Cheryl Abbate

My Primary Moral Concern


Below is a short, introductory essay about the immorality of using and killing animals for food that I recently wrote for an “Animals and Philosophy” course that I am currently taking. While this essay does not necessarily offer a new or innovative argument against eating animals, I thought I would share this essay on my personal blog, so that those who are unfamiliar with the debate might come to understand some of the basic considerations within the animal ethics discourse. Furthermore, I have embedded useful links within this essay for those readers who are sympathetic to the idea that the abuse of animals in agriculture demands our immediate moral attention and, as a result, want to pursue a cruelty free diet in a healthy and responsible manner.

The Nonmaleficence Argument: Why we ought not raise and kill animals for food
By Cheryl Abbate
March 06, 2015

Perhaps one of the most widely accepted moral principles is the following basic principle of nonmaleficence, as described by influential animal ethicist, David DeGrazia: “other things equal, we should not harm others; put another way, we should not harm them unnecessarily” (DeGrazia 2005). DeGrazia argues that the basic principle of nonmaleficence is perhaps the only moral principle that is beyond serious doubt; it is accepted by virtually every minimally decent theory of ethics. As he points out, ‘‘a system of thought that did not embrace nonmaleficence would hardly be recognizable as a moral system” (DeGrazia 1996, 259). In what follows, I will demonstrate that an argument against raising and killing animals for food in the developed world is entailed by this basic principle of nonmaleficence.

The Argument from Nonmaleficence
The argument from nonmaleficence against raising and killing animals for food can be summarized as follows:

1. All practices that cause unnecessary harm to others are impermissible.
2. Raising and killing animals for food is a practice that causes unnecessary harm to others.
Therefore, raising and killing animals for food is impermissible.

While the first premise of this argument, which is a version of the nonmaleficence principle, is intuitively obvious and (arguably) in no need of defense, the second premise is in need of further support. This is because in order for the second premise to be justified, two things must be demonstrated: (1) that animals are harmed when we raise and kill them for food and (2) the harm done to animals is unnecessary.

The Harm of Raising and Killing Animals for Food
The claim that animals are harmed when we raise and kill them for food hopefully should not come as a surprise, given that most of us are aware of the horrors of factory farms (also referred to as intensive confinement facilities or concentrated animal feeding operations), “in which the animals live cramped, stress-filled lives and endure unanaesthetized mutilations” (Norcross 2004). Furthermore, according to Farm Forward, “[f]actory farming now accounts for more than 99 percent of all farmed animals raised and slaughtered in the United States.” When animals are raised and killed on factory farms for food, there is no doubt: they endure an alarming amount of both physical and mental suffering. I encourage readers to view this following 10 minute film which depicts the realities of industrial animal agriculture:

A number of animal ethicists, such as Alastair Norcross (2004), appeal to the claim that it is impermissible to cