Is Factory Farming Cruel and Unethical?

  • Peter Singer, Philosopher
  • James Rachels, Philosopher
  • Ben Bramble, Philosopher
  • Plus 4 more pro
  • Loren Lomasky, Philosopher
  • Aeon Skoble, Philosopher
  • Timothy Hsiao, Philosopher
  • Plus 4 more con


Sources & Disclaimers

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  • The Humane League
  • James Rachels, Philosopher
  • Sentience Institute
  • Animal Welfare Institute
  • Michael Huemer, Philosopher
Click highlights for notes.

Factory farming is cruel and therefore immoral. Each year billions of factory farm animals live miserably and die brutally for no good reason. Their suffering is not justified by the readily replaced nutritional value of animal products, much less their pleasant taste. It needs to end.

  • Loren Lomasky, Philosopher
  • Shawn Klein, Philosopher
  • Aeon Skoble, Philosopher
  • The Editor

Maybe factory farm animals fare much worse than free-range, maybe not. Either way, the harm is justified by the boon to human welfare. We are evolved omnivores and cultural and aesthetic animals who live richer, healthier lives eating meat. Industrial animal farming expands access to meat and similar foods and thus to important human goods.

  • James Rachels, Philosopher
  • Ben Bramble, Philosopher

The nutrients our ancestors got from animals, we can get from other healthy sources. The experiences we have eating and sharing meat and the like may be fewer without factory farming, but new experiences, deeper peace of mind, and fresh opportunities to boost human welfare may make up for it.

  • Shawn Klein, Philosopher
  • Jonathan Ashbach, Political Scientist
  • Loren Lomasky, Philosopher
  • Jack Weir, Philosopher
  • The Editor

Reform may be reasonable, but abolition overvalues animal welfare. Billions benefit from modern animal agriculture. Abandoning it could lead to widespread dietary and economic losses, not to mention untold inconvenience. Human welfare matters most, and our gains outweigh farm animals’ losses, even if to them their lives have minimal net value.

  • Peter Singer, Philosopher

Animal suffering matters just as much as human satisfaction. Factory farm animals are sentient beings who, like us, have a fundamental interest in enjoying life. They do lack higher intelligence, but so do infants and the profoundly intellectually disabled, whose welfare we value no less. Discounting the suffering of animals simply because they’re not human is speciesism.

  • Timothy Hsiao, Philosopher
  • Shawn Klein, Philosopher

Humans are rational animals. If rationality is in our nature, then the capacity to reason is in every human, even when not manifest. And even if that species-defining trait is missing on the margins, the humans who don’t have it still stand in a special relationship socially, not just genetically, to those who do.

  • Peter Carruthers, Philosopher
  • Timothy Hsiao, Philosopher

None of us should be cruel to animals, if only to foster good character. But our benevolence toward livestock must be tempered by our obligations to humans.


  1. Huge factory farms are … the site of countless acts of animal cruelty…

    The Humane LeagueOwen Walsh, The Humane League. What Is A CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation)?

    Critics use the term factory farm to describe a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), also known as an industrial or intensive animal farm. These farms raise a large number of animals in a high-density, confined space. For the EPA’s definition of CAFO, see Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs).

  2. [I]t is wrong to cause pain unless there is a good enough reason … [I]f you are opposed to cruelty, you should prefer that the meat-production business be made less brutal.

    James Rachels, Philosopher The Basic Argument for Vegetarianism

    So, to be cruel, according to Rachels, is to cause pain without a good enough reason.

  3. This argument that intensive animal farming is immoral–or, equivalently, unethical–is a piece of philosopher James Rachels’ basic argument for vegetarianism, which takes inspiration from philosopher Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. Simply put:

    1. It is wrong to be cruel.
    2. Factory farming is cruel.
    3. Therefore, Factory farming is wrong.

    For a fuller account, see this encylopedia entry. Also, see Industrial Farming is Not Cruel to Animals (at page 3 of the PDF).

  4. [O]ver 90% of farmed animals globally are living in factory farms…

    Sentience InstituteKelly Anthis, Jacy Reese Anthis, Sentience Institute. Global Farmed & Factory Farmed Animals Estimates

    Roughly 23 billion animals—or, with fish, at least 61.8 billion—are being raised on intensive farms, based on the 2019 estimate from the Sentience Institute, an animal advocacy organization. Based on USDA data and the EPA’s definition of a CAFO, the Institute also estimated that 99% of US farmed animals live in intensive farms.

