The unfair treatment of the animal rights movement

November 22, 2015 • 11:45 am

It seems to be a common opinion among atheists and scientists that the animal-rights movement is ridiculous, and I’ve seen it criticized and mocked on many secular websites. And indeed, the tactics of some animal-rights groups, like PETA, have been such as to offend or turn off many people. PETA, for instance, shows ads featuring semi-clad women, and even though the ads are promoting vegetarianism and the non-wearing of fur, I know women who find them sexist, for where are the naked men? More important, PETA and other groups have engaged in violent activities, threatening researchers and trashing labs, and freeing lab animals that could never find an alternative home. Finally, some animal-rights groups decry owning pets (excuse me, “companion animals”), on the grounds that this leads to overpopulation of unwanted pets as well as stressful confinement of animals like cats and dogs, who still have their evolutionary instincts to roam free.

But regardless of the invidious tactics of some animal-rights groups, the general point stands: if you think animals are capable of suffering, and they are, then don’t they at least have some of the “rights” that we reserve for humans? Isn’t the criticism of groups like PETA, or the kneejerk feeling that any experimentation on animals is justified so long as it has potential to save human lives, simply something that we espouse to avoid thinking about the important issue of animal suffering?

Yesterday I saw a photo in the New York Times of a turkey farm (Thanksgiving is upon us); in it a farmer was standing in a huge building in which turkeys, obviously stressed, were packed wing to wing. (See photo at boottom.) The birds had no room to roam, and it was disturbing. Experiments have shown that chickens, for instance, much prefer wandering on grass than standing in wire cages. And what we do to chickens—confining them in cages, clipping their beaks, and crowding them horribly—is unjustifiable if you think that these animals suffer. The evidence suggests that they do, and who with a scientific and empathic turn of mind could deny that suffering, or the proposition that animals feel pain?

And the suffering we inflict on chickens also applies to many of our other food animals. Driving through Texas and the Midwest last summer, I saw cows crowded together in feedlots, getting fattened up before the slaughter. The lots were simply bare expanses of mud filled with stinking cow dung that you could smell miles away. I have no doubt that those animals were stressed.

These thoughts were prompted by a good book I’m reading, Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life, by Steve Stewart-Williams (2010; Cambridge University Press). The book is the best discussion I’ve seen about the philosophical implications of the theory of evolution; and believe me, there are philosophical implications—dealing with issues like the existence of the soul, the nature of morality, and human exceptionalism. I recommend it highly: Stewart-Williams, an associate professor of psychology at Nottingham University, Malaysia Campus, writes very well and has thought deeply about these issues. Even if you think you understand the implications of evolution for your own worldview, you’ll still learn a lot.

At any rate, Chapter 13, “Uprooting the doctrine of human dignity,” contains this paragraph near the end:

Singer [Peter Singer, author of the excellent book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals] makes the extremely interesting and challenging point that the amount of suffering and pain caused by the tyranny of human beings over animals (particularly in food production) far exceeds that caused by sexism, racism, or any other existing forms of discrimination, and for that reason the animal liberation movement is the most important liberation movement in the world today.  Women and disadvantaged ethnic groups have never been farmed, killed for sport, or systematically experimented on in anything like the numbers that non-human animals have. Furthermore, unlike women and slaves, non-humans cannot talk or campaign for their own liberation, and, because they can’t vote, they’re not a high priority for most politicians. This further underscores the importance of the animal liberation movement.

I see a lot of sense in that. For, when you think about it, evolution teaches that for some traits we’re different quantitatively but not qualitatively from our animal relatives, and that they, like us, can suffer and feel pain. Perhaps humans, because we have greater rationality and the presence of culture, may suffer more than some animals, but can you really say that a gorilla or chimp who is captive in a zoo, or subject to experimentation to cure human diseases, isn’t suffering? (Recognizing this, the US National Institutes of Health just joined many other countries in ending “invasive research” on chimpanzees.)

Those are our primate relatives, but what about guinea pigs, mice, and laboratory cats and dogs? They are subject to horrible procedures that cause them to suffer, not even considering just their confinement. People automatically assume that this is okay if such experimentation will save human lives, but how many dog, cat, or mouse lives are worth one human life? Could it be justified, as Stewart-Williams asks, to experiment on humans, killing a few humans to save thousands of chimpanzee lives? If not, why not? Why is the saving of human life worth the expenditure of vastly more animal lives, and perhaps—adding it all up—the greater suffering of animals than of humans?

It’s even less justifiable to eat factory-farmed animals, I think, for we can live without eating them. Why—and I am complicit in this—do we simply ignore all that suffering so that we can have a nice roast chicken or a plate of fried eggs on our tables? In our hearts we know that animals suffer to give us that food. Is their suffering truly worth nothing?

We need to face the fact that if we really care about suffering, there is no justification to limit our concern to the suffering of Homo sapiens. That’s especially true because, as Stewart-Williams argues, we cause immensely greater suffering of animals, and they have no representation save groups like PETA. If evolution and science tell us anything, it is that animals suffer as we do—perhaps not as intensely in cases like the death of a relative—and that many species are apparently conscious, and surely many feel pain. By what right do we ignore all of that when doing so is just a convenience for our own species? Is any amount of animal experimentation and suffering justified by its potential to save human lives? If so, why?

Few people have come to grips with these issues. Singer is one, Stewart-Williams another. But we need to face those issues if we’re to be consistent in our concern for the suffering of the disadvantaged. As for me, I feel pretty bad about all this, and consider myself a hypocrite for eating eggs and meat. I don’t know if I’ll do something about that, but at least we can oppose the confinement of animals in zoos, and agitate for humane treatment of the animals we put into our stomachs.

Here’s the picture from the New York Times that disturbed me; it’s from an article called “After bird flu scare, plenty of turkeys for Thanksgiving.



241 thoughts on “The unfair treatment of the animal rights movement

  1. Thanks for writing this. Many in the skeptical community have knee-jerk reactions to certain themes, just like churchgoers do. This is one of those themes. (Another is the dangers of genetic engineering.) The ridiculous extremes (and some of the extremes are indeed ridiculous, especially if carried to their logical conclusions) do not poison the whole subject.

    1. Yet another is the danger of unhealthy chemical compounds in food..I’m just now remembering the beating I took on Pharyngula years ago when I dared to discuss the very strong evidence that almost all breast cancer is caused by some as-yet-unknown non-universal environmental factor, and hence avoidable.

        1. Not sure what you mean, Diana. Women are not at risk just because they are women. Asian women living in Asia have a vastly lower breast cancer rate than Asian women who have moved to the US, for example.

      1. ? “Risk factors for developing breast cancer include: female sex, obesity, lack of physical exercise, drinking alcohol, hormone replacement therapy during menopause, ionizing radiation, early age at first menstruation, having children late or not at all, and older age.[2][4]”

        [ ]

        I don’t know if it is exhaustive, but since you claimed “all”… Hogwash?

        1. Hardly a complete list without including the BRCA gene(s).

          Lou, if your factor was “non-universal,” how could it account for “almost all breast cancer.” Also, I’d love to know what that “very strong evidence” is!

          1. Diane G, see my comment to Diana MacPherson above for the evidence.

            About my “almost all”, you are right, I was thinking just of the US. The US rate is much higher than the rate of Asians living in Asia.

            From the Susan Komen Foundation (a foundation I do not like at all):
            “When Asian women migrate to the U.S., their risk of developing breast cancer increases up to six-fold. Asian immigrant women living in the U.S. for as little as a decade had an 80 percent higher risk of breast cancer than new immigrants.”

            See Fig 2 of this paper for an interesting comparison between Japanese and US rates:


            If the base rate of breast cancer is the rate for Asians living in Asia, and if Asians who move to a non-Asian location get breast cancer at the rate of the local people, then indeed it might be that “almost all” breast cancer worldwide is due to environmental causes. But I haven’t done the stats on that.

            1. First of all, in support of Diana, here’s a statement from the article you posted above: “Estrogen plays an important role in the development of breast cancer.” At least four of the factors strongly correlated with breast cancer development–early menarche, early pregnancy, long nursing intervals, late menopause–involve extending one’s lifetime exposure to estrogen. (Yes, the second one suggests that timing is also important, at least for primaparas.)

              (Don’t think that the fact that our hormones want to kill us doesn’t rankle a bit, esp. now that men are being inundated with ads for testosterone supplementation…but I digress.)

              Perhaps you’re alluding to diet, esp. high-fat diets, a factor that’s long been linked to not just breast cancer incidence but other kinds too, and one that is more common in the US than Asia.

              But you talk about an as-yet-unidentified environmental factor…inquiring minds want to know what your hunch is. 🙂

              1. Diane, no, I don’t have any hunches about the factors involved. The point I wanted to emphasize is the huge difference between breast cancer rates of Asians living in Asia vs Americans and Asian immigrants living in the US, and that this difference is not well-understood. The numbers, especially the change in cancer rate after migration, mean that almost all the US breast cancer cases are due to some environmental factors and could, at least in theory, be prevented if we knew enough.

              2. That’s all it takes.

                When I read Pharyngula I used to cringe at the ammunition the commenters were providing for those who want to paint atheists as a bunch of goons…

            2. Yes, as Diane said, women who don’t have children, delay having children, start menopause early are at a higher risk for developing breast cancer. My friend is at higher risk because her mother developed breast cancer and her doctors were happy that although she had her daughter at 40 (late in life), she breast fed for I think 2 years. This gave her a nice break from estrogen.

              Most breast cancers are estrogen receptor positive and progesterone receptor positive so the very hormones that make us women, also feed our tumors that kill us. It’s the price we pay for reproduction since it’s evolutionarily more important for us to pass on our genes than live a long time so even though estrogen may harm us, our selfish genes want to be replicated at any cost, even the ultimate death of the organism.

              The fact that I never had children and have not entered menopause at 45 (some women do enter menopause this early) most likely played a part in my own ER+ PR+ HER2- breast cancer and it’s why my oncologist has put me on tamoxifen, which stops estrogen from hooking up with cancer and sadly gives you the symptoms of menopause (you still get the fun of your periods with the extra bonus of copious sweating – yay!).

              Indeed, the main risk factor for developing breast cancer, as listed on many breast cancer sites, is being a woman (men also develop breast cancer but it is very rare).

              1. Oh and I should add that it was once thought that exposure to soy products could mimic estrogen and cause cancer. There is little evidence that this is the case as you’d have to use a lot of soy! I felt so stupid when I thought it could be true for about 2 whole minutes, since I drink soy milk.

                I suspect Asian women who migrate to the US may increase their risk of breast cancer by partaking in the delicious high fat diet we North Americans so love.

  2. I’m a vegan for animal rights reasons, and I appreciate this post. Yes, we can get into the pilpil of trying to quantify the capacity to suffer of any given species, but it’s clear that all animals with advanced nervous systems can suffer. I would add, if I may speculate, that many animals also share our capacity for a rich emotional life. They can’t appreciate Bach but they can appreciate friendship and love. The most essential elements of human nature are not exclusive to humans.

    There’s a lot of dogmatic or at least uncritical thinking in the animal rights movement, but as you point out the same is true for the secular movement—kneejerk reactions against animal rights. Almost every time I’ve told a fellow atheist or secularist that I believe in animal rights, I get ridicule no different from the theists I’ve encountered. Secularists possibly are even more visceral in their vitriol. They seem to be profoundly speciesist, to the point that I no longer call myself a humanist because humanism genuinely seems to be a speciesist ideology.

    I’m not inclined to judge people of the past or of the present who lack the means to live a vegan life, but based on information from groups like the American Dietetic Association, veganism is healthy for all age groups and all populations of Americans. All that is needed is a basic understanding of nutrition science. For most people, though, the pleasure of eating animal foods, or the lethargy of spirit in regard to changing one’s life or one’s culture, is too hard to overcome, even though the cost of continuing in the consumption of animal life is the daily rape, enslavement, imprisonment, and slaughter of scores and scores of our brother and sister animals.

    1. The uncritical thinking and hypocrisy among skeptics is exactly what drove me to put together a website calling them out on it, at wegodlessanimals dot com. The fellow atheists, humanists, and secularists I’ve encountered are what I now like to call part-time skeptics and flexitarians.

      There is certainly a profound ignorance out there on the tyranny over non-humans for which I can find no excuse, especially as it affects us all in terms of ethics, climate change, antibiotic resistance, dead zones, etc.

      And there’s a post on Jerry under my Blog section! Uh,oh….

  3. I became an atheist at around the same time I became a vegetarian. For me the two are absolutely related, because once you stop believing that humans are specially created in god’s image, there is no justification for how we treat non-human animals.

    1. On the contrary, it seems to me that the two are completely independent. Most atheists believe in evolution and also disbelieve in absolute morality; animals consuming other animals is simply naturalistic evolution at work. There is no justification for considering it intrinsically good or evil, because there is no such thing as good or evil in an amoral, godless universe.

      1. OTOH, atheists who know their evolution are more likely to be aware of the great similarities of many animals to us, to realize that they’re sentient, feel pain, and have emotions. Our mirror neurons are more likely to kick in and grasp the goodness of treating animals as humanely as possible.

        Whereas, as I mentioned above, Christians believe God gave them dominion over all animals, to do with them as they may.

        1. But Darwinian evolution could also be invoked to justify doing with other species as we please, so I see atheists and theists as capable of going either way. Incidentally, Ben Carson (I believe) is a vegetarian- along with probably many other Christians. Perhaps they might reason that if non-human animals are also God’s creatures, shouldn’t we avoid causing them pain?

          Finally, I just wanted to point out that, unlike veganism, vegetarianism still involves the killing of animals via the dairy and egg industries..

