The Doctrine of Double Effect and Killing Animals for Food


Producing food on a large scale without killing any animals seems currently impossible. This poses a challenge for deontological positions that involve a prohibition against killing sentient creatures: it seems that according to these positions omnivorous, vegetarian and vegan diets all rely on food produced in impermissible ways. In order to meet this challenge, deontologists might introduce consequentialist considerations into their theories, for example some principles that effectively require to kill as few animals as possible. This is the kind of strategy Tom Regan has pursued. However, we argue that the challenge for deontological positions on the ethics of food production can also be met by invoking a prominent deontological principle. The doctrine of double effect (DDE), with its distinction between bringing about harm intentionally and bringing about harm as a merely foreseen consequence of one’s action, enables us to see a morally significant difference between the various ways to produce food other than the number of animals killed. In this paper we will review some of these ways using Warren S. Quinn’s version of the DDE and show that a more thoroughgoing deontological ethics of food production than Regan’s classic theory is possible. We thereby present a novel way of evaluating modes of food production.

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  1. 1.

    We shall understand the term ‘producing food’ (and similar terms) in a rather wide sense that includes acts as diverse as picking an apple, building a stable, growing plants, and transporting food to the consumer.

  2. 2.

    See, for example, the lifeboat case Regan uses (1983: 285, 324, 351).

  3. 3.

    The principles Regan actually introduces are the Minimize Overriding Principle (“Miniride”) and the Worse-off Principle. See (1983: 305–312).

  4. 4.

    Regan himself denies that his theory becomes consequentialist in character. See (1983: 310).

  5. 5.

    The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing is another prominent deontological proposal on how to evaluate such actions. But since the killings we will discuss are all actively brought about, the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing would not prove helpful. This further strengthens the case for applying the DDE.

  6. 6.

    Unless otherwise noted, ‘DDE’ will from now on mean Quinn’s version of the DDE as it is understood by us.

  7. 7.

    A paper with a similar focus is Schedler (2005).

  8. 8.

    Davis’ (tentative) conclusion that some forms of meat production might result in fewer animals being killed was roundly criticized on an empirical basis in Lamey (2007).

  9. 9.

    Short mentions of the underlying rationale of the DDE applied to animals can be found in Taylor (1999: 87) and Lamey (2007: 342–344). Both do not mention the DDE by name. Delaney, while discussing the problem of closeness, mentions the practice of tuna/dolphin fishing as a potential application of the DDE. See Delaney (2008: 335–367, 347–348).

  10. 10.

    There are about as many formulations of the DDE as there are philosophers who have written about it. The second condition is the main topic of controversy. For an overview of the discussion see McIntyre (2019).

  11. 11.

    For criticism of Quinn’s solution to the problem of closeness, see Bennett (2001: 103–104) and Hull (2000).

  12. 12.

    It is conceivable that a single action is an instance of opportunistic direct harmful agency in relation to some victims and an instance of eliminative direct harmful agency to others. See Quinn (1989: 344). Cases like these will not feature in our discussion.

  13. 13.

    For example, in differentiating between opportunistic and eliminative direct harmful agency Quinn does not explicitly say whether the presence of the victim must be a opportunity/difficulty for the agent, must be seen as such by the agent or both. (Quinn 1989: 344) We chose the strongest version in which both must be the case.

  14. 14.

    Quinn himself seems to understand the DDE as part of a wider deontological theory. He mentions the concept of moral rights in particular which fits very well with the idea of coupling the DDE with a theory of animal rights like the one Tom Regan advocated. See Quinn (1989: 346–347).

  15. 15.

    This is a very general description of the agent’s aim. We choose more general descriptions, if we don’t think anything would be gained by choosing more specific ones. Looking at the example of killing an animal for its meat, we are confident of reaching the same verdict under more specific, yet realistic aim descriptions, like ‘making profit’, ‘maximizing profit’, or ‘feeding people’.

  16. 16.

    Trophy hunting, for example, does sometimes occur without any part of the animal being eaten and can therefore not be counted as a form of food production even if a rather wide sense of that term is used. Having said that, most cases of trophy hunting seem to be cases of opportunistic direct harmful agency. The involvement leading to the harm is intended and the presence of the animal presents an opportunity.

  17. 17.

    For a more general discussion of this topic, see Varner (2011).

  18. 18.

    This aim description seems realistic for almost all milk production in capitalist economies, which in turn should be the lion’s share of global milk production.

  19. 19.

    One might object that the agent need not bear these costs. She could simply let the animal starve to death or let it die from exposure. However, luckily these options are off-limits for most agents due to animal protection laws. This is why the continued presence of the animal becomes a difficulty for the agent under the realistic conditions we are assuming.

  20. 20.

    Also, as was noted, Quinn’s understanding of the DDE is such that it does not culminate in an all-things-considered judgment anyway.


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Tank, L., Thiele, S. The Doctrine of Double Effect and Killing Animals for Food. J Agric Environ Ethics 32, 239–253 (2019).

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  • Animal ethics
  • Food production
  • Double effect
  • Vegetarianism
  • Meat