their wildly counterintuitive implications. If that is the case, then what is so bad about simply biting the AMC’s bullet and insisting that marginal humans do not, in fact, have moral status? If (some) AMC advocates are willing to seriously consider the positions offered by Singer, Tooley, McMahan, and others, then why can’t someone be within their epistemic rights to embrace or at least downplay the AME’s putative reductio? I offer this not as a criticism of the AMC, but as an observation about seemingly inconsistent attitudes among those who use it.

  19. This point is made in various ways by Oderberg (2000a, b), Scruton (2000), Reichmann (2000), Cohen (2001), Machan (2004), Lee and George (2008), and Hsiao (2015a, b).

  20. Beyond what I have said here, formidable arguments for this view can be found in the philosophical literature against abortion and euthanasia. For example, see Moreland and Rae (2000), Beckwith (2007), George and Tollefsen (2008), Lee and George (2008), DiSilvestro (2010), Kaczor (2011), and Lee (2015).

  21. This point applies not just to biological development, but to causation in general. To put in scholastic jargon, efficient causation presupposes final causation. For defenses, see Feser (2008) and Oderberg (2008a).

  22. See DiSilvestro (2010) for a comprehensive response to the argument from marginal cases.

  23. The link between violence to animals and violence to people is well-documented. A good overview can be found in the ASPCA’s guidebook for criminal justice professionals (Phillips 2014).

  24. Animal rights groups often exploit this connection by prominently featuring companion animals in their advertisements and awareness campaigns. It is no coincidence that certain ASPCA commercials use vivid images of dogs and cats while Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” plays in the background.

  25. Hence Carruthers (1992: 162) observes: “These features of our society are highly contingent. There may be (indeed, there are) many other societies in which animals are not accorded these roles. In such a society a dog may be slowly strangled to death because this is believed to make the meat taste better, while it never occurs to the people involved that there is any connection between what they are doing and their attitudes to human beings—indeed, there may in fact be no such connection. While such an action performed by someone in our society would manifest cruelty, when done by them it may not”.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Pranav Bethala, Greg Brown, Michael Jordan, C’Zar Bernstein, and Hasan Mohammad for comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to Timothy Hsiao.

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Hsiao, T. Industrial Farming is Not Cruel to Animals. J Agric Environ Ethics 30, 37–54 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-017-9652-0

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Keywords

  • Industrial farming
  • Factory farming
  • Animal rights
  • Sentience
  • Vegetarianism
  • Anthropocentrism