In this article — clearly a bludgeoning cows with sledgehammers, throwing live baby chicks into grinders, or chopping off the tails of screaming sheep, they have only two options: agree that our relationship with non-human animals needs to be completely reset, and that this has moral, legal and practical consequences, or admit that they don’t care about these sentient beings. But they can never again claim ignorance, and bury their heads in the sand — as the food industry has been so successful in making them do — about the ham sandwiches, roast beef, fried chicken, and all those other items in their diet that they prefer not to think of as cruelly-slaughtered dead animals. The ability of otherwise intelligent and educated people to avoid confronting this issue is astonishing: people normally attentive to showing kindness and fairness turn a systematic blind eye to overwhelming and growing evidence that the non-human animals who share our destiny as living creatures, and a common ancestry, also share much, if not all, of our ability to have feelings and to experience pain and suffering, despite having followed a different evolutionary path to ours.
Don’t imagine for one second that the evidence in this article doesn’t somehow apply to your food. The animal agriculture industry spends millions on deceptive advertising to persuade consumers that farmed animals roam freely on bucolic pastures. That common fantasy has been conclusively disproved. Bear in mind the farm industry provides ingredients for a lot more than just meat: the list of animal-based products you consume is much wider than you think. The methods described below are also used to produce items labelled as
free-range, as well as many of the cheap ingredients used to manufacture food you don’t even think of as animal-based.
I have included graphic evidence in this article to underpin the observations made about the issue of factory farming. There is not much point in your reading the article if you do not watch the videos. It has taken huge courage by whistleblower employees, sickened by what they are paid to do, for the unquestionable, documentary evidence to be made available online by PETA, L214, the Humane Society, and countless other organisations dedicated to ending this moral outrage. If you read this article, I’m hoping that, like me, you’ll watch the videos, weigh the evidence honestly, and stop being in denial. I would expect it to produce in you feelings of anger and outrage, but also, I earnestly hope, a determination to do something about the practices described, practices so morally despicable that the compelling urgency of ending them trumps any other political issue confronting us today.
Table of contents
There are two parts to this rather long article. In the first part, after describing the modern factory farm and presenting selected evidence of the gross cruelty meted out to billions of farm animals in order to provide us with ever-cheaper meat, I will describe the philosophical and legal framework which legitimises dominion and ownership by man over non-humans, with the assertion that they feel little or no pain. In the second part, I will turn to the evidence — equally incontrovertible — that the farm animals we abuse share with us the ability to feel pain and pleasure and, more generally, to desire a better life. I will then suggest a philosophical framework, based on giving animals rights similar to those enjoyed by humans in Kant’s categorical imperative. Animals enjoy legal standing and a form of citizenship in the public policy system derived from the preceding philosophical discussion. I will conclude with some practical steps we can take to actually improve animals’ lives.
- The Eternal Treblinka, otherwise known as the factory farm
- The emergence of the factory farm — and of ever-cheaper food
- Animals can’t go to hell: billions of farm animals — mainly pigs, cattle, and chickens — are there already
- More and more people, eating more and more meat per capita
- Giving no intrinsic worth to farm animals means cheaper food and higher profits
- Treblinka: an apposite analogy
- The fiction that non-human animals are mere objects devoid of sentience is the product of a long history
- Our age’s categorical imperative: ending the moral turpitude of the factory farm
- The ontological evidence for moral consideration: animals are sentient beings
- There is strong evidence to reject the mechanistic theory
- What is animal consciousness, and which animals have it?
- Factoring in the unknowability of other minds: the challenge of avoiding speciesism
- The overwhelming evidence that non-human animals have consciousness is also backed up by the physiological and evolutionary evidence
- Animals are capable of intentional behaviour, of being self-aware, and of having a personality
- Do animals have desires and beliefs?
- Consciousness vs. self-consciousness: Sir Roger Scruton’s repellent and failed attempt to reserve rights for humans, come what may
- Rights made dependent on capacity for reasoned moral argumentation
- The spurious claim that animals have interests, but not rights
- The argument from difficult cases: some cognitively complex animals meet Scruton’s test, while some humans do not
- Any attempt to make animal rights contingent on some condition purportedly found only in humans fails and is shown for what it is: speciesism
- Defining a moral philosophy that reflects the ontological evidence
- Direct or indirect duty?
- Ecology, welfare, or rights?
- The ecological approach
- Welfarism: Bentham, Singer, and the Scruton counter-example
- Moving away from utilitarianism: the rights-based approach
- Including non-humans in the categorical imperative: correcting Kant’s speciesism
- Non-humans as moral patients
- Consequences for public policy: animals as persons with legal standing and citizens
- Non-human animals should no longer be able to be bought and sold as property
- Legal standing for animals
- Non-humans as citizens in a geographically-identifiable community
- Practical steps: minuscule advances, and the weight of the meat paradox
- Concern for animals has always existed
- Recent advances have been minuscule, uncoordinated and half-hearted
- Despite these welfarist advances in a few jurisdictions, there are more animals suffering at the hands of humans now than ever before
- The reason why we don’t put our money where our mouth is: the meat paradox or knowledge cognition gap
- Most meat consumers have no idea of the morally appalling cost at which the food they consume is brought to their plates
- Resetting our interaction with non-humans
- Selected bibliography
The Eternal Treblinka, otherwise known as the factory farm
In this, the first part of this article, I will show that over several decades, humans have massively replaced traditional farming with industrial food-production methods, and that this trend is accelerating. I will then document, species by species, the suffering this entails, on a massive and barbaric scale, for billions of helpless farm animals. Because public opinion is known to disapprove of these practices, the industry goes to extreme lengths to conceal them; while traditional philosophy and legal systems in all jurisdictions provide complete immunity for them, by maintaining the surreal fiction that non-human animals are objects incapable of feeling pain.
The emergence of the factory farm — and of ever-cheaper food
Spending on food — in proportion to income — has declined dramatically since 1960§. Because of the overall rise in income, and the consistent shrinking of food prices adjusted for inflation, we actually have more disposable income than our grandparents did. Most people could readily pay more for food. Indeed, most consumers already pay more than necessary by buying specialised products or convenience foods.
The cost of this adjustment was entirely borne by animals, in the form of suffering unprecedented in both scale§ and intensity. Things like beef, leather goods, cashmere, which were out of the reach of ordinary working-class wallets sixty years ago, are now regarded as staple consumer items.
This did not happen magically. Pigs, cattle, and chickens have been domesticated for food for thousands of years. In the first half of the last century, animals were typically still raised with access to the outdoors. Most of the work on the farm was done by human or animal labour. Although conditions like these still exist, the industrialisation of agriculture radically transformed how the vast majority of food is produced in many parts of the world. Over the twentieth century, agriculture underwent greater change than it had since it was first adopted some thirteen thousand years ago. Agriculture, which used to be a part of human society, has steadily become a de-humanised, industrial process. The reason for this was the quest for profit, driven by the goal of achieving ever-lower food prices§.
Criticism of these practices has been totally stifled by the fact that industrial agriculture, in developed and developing countries alike, operates in a regulatory environment that endorses and subsidises its methods§, and even actively assists in covering them up — while in developing countries it has a completely free rein to maximise profit at any non-human cost.
We will see below that the seemingly indefensible and paradoxical ability of large-scale industrial farms to commodify animals in the face of strong countervailing social forces stems in large part from our shared legal system’s embrace of a vision of human ascendancy that is deeply rooted in Western culture.
Because animals exploited for food represent, quantitatively, and also in the degree of barbarity inflicted on them, by far the greatest abuse, this article will focus especially on their plight. That should not, however, allow one to be oblivious to the existence of widespread and largely unchecked mistreatment of animals used in experimentation, in entertainment, or for clothing, abused animal companions, and wild animals permanently deprived of their homes, to name but those.
Animals can’t go to hell: billions of farm animals — mainly pigs, cattle, and chickens — are there already
Humans are easily outnumbered by our farm animals. The combined total of chickens (nineteen billion), cows (1.5 billion), sheep (one billion) and pigs (one billion) living at any one time is three times higher than the number of people, according to the Economist. Those figures, however, are dwarfed by the number of animals we eat. An estimated fifty billion chickens are slaughtered for food every year — a figure that excludes male chicks and unproductive hens killed in egg production. The number of larger livestock, particularly pigs (1.5 billion per annum), slaughtered is also growing, as the charts below bear witness.
The vast majority of animals abused by humans are farm animals. Whereas the number of animals used in research in the United States is, at about twenty-five million, roughly equal to the population of Texas, the number of birds and mammals killed for food each year — again, in the United States, alone — is around ten billion, or one and a half times the population of the world.
More and more people, eating more and more meat per capita
In the last fifty years the number of people on the planet has doubled. But the amount of meat we eat has tripled. Put more simply, the industry reduced prices by making animals suffer more than they did traditionally. Since the price elasticity of demand of meat is relatively high§, this fuelled demand up, resulting in a cycle of constantly-rising animal suffering, as more animals are used to meet this rising demand, and the industry introduces increasingly dehumanising methods to increase efficiency further.
Since the amount of meat we eat per capita has also risen, the rise in population has been compounded by large numbers of people who traditionally ate little or no meat switching to an increasingly meat-based diet. Most of this growing demand has come from middle-income countries, and particularly from China, which has become the world’s biggest consumer of meat as its economy boomed§. Consumption of meat in Europe and North America, on the other hand, has stabilised, and even declined in recent years. India, despite rapidly catching up with China in terms of population, still consumes a tiny fraction of the world’s meat§.
Giving no intrinsic worth to farm animals means cheaper food and higher profits
For the industry, any trade-off is acceptable, providing it enables it to offer consumers ever-more inexpensive and readily available meat; beef now costs half of what it did in 1970§. When asked how this spectacular reduction had been achieved, Patrick Boyle, the CEO of the American Meat Institute, with utter obliviousness to the moral turpitude of this trade-off, commented brazenly:
It has a lot to do with efficiencies — doing what we do even better and more efficiently; […] squeezing costs out of the process; adding value to the product. America in general is a tremendous food success story. […] We pay the lowest percentage of our per capita income on food than any country in the world. In the mid-1980s, it was about 12 percent. Today it’s below 9 percent. And meat, which is a large part of our diet in this country — meat and poultry — is less than 2 percent of our disposable income. That’s a great success story. We have high quality, reliable, abundant, and low-cost food in the United States. We’re very fortunate.
This system of animal-based wealth acquisition assigns worth to non-humans based only on their exchange value: unlike humans, who enjoy inherent value, which cannot be quantified, and protects them from commodification§, non-humans, being a commodity, possess no rights; they serve as a means to the ends of others rather than an end in themselves.
Treblinka: an apposite analogy
Charles Patterson aptly describes the origins of what he calls the Eternal Treblinka. In particular, very convincingly, Charles Patterson argued that cruelty to non-human animals feeds disregard for human dignity: once animal exploitation was industrialised and accepted as part of the natural order of things, it opened the door to similar ways of treating other human beings, thus paving the way for such atrocities as human slavery and the Holocaust.
I realise the reference to Treblinka is a loaded analogy to make, and I also feel very strongly there is no human equivalent to the Holocaust, an inexplicable monstrosity that is set apart from any other, and must, imperatively, remain so in our collective memory. I’m also aware of the hugely important difference between the Holocaust — the sadistic, gratuitous and purposeless quest to eliminate an entire group of people, solely on the basis of their membership of that particular group — and the transformation of non-humans into a commodity whose dignity and rights are entirely disregarded and who are subjected to wanton cruelty, in order to provide humans with food. Yet having made that important caveat, I believe that, in the context of what we do to other species, because of the scale of the annihilation, its ruthless, mechanistic nature, the wanton, effectively unchecked cruelty employed, the choice of carefully-concealed locations, hidden behind high walls and distant from any large conurbation, and, above all, the systematic denial of any intrinsical worth to the individuals sacrificed, there is a meaningful analogy, and it is therefore apposite:
Nearly 1.5 billion pigs are killed to feed the growing appetite for pork, bacon, ham and sausages – a number that has tripled in the last fifty years§.
Pigs are social animals with mental acuity comparable in many ways to primates§. They have a strong sense of their surroundings and form relationships with their offspring and other pigs. Mother pigs sing to their babies while nursing. Pigs are self-aware: the so-called
mirror test, conducted with pigs by Professor Donald Broom at Cambridge University, revealed that pigs are able to use a mirror as a tool to find food that is not otherwise visible. This means that, unlike most other animals, pigs understand that mirrors are reflections, rather than windows. Piglets learn their names by two to three weeks of age and respond when called.
Studies have found that pigs can play — and enjoy — joystick-controlled video games and are capable of
abstract representation. These scientists also found that they were able to distinguish between objects and to remember the distinctions years after they initially learned them§. They have exceptional memories: Suzanne Held at the University of Bristol found through her research that pigs are quite good at remembering where their food is stored. The pigs in her study were able to choose their food stashes from among eight different locations. They were also able to remember which stash had smaller treats, and when given the choice, they chose to go to the stash with larger treats§.
They are fastidiously clean, contrary to the reputation they have been given by humans: if given sufficient space, pigs will be careful not to excrete near where they sleep or eat. There are many recorded cases of a pig saving a human’s life§.
How pigs are abused
In much of the world it is common for pregnant sows to be kept in
gestation crates (also known as
sow stalls) for their entire sixteen-week gestation period. A gestation crate is a metal crate or cage, usually with a bare, slatted floor, which is so narrow that the sow cannot turn around and can only stand up and lie down with difficulty. Within a couple of weeks of giving birth, sows are inseminated again (often artificially) and begin their next pregnancy. A commercial sow will normally produce two litters per year with approximately ten to twelve piglets per litter. Her time as a breeder will last about three years, before she is sold for slaughter. In addition to tooth-clipping, most piglets have their tails docked to discourage tail biting. This procedure is painful and often causes long-term distress.
In most countries, nearly all male piglets are castrated. This is done to guard against
boar taint, where chemicals present in pigs at puberty sometimes impart an odor and taste to their meat which many people do not like. There are no legal restrictions against pig castration in the United States. No pain relief — which would cost money and reduce profits — is provided. As you would expect, the United Kingdom and Ireland are running entire male herds, without any castration, but elsewhere, around 90 million piglets are castrated in the European Union each year§.
Pigs travel badly and are easily stressed by transport and pre-slaughter handling. They do not have sweat glands and are particularly susceptible to heat stress. Internationally, significant numbers of pigs die each year in transport and in lairage (holding pens) at slaughterhouses as a result of stress.
The facilities where factory-farmed pigs live are little more than concentration camps optimised for maximum output. Factory farmed piglets are born to mother pigs or sows in farrowing crates, which are typically metal structures with slatted flooring, which are so small the sows can hardly move§.
In natural settings, a sow will gather brush to create a comfortable environment before giving birth. But no such accommodations are made in the factory farm. Instead, the pigs are faced with cold, lifeless surroundings as their feces and urine slide into a pit just below§. These facilities have notoriously poor air quality and are known to seethe with ammonia, which can lead to the animals contracting ailments like respiratory disease, pneumonia, and swine influenza§. They are then given abundant drugs and antibiotics, in order to make them continue to grow. This, however, does nothing to address the original issue.
Industrial pigs are bred to produce large litters of fast-growing piglets§. The sows often grow to extreme sizes, which can be dangerous, because one false move can easily kill or injure a vulnerable newborn. Factory farms often wean piglets from their mothers at just two to four weeks of age§ and sometimes younger, much more abruptly than is natural, which is extremely traumatic for both the mother and her piglets. But in efforts of maximizing
sow output, early weaning remains common practice so that the mother pig can re-breed as soon as possible and
efficiency can be optimised. After the piglets are weaned, they are commonly moved to a
nursery unit until they are about two months old. Pens in these facilities are typically quite small, and again composed of metal panels and slatted floors. Whereas in nature the pigs would likely still be under the protection of their mothers, here they must fend for themselves.
At no point in factory farmed pigs’ lives are they given access to an environment that provides the opportunity to root, chew, and forage, as they would instinctively wish. Over time, abnormal behaviours develop as the survivors attempt to cope. They may repetitively nose other pigs or parts of the pen, chew on their companions, or simply grow lethargic and refuse to move§. It is a tragedy that creatures of such complexity and intelligence endure such a deprived existence§.
Cattle were domesticated as long ago as the Neolithic age and have been kept as livestock ever since for their meat, milk, and hides.
Historically, there was no distinction between dairy cattle and beef cattle, with the same breeds used for both milk and meat. In the developed world today, however, farmers usually keep either beef or dairy cattle. Through generations of selection, dairy breeds such as the Holstein have been bred specifically to produce very high volumes of milk. Other breeds have been bred to maximise beef production§.
Cows, like many other non-humans, display a full range of personalities, including boldness, shyness, sociability, gregariousness, and being temperamental. Perhaps above all, cows have strong maternal bonds and are attentive, protective and loving parents. When allowed, a mother cow may nurse her calf for as long as three years. The mother-child bond continues after weaning; mothers and their children remain close to each other for life. There is also a sense of maternal community as other cows in the herd will help nurture calves if necessary. Cows help each other, learn from each other and make decisions based on compassion and altruism. Like humans, cows seek pleasure and love to play. When let outside after being cooped up for too long, cows run, prance and jump for joy .
Cows display the ability to rapidly learn different tasks, display long-term memory, extrapolate the location of a hidden moving object, discriminate complex stimuli, and discriminate humans from one another. Calves as well as adult cows show learned fear responses to humans who have previously handled them in a rough manner. Cows also display complex spatial memory and are able to discriminate among individual cows and recognise cow faces as different from the faces of other species§.
How cows are abused
All farm cattle suffer abuse. Contrary to an almost universal misconception, the treatment of dairy cattle is arguably even more cruel than the appalling conditions endured by cattle raised for meat.
Cows farmed for their meat
Cattle spend the first few months of their lives outside grazing on pasture. They are soon weaned abruptly from their mothers and shipped to industrial feedlots as they approach a year old. Once the cattle arrive in their new setting, they no longer get to graze on grass. The rest of their lives are spent crowded into spaces that host hundreds of other animals, with feed administered automatically and efficiently. The problems that come with these living conditions are numerous, including poor sanitation, unnatural diet, and lack of opportunity for exercise.
As with any crowded monoculture, disease spreads rapidly. Recognizing this risk and highly incentivised to keep their animals growing as much as possible, industrial food producers administer antibiotics to them on a massive scale. Drug supplementation is rising in the cattle industry§, which could indicate that animal sickness is too.
One possible cause of these issues is the act of actually feeding rendered beef back to cattle§, which may have led to the advent or exacerbation of
mad cow disease. Regulatory measures have been taken to prevent such an outbreak from happening again, but that does not mean that current diets are acceptable. Chicken manure is one ingredient still allowed. Green grass is non-existent in these feedlots,with most cattle food being derived from from corn or soy, which is not their natural diet.
Around the age of fourteen to sixteen months — a cow’s normal life expectancy is about twenty years — the cattle are herded from their cramped feedlots to the slaughterhouse.
There are approximately 250 million cows producing milk around the world, about ten million dairy cows in North America, 23 million in the European Union, and six million in Australia and New Zealand. Milk production is on the rise in Asia, including in countries not traditionally known for their milk consumption, such as China, which now has more than twelve million cows producing milk.
Over the last fifty years, dairy farming has become more intensive in order to increase the amount of milk produced by each cow. Milk production per cow has more than doubled in the past forty years. In the United States, the average dairy cow produces more than 7.5 gallons of milk per day. If she were producing just enough to feed her calf, her yield would be about one gallon of milk per day.
Like humans, cows only produce milk after they have given birth, and dairy cows must give birth to one calf per year in order to continue producing milk. Typically they are artificially inseminated within three months of giving birth. Given a natural and healthy life, cows can live for twenty years or more. High-yielding dairy cows will last for only a quarter of that time: they produce milk on average for less than three years, after which they are culled and their meat used for beef.
The majority of dairy cows in the United States are kept without access to pasture for most of their lives. This is known as
zero grazing, and is practiced increasingly in large-scale operations in North America and parts of the United Kingdom. They are forced to live indoors, tethered by the neck in about forty per cent of cases, to keep them in place§. They also face repeated impregnation — which is necessary for them to produce milk — as well as short calving intervals. When they are allowed outdoors, space is extremely limited and bedding is not necessarily provided§. The indoor flooring is generally composed of concrete, a cost effective and relatively easy surface to clean. Cows, however, have a hard time on such hard, unforgiving ground, which becomes slippery when slicked with the urine of a multitude of other large animals.
There are more chickens in the world than any other bird. In fact, more than fifty billion chickens are reared annually as a source of food, for both their meat and their eggs§. More than nine billion chickens, along with half a billion turkeys, are slaughtered for food in the United States each year. This number represents more than 95 per cent of the land animals killed for food in the country. Many people believe that chicken, especially the breast of the chicken, is healthier to eat than so-called
red meat. This is main reason why chicken consumption has consequently risen dramatically over the last few decades, as more and more people make the switch from other meats.
Until the 1950s, even chickens raised for eventual slaughter were kept in traditional small coops of no more than sixty or so birds, with free access to the outdoors; they could nest, roost, and share space according to their natural behaviour. This, however, is no longer the case except for an extreme minority (less than two per cent) of the birds destined for farming, with maximisation of profit being the only benchmark governing production and, consequently, living conditions. Any regard for the welfare of the animals involved has become a luxury that reduces profits unless the extra costs can be passed on to the consumer (as with the much-publicised but less frequently seen
free-range meat and egg farms). Because of this, chickens have been, arguably, the principal victims of the massive industrialisation underwent by the food industry in the second half of the twentieth century.
This is especially morally deplorable because chickens are sociable, intelligent animals. Studies have shown that they are able to solve problems and, unlike young children, grasp the permanence of objects (they understand that objects taken from view continue to exist). Their natural behaviour includes living in stable groups of thirty or so that employ a social hierarchy (the origin of the term pecking order). The chickens in a given flock all know and recognise each other. Their communal activities include scratching and pecking for food, running around, taking dust baths, and resting. They crow and chirp in a range of some thirty meaningful vocalizations. Chickens also have a strong urge to nest, and, like most animal mothers, they nurture their young attentively and affectionately. A hen carefully tends her eggs in the nest, turning them up to five times an hour and clucking to them; remarkably, the unborn chicks chirp back to her and to one another. People who have had opportunities to become acquainted with chickens — for example, while growing up on farms or visiting farm-animal sanctuaries — often remark on how affectionate chickens can be and how they seem to have their own personalities§.
How chickens are abused
It is common practice in the industrial poultry industry in the United States and many other countries, especially with egg-layers, to
de-beak the birds, whether farmed for meat or for their eggs, by use of a hot blade§, despite our having clear evidence of the beak’s sensitivity to pain§. The justification used for de-beaking is that it reduces cannibalism or excessive pecking, which of course would never occur in the first place if the birds lived in a proper environment where their normal, gregarious temperament to one another would be displayed.
Shortly after birth, both male and female chicks are commonly
sexed or separated by sex, with the males invariably killed. The reason the egg industry kills most male chicks, of course, is because they can’t lay eggs, and chicks born into the meat industry are also graded and killed if they’re not considered likely to produce a profit for the company. Crushing, suffocating, and grinding chicks up alive are common industry practice in the United States. Another killing method documented at two large hatcheries in India is burning. Whistleblowers have testified that burned chicks tried to escape and hide In other instances, chicks are drowned: it takes up to thirty minutes for the chicks to die in this way. Other companies sell chicks to fish farms, where they are thrown directly into fish ponds to drown or be eaten alive.
