Utilitarianism and the Consumption of Animal Products

I believe it is morally permissible to consume animal products under certain circumstances. This would be just if and only if the animals were from an organic, free-range farm similar to PolyFace farms. The industrialized animal farming industry is unjust and should not be supported through the purchase and consumption of meat or other animal products. In this paper, I will defend my views through the application of utilitarianism, as well as anticipate and address a possible objection to my argument.

Utilitarianism is one of the general moral theories of normative ethics, which is made up of two principles: utility and equality. According to Russ Shafer-Landau, “well-being is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable” (120), and therefore, maximizing utility is to maximize things like happiness, pleasure, and desire-satisfaction. Equality is the principle that the interests of all members of the moral community who are involved are completely equal. The utilitarian theory, therefore, tries to create the most amount of wellbeing and the least amount of displeasure or suffering. To do so, one must calculate the equal interests of all of those involved, and weigh the amount of happiness against the amount of unhappiness, to find the solution that creates the most wellbeing for the most members of the moral community.

To apply the utilitarian outlook to the issue of the consumption of animal products, we must consider the interests of all those involved. It is the general consensus of utilitarianism that nonhuman animals are also members of the moral community (Shafer-Landau 128). The status of animals within the moral community is answered through Jeremy Bentham’s famous question: “…can they suffer?” (Shafer-Landau 128). It is evident that animals do suffer and they therefore have interests. Utilitarians, such as Peter Singer, then connect that since animals have interests, they are members of the moral community (Repp). Thus, the interests of animals must be taken into account.

In addition to animals, we must take into account the interests of farmers, meat-eaters, and activists, as they will be affected by the decision. If the world started exclusively purchasing and consuming “happy” meat and animal products, from farms like PolyFace farm, farmers, meat-eaters, activists, and, of course, animals would be generally well off. Due to the substantial decrease of suffering, a utilitarian would conclude that “happy” meat and animal products create more wellbeing for the most members of the moral community than a diet consisting of products from factory farms. Therefore, according to utilitarianism, consuming products from the industrialized animal farming industry is morally impermissible, as it is the option that creates very little wellbeing.

The issue with this theory, and how one in opposition may object, is the collective action problem. This issue arises when considering such a widely accepted practice like consuming animal products. As an individual, a strictly “happy” diet will not make a significant enough change to affect the industrialized animal farming industry, nor will it actually save any animal lives. In that way, the only change adopting this diet would cause is the individual loss of pleasure from missing out on the indulgence of animal products. Therefore, there would be less wellbeing if an individual stops consuming factory farmed products. In this way, utilitarianism allows an individual to continue eating the products of factory farms.

To solve this issue, we must adopt and alter Alastair Norcross’ argument. Norcross argues that the accumulated number of people who become vegetarian will create a significant enough impact to decrease the number of chickens that are bred per year, estimating a decrease of 25 chickens per vegetarian (233). In that way, the individual decision to adopt a vegetarian diet has assisted in prevention of the birth, and therefore, the extreme suffering of an approximate number of members of the moral community.

Norcross’ argument can be altered to defend my argument from the collective action problem. In the same way, the accumulated number of people who adopt a “happy” diet will create the same impact and decrease the number of all animals bred to be factory-raised. Instead, due to the increased demand, these animals will be bred at a humane farm. In that way, an individual has contributed to a reduced amount of suffering, and therefore, an increased degree of wellbeing for more members of the moral community. Furthermore, this adaption of Norcross’ argument creates even more wellbeing, as instead of simply never being born in avoidance of suffering, these animals get to live a full life without it. Thus, the collective action problem does not hinder the utilitarian in this case.

Ultimately, the utilitarian theory supports my belief that it is morally permissible to consume animal products only if they are from a humane, free-range farm, such as PolyFace farm. The logic of Norcross’ argument refutes the collective action objection to my argument; proving individual action can create more wellbeing.





Works Cited

Norcross, Alastair. “Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases.” Philisophical Perspectives 18.1 (2004): 229-245.

Repp, Charles. Treatment of Animals. University of Toronto Mississauga. Mississauga, 15 Oct. 2013. Lecture.

Shafer-Landau, Russ. “Consequentialism: Its Nature and Attractions.” The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.