Regarding the Last Frontier of Bigotry

David DeGrazia


The lunch provided for participants at an ethics conference includes no vegetarian entrée—even though you specified in accepting the invitation that you would need one.  You ask the head of the catering team what vegetarians are supposed to eat.  He says, “Oh, no problem. There’s a salad”—as if those who try to eat cruelty-free are not entitled to a main course (even at an ethics conference).

Dining with a distinguished philosopher who has devoted much of her career to defending “human dignity,” you discover that she has never morally questioned meat eating; indeed, she has never thought carefully about the moral status of animals at all.  Surely, you think, extensive training in critical thinking entails some obligation to examine one’s own complicity in harmful practices.

You go to the house of friends, neighbors, or relatives for dinner.  Knowing you don’t eat most meat and apparently feeling defensive—even though you have not brought up the issue—they try to put you on the defensive by demanding an explanation for your willingness to eat shrimp or to play catch with a leather football.  What is the point here?  That 100% compliance with whatever standards you hold is more important than having morally defensible standards?  Or that less than complete success in your effort to live morally gives everyone else implicit permission to ignore completely the moral concern at issue?

A colleague sits next to you at a faculty meeting and says, “Oh, I brought a chicken sandwich. I hope you won’t be offended.”  While you appreciate his sensitivity to your feelings, it seems pretty clear that your interests should not be the focus of moral attention here.

The last frontier of bigotry will be hard to cross.

But what is the last frontier?  Part of the difficulty is that it is hard to articulate.  We can call it “speciesism” or “species bigotry” and characterize it as an unwillingness to give some individuals their due simply because they are not members of our species (or of some group assumed to include only humans such as autonomous beings).  But what are nonhuman animals due, exactly?  And, since it isn’t so obvious what they are due, how can we even advance a charge of species bigotry?  If reasonable people can disagree about what animals are due, why shouldn’t we be pro-choice about decisions affecting them?

Let’s back up a minute.

Morally serious people disagree about what justice requires in connection with affirmative action, but that hardly prevents us from knowing that slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow in the American south were viciously racist.  Thoughtful, decent people differ about the reasons for the dearth of women in university physics departments.  But that doesn’t obscure the fact that it’s sexist to discourage women across the board from seeking careers outside the house.  Meanwhile, differences about whether respect for gays and lesbians demands full legal recognition of gay marriage hardly invites doubts about whether homophobic physical assault is morally repugnant.

In the same way, uncertainty about what animals are due doesn’t prevent us from recognizing clear cases of species bigotry such as factory farming, cosmetics testing on animals, the fur industry, whaling, abuse of circus animals, rodeos, bullfights, and complacent acceptance of such practices and institutions.

“Wait, how can you say that?” someone might object.  “All morally serious people agree that racial minorities, women, and homosexuals deserve no less consideration than whites, men, and straight people—that they have equal moral status or standing—even if some details of appropriate policies and treatment are debatable.  But, as you yourself have acknowledged, with animals it’s not even clear that they’re entitled to any such principle of equality.[1]  Nor are matters much clearer if we note that only sentient animals, possessed of feelings, can be benefited or harmed in ways they care about—meaning they have a welfare and interests, the commonsense foundation of moral status.  For, as you have noted, even with sentient animals there is honest disagreement about whether they deserve equal consideration or (as suggested by some of our considered judgments about pest control, indigenous peoples’ hunting rights, and several other issues) substantial but less than fully equal consideration.  If we’re not even sure what animals deserve at this fundamental level, how can we know what counts as giving animals less than they’re due?”

In response to this objection, I will advance two claims.  First, much human use of sentient animals (hereafter “animals” for brevity) is inconsistent with any serious regard for them and so is clearly beyond the moral pale.  Much animal use causes them extensive suffering either for frivolous purposes (e.g., amusement, vanity) or for more substantial purposes (e.g., nutrition, warmth) but where non-animal alternatives are readily available.  Second, a lot of the contemporary discussion of animal rights obscures this important point, impeding moral progress.

In advancing the first claim, I will focus on meat eating.  More specifically, I will consider (a) factory farming, the institution that probably causes more harm to animals than any other today, and (b) the purchasing and consumption of its products, the practice that keeps factory farming in business.  I will sketch an argument that factory farming and consumers’ routine support for it are indefensible.


If there is one moral principle that is beyond serious doubt, it is the principle of nonmaleficence.  This principle states that, other things equal, we should not harm others; put another way, we should not harm them unnecessarily.  A system of thought that did not embrace nonmaleficence would hardly be recognizable as a moral system.  Let’s assume, then, that we accept the principle that it is wrong to cause others unnecessary harm.  Or, since one might argue that very slight unnecessary harm to others, or even greater unnecessary harms to which others consent, aren’t so clearly wrong, let us specify the principle so as to make it breathtakingly obvious: “It is wrong to cause extensive unnecessary harm to others without their consent.”  Presumably, anyone who is neither a nihilist nor a psychopath accepts this principle.  Now….

“I see where you’re going with this,” one might interrupt.  “You’ll say animals are among ‘others’ and then apply the principle to animals.  But that may be cheating.  Our moral tradition has always favored human interests over animal interests, so maybe this principle, however sensible it sounds, shouldn’t be extended to animals.”

My interlocutor is right that our moral tradition has always favored human interests.  Many people today challenge this favoritism, or at least certain aspects of it such as unequal consideration at a fundamental level.  But whether such favoritism is defensible is not an issue we need settle here.  That is because everyone involved in this debate over animal ethics agrees that paradigm instances of cruelty to animals are wrong.  How to explain this considered judgment, and how to conceptualize animals’ moral status in light of it, are matters of disagreement; but that paradigm instances of cruelty to animals (e.g., smashing them to death for fun) is wrong is a judgment that all serious discussants affirm.  And it takes little further reflection to see that the most plausible way to ground this judgment is by acknowledging that our obligations of nonmaleficence extend to animals (sentient animals, who can be harmed in ways that matter to them).  For while the moral judgment that condemns cruelty to animals is confident and unwavering, efforts to explain this judgment without allowing that animals are due nonmaleficence are much less certain.  This point merits expansion.

Some, following Kant, have argued that we should not be cruel to animals because such cruelty is likely to spill over into brutish treatment of our fellow humans.  Others have claimed that the only thing wrong with such cruelty is that it upsets the sensibilities of animal lovers.  But such human-centered accounts always seem empirically questionable or at least to admit of exceptions—though the moral condemnation of cruelty does not.  More importantly, these accounts miss the most obvious reason cruelty is wrong: the great harm it causes to its victims for no compelling reason.  The only ones who are clearly and in every case wronged by cruelty are its victims.  Set up a case, as contrived as you like, that can guarantee that cruelty to some animal would have no negative effect on humans, and still the action—say, kicking around a nonthreatening dog—will seem obviously wrong.  The only satisfactory account of the wrongness of cruelty acknowledges the moral status of its victims.  Animals have moral status in this sense: Their interests have (at least some) moral importance independently of how our treatment of animals affects humans.  Thus the scope of nonmaleficence includes animals.

We return, then, to our principle: “It is wrong to cause extensive unnecessary harm to others without their consent.”  Factory farms do precisely this.  Obviously, cattle, pigs, chickens, and turkeys do not consent to the harms inflicted on them.  And, as anyone familiar with the conditions of factory farms knows, they cause very extensive harm to animals confined in them.

Consider the lives of factory-farmed hens (and their brothers) in the United States.  Where chicks are raised to produce eggs, male chicks, lacking commercial value, are commonly gassed, ground up alive, or suffocated.  The females live their lives in crowded, highly unnatural, uncomfortable settings.  Many are subjected to forced molting, in which water is withheld for one to three days and food for up to two weeks in order to extend their productive lives.  When considered spent, they are stuffed into crates and transported by truck, sometimes for days, without food, water, or protection from the elements.  At a slaughterhouse, hens are shackled upside down on a conveyor belt until an automated knife cuts their throats.  They are fully conscious during this process because the Humane Slaughter Act does not apply to poultry—despite the fact that, at more than 6 billion per year, they represent the animals most commonly slaughtered for food in this country.  Clearly hens raised in factory farms undergo extensive harm during their lifetimes.  Any detailed account of these lives suggests that they are not worth living; better, from the standpoint of their interests, not to have been brought into existence at all.  The same may be said for broiler chickens, hogs, veal calves, and arguably cattle raised specifically for beef (whose six months of roaming outdoors, I would argue, do not compensate for the harms they experience during that time and especially afterward).[2]


With this sketch of factory farms in view, one might wonder whether farm animals raised in more natural, less intensive conditions can have lives worth living.  In this essay I focus on the institution that apparently causes the greatest overall harm to animals while producing most of the meat, eggs, and dairy products consumed in the United States.  I have discussed family farms elsewhere.[3]  For now, in passing, I urge readers not to overlook harmful practices that characterize even this more benign form of animal husbandry—including unanesthetized branding, dehorning, and castration; the separation of mothers from their young; and rough, sometimes brutal, treatment in transport, handling, and slaughter.