Chickens farmed for their eggs
Laying hens are bred specifically for egg laying. In the United States, modern commercial hens produce a yield of approximately 275 eggs per year§. Chickens will naturally live for six or more years, but after just twelve months of laying, a modern hen’s productivity begins to decline. This is when most commercial laying hens are slaughtered in the European Union. In the United States, most hens are forcibly moulted (this is banned in the European Union). This means hens are put on starvation rations at this stage for a period of time before they then return to an improved cycle of egg laying. It was estimated that 75 per cent of all laying hens in the United States in 2003 were moulted.
While barren battery cages have been banned in the European Union since the beginning of 2012, more than three billion hens worldwide are still kept in battery cages. In the United States, 95 per cent of all eggs are produced using conventional battery cages. Barren battery cage eggs come from hens kept in small cages in which they are unable to express their natural behaviours. The cages are arranged in long, tiered rows, often back-to-back (hence the term
battery). Multiple birds are kept within a single cage and each bird has access to space about the size of a sheet of paper. They are prevented from foraging for food, nesting, roosting, and dust-bathing. This causes extreme physical and psychological discomfort for the hens, and is clearly akin to a form of permanent, sadistic torture.
In the United States, barren battery cages remain legal in most states, and the majority of eggs are produced using battery cage systems. Although the battery cage was banned in the European Union, the use of so-called
enriched cages remains legal there. The original enriched cages housed ten hens, but most recent systems in the European Unionare colony cages housing sixty to eighty hens. Colony cages are slightly less crowded (space per hen is approximately 20 percent larger than a letter-size piece of paper) and the hens have a small area in which they are able to move around. Nest boxes, litter, perch space, and claw-shortening devices must be provided. Yet these conditions can only be described as barbaric. Further cruelty results in the birds’ inability to retire in privacy to lay their eggs as they are wired to do. Try as they might to hide inside their tiny cages, it is a futile endeavor. The constant frustration and stress on the hens from this cruelty is immeasurable.
Cage free systems offer a slight improvement upon the remarkably low bar set by battery cages. But removing the battery cage in no way solves every issue.
Cage free birds are able to walk, spread their wings, and lay their eggs in nests, but they are still kept indoors, under constant light, crowded in with thousands of other hens of the same fate. Including the word
free in this description is quite ironic§.
Chickens farmed for their meat
The birds raised for meat, called
broilers by the industry, are the product of genetic manipulation that has drastically increased breast and thigh tissue (the most popular parts of the animal) and produced a very rapid growth rate that outstrips the development of their legs and organs. Broilers raised in this way are supposed to reach
slaughter weight at just six or seven weeks of age, but the death toll is very high. The growth of abnormally heavy bodies causes crippling and painful skeletal deformities, and the overburdening of the birds’ underdeveloped cardiopulmonary systems often causes congestive heart failure before they are six weeks old. Some broiler chickens who do not succumb to these problems still die of thirst, because they are physically unable to even reach the water nozzles in their sheds.
Unlike egg-layers, chickens raised for meat are typically not confined to cages. Instead, they are kept in enormous confinement houses packed with thousands of birds.These are little more than hazy, windowless warehouses packed with birds, with a light layer of wood shavings on the floor covered in feathers and stinking waste, reverberating in a cacophony of high-pitched screeches and chirps. The floors are covered in filth and the air is unsuitable to breathe. It is not uncommon for humans who enter these facilities to wear respirators to protect their lungs from the noxious ammonia emitted by the incredible amount of waste.
Chickens suffer horrendously in these conditions. Damage is done to their eyes, respiratory systems, and skin, which can be burned and blistered as it comes in constant contact with putrid excrement over the course of their short lives§.
There are also some industrial poultry operations that market themselves as
free range, but the legal standards for this label are obnoxiously low. In most cases,
free range chickens live in the same horrendous conditions highlighted above, except for what is known as a
pop hole available for birds to venture outside. A large proportion of the chickens, however, never make it out of that door, and even if they do, space is limited and grass and fresh forage are not required to be available there. It is thus quite manifest that the
free range label represents a marketing ploy by the industry to boost its margins, without any serious consideration for improving animal living conditions.
The fiction that non-human animals are mere
objects devoid of sentience is the product of a long history
The exchange value we have seen assigned to countless helpless farm animals in the name of cheap food and profit, with the resulting torture and degrading deaths, needs to justified, by the food industry, by convincing the law to exclude them from the moral community — and consumers to assent to this exclusion without demur. This is precisely what philosophers, scientists and politicians have been doing since Antiquity, up to the present day §, and the modern food industry has been spectacularly successful in ensuring that this scientific and moral aberration continues unchallenged: legally, animals are the exact equivalent of chattel slaves.
Aristotle and the Great Chain of Being
Historically, our Western culture and philosophy has persistently replied by the negative to the question: Should animals have moral standing? The Greeks, including Plato and especially Aristotle, based this claim on the criterion of rationality, positing that only rational beings count for anything morally; with only humans being rational, and non-human animals categorised as
not rational, they conclude that animals should count for nothing morally, and can, indeed should be used as instruments to serve human interests§. For Aristotle, then, human beings are distinguished from non-human animals by the level of the mental life, not by the fact of it, making them the only political animals:
in none but [man] is there intellect§ In his Politics, he spelled out an identical vision:
He then is by nature formed a slave who is qualified to become the chattel of another person, and on that account is so, and who has just reason enough to know that there is such a faculty, without being indued with the use of it; for other animals have no perception of reason, but are entirely guided by appetite, and indeed they vary very little in their use from each other; for the advantage which we receive, both from slaves and tame animals, arises from their bodily strength administering to our necessities§.
The resulting theory of the Great Chain of Being saw the world as populated by an infinity of beings arranged hierarchically according to their complexity and perfection, from the barely living to the fully sentient, with all forms of life were represented as existing for the sake of those forms higher in the chain. Aristotle’s claim in the Politics that nature made all animals for the sake of humans was destined to become his most influential statement on the subject§.
Aquinas and Hobbes: codification of the dominion theory
In the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas blended Aristotelianism with the principle, based on Holy Scripture, that man has dominion over non-human animals. In Question 96 of Part One of the Summa theologiae, he argued, on the basis of the grant by God to Adam in Genesis 26:1§ of dominion over the rest of material creation, that there is a natural order to creation in which the more perfect makes use of the less perfect. He expressly quoted Aristotle to deduce that as humans sit at the pinnacle of material creation, it is natural to them to have dominion over the rest of it:
Aquinas thus codified the dominion theory as affirming that human beings have dominion over the rest of material creation: animals are subject to our reason, while plants and inanimate objects are subject to our use.
Hobbes’s view was similar:
To make Covenants with bruit Beasts, is impossible; because not understanding our speech, they understand not, nor accept of any translation of Right; nor can translate any Right to another: and without mutuall acceptation, there is no Covenant§.
Descartes, Kant and Claude Bernard: non-humans as mechanical objets, unable to be hurt
Descartes, in Part 5 of his Discourse on Method, also asserted a mechanistic view of nature. But going even further than St. Thomas Aquinas, he categorically denied that animals should have any moral standing, asserting that all animals other than human beings are nothing more than soulless, divinely crafted machines, as mechanical as clocks, and unable to be hurt. It followed from this perspective that it was impossible that an animal could be morally either harmed or benefited§.
Kant is notoriously dismissive of rights for animals. He presents the categorical imperative as though it covers rational beings only, endorsing Aristotle and St. Thomas’s suggestion that it is reason that distinguishes us from non-human animals, defended a
logocentric§ (rationality-centred) framework for our moral duty to non-human animals, and its anthropocentrism is a contingent result of its logocentrism, on the assumption that homo sapiens is the Earth’s only rational species. There is no room, within Kant’s ethics, for a category of being to which we owe moral obligations even though it is not itself autonomous or bound by moral obligations§. He placed non-human animals clearly outside the scope of moral obligation. For that reason, Kant believed that duties to animals are only indirect and derive from our to duty to respect and foster the ends of humanity (what he called the categorical imperative). Suppose, for example, you torture a dog. You have not, in Kant’s view, violated any obligations you owe to the dog. You have done the dog no wrong. A dog is not the sort of thing that can be wronged§.
Kant also refined St. Thomas Aquinas’s and Descartes’s distinction by focusing on the rationality he considered was reserved for self-conscious human beings. He asserted that humans, and only humans, should always be treated as ends in themselves and never as mere means, never as mere instrumental resources. It followed for Kant that all other beings, including all non-human animals, could and should be used as mere means to serve the interest of the self conscious, rational humans, thus aligning Kant, in practice, with the Aristotelian and Cartesian positions. While the cruelty which Kant’s position permits is largely discredited in modern debate on animal rights, it remains influential on the topic of whether personhood should be extended to animals, as we shall see below.
Descartes’s mechanical vision remains influential, indeed arguably dominant, in one specific field: seventeenth-century France was the birthplace of modem physiology, and in that field, a Cartesian mechanical vision remains dominant in the pratical application most directly relevant to animal rights, vivisection. Claude Bernard continues to be cited by benchmark scientists wishing to provide a scientific justification of animal experimentation. Nobel Prize winner Sir Peter Medawar lauds Bernard for having offered,
The wisest judgements on scientific method ever made by a working scientist§.
Our age’s categorical imperative: ending the moral turpitude of the factory farm
In this second part of this article, I will start by showing that scientific evidence proves that there are no ontological differences between humans and non-humans that justify the modern factory farm system, with its attenant denial to animals of any inherent value. I will then argue that only with the enactment of effective legal — in the sense of statutory — measures to assign animals the intrinsical worth that their physical, natural characteristics require can this systematic moral turpitude be ended.
The ontological evidence for moral consideration: animals are sentient beings
The observation that animals are sentient is different from saying they are merely alive. Sentience requires the ability to be conscious of pain and pleasure, frustration and satisfaction, joy and suffering, and fear of death. Recognising others as sentient is a fundamental step in our examination of what consideration we owe to non-human creatures: it changes our attitude towards them, providing grounds for establishing together a moral community.
Yet it can be proved scientifically that non-human animals are sentient. Indeed anyone who has lived in close proximity with them will know this instinctively. According to the U.S. National Research Council Committee on Recognition and Alleviation of Pain in Laboratory Animals, pain is experienced by many animal species, including mammals and possibly all vertebrates§. It is now known that even reptiles, amphibians and fish have the neuroanatomy necessary to perceive pain§. Yet veterinarians trained in the United States before 1989 were simply taught to ignore animal pain§.
There is strong evidence to reject the mechanistic theory
There is no reason to suppose that only a human-like central nervous system will give rise to consciousness§. Given the similarities of the nerve and brain structures and in behaviours of animals and humans, there is strong evidence to reject the mechanistic theory. Evolutionists emphasise the survival value implicit in the capacity to experience pleasure and pain§.
What is animal consciousness, and which animals have it?
But what is animal consciousness§? We know that, in the absence of at least a centralised nervous system, consciousness will not arise in an animal§. We also know that beings who have experiences as a result of the evolutionary process can have both
negative experiences, which is sufficient for them also to deserve moral consideration§.
Yet our research into animal consciousness was until recently hindered by our inability to imagine that consciousness — and, more generally, non-human intelligence — could operate through different channels than it does in humans. Understanding how other species process information has proved challenging for human science. Yet research has shown, inter alia, that ravens can plan for the future, octopuses can create armor out of coconut shells, and orangutans acute sensitivity to electrical currents, while several species, especially butterflies, can see or glow in ultraviolet light.
Factoring in the unknowability of other minds: the challenge of avoiding speciesism
Human science has given prominence to measures of intelligence such as the mirror-test, which a number of species, including fish§, pass. Yet a vision-based measure will not accurately measure the cognition level of species — such as pigs — that primarily rely on smell, not vision, for identification. Were we to submit humans to a smell-test, it is likely that we would fail it. There is something fundamentally unknowable about other minds, and this chasm increases as we move away from forms of consciousness and experience that resemble our own.