        2. I think that’s a good argument that animal welfare should be a concern but I do not think that precludes eating any meat. Many animal lives in nature are not full of joy and happiness – should we just go and kill all the predators to keep the bunnies etc. from suffering? Taking the human example, we go out of our way to make our lives as unnatural as possible to improve our happiness – there is no reason that unnatural animal lives could not be equally stress-free and happy. (What we aim for with our pets, I think.) I think the best we can/should aim for is to not make things worse. Cruelty and obvious avoidable suffering is clearly a no-no. (To many Christians too – they don’t all agree that “dominion”=”do anything you like”.) But a comfortable life and a quick death is arguably better than one gets in the wild.

  4. Have seen Singer employ the use of an ethical gedankenexperiment on just this issue. Given that we know the moral zeitgeist moves, and we also know that some pretty smart pelople got blindsided by moral issues of obvious clarity to us now, what will future generations be horrified by in our conduct?

    Singer plants our treatment of animals at the top of the list. I think he may even have compared it to slavery.

    I am a hypocrite too though. I’ve reduced my meat consumption as lot, and in occasions I do eat meat, I try to go for ‘ethical’ choices like non factory farmed.

    It does just seem like knee-jerk speciesism to not even consider these issues.

  5. the ethics is one thing – look at a grocery bill, the meats are through the roof. Currently looking for good meatless (meaning like stainless – way less meat involved) dishes.

    1. Meat calories (protein) will always be more expensive than plants calories (protein). Or at least as long as you have to turn plants to meat via the digestion system of a herbivore.

      Given that the developing world (in particular, China) is acquiring a taste for meat, the price of meat will increase. Worse, meat animals require food themselves – so increased meat consumption means increased demand for corn and soybeans, which means increased food prices overall.

    1. Nobody was saying PETA’s tactics are admirable. People are saying that bad tactics, or even bad motivations, don’t justify a kneejerk response to the whole complex issue of animal rights.

  6. Of all social issues I have always found that animal rights is the most difficult to discuss. Many other issues have obvious sides that are open-minded to discussion, but, perhaps it’s only my experience, talking about animal rights, meat-eating, and related issues get more backs up across the board.

    On my own social media networks, PETA gets criticized for their tactics and pro-vegetarianism articles get criticized for the lack of feasible solutions rather than acknowledge the idea that, yes, we are torturing animals so that we can sit at tables and dip their cooked parts in sauces.

    This is a discussion that really takes a lot of pre-emptive work to keep people from taking it personally, and most times I find it doesn’t work. In a very real way, criticizing meat eating is to take a shot at personal comfort and family — by arguing the immorality that goes into a meat-heavy feast (say a Christmas dinner) you are firing across the bow at every person at that table. It’s a wholesale judgment of something each of us often looks forward to and revels in.

    Like Dr. Coyne I cannot justify eating animal products to myself. I eat meat often –nearly every day– and this makes me a hypocrite. Speaking only for myself, I don’t think I have it in me to take an actual stand.

  7. All species are ‘speciesist’. It’s a very Darwinian way to be and nothing to be particularly ashamed of.

    Also, note that there is a distinction in the animal rights movement between animal welfarism (the idea that we should treat animals humanely, i.e., minimize their suffering) and abolitionism (the idea that we should not use animals at all for food, research subjects, clothing, or pets).

      1. Don’t confuse the is-ought “problem” with the naturalistic fallacy. They are not the same thing. And I actually think the is ought distinction is part of the problem in getting people to embrace vegetarianism/veganism. If you can’t get an ought from an is, then what can you get it from? A Not-Is? Something that doesn’t exist? If so, you can’t get an ought at all. In which case, we should stop talking about oughts. Its absurd that people think we need oughts anyways, its more scientific to simply say humans suffer less/feel good more under some circumstances. And that certain ways of going about these things are best. If philosophers and scientists would just acknowledge this is the only reasonable position on morality, we might have more public discourse on this. Once you take up utilitarian morality factory farming becomes a moral imperative. Its no coincidence that utilitarians have been at the forefront of animal rights efforts since the inception of their ideas.

        1. I’ll agree that there are two separate issues here, one objective and one not. See my longish comment.

          Funny, I think I agree on the utilitarian view as well, at least partly as there are more ways to chose/learn morality than to make us feel good about ourselves. (Which is what the utilitarian tactic translates to.)

      1. I was only responding to the implication that ‘speciesism’ is somehow inherently evil.

        The best way to be a non-speciesist is to commit suicide, for just by being alive you are impacting the well-being of other creatures on the planet.

        From a Darwinian perspective, all creatures ‘want’ to live (this includes insects, plants, and bacteria). Are animal rights folks suggesting then that we should try to prevent lions from eating their prey (often while still alive)? Should we try to turn our pet cats and dogs into vegans?

        Morality comes down to personal preference and emotion. Because of the is/ought distinction, there is no fact of the matter which can tell us that it is wrong to eat or exploit animals, or that it is wrong to inflict suffering.

        And there is no law which requires an individual’s morality to be consistent across the board.

        The truth is, we do tend to value our kin more than those of others, and value the well-being of our pet bird more than that of the chicken that ends up on our plate. Yes, we can try to change our values, but there is no fact of the matter that can tell us whether or not we should do so and what our values should be.

        1. I was only responding to the implication that ‘speciesism’ is somehow inherently evil.

          “Speciesism” is defined as unwarranted discrimination based on nothing more pertinent than species membership, which itself is largely defined based on whether you can have sex with it and produce viable offspring. It’s definitely in the same ballpark as judging people by the colour of their skin, their genitalia, and their place of birth.

          The best way to be a non-speciesist is to commit suicide, for just by being alive you are impacting the well-being of other creatures on the planet.

          This is a typical argument, and not a strong one. For starters, the main issue in animal rights discussions is setting aside species membership – as it’s strictly irrelevant – and focus on capabilities like suffering and conscious experience. My being alive will certainly impact several plants, but since plants don’t have brains, can’t suffer, and therefore are morally irrelevant, so what?

          Secondly, let’s grant for the sake of argument that animals inflict suffering and death on each other routinely. The fact that it is routine in no way proves that it’s therefore OK, since at best this is an argument from pragmatism. If it’s impractical to prevent ALL suffering at ALL times, in ALL places, it’s a tragic situation, but the pain and suffering don’t magically and conveniently disappear.

          Thirdly, none of this would be a compelling reason to continue business as usual. Even if suffering and death were guaranteed – and they are even in human civilized societies – this in no way means we should give up finding ways to prevent, reduce, or alleviate at least some of it. By turning a lamentable large-scale observation into an excuse for a lack of short-term effort, you’re basically confusing “we can’t achieve perfection” with “we can’t ever improve”, which is wholly unwarranted.

          From a Darwinian perspective,

          Well, we’re not Darwinians, however much we are shaped by Darwinian forces. And Darwinian “perspectives” and “desires” fully earn the scare quotes, for they simply aren’t the same as real perspectives and desires found in sentient beings. While I don’t deny your questions are important – though I suspect you asked them either facetiously or as if it were self-evident slam-dunks – getting hung up over Darwinian imperatives when it comes to ethics is like getting hung up over them when discussing optics, or theoretical mechanics.

          Morality comes down to personal preference and emotion.

          That might make sense in a magic-dualist universe where the consciousness of human beings is somehow ontologically exempt from the laws governing the rest of the universe, but not in the reality we actually inhabit. Science is already chipping away at the idea of a distinction between subjective experience and objective reality, in mind sciences which Hume (the concocter of the is-ought distinction) would never have even seen in their infancy. And unfortunately, the bit getting the most chipping is the idea of our subjective uniqueness, which includes our preferences and emotions.

          If morality comes down to preference and emotion, but you deny these things any special ontological status, then either you’re assuming whatever lies behind those emotions – assumptions, ideas, thoughts, and general rational leanings – is the moral authority to consult – unconsciously, explicitly, or otherwise – or you’re saying they have no authority at all and whim is just as good an arbiter as any. In other words, it’s a god under a different name. And the Euthyphro Dilemma is just as relevant (and fares just as poorly) when directed at emotions and preferences.

          Because of the is/ought distinction,

          As jasnsilverman20 points out, the only logical conclusion of taking the is/ought distinction seriously is that “oughts” don’t mean jack. Otherwise, the is/ought distinction only makes sense if you’re the magic-dualist type of thinker who believes consciousness – and by extension, emotions, preferences, and morality – all exist on a different plane from the rest of reality. Not to mention you’re left in the untenable position how an “ought” can arise at all in a universe composed of “is”. And this is before I point out that Hume was, in any case, basing his meta-ethical ideas on concepts that have taken a thrashing from the implications of physics, biology, and cosmology, not to belittle the considerable demolition work of more recent mind sciences. They are, in any case, based on refusing to unpack the concept of “should” to see if it really behaves as they say it does.

          there is no fact of the matter which can tell us that it is wrong to eat or exploit animals, or that it is wrong to inflict suffering.

          Are you a moral nihilist, then? Because that’s the only tenable position if no fact of the matter can persuade you that something is moral or not, since you’ve just avowed that nothing in reality can change your mind about eating animals – which sounds suspiciously like a faith-based position.

          And there is no law which requires an individual’s morality to be consistent across the board.

          Again, only if you insist morality holds a completely different position from normal rational discourse. As I hope I’ve made clear by now, this isn’t possible without either believing some nonsense magic-dualism that is wildly out of date or ignoring the deductions you should be drawing from your own arguments.

          1. Yes, I am a moral nihilist/relativist/subjectivist/emotivist.

            I happen to agree that reducing suffering is worthwhile, but this is just my personal opinion. Others may disagree, and there is no fact that I can point to which should compel them to believe otherwise.

            Some thoughts from an ex-moral vegan philosophy professor:


            And how do you know that plants can’t suffer?


            1. Pain’s purpose seems to be to get organisms to react/move away from some damaging stimuli. Since plants generally can’t move, this adaptation would serve no natural selective purpose and thus we have no reason to think it would propagate through the population. So, in general, I think “plant’s can’t feel pain” is a reasonable assumption based on biological principals.

              There will be exceptions. There are mobile single-celled organisms we typically consider to be part of the vegetable kingdom (such as fungi), and I’d expect that they can experience something like pain. Also to the extent that plants can control their motion (such as turning leaves to the sun or opening flowers), I’d expect that damaging movements might induce some type of negative feedback. But no, I would not expect plants to “feel pain” from saws or animal bites or anything like that, because that adaptation would serve no purpose.

              There are animal-equivalents to this lack too. We don’t feel pain when our hair or nails are cut, and humans as well as most animals have far fewer internal sensitive nerves than they have external ones. Because the same principal applies: as an adaptational feature, pain-feeling is only going to propagate through a species where and when it’s useful for survival. For cases where it’s not generally useful, we lack that ability.

              Last point: many fruits are adapted to be plucked by animals and eaten. For sure in those cases, it would be extremely screwy if the plant felt a negative stimuli for some event that helped it propagate its genes. If anything the reverse should be true; plucking an apple or banana should, if it causes any feeling at all, cause a positive feedback to the plant!

            2. Yes, I am a moral nihilist/relativist/subjectivist/emotivist.

              Nihilism and the other three are mutually exclusive categories, akin to saying you’re an atheist and a deist.

              I happen to agree that reducing suffering is worthwhile, but this is just my personal opinion.

              And what do you think an opinion is, if not an attempt to grasp at a truth? People have opinions about the cosmology of the universe, but such opinions don’t radically alter the nature of the thing being considered simply by dint of being an opinion.

              Others may disagree, and there is no fact that I can point to which should compel them to believe otherwise.

              How do you know this to be the case? Again, there is an exact parallel in readily non-controversial alternatives. Creationists have different views on how life arose, for example, and some of them prove intransigent if you try to reason with them. That doesn’t demonstrate that truth is merely a matter of personal opinion. It results from people’s opinions simply being incorrect.

              Some thoughts from an ex-moral vegan philosophy professor:

              Thank you for the link. I doubt you’d be surprised I’d find it unconvincing, but hopefully I can pinpoint why. Probably the single biggest issue is the bizarre equating of an objective ethics with a divinely commanding deity. With little modification, I could adopt his argument against truth and come to the same conclusion:

              I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of truth and falsehood as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should believe it because it is true, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular epistemology, which divined without divinity – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible power to reveal the truth to us.

              Brushing aside the initiating “anti-epiphany”, in which someone wriggles over their theistic belief by equating it to a relationship – which is not at all an original or compelling argument – the other problem is the over-interpretation of a genuine fact about morality; that it concerns the relationship between conscious entities. Setting aside, too, the observation that suffering and death occurs even without Marks’ witnessing it, it is in one sense trivially obvious that morality – which is about categorising behaviours – is about relations between perceiver and perceived, but there’s nothing ontologically special about perception itself. The mind sciences are already unravelling how it works, and the fit is no more revolutionary than understanding a key and a lock to explain “fitting”, or a real-world referent and a mental state to explain “beliefs”. By jumping straight to subjectivism, however, Marks implicitly assumes that the relationship is so unique as to warrant a category outside of objectivism, which he has not adequately demonstrated. He has merely assumed it from weak evidence.

              And how do you know that plants can’t suffer?

              Quite frankly, because they lack an adequate analogue to the brain, or at least to a nervous system. I don’t deny that plants have communicative structures, but then the endocrine system in my body is such a communication structure, and despite being attached to my brain, I’m pretty sure that’s not sentient. In fact, other examples of non-brain structures communicating already exist in the human body, but the computational level of processing in the brain is at least a minimum for what we recognize as sentience. Chamovitz’s article is fascinating in how animal-like some plant systems are, but at times he simply equates intelligence and consciousness with causality. And since the existence of sentience in animals as relatively simple as lobsters and insects is still controversial – at least, as far as I know – I don’t hold out much hope for the sentient plant hypothesis.

              Let’s, however, concede for the sake of argument that plants are sentient. My short response is: so be it. For my longer response, I refer you to my previous paragraph:

              Secondly, let’s grant for the sake of argument that animals inflict suffering and death on each other routinely. The fact that it is routine in no way proves that it’s therefore OK, since at best this is an argument from pragmatism. If it’s impractical to prevent ALL suffering at ALL times, in ALL places, it’s a tragic situation, but the pain and suffering don’t magically and conveniently disappear.

