One of the strange pathologies of our time is our eagerness to condemn previous generations for failing to observe contemporary ethical norms—from the cancellation of famous singers to the reassessment (and even revision) of celebrated authors. While it’s necessary to confront the past honestly, it’s also important to put history in context. Beyond the fact that our predecessors didn’t know what we know, human beings are social animals who tend to adopt many of the dominant attitudes and behaviors of their time.
Consider how quickly these attitudes and behaviors can change. Just 27 percent of Americans believed that same-sex marriages should be “recognized by the law as valid” in 1997. Within a couple of decades, that proportion climbed to over two-thirds. In 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry. This fundamental shift happened over a fraction of a human lifespan, which is a reminder of how much change can take place over a century or two. The fluidity of our beliefs and norms should make us less judgmental of those who came before us, and more modest about the actions we take for granted today.
It’s useful to imagine what future generations might think about ideas and practices that are commonplace today. Perhaps they will be outraged that we aren’t more proactive about addressing climate change or the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Maybe they will be shocked by the extent of global income inequality. While we certainly won’t receive top marks on either of these issues—or countless others—our treatment of nonhuman animals will likely rank at the top of our successors’ list of past horrors.
Billions of factory-farmed animals are slaughtered every year, and they spend most of their lives in filthy confined spaces that severely inhibit (or entirely prevent) the satisfaction of their basic instincts and needs. Egg-producing chickens are kept in battery cages that don’t allow them to spread their wings. Female pigs are crammed into gestation crates that are approximately the same size as their bodies, which prevents them from being able to turn around. Dairy cows are held in tie stalls which tether them at the neck to restrict movement. Practices such as debeaking and tail-docking without anesthetic are common. Calves of dairy cows are taken from their mothers, which causes great emotional distress. Billions of male chicks are “culled” (killed with industrial-scale efficiency) because they aren’t economically viable.
We find ourselves reexamining and often denouncing historical figures because moral progress has taken place on a vast scale. Steven Pinker’s 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress presents overwhelming evidence that conditions have generally improved for our species across a wide range of metrics: life expectancy, rates of extreme poverty, GDP per capita, child labor and welfare, literacy, warfare deaths, democracy, and so on. Drastic shifts in public opinion have accompanied and spurred much of this progress, such as the embrace of Enlightenment values (the “reason, science, and humanism” in Pinker’s subtitle), greater concern for human rights, and significant reductions in racist, sexist, and homophobic opinions. Our attitudes toward nonhuman animals have evolved as well, but the real-world effects are paltry compared to the explosion in human-caused animal suffering.
In the preface to Animal Liberation Now: The Definitive Classic Renewed (2023), Peter Singer reviews the progress that has been made since the first edition of Animal Liberation was published in 1975: the animal-rights movement has seen dramatic growth, referendums in the US have improved conditions for industrially farmed animals, the EU’s founding treaty grants animals the legal status of sentient beings, political parties focused on animal welfare have won seats in the European Parliament and at the national level, vegan food options are far more common, and the “media no longer ridicules animal rights activists.”
While anti-cruelty organizations used to limit their focus to companion animals such as dogs and cats, there are now many nonprofits dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals—such as the Humane League and Mercy for Animals. The Animal Charity Evaluators website assesses the effectiveness of these nonprofits, which helps donors make more effective decisions about how and where to best spend their money (this is part of a broader trend toward performance-tracking and accountability for nonprofits, which is also reflected in the work of organizations like GiveWell). Public outreach, grassroots organizing, research and advocacy training, and corporate pressure campaigns are often effective at changing laws and company policies to take animal welfare into account.
Despite all these positive changes, there’s clearly more human-caused animal suffering in the world today than there was 50 years ago. When Animal Liberation was published in 1975, around 15 billion animals were slaughtered for meat annually—a figure that’s closer to 77 billion today. Beyond population growth and the fact that meat consumption tends to rise as societies get richer (an example of one form of progress canceling out another), the rapidly rising demand for poultry has driven an explosion in the absolute number of factory-farmed animals. Less than 19 million tons of poultry were produced in 1975—a number that has surged to around 138 million tons. The demand for poultry is particularly strong in China, which only produced about a million tons of poultry in 1975 but which produces 24 million tons today. There has been a fivefold increase in American poultry production over the same period.
While poultry accounted for around 16 percent of global meat production in 1975, it now makes up approximately 39 percent. This is a disaster for the overall level of animal suffering, as chickens are treated more callously than any other factory farmed animal and many more have to be killed to produce meat. The egg production industry is also a massive engine of suffering and death for chickens—recall the “culling” process mentioned above.
