Do cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens have a moral right not to be killed for food?

Posted: May 16, 2009 in writing
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Eating meat is probably one of the most normal things to do.  For most people, when a piece of pork chop is laid in front of a hungry recipient, very little thought goes into the moral aspects of such a meal.  From pre-historic cavemen, to hunter-gatherers, to present day Homo-sapiens; the majority of us participate either directly or indirectly in the slaughtering of animals.  The obvious question now is whether or not we are being immoral for killing animals for the sole purpose of consuming their meat.  My stance on this matter is yes, the slaughtering of animals is an immoral act.  The aim of this essay is to critically examine the arguments and counter-arguments made to support either side of the coin, and highlight the successes and pitfalls of each.  However, it must be noted that the heart of this discussion does not rest on pain and suffering, but rather the killing of animals.  The assumption here is that free range animals are terminated painlessly without any form of torture or maltreatment.  In Tom Regan’s words, “What is wrong isn’t the pain, the suffering, the deprivation.  It is the fundamental wrong that allows us to view animals as our resources” (1985:379).  The crux of this essay, therefore, focuses on the rights of animals – more specifically, their rights to life.

There are several avenues along which to investigate the matter.  Firstly, let us look at the interest of animals, paying particular attention to those of mammals.  Mammals, as opposed to the less developed species such as insects, strongly resemble humans in that they have a central nervous system that enables them to experience similar feelings as homo-sapiens.  This particular trait is crucial in connection to the discussion at hand because the following arguments rely on this fact to succeed.  Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, writes that species across the spectrum do not require identical treatment (e.g. giving a dog important decision making tasks), but equal consideration (i.e. giving them the same regard as we give to humans).  The reason is that the difference in treatment is only justified insofar as there is some relevant difference between two subjects (Singer, 1990:363).  Animals eat, breathe, and sleep.  They have the capacity for the enjoyment of pleasure and the suffering of pain.  Therefore, like humans, animals are sentient beings that have interests in their own well-being.  The fact that animals lack advanced cognitive capacity or social structure is irrelevant because there are certain members of the human race (e.g. babies) who lack the same advancements but are nevertheless, moral recipients who should be protected from wrongful harm.  The logical follow up would be to not kill animals for their meat, the same way we would not kill a human for their meat.

However, Raymond Frey raises an objection to Peter Singer’s equal consideration argument on the basis that animals lack interests in the relevant sense (1979).  To elaborate: Frey distinguishes between interest as a well-being, versus interest as a want.  Everything, regardless of its nature, purpose or position, has an interest in well-being.  For example, in the case of valuable artefacts such as relics and ancient manuscripts, it is in their interest not to be damaged, but it would be absurd to infer moral rights on them because they are not logical subjects of rights (Frey, 1979).  So, while it is true that it is in animals’ interests not to be killed off, it is not sufficient enough to grant them any moral rights.  The second case of interest deals with wants and desires.  The question here is whether or not animals have desires to stay alive.  Frey links desires to beliefs and remarks that “having beliefs is not compatible with the absence of language and linguistic ability (1979).  This claim is problematic on two counts.  Firstly, while animals are unable to express their wants as clearly as humans, they nevertheless are able to demonstrate their feelings through sounds, facial expressions, body movements, et cetera.  Animals protest to being captured; they also show clear signs of distress prior to the slaughtering.  This demonstrates their want to continue living.  Thus, human language is not the only indicator for one’s desires.  Secondly, pre-linguistic babies and severely retarded humans also lack the ability to use language as a medium of communication.  However, that does not strip them of their moral entitlements.  No one is allowed to kill off unwanted or problematic humans, and proceed to feed on their vulnerabilities.  If a cannibal decides to capture, kill, and eat babies that have not yet developed the capacity to express their desires, the cannibal would be committing a moral offense.

Staying on the point of desires, or the lack thereof, one might then argue pre-linguistic humans are not completely without desires per se, as they have parents, guardians or others to look after and express interests on their behalf, which then catapults them back on the list of subjects who are capable of desiring.  The human race in general, is well regarded.  Even someone who is completely alone will have some humanitarian organisation or church to oversee his or her survival and well-being.  In this case, animals are not completely without desires either, because animal rights activists act as agents for those animals the same way parents act as agents for their offsprings.  Animas’ lack of communicative skills and their lack of desires, as proposed by Frey, are therefore not sufficient enough to prevent them from receiving considerable moral treatments (Benatar, 2009).

The next prevalent argument in determining the rights of animals is the contractarian argument.  In layman’s terms, it is a view whereby “animals are not party to the social contract that imposes moral rules on us and thus we cannot owe them anything directly” (Benatar, 1992:378).  This is the orthodox approach adopted by John Rawls which grants indirect duties to animals, but not direct ones.  The difference between the two lies in the fact that direct duties are owed to the animals whereas indirect duties are those that involve animals (Rawls, 1971).  To further illustrate the point: if someone tortures your pet, a wrong would have been done to you (the owner) but no wrong would be extended to the pet itself.  Such a belief is effected by the reasoning that animals are not rational agents and so…human beings are the sole bearers of direct moral status; therefore, animals cannot have any moral standing under the contractarian view guided by Rawls (Carruthers, 1991:98-99).  The Rawlsian contract fails to assign direct moral rights to non-rational agents, of which animals are a subset.

Mark Rowlands however, rejects the widely held belief that only rational agents have moral status.  In his claim, he states:

“The fact that the framers of the contract must be conceived of as rational agents does not entail that the recipients of the contract, that is, the individuals protected by the principles of morality embodied in the contract, must be rational agents.  If a contractarian position is consistently applied, the recipients of protection offered by the contract must include not only rational, but also non-rational agents.” (1997).

In other words, although animals are non-rational and therefore, not moral agents, they nevertheless, are moral recipients to which moral rights should be assigned.  Secondly, if the terms of the contract extend moral status only to rational agents as Rawls intended, then that would exclude all animals as well as all non-rational humans (Rowlands, 1997).  Marginal humans, as coined by Tom Regan, refer to those humans such as babies, the mentally retarded, the severely demented, and others who are incapable of making rational decisions by themselves.  If we agree to involve marginal humans in the social-moral-contract, we have no sound reason to bar animals from taking part in the said contract (1985:15-26).

Another way to test whether or not animals should have rights to life is through analysing the concept of original position (Rawls, 1971).  Basically, what this means is that the contract should be set up by people who are not privy to information regarding their personal traits and attributes.  To branch this out further, the contract-setters can also be stripped of the information regarding their species.  In other words, they have no ways of knowing whether they are animals or homo-sapiens.  The contractors, as explained by Rowlands, “while having knowledge of all general truths of psychology, sociology, economics and so on, are denied all knowledge of particular facts about themselves and their circumstances” (1997).  These people are said to be in their original positions.  Such a notion exists purely for the purpose of testing for fairness (Benatar, 2009).  In order to not fall on the short stick on things, the contract must be drawn in such a way as to fairly represent all species and so, whatever terms they decide to put in the contract have to include both humans and animals.

This leaves us with one final argument proposed by Jordan Curnutt.  This alternative contestation avoids all of the traditional arguments, that is, those that involve rights based theories, or the utilitarian approach.  Curnutt focuses on killing, and the degree to which it causes harm. His establishment can be summarised in five logical steps:

1.      Causing harm is prima facie [as it seems at first sight] morally wrong.

2.      Killing animals causes them harm.

3.      Therefore, killing animals is prima facie morally wrong.

4.       Animal-eating requires the killing of animals.

5.      Therefore, animal-eating is prima facie morally wrong (Curnutt, 1997:409).

Prima facie, in this context, refers to something (in this case, it is the wrongness of causing harm) that may be over-ridden or bypassed in certain cases.  For example, Curnutt’s prima facie view allows the consumption of animals that have died due to natural causes or methods that do not incorporate any deliberation of moral agents.  Furthermore, he states that killing is the worst form of harm anyone, be it human or animal, can undergo as it undermines a being’s interest and/or desires (1997:417).  This might seem an obvious claim but it nevertheless needs elaboration.  Joel Feinberg’s definition of harm connects it to a setback of interest.  The most important interest that a being can have is what he calls “welfare interests”, that is:   “…the interests in the continuance for a foreseeable interval of one’s life, the interests in one’s own physical health and vigor…a tolerable social and physical environment, and a certain amount of freedom from interference and coercion” (Feinberg, 1980:410).  From this, we can extrapolate that welfare interests are of utmost importance because we cannot achieve any other interest if our welfare interests are not realized.  Once an animal is dead, it certainly cannot pursue any of its interests, and it therefore constitutes as severe harm.  Curnutt thereby concludes that killing and eating animals is prima facie morally wrong (1997:410).

So far, we have established three main factors.  First and foremost, animals are biologically equipped with similar receptors as humans which enable them to feel, and to enjoy life.  They have desires and interests in their well-being, and to end that (even painlessly) is in violation of their right to life.  Secondly, in a fair and unbiased contract, humans would not be able to commit speciesism and set aside different treatments for different species.  Animals would thus be the recipients not of identical treatment, but of equal consideration.  Finally, the harm brought forth by killing sets back one’s welfare interest, which is seen to be the worst harm that can befall anyone.  Killing animals for meat sets back their welfare interests, and is therefore prima facie wrong.  To conclude, the above points are sufficient to grant animals a moral right to life not to be killed for food.


  • Benatar, D. 2009. Lecture Communications.
  • BestFoodNation, (ND). America’s Meat Industry [online]. Available: [accessed: 26 April 2009].
  • Carruthers, P. 1992. The Animals Issue. Cambridge University Press.
  • Curnutt, J. 1997. “A New Argument for Vegetarianism” in Ethics for Everyday. Mc Graw Hill, 2002.
  • Feinberg, J. (1980) “The Rights of Animals and unborn Generations” in Ethics for Everyday. Mc Graw Hill, 2002.
  • Frey, R.G. 1979. “Rights, Interests, Desires, and Beliefs” in Ethics for Everyday. Mc Graw Hill, 2002.
  • Rawls, J. 1983. A Theory of Justice. New York, Oxford University Press.
  • Regan, T. 1985. “The Case for Animal Rights” in Ethics for Everyday. Mc Graw Hill, 2002.
  • Rowlands, M. 1997. “Contractarianism and Animal Rights” Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 3.
  • Singer, P. 1990. “All Animals Are Equal” in Ethics for Everyday. Mc Graw Hill, 2002.

Note: The views expressed in the essay are not necessarily my views. I simply wrote what was expected in order to get a decent mark, which I got :)

  1. John says:

    Interesting, but I wonder just whose moral benchmarks are we to employ, seeing as there is no global moral code for even the most broadly basic aspects of our world. Thus, killing animals in a Western secular sense is justified because animals are not humans, and further are sub-human. This makes them incapable of higher thought beyond basic functions. So it’s not another ‘soul’ we’re killing for burgers but rather just something that moos when it’s hungry/sick/scared/happy.

    I don’t think killing is in itself ‘wrong’ for the simple reason that almost every single developed society has various justified instances where ‘killing’ is morally acceptable between humans, let alone animals.

    Also, what about culling? Do we not kill animals who threaten entire ecosystems simply because we’ll violate some arbitrary moral code? If it’s not the manner in which we kill, nor the purpose, then what about the need?

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