On animals and suffering


Those who defend the raising and killing of animals for humans’ consumption sometimes say that such practices benefit the animals by providing them existence. Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolfe, wrote: “The pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon. If all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all.”

Imagine a world with no pigs. Now, consider a world with plentiful pigs, where each one lives a life of pain and suffering. (The second world doesn’t quite resemble the real world, but factory farm conditions aren’t too far off from this picture.) Is the second world really better for pigs than the first? I don’t think so.

First, an observation about what can be valuable for us: Nothing can be good or bad for the nonexistent. Who could you say is better or worse off? If no pigs existed, it couldn’t be better for them to have existed even in dour conditions — there’s no “them” to be worse off by comparison!

But then, you might think the pigs are better off being raised and killed after all. At least they’re living, right? Unfortunately, this cuts both ways. If the nonexistent aren’t worse off for never coming into existence, the living aren’t better off for merely existing at all. And surely it’s not the bare survival of a species that matters. What matters is living a good life.

Besides, the important matter isn’t that being brought into existence can’t be good for you, it’s that being brought into existence to live a life of suffering is decidedly bad for you. In fact, it’s bad for all sentient beings. Chickens, cows, fish, pigs and pretty much every animal with a central nervous system has an interest in avoiding pain and suffering. There are more issues to consider, but on the face of it, I take this as a pretty strong reason to doubt the permissibility of raising and killing animals.

On an unrelated note, the Trinity Philosophy Club meets every Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. in Chapman 045. Join us for drinks, snacks and thoughtful discussions about topics like this!