The animal-rights movement has secured major victories since 1975, and there are many encouraging trends, from the increasing availability of meatless products to the growing political influence of animal activists. But the shift in attitudes and laws hasn’t kept pace with greater demand for animal products and the increased productive capacity of factory farms.
In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker observes that previous generations thought it was fun to torture animals. “In 16th-century Paris,” he writes, “a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire.” Barbaric as this practice was, it doesn’t even come close to the cruelty we inflict on animals today—both in scale and degree, as farm animals with entire lives of relentless suffering are even worse off than cats who suffered for a minute or two before death. While there’s a stark psychological difference between buying some pork at the supermarket and shrieking with laughter as a cat is burned to death in front of you, the fact of animal suffering is the same in both cases. And no matter how many cats were burned in Paris, their numbers were a tiny fraction of the 1.4 billion pigs slaughtered for meat each year.
There are two major psychological distinctions between cat-burning and the consumption of factory-farmed products. First, at least there’s an ostensible point to the latter (while the former was an indulgence of cruelty for its own sake). Second, there’s a difference in proximity. Pinker rightly argues that our revulsion to sadistic forms of entertainment like cat-burning is evidence of moral progress—actively taking pleasure in animal suffering is one thing, ignoring it so you can eat what you want is quite another. However, it makes sense that Singer’s most famous thought experiment deals explicitly with the ethics of proximity—namely, the idea that we are less morally responsible for reducing suffering if it isn’t happening in front of us.
In his seminal 1972 essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Singer argues that physical distance should not be an important determinant in ethical behavior. Singer was writing during a massive refugee crisis in East Bengal, which could have been mitigated—i.e., many lives could have been saved and much suffering prevented—with sufficient financial support from people in wealthy countries. He maintained that the lack of support was ethically impermissible, and that this point extended beyond East Bengal to “many parts of the world in which people die from malnutrition and lack of food independent of any special emergency.”
Singer’s argument rests on two core principles:
“If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
“If we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us.”
To illustrate this point, Singer introduced his famous “drowning child” scenario: “If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.” By neglecting the victims of war, famine, and poverty, Singer argues that we are in effect strolling past drowning children every day. Relatively modest investments from donors in rich countries have the potential to dramatically change the lives of people in the developing world, in many cases even saving them from succumbing to starvation and disease.
This logic also applies to the other forms of suffering we ignore at a distance, especially if we actively contribute to that suffering. The average American consumes roughly 280 pounds of meat, almost 500 pounds of dairy products (excluding butter), and 35 pounds of eggs each year. The vast majority of the animal products we consume are produced on factory farms, which means we’re willing to countenance a staggering amount of suffering to get the products we want. This arguably makes our complicity in animal suffering even worse than our indifference about global poverty—we’re reaffirming that complicity every time we walk through a supermarket and vote with our dollars.
Singer says he chose to focus on the refugee crisis in East Bengal in 1971 because “Neither individuals nor governments can claim to be unaware of what is happening there.” It’s increasingly difficult to plead ignorance about how our food is produced today. Beyond the success of animal-welfare organizations in raising awareness about the realities of factory farming, the soaring levels of meat and dairy production have been conspicuous. Meanwhile, as modest improvements in animal-welfare regulations are made in the United States and Europe, countries with much looser restrictions are drastically increasing their productive capacity. Singer highlights the situation in China: “Huge skyscraper ‘farms,’ twenty-six stories high, with 400,000 square meters, or more than 4 million square feet, on each floor, are being built. When complete, they will be filled with millions of pigs.” China’s pork production has increased sevenfold since 1975.
In March, an ASPCA/Ipsos survey found that 79 percent of American adults are “somewhat or very concerned about the negative impacts of industrial animal agriculture on animal welfare.” Eighty-nine percent are in favor of factory farms transitioning to “humane systems of agriculture,” while 82 percent would support government funding for these transitions. Eighty-six percent endorsed the addition of chickens and turkeys to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Perhaps most remarkably, almost three-quarters said they would support a “ban on new industrial animal agriculture facilities”—a 20 percent increase since 2020. It’s difficult to reconcile these figures with the demand for factory-farmed animal products in the United States, as they reveal a general awareness that there are urgent problems with current methods of industrial food production. There’s a wide gulf between what Americans will say in a survey and what they’ll put on the dinner table.
The ongoing cost of this disconnect is immense. In his introduction to Animal Liberation Now, Yuval Noah Harari explains why he thinks factory farming is “one of the most pressing ethical issues of our time,” because it “concerns the majority of the earth’s large creatures: tens of billions of sentient beings, each with a complex world of sensations and emotions, who live and die as cogs in an industrial production line.” Even when consumers recognize that human-caused animal suffering is a grave ethical failure, they continue contributing to it.