              1. “And what do you think an opinion is, if not an attempt to grasp at a truth?”

                Um…opinions are not facts. In my opinion, chocolate is better than vanilla; human life is more valuable than the life of cockroaches. In what way do these opinions attempt to ‘grasp at a truth’?

                And if you really want to minimize animal suffering in the world, you should propose to eliminate all predators from the planet. To sit idly by amounts to complicity.

                “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” – David Hume

              2. Um…opinions are not facts. In my opinion, chocolate is better than vanilla;

                Which is just saying that, when you consume chocolate, you experience more pleasure than when you consume vanilla. It’s a clunky way of saying it – for instance, just saying “chocolate is better than vanilla” sounds like you’re trying to make claims for the taste experiences of others – but that is essentially what it boils down to. A fact, in other words.

                human life is more valuable than the life of cockroaches. In what way do these opinions attempt to ‘grasp at a truth’?

                Unless you’re saying this sentence is gobbledegook, you’re trying to pin something down about humans, cockroaches, and an alleged scale of inferiority-superiority that they can be measured upon. And I do mean gobbledegook: if your only response to a challenge is merely “Hey, it’s just my opinion”, you’re essentially wasting your breath. Or, of course, you could be refusing to pin down anything concrete and challengeable, like some people do when they make this move.

                And if you really want to minimize animal suffering in the world, you should propose to eliminate all predators from the planet. To sit idly by amounts to complicity.

                I don’t deny that, were there a way to stop the global predation rate risk-free, I would advocate it. The problems, though, are simply stated:

                1. Practical. It would require a terraforming operation beyond current believability, never mind current technology. It may as well be impossible.

                2. The alternative is worse. Trying to eliminate all predatory behaviours would, quite apart from causing countless deaths as predators’ bodies packed up, throw the global ecosystem out of whack, creating misery and death quite possibly worse than what’s already occurring.

                I notice you’ve completely ignored my points about Hume’s obsolescence in favour of parroting him again. In any case, once a good is identified, it is contrary to reason, for the same reason it would be contrary to note the existence of animals and yet proceed to ignore their existence.

                In general, I notice you’re repeating your assertions and not actually addressing my points.

              3. Sorry, forgot to add a sentence. Here:

                To take just one example, you have completely ignored the contradiction I pointed out in your prior comment, in which you facetiously claim to be both nihilist and subjectivist despite them being contradictory categories.

    1. Would you also agree that …

      “All men are sexist or all white people are racist. It’s a very Darwinian way to be and nothing to be particularly ashamed about.” ?

    2. There are lots of Darwinian “Ways to be” that we should be ashamed of. We’ve progressed culturally and philosophically far beyond the view that what was adaptive in the Pleistocene is “good” in modern culture.

      1. But you are someone that does not believe in objective ethics. How are you able to consistently say that something is good or better in modern culture? If you are able to say it increases wellbeing, why not identify ethics with a form of utilitarianism rather than saying ethics is purely a social construct?

        1. One can say something is good or bad without believing in objective ethics because one can be just voicing one’s own preference (or perhaps making an appeal to people who share similar preferences).

          I’m not sure what you mean by identifying ethics with a form of utilitarianism. If you mean preferring to maximize well-being, I don’t see why one can’t do this while also maintaining that right and wrong are grounded on nothing but people’s preferences?

          1. Is morality simply what people’s preferences turn out to be? In which case, it’s as arbitrary and contradictory as a god claiming rape is bad one day and rape is good the next. Or do preferences have reasons for making some things moral, and others not? In which case, they can’t possibly be the source of morality any more than godly whim can be.

            Besides, people’s preferences don’t exist on an ontologically different realm from things that are achingly, entirely under the purview of “is”, not unless some form of magic dualism is true. The moment you admit that the contents of consciousness – and indeed consciousness itself – belong in the real world of “is”, “is”, “is”, invoking emotions to justify morality is as baseless as assuming all intuitions are 100% rational, since the emotions themselves operate according to rational precepts, even if only implicitly. Combine that with the computational theory of mind, and the unavoidable conclusion is that emotions encode information about reality that is no less subject to rational consideration as explicitly discuss-able facts and beliefs, simply because they ARE facts and beliefs with the illusion of being something else.

            For instance, we can recognize arachnophobia is an irrational impulse because the fear presumes something dangerous about the animal which is at odds to reality. If preferences were king, though, it would be nonsense to say this because the Emotion Has Spoken. This is an extreme and obvious example, but in truth it applies to all the emotions and preferences.

            Simply put, assigning moral value to whatever the emotions says is comparable to putting a god as the arbiter of morality.

            1. What a bunch of strawmen. No defender of ethical subjectivism — ok, I’ll hedge that, no defender of ethical subjectivism I know or have read about (David Hume, Gilbert Harman, PCC, to name a few), hold the caricature of a view that you are attacking. None of them say that morality is “simply” what people’s preferences turn out to be; there is always a story about the coherence among the preferences, what preferences are reasonable or justified given some other, more firmly held preferences, etc. None of them say that each and every preference is a king in itself. None of them say that preferences based on factual assumptions should continue to rein even when the assumptions are discovered to be false.

              Your second paragraph is especially confused. I don’t know where you get the idea that subjectivists are in the business of justifying morality. We are telling you about the nature of morality. If you don’t like the kind of morality which we say is the only kind there is, if you don’t think it’s justified, well that’s fine by me (and fine by PCC, I dare to presume). We still have our own preferences about what the world should be like and we can work with like-minded people to make the world a little more like that. Good enough, by the lights of my preferences.

              1. there is always a story about the coherence among the preferences, what preferences are reasonable or justified given some other, more firmly held preferences, etc.

                But it still, at the end of the day, comes back to What The Preferences Say. It can’t resolve conflicts between different preferences without going outside of preferences, and since the only sane way to deal with that without miring oneself in self-contradiction is to rule that majority preferences (or strongest preferences) get their say. And you simply can’t be a subjectivist AND maintain that reasons are in charge of preferences. That’s eating your cake and having it.

                I don’t know where you get the idea that subjectivists are in the business of justifying morality. We are telling you about the nature of morality.

                Same difference. If you are pinning your meta-ethical theory on the idea that only subjective preferences are what makes things good and bad, then you are in effect justifying with it at the same time, since you’ve stated the criterion by which a justification counts.

                If you don’t like the kind of morality which we say is the only kind there is

                My point is that the nature of morality you so boldly claim is the only kind there is… not only isn’t the only kind there is, but is a particularly weak one on par with believing in the divine command theory of ethics. Simply substitute god for emotions, and there’s really little difference.

              2. No difference between god and preferences? How about: one of them really exists? (And it’s curious that you keep substituting “emotion” for “preference”. They’re not the same.)

                And you simply can’t be a subjectivist AND maintain that reasons are in charge of preferences. That’s eating your cake and having it.

                If this is what really drives your objection, sorry, sujectivists DENY that reasons are in charge of preferences. As Hume famously said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

              3. No difference between god and preferences? How about: one of them really exists?

                If you were paying attention – and this rebuttal clearly demonstrates you weren’t – my objection was akin to the Euthyphro dilemma for a deity. In that context, it applies even if a deity were to exist, so the fact that a deity does not exist is merely a nail in a coffin already made to go. Merely existing does not remotely save emotions from the same fate.

                The point is that the thing you’re invoking as the source of morality suffers from the Scylla of arbitrariness and the Charybdis of borrowing its authority from elsewhere. Worse than that, it is assertive hand-waving. What is so special about emotions, preferences, etc. that they entail an ontologically unique position in the known universe?

                (And it’s curious that you keep substituting “emotion” for “preference”. They’re not the same.)

                A moment later, you quote someone who talks about “passion” to make your point. Whether preference, emotion, or passion, the result is the same. It is invoking mind-stuff, as Sastra would probably put it and where most mysticism usually ends up.

                And you simply can’t be a subjectivist AND maintain that reasons are in charge of preferences. That’s eating your cake and having it.

                So they are King, then. I’m sorry, but subjectivism is the position digging its own pit here. Subjectivism may deny that reasons are in charge of preferences, but then they can’t turn around and talk about coherence et al and deny that preferences are King. This is before you explain why invoking preferences isn’t an arbitrary claim.

                If this is what really drives your objection, sorry, sujectivists DENY that reasons are in charge of preferences.

                I suppose they have to take it on faith, then, that preferences magically create oughts where is’s cannot? This position is so incurious as to how it’s supposed to work that it really does parallel the arguments of theists.

                For starters, this is confusing two completely different issues. While it is true that people defend moral views not by invoking explicitly defensible reasons but by gut feelings and intuition, this is again no different from people relying on intuition and gut feelings to determine what’s true or not, rather than mounting a defensible and clear logical argument. But whereas we draw the obvious conclusion in the case of, say, someone’s gut feeling that god is talking to them, subjectivism suddenly sanctifies the same impulse when it comes to morality, all while remaining incurious about how, in a universe as amenable to objective study as this one, this is supposed to come about. The comparison to a god is entirely apt here because it amounts to special pleading.

                As for Hume: again, he was writing during a time before a lot of scientific advancement. Heck, he was writing before it became apparent that mind-stuff wasn’t actually that radically different from matter, as he and his contemporaries thought (Dennett makes a point of this in his writings, though I forget which book exactly – probably Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, or Consciousness Explained). In the light of evolution, the breakdown of the fundamental mind-and-matter distinction (and the attendant implicit dualism), the computational theory of mind, and the general knocking down of human exceptionalism that still ties itself in knots over human souls, consciousness, sentience, qualia, etc., it’s an obsolete distinction. Hume’s is hardly the last word on the subject.

                I’d be interested to hear how you justify denying that reasons are in charge of preferences. Given what we know about brains being information management systems, and especially given the work Sam Harris references in The Moral Landscape about brains treating moral premises no differently from, say, mathematical ones, the most “feasible” way of doing this is to invoke magic.

              4. there is always a story about the coherence among the preferences, what preferences are reasonable or justified given some other, more firmly held preferences, etc.

                This is what I was referring to when I said that you were saying “reasons are in charge of preferences”. You’ve dismissed the idea that preferences answer to reason. You can’t turn around and then say, “Well, they kinda do”. THAT is eating your cake and having it: exempting preferences from reason and appropriating reason to adjudicate among them.

                And frankly, coherence among preferences and preferences justifying other preferences runs smack into the point I raised in the first place: preferences can’t resolve conflicts among themselves, absent of reason, without adding rules like majority preferences or strongest preferences. It’s giving authority to a multi-headed monster, exactly like divine command theory simply declaring as good whatever a god deems there and then is good regardless.

              5. There are many objections I can raise, but there is little point to go on if you are just going to put words into my mouth and then attack me for things I never said. Where did I “dismiss the idea that preferences answer to reason”? I didn’t do that in my original comment on jasonsilverman20’s comment (heck, it wasn’t even a statement of subjectivism, just saying that one can use words like “right” and “wrong” to express preferences). And I took the first opportunity, in the first paragraph in my first reply to you, to say that subjectivists do acknowledge a role for reason in moral thinking — a servile role, if we go with Hume’s metaphor. If you don’t like that metaphor and want to call it “master”, fine. But stop responding to things I never said.

              6. Jasonsilverman20’s point was that Jerry was being inconsistent by not embracing moral objectivism. You stepped in to point out moral subjectivism as though it were a valid way to address the point. My aim in responding was to point out that, in fact, it was not. My “putting words in your mouth” was my pointing out the inconsistencies and implications behind subjectivism.

                heck, it wasn’t even a statement of subjectivism, just saying that one can use words like “right” and “wrong” to express preferences

                It wasn’t a statement of subjectivism, except it was. If you’re presenting “right and wrong are preferences” in response to jasonsilverman20’s claim that not embracing moral objectivism is inconsistent, then you’re totally making a statement of subjectivism.

                And I have pointed out in subsequent comments why subjectivists trying to put reason in their moral philosophy – servile or otherwise – is nonsense. It’s exactly like someone claiming divine command theory and then saying “ah, but we can use reason after receiving the divine commands, so your Euthyphro dilemma does not apply”. You can reason from an arbitrary starting point with assumed authority, but at the end of the day it’s still an arbitrary starting point with assumed authority.

                It’s not a question of not “liking” the metaphor. It’s that the metaphor is a poor attempt to save an inconsistent and weakly evidenced position.

              7. One more clarification, lest you attack an imaginary target again: What I had taken “reason in charge of preferences” to mean is the strong view that cognitive processes (supposedly processes that culminate in one’s recognition of some moral “facts”) by themselves are sufficient to give rise to preferences and thereby motivate actions. If this view were true it would indeed deal a heavy blow to subjectivism, and it’s right to say that subjectivists can’t maintain it. But of course, as I said, subjectivists DENY it.

                It just dawned on me that maybe by that phrase you meant something much much weaker, e.g., that reasoning plays a secondary role of ensuring all preferences exist in harmony, etc. But subjectivits have no problem agreeing to this weaker statement.

                So this statement of yours is wrong either way

                you simply can’t be a subjectivist AND maintain that reasons are in charge of preferences. That’s eating your cake and having it

                On the stronger interpretation subjectivists don’t want to maintain it. On the weaker interpretation, they can and do.

              8. There is no saviour here: even the weaker interpretation makes a nonsense of their theory. They claim moral oughts are preferences, and reason’s subsequent task is to do the work of those preferences, which presumably means building codes around them and fulfilling them. But what about contradictory preferences? If they expect reason to decide between them, then they renounce any claim that reason is merely servile to preferences, and we end up with a contradiction. If reason cannot decide between them, then the whole thing is a complete contradiction anyway. And even if you could claim a “reasonable” method like majority vote (which will necessarily discriminate against minority preferences) or strength of preferences (which will discriminate against the weak-willed), what’s to stop some moral code from throwing reason itself under a bus? Plenty of faith positions do that, and a subjectivist would have to concede it if they didn’t want to make a hash of their own theory.

