If you needed to torture puppies in order to enjoy the taste of chocolate, would doing so be wrong? Wouldn’t doing so be obviously wrong? Most who would say ‘yes’ regularly purchase and consume factory-farmed meat, seeing no problem with the latter, and yet, the two may not be morally distinguishable. According to at least one philosopher, they are not. In a highly provocative and creative paper, Alastair Norcross makes the case that purchasing and eating factory-farmed meat is morally comparable to torturing puppies for gustatory pleasure, and meat-eaters who realize this ought to become vegetarians (or at least give up factory farmed-meat). It’s an argument worth thinking about. (Other arguments for vegetarianism can be found here and here).
Norcross begins his paper with the story of Fred, who is on trial for animal abuse (see the lecture version here). The police discovered that in Fred’s basement, 26 puppies had each been confined in small wire cages. For 26 weeks, Fred would perform a series of mutilations on them, without anesthesia, and then brutally end their lives. His defense? He is a lover of chocolate, and torturing puppies was the only way for him to enjoy it.
Fred explains that, due to a head injury from a car accident, he could no longer have rich, chocolaty experiences. Apparently, his godiva gland had been irreparably damaged, resulting in an inability to secrete cocoamone, the hormone responsible for the experience of chocolate. Desperate for a new source of cocoamone, he learned of a recent discovery that puppies (and no other creature) can be stimulated to produce it when subjected to extreme stress and suffering. Fred then read the research, set up his own cocoamone collection lab, and after six months of intense puppy torture, he managed to produce a week’s supply worth of the chocolate-enhancing chemical. In his defense, Fred maintains that, their cuteness not withstanding, puppies are just mere animals—thus not nearly as important as human pleasure.
The point of the above fictional story is to raise the question: Is Fred’s behavior, which is clearly reprehensible, really all that morally different than the behavior of millions who purchase and consume factory-farmed meat? Norcross thinks not, and rejects several ways of distinguishing the two. Possible relevant differences include:
1) Most consumers of factory-farmed meat do not torture or kill any animals.
2) Most consumers are unaware of how factory-farmed animals are treated.
3) For any individual consumer of factory-farmed meat, becoming vegetarian would not prevent animal suffering—he or she could not causally impact the agribusiness.
4) The suffering of factory-farmed animals is merely a foreseen side-effect, not an intended means to obtaining gustatory pleasure. For Fred, puppy suffering is intended as a means to his pleasure.
5) Factory-farmed animals are not puppies.
The attempted justification worth taking seriously, and the one I want to highlight, is (3) (for treatment on the others, see the paper, lecture or here). According to this objection, a consumer of meat could argue as follows: Unlike Fred, I am causally impotent. Fred could easily prevent the suffering of puppies by giving up chocolate, but I cannot prevent the suffering of any factory-raised animals by giving up meat. Given the size of the agribusiness, if I stopped purchasing factory-raised meat, that would have no impact whatsoever on the industry. So, I might as well enjoy the taste of animal flesh since my actions would make no difference.
In response, one line of argument Norcross employs is to deny the claim of causal impotence: the actions of any particular meat consumer do make a difference. Suppose there are 250 million chicken eaters in the U.S, each eating on average 25 chickens per year. If a sufficiently large number of them give up chicken, the industry would be forced to respond by reducing the numbers of chickens bred and tortured. Suppose that number is 10,000—for each group of 10,000 chicken eaters who give up chicken, there will be 250,000 fewer chickens bred per year (actual numbers are unimportant). An individual’s decision to give up chicken would make a difference in two ways.
First, by giving up chicken, the individual (call him Ted) may be the next person to reach the new threshold of 10,000, thereby causing 250,000 chickens to be spared. Ted thus has a one in ten thousand chance of saving 250,000 chickens per year. Although the odds of preventing suffering may be tiny, they nevertheless have enormous significance given the high stakes involved. Consider Norcross’s analogy: Imagine an airline had “knowingly allowed a plane to fly for a week with non-functioning emergency exits, oxygen masks, and lifejackets.” That would be outrageous, even though the chances of relying on those safety measures in a given week are smaller than one in ten thousand. So, the fact that Ted may be the next person to reach the threshold point matters. Second, even if Ted is not the new convert to reach the next threshold, the threshold can now be reached faster. Because of his conversion, there are less chicken eaters in front of Ted who need to give up chicken before animal suffering is reduced. His behavior, therefore, makes a difference.
Much more can be said about the arguments in Norcross’ paper (maybe in another post), but hopefully, the above summary is enough show how difficult it is to deny that torturing puppies and eating factory-farmed meat are morally equivalent.