The argument from unnecessary suffering is probably, I would think, the most common argument for vegetarianism. It runs as follows: intensive agricultural techniques (factory farms etc.), which produce the most amount of meat, create unnecessary suffering, thus we shouldn’t eat meat. A more logical form of the argument is:
- A world with less suffering is necessarily a better world than a world with more suffering
- A moral person endeavors to make the world a better place, and works even more so to not make the world a worse place
3. Immense amount of unnecessary suffering occurs to nonhuman animals because of intensive agriculture
- A world with intensive agriculture is necessarily a worse world, then a world without intensive agriculture
- Thus a moral person will endeavor to create that world (i.e. abstain from eating meat produced by intensive agriculture)
I think premise (1) and (2) are quite uncontroversial. Essentially the only premise that needs to be defended is (3). In order for (3) to be shown to be true, it must be argued that animals do suffer, that animals can suffer and that their suffering is unnecessary.
So do the animals suffer due to intensive agriculture? It is quite clear that they do, in factory farms animals are subject to an intensely inhospitable environment and are treated with barbaric indifference. Mathew Scully explains in Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy that animals in factory farms are “Genetically engineered by machines, inseminated by machines, monitored, herded, electrocuted, stabbed, cleaned, cut, and packaged by machines—themselves treated as machines.” In factory farms and similar institutions livestock and foul simply don’t have enough space to move around in and will probably never breathe fresh air except on their way to the slaughterhouse. The lack of space, to in some cases even turn around, causes ‘vice’ in pigs as Peter Singer explains in Animal Liberation: “When kept in barren, overcrowded conditions pigs are prone to “vice” as hens are. Instead of feather-pecking and cannibalism, pigs take to biting each other’s tails. This leads to fighting… [So] they cut off their tails.” A similar practice occurs to hens whose beaks are cut off because of the agony caused by their confinement, which causes them to peck fellow hens and partake in cannibalism. Clearly it is unprofitable for hens to be killing each other or for pigs to be biting one another, but instead of changing the conditions they are kept in it is much more easy and profitable to cut off their beaks. This process causes, as anyone of who is half intelligent might guess, an immense amount of suffering. It will suffice to say that in intensive agriculture animals are held in disease inducing environments, mutilated, fed unhealthy diets, denied all healthy natural activities, and sometimes not even killed properly. For more information see the previously mentioned books, The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason, the previously linked The Immorality of Eating Meat by Mylan Engels Jr, and this site for more info: . Obviously animals do suffer due to intensive agriculture.
But can animals suffer? I would think that it is empirically evident that they can and do; does anyone really supposes that animals cannot feel pain? At any rate if anyone did they would be indubitably mistaken. In a review specifically dealing with animal suffering, Engels lays out the evidence that animals can and do suffer:
“We witness pain behavior, not just reflex actions to noxious stimuli (protective pain), but subsequent pain-induced behavioral modification caused by bodily damage (restorative pain); we observe significant anatomical and neurophysiological similarity between humans and many animals (including all mammals and most vertebrates); endogenous serotonergic and opioid pain-control mechanisms are present in all mammals[Why would organisms incapable of feeling pain have endogenous pain-control systems?];...analgesics and anesthetics stop animals from exhibiting pain behavior, presumably because these substances prevent the pain itself in much the way they prevent pain in humans; and there is compelling experimental evidence that the capacity to feel pain enhances survival value in animals, based on the self-destructive tendencies displayed by animals that have been surgically deafferented.”
Given the weight of this evidence it seems absurd to suppose that nonhumans animals cannot suffer; plausibly as absurd as it is to suppose that humans cannot suffer.
Yet perhaps the suffering of nonhuman animals is not unnecessary, but in fact necessary. On what grounds would one think that the suffering of nonhuman animals in factory farms is necessary? Some one may think that factory farms satisfy the demand for cheap meat. But surely this is not morally relevant , simply because it is the case that some people demand cheap meat (and in turn the suffering of animals) does not make it in any way necessary that animals be treated the way they are. Further Factory farms are not at all efficient in providing food to the general public. The animals consume extraordinary amounts of food (cattle alone consume up to 70% of US produced grain) and the protein created per an acre is inefficient; soy plants can make 5 to 15 times more protein per an acre then meat production. Thus if it is argued that the factory farming is in someway beneficial because it causes food to be more available this contention is false. This objection overlooks completely overlooks the importance of animal suffering. Further most peoples demand for meat is contingent, most people are capable of meeting their basic nutritional needs without any meat. Clearly factory farms and other intensive agricultural techniques do not occur necessarily.
Thus it follows since animals can and do suffer and that this suffering is unnecessary premise (3) is true and without further objections (which I will discuss at a later point in time) this argument succeeds and one ought to be a vegetarian at the very least one ought to boycott factory farms and similar institutions.