                It parallels exactly the Euthyphro dilemma. If oughts are simply divine commands, then the authority trumps any rational challenge and we end up with an arbitrary authority that contradicts itself, or at least has no way of resolving a contradiction without surrendering said authority.

                This isn’t academic either. To pick an obvious current example, there are obvious differences in preferences between devout Muslims in the Middle East and secular atheists in Europe and the US. If both sides are simply following their preferences, then by the standards of subjectivism, both sides are right and wrong simultaneously. Therefore, it is utterly meaningless for, say, subjectivist members of this site to complain about Muslim atrocities done according to Sharia Law, say. They surrender any genuine way to adjudicate among preferences because they themselves claim preferences are the ultimate moral authority and therefore answer to no one. And this is before considering the evidence for the case of subjectivism, which at its best relies on grossly overinterpreting the basic fact that most people’s moral reasoning is largely subconscious and instinctive rather than clearly laid out in explicable premises.

                Even Hume sits in a contradictory position. His “is/ought” distinction, if taken seriously, should rule out subjectivism, because deriving an “ought” from preferences – i.e. from what “is” – violates that principle. And I’ve mentioned over and over how Hume – the go-to philosopher for this – was hopelessly ill-equipped even to conceive of, much less make much of, the subsequent developments in mind sciences and evolutionary biology, which among other things make a nonsense of his and his contemporaries’ emphasis on the mind’s uniqueness.

            2. Now, if you think there are objective moral truths (/principles/facts/…), tell us how we are supposed to discover them. What senses or instruments do we use? Sensus divinitatis? Everything ethical objectivists have so far managed to propose all looks very much like that…

              1. The usual way, I should presume. It doesn’t require invoking a sensus divinatus. The minimal response is that ethics is based on sentience, more specifically on those parts of sentience concerned with positive emotions, negative emotions, and the ceasing of sentience. Or, as examples, pleasure, pain, and death. This is precisely because of the nature of said experiences. For instance, pleasures are one of the few unambiguous candidates for a real-world good, death is an irreversible loss of someone’s ability to enjoy life, and so on. Moreover, such emotions and phenomena can be found empirically. Ultimately, a “should” statement is simply a hypothetical concerning these positive and negative experiences. That is really what it boils down to, both when you observe your own responses to phenomena and when you observe those of others.

                Anyone expecting morals to arise without invoking ethical naturalism along the way is essentially invoking a sensus divinatus on their own, for they’ll have found the first real-world thing that doesn’t answer to the general fact-finding enterprise of science. In other words, they’re invoking a ghost in the machine and calling it emotions rather than a soul or god.

              2. You may be confusing first-order moral judgements (about what’s the right or wrong thing to do) with meta-judgments (about the nature of first-order moral judgements). One can go all day long defending a first-order view such as “One should always minimize pain and suffering”, or whatever, and it wouldn’t go an inch toward answering the meta-question, which is what I was asking you: is that first-order view (or any first-order view) true by virtue of any facts? If so, what are those facts? How do we know them?

              3. I am making no such confusion. This is and has always been about meta-ethics, not simply normative or descriptive ethics. And my answer is the same again: empirical evidence, guided by the usual tools of science and rational enquiry. I’ve already pointed out what “should” reduces to one you pay it attention: a hypothetical in which alternative states of affairs are compared along a good-bad axis, and the remaining mystery is finding a real-world correlate for that good-bad axis. The quickest and easiest way to confirm that is to confirm the existence of an experience that is, say, more negative than others. You can do the experiment yourself, simply by sitting quietly doing something enjoyable for a while, and then go stick your hand in a fire. I can think of many candidates for the “good-bad” axis, but the raw sentient experience you’d encounter when invoking that pain strike me as the most compelling.

                If you turn around and say “Yes, but is it actually bad”, then I contend either that we’re playing pointless word games to avoid confronting said phenomena, or we’re making a case for moral nihilism. Either way, invoking preferences to prop up a collapsing bridge cannot be legitimately on the table.

    3. I don’t think any animals have rights. We should have laws against being cruel to animals due to our own humanity. The more an animal can experience suffering, the more the law should protect it from unnecessary suffering.

      Note I said suffering. Unless an animal has very nearly human levels of sentience and intelligence we can still kill it for food.

      So I agree that some factory farming practices should be improved. Medical testing should avoid unnecessary suffering, but these laws are to protect and reflect our own humanity, not due to any rights animals have.

      1. Strictly speaking, “rights” are no more real when applied to humans either. They’re convenient “everybody act as if” tools that, by dint of meeting other useful needs – such as setting visible standards, making something official, etc. – prove to be functional enough to keep. They are, in short, glorified standard units of measurement.

        In any case, what’s so special about our “humanity”? While we are currently the only species writing legislation to prevent cruelty to other species, doing it simply as a test of our own “humanity” rather than out of any moral concern for the welfare of animals is as pointless as drafting legislation against breaking toys or playing violent video games “as a reflection of our humanity”. If the capacity for suffering doesn’t by itself merit any self-regulation, these pseudo-reasons aren’t going to be any more compelling.

  8. When I first encountered Singer’s arguments back in the late 1970s, they were much fresher, more controversial, and just as hard to refute.
    I have met people in the animal rights movement who find the idea of applying the “can they suffer?” criterion to human animals quite unsettling, because it then means that they have to think about the effects of their actions on both the target humans and the intended beneficiaries (non-human animals, but rarely cockroaches). It was a saddening “growing up” experience to realise that not just the members of normal society can be so stupid as to not see the validity of our points, but also that members of the “alternative” society can also have such stupidity. Or even, shock! horror!, have different opinions to us.
    A useful “growing up” experience. I gave up long ago on trying to find a hole in Singer’s question, and eventually I’ve given up on trying to figure out other people’s positions – largely because so many people seem to not have a position about such things. And I’ve gotten tired of fighting other species and people’s battles for them.
    I guess the absence of indoctrination in my youth has left me without the fire in the belly that is really needed to fight these fights for decades. I just gave up after a couple of decades and got on with my life instead. But I did acquire a very strong opinion that most people don’t want to think about hard things, and particularly not about the future. So to get action, you’ve got to start the indoctrination young. Sounds familiar?

    1. I support World Animal Protection because they work to address issues like over crowding of animals like chickens and the long, inhumane transportation of pigs on their way to slaughter. The way these animals are treated is horrible – sometimes the pigs have their legs broken and they are zapped and kicked into the truck. I don’t know how people can be so heartless and cruel when an animal is suffering, and I can only conclude that they are incapable of recognizing fear, pain and sadness in species outside their own (if they can even recognize it in their own species).

      This organization also goes to disaster areas and helps with pet animals (which they’ve been criticized for because humans feel they should be helping humans, not other animals) and they vaccinate feral dogs that would otherwise be destroyed.

      I have a credit card that donates money to them with its use (which is good because when stressed, I spend money so someone should benefit!).

      I have for a long time felt that other animals had the same rights as humans and I once surprised a family friend (who thought one shouldn’t have pets when there were starving people in the world) that there are many people who are evil and my dog is far superior to those horrible people. His assumption was that people were above other animals and that all people were good and deserving of treatment above animals.

    2. If you are seeking objective evaluation of a subject, the clowns Penn and Teller are the last people you should be paying attention to.

  9. Bravo to PCC on this posting. You will have made a friend in my wife after I get her to read this one. As I may have said before, she is a big time animal rights person and has been longer than I know – only married 40 years.

    Gives money almost exclusively to animal rights groups and also puts in a lot of hours at the local animal shelter.

    We have also tried to make our area here as animal friendly as possible, with few people and no more letting the public in to fish and just walk all over the place. We have a responsibility to do this just as Stephen Barnard does very well up in Idaho.

  10. I only buy free range eggs, or get them (free) from my sister, whose chickens have a great life.

    Same with chicken, beef, lamb, and mutton.

    I don’t eat pork anymore because I can’t afford the free range stuff.

    Factory farms are being phased out here. As far as I know, they only exist for chickens and pigs. I’m sure we’ve never had the type of mass feeding farm Jerry describes for cattle, sheep, goats, or deer.

    It’s political pressure from voters that’s getting the factory farms banned. Pictures of what the animals suffer has galvanised opinion.

    We have a law here that synthetic recreational drugs have to be proven safe before they can be sold. Animals are not allowed to be used in the testing of those. Originally they were, but the government backed down because of political pressure. The idea that animals should suffer so people could have their legal highs was too disgusting for anyone to stomach.

    1. Damn commie kiwis! 😀

      No, NZ doesn’t have factory farms like the ones Jerry describes. I can’t be sure, but I don’t think Canada does to that extent — my dad told me about driving from Arizona to Ontario and going through those places Jerry mentions and there is nothing like seeing it – he said he saw manure piled higher than roof tops in some areas. Yuck! I think Canada has factory farms but nothing like that.

      I rarely eat eggs (unless they are in stuff, which they are in most stuff) and I have refused to eat pork for probably 20 years now because of the bad way pigs are treated. I don’t really like beef so I rarely eat it. I do eat chicken and I know when I eat out and eat chicken it is probably factory farmed (because it’s huge) and full of antibiotics. I really should stop eating the chicken too. I figure I’ll eventually become vegetarian in the way many religious people become atheists (slowly and over time).

      1. I like meat. I can’t see myself not eating it.

        We commie Kiwis have had a centre right government since 2009, re-elected twice, and has a pretty good chance of being elected for a fourth time in 2017.

        I must admit though, they do more social spending than centre-right governments in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and especially the US.

  11. One problem is assuming that animal experimentation and rearing animals for food automatically results in suffering. You can make animals comfortable and fed to the point they are not stressed. The problem is that businesses invariably cut corners. They crowd animals, clean less, and care less about animal comfort.

    My opinion is that animals can be useful to humans but no expense should be spared to avoid or lessen their suffering while they are alive. If an euthanasia is required, it should be non-painful. As we descend from this standard, our animal use becomes less and less moral.

    There is a field where both animals and humans are used for experimentation. In toxicology, drugs are given to animals and then later (sometimes concurrently) given to humans. Many mechanisms are in place to avoid animal and human suffering during the study. The difference is the end of the study. Animals are usually euthanized and necropsied. Euthanasias are the same as in the vet’s office for an infirm animal, the animal doesn’t suffer and it may lead to a cure for horrible human diseases like muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, cancer or heart disease.

    1. I’m not against the idea of functional exploitation without suffering, but I do consider this thought experiment:

      Imagine, for a moment, that it turned out a subset of humanity had a disorder that made them mentally on par with the target animal in question. Imagine, further, that for whatever reason a subset of the animal population in question was mentally advanced, if not to adult human levels then certainly pretty close. Could we, in all honesty, swap the two sub-groups around: say, have sapient chimpanzees wandering among humans, and (relatively) mentally handicapped humans in among chimpanzees?

      It’s not just that this forces the last vestiges of speciesism to the surface: it’s interesting to note exactly how it surfaces, whether as a knee-jerk cringing or as an immediate – possibly denialist – rallying of counterarguments.

      It’s particularly relevant when the idea comes up for using other animals for the benefit of humans. Would we be happy to apply the standard equally for humans, and have “inferior” humans used for the benefit of “superior” humans? Or, if we reject the inferior-superior distinction outright, wouldn’t we have just dismissed the case for using other animals for the benefit of humans, since that requires an inferior-superior distinction?

      The point, of course, is that someone should at least admit the possibility, when they are determined to make the case for a superior-inferior distinction that privileges exploitation of those lower down the scale for those higher up the scale. In other words, either a hierarchy with no speciesist bias, or genuine egalitarianism.

  12. Thank you for writing this right before the Holidays. Bitter food for thought.
    Please consider supporting farmers who are letting their animals free-range, and live fairly normally until harvest time. The meat and eggs may be twice the price, but these farmers are not just treating the animals with compassion, they are also land stewards. Factory farms not only cause animal suffering, they usually pollute streams and put antibiotics into the ecosystem.

    1. It might not hurt to remind others who are not so close to this – The new age of farming in America was very bad for the farm animals. Going back to the 50s and before, in the mid west most of the hogs, cattle and chickens were raised on small farms. The hogs that we had kind of roamed around semi-free in the woods. There was no such thing as hog raising stations which are factory buildings where the hog can hardly move and never sees the outdoors. These are really bad places and it is similar to what you see with chickens and turkeys. Just this last year I think they killed nearly all the chickens in Iowa because of a flu.

      Some fast food businesses are now refusing to buy eggs and chickens from these modern facilities. Lots of pressure is the only thing that will change things.

  13. I am much disturbed by the concept of speciesm, i.e. that humans should be given no more rights than animals. In my country, EU pressure combined with the activism of a small but noisy local minority led to bizarre legislature concerning stray dogs. According to it, authorities can euthanize a stray dog only if it is sick or if it has been already proven aggressive by severely attacking a human. So we have packs of stray dogs that roam the streets and attack people. The burden of proof is on the victim: he must provide a medical certificate of his injuries and identify the dog to authorities. Taxpayers and their children are thus made bio-indicators of dogs’ aggressiveness. Of course, this system leads to periodic fatal mauling of humans by dogs, including a British immigrant (Ann Gordon, in 2007).
    As for animal products in diet, of course responsible adults should decide what to eat. The problem is that they too often force their choices on their children and other people. My father once pointed to a vegan couple that the inadequate protein supply might have something to do with their teen daughter’s scoliosis. Happily, they were not fanatics, allowed the girl to eat animal foods and her scoliosis improved.
    Several years ago, there was a drive (again pressed by richer EU countries) to outlaw sale of eggs that are not produced by “happy” chicken. Of course, “happy” chicken farming is more expensive, so this would deprive poor people of their only affordable source of animal protein. After some time, the measure was quietly dropped. Now, the “happy” and “unhappy” eggs are indicated and the consumer has a choice.

