Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Animal Suffering

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 18, 2012

Ethical Background

We have an obligation not to cause suffering. Furthermore, we have no reason to limit this obligation to members of the human species—any sort of suffering is morally relevant, and the importance of the suffering derives not from who experiences it but from how severe it is [1]. If animals can suffer then their suffering deserves equal consideration.

Many non-human animals (including most vertebrates) are definitely capable of suffering—physically, and often emotionally. True, most animals cannot know the range of suffering that humans can, but they still feel pain, discomfort, and distress, and they experience such feelings as acutely (or at least approximately as acutely) as humans do. (For those who doubt that mammals and other vertebrates feel pain to the extent that humans do, see Do Animals Feel Pain?.) We owe it to all animals—human and non-human—not to inflict painful experiences upon them. Furthermore, we have an obligation to prevent the suffering of animals in the wild.

Practical Considerations

If we grant that the suffering of all beings holds equal value, then what must we do to remain consistent with our morals?

It has been well-established that factory farms—through which nearly all domesticated animals (excluding pets [2]) are raised—cause animals a great deal of suffering. This essay will not go into details, as facts about such animals’ treatment are readily available (in many books as well as on the web; I recommend Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, an excerpt of which may be found here). All that need be said here is that animals on factory farms experience an enormous, almost incomprehensible amount of suffering for their entire lives.

So-called “free range” or “cage-free” farms, while they often improve conditions, still create considerable suffering. It is difficult to find farms that raise animals humanely, and even certified “humane” farms create conditions that I would not wish for any sentient being to endure (for example, castrating animals without anesthetic). It may be possible to find happily-raised animals in stores, but I warn the reader to be skeptical of any products that claim to be humane. For more information, see “The Truth Behind Labels: Farm Animal Welfare Standards and Labeling Practices.

In light of these considerations, we hold an obligation to avoid animal products, especially food. Of course, reducing the quantity of meat one eats—while not as good as removing it entirely from one’s diet—does a great deal of good. For those who wish to prevent animal suffering but find it difficult to do so, there are a lot of resources out there that can help you. I recommend The 99-Cent Ultimate Vegan Guide by Erik Marcus, which you can purchase online for 99 cents.

Of all the animal products we consume, chicken and fish suffer the greatest total harm. A cow or a pig can feed many more people than a chicken or fish, so not as many have to be raised and killed in cruel conditions. And when industrial fishing boats capture fish, they end up killing many times more fish than they actually intend to harvest, simply by accident (Foer 49). Together, chicken, eggs, and fish probably account for over 95% of the suffering that the food industry creates. For more information on this subject, see “How Much Direct Suffering Is Caused by Various Animal Foods?”

One should avoid animal products not only to reduce suffering, but to make a statement. We will make serious progress toward reducing animal suffering when caring seriously about animals becomes a widely-accepted position. As it is, people who concern themselves with the suffering of non-human animals are considered radicals and often looked down upon—many consider it rude to even bring up the fact that you’re vegan. Every person who joins this “radical” position helps push it toward the mainstream; and the more mainstream the position becomes, the easier it will be to reduce animal suffering. Similarly, it is important to behave respectably when it comes to animal welfare issues; if you behave respectably, your position will get more respect. Incendiary organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals can hurt the credibility of the animal welfare movement.

Other actions we can take include political action (such as lobbying for stricter legal standards for factory farms) and donating to charities that support animal welfare. Effective Animal Activism continually invests effort into identifying the most effective animal welfare charities, and they publish their recommendations on the front page of their website.

I frequently hear people give reasons why they cannot be vegetarian or vegan. It goes beyond the scope of this essay to address them all, but it is worth saying this: (a) extensive research has shown that a vegan diet can be healthy for humans in every stage of their lives (see this report by the American Dietetic Association); (b) I have never heard someone raise a problem that could not be solved by searching online for five minutes or less. (For example, a common complaint goes, “I can’t get enough protein.” Myriad sources in bookstores and on the Web explain how to eat adequate protein with a plant-based diet.) I recommend Vegan Health as a quick source on how to maintain a healthy diet.

The Importance of Animal Suffering

Given the sheer volume of factory-farmed animals, the meat industry represents one of the most serious problems facing the world today. Most people—including many vegetarians—grossly underestimate the importance of this issue.

Non-human animals clearly have many differences from humans: they cannot vote, they cannot attend school, and they cannot in most ways participate in human society. However, many species can suffer just as we can, and as such deserve moral consideration.

As Jeremy Bentham put it in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:

The day has been, I am sad to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated by the law exactly upon the same footing, as, in England for example, the inferior races of animals are still. The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Any fair-minded ethical theory must grant that suffering is equally significant no matter who experiences it, and that includes non-human animals.

Humans living in factory farm-like conditions would probably suffer worse than other animals because out higher reasoning capacities would create additional forms of suffering. However, the great majority of human suffering in such a situation would arise in the very same manner in which animal suffering arises: continual physical pain and discomfort, inability to form social connections, and severely limited emotional freedom. Considering the tens of billions of animals raised in such conditions for their entire lives, it should be no surprise when I claim that factory farming represents one of the greatest evils in existence.

Wild-Animal Suffering

That said, the single most important source of suffering that we know of must be wild-animal suffering. Due to the sheer number of wild animals, they experience far more suffering than animals in factory farms.

Unfortunately, it does not look like we can do much about it right now, as we are not very good at predicting the impact of our actions. It is likely that our efforts to help will only make the situation worse. So consider this an open problem. We ought to spend time considering what we can do to alleviate the suffering of wild animals without inadvertently creating more. Perhaps we do not yet know what to do, but we have not spent much time considering the problem.

For now, we should stop using animal products, help promote moral sentiments that give consideration to animal suffering, and consider donating to effective animal-welfare charities.