  5. Industrial farm animals are generally confined indoors, where they stay in cages or metal and concrete enclosures that sharply limit movement and lead to stress, aggression, injury, and disease, according to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). The animals undergo procedures like debeaking or teeth clipping, usually without anesthetic:

    Painful practices allowed on factory farms without anesthesia or pain relief
    Credit: AWI
    Animal Welfare Institute Inhumane Practices on Factory FarmsThe Humane LeagueThe Humane League. How Are Factory Farms Cruel to Animals?
  6. [M]any of these animals endure painful deaths on account of health complications caused by their breeding or environment … The stunning methods used to knock some animals unconscious before slaughter fail regularly, and errors on industrial slaughter lines result in atrocities such as nearly one million birds being boiled alive every year. Nearly all fish die by being painfully suffocated and crushed by other fish in nets that pull them out of the water.

    Sentience Institute. Our Perspective – Farmed Animals
  7. Protein and other nutrients in animal products are also in widely accessible plant-based products and nutritional supplements. Sources:

    An emerging alternative to animal slaughter is lab-grown meat, which the FDA has cleared for consumption in the US.

  8. The term animal products will refer to animal-based foods, especially those that commonly originate from CAFOs, including beef, dairy, eggs, pork, and poultry. Some critics of intensive animal farms also include fish. Foods from intensively farmed invertebrates, such as insects, bivalves, and crustaceans, may be excluded.

    In CAFOs, slaughter and non-slaughter animals have a similar quality of life, and both are eventually killed, potentially inhumanely.

  9. [M]ost people prefer a diet that includes meat because they like the way it tastes. The question, then, is whether our enjoyment of the way meat tastes is a good enough reason to justify the amount of suffering that the animals are made to endure. It seems obvious that it is not.

    James Rachels. The Basic Argument for Vegetarianism

    [W]e ought to refrain from inflicting enormous pain and suffering on other beings for the sake of obtaining comparatively small gastronomic pleasures. This is a special case of the general principle that one should not cause extremely bad things to happen in order to obtain small benefits for oneself.

    Michael Huemer, Philosopher The Conscience of a Human Being in What Do Humans Owe Animals?
  10. [M]any observers believe that there is a morally significant difference in the lives of free-range versus factory-farmed chickens. It is not for philosophers to offer fine judgments concerning the relative merits of different technologies of raising livestock — at least it is not for this philosopher to do so. … To be cautious, let’s call it a toss-up whether animals on balance win or lose out.

    Loren Lomasky, Philosopher Is it wrong to eat animals?
  11. How and what we eat is not separable from how we play, worship, conduct business, mourn the dead, take delight in our loved ones, commemorate, console, and give expression to others and even to ourselves of who we are.

    Loren Lomasky. Is it wrong to eat animals?

    A quick look at any human culture shows the immense importance of meals—and meat is frequently a major component of these meals.

    Shawn Klein, Philosopher Claims of Consensus Too Quick in What Do Humans Owe Animals?

    In the US, a majority (59%) believe that eating red meat is part of the American way of life, according to a 2021 Ipsos poll. (Hat tip The New Republic.)

  12. Humans appreciate beauty and the sublime in art, music, language, and nature. What about in meat? Lomasky seems to think so:

    [C]ulinary experience in general and animal consumption in particular afford human beings goods comparable qualitatively and quantitatively to those held forth by the arts.

    Loren Lomasky. Is it wrong to eat animals?

    Connecting humans’ taste for meat to human nature, philosopher Aeon Skoble says:

    [T]he fact that we find [animals] tasty is both a reason in itself [to eat them] and evidence for the naturalness of the connection.

    Aeon Skoble, Philosopher The Conscience of an Omnivore in What Do Humans Owe Animals?
  13. Recall that, as noted above, philosopher Loren Lomasky believes that enjoying meat has value comparable to enjoying art. He concludes:

    Lives of many people would be significantly impaired were they to forgo carnivorous consumption.

    Loren Lomasky. Is it wrong to eat animals?
  14. On the health risks associated with strict veganism (avoiding all animal products), see:

    James O’Keefe, CardiologistJames O’Keefe, et al. Debunking the vegan myth: The case for a plant-forward omnivorous whole-foods diet.
  15. The factory farming practices that might seem more morally objectionable…make it possible for many poorer humans to have access to meat1 … [I]f we outlawed “factory farming,”…we’d be using the power of the state to make certain goods only available to elites2

    Aeon Skoble. 1 The Conscience of an Omnivore, 2 Perhaps We’re at an Impasse, both in What Do Humans Owe Animals?

    In the US, industrial animal farming has led to widely available and affordable meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs, according to a 2008 report by Pew.