Returning to factory farms, they clearly cause extensive harm to animals.  Just as importantly, this harm is unnecessary insofar as eating the products of factory farms is unnecessary.  No doubt some of the world’s people, due to impoverished food options, need to eat meat in order to be healthy.  But this is not the situation facing, say, most Americans.  It is unlikely that anyone who will read this essay will really need to eat meat, eggs, or dairy products produced in factory farms.  After all, readily available alternatives are adequate for a healthful diet.  Nowadays, even such mainstream grocery chains as Giant and Safeway carry tofu, soy milk, non-dairy cheese and margarine, cage-free eggs, and many varieties of soy-based “veggie meats” (burgers, imitation chicken, sandwich “meats,” etc.)  For most Americans, and similarly situated people in other countries, a little planning should be sufficient for a healthful diet that steers free of factory farm products.  Considering that most readers of this essay can achieve such a diet without even changing grocery stores, it would hardly be plausible to assert that, for these individuals, buying and eating factory farm products is necessary.

One might counter, however, that doing so is necessary for the specific economic purpose of keeping factory farms in business.  But this appeal is unpersuasive.  For one thing, any economic harm caused by the demise of factory farming would have to be borne just once whereas the harms to animals will be exacted indefinitely if factory farms remain in business.  Second, there should be a rough parity between agribusinesses’ losses and the gains of other businesses such as producers of soy products; as meat consumption plummets, the consumption of alternatives rises.  Third, the risks to human well-being entailed by factory farming—including environmental degradation, health risks, inhumane working conditions, and highly inefficient use of grain proteins—would be avoided or reduced (indefinitely) if the industry is eliminated.[4]  Finally, there are moral limits to what we may do to others in pursuing economic interests, and causing billions of sentient beings massive harm every year, I submit, oversteps those bounds.

In sum, it makes sense to say that the harms of factory farming are unnecessary.  That is, they are unnecessary for any purpose—such as human life or health—that might plausibly be thought to justify the massive harm involved.  Indeed, the conditions of factory farming provide paradigm instances of cruelty, which any plausible specification of nonmaleficence must condemn.

Factory faming causes extensive, unnecessary harm to which its victims have not consented.  Since causing such harm is wrong if anything is wrong, the conclusion that factory farming is unjustified seems inescapable.  “Hold on,” one might object.  “Even if factory farming is morally indefensible, that doesn’t mean buying and eating its products is wrong. After all, consumers aren’t causing any harm.”  Suppose someone said, “I’m not kicking cats to death. I’m just paying someone else to do it.”  We would judge this person to act wrongly in encouraging and providing financial support for cruelty.  Similarly, were it not for consumers’ continual patronage of their products, factory farms would be unable to survive.  Regardless of how distant they may feel from the harms caused to animals by this institution, consumers bear significant responsibility for these harms.  Although somewhat vague, the following rule seems plausible: “Make every reasonable effort not to provide financial support to institutions and practices that cause extensive unnecessary harm.”

This plausible rule suggests that routine patronizing of factory farm products is, at least for the vast majority of this essay’s readers, morally indefensible.  The rule does not require extraordinary effort or sainthood.  It does not condemn making some exceptions to personal policies that accord with the rule.  Nor does it make it obvious what our obligations are with respect to seafood or products from family farms.  But this rule does condemn a practice in which most people, including most philosophers and ethicists, engage—apparently with little or no prickling of conscience and little or no effort to reduce their complicity in extensive unnecessary harm.

That it’s wrong to cause extensive unnecessary harm seems intuitively obvious.  That we should try hard not to encourage and pay others to cause such harm seems nearly as obvious.  How can we account, then, for the violation of these norms by the vast majority of the public, including those trained in critical thinking and those specializing in ethics?  There are many factors we could consider: the psychology of avoidance, denial, rationalization, and self-interested bias; the sociology of following traditions and not questioning what most people do; the business of promoting benign images of industry while hiding its dark side; the government’s role in protecting big business; the American ideology of capitalism largely unconstrained by moral concerns.  All these factors, and others, contribute to species bigotry.  In advancing the second major thesis of this essay, I will focus on a single factor that is commonly overlooked even by scholars in animal ethics: the very terms in which arguments for animal protection are commonly made.


Many animal protectionists use the language of rights.  Animals have rights, they say, and this is why it is wrong to exploit them.  But what does it mean to say animals have rights?  Three meanings can be helpfully distinguished.  In a very broad sense, to say animals have rights is simply to say that they have moral status, that they are not mere tools for our use or playthings for our amusement, that their interests have at least some moral weight (irrespective of how promoting their interests may promote our own).  Assuming I am right in holding that no account of the wrongness of cruelty can fail to acknowledge the moral status of its victims, then animals clearly have rights in this moral-status sense and their having such rights has everything to do with the wrongness of exploiting them in various ways.

But, according to another usage common in ethical theory, to say that animals have rights is to say something much stronger: that their most important interests—such as avoiding suffering—deserve such strong moral protections that it is nearly always wrong to sacrifice these interests even if doing so is necessary to maximize overall utility (where everyone’s comparable interests, including those of animals, receive equal consideration).  This is a very controversial claim.  Indeed, it is somewhat controversial to assert, as utilitarians deny, that human beings have rights in this strong, utility-trumping sense.

Unfortunately, many animal advocates maintain not merely that animals have such strong rights, but that the moral case against factory farming and other animal-exploiting institutions depends on their having such rights.  Meanwhile, many defenders of the status quo of animal usage contend that it is precisely because animals do not have such rights that the status quo is justified.  Thus, in a recent book, Tom Regan, who champions animal rights in the utility-trumping sense, and Carl Cohen, who defends most current animal usage, both claim that the crucial issue is whether animals have rights in this sense.[5]  Each claims that the other’s position is clearly indefensible once all the relevant arguments are in.[6]  The reader is thereby offered this impression: Either thorough-going liberation of animals from husbandry, biomedical research, and other animal-harming institutions is justified or something resembling the status quo is justified; the single crucial determinant of which of these polar visions is correct is whether animals have utility-trumping rights; and, since each author expresses utter certainty that his view is correct, one of the authors must be mad.  I hope readers reject this bizarre impression and, with it, the thesis that whether animals have utility-trumping rights is the most important issue in animal ethics.  It is not.  Moreover, by falsely dichotomizing positions, those who advance this thesis obscure the ethical issues about animal usage and, to that extent, impede moral progress.

Far more important than whether animals have utility-trumping rights is whether they deserve equal consideration (as both utilitarians and strong-rights theorists, in their differing ways, contend).  If animals deserve equal consideration, then wherever humans and animals have a prudentially comparable interest—that is, where humans and animals have roughly the same thing at stake—we ought to give the animals’ interest no less moral weight than we give humans’ comparable interest.  Since many animals can suffer, and since avoiding suffering is the interest we can most straightforwardly attribute to these animals, the interest in avoiding suffering best illustrates what equal consideration would mean: at a minimum, that the moral presumption against causing animals to suffer is as strong as the moral presumption against causing humans to suffer.  Even this minimal claim is very significant.  For many types of animal usage—including not merely factory farming but also family farming, nearly all animal research, and most current zoo exhibits—are incompatible with such a strong presumption against causing animal suffering.  Thus whether animals have rights in this equal-consideration sense is far more important than whether they have utility-trumping rights.  Despite being a utilitarian, and therefore rejecting utility-trumping rights, Peter Singer seems to appreciate that the issue of equal consideration is more important.  Thus, his Animal Liberation stresses equal consideration rather than utilitarianism in particular.

Yet it would distort matters to claim that equal consideration is the crucial issue in animal ethics.  There is no single crucial issue.  The equal-consideration issue is very important, but so is the prior question of whether animals have moral status (or rights in that loose sense).

So the direction of discussion I recommend, in contrast to the terms encouraged by the aforementioned authors, is to promote awareness of the many forms of current animal usage that are indefensible on the modest assumption that animals have moral status.  Factory farming, as I have argued (somewhat briefly here), is indefensible assuming animals have moral status.  So, I suggest, are standard methods of the fur industry (even if people in danger of freezing may permissibly kill animals for their furs).  There are other examples, but we need not consider them here.  The key insight is that, contrary to some authors and activists, we don’t need to know whether animals have rights in the utility-trumping sense or even the equal-consideration sense to know that factory farming, and routinely buying and eating its products, are indefensible.  This represents a better strategy for criticizing factory farming because it is maximally broad-based—intuitions about the wrongness of cruelty being sufficient to launch the argument—rather than depending on highly controversial moral theses.  (While I believe Singer would accept my argument, his writings tend to stress the equal-consideration issue in yes or no terms, not explicitly noting that unequal yet serious consideration for animals is enough to justify many significant reforms.)  The more we recognize the possibility of justifying important reforms in this maximally broad-based fashion, the more we can engage the great majority of people in moral terms that make sense to them.


[1] See especially Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] For detailed, well-documented accounts of factory farms and slaughterhouses, respectively, see Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. (New York: Avon, 1990), ch. 3; and Gail Eisnitz, Slaughterhouse (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1997).  I also provide further details in Taking Animals Seriously, pp. 281-284 and Animal Rights, pp. 67-73.

[3] See Taking Animals Seriously, p. 288.

[4] For further details, see Animal Rights, pp. 75-76.

[5] Carl Cohen and Tom Regan, The Animal Rights Debate (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001)

[6] Thus: “Each of us is confident that rational deliberation … supports his conclusion with overwhelming weight,” (The Animal Rights Debate, p. vii).  The book contains many further statements confirming my attribution.  For a fuller discussion of this work, see my review in Ethics 113 (April 2003): 692-695.

David DeGrazia
is Professor of Philosophy at George Washington University, where he has taught since 1989. Among his publications are
Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status (Cambrige University Press, 1996) Human Identity and Bioethics (Cambridge University Press, 2005).