Alastair Norcross, a philosopher from x University, presented an influential analogy relating to animal rights in his paper Puppies, Pigs, and People. In the paper, Norcross paints a colorful picture of a man named Fred inflicting horrific suffering on cute little puppies in order to preserve his ability to enjoy the taste of chocolate. Everyone, even the most passionate meat lover, has a deep seated intuition that Fred has done something terribly wrong. However, Norcross, argues, there is no morally relevant difference between what Fred does to the puppies and what consumers do when they buy the meat of factory-farmed animals.
Norcross provides an extended defense of this symmetry. The symmetry argument can be expressed as follows:
- (1). What Fred does to the puppies is seriously wrong.
- (2). Purchasing factory farmed meat is morally analogous to what Fred does to the puppies.
- (3). Therefore, purchasing factory farmed meat is also seriously wrong.
This post will summarize Norcross’ defense of this symmetryThese argument.
Fred and the Puppies
Suppose Fred has a car accident. He appears to have made a full recovery until he discovers that he can no longer enjoy the taste of chocolate. He visits a doctor who tells him that his “godiva gland” has been damaged, and he can no longer produce a hormone called “cocoamone” because of it. Cocoamone is what allows humans to enjoy the taste of chocolate. He tells Fred that a recent study shows that the brains of puppies produce cocoamone when the puppies are tortured for 6 months and then brutally killed. So, Fred sets up a lab in his basement where he tortures puppies and slaughters them for cocoamone. Now, Fred can enjoy the taste of chocolate again.
There are 3 key elements of this thought experiment: Chocolate is not essential to remain alive or to be healthy, the animals endure immense suffering before the cocoamone is harvested, and if Fred gave up cocoamone, the only thing he’d be giving up that he could not get elsewhere is the pleasure of the taste buds.
These three elements are essential in understanding why the symmetry argument is sound
Defending the Premises
Very few people will disagree with (1). It seems as clear day that Fred’s actions towards the puppies are seriously morally wrong. Specifically, Fred’s actions are wrong precisely because animals suffer extreme harm for relevantly trivial reasons. So, (1) is very plausible.
While supporting (2), it is important to note that each of the 3 key elements in the Fred thought experiment have correspond to features present in factory farming. First, Meat is not essential to remain alive or to be healthy. Second, the majority of animals today experience prolonged suffering and live in horrible conditions before they are slaughtered. Nearly all meat available for purchase in the U.S. is factory-farmed. So, just like Fred’s chocolate, our meat can only come about through causing sentient beings to experience intense pain. Third, like chocolate, the only thing that meat offers which non-meat alternatives do not is that the particular taste that meat has.
So, at least prima facie, there is a strong symmetry between the Fred thought experiment and factory farming. Both involve unnecessary items that cause extreme amounts of pain and suffering to produce and which only have value in the taste pleasure that they provide. In order to resist the intuitive force behind (2), opponents of animal rights must identify symmetry breakers between the Fred thought experiment and factory farming. It is to these potential symmetry breakers that we now turn.
Consider this: Fred directly harms the puppies. People who eat animals do not actually directly harm them. They only pay for the meat and nothing more. This makes Fred’s actions much worse than purchasing meat..
Call this the “direct harm objection” to (2). Is the direct harm objection to (2) successful? There are good reasons to think it is not. To start with, imagine if Fred did not torture the puppies himself either, but got someone else to torture the puppies for him instead. Is this significantly better than the original thought experiment? certainly not. The fact that Fred isn’t directly harming the puppies doesn’t seem to make a noteworthy moral difference at all. But if that’s true, then the direct harm objection fails.
Moreover, imagine if Fred started a cocoamone business where he began selling cocoamone to the general population. If you were fully aware of the intense suffering that occurred in the Fred’s basement in order to produce cocoamone, there would still be something seriously wrong with contributing to the Fred’s operation by purchasing some of the product that resulted from that operation. Wouldn’t there? If there would be(and surely there would be), then the direct harm objection fails.
Ponder the following: Fred INTENDS to harm the puppies as a MEANS to obtaining cocoamone, but the suffering that animals endure in factory farms is merely an unintended side effect of modern farming methods. But, it is much worse, morally to INTENTIONALLY cause harm as a means to an end than it is to cause harm as a merely foreseen, but unintended SIDE-EFFECT of one’s actions.
Call this the “intention” objection to (2). The intention objection to (2) fails because, even if intending harm is worse than foreseeing it, we can reconstruct the Fred thought experiment such that Fred does NOT need the puppies to suffer in order to obtain cocoamone, and his actions still seem wrong.
For example, imagine that torture is NOT what causes puppies to produce cocoamone. Instead, their suffering is merely the result (side-effect) of the fact that Fred’s basement is terribly small and cramped, has no ventilation, or temperature control, etc., and Fred never has time to clean it. In this case, the harm that Fred causes to the puppies is not intended, but is rather a merely foreseen side-effect of the fact that Fred is trying to save as much time and money as possible. But, It is still wrong for Fred to keep puppies in his basement in these horrible living conditions—isn’t it? If so, then the intention objection fails.
Lastly, reflect on how causality fits into the thought experiment: If Fred stops what he is doing, the puppies’ suffering will end, but if people stop eating meat, nothing will change. It will not affect the meat industry to even a small extent. Basically, the meat industry is large enough that, whether people eat meat or not, the same number of animals will be raised on factory-farms either way. So, how can buying mean be wrong if it makes no difference?
Call this the “causal impotence” objection to (2). In response, it cannot be overstated that We can make a difference: Surely, some number of people refraining from purchasing meat will affect the industry. And, assuming that at some point that number will in fact be reached, if people refrain from purchasing meat, they will have affected the industry insofar as they contributed to that number’s being reached.This is not just speculation, there is empirical evidence showing that meat boycotts cause a reduction in the amount of animals that are raised and killed.
It seems, then, that both (1) and (2) are true. It follows immediately that both factory farming and the purchase are factory farmed animals is morally wrong. In the same way that Fred’s actions violate the moral rights of the puppies, the actions of human beings in animal agriculture violate the moral rights of factory-farmed animals. Norcross’ argument for animals rights holds up to scrutiny.