[1] When I spoke to a friend of mine about the subject of this essay, he argued that human well-being is necessarily more important because humans have a greater impact on the global well-being than other species. If this is true, it does not give greater inherent value to human happiness, but rather gives them greater value because they create more significant side effects.

If a single human becomes more happy, his happiness spreads to other people—and hence, increasing a human’s happiness by X amount generally does more good than increasing a non-social animal’s happiness by X amount. But the added impact from a human’s happiness still does not compare to the extraordinary amount of suffering a human can prevent by taking on a few minor inconveniences (as described later in this essay).

[2] Factory farms represent the biggest source of suffering that humans inflict upon animals. This essay does not address the exploitation of animals for clothing, experiments, zoos, etc., because the sheer number of animals in factory farms far exceeds the number of animals in zoos and laboratories. And this essay excludes pets because we treat pets much better than most animals.


Foer, Jonathan S. Eating Animals. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group USA, 2010. Print.

7 Responses to “Animal Suffering”

  1. phynnboi said

    You might be interested in the work of Jaak Panksepp, sometimes known as the “rat tickler.” I’ve recently read a little about his work with human and animal emotion which is very interesting. He’s identified seven “networks of emotion” (so-named, I assume, because they involve certain parts of the brain): seeking (like, for food), rage, fear, lust, care, panic/grief, and play. This alone was quite new to me–I would never have considered “play” a kind of emotion, but it certainly explains the universality of the behavior, at least in mammals. Similarly, panic and grief being part of the same axis was surprising–I would not have thought they had anything at all to do with each other.

  2. phynnboi said

    In retrospect, I didn’t really motivate my comment very well.

    The point of my comment was that Jaak has found considerable overlap in how emotions work in the human brain and how they work in other mammalian brains. If it could be shown objectively and with no room for reasonable interpretation that the animals in question really are suffering, are suffering intensely, are suffering for long durations, and most importantly, are suffering in ways that humans can relate to, that’d help the animal rights case. For instance, if it could be shown that, e.g., cattle bred for food are experiencing what is neuro-anatomically identical to what humans with severe clinical depression are experiencing, that’d be pretty strong evidence in favor of granting those animals improved treatment.

    I don’t know at present how feasible this data collection is, but the point is, even if we can’t do it now, we do seem to be getting there, as Jaak’s work suggests.

    • I don’t know if cows experience clinical depression, but the evidence seems pretty clear that non-human animals do suffer in much the same way humans do. In my essay I linked to an article on the subject ( which presents an overview of the evidence. In short, many animals’ brains work the same way ours do and they behave the same way we do in reaction to what we know as “painful” stimuli. If you step on a cat’s tail, it will recoil just as a person will when you step on his or her foot.

      You can’t prove that animals feel pain the way you do; perhaps it’s all just an elaborate illusion. But you also can’t prove that other humans feel pain the way you do.

      The article linked above addresses these points and goes into more depth.

      • phynnboi said

        I skimmed the “philosophical zombie” article. The argument seems to rely on its subjects being “black boxes.” The point of the kind of neurological testing I’m talking about is to open up the box and show what’s going on inside.

        If by “prove” you mean “utterly and irresistibly convince everyone,” then no, it doesn’t prove it. But by that criteria, nothing at all can be proven, because anyone can deny any proof. Even in nice, clean, axiomatic mathematics, I routinely see people rather vehemently deny proofs of rather obvious things like that 0.999… = 1.

        What we’re looking for is objective evidence to give reasonable support to a claim. This may help persuade some reasonable people to take reasonable measures in the direction that we desire. Short of physical violence (i.e., killing everyone who disagrees with us), that’s the best we can do.

        • Quick question for you. You say; Due to the sheer number of wild animals, they experience far more suffering than animals in factory farms. But is this really the case? Wild animals are not tortured, they die much faster and live much better until they die in the wild. If you add up the suffering that factory farmed animals face throughout their lives I’m thinking that far outweighs the suffering involved when a wild animal is hunted or dies by getting hit by a car. So, I’m wondering how you came to the conclusion that wild-animals suffering is the worst when you stated earlier that “Considering the tens of billions of animals raised in such conditions for their entire lives, it should be no surprise when I claim that factory farming represents one of the greatest evils in existence”.

          Thanks for the article, I posted a similar article a few weeks back that generated quite the discussion, if you’re interested in this topic I’d urge you to check it out. The title of the post is “Are meat-eaters committed to the moral permissability of cannabilism?”

          Again, thanks for posting this.

        • I read your article already. I thought it was interesting but I don’t have much else to say about it.

          Certainly, an animal in a factory farm suffers much more than a wild animal. But there are about 10^10 clearly-sentient animals on factory farms versus 10^12 to 10^13 clearly-sentient wild animals (source: That means for every one factory farmed animal, there are 100 to 1000 clearly-sentient wild animals. (If insects are sentient, this number is a lot bigger.) That means even if wild animals suffer only a fraction as much as factory-farmed animals, the amount of suffering in the wild still exceeds the suffering in factory farms.

          For more on the subject of wild-animal suffering, see this essay by Brian Tomasik:

        • Thanks for the links, I’ll check them out.

          Do all wild animals suffer though? And, it seems that factory farm conditions could be 100x-1000x worse which would put the overall suffering on par. Further, on an individual basis, it seems that there is no comparison. The ff animal suffers much more.

          On a related, but somewhat different topic, I always see killing the free range animal for food worse than killing a factory farmed animal. If you look at it from the perspective of ending good experiences, well, the wild animal, or free range animal loses out, whereas the ff animal gets taken out of it’s misery.

          I find both wrong, but it’s interesting to think about the comparison between wild animals, free range animals, and ff animals. Thanks again for the links, I’ll check em out.

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