  16. Eggs, dairy, and other non-slaughter animal products share some of meat’s nutritional value. Arguably, they also share some of meat’s proposed aesthetic and social/cultural value.

  17. [I]n the modern meat production business, animals are made to suffer terribly. There is a reason for this suffering, too. We eat the meat, and it helps to nourish us. But…we could just as easily nourish ourselves in other ways.

    James Rachels. The Basic Argument for Vegetarianism

    The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics endorses appropriately planned vegetarian and vegan diets.

    Academy of Nutrition and DieteticsVesanto Melina MS, RD, et al. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets.
  18. [W]hat we would lose by giving up the cultural traditions associated with our meat consumption may be fully compensated for by pleasures gained from reinventing these dishes in vegetarian ways and forging new traditions at the dinner table.

    Ben Bramble, Philosopher The Case Against Meat.

    Bear in mind that Bramble advocates ending all meat consumption. Ending factory farming would probably just reduce it (which may be particularly good for Americans, who appear to eat an unhealthy amount of meat). Traditions like cookouts, meat-centric holiday feasts, and religious ritual slaughter came before intensive farming and will presumably continue after. Meatloaf Mondays, however, could be overtaken by Meatless Mondays.

  19. [It] may be the case that, knowing what meat is—and, in particular, what we do to animals in farming and slaughtering them for food—sours or pollutes our experiences of eating meat, and perhaps our experiences of living in this world more generally, in ways that are very hard or even impossible to attend to while we are still meat-eaters.

    Ben Bramble. The Case Against Meat.
  20. [M]eat is very costly to produce. If we were to cut meat from our diets, the resources that are currently spent on its production could be redirected toward other areas of our lives such as health, education, infrastructure, and so on.

    Ben Bramble. The Case Against Meat.

    As of 2013, US taxpayers spent $38 billion each year to subsidize meat and dairy versus $17 million to subsidize fruits and vegetables. Source: Meatonomics.

    60 of the world’s largest animal protein producers in 2017 had a total market cap of $300 billion, according to the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR) Initiative. FAIRR also says that 70% of food animals worldwide—99% in the US—are in intensive farms.

  21. For example, some US states ban gestation crates for sows, battery cages for hens, and veal crates for calves. Several countries ban all that as well. Read more about current (2023) reform efforts in the US.

  22. In 2022, a ban on intensive animal farming was voted down in Switzerland. In the US, the Farm Systems Reform Act of 2023 includes a proposal to prohibit the creation of new large CAFOs and phase out existing ones by 2040.

  23. Defenders of intensive animal farming could claim it benefits billions, including some of the animals.

    First, take humans who benefit most directly from intensive animal farming: producers (owners, investors, workers) and consumers. Let’s estimate just total consumers. In the US, 72% consume animal products regularly, according to the April 2023 Meat Demand Monitor. Assume that percentage holds for all developed countries, as well as those developing countries where intensive animal farming is on the rise. That’s over 3 billion regular consumers of animal products who do or could benefit from intensive animal farms.

    Now, consider animals in those farms. As noted above, a 2019 estimate puts the total number, with fish, at about 62 billion. Even if only 5% have net positive welfare, that’s still 3.1 billion that benefit on balance. (About net positive welfare for intensively farmed animals, see, for example, A Limited Defense of Factory Farming.)

  24. [T]o replace the calories and nutrition of the meat-eating 85-90% [of the world] means an enormous increase in the land, labor, and energy necessary to cultivate and produce a vegetarian diet … And if mass vegetarianism turns out to be more expensive, it could lead to widespread harms such as increases in hunger, famine, and greater poverty.

    Shawn Klein. Claims of Consensus Too Quick in What Do Humans Owe Animals?

    Klein is speculating on the effects of ending meat-eating, which he does not argue will follow from ending intensive animal farming. But the latter could still have a significant impact on the developing world. For example, see:

  25. Livestock systems … are a significant global asset with a value of at least $1.4 trillion … [L]ivestock production and merchandizing in industrialized countries account for 53 per cent of agricultural GDP.

    Phillip Thornton, Agricultural Scientist Livestock production: recent trends, future prospects.

    Recall, as note above, that globally 70% of food animals are in intensive farms.

  26. [T]he compounded utility [i.e., combined welfare loss] to hundreds of millions of people is not being given serious consideration … [F]rom the perspective of a consumer, the inconvenience of attempting to avoid (even factory-farmed) animal products is very real, especially for those unaccustomed to devote much time and effort to investigating, purchasing, and preparing food.

    Jonathan Ashbach, Political Scientist A Limited Defense of Factory Farming.
  27. Opining on the ethics of rearing pigs for organ transplants, two bioethicists remark: Animal welfare certainly counts, but human lives carry more ethical weight. (Hat tip Aeon: Against human exceptionalism.)

    The basic idea is this. Animals are sentient, so their interests carry some moral weight. But ours carry more because we’re sentient and we have some special characteristic animals don’t, such as rights or responsibilities or rationality. For discussion, see this encyclopedia entry.

  28. [G]iven that [factory farms] operate by bringing animals into existence who would not otherwise have existed, the baseline [for judging animal welfare] must be nonexistence.

    Jonathan Ashbach. A Limited Defense of Factory Farming.

    The alternatives to be contrasted are not millions of pigs living to ripe old ages as they contentedly wander around the sty versus having their lives cut short so as to be processed into chops and bacon. Except in some Disney movie, the former is never going to obtain.

    Loren Lomasky. Is it wrong to eat animals?
  29. Even by today’s intensive methods, except for battery chickens, tethered sows, and veal calves, most food animals during their lives probably experience individually more net pleasure than pain.

    Jack Weir, Philosopher Unnecessary Pain, Nutrition, and Vegetarianism.

    Weir was writing in 1991. Since then, battery cages for hens, gestation crates for sows, and veal crates for calves have been increasingly banned, as noted above. Here are two more recent takes, published in 2022 and 2013, respectively:

    It seems likely that animals … even on factory farms in the contemporary United States typically lead lives worth living …

    Jonathan Ashbach. A Limited Defense of Factory Farming.

    Is some factory-farming unduly brutal and morally corrupt? Undoubtedly. Is much consistent with good-on-balance animal lives. In a word, yes.

    Loren Lomasky. Is it wrong to eat animals?

    One reason Ashbach gives is that footage of the procedures frequently cited as dramatic examples of routine animal abuse, such as debeaking and castration without anesthetic, indicates much less discomfort than one might assume upon reading about the procedures. But what about videos showing obvious abuse? Lomasky cautions that such videos are usually secreted out and publicized by stridently anti-meat groups and are likely not representative of the full range of industry practices.

  30. I don’t think the species of a being is a reason for counting more than another being. What is important is the capacity to suffer and to enjoy life. We should give equal consideration to the similar interests of all sentient beings.

    Peter Singer, Philosopher Philosopher Peter Singer: ‘There’s no reason to say humans have more worth or moral status than animals’.

    Singer is expressing two ideas. First, sentience or the capacity for experience gives a being moral standing. This idea is sometimes called sentiocentrism since it places sentience at the center of moral decision making. Second, in our moral deliberations, similar interests—here, the interests of humans and animals, each in their own suffering and enjoyment—must be weighted alike. This idea is called the principle of equal consideration of interests.

  31. Speciesism…is a prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species … [F]undamental objections to racism and sexism…apply equally to speciesism.

    Peter Singer. Animal Liberation.

    For a quick overview of speciesism, see this encyclopedia entry.

  32. Rationality is a capacity that’s said to both (1) confer moral status and (2) separate all humans from all other animals. Other such capacities include ones for autonomy, self-consciousness, asserting rights, holding responsibilities, or forming interpersonal relationships. For an overview, see this encyclopedia entry. For critical discussion, see Against human exceptionalism.

  33. [A]ll humans, in virtue of being the kind of organism they are, possess a basic or root capacity to reason. This capacity may be immature, undeveloped, or impeded … What is lacking in so-called marginal cases [including infants and the profoundly intellectually disabled] is not the capacity to reason, but its manifestation.

    Timothy Hsiao, Philosopher Industrial Farming is Not Cruel to Animals.
  34. Human babies are part of our moral and social context; they are born and live within the web of social and moral relationships that constitute society. Similarly with other so-called marginal human cases…

    Shawn Klein. Claims of Consensus Too Quick in What Do Humans Owe Animals?
  35. [Acts of animal cruelty] betray an indifference to suffering that may manifest itself…in…dealings with other rational agents … Animals thus get accorded indirect moral significance, by virtue of the qualities of character that they may, or may not, evoke in us.

    Peter Carruthers, Philosopher The Animals Issue: Moral Theory in Practice – Ch. 7 Contractualism and Character.

    We may not torture, abuse, or otherwise mistreat animals, for in doing so we corrupt our own character, which also disposes us towards cruelty against our fellow humans.

    Timothy Hsiao. Industrial Farming is Not Cruel to Animals.