  14. “It seems to be a common opinion among atheists and scientists that the animal-rights movement is ridiculous”

    That’s not the impression I have, but perhaps I’m just fortunate not to follow those sites, or perhaps that attitude subconsciously drove me away from them. The sentiment I seem to see more often is yes they suffer, and yes we shouldn’t be doing it, but more time effort, and sacrifice is involved in giving up meat than I’m willing to give.

    1. That was not my impression, either. Seems to me it’s the religious, to whom “God gave” superiority over animals, who wouldn’t think much about their suffering.

      (Though I know of many religious-based animal welfare organizations. I’d think the animal welfare issue might correspond more significantly to the conservative/liberal split; to the extent that atheists tend to be liberal, I’d think they’d also tend to be more attuned to animal rights.)

      1. Although, there are the Seventh Day Adventist types who are vegetarian.

        They, I believe, run a restaurant in Wisconsin Dells called “The Cheese House”. we used to stop regularly on travels between Milwaukee and Minneapolis for the very good vegetarian fare. But it got just a bit too creepy when the waitress mentioned that the empty chair at our table had been saved for Jesus. True story.

          1. You may be forgetting his alknowingness. He knows the menu by heart. Besides he usually just picks left-overs from the plates of others.

  15. Great post, Jerry, thank you!

    As for the “sexist” Peta ads, well men and women are different, so we respond to them differently. If people liked to see scantily clad men as much as they like to see scantily clad women, then scantily clad men would be just as common in marketing. But obviously, thats now how we evolved. I see no point in faulting advertisers for dealing with the reality that is.

    1. What a lovely example of “men” equaling “people.” It is surprising how often women are casually written out of the human race.

  16. It is a difficult issue. I grew up on a farm and hand raised calves who were then slaughtered for meat. We took care of them and then ate them. I have no problem eating meat. And if a hundred million people want $1.99/pound chicken breasts there is no other way to get them other than factory farming, which I find awful. I think the problem is too many humans. I would also point out that if everyone would go vegetarian, where does that food come from Do we bulldoze every biome to feel 9 billion people vegan or vegetarian? At least if a cow eats prairie grass, I can still have the grass and eat the cow. In any case, TANSTAAFL.

    The turkeys in that photo don’t look particularly stressed to me.

    1. Your argument is flawed. Feeding people with meat is much more land hungry than feeding them with vegetable protein. If everyone was vegetarian or vegan it would be easier to ensure all 9 billion were properly fed.

      I should add that notwithstanding the above I am not a vegetarian myself. Life is complicated…

        1. We probably wouldn’t need to. Getting protein from animals sources rather than plant sources requires 3x as much land for chickens, 9x as much land for pork, and 32x as much land for beef.

          Three-quarters of agricultural land are used to raise animals. We’d have a lot more land available if we weren’t farming so much meat.

          As for transporting food to people living in tundra rather than having them farm animals (if that’s what you meant), I’m sure we already have systems for that.

          1. do you believe that we can plant enough to feed everyone without needing to destroy other biomes to allow enough soy, etc to be planted in areas that it does not grow?

            we certainly do have ways to transport food to areas that don’t have it. This takes energy. There is no concept of the locavore when one lives in Nome and can’t just bop down to the local farmers market to get food.

            1. Your point is still flawed. We will need less land feed the world’s population if we have a vegetarian diet than if we have a meat based one. If you are concerned about the loss of natural habitats as a result of the need to feed a population that might exceed nine billion then less meat is surely the way to go.

              1. Let me ask you a couple of questions, how much more arable land do you think we still have to use with no major change to it to make it able to support food crops?

                Right now, the amazing harvests are do to one thing: chemical fertilizer and pesticides/herbicides. As a vegan or vegetarian, do you support organic farming? Are you against factory farms that are just as bad for food plants as they are for food animals?

              2. It seems, clubschadenfreude, that you are maybe being deliberatly obtuse.

                What do you think the food animals are fed? If you abandon eating meat you do not increase the need for arable land, you decrease it. This is a necessary consequence of the energy pyramid in a food chain.

    2. The notion that meat can solve world hunger is obscene nonsense. Virtually all commercial meat in the West is fed on grain and soy, not grass and other things inedible for humans. Not only is the vast majority of meat grown as a wasteful luxury food for the rich nations, but it’s only cheap in the first place because the environmental, health, social, etc. costs are ignored in pricing and dumped on other people. If the crops were recruited for feeding humans directly instead of as feed for meat animals, these costs would crash, if not disappear. And this is ignoring the ethical issues of eating meat to begin with.

      The problem is not too many humans. The problem is too many high-consumers wanting daily doses of a resource that is produced in an extremely wasteful and environmentally destructive manner. It’s basically the carbon pollution issue all over again.

      1. “The problem is not that there are too many humans…”

        Nonsense. The large number of humans today magnifies every problem. Humans now dominate nearly every terrestrial ecosystem on earth. Minor food preferences can cause huge global impacts when multiplied by billions instead of hundreds of thousands. There really are too many humans.

        1. I’m not saying the population has no impact, but the most relevant point is that it’s the population of high consumers that causes the majority of the problem. The vast majority of environmentally destructive meat production – including the large-scale growing of grains and soy to feed the animals that go into said meat production – is done to feed not the huge numbers of starving in Africa’s and Asia’s low-income countries, but to feed Americans, Europeans, and other rich nations that often eat cheap meat simply as a luxury rather than a necessity.

          Of course the problem is exacerbated by the large population of consumers, but blaming population alone as if it were the main factor is akin to blaming rising Third World populations for the monstrous emissions of greenhouse gases when they’re barely able to work on a tenth of the wealthier nations’ extravagance.

          1. I think it’s worse than that. If meat really was a “luxury” product in the “First World” then things would be better. It’s not just that we want to eat meat everyday and so it has to be affordable: cheap meat (poor quality sausages, meatballs, burgers, pies etc.) is generally less expensive than healthier vegetarian alternatives. Consumers are fed the lie that a “proper” meal has to eat meat and then flooded with low quality, cheap temptation. I don’t think that entirely cutting out meat is ever going to be a popular option, but we can surely reduce the quantity and increase the quality to the benefit of everyone’s welfare, human and animal (and environment) alike.

          2. However, if all is OK with humanity, current Third World nations will develop into high consumers as well. We know that, when given a choice, most people prefer to eat meat frequently. I do. I guess, the same will be true for these people who are too poor today. (Some religions impose vegetarianism and veganism, but I hope that religions will relax their grip globally.)
            If the world population stabilizes and then slowly declines, it can consume more per capita and still reach equilibrium.

            1. This is making the generous assumption – one assumption, for there are several – that a developing country will look like the US, the population of which are high-meat consumers. This is in no way a sustainable model even now, never mind with an unknown number of extra countries on board. It’s certainly nothing to celebrate even if one isn’t a vegetarian, since meat-production has huge environmental costs.

              We know that, when given a choice, most people prefer to eat meat frequently.

              Based on what evidence? In any case, I’d want to know what people’s choices would be if awareness was raised over the issue more often. Most of the high-intensity meat-eating took off long before an organized vegetarian and animal welfare movement took hold in the latter half of the 20th century.

      2. I am not proposing that meat can solve world hunger. I am pointing out that there is no reason to believe that a vegan or vegetarian diet can do that either without massive destruction of every biome in a search for arable land. You seem to think that there is nothing bad about the huge monoculture fields that would be required for feeding 9 billion on soy and corn.

        I agree, there can be ethical issues involved, but something has to die for someone else to live.

        1. You are completely missing the point that, at present, that soy and corn is fed to cattle to be turned into steaks and burgers. That is wasteful and if the grain is fed directly to humans instead we will need to use much less land to feed the same number of people. There is every reason to believe that feeding the world’s population on a vegan diet would result in much less pressure on the biomes you are concerned about than a carnivorous one.

          1. Feeding grain to humans is great, but the question is, is this all you will feed them? I’d like to see some stats for feeding everyone vegan. How would this work? What would the diet be? Is it millet porridge for every meal or would it be tomatoes, squash, greens, chunks of tofu, avocadoes, beets etc? Do we truck these things into places where nothing will grow? Do we put up giant greenhouses?

            These problems are why I find the claims of some vegetarians and vegans to be questionable.

              1. You mean this Weston A Price Foundation:


                As for the second link, not only is its claim about no known cultures wrong (some Hindu cultures manage quite well), I looked at the first reference they provided for their claims:

                Under “Materials and Methods”, they had this hilarious sample size:

                Semen analyses were carried out in 474 males from 2009 to 2013. Patients categorized themselves as either lacto-ovo vegetarians (N = 26), vegans (N = 5) or non-vegetarians (N = 443).

                Excuse me if I’m not persuaded to delve further into these “many studies”, but I will point out that the few dietary issues such as Vitamin B12 supplements are not only already well-known, but not that difficult to resolve provided you know what you’re doing, and there’s no shortage of sites to advise on that front.

                In any case, this only really pertains to veganism. Vegetarianism is even easier and much less problematic.

        2. I am pointing out that there is no reason to believe that a vegan or vegetarian diet can do that either without massive destruction of every biome in a search for arable land.

          Switching from meat-eating to vegetarianism or veganism would represent a massive drop in current environmental destruction. The vast majority of soy alone is grown and shipped simply as animal feed. No one’s saying environmental damage would disappear overnight, but you must at least concede the gigantic improvement that would result. In any case, the main problem of feeding a population is not availability of food – the sheer wastefulness of current methods is good evidence of that – but its lopsided distribution.

          You seem to think that there is nothing bad about the huge monoculture fields

          I never said anything about monoculture, much less about it being free of problems. Is it really so difficult to understand the difference between “a large part of the problem” and “the entire problem”. I’ve made the point of comparing by degrees rather than kind, and in any case, invoking overpopulation – especially without any caveats – comes too close to blaming the poor for something the rich are doing to the extreme. If it’s anything like the same argument invoked in discussions of carbon emissions, it overlooks the elephant in the room.

          1. Let me ask you also, reasonshark, how are we getting that amazing production of soy? How can one provide a balanced diet to 9 billion people?

            I do agree, the waste of food is ridiculous and distribution is indeed lopsided. But how many 1st world vegetarians are eating millet porridge 3 times a day? How do we feed 9 billion the way you eat?

            1. Let me ask you also, reasonshark, how are we getting that amazing production of soy?

              The usual way, I should think. I don’t think you grasp the scale of the difference here. And I quote:

              “This might seem counter-intuitive, but were we to eat soya, rather than meat, the clearance of natural vegetation required to supply us with the same amount of protein would decline by 94%. Producing protein from chickens requires three times as much land as protein from soybeans. Pork needs nine times, beef 32 times.”

              Indirect Source:

              Direct Source:

              I fail to see what’s so difficult to appreciate about the scale of the difference. Current levels of meat production require huge amounts of crop land that is obscene: the land given over to livestock production represents 70% of all agricultural land, which is roughly 30% of the land surface. A third of crops alone is devoted to feeding meat animals. And this isn’t remotely set up to feed the world’s poor and starving, but to make sure Average Joe in the USA, Europe, and other rich nations can have totally unnecessary meat on the table every day.


              Other source:

              Whatever your objection to feeding the globe on a vegetarian diet is, it is magnified by sticking to a meat-dominant mode of production.

              1. The “usual way” eh? Yes, the usual way of massive farming. You want to feed everyone on plant based materials correct?

                94% of “clearing” would stop according would stop, it would not be any regaining of land, it is a slowing of altering it, and by a goodly amount. This is the kind of information I’m looking for, though it’s not quite accurate to the original paper: (there is nothing that says 94% in that paper, though its close). It also points out that feeding everyone from plant based foods isn’t feasible: “Although veganism is growing in popularity, completely eliminating animal based products from global diets is too simplistic, not practical (Idel, 2013), nor makes the best use of many land types. It is estimated that grazing on pasture unsuitable for cropping, and which did not cause deforestation, contributes approximately 14% of total global livestock feed measured in carbon mass (Bajželj et al., 2014). (page 8 of the pdf)

                I do find it important to discuss human population. Few wish to do so, and there is little reason to continue with that on my part. I do find it interesting that you didn’t answer my other questions of how do we feed 9 billion people (or vastly more) the way you eat? Do we have everyone eat millet porridge three times a day?

              2. The “usual way” eh? Yes, the usual way of massive farming.

                Well, if you’re offering alternative ways of food production such as permaculture, I won’t object. Monoculture has its problems too that exacerbate the issue, such as its relatively poor yield compared with polyculture.

                94% of “clearing” would stop according would stop, it would not be any regaining of land, it is a slowing of altering it, and by a goodly amount.

                To put it in context, a 94% reduction in, say, global carbon emissions would be extremely encouraging news, most obviously because further measures that could narrow the difference would become feasible. Moreover, a reduction that great would grant us a lot more time to come up with and implement solutions, including – I might add – any proposed population reductions which wouldn’t be seen for a few generations.

                In the spirit of fair discussion, though, I’d be interested in hearing what other proposed plan of action could top this result. Can you provide?

                (there is nothing that says 94% in that paper, though its close)

                Page 7. Use CTRL+F and type 94%. The exact line is: ” Substituting soy for
                meat as a source of protein for humans would reduce total biomass appropriation
                in 2050 by 94% below 2000 baseline levels (Pelletier and
                Tyedmers, 2010).”

                It also points out that feeding everyone from plant based foods isn’t feasible:

                I concede given the evidence that vegetarianism rather than veganism would be an improvement, at least to the extent that veganism isn’t a total solution to the problem. However, I believe I’ve been discussing vegetarianism, though, since we started talking. In any case, “partially” or “mostly” eliminating rather than “completely” eliminating still fits my point.

                I do find it important to discuss human population.

                So do I, believe me. We can both agree that measures like sex education and contraception availability for women are an important part of dealing with the current overpopulation problem, and I’m certainly not going to criticize the point that removing environmental strains and achieving a balance is a necessity in the long-run. If that were all there was to it, we could end the discussion right here.

