Chapter 5: Wearing & Eating Animals

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Animal advocacy organization Vegan Outreach observes that, “The number of animals killed for fur in the U.S. each year is approximately equal to the human population of Illinois. The number of animals killed in experimentation in the U.S. each year is approximately equal to the human population of Texas. The number of mammals and birds farmed and slaughtered in the U.S. each year is approximately equal to one and two-thirds the entire human population of Earth. Over 99% of the animals killed in the U.S. each year die to be eaten.”[1] This Chapter we will focus on the moral arguments for and against using animals for fur and for food (as well as for different kinds of animal-food production, e.g., “factory farm” versus “traditional animal husbandry”), as well as the relationships between these arguments: what one thinks about the morality of the fur industry might have implications for the morality of meat, dairy and egg industries. 

Fur and Food

Philosophers often don’t discuss the fur industry. However, the fur industry is huge. And many people who do not consider themselves strong animal advocates claim to oppose it. If we ask them why they oppose it, however, they often give reasons that seem to imply that killing animals for food is also wrong. Yet these same people often resist that conclusion. Their choice, if they wish to remain consistent then, is to revise their view about the fur industry, revise their view about the meat, dairy and egg industries, or find a relevant different between the fur and agriculture industries such that one is wrong and the other is not. Can they do it?

Personal Challenges and Logic

In my 10 or so years’ experience of teaching ethics courses, I have found that no topic brings out the rational and emotional best and worst in people than ethical questions about wearing and eating animals. This is not surprising since, unlike questions what other people should do, moral questions about animals are personal. As philosopher Peter Singer has observed, “For most human beings, especially in modern urban and suburban communities, the most direct form of contact with non-human animals is at mealtimes: we eat them”[2] (and wear them). For most of us, then, our own behavior is challenged when we reflect on the reasons given to think that change is needed in our treatment of, and attitudes toward, animals. That the issue is personal presents unique challenges, and great opportunities, for intellectual and moral progress.

This Chapter we will examine the common assumption that there is nothing wrong with harming animals -- causing them pain, suffering, and an early death – so they might be eaten and worn. Our method, useful for better understanding all ethical debates, is to identify unambiguous and precise moral conclusions and make all the reasons in favor of the conclusion explicit, leaving no assumption unstated.  Especially important will be the third of the three rules (introduced in Chapter 1) for identifying and evaluating arguments:

1.       Make the stated conclusion(s) and premise(s) precise in quantity: is something said to be true (or false) of all things (or people, or animals, etc.), or just some of them (and if so, which ones?)?
2.       Clarify the intended meaning(s) of unclear or ambiguous words in conclusions or premises.
3.       State (any) assumed premises so that the complete pattern of reasoning in an argument is displayed and it is clear how the stated premise(s) logically leads to the conclusion.

People often try to argue that killing animals to eat them is morally permissible by offering a quick premise like, “Meat tastes good,” or “I’ve always eaten meat.” They don’t seem to realize that they seem to be assuming the premises if something tastes good then its permissible to kill it to eat it (what if babies tasted good?!) and if you’ve always done some action then doing that action morally permissible, another arguably false premise.

Harms to Animals (and Humans): The Facts

Why is the treatment of animals a moral issue? The simple answer is that animals are harmed by the practices required to bring them to our plates and put them on our backs, and harms need moral defense. This unit reviews the case for these industries being extremely harmful to animals and looks at the industries’ response to these charges.  Harms to humans from eating animals (or eating animals to excess) are also detailed. Consider the position statement on vegetarianism from the leading authority on nutrition in North America based on their sixteen-page review of the recent nutrition research:

It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes. . .. An evidence-based review showed that vegetarian diets can be nutritionally adequate in pregnancy and result in positive maternal and infant health outcomes. The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. Features of a vegetarian diet that may reduce risk of chronic disease include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber, and phytochemicals.[3]

Ethical behavior can require self-sacrifice; however, this scientific research suggests that ethical behavior – i.e., if killing animals to eat them is wrong – can lead to personal health benefits.

Factory Farming vs. Vegetarianism vs. Veganism vs. “Humane” Animal Agriculture vs.??

To return to the first Chapter, we can envision Regan’s “cat case” transformed into a fur-bearer and an animal farmed for food. Here are some of the options:

A.     Any (or almost any) use of those animals is morally permissible; there are no moral obligations to those animals.
B.      Seriously harming those animals (e.g., causing them pain and suffering, killing them, etc.) is morally permissible provided they are housed in comfortable cages.
C.      Seriously harming those animals is permissible provided they are housed in comfortable cages, treated gently and killed painlessly.
D.     Seriously harming those animals is typically morally wrong, even if they are housed in comfortable cages, treated gently and killed painlessly.

Option (C) is intended to be analogous to so-called “humane” animal farming and slaughter. While everyone agree that this is better for animals than factory farming, the question still remains: is this treatment of animals is morally permissible or not? If something like option (D) is the most ethically defensible option, then (C) is not. 

“Painless” and “Humane” Killing

Option (C) includes the often heard claim that, “if animals are killed painlessly, then that’s morally OK.” This assumption might be true, but it’s worthwhile to notice that we reject it about ourselves. In most cases, if we were killed, even “painlessly,” we would be deprived of our (hopefully valuable) futures: everything we would have experienced is taken from us. Insofar as animals have futures, and killing them prevents them from experiencing those futures (and any of the good experiences they would have had), it seems that the same basic reasons why it is wrong to kill us might apply to many animals. So the assumption that “painless killing is automatically morally permissible” should be, at least, strongly doubted: good reasons would need to be given its favor.

Discussion Questions

1.       For many ethical issues, a good place to start is to reflect on “common views” about the issues. Suppose you surveyed a range of people and asked them whether it’s morally permissible to wear and/or eat animals and why. What are some of the most common answers that would be given? What reasons would you often hear in favor of these answers? Are these reasons generally good reasons or not? Why?
2.       Describe how animals are treated by the fur and animal agribusiness industries: what happens to animals when used for these purposes? What are the facts? How do these industries describe how they treat animals? Are they correct in their description of the facts?
3.       Explain the strongest moral arguments for the conclusions that (a) it’s wrong to kill animals for fur and/or the fur industry is morally impermissible and (b) it’s wrong to raise and kill animals for meat, milk and eggs and/or the animal agriculture industry – i.e., factory faming – is morally impermissible. Are these arguments sound or not? Explain and defend your views.
4.       Explain the strongest and/or most common moral arguments for the conclusions that (a) it’s not wrong to kill animals for fur and/or (b) it’s not wrong to raise and kill animals for meat, milk and eggs. Are these arguments sound or not? Explain and defend your views.
5.       Should people (at least in “modern,” industrialized societies) be vegetarians? Or should they be vegans? Or should they support smaller-scale, non-industrial, so-called “humane” animal farming and slaughter? Or should they support factory farming? Explain which response best captures our moral obligations and why.
6.       Free for all discussion area: please ask anything about the readings, comment on them, or raise any other issues, questions or concerns here.

Of course, always feel free to raise any other questions, observations, criticisms and any other responses to the Chapter’s readings and issues.

Paper option

Write a 4-6 page argumentative essay that addresses all these questions and defends your answers from the strongest and/or most common objections:
·         In our society, should animals and killed be raised to be eaten? What kind of treatment of farmed animals is morally permissible? Are there any changes that we are morally obligated to make regarding how chickens, pigs, cows and other (currently) farmed animals are treated? Defend your answers with reasons.
·         In our society, should animals and killed be raised to be fur-trimmed and fur coats? What kind of treatment of fur-bearers is morally permissible? Are there any changes that we are morally obligated to make regarding how fur-bearers are treated? Defend your answers with reasons.
·         What are the relationships between your answers about the fur and food animals issues, and your reasons in favor of these answers?

What should your personal response to these issues be? Should you buy or wear fur? Should you buy or eat meat, eggs and/or dairy products? If yes, from where? If no, why not?

[1] Matt Ball, “Activism and Veganism,” at
[2] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 3rd Ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002), p. 95.
[3] “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009 Jul;109(7): 1266-82.


  1. Here I have tried to see how rights can be assigned to animals based on their intrinsic nature. I can do it for humankind but I cannot find that fundamental element that make animals deserving of rights as I assign them to humans. Advocacy and empathy (if that is possible) are not compelling enough to objectively assign such rights to animals.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It sounds to me like you should read Tom Regan. He argues that many animals have moral rights for the reason that human beings have rights: we are both "subjects of lives." See here:

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  3. I had a chance to gloss over Regan's writing. Arguing or articulating the evils of vivisection sounds to me to be overplaying altruism which is admirable at best but not convincing enough. The theory of subjects to life also sounds to me as an attempt to give equal stature for all species in the animal kingdom. This is rather radical view given the mainstream sociological perspectives of most societies of the world along with the scientific community. I wish you give a more accepted fundamental philosophy to support your position. I can understand the reasoning by Indians for not harming their cows sociologically speaking but I do not necessarily hold the same belief for my next hamburger. I have a problem because your book is being used to justify the vegan diet promoters against meat eating.

    1. To reply quickly, Regan does not claim that all species are "subjects of lives," only those who are sufficiently mentally complex. And he arrives at the view that "all subjects of lives" have basic rights because, he argues, this is the best explanation why a range of humans beings have rights. He then observes that this explanation applies to many animals.

  4. through what scientific methods can one ascertain that sufficiently and mentally complex animals possess similar consciousness or intelligence to that of humans to deserve consideration for rights to life? I have not heard of such study? Is personification of such animals enough to guarantee their right to life?

    1. It sounds like you might want to read the chapter on animal minds and the related readings: