Varieties of the Cruelty-Based Objection to Factory Farming


Timothy Hsiao defends industrial animal agriculture (hereafter, factory farming) from the “strongest version of the cruelty objection” (J Agric Environ Ethics 30(1):37–54, 2017). The cruelty objection, following Rachels (in: Sapontzis S (ed) Food for thought: the debate over eating meat, Prometheus, Amherst, 2004), is that, because it is wrong to cause pain without a morally good reason, and there is no morally good reason for the pain caused in factory farming (e.g., people do not need to eat meat in order to live healthy, flourishing lives), factory farming is morally indefensible.In this paper, I do not directly engage Hsiao’s argument for the moral permissibility of factory farming, which has been done by others (Puryear et al. in J Agric Environ Ethics 30(2):311–323, 2017). Rather, my aim is to assess whether Hsiao’s criticism of one version of the cruelty-based objection is a criticism of all versions of the cruelty-based objection, or objections to factory farming that appeal to the harm or suffering experienced by farm animals. I argue that there are, at least, four distinct kinds of cruelty-based objections to factory farming, distinguishable by their different moral principles or moral observations, and that Hsiao’s criticism of one kind of cruelty-based objection does not generalize to the others.

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  1. 1.

    Hsiao offers the same line of argument—namely, animals do not have moral status—in defense of eating meat in an earlier series of articles (2015a, b). For critical discussion, see Bruers (2015).

  2. 2.

    Similarly, Hooley and Nobis claim that the moral principle is “commonsense” and that the other premises are plausible (2015: 93). For other endorsements of this kind of argument, see Weir (1988) and McPherson (2016, 2018).

  3. 3.

    DeGrazia (2009) does not state the excess harm principle in terms of sentient creatures, but it is clear that his concern is with massive and unnecessary harm to animals, as evidenced by his vivid descriptions of animal suffering.

  4. 4.

    Readers familiar with Rowe’s (1979), “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism” will recognize why I refer to these types of arguments as Gratuitous Arguments. Just as Rowe focuses on one instance of intense and apparently gratuitous suffering in nature, so these types of arguments focus on a few instances of intense and apparently gratuitous suffering in factory farming. See Pollan (2006) for another version of this type of argument.

  5. 5.

    This is why many anti-factory farming discussions begin with vivid examples of how animals are treated. Rachels (2011) and DeGrazia (2009) start their articles with descriptions of the treatment of animals on farms, and then offer their formalized arguments. The formalized arguments do not essentially depend on the descriptions of how poorly animals are treated; as I read these—and similar—pieces, the descriptions are intended to show readers the unnecessary, immoral treatment of animals.

  6. 6.

    For DeGrazia’s (modest) defense of a scalar conception of moral status, see his (2008) article, “Moral Status as a Matter of Degree?”.

  7. 7.

    Evidence of people’s intuition that animal suffering is wrong can be seen by how much of a raucous is caused when undercover footage from a factory farm or slaughterhouse is revealed to the public. For a recent news article, see Hosie (2017).


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Bobier, C. Varieties of the Cruelty-Based Objection to Factory Farming. J Agric Environ Ethics 32, 377–390 (2019).

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  • Factory farming
  • Industrial farming
  • Vegetarianism
  • Animal cruelty