                The problem is that the countries with the biggest consumers are also those whose populations are either peaking or, in some cases, starting to go down. Much as I applaud this trend – to the extent that it solves the overconsumption problem – I still think it’s insufficient to prevent major environmental damage before the century is out.

                I do find it interesting that you didn’t answer my other questions…

                I had hoped it was clear that my “answer” was basically the point I’ve been making since we started: cut out meat and aim at the very least for majority vegetarianism. Dairy and eggs are still part of the solution with vegetarianism, which might be the best way to meet the points raised about land use for animal production. And remember that this is for a massive reduction in environmental damage. Other than this, I don’t know what you expect me to say, and I certainly don’t know why you latched on to millet the way you have.

              3. I’m sorry, reason, but I can’t read your posts. There’s nothing to separate what you wrote and what I wrote.

                I have “latched” onto millet because I read an article some time ago where it compared the meals of average people around the world, with what they ate in a day (or a week or some such), and lots of people eat millet porridge. I’m still waiting for you to answer me what diet this is that you would have others eat that can be supported. In that you have no interest in answering my questions and wish only to have me answer yours, I find this dialogue one sided with me answering all of the questions. I don’t have anything that would top 94% if this is possible. I think it’s great. I want to know if 94% is possible if one wants everyone to eat something other than grain?

              4. “I’m sorry, reason, but I can’t read your posts. There’s nothing to separate what you wrote and what I wrote.”

                Just butting in to mention that reasonshark’s posts are very clearly formatted (quotes of yours are in italics) on both my laptop and my email notifications.

              5. clubschadenfreude, it annoys me no end that in this age of immediately available text and formatting options one so often has to resort to the plainest text possible just to come through clearly on everyone’s platform.

                I, for one, still have trouble seeing a word set off by asterisks as meant to be italicized; far more suggestive of scare quotes to me. BTW, this rant is directed at competitive incompatability, not you. 😉

              6. oh I completely agree. it drives me nuts at work. I work as a CSR and hate to have to say “oh sorry, no one bothered to put up on the registration website that nothing that is Apple based works with our payment process. Sorry, you’re screwed” albeit in not quite so frank terms 🙂

              7. I’m still waiting for you to answer me what diet this is that you would have others eat that can be supported.

                Haven’t I said over and over again that it would be a vegetarian and/or vegan diet? The comparison with soy is appropriate because soy is one of the more environmentally destructive vegetarian alternatives, and it still dramatically wins out over meat production. Unless you want me to micromanage the global diet, I fail to see what more I need to do to make my point. I haven’t “avoided” your questions at all.

              8. shark, a vegan diet can be eating Cheetos and nothing else. Do you want people to eat that, or grain porridge or do you want them to have what most Americans have, access to essentially anything they want/

              9. I think your aticle from PNAS has a great paragraph that underlines my comment about TANSTAAFL:

                “Despite the uncertainty associated with both our simplified models and the sustainability thresholds we have adopted, we stress that the estimates reported here may equally be conservative and that, as with climate science, improved understanding of sustainable boundary conditions may continue to shift thresholds downward (44, 45). Moreover, increased competition for limited resources including energy for fertilizers, pesticides, and fuels, arable land for crops destined for direct human consumption, and political pressures for expanded biofuel production, will require difficult tradeoffs (31, 40). Given the limited consideration of the livestock sector in environmental governance regimes to date and the scale of the issues to be addressed, mobilizing the necessary political will to implement such policies is a daunting but necessary prospect. As the human species runs the final course of rapid population growth before beginning to level off midcentury, and food systems expand at commensurate pace, reining in the global livestock sector should be considered a key leverage point for averting irreversible ecological change and moving humanity toward a safe and sustainable operating space. “

              10. Your original comment talked casually about vegetarianism bulldozing biomes as if it represented no genuine difference from meat-eating on a massive scale, while in the same comment shrugging your shoulders over meat production that has it beat by almost twenty times. The paragraph you’re quoting emphasizes the “daunting but necessary” prospect of “reining in the global livestock sector”, which is a “key leverage point”. I’m failing to see the connection. To take just one example, you have completely ignored the contradiction I pointed out in your prior comment, in which you facetiously claim to be both nihilist and subjectivist despite them being contradictory categories.

              11. There is no reason to think that vegetarianism wouldn’t bulldoze biomes, less than meat productions but it still causes a problem and thus TANSTAAFL. Again, I ask you, what diet do you propose for everyone that would prevent this?

              12. If a reduction of 94% for something as environmentally destructive as soy production doesn’t impress you – and by your own admission, you currently can’t offer better – I fail to see what more I can do to hammer in the point that simply changing from meat-dominance to vegetarian or vegan is sufficient. You seem perversely determined to ignore the difference, and given your original comment about meat-eating, I’m wondering if it’s partly motivated bias.

              13. where does this say 94% of soy production would be reduced? I believe you are reading that reference incorrect.

                when I ask you what kind of diet you would want people to eat this impacts how much further development of fields would happen. If everyone eats just grains/soy, we may indeed have enough planted crops to handle that. If you want people to eat something else, then that will also have to be grown and this puts your claims of “sufficiency” at risk.

              14. Sorry, I put that clumsily. A bit more accurately, it’s a reduction of 94% environmental destruction rate if meat-production was replaced by soya production.

                And if you’re looking at “we should switch to vegetarian and vegan diets to reduce the negative impacts of meat production” and rebutting it with “oh, so we should all eat Cheetos, then”, can you honestly say you’re arguing in good faith?

              15. It was more than clumsy. It was wrong. I am not saying that we all should eat Cheetos. I used that to point out that a vegan/vegetarian diet can be many different things. You seem to have latched onto that in order to falsely accuse me of not discussing the subject in good faith.

                I am saying that I want to know what diet you want people to eat. You seem very shy of telling me exactly what you would have on everyone’s table. Again, would this be that everyone eats subsistence level food or would your diet contain more than just grain and soy?

              16. I used that [cheetos] to point out that a vegan/vegetarian diet can be many different things.

                OK, that’s just insulting bullsh*t. No one approaching this conversation in good faith is going to produce inanities like that as though they were compelling counters.

                Of course vegetarian diets can be many different things, and I don’t deny some would, if examined thoroughly, prove even more environmentally friendly than others. Thing is, that’s like saying some pieces of cutlery are heavier than others when you’ve got the Titanic on the scales. Soy, wheat, Quorn, beans and other legumes, coconut, almonds, other nuts, dairy, eggs, various mixtures of the above along with all the regular non-meat stuff people eat, to varying degrees within reasonable dietary and nutritional health limits, and that’s just off the top of my head. I’m already on a vegetarian diet that incorporates those things, so it’s not like I’m “seeming shy” because of lack of experience. And there’s no shortage of resources on the Internet on different diets someone might try. Why is “not meat” so difficult for you to grasp that you have to fantasize about Cheetos-only diets as though that was obviously what I was angling for?

                I’m not “shy” of saying what people would have on everyone’s table. There’s a list up there that you could corroborate on Google and Wikipedia in about ten seconds, or by picking up a few books on the subject. There’s no one way to have a vegetarian diet, but you don’t have to bring up something as stupid as “Cheetos and nothing but Cheetos” as if it were what any sane person had in mind.

                I’m making the point that whatever environmental problem these things have, compared with each other – and therefore whatever objection you feel is strong enough to repel them as options – is trivial compared with the savings that could be had by going from majority meat-eating to vegetarian. For some reason, you think this is being evasive, while you yourself have been refusing point blank to concede your point about solving world hunger by handing out $1.99 chickens hasn’t been shown to be wrong by now.

              17. It seems you have no interest in discussing the issue if you cannot say if you would have people eat a subsistence diet or what people in the developed world eat as vegan/vegetarian. I am not asking for a specific diet. I asking a simple question. Subsistence or first world having access to everything. These two scenarios vary greatly on what environmental impacts they would have. It is indeed insulting bullshit when you focus on something ridiculous just to avoid answering a question.

                No one is saying anyone is eating Cheetos, that is an example to point out that there are vast differences in what vegan/vegetarian diets can be. It isn’t as simple as “meat” vs “no meat” as you try to imply. Since I have answered your questions and you have refused to answer mine, there is no reason to continue this discussion.

              18. If it’ll cut out your trolling and stop you looking for “gotcha” moments, then let’s say first world access, with the only difference being no meat.

                How you’ll turn that into a victory for meat-eating, I can’t say, but I’m sure someone inventive enough to even think I was hypothetically going for an all-Cheetos diet and then lie about doing this soon afterwards will find a way.

              19. If it’ll help you to understand where I’m coming from, I have this article in mind:


                The overwhelming point is that our addressing the increasing quantity of resources and livestock for meat would do a lot for environmental and economic welfare. The main problem is increasing overconsumption, not overpopulation, for a resource with very little going for it.

                I know I’m coming across as frustrated, and it’s because the concern you raised in your prior comment – about bulldozing every biome to feed 9 billion people on vegetarian foods – seems to be raised solely as some kind of bizarre tu quoque when meat-eating is relatively so much worse. It’s so massively off-base, not least of all because in the same post, you claim you have no problem eating meat, which suggests motivated reasoning.

                I have a big interest in discussing the issue, because something of this magnitude should not be brushed aside in favour of something I think is relatively paltry. I’m becoming increasingly convinced, however, that it is you who has no genuine interest in this discussion, since you never once concede this point, either ignoring it or downplaying it. When it gets to the point you’re accusing me of dishonest discourse into the bargain, of course I’m frustrated. It’s as if someone had found two pretty amazing models for a renewable energy device for reducing Greenhouse gas emissions twentyfold, and someone comes along and says “Well, what about the environmental cost of this model of the device versus this model? At least when we have the oil and gas, it doesn’t have this particular tangential problem.” How can that strike me as anything other than pedantic evasion?

              20. Oops. Sorry about that last sentence: not intended for you (which sounds bizarre in this context)! Comes from trying to make two comments at once. 🙂 Please ignore it.

        3. “You seem to think that there is nothing bad about the huge monoculture fields.”

          What is it that you think the animals grown for food eat?

            1. But you seem to keep ignoring the energy pyramid and asserting that if people don’t eat meat we’ll need huge new tracts of farmland. The opposite is true.

              1. I’m not ignoring the energy period, but I’m not saying its the most important part of this equation. What is the diet you propose to feed everyone? Corn, soy (except for edamame), and wheat require some means to convert them so humans can eat them. Humans need other things to eat other than those grains. This is my point, we will need much more acreage for everything else. I am guessing you aren’t advocating for everyone to eat just a few crops, right? For instance, it’s pretty easy to grow a million acres of grain in the American Midwest. it’s tough stuff. It’s quite a bit harder to grow tomatoes there in any kind of quantity. So, do we plant more tomatoes in Florida so everyone has enough? Do we plant more lettuce in CA?

              2. We plant crops where we plant them now. But all of the cropland dedicated to feeding animals is now available for other purposes. Some of it will be required for growing plants for eating.

                We are not talking about carabou grazing on lichen off lands that are unavailable for agriculture. We are talking about prime agricultural land currently dedicated to feeding pigs and cattle. My state is full of such farms. The soil can grow human food as easily as it can grow alfalfa for cows.

              3. @doragonmama… It is simply untrue that it takes more land to grow crops for human consumption than it does to grow crops for animals who are fed for human consumption. And if you think about it for 10 seconds you’ll realize that this is an obvious fact. Energy (about 80-90%) is lost every step you take up the food chain.

  17. The only thing I find silly about the animal-rights movement is that it has no chance in hell of ever becoming more than a fringe position until we can grow meat in a vat.

    The idea that we have a right or need to use animals for our own purposes is a form of motivated reasoning. Arguments against the idea will have limited traction until our need goes away.

    I think PETA and similar organizations would do better to put their donations towards vat technology.

    1. I do not think it is necessary to grow meat in a vat, since vegetarian substitution products (e.g. soya-based) are getting better all the time. Not perfect yet, but getting there. I’d say a decade or two more.

      If you can make something with the same texture and flavour, people will have no problem eating it instead of meat.

      1. That might work for a hamburger, when the taste is overshadowed by all the condiments, but a steak? Doesn’t seem likely to me.

    2. I think the movement will start taking off when people stop pretending “but non-meat is icky” is a good ethical argument. Even if meat substitutes were all godawful, it’s still an astonishingly petty response.

      1. Did you miss my “motivated reasoning” point?

        The movement will *never* take off based only on ethical reasoning. Anti-slavery attitudes mainly took place amongst those who no longer needed slaves.

        1. The slavery analogy is interesting. Really, the eating of animals is FAR more ingrained in culture/tradition and the daily habits of individuals than slavery ever was. I do think a revolution in meat eating will occur, but only through technological advances (e.g. meat in a vat). Ethical reasoning alone will not overpower deeply ingrained traditions and personal habits/preferences (comfort foods from one’s youth, convenience, etc.)

        2. I find it curious how you call that a “silly” aspect of the animal rights movement. It’s actually not only simple to move to a less damaging vegetarian diet, but as I’ve explained elsewhere, it would be totally necessary to prevent such huge habitat loss, waste of agricultural land, and pollution – including CO2.

          So that’s the ethical reasons for not killing or hurting animals, the need to address the destructive nature of meat production, and the relatively simple lifestyle change that would address both serious issues impressively, all stacked up against… “but soy tastes icky”.

          I did not miss your motivated reasoning point. I explicitly stated what I thought about it. And the idea that we need meat vats to address the current problem is so ridiculous that I wonder if it was actually meant as a serious rebuttal or as a feeble excuse to dismiss the problem.

          1. “address the current problem is so ridiculous ”

            That demonstrates the total disconnect from reality that characterizes the animal-rights movement. People will not acknowledge an ethical duty if it inconveniences them to do so.

            This is a variation on the famous quote by Upton Sinclair:

            “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

            1. Again, it is no more compelling than when the religious make this argument. Even if nobody this generation and the next is persuaded, I see no problem with making the case for future ones if necessary. If science progresses by evidence and reason, then the case is what should be the deciding factor.

              Of course, that doesn’t rule out other tactics, including rhetoric and making things easier, but it’s worth remembering why those tactics are being adopted to begin with.

              Depressing that you should single out the animal rights movement as “silly” and “disconnected from reality”, considering you’ve just suggested a totally unrealistic solution yourself. An inability to grow meat in a vat is the least of the movement’s obstacles, given the ignorance, denialism, motivated reasoning, and general sloppiness of the counters.

              1. Unrealistic? Vat meat is already being done, just not well. My bet is that it will be competitive within 20 years.

              2. Considering the one piece of in vitro meat eaten for publicity in 2013 required killing a cow for the Fetal Bovine Serum to make it, and cost £200,000 to produce, I fail to see where the optimism comes from. Until more compelling evidence arrives, yes, it is unrealistic. Switching diets is child’s play by comparison.

              3. “Switching diets is child’s play by comparison.”

                Apparently not, since almost no one does it. QED.

              4. Very well, I concede the point. I was checking my sources for a reply, but then I just found this resource, and this bit caught my eye:


                “Climate change is not currently a primary consideration in food choices.
                • Climate change is generally secondary to immediate considerations of taste, price, health and
                food safety in shaping food choices.”

                “This has important implications for the design of strategies to moderate meat and dairy
                consumption: those that emphasize co-benefits (e.g. for health and expenditure) and do not
                require consumers to compromise on enjoyment are likely to be more successful.”

                There in that resource is the evidence, fair and square. I admit I was mistaken, at least on your general point (still can’t see vat meat as particularly likely, but now I’m less sure than I was before – apparently, Peter Singer himself is optimistic). It seems the most likely strategy to work is one that makes the change (at least relatively) painless.

                I will also admit I feel utterly depressed about the implications of this finding for human nature, but the truth doesn’t care what I feel, so it’s no genuine rebuttal, and I don’t want to fall into the trap of defending a weak position simply because I like its conclusions. I apologize for not appreciating your point sooner, and retract my comments.

              5. Wow, I’m impressed, thank you. Although now I feel guilty for helping convince someone that human nature is corrupt. 😉

              6. Not corrupt. Just disappointingly short of its own boast of being one of the few moral and rational animals.

        3. Also, the slavery analogy is interesting for the same reason (petty responses): when slave-owners were removed of their slaves – get this – they demanded subsidy payment for compensation. And got it.

          I’d be very leery of copying tactics from a movement that didn’t get its priorities straight. It’s not even a particularly compelling example. The civil rights movements did not require convenience to get their points across.

          1. I think you’re totally missing the point. You chastise people for not sacrificing their comfort for the sake of morality. Well, that’s the way people are; you can either deal with it or fail.

            You will never convince significant numbers of people to give up meat unless you can replace it with some equivalent.

            1. This “X is here to stay” argument isn’t a convincing line of reasoning when religious apologists use it. I’m not saying there aren’t some people so wedded to a particular view that they won’t change their minds, but I’d be cautious about assuming this is universal, if not now then certainly over the next few generations. Besides, what exactly is supposed to be your point? If a cause isn’t easy, then give it up? Then where would we be, given the odds stacked against many civil rights and humanitarian movements.

              In any case, the answer is the same as the answer to the religious version: there’s no compelling reason to “replace” it because we don’t actually need meat. The closest to a plausible dietary obstacle is the question of a source of proteins, not meat, and since there’s simply no shortage of those alternatives now available, it is a weak obstacle to erect indeed.

              1. The civil rights/gay rights movements are nothing like the animal rights movement. There really is nothing lost to grant minorities the same rights as everyone else enjoys. Even so, a significant percentage of the population would still roll back the civil rights act.

                I’ve already stated my point. Direct funds towards vat meats. That is likely to work well eventually, but ethical arguments will not.

  18. I think clubscadenfreude is right, there are too many humans. There are a number of reasons for eating less, or no, meat. The animals are terribly polluting (especially cattle and lamb), too much is not good for us, the animals suffer (if you are affected by that consideration) and they take up too many resources which might be devoted to other things. Personally, I love a good steak, but not too often. And of course we are an omnivorous species. But industrial farming is, as we all seem to agree, awful.

    It is clear that we need to consider these questions from a global point of view. Developing countries are increasing the numbers of meat eaters, for instance. It’s the same old problem of who ensures the information is available and who makes the decisions.

  19. I think it is important to recognize that for most farm animals, the choice is between being a farm animal and not existing at all. That is, being free and wild and natural is not an option. If they weren’t born and raised on a farm, they would never exist. That is certainly true for the turkeys in the photo.

    I don’t like factory farming at all, but traditional animal husbandry is a long standing tradition in human culture, as a replacement for hunting. Having meat available as a food has been instrumental in the success of humans as a species.

    Eating other animals is also a practice of many other species in the history of animal life on earth. It is not some aberrant behavior dreamed up by humans. It’s actually quite ordinary.

    We should do it carefully, or “mindfully”, to borrow a buzz word, but I can’t see the reason to ban it entirely.

    1. You hit the motherlode of bad arguments there.
      “the choice is between being a farm animal and not existing at all.”
      Are you suggesting they are fortunate, or lucky we factory farm them? Give me that choice I’ll chose not to ever have existed.

      “I don’t like factory farming at all, but traditional animal husbandry is a long standing tradition in human culture, as a replacement for hunting.”
      You seem to be saying because it’s something we’ve always done it’s OK to keep on doing it.

      “Eating other animals is also a practice of many other species in the history of animal life on earth. It is not some aberrant behavior dreamed up by humans. It’s actually quite ordinary.”
      Yes and because animals who historically did it, and didn’t have the luxury of doing otherwise did it’s OK for us to do it.

      1. “They wouldn’t have existed otherwise” is a bad argument regardless of whether their existence is hellish enough for nonexistence to be preferable.

        If the world up before I was conceived had been even slightly different, I wouldn’t exist. I owe my very existence to, say, Hitler and Stalin’s invasion of Poland. But even though my life most definitely is worth living, this doesn’t provide any retrospective justification for the invasion of Poland – not even the slightest little bit.

        Whatever we do, it will result in a crop of individuals who would not have existed but for our doing it. Since this consideration always applies to any action or policy decision, we should ignore it.

  20. As far as I can tell, the following claims do not actually contradict each other, and can be true at the same time:

    (1) Farm animals are often treated very badly, and that should stop;

    (2) Most animal rights activists one runs into or reads about are slightly crazy.

    How can I take the kind of people serious who cut holes into an enclosure fence protecting a species of threatened, small, rodent-like marsupials from foxes and cats because they believe that the ubiquitous Eastern Grey Kangaroo should be able to hop into the enclosure? Or those who release the alien carnivores from a pelt farm, potentially causing a catastrophic animal invasion that could wipe out dozens of native species?

  21. Thanks a lot for writing this. As an immigrant to the U.S. and a vegetarian, I find the run-up to Thanksgiving a particularly strange and rather disturbing time. It’s refreshing to read these reflections, especially now that I live in a place (Maine) that seems more meat obsessed than anywhere I’ve ever lived.

  22. As a non-vegetarian, I too worry about hypocrisy but try to make ethical choices (e.g. free range eggs) where there is the option. I don’t agree with cutting out all meat (unless you want to) but I do think that meat is too cheap and we eat too much of it. We try to eat several vegetarian meals a week and quite often half the meat portions in recipes (often financially necessary if buying ethical meat) without a big reduction in enjoyment. A big slab of meat like a steak should be a treat, not a daily commodity.

    I am also a “companion animal” owner and worry about the ethics of that. Having moved to Australia, we don’t let our cats outside (a) for the sake of local fauna, and (b) to protect them from traffic, disease – and local fauna! I worry about keeping them “prisoner” (even if they seem happy and chilled most of the time). But I also worry about keeping them safe. As humans, we generally favour safety and comfort over freedom to roam. Would animals if given the choice? How can we know? I have similar thoughts about (good) zoos: does the lack of stress of finding one’s food and avoiding death every day balance out the increased stress of confinement? Are zoo animals (in good zoos that care about welfare) any worse off than family pets?

    I don’t know that we can ever answer these questions but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be constantly asking them.

  23. I’ve actually had a couple of conversations with Christians about animal suffering, and I’ve been told that god created animals for humans to use however they want, so anything we do to animals is OK. I kid you not. I suspect this kind of thinking is quite common in the US, since I’ve heard this argument more than once. Religion poisons everything, indeed.

    1. There are also Christians who believe we were placed to be “stewards” of Creation and therefore look after it. There was no death before The Fall and everybody/everything was vegetarian, so perhaps that’s how God wants us to be…? As with most things, the average Christian can just do what the hell (s)he likes and then find Biblical justification for any position!

      1. Indeed; I read a very interesting book by a George W. Bush speechwriter on animal welfare a few months ago: _Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy_. This is another version of “Christian veganism”.

  24. Suffering is an animal-humans included- general condition. Is part of life, and life is an universal trophic chain, and we, humans, are part of it. Thanks to our evolutionary ancestors changed their diet of fruits by a carnivorous, human brain evolved and originate language and our intellectual capacity. If humanity left the meat, without finding a suitable artificial substitute, as a staple food, it is likely that after several generations an epigenetic gradual deterioration of our cognitive abilities occur.

    1. Absolutely agree. And, while I don’t agree with the above cited Christians’ position “God created animals for human use, so we don’t need to worry when they suffer”, I insist on putting human needs a mile above any consideration of animal death and suffering. Except when an entire species is endangered.

  25. Thank you for your post on this and raising this incredibly important issue. More people need to be aware of this, and there needs to be constant pressure on people to have to think about what they are doing. Its much like religion, every time someone has a religious thought its best if the dissonance of reality smacks them in the face, and they feel a little uncomfortable. We need this same feeling with meat, people need to realize that every time they eat meat they are contributing to completely unnecessary suffering. Unfortunately meat does taste better than fake meat and vegetarian substitutes, and I suspect given our species fickle willpower that the advance of technology–specifically meat substitutes that taste as good as actual meat–is probably going to be the ultimate solution to the problem. People just are not willing to give up eating pepperoni on their pizzas and ham in their sandwiches. Every time with humanity, a majority takes the easy option, whether it be God, meat, or superstition. We simply were not designed to forego things we find pleasant, even if they are cruel or false.

  26. “Is any amount of animal experimentation and suffering justified by its potential to save human lives. If so, why?”

    Not any amount, but some amount yes.

    I know people who love their dog more than other members of their family, but lets face it, in general, we feel more empathy for humans than for other animals.

    We humans are not that bad: almost everyone agrees that unnecessary suffering should be avoided. Some basic animal rights seems only fair.

    1. Unfortunately, the tiny minority of humans that actually decide how things will work don’t seem to agree, so even if most of us don’t want animals to suffer in factory farms, it will continue.

      1. I’m lucky to live in a functioning democracy, so I believe I have some influence. People don’t see it as a high priority. Otherwise they would vote differently.

        It will take a long time;

  27. And, that is the main reason I became a vegetarian more than a decade ago. Health was secondary, particularly since I have no health concerns. But, now there is evidence that eating meat is unsustainable and contributing to climate change.

    1. That was my reason for no longer eating meat several decades ago. I still eat seafood, however. I see this as a bit of inconsistency and even hypocracy on my part. But when it comes to the ethics of diet, I think we are all inherently caught in a trap. We eat or we die. And to eat we must kill something. And even carrots, in their way, would prefer to not be eaten.

  28. Rights for animals? Up to a point. I gave up eating meat a long time ago. However, I have witnessed long-drawn-out deaths of people dear to me and others, from viciously cruel illnesses. I would not want medical science to be hampered in the search for treatments and cures for such illnesses by the rights of non-human animals. I am not happy for other animals to suffer for the sake of humans but I would not be happy for humans to suffer for want of animal experiments. If I have to be unhappy then I choose for animals to suffer rather than people I love.

  29. Excellent post. Similar to Diva Ex Machina, once belief in a god disappeared, vegetarianism followed shortly afterward for me.

    I work as a veterinarian, and animal welfare vs. animal rights is a conversation that I have on a daily basis. I despise the groups PETA and HSUS — tax returns, annual reports, etc are all online for public viewing, and paint a grim picture. They are money making machines, euthanize many more animals than they admit publicly, and the organizations aren’t without animal abuse themselves. *However*, they do raise public awareness for the plight of animals within slaughter houses, within labs, and within shelters. With these organizations serving as watchdogs, businesses/research organizations/food industry are held to higher standards. Standards which I think could be vastly improved, but nonetheless.

    It’s a conversation that is worth having. The peers in my veterinary class were, I found surprisingly, generally on the opposite side of the argument from me. Terminal surgeries were still utilized when I went through school (using research dogs to practice surgery, followed by euthanasia while they were still anesthetized), and I was one of few that fought for their elimination, and refused to participate in those labs.

    We as a species leave much to be desired in our treatment of others. I don’t have any magical answers regarding animal rights. Diet, products purchased, and organizations supported are all personal decisions. But a step in the right direction is to at least consider the ramifications of the choices that we make.

  30. I’m pretty depressed by the reactions of people who see the problems with meat-eating but do it anyway. It’s not brain surgery. I’ve been vegetarian for years and never looked back because it’s incredibly easy to find other foods – legumes, Quorn, soy, etc. – that replace meats or otherwise render meats unimportant. That deals at a stroke with the animal products that obviously involve rearing and killing. At the moment, I’m reducing my dairy intake, which is a little harder as the stuff’s seemingly all over the place, but again it’s an eye-opener what else is on offer if you want alternatives to milk, yoghurt, and cheese.

  31. Of course, there are plenty of outlets for, “Free-range eggs” and organically-grown, “stress-free” pork, chicken, and beef, if your guilt is really getting to you: more expensive, of course…

    Just read Carl Sagan’s “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”. It’s one of the. “drier” books I’ve read by him; quite tedious in parts, but he demolishes thoroughly, step by step, all of the arguments that humans are “different” from the, “lesser” animals and thus superior- the sections on Chimpanzee behavior hit so close to home that it’s unsettling.

    1. To me, this book did portray humans as superior. I mean, there was a description of a group of female chimpanzee who tore apart and ate the infant of one of their peers while she was absent for a short time. When she came back, they sincerely tried to comfort her. I have never heard of humans satisfying their need of/desire for meat in such a callous way, except maybe when starving.

  32. Well, I for one was simply not aware atheists mocked proponents of animal rights. Of course, those in the thick of research are understandably irritated when their work using lab animals is made more cumbersome by underhanded tactics. But on the whole, seculars I’ve encountered are sensitive to issues of pain and suffering of any sentient creature. Animals grieve at the loss of a family member, feel distress, feel pain, feel fear and very likely feel sad. And this is not anthropomorphizing – the more you move away cerebral cortex and toward the R-Complex, the more we have in common with other animals. Any pet owner can attest there is greater overlap in these primal areas of sentience than are differences. It’s a position strengthened by a knowledge of biology and a commitment to ethics informed by reason.

    There has to be something profoundly wrong with any person who is indifferent or bemused by the genuine suffering of other creatures. One may not be ready to make the leap to Vegan (I’m not). But everyone should be behind the humane treatment of farmed animals. Furthermore little is being asked of one to consume less meat and eat a richer spectrum of plant products. It can make for a healthier and a more interesting culinary experience, help the environment and slash one’s personal carbon footprint. There really is no excuse.

  33. I’m not a vegetarian but occasionally will try meat substitutes. Except for meatless meatballs, I find other meat substitutes to be tasteless and often just fall apart when thawed and cooked. Ugh. I think the mfgs of these products are going to have to do a lot more work to make them palatable and more acceptable. Until then, I’ll continue to eat meat.

  34. For those like me who rather squash that irritating mosquito:

    “Crabs feel pain

    Many scientists doubt that any invertebrate (or fish) feels pain because they lack the areas in the brain associated with human pain. Others argue this is an unfair comparison, noting that despite the major differences between vertebrate and invertebrate brains, their functions (such as seeing) are much the same. To get around this problem, researchers in 2014 argued that an animal could be classified as experiencing pain if, among other things, it changes its behavior in a way that indicates it’s trying to prevent further injury, such as through increased wariness, and if it shows a physiological change, such as elevated stress hormones.

    … had almost three times the amount of lactic acid in their haemolymph, a fluid that’s analogous to the blood of vertebrates—a clear sign of stress. Thus, crabs pass the bar scientists set for showing that an animal feels pain.”
    [ ]

    And insects are crustaceans. So I have to start to hit them so I don’t lose sight of where they drop but can make sure they are dead.

    how many dog, cat, or mouse lives are worth one human life?

    The answer that can be objectively stated is evolutionary speaking, and then it is all of them. Our own genes go first.

    If we go to morals it depends on your sense of morals. My observation, such as it is, is that as we extend our families to pets these questions will be ever pushed forward, same as saving premies change abortion rules.

    [There is work in progress to move the swedish abortion limit from 21 to 20 weeks IIRC the numbers, since now sufficiently many 21 w premature born can be saved to a normal life to say it is feasible. On the other hand – by projecting statistics – it is claimed that will make Sweden have ~ 100 more cases/year of suffering humans despite fetal screens. So that is an urgent moral issue to be decided soon.]

    It is a bit odd to live for ~ 2 billion years consuming other organisms (as eukaryotes), and then try to stop over a few years. No other lineage would even try. I don’t feel any moral lesson, or urgency or feasibility here. The moral we use is what we learn and/or is useful and/or makes us feel good.

    But of course we could do better even if we can’t answer that type of moral question in any objective sense. We can always eliminate unnecessary suffering.

    In our hearts we know that animals suffer to give us that food.

    Not necessarily. I’ve read articles about norwegian fish farms where they can, putatively as of yet, grow fish without any stress at all. The slaughter is by having the fish swim into a channel with a millisecond crush device, destroying the brain before any pain can be sensed.

    I tend to think that we can do as well with crustaceans. That would be good, since insects are projected to be the new protein staple.

    1. “I don’t feel any moral lesson”

      Agree, some animals are unlucky because we happen to be omnivores. Like you, I still prefer to eliminate unnecessary suffering. I doubt most other animals would do that for us.

  35. Dear Dr. Coyne,

    Thanks for this interesting post. Having spent the last couple of years lurking around your blog, I thought I’d reply to this post as this is something which I’ve been busy with over the last couple of months. I’ve been leaning towards the veggie lifestyle for a few years now and felt comparable to you: feeling bad about animal suffering, but still eating eggs, dairy (Dutch cheese is addictive), and the occasional BBQ. Last month, my girlfriend and I decided to do something about it and join Vegan October. One month of going vegan, just to try it out. During that month we had plenty of discussions with friends (lots of biologists and generally environmentally friendly folks like us) and we really noticed that many people feel apprehensive about letting animal products go. They do not like the idea of animals suffering for their food, but the next step: letting go of meat, milk, and eggs was too far away. As you wrote: “As for me, I feel pretty bad about all this, and consider myself a hypocrite for eating eggs and meat. I don’t know if I’ll do something about that” I highly encourage you to try it for a month (or two weeks, or two days a week). There is a whole world of delicious plant foods out there and no need to venture into sad fake meat alternatives.
    Of course there are other issues like pharmaceutical animal testing, but the impacts of animal husbandry and harvesting on both the animals themselves and the world’s ecosystems occur on such a massive scale that minimizing our consumption of animal products would by itself vastly improve our environment as well as reduce general suffering.

  36. Ah! I mentoned this book in a comment a week or so ago, as I am reading it (among others, as usual)!

    Stewart-Williams makes comments that some will see as unacceptable because they confront our (human) inconsitencies. How do we ‘value’ life? Is my life more or less ‘valuable’ than that of a dog, or a mouse, or a blue whale?

  37. Right, and no animals were hurt to make your boots and Texas steaks. In any case, I do not believe in animal “rights”. In this regard I am a speciesist.

    1. Me neither. “Rights” are invented by humans. If a grizzly bear comes after you, it’s not thinking about “human rights.” The concept is arbitrary and, in the case of animal rights, arbitrarily applied.

  38. It’s even less justifiable to eat factory-farmed animals, I think, for we can live without eating them. Why—and I am complicit in this—do we simply ignore all that suffering so that we can have a nice roast chicken or a plate of fried eggs on our tables

    Personally I’d be willing to handle a doubling or tripling of meat prices to reflect more humane space per food animal. But my cynical side says that I’m probably underestimating that, and the number for truly humane treatment may be more like 10x, a cost hike that would probably upset me (even if my intellectual side accepted it).

    The problem today is I have zero trust in the organic/local/etc. marketing and advertising. I just don’t believe those labels mean anything in terms of the actual treatment of the animals; these labels have been reduced to strategies big agribusiness uses to sell product to a wider customer base, the same way Clorox markets bleach in 20 different ‘varieties’ to appeal to different customers. So before I change my purchasing habits, I’d like to see some real regulatory oomph be put behind labeling or food animal treatment. I’m not going to pay $10/pound for chicken just on the off chance that this one particular brand might actually be practicing what they advertise.

  39. I think the solution to unsustainable factory farming is genetic engineering. Imagine if we could make grains that taste exactly like pigs and cows and chickens and lobster.

    ‘We’ who are concerned with human induced global warming and human induced animal suffering must embrace genetic engineering, or else give up at least one of our other two missions.

  40. In my work, we use animal models to perfect medical devices for humans.

    Each case requires a protocol and need statement hat has to be approved by a board which includes an outside expert. Every animal receives as good anesthetic as any human would, they are very carefully cared for by a team of veterinarians and technicians (at all times).

    Even the terminology indicates the weight given this: They are “sacrificed”; and not lightly.

    I have seen procedures stopped because of distress detected by the nurse monitoring the animal.

    I think this work is critically important to advancing medical treatments. Without it, new treatments would either not be developed or would be used for the first time in vivo in a person (about whom you care).

    1. To expand a little bit on this, one of the questions that often gets asked when a difficult decision has to be made: “Would you want your mother [or child or spouse] to receive this [device, etc.]?”

      It’s a correct question: Would your judgment change if your loved one were involved?

    2. Using animals as models may make sense in some cases, but it is currently just assumed to be necessary. This is not always the case.

      Check for example on why we should not take for granted mouse models are required in cancer research:

      An obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed in cancer research is that mouse models do not mimic human disease well and are essentially worthless for drug development. We cured acute leukemia in mice in 1977 with drugs that we are still using in exactly the same dose and duration today in humans with dreadful results. Imagine the artificiality of taking human tumor cells, growing them in lab dishes, then transferring them to mice whose immune systems have been compromised so they cannot reject the implanted tumors and then exposing these “xenografts” to drugs whose killing efficiency and toxicity profiles will then be applied to treat human cancers. The inherent pitfalls of such an entirely synthesized non-natural model system have also plagued other disciplines.

      1. Hence the need to pass a board approval before using an animal model.

        Animals are very expensive to keep, nurture, and use in medical research (we use large animal models, based on the use of the devices we design). They are only used when really needed.

        We are constantly looking for non-living alternatives (for instance non-lethal methods of verifying lack thrombogenesis) and use them all the time. We are constantly inventing our own bench models and hiring companies that provide such.

        We are required to provide objective evidence that the animal models are appropriate for the use under study (otherwise, the regulators consider the data to be useless).

        The vast majority (99+%) of testing doe snot involve animal models.

        No one takes this lightly.

        1. The linked article claims the system may not be broken – but it’s certainly bent:

          The problem is there are no appropriate mouse models which can mimic the human situation. So why is the cancer research community continuing to be dominated by the dysfunctional tradition of employing mouse models to test hypotheses for development of new drugs?

          Robert Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute at MIT, has provided the best answer. He was quoted in the press, noting: “Two reasons. First, there’s no other model with which to replace that poor mouse. Second, the FDA has created inertia because it continues to recognize these models as the gold standard for predicting the utility of drugs.”

          There is a third reason related more to the frailties of human nature. Too many eminent laboratories and illustrious researchers have devoted entire lives to studying malignant diseases in mouse models and they are the ones reviewing each other’s grants and deciding where the NIH money gets spent. They are not prepared to accept that mouse models are basically valueless for most of cancer therapeutics.

  41. When I was very young, my father taught me a lesson. “See that cute bunny?” BANG “It’s now meat”. I have killed and cleaned animals to eat with my own hands. Meat does not magically appear in the super market. If you are unwilling to kill an animal with blood running though him, maybe you should consider being a vegetarian and not wearing leather. That applies to cowboy boots. For the sake of morally consistent, if one is unwilling to give the fatal dose to kill the convicted prisoner, you should not support death as a punishment.

  42. It is refreshing to see someone from the Atheist/skeptic community to at least acknowledge that the case for Animal Rights/welfare is something that needs to be taken seriously, as opposed to all of the nasty and even bordering on hateful responses that I have seen online and heard from fellow skeptics, where I even have heard the comments that vegetarians and vegans should be murdered, and other comments that are not very nice to say for people who supposedly follow “reason” wherever it leads.

  43. “unlike women and slaves, non-humans cannot talk or campaign for their own liberation, and, because they can’t vote, they’re not a high priority for most politicians. This further underscores the importance of the animal liberation movement”

    Some thoughts on this.

    Non-humans can’t do what are uniquely human things.
    Liberation is a human concern. Humans who are treated by other humans as lesser beings don’t like it and shout about it and act against those who would dehumanise them. Perhaps animals don’t shout about their subjugation by humans not simply because they can’t shout about it: perhaps they don’t even get it. Perhaps they can’t conceptualise that they are the moral equals of humans and deserve to be treated as such. Maybe they can’t conceptualise the notions of freedom and rights and responsibilities and dignity and morality and all the rest. Maybe that’s why it’s only humans (or some humans) who are advocating animal liberation. If enough people are concerned then politicians will be too. But compassion and concern for other animals should not be premissed on the assumption of a moral equivalence between human and non-human animals. If exceptionalism means seeing humans as essentially different in kind from the rest of life that is simply wrong. But humans appear to be immensely different from other animals at least in degree of consciousness. In the physics of heat at certain degrees of temperature substances change their physical state. May consciousness be like this? AI theorises a future singularity. May we already be the first NI (natural intelligence) singularity? Human self-awareness together with recognition of other self-aware beings to commune and communicate with, means that humans share a virtual world of consciousness apparently removed from most if not all other species. Just how close other apes (whales?) are to humans on the ladder of consciousness is an open question. If they are self and other-self conscious and capable of communicating this fact, it still looks like it will be up to humans to discover how to bridge the gap separating their minds from ours. Or perhaps we will discover that there is in fact an unbridgable gap.

  44. About animal experiments: I don’t think we can avoid those entirely, but check

    The argument here is not about the morals but the science of using mice as models for cancer research: “An obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed in cancer research is that mouse models do not mimic human disease well and are essentially worthless for drug development.”

    Meat eating: if you decide to eat meat, at least try to avoid Kosher or Halal “certified” meat – as these are especially evil (which resulted in an attempt to ban these practices in Denmark at least –

    There are videos of Kosher slaughter on YouTube – these are hard to watch. You can see that the cow is very much alive after its throat is slit and is suffering.

    For example see

    1. Fascinating. I agree that medical testing is one of the few most credible dilemmas facing the issue of animal welfare, since the suffering and death risks of the individual animals are not as bad as the same risks for massive numbers of disease victims (of course, the same “needs of the many” reasoning applies to using humans). Of course it’s necessary to ensure that this dilemma actually holds in particular cases: it’s hard to see the ethics of someone “tragically” sacrificing the test subject for the sake of victims when there’s a better third option on the table.

  45. It is interesting that there are not more posts about the treatment of farm animals on the blog, even though the blog deals with politics, food and animal biology regularly. People really do not want to think about the issue.

Leave a Reply