Thomas Nagel, in § to clarify the distinction between subjective and objective concepts: since there is a subjective character of conscious experience that is not captured by physical descriptions of the brain or by observable behaviours, Nagel questions the reductive materialist or physicalist account that denies the so called gap between
mind and brain in the mind-body problem.
Building on the conclusions of his seminal, earlier work, The Possibility of Altruism, Nagel observes that if a (human) individual cannot embody a particular perspective, for instance, he cannot actually be anyone other than himself, then he will be unable to reach any understanding of being another. He will be incapable of knowing what it is like to be a bat, a dog, a cat, a horse, or even another person, and will only ever truly understand what it is like to be himself§.
Ou inability to understand the functioning of non-human minds has unquestionably hindered our ability to properly measure animal intelligence, especially in non-mammals. Recent work, however, has begun correcting this speciesist bias: the relationship between consciousness and a standard cerebral cortex, for instance, which is the prerogative of mammals, has been shown, as part of research conducted in recent years, to have a number of substitutes allowing other species to achieve equivalent levels of consciousness. Two studies conducted on birds in 2020§ have shown that although birds lack a cerebral cortex, other sensory faculties explain the exceptionally high cognitive abilities displayed by, inter alia, parrots, blackbirds and owls.
The overwhelming evidence that non-human animals have consciousness is also backed up by the physiological and evolutionary evidence
Animals are also similar to us physiologically: early vivisectors discovered that humans and non-humans are
in many cases identical, organ for organ, and early neurological studies suggested that sensation is similar among many species§. Knowledge of our evolutionary relationship with other species provides a theoretical basis on which to ground this view: consciousness has adaptive value, and there is no reason to suppose that our species is the only one that has it§.
It is now clear from the above evidence that scientists now have ample, detailed, empirical facts to declare that non-human animals are conscious and should be treated as such: this was the purpose of the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, in which three eminent neuroscientists concluded:
Non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates§.
Animals are capable of intentional behaviour, of being self-aware, and of having a personality
Conscious, sentient beings thus have a subjective experience of their own lives and of the world. They experience their lives from the inside. It has been scientifically demonstrated that many animals are capable of intentional behaviour and that such intentional behaviour necessitates some self-consciousness, at least an awareness of oneself as being distinct from other things in the environment, and also awareness of oneself as enduring through time, past, present, and future§. Psychologist David Premack has given serious consideration to the hypothesis that primates have the concept of causality and that they make inferences on the basis of this concept.
Anyone who has interacted with non-human animals for any length of time knows that, like humans, they have individual personalities§, characters§, even a sense of humour§. They can show both affection and empathy.
Do animals have desires and beliefs?
The obvious structural similarity between animals and humans makes the uselessness ascribed to their sensory faculties by the mechanistic thinkers patently absurd. And without real experience of pain, pleasure, and reproductive desire, the whole evolutionary process would become inexplicable.
Yet neo-Cartesian views about animal consciousness still persist: R. G. Frey, who concedes that animals are conscious but denies they can have desires and beliefs, essentially because no creature that lacks language can have beliefs, chooses to illustrate his proposition by an individual wishing to acquire a Gutenberg Bible, which he knows and believes to be of great value, something a non-human is not capable of doing§. My cat, admittedly, cannot be aware that she lacks a Gutenberg Bible. She can, however, believe that she has not received her evening meal and desire it, because desires can exist without beliefs that depend on the ability to think through sentences. Like pretty much any animal, my cat holds beliefs about things that she is capable of perceiving that completely escape the human mind, because she possesses, inter alia, a superior sense of smell, and a different sense of sight§. We can reasonably conclude from this that animals do have desires and beliefs, in a meaningful sense.
Consciousness vs. self-consciousness: Sir Roger Scruton’s repellent and failed attempt to reserve rights for humans, come what may
One criticism of Animal Rights Theory accepts that non-human animals are sentient, but denies that sentience or consciousness, even if they are congruent, are sufficient to entail the right to enjoy the protection afforded by inalienable rights.
An articulate proponent of this view is Sir Roger Scruton, whose views I have chosen to quote extensively in this article — despite finding them abhorrent and profoundly offensive — because I believe they need to be soundly and decisively rebutted:
We should be careful, therefore, to distinguish consciousness from self-consciousness. Human beings are aware of themselves and their own states of mind; they distinguish self from other and identify themselves in the first person. They knowingly refer to themselves asI, and are able to describe their own mental states for the benefit of others as well as themselves. This is what I mean by self-consciousness and it is a feature of our mental life which does not seem to be shared by the lower animals. […] The interesting fact is not that we should be tempted to ascribe self-consciouisness to some of the higher animals but that, whenever we do so, we are tempted to attribute to them rationality, linguistic or quasi-linguistic behaviour, humour, sympathy and even a moral sense§.
Each of Sir Roger’s arguments against non-humans being worthy of moral worth will be examined below, in succession.
Rights made dependent on capacity for reasoned moral argumentation
For most rationalists, the test of moral considerability is rational capacity. Sir Roger Scruton is no exception. According to him, such rights are owed only to persons, and personhood is more than selfhood:
The concept of the person, which we derive from Roman law, is fundamental to all our legal and moral thinking. It bears the meaning of Christian civilisation and of the ethic that has governed it, as well as the seeds of the Enlightenment vision which put Christianity in doubt. The masterly way in which this concept was lifted by Kant from the stream of social life and set upon a metaphysical pedestal should not distract us from its everyday employment as the concept through which human relations are brokered. Our relations to one another are not animal but personal and our rights and duties are those which only a person could have§.
What Sir Roger is attempting here is to raise the bar of personhood so that it requires, not just language or planning but the capacity to engage in reasoned moral argumentation and to commit to comply with the corresponding moral standards: he states that if animals possessed the selfconsciousness and autonomy of the moral being, then they would also have rights and duties§.
Scruton applies the categorical imperative of Kant, which we covered above, and which, in its second formulation, tells us that human beings are to be treated as ends and never as means only:
There is no doubt in my mind that animals do not form moral communities of the kind I have been describing. The concepts of right, duty, justice, personality, responsibility and so on have a sense for us largely because we deploy them in our negotiations and can invoke by their means the ground rules of social order which everyone, even our antagonist, must be seen to accept if they are to enjoy the protection of society§.
He concludes from this, as Kant did, that animals can only enjoy indirect rights.
The spurious claim that animals have interests, but not rights
While aware that his claim — that a moral community can only exist if founded on negotiation and consent§ — is contentious, he states that
what is not disputed, however, is that only some interests are rights, and that rights are privileged over other interests. This alone is sufficient to undermine the usual case for
animal rights, which rests purely on the undeniable claim that animals have interests§.
Sir Roger asserts that animals have no rights, but that we have charitable duties towards that arise when, and only when, an animal is deliberately made dependent on human beings for his individual welfare and well-being, as is the case for pets whom he regards as
honorary members of the moral community§. And where no duty exists, he views our relationship with animals as
governed by the virtue of sympathy, which we may extend to animals in degrees that will vary depending on their possession of intentionality; to his mind, this excludes what he deems to be lower forms of animal life, such as insects. Humane killing of farm animals, hunting and painful experiments that aim to improve human welfare are permitted§. He asserts, despite this being conclusively disproved by the research work we referred to above, that
the moral stigma attached to suffering inflicted on animals is mitigated the fact that animals, while sharing our capacity for pain, do no share the anguish that it brings us§.
The argument from difficult cases: some cognitively complex animals meet Scruton’s test, while some humans do not
Scruton’s claim that only humans possess what he believes to be true rationality can, of course, be disputed, even, from a Kantian perspective, on Kant’s — and thus on Scruton’s — own terms. Firstly, it is not necessarily the case that only humans can have the relevant capacity. For a few neo-Kantians, some cognitively complex animals, like anthropoid apes § or cetaceans, or even extraterrestrial beings might in fact have the relevant capacity for rational deliberation, and hence the special moral worth and status of human dignity. Even Kant thought that if they existed, angels were rational§; but they are surely not members of the human species, either in the Darwinian sense, or in the supernatural sense. It is a contingent fact, if a fact at all, that humans alone possess the capacity that grounds their moral worth. And conversely ,a vast number of humans do not meet Kant’s benchmark: for instance, those with serious and irreversible brain disorders ranging from anencephaly to persistent vegetative states§. The argument from difficult cases should entail does not just preclude any idea of animal rights, but also any grounds for similarly protecting infants, the temporarily or permanently incapacitated or, indeed, future generations§. Sir Roger Scruton, who refers to difficult cases as
congenital idiots that can never become members of his cherished
moral community — is reduced to claiming:
Much more needs to be said about these difficult cases; for our purposes it is enough, however, to recognise that the difficulty arises not because we make no distinction between moral beings and animals, but precisely because we do make such a distinction, and on very good grounds. It is precisely this that lands us with such an intractable problem, when our instinctive reverence for human beings is thwarted by their inability to respond to it§.
Thus in restricting rights to humans, philosophers opposing animal rights have failed to identify a relevant property of humans (viz., the capacity for rational choice) that is either not possessed by non-human animals, or is possessed by them to lesser degrees. Since this capacity is also possessed in lesser degrees, or in some cases not at all, by humans, they need to fall back on, and identify, a property that is possessed equally by all humans without exception, and that provides plausible grounds for restricting rights to them. Otherwise, a hierarchy of species entitlements will leave open the possibility of a similar hierarchy of human entitlements§. Yet other than membership of the human species (together with the genetic characteristics that this automatically entails), it is impossible to develop a rational, consistent criterion for moral rights which will include all humans but exclude all animals. Should we discover that Neanderthals did not go extinct forty thousand years ago, what status would we accord the surviving members of that species?
Any attempt to make animal rights contingent on some condition purportedly found only in humans fails and is shown for what it is: speciesism
By now it will have become apparent that the attempt to make animal rights contingent on some other condition, whether it be the ability to carry out duties, or the meeting of any other condition met by all humans, and only by them, fails, and is in reality
the last resource of those who have run out of arguments§. As Donaldson and Kymlicka note§ the recurrence,
in Western culture, of people
responding to the discovery of boundary-threatening abilities in non-human animals by contentious conceptualization of human-definitive powers (such as language) so as to keep the boundary in place.
It follows necessarily that:
- the pain of non-human sentient creatures — or animals — has genuine moral significance, and
- animals and some of their interests have independent moral standing.
Consequently, any moral obligation that would be generated in virtue of the above two claims — for example, a very general obligation not to cause unnecessary pain to animals — is an obligation owed to animals themselves and not owed only to other human persons.
Defining a moral philosophy that reflects the ontological evidence
Proof of sentience, however, is not the end of the story: the journey away from the mechanistic denial of Aristotle, Aquinas and Descartes, towards a moral system that reflects the fact that animals share much more with us than we were traditionally prepared to admit, has turned out to be complicated.
My preferred solution, outlined here, is a rebased, Kantian categorical imperative, which reinjects, as it were, the non-humans that Kant had expressly excluded into his categorical imperative. Before we can arrive at this, however, we need to cover a range of interpretations and schools of thought. Their proponents often appear more preoccupied with internal debate than with ending the misery they so ardently denounce, which is disconcerting: far from showing a united determination to achieve palpable relief for non-human animals, the Animal Rights movement is riddled with factional quarrels.
Yet these disagreements aren’t entirely theoretical: they also have practical policy consequences. For instance, for some utilitarian animal rights supporters, there may be nothing wrong with eating meat if the animals are killed painlessly. But painless killing is all but impossible to realise in practice. And crucially, the drive to produce ever-cheaper food will, if anything, make it increasingly rare. Since the number of consumers is large and growing, some form of factory farming will inevitably be introduced to accommodate supply to the demand. This means describing and comparing the possible approaches is necessary, so I will attempt to do so briefly.
This somewhat convoluted debate, for the sake of clarity, needs to be broken down into two different, but related sets of questions:
- firstly, whether our duty to animals, from a philosophical perspective, is direct or indirect;
- secondly whether, in carrying out that duty, our approach should be ecological, welfarist, or rights-based.
Direct or indirect duty?
In the ancient philosophical tradition, thinkers who recognise a duty to animals believe this duty to be only
indirect. This idea, which goes back at least to the Greeks, is clearly stated, as we saw above, in Saint Thomas Aquinas:
The idea of indirect duty is followed by Immanuel Kant§ and more recently by John Rawls, and still has some modern exponents of whom Roger Scruton is perhaps the most articulate. For these thinkers, our duties to shield animals from suffering arise only owing to the duties we have to the humans who
own them or who might be otherwise inconvenienced by our actions. None of the original defenders of animal rights, not even the classical philosophers, attempted to base the obligations of humans to animals on philosophical foundations.
In the contemporary period, Animal Rights Theory has broken with that tradition, holding that there is a clear duty of humans toward animals and that this duty is
direct: rules must protect non-humans from mistreatment on the basis of these animals’ own interests, taken in isolation, rather than those of humans.
Making matters more complicated, however, there are two mainstream positions in which the idea that animals are entitled to equal respect with humans is systematically and more or less comprehensively developed: one of these is that of Peter Singer, who is the leading exponent of utilitarianism as it applies to respect for animals; the second, of which perhaps the most prominent is Tom Regan, noting that there is a value called justice which exists independently of maximizing utility and which, in the view of this school of thought, trumps it, supports a rights-based approach to respect for animals.
Peter Singer and the utilitarians support a welfare-based approach, in which the objective is maximizing utility. Tom Regan favours a rights-based system in which non-humans enjoy a set of legally and morally-entrenched rights. They correspond, respectively, to the second (welfare) and third (rights-based) of the three philosophical schools of thought presented below.
Ecology, welfare, or rights?
We turn now to discussion of the precise type of moral rules system we want to extend to non-human animals. As we move away from objectification, three schools of thought have come to dominate this debate: the
ecological approach, the
welfarist view, and the
The ecological approach
The ecological approach — viewing non-human animals in the context of nature — can be relatively swiftly covered. It focuses on preserving the integrity of ecosystems, and thus in it, the moral situation of individual animals is pushed into the background. What matters is the sustainability of the whole system, not the lives or well-being of its individual non-human inhabitants. In other words, the rights of the individual animal may be sacrificed to benefit the system (through, for example,
sustainable hunting or
population management). And again, the makeup of what the system
needs tends to be measured by human standards, interests, and prejudices§.
The ecological approach reflects the fact that the Animal Rights Movement I am presenting and defending in this article has been criticised from both directions: by those who believe only humans have moral standing and by those who consider all of nature to have moral status. Both of these positions discount any role for animal subjectivity. As pointed out by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka,
They effectively collapse the question of animals into the question of nature writ large, denying that animals, as subjects, need to be protected the way human subjects are, and not simply as components of nature§.
We find Roger Scruton — apparently fated to be this article’s doppelgänger — defending one version of the ecological approach, while in parallel, as we will see below, adopting what can be classified as an extremely limited welfarist position. He does this almost incidentally, in the context of his claim, which I discussed above, that humans, non-human sentient beings, and non-sentient forms of life do not have equivalent moral standing:
We should also note that nature is not, in general, kind to the animals. Animals in the wild have to work continuously to feed themselves, pass long days of hunger and discomfort, are in constant fear of predators and find comfort and safety only in those first few months of mammalian succour, shielded from the reality which soon will burst upon them. The lucky ones will die in the jaws of something larger than themselves — it takes only a few seconds for a lion to smother an antelope or for a terrier to decapitate a rat. Far less lucky are the predators themselves, whose death is a lingering and painful affair when old age, disease or injury removes their capacity to feed themselves. Less fortunate still are those who are killed by creatures smaller than themselves: by the worms which gnaw, the maggots which suck and the bacteria which inflame their helpless bodies. From all these calamities animals gain relief and protection when we decide to offer it. But this offer is not made without a motive and we should work to keep that motive alive. By eating meat, drinking milk, wearing leather and furs, even by shooting and angling, we may, if circumstances are right, reinforce the desire to alleviate the unkindnesses of nature. And if it be said that we do so only to replace them with unkindnesses of our own, let it also be said that there is a moderation and control in human unkindness of which nature knows nothing§.
This approach seems at best grotesquely irrelevant, and at worst cynical and callous. We can thus safely lay the ecological approach to rest when used, as it is here, to justify remaining in denial about the moral issue posed by the animal farm industry. We will see below, however, when we look at how a world with rights for non-humans would be organised in practice, that our interaction with the environment is an important component of an entrenched, rights-based system where non-humans enjoy the status of citizens.
Welfarism: Bentham, Singer, and the Scruton counter-example
In the welfarist view, animal interests are acknowledged as morally significant, yet systematically subordinated to human interests. This is arguably the dominant view in Western societies today; it places moral limits on how we may use animals, but there is no question that we may use them.
The French enlightenment actually brings two examples of such concern: Rousseau laments the plight of animals in human hands; he condemns the eating of animal flesh as unnatural§. Diderot went further:
Julian Franklin remarks that Diderot
assumes that animals, if they do not fit the conditions of moral agency, may be simply left out, and the obligations of morality confined to human beings. He fails to consider that there is something speciesist about that solution. He cannot and does not deny that animals have some sort of moral status. He should, therefore, have said that if animals cannot be included in the general will, there is something fundamentally wrong with that conception§.
The philosopher Jeremy Bentham was the first to challenge the dominant view of animals as objects, at about the same time as the mounting debate about the morality of slavery:
The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer§?
In this passage Bentham points to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration. The question for him was not whether animals reason, nor whether they can talk or use language, but whether they can they suffer and experience pleasure. The capacity for suffering — or more strictly, for suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness — is not just another characteristic like the capacity for language or higher mathematics.
It would be nonsense to say that it was not in the interests of a stone to be kicked along the road by a schoolboy. […] The capacity for suffering and enjoyment is, however, not only necessary, but also sufficient for us to say that a being has interests — at an absolute minimum, an interest in not suffering. A mouse, for example, does have an interest in not being kicked along the road, because it will suffer if it is§.
Contemporary animal rights theory emerged in direct reaction to the post-war industrialisation of the farming industry, with its attenant barbarity, unprecedented in both scale and cruelty. Its initial proponent was Peter Singer, whose breakthrough work Animal Liberation§ adopted an explicitly Benthamite approach that there was no reason not to apply the utilitarian principle to other animals, arguing that the boundary between human and
animal is completely arbitrary. His approach was thus an empirical one, based on the claim that animals themselves should count towards measuring the overall good in the same way as humans§.
Scruton: an extreme proponent of indirect duty
Sir Roger Scruton, in his book Animal Rights and Wrongs§, prones the exclusion of animals from the moral realm — because they cannot give reasons for their actions — and from the status of personhood.
Most of the animals which graze in our fields are there because we eat them. […] It seems to me, therefore, that it is not just permissible, but positively right, to eat these animals whose comforts depend upon our doing so§ Sir Roger claims that some livestock animals have arguably better lives, and deaths, than many humans. He claims with a straight face — apparently unaware of the evidence presented in the first part of this article, or more likely preferring to bury his head in the sand about it — that these animals are often well cared for and are
despatched in ways in which human beings, if they are rational, must surely envy§
He asserts — a claim also soundly quashed by the discussion of the subject in this article — that the case mounted by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, is
unworthy of philosophical conclusion, because
their single-minded emphasis on the features which humans share with other animals–notably, on the capacity for suffering–causes them to overlook the distinction between moral beings (to whom their argument is addressed) and the rest of nature. Since traditional morality is based on this distinction, it cannot be revised by arguments which so blithely ignore it§. For him,
it is morally permissible to eat them, to hunt them, to keep them as pets, to wear their skins and even to use them in experiments. The real question is not whether we should do those things but when and how. His extravagant claims, ultimately, are presented as based on supernatural grounds:
So long as people were sure of their status as the highest order of creation, made in God’s image, blessed with an immortal soul and destined for judgement and eternity, they had no difficulty in rationalising the difference between themselves and other animals or in justifying standards of treatment for the latter which, if applied to the former, would have been criminal or worse§.
Scruton borrows from the Aristotelian hierarchy of mental levels, making a distinction between animals capable of intention, such as higher mammals who learn from experience, and
have an understanding of reality which motivates their behaviour and those that do not, such as the moth that
flies into the candle flame, not out of stupidity or heroism, but because this is what happens when it perceives the light§. He deduces from the fact that the emotions felt by non-human animals, are, so he believes, limited by the thoughts that they can think§
Scruton makes a further distinction for the benefit of pets, categorised as the
more sociable animals for whom we feel a deep sense of kinship, whom we make
honorary members of the human community§.
Scruton’s argument based on indirect obligation, exemplified by love of pets, is especially flawed: Jan Narveson§ holds a similar belief that an indirect obligation to animals can be established through the interests that humans have in them. I do not want my pet, my child, or my mentally impaired aunt to be injured, and so I oppose injuring anyone in that class; I oppose infanticide of deformed children since I might have been born deformed. This is patently absurd: not everybody cares about pets, children, and aunts and, at this stage of life, none of us can become the victims of infanticide.
Moving away from utilitarianism: the rights-based approach
The Benthamite view of animal rights, of course, sits somewhat uncomfortably with Bentham’s own famous rejection of
natural rights as
natural and imprescriptable rights as
nonsense upon stilts§.
This is not to hold that care — in the sense of compassion — is of no use in furthering animal rights. The law is often hard, and with respect to animals notoriously so. But compassion can also be erratic and destructive unless it is guided by rational considerations. Autors such as Franklin, who reject utilitarianism and prefer a rights-based approach, believe the ultimate criterion for reform must therefore be the moral imperative§.
In the wider field of contemporary moral philosophy, the leading figures have been moving away from utilitarianism for some time: a fundamental presupposition of their moral theories is the requirement that everyone’s interests are given equal consideration§.
Rawls: the reluctant speciesist
One of the central tenets of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, was his belief that utilitarianism was unable to account for the wrongdoing of sacrificing individuals for the good of others. This was true of experiments on individuals in the interests of medical progress, and also of discrimination against racial or sexual minorities to appease the prejudices of others.
Rawls distinguishes between distributional equality and entitlement to equal respect. The latter concept — which Rawls calls fundamental — asserts each individual’s right to
equal concern and respect§ when it comes to the formation and administration of governing political institutions. It’s a natural right: people possess it simply because they are human.
On the exclusion of animals, Rawls is neither as dogmatic nor as harsh as Kant. He only evokes the issue briefly, and his treatment of it is ambiguous at best, when he refers to
[…] the principles of justice which require that equal basic rights be assigned to all persons. Presumably this excludes animals; they have some protection certainly but their status is not that of human beings. But this outcome is still unexplained. We have yet to consider what sorts of beings are owed the guarantees of justice. […]
The answer seems to be that it is precisely the moral persons who are entitled to equal justice. Moral persons are distinguished by two features: first they are capable of having (and are assumed to have) a conception of their good (as expressed by a rational plan of life); and second they are capable of having (and are assumed to acquire) a sense of justice, a normally effective desire to apply and to act on the principles of justice. We use the characterization of the persons in the original position to single out the kind of beings to whom the principles chosen apply§.
Kant’s restriction of equality to humans, which Rawls does not directly challenge, presupposes that animals are things, with the necessary consequence that duties towards them can only ever be indirect. Rawls is clearly bothered by this, and his embarrassment results in a muddled and half-hearted attempt to imply some sort of unspecified, implicit duty to animals. Yet if there are duties to animals outside of the agreement about justice, which is thus to acknowledge that they have moral standing nonetheless, the failure to include them in the original position would be inconsistent. According to Franklin, this may explain why Rawls makes no mention of natural duties, to animals or to mentally-retarded humans whom he also excludes from his justice-based rights system, in his later works Political Liberalism, The Law of Peoples, and Justice as Fairness§.
But there is a difference between a rock and a dog that philosophy cannot simply pass over§. That is the issue for which rights-based Animal Rights Theory set out to provide a framework from the 1980s onwards.
Regan: the leading proponent of contemporary Animal Rights Theory
Some of the positions defended by philosophers, like Sir Roger Scruton, posing as welfarists, legitimately make one wonder whether animal welfarism has become nothing more than the most modern form of hegemonic speciesism, lending legitimacy to animal exploitation by posing as its opposite. Rights-based moral systems aim to break away from this path.
In 1983, Tom Regan published his important work The Case for Animal Rights§. This was the first systematic statement of a distinctly rights-based approach to animals. Rejecting Singer’s utilitarianism, Regan argued that many sorts of non-human animals possess moral rights, because they possess what he referred to as inherent value. For this reason, he argued, we are morally compelled to treat them in ways that respect this value. Inherent value for Regan is an objective property, and whether or not an individual possesses it does not in any way depend on whether he, she, or it is valued by others. For Regan, all mammals of a year or more in age have an inherent prima facie right to life and liberty.
Inherent value, crucially, goes beyond any quantification of pleasure or pain: it is a necessary consequence of the subjectivity of animals as sentient creatures§.
Regan’s work is ground-breaking in providing a basis for rejecting the premises of indirect duty to animals, in favour of direct duty: he shows that excluding animals from direct obligation, and yet somehow managing to give them some sort of moral standing, is arbitrary rather than rationally grounded§. Moreover, non-human animals may not be moral agents, but they have rights nonetheless as moral patients: Although they cannot do injustice, they can suffer it§.
Building on Rawls’s justice theory, Regan posits that animals and the disabled — both excluded by Rawls — can also be victims of injustice and must be included in Rawls’s original position. To accomplish this, the entities who participate must not know what species they belong to from behind the veil of ignorance. Such a policy would guarantee respect for each being’s moral worth: policy choices resulting in a decent existence for zebras would mean, among other policies, eliminating lions, while a decent existence for lions would require making zebras more available; not knowing whether you will be zebra or lion while you are still behind the veil of ignorance forces you to make policy choices, even as a potential non-human. And the overall result, not surprisingly, favours the adoption of veganism for humans, since in such a system, no animal, human or non-human, should be treated as an instrument by humans§. This is because, crucially, Regan’s adaptation of the veil of ignorance, does not require us to say that it is
unjust for one non-human animal to eat another. The rule of justice is binding only on normal human beings, and only they, as moral agents, can do injustice to each other, and also to animals as moral patients§.
Regan rejects the idea that direct duty is necessarily owed to all living creatures § and refrains from entering into controversy over the exact perimeter of those to whom such duties are owed: he includes, as a matter of certainty,
normal mammalians, aged one or more, since they are most like human beings who have passed the stage of infancy§. His position in this is debatable. As Franklin points out,
We do wrong, I believe, if we go out of our way to crush an innocuous beetle that happens to cross our path. Indeed, if that beetle were drowning in a pool of water near us, and we were able to reach it with a branch or pole, we would do wrong not to give it assistance§.
Contractarianism and Animal Rights§ and, more recently, Animal Rights: Moral Theory and Practice§, Mark Rowlands also argues that John Rawls’s theory of justice
can be used to justify the claim that non-human animals possess moral rights.
Mark Rowlands defends a Rawlsian argument for animal rights, according to which animals have rights because we would assign them rights when deciding on the principles of morality from behind a veil of ignorance. Rowlands’s argument depends on a non-standard interpretation of the veil of ignorance, according to which we cannot know whether we are human or non-human on the other side of the veil. Rowlands claims that his interpretation of the veil is more consistent with a core commitment of Rawlsian justice — the intuitive equality principle — than either Rawls or his critics realise.
Including non-humans in the categorical imperative: correcting Kant’s speciesism
The obvious weak point in the post-1980s rights-based theories is their lack of an objective benchmark. Curiously, the most robust one that has been provided is actually Kantian: one possible path, extensively researched by Julian Franklin, aims at including animals in a robust, rights-based moral system, arrived at by rebasing Kantian ethics.
It runs like this: if sentience is required for being accorded dignity, then humans are only a subset of the sentient creatures that deserve not to be treated as means. Kant’s categorical imperative is then rebased, as it were, on this premise. The rights we believe we owe to
borderline moral patients, which saves infants, mentally-challenged humans and others from being used for food or medical experiments, should thus be extended to animals. This point, essentially, posits that life is something more than a receptacle for good or ill, that it is in itself valuable. Kant, according to this view, made a mistake: he confused subjects of the categorical imperative, which are and must be rational beings, with the objects to which the categorical imperative applies§.
Again, as Julian Franklin points out, while
Kant most emphatically did not believe that respect for animals is a necessary consequence of the categorical imperative. Animals are not autonomous or self-conscious in Kant’s sense, and so cannot be considered moral agents. For Kant, moral obligations and moral rights apply to agents alone. […] Kant’s categorical imperative
cannot be construed as denying animals the status of moral patients, for if that is done, Kant’s moral theory collapses into incoherence. This is not to deny that the categorical imperative is a firm foundation for rational morality. Properly interpreted, Kant’s idea of moral law turns out, surprisingly enough, to be the most powerful of all arguments for the rights of all sentient beings.§.
Franklin also stresses that the exclusion of animals from direct moral consideration cannot be justified by any argument of the sort used by Kant§. Thus,
If the scope of rights appears to be confined to rational beings, it is only because of Kant’s (and perhaps our) implicit speciesism§.
And Franklin notes:
where […] the representation of animal interests is included in the original position, the outcome is essentially the same as in the revised version of the second form of the categorical imperative offered earlier§.
Non-humans as moral patients
Crucial to the debate over the extension of rights, as opposed to mere welfare, to non-humans is the distinction, made by Tom Regan§ between moral agents and moral patients: only moral agents, or persons, can function as the bearers of moral responsibilities; but it is not the case that only moral agents can function as their objects. As contemporary philosophy uses the term, a moral patient is something that can function as the object of the moral responsibilities of moral agents: something towards which moral attitudes such as moral concern, respect, or care can be directed.
Moral patients are things towards which moral agents can have moral responsibilities. On this definition, all moral agents are also moral patients, but moral patients need not be moral agents, or capable of moral agency. We generally think of other adult human beings as moral agents, even though some adult human beings lack the effective capacity for moral agency, for instance, persons in comas. On the other hand, although animals cannot ever be moral agents, because they cannot be held responsible for following rules, they must be considered
moral patients because they can suffer unjustified harm from moral agents§.
Consequences for public policy: animals as persons with legal standing and citizens
Political philosophy, however, has no purpose or meaning if its theoretical concepts are not reflected in the institutional framework of the community that professes it. Animal citizenship, which I am advocating here, is a recent concept that proposes addressing the ongoing moral urgency identified in the previous part of this article, by defining a framework for animal rights that reflects the reality of interaction between humans and non-humans
When American slaves were enfranchised in 1865, they went without transition from being chattel goods to being fully-fledged citizens. While it took a century for them to enjoy that status unfettered, no one questioned that their freedom was a path to automatic citizenship.
Mapping a similar path — a way of expressing our kinship with animals — means to affirm that non-human animals should be recognised as persons§: for non-human slaves this is as ethically robust, indeed inescapable once the reality their personhood has been scientifically and ontologically established beyond any reasonable doubt, as it was for human ones.
Non-human animals should no longer be able to be bought and sold as property
The parallel with human slavery also means that the issue of the legal standing of animals cannot be evaded, and that their status as chattel property is inconsistent with their right to personhood. Julian Franklin, on this subject, convincingly quotes Gary Francione, who — unusually for an animal rights theorist — approaches the issue from a legal perspective:
[…] so long as animals continue to be regarded by the law as property all the rules againstunnecessarypain will be construed by the courts in favor of the property owner and against the interest of the animals. They will always be treated asresearch animals,food animals,etc. If this somewhat overstates the case, it nonetheless correctly states the tendency. In Francione’s effective way of putting it, animals are not taken by the law to be sensitive entities whose deepest interest, no different from our own, is to avoid suffering. They are always regarded as means to human ends§.
In fact, Francione points out, the primary effect of these measures is to make the public feel better about animal exploitation, which actually may result in a net increase of animal suffering through increased use§.
Legal standing for animals
As we move away from the notion that animals are our chattel slaves, accepting instead that they are sentient individuals endowed with natural rights, the question arises necessarily of determining how those rights are to be enforced when they are violated§.
The notion of animals rights and of animal citizenship therefore inescapably entails that non-human animals should have the capacity to be a party in legal proceedings. They will share that capacity with other entities unable to represent themselves in person: human minors and individuals with disabilities, but also corporations.
This is important because, as David Cassuto points out,
the impulse to increase protections for non-human animals is offset by institutionally privileged categories of behaviour that commidify non-humans and strip them of legal defenses. The resulting lattice of laws purports to safeguard animals while instead sanctioning and enabling the practices from which they require protection§.
In October 2020, the Supreme Court of New York heard arguments in a case involving an elephant, Happy, imprisoned for forty years at the Bronx Zoo. In a previous finding, a judge in a lower court powerfully supported arguments by the Nonhuman Rights Project, which had brought the case:
The arguments advanced by the NhRP are extremely persuasive for transferring Happy from her solitary, lonely one-acre exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, to an elephant sanctuary. The judge then called attention to the Bronx Zoo’s imprisonment a century ago of a man kidnapped from an African pygmy tribe and put on display in the Zoo’s Primate House. The Bronx Zoo did not publicly apologise for this wrong until July of this year when it pledged
to never look away whenever and wherever injustice occurs§.
Non-humans as citizens in a geographically-identifiable community
As we have seen, critics of animal rights theory have been unable to produce convincing arguments for a unique moral selfhood of human beings. Yet animal rights theories, whether based on ecological considerations, on improving welfare, or on establishing rights, have achieved almost no real progress towards ending Eternal Treblinka. Animal citizenship aims — in accordance with the key purpose of justice, which is the protection of vulnerable individuals, at achieving effective protection of animal rights — but not at the removal of all forms of subordination.
Many people instinctively believe that
animal rights refers to basic rights to life and liberty, and not to political or citizenship privileges, such as the right to vote. They understandably feel that latter does not — and cannot — apply to animals, because they lack the capacity to understand human political concepts and conflicts. In their book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (2011)§, Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka lay out what may be the most well-developed defense yet for extending the title of
political animal to all beings in possession of subjective selfhood. Most animal advocates have more or less actively tried to separate moral from political issues and have focused on the former as the key to animal liberation. Donaldson and Kymlicka take the opposite approach. In fact, they argue — in my view very convincingly — that animal advocates ignore the political realm at their own and the animals’ peril. If non-human rights cannot be anchored firmly in our understanding of politics, they believe, the
animal issue will never gain the traction needed to achieve real change§.
Donaldson and Kymlicka present a two-tiered model of ethical responsibilities. Firstly, there are the inviolable, universal, negative basic rights to which all creatures who qualify for selfhood should, as we have seen, be entitled. Secondly, there are the positive and relational obligations that arise from our specific relations of geographical proximity and historical coexistence, and these rights may vary from context to context. This is because interaction between species is not likely to go away even if we succeed in abolishing factory farming and animal experimentation.