In a recent article on his Substack, Richard Hanania captures the contradictory attitudes many Americans appear to have toward factory farming and its alternatives. “Ever since I first heard the arguments against what we do to animals as a teenager,” Hanania writes, “I’ve thought there is no way that the way we produce meat could be morally justified.” He cites an essay by Matthew Adelstein which argues that factory farming is the “worst crime in history,” adding that he “can’t find much to argue against in his essay.” “Our species,” Hanania concludes, “has an ethical obligation to move beyond factory farming.”
Then Hanania explains why he continues to eat meat: “I’m not a vegan. Why? Well, I like the way animals taste, and I want to be in good physical condition.” He says “I want to be thin and have broad shoulders.” He explains that “Eating meat doesn’t feel as bad because most other people in the world also do it.”
Throughout his article, Hanania demonstrates that he’s well-acquainted with the evidence and arguments against factory farming. He acknowledges that vegans have “won the argument,” and that they’re “morally superior from a utilitarian perspective.” But his central claim is that his clear-eyed acceptance of this moral failure is preferable to rationalization (the title of his article is “Eating Animals and the Virtues of Honesty”). “If I was like most other people,” he writes, “I’d try to justify my behavior by pretending that there was in fact a good ethical argument for factory farming.” While other people may regard the rationalizers as “morally better,” Hanania says, “I highly value honesty, and admire the same trait in others.”
Hanania believes his position offers another moral advantage: “The person who eats animal flesh and admits that doing so is wrong will at least be an enthusiastic supporter of lab-grown meat, and hope the industry succeeds.” While rationalizers might rely on the “naturalistic fallacy in order to justify their selfishness” and “end up ideologically opposed to new technological developments that might reduce suffering,” Hanania is evidently just one or two technological breakthroughs away from becoming a much stronger advocate for animal welfare:
Hanania thinks it’s “reasonable” to continue eating factory-farmed meat until the arrival of a cheap and tasty lab-grown alternative. He demands that readers “honestly confront what we do to animals,” but doesn’t allow his own confrontation of these “crimes” to affect his consumer habits. Like so many people around the world, Hanania is willing to put his concerns about animal welfare aside because he enjoys the taste of meat and believes it helps him stay fit. Meanwhile, the global production and consumption of animal products is accelerating, and the demand for ever-greater efficiency seems to be outstripping concerns about animal welfare.
Hanania puts his faith in innovation, but Harari explains that advancements in science and technology have often made things even worse for animals:
Once modern science deciphered the secrets of birds, viruses, and antibiotics, humans could begin subjecting animals to extreme living conditions. With the help of vaccinations, medications, hormones, pesticides, central air-conditioning systems, automatic feeders, and lots of other novel gadgets, it is now possible to cram tens of thousands of chickens into tiny coops and produce meat and eggs with unprecedented efficiency.
Faced with the moral emergency of factory farming, it doesn’t make sense to wait for a technological revolution that will bring lab-grown meat to the world. Billions of animals are tortured and killed every year, and these numbers will continue to climb. Those well-acquainted with this ghastly toll shouldn’t congratulate themselves for their intellectual honesty as they continue to consume factory-farmed meat, the production of which they acknowledge is unethical. They should live in a way that corresponds with their stated values.
In one sense, a recognition of the moral impermissibility of factory farming is a step toward a more humane world—if people don’t regard animal suffering as an issue in the first place, they won’t even begin to think about alleviating it. However, there’s another sense in which informed consumers are more culpable than those who are ignorant about what they eat, or who hold the antiquated view that animals don’t suffer in any meaningful way. Consumers like Hanania know that animals matter, but choose to act as if this isn’t the case. They have access to ample data about the cruelty and extent of factory farming, the ethical arguments in favor of animal welfare, scientific facts about animals’ subjective experiences, and all the other information they need to make responsible decisions about what they eat. Yet they continue to purchase factory-farmed products, which sends a message to the companies that run these operations: keep doing what you’re doing.
When future generations look back on our era, they will see how much we knew about the nightmare of factory farming. As Harari notes, modern science has “demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that farm animals are sentient beings, with intricate social relations and sophisticated psychological patterns. They may not be as intelligent as us, but they certainly know pain, fear, loneliness, and love. They too can suffer, and they too can be happy.” When we look back on our predecessors with a mix of shame and anger, we can often forgive them with a few words that will inevitably be used to describe us someday: They didn’t know any better. But that isn’t always true. We don’t deserve leniency for the way we’re treating the other creatures with whom we share the planet, because we do know better. We just refuse to do better.