Donaldson and Kymlicka point out that citizenship was never only about the ability to vote or directly participate in decision making. It also includes:
- the right to residency — that is, the right to have a home in a given territory or state, including the right to return after travel;
- the right to be included in
the sovereign peopleand have one’s interests counted in the definition of the public good;
- the ability to participate in forming the rules of social cooperation—in essence, to be a lawmaker.
It has been argued against this that the notion that non-human animals have an inviolable claim to life and liberty, and that they should be regarded as citizens, a category reserved, ever since Aristotle defined the concept, for humans, has a foothold only in marginal academic and activist circles§. That does not seem to me to be a very robust objection: every breakthrough towards the extension of wider rights to categories that had previously been denied them (slaves, women, in particular, and other categories that had been denied effective or full exercise of their citizenship), began as movements that only attracted marginal interest. On the contrary, as Donaldson and Kymlicka point out in their reply§ to these and other objections, our existing political framework, with its emphasis on liberal democracy and on the role of sovereign states as the ultimate authority in enforcing the law, provides the ideal framework for advancing such a moral agenda.
A legal landscape in which animals would enjoy citizenship would allocate protections based on the requirements of the various beings that form the moral community. This could mean, for example, that since farm animals are sentient and have the capacity to suffer, they should not be subjected to the grotesque and inhumane conditions of the factory farm. It may not necessarily mean, however, that an agricultural system wherein farm animals live comfortably protected from disease and predators is necessarily unacceptable. This issue can and should form the basis for reasoned debate.
The issues that arise in connection with the notion of animal citizenship are plentiful and complex, yet clear solutions can be imagined for all of them. Within a particular habitat, animals bear very different relations to one another. They can be predator/prey, competitors for scarce resources, or parasite/ host. They can also have relations of cooperation or symbiosis or have no direct impact on one another. They have evolved capacities for navigating their unique conditions, as well as social knowledge, skills, and competence that are embedded in their intraspecies, interspecies, and ecological relations. Beyond this, many animals have an interest in autonomy or self-determination — the right to be authors of their own lives, to take risks, and to make choices as they see fit rather than having their lives paternalistically managed by humans. Human interactions with wild animals have so far consistently ignored these important interests. Recognizing sovereignty would correct this injustice§.
Franklin believes that concern for the well-being of animals becomes mandatory only when they become participants in a scheme of cooperation instituted by humans, and that we cannot sensibly mediate between predator and prey or adjust a given species to an alteration in its food supply§. Just because we do not currently know how to intervene in nature to end predation does not mean that we could not devote research and resources to solving these challenges and
to create [the circumstances of justice] if we can. Many theorists believe that we should indeed be devoting resources and brainpower to the predation problem.
Some animals may also be considered as participants with humans in a cooperative enterprise. With modern technology this class continually shrinks. But one could say that cows participate in milk production; that cats, dogs, and horses serve as pets§; and that primates sometimes take part in learning and speech experiments. Under present conditions much of this
participation is in the form of brutal exploitation§. The Apopo rats I mention in my list of causes you can get involved in at the end of this article are one counter-example, in which animals are treated as sentient beings, and both animals and humans visibly and undeniably gain from interaction.
Practical steps: minuscule advances, and the weight of the meat paradox
Almost nothing of what is outlined above to improve the lives of non-human animal has been put into practice. Reviewing what little progress has already been made, however, provides a useful perspective for moving forward.
Concern for animals has always existed
Concern about animal welfare is not a new phenomenon: the fundamental yearning for decency and justice that is present in every one of us means we instinctively refuse to accept as morally normal mistreatment such as I have illustrated in the first part of this article. Such concerns, indeed, go back a very long way: some of the ancient rules for slaughtering animals for kosher meat were originally intended to reduce pain to the animal. Many religions, including Native American religions, Hinduism, and the Australian Aboriginal tradition, have held particular animals to be sacred, and have devised particular rules about whether and how such animals were to be used for food or service§. And of course in Christianity, abstention from meat is traditionally regarded as a virtue§, and all creatures are said in Holy Scripture to have been vegan in the Garden of Eden, their diet having only changed at the Fall§.
In 1800 the most renowned abolitionist of the period, William Wilberforce, supported a bill to abolish bull- and bearbaiting, which was defeated in the House of Commons. In 1809 Baron Erskine, former lord chancellor of England, who had long been troubled by cruelty to animals, introduced a bill to prohibit cruelty to all domestic animals. In 1822 a bill to prevent cruel and improper treatment of Cattle was introduced in the House of Commons, sponsored by Wilberforce and Thomas Fowell Buxton and championed by Irish member of Parliament Richard Martin. The version enacted in 1822, known as Martin’s Act, made it a crime to treat a handful of domesticated animals — cattle, oxen, horses, and sheep — cruelly or to inflict unnecessary suffering upon them. It did not, however, protect the general welfare of even these animals, much less give them legal rights, and the worst punishment available for any breach was a modest fine§. The British Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established in 1824 §.
Recent advances have been minuscule, uncoordinated and half-hearted
The contemporary period, however, offers little by way of genuine progress, demonstrating that advances in our philosophical and scientific understanding of non-human animals have not resulted in any significant improvement in their situation.
In Switzerland, the battery cage system of producing eggs described above became illegal at the end of 1991. Instead of cramming their hens into small wire cages too small for the birds to spread their wings, Swiss egg producers moved the birds to sheds where they could scratch on a floor covered with straw or other organic material and lay their eggs in a sheltered, soft-floored nesting box.
Further steps followed, especially in the United Kingdom and also, though to a lesser extent, in the European Union. Intensively raised veal calves, deliberately kept anemic, deprived of straw for bedding, and confined in individual crates so narrow that they cannot even turn around are among the most miserable of all farm animals. That system of keeping calves was banned in Britain in 1987, and is now banned throughout the European Union. Matters have also improved for the pig industry’s breeder sows. Confining pregnant sows in individual crates was banned in the United Kingdom in 1998, and has also been prohibited in Continental Europe since 2013, except during the first four weeks of the sow’s pregnancy.
When European countries was debating and legislating these changes, however, there initially seemed no prospect of any similar laws getting through the United States Congress, or indeed anywhere else in the United States.
The first sign of change was a 2002 initiative by animal welfare groups that put a proposition on the ballot in Florida to ban crates for pregnant sows. Florida is far from the most progressive state in the country for animal welfare issues, but the proposal passed with a clear majority. Four years later, the same issue came up in Arizona, where a ban on veal crates was added to the proposal as well. Again, the voters approved the measure by a solid margin§.
Similar advances, while minuscule when set against the enormous scale of the cruelty involved, took the form of agreements by the two largest producers of veal in the United States, promising to get rid of veal crates within two to three years, while the largest pig producers in the United States and Canada announced that they would, over the next ten years, phase out sow crates.
The farm industry, however, has extensively used its influence and lobbying power, especially in farming states, to block any such advances, and has been very successful in doing so: Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, vetoed a bill that called for restrictive pig cages to be banned in the state in 2014, in a move seen by many as a gauge of his presidential ambitions. In France, the foie gras industry funds scientific publications to help defend its practice of force-feeding birds. In Brussels, the Copa-Cogeca lobby group, is conducting a similar battle to stop reform of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, with its subsidy system that has hugely benefited the farm industry.
As Peter Singer points out, whenever progress is made, it is achieved only though pressure from consumers:
Explaining this move, the United States, producer, Smithfield, mentioned the views of its customers, of whom McDonald’s is among the largest. McDonald’s, which welcomed the decision, had for many years been in discussion with animal activists about reducing the suffering of the animals from which its products come. Other big pork producers soon followed. In 2007, Oregon became the first state to legislate to ban sow crates rather than have the issue put to a popular vote, and the following year, Colorado legislated to ban both sow and veal crates. After decades of resisting criticism of individual crates for veal calves, the American Veal Association resolved to recommend that its members convert to more welfare-friendly group housing by 2017. Many notable United States chefs, food retailers, and caterers are likewise moving away from the worst forms of animal confinement§.
In 2008, a breakthrough of a more significant nature occurred, opening hopes that the consequences of animal sentience will gradually be recognised: the Spanish national parliament adopted resolutions urging the government to grant orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas some statutory rights previously afforded only to humans. The resolutions also called for banning the use of apes in performances, harmful research, and trading as well as in other practices that involve profiting from the animals. Although zoos would still be allowed to hold apes, they would be required to provide them with
optimal living conditions. This moved away from the welfare-based approach that motivated previous attempts to improve animal living conditions, marking the beginning of a new movement aiming explicitly or implicitly extending citizenship rights to animals.
Despite these welfarist advances in a few jurisdictions, there are more animals suffering at the hands of humans now than ever before
Yet, while animal rights have slightly progressed in a few developed countries, formal animal welfare legislation remains largely absent in many others, including, paradoxically, some of the largest animal producing nations of the world (such as Brazil, India, and China)§. Indeed, it is probably still true that there are more animals suffering at the hands of humans now than ever before. That is because there are more affluent people in the world than ever before, and satisfying their demand for meat has meant a vast expansion of factory farming, especially in China§.
Unfortunately, the historical achievements detailed above of the animals rights movement have been dwarfed by the onslaught of industrial farming, increased meat consumption, and intensified exploitation of animals — a trend that shows no sign of weakening. Thus they have so far done no more than more than chip away at the edges of the speciesist system. Moreoever, in the real world the notion that non-human animals have an inviolable claim to life and liberty has a foothold only in marginal academic and activist circles.
The reason why we don’t put our money where our mouth is: the meat paradox or knowledge cognition gap
Despite the overwhelming scientifically-backed confirmation that animals have the ability, like us, to have feelings — in other words, that they are sentient — and that animal sentience is close to ours in certain animals, especially mammals, humans are often reluctant to acknowledge that this requires them to change the way they interact with them: they have difficulty in translating evidence into practice. Hence the attempt by scientists to quantify and understand the discrepancies between what is known and what is done, otherwise known as the knowledge translation gap§.
Scientists studying animal behaviour likewise attempt to measure and understand why what we now know about animal cognition and emotion has not yet been translated into an evolution in human attitudes and practices§. As Francione points out, we cannot really know much about human sensory experience, and so
cannot enjoy the life of a dog, a bird, a bat, or a dolphin. Consequently, we cannot appreciate the subtleties of smell, sight, sound, and touch that these animals can apparently appreciate§.
The work of Thomas Nagel, mentioned earlier in conjunction with animal consciousness, also illustrates the meat paradox. From an impersonal standpoint the knowledge that another human were drowning should be enough to make one want merely to do something about it, even supposing that one did not know who it were. In The Possibility of Altruism§, Nagel states that it is the practical information we gather from any given situation, in conjunction with generally accepted ends, such as survival and the elimination of pain, which requires altruistic behaviour. Failure to be moved by reasons derived in this way implies dissociation from oneself viewed as a person among others, amounting to practical solipsism§.
These theoretical observations have dramatic pratical consequences. One recent example of how current policy is still massively impacted by the knowledge translation gap is the Federal Animal Welfare Act, which explicitly excludes rats and mice from the kingdom Animalia§.
Most meat consumers have no idea of the morally appalling cost at which the food they consume is brought to their plates
More prosaically, the farm industry ensures that consumers are kept unaware of the moral cost of animal-based food they purchase, indeed sometimes concealing that some foodstuffs contain animal-sourced ingredients in the first place. This was vividly summarised by Michael Pollan in 2002 in the New York Times, when he decided to buy, with a view to subsequently eating him, a young veal at the height of the mad cow disease crisis:
This brought home to him the brutal reality lurking behind the processed meat made available to us on supermarket shelves, which the food industry goes to extraordinary trouble, including resorting to outright deception, to conceal from consumers:
Meat-eating has always been a messy business, shadowed by the shame of killing and, since Upton Sinclair’s writing of The Jungle, by questions about what we’re really eating when we eat meat. Forgetting, or willed ignorance, is the preferred strategy of many beef eaters, a strategy abetted by the industry. (What grocery-store item is more silent about its origins than a shrink-wrapped steak?) Yet I recently began to feel that ignorance was no longer tenable. If I was going to continue to eat red meat, then I owed it to myself, as well as to the animals, to take more responsibility for the invisible but crucial transaction between ourselves and the animals we eat. I’d try to own it, in other words§.
There are indications that consumers in industrialised nations are willing to pay more for products that feature higher degrees of animal welfare. In a survey taken in 1995, 67 per cent of United Kingdom consumers surveyed indicated that they had purchased free range eggs or chickens in the previous year, which suggests that given a choice, consumers are, in some instances, willing to pay the extra expense of food produced with techniques that are perceived to be more friendly to animals. A survey of British consumers as early as the 1990s found that consumers would be willing to pay 6-30 per cent more for eggs, if such an increase were the result of a ban on battery cages (towers of small cages used to house individual hens) for hens. A 1996 survey of United States college students found that students were willing to pay 18 per cent over market price for free range eggs and willing to pay taxes of about $8.00 per person to fund practices that they believe will improve conditions for veal calves and hens§.
The obstacle to change is in part economic inertia; producers resist change because buyers expect low prices. Deployment of public subsidies and gradual change could avoid these short-term effects, although protection is needed against imports from countries with even lower welfare consideration and environmental standards. From the perspective of doing what is appropriate for animal welfare and the environment, there is a growing realisation that free-market competition should no longer be the sole determinant of food prices. Animal scientists can serve the long-term interests of animal agriculture by combining efforts to do the right thing for the welfare of animals with more traditional goals, such as increasing production efficiency§.
Likewise, there is evidence of public support for individual farmers (as opposed to firms) being compensated for the economic externalities (higher costs) arising out of more stringent animal welfare regulations. A survey conducted at the end of 2004§ found that the public believed that the top priority for the European Union, in terms of its agricultural policy, should be to ensure a stable income for farmers . This belief is further evidenced by the firm support the European public gives to the idea of compensating farmers for high production costs that may arise from improving animal welfare conditions.
Resetting our interaction with non-humans
Public advocacy, covered above, is a compelling duty for any animal rights activist. Yet how we translate our determination to improve the lives of non-human dwellers on this planet must obviously be at the core of our action. Whether, and how, to adopt a vegan lifestyle, inevitably, will be the foremost consideration in one’s mind. Yet there are also many smaller — in the sense that they are less onerous to put in place — steps which, if they get enough traction, can massively improve animal welfare.
This article, emphatically, is not about veganism. I see it as a plea to put an end to what I count as our age’s blackest moral turpitude. I will therefore not enter here into an extensive discussion of whether a vegetarian diet is healthier than a diet that includes animal flesh. Industrialisation changed our diet considerably, increasing the amount of calories consumed from animal-based products, sugars, fats and fresh fruit and vegetables, and decreasing that of cereals and carbohydrates. Thus common-sense, as well as a good deal of evidence suggests that it is, but from the ethical perspective I have chosen, it is sufficient that a vegan can expect to be at least as healthy as one who eats meat, which, from my personal experience, I have definitely found to be the case — since I adopted a completely vegan diet (especially since giving up dairy products) my weight, fat ratio, energy and more generally all my vital statistics have improved considerably, without any ill effects — and, which, more importantly, is backed up by serious scientific evidence. Yet for the purposes on which I have chosen to focus in this article, so long as we can live without inflicting miserable lives on animals, then surely that is what we ought to do
Neither do I intend to deal extensively here with the positive impact veganism has for the environment. I believe the evidence for this to be robust§ and I also happen to regard preservation of the environment as a vitally important issue for our species at the present time. But I also feel strongly that mixing these two objectives — arguably equally crucial — is counterproductive. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is that the animal rights movement is, far more than environmentalism, at its core a moral issue. It is amply justified, as we have seen, by moral considerations, and if anything it is weakened by making its validity contingent on facts and arguments of a different nature.
It follows from this that there are a number of things that veganism is not:
- Firstly, veganism is not (only) a diet: abstaining from animal-sourced food is at its core — but many other goods we buy, or activities in which we engage, involve exploitation, sometimes especially cruel, of animals. The leather industry, which has massively expanded in recent years, requires animals to be killed often very cruelly, whenever you buy an elegant bag, a leather sofa, choose a new car with leather seats, or buy yet another cheap leather jacket. Can you imagine your skin being torn off while you’re still conscious, just for a handbag or belt? Every year, the leather industry slaughters over one billion animals, most of them using unspeakably cruel methods.
- Secondly, veganism is not a fashion or a political statement. It should be self-evident that you will be neither more, nor less, likely to be affronted by cruelty to animals if your political affiliation is on the left, the right or the centre. The Animal Rights movement has often been used as a vehicle for the expression of views that have nothing to do with the furtherance of animal rights. This is not only deeply shameful; it also does significant harm to animals that would otherwise have received help, by dissuading people who wish to join the movement from doing so because everything is done to conflate extreme leftist views with the aims of the Animal Rights Movement.
- Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, veganism is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It took me two years to transition from a diet with an abundance of meat and fish, coupled with consumption habits in which leather featured prominently, to complete abstinence from all these things. And I still eat dead animals on certain occasions: when invited by people whom I don’t know particularly well, I eat whatever has been prepared for me without complaining. I have found from experience that if the subject comes up in conversation — which it often does — I’m more likely to get an attentive and sympathetic ear if I haven’t come across, rightly or wrongly, as bigoted. Every small, partial step you take that results in less animal-sourced items being bought will contribute to saving an animal. And while the overall difference it will make will be small, you should think of it in Kantian terms: it will make a decisive difference to that one animal you save.
Small and easy things you can do for animals
Not one of your acts of kindness, whether big or small, will ever be wasted. I’m sharing here a very mixed list of charitable organisations and ethical businesses that I support personally. I’m conscious that it is somewhat random, but I can vouch for the quality of the work of every single one of the structures listed here. If you have suggestions for additions to this list, please feel free to contact me.
- Eggs laid by free-ranging hens that are well cared-for after they retire. in 2021, they will switch to a new procedure, developed by German company Seleggt, which allows the male-chicks’ eggs to be removed long before they hatch, meaning they no longer need to be killed
- Save the Duck
- Very warm, down-free jackets filled with sustainable, recycled materials. They supplied a vegan jacket to Kuntal Joisher, the vegan Indian mountaineer, which he used to climb Mount Everest.
- PETA brings together a wide range of individuals from all over the world united by the revulsion they feel for animal rights abuses. They do not shy from controversy, nor from attention-drawing stints, but I admire the for this. This is a struggle in which ruthlessness, which is in abundant supply on the other side, is definitely needed.
- A French nonprofit focusing on campaigns to name and shame farm industry animal rights violators. Their videos were the eye-opener that set me on the path towards veganism. I cannot recommend them enough, although their site is entirely in French.
- Direct Action Everywhere
- It is hard to give sufficient praise to Direct Action Everywhere, a global grassroots network of animal rights activists. They have very bravely taken on Smithfield, the largest
porkproducer in the world, slaughtering one fourth of all the pigs killed for food in the United States, which was responsible for the abuse of pigs documented above. One of their investigations culminated in the groundbreaking, new mini-documentary,
- This Belgian nonprofit’s scent detection animals, nicknamed
HeroDOGs, help to rid the world of landmines and tuberculosis. Their rats are extremely well cared for, receiving an excellent diet, regular exercise, stimulation and enrichment, and loving attention from expert handlers. If a rat decides to stop work, or if his (or her) performance has declined, or he is suffering from age related health problems, he is retired to his home cage. He then continues to receive his usual healthy diet, is regularly taken out to play and exercise, and continues to receive his weekly health checks until he eventually dies of old age.
- Sheep Inc.
- One can imagine ethical conditions under which humans can benefit from the use of sheep wool§. Each sheep fleece used by Sheep Inc. is hand-selected from New Zealand farms that have the highest animal welfare and biodiversity standards worldwide.
- Compassion in World Farming
- The world’s leading farm animal welfare organisation. Founded fifty years ago by a British farmer, after he became concerned at the disconnect between modern agriculture and animal welfare. It has become an influential global movement, and its views today are sought and valued by policy makers.
- Soi Dog Foundation
- The Asian dog meat trade is one of the biggest animal welfare concerns in the world. Soi Dog Foundation, established in 2003 in Phuket, acts to provide help and care for stray cats and dogs: spaying and neutering, rescue, vaccination, medical care, sheltering and adoption. Thanks to them, the Phuket stray population is now officially under control, proving that human dedication, love and commitment can solve these problems.
- The Orangutan Project
- This Australian charity conducts and sponsors projects on the ground that help protect orangutans and their forest homes. It funds orangutan rescue teams in Sumatra and Borneo that are highly trained and skilled at relocating animals in danger. Orangutans are extremely closely related to humans, having 97 per cent of their DNA in common with us. Extinction in the wild is likely in the next ten years for Sumatran orangutans, and soon after for Bornean orangutans. Both of these two species are classified as Critically Endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
- Four Paws
- Founded in 1988, Four Paws advocates for a world where humans treat animals with respect, empathy and understanding. Today, it has offices in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Kosovo, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, Hungary, the United Kingdom, the United States and Vietnam. It operates sanctuaries for rescued animals in twelve countries.
- The Nonhuman Rights Project
- The Nonhuman Rights Project is the only civil rights organisation in the United States dedicated solely to securing rights for non-human animals. They work to achieve this through litigation, legislation underpinned by advocacy, and education. They came into prominence in 2020 as a result of the legal breakthrough they achieved on behalf of their client, the elephant Happy. More information about them is available in their annual report for 2020.
When I belatedly found out about the reality of the modern factory farm, I immediately realised that not acting on this knowledge would be morally despicable, indeed unconscionable. I firmly believe this is the paramount moral, and thus political issue of our time, its paramountcy made all the more compelling by the fact that the non-humans who are its victims cannot themselves make an organised protest against the treatment they receive (though they can and do protest to the best of their abilities individually).
I believe in happy endings, and wanted to conclude this article, which I realise makes very difficult reading, on a positive note. Please remember above all that, although we had to cover the subject from a philosophical and legal perspective, this article is not about philosophy: philosophy is useless if it doesn’t make a difference to individuals’ lives. Just as a few, scattered Jews managed to escape being slaughtered like cattle at Treblinka, so a few farm animals, impelled, like us, by their desire to survive, manage to escape. Brianna, featured in the video below, was one of the lucky ones, thanks to courageous humans who intervened to save her, with the baby she was carrying and who was being sent to death with her. Whenever you act on your indignation, in any of the practical ways I have suggested, or any others you can find, you will save lives, and also become a better person.
Humans who eat pieces of slaughtered non-humans every day find it hard to believe that they are doing wrong; or else they find it hard to imagine what else they could eat, and this makes persuasion especially difficult: as Peter Singer points out, how many Southern slaveholders were persuaded by the arguments used by the Northern abolitionists, and accepted by nearly all of us today? Some, but not many§.
We cannot escape the fact that we are all interested parties in this moral struggle.
- Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. Zoopolis. 1st ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Francione, Gary L. Animals As Persons. Columbia University Press, 2008.
- Franklin, Julian H. Animal rights and moral philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005
- Garner, Robert. A Theory of Justice for Animals: Animal Rights in a Nonideal World. Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Harrison, Ruth. Animal Machines: The New Factory Farming Industry. 1st ed., Vincent Stuart Publishers Ltd., 1964.
- Lymbery, Philip. Farmageddon. 1st ed., Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014.
- Patterson, Charles. Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. Lantern Books, 2002.
- Regan, Tom. The Case For Animal Rights. Univ. Of California Press, 1985.
- Scruton, Roger. Animal Rights And Wrongs. Continuum, 2006.
- Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. 1st ed., Harper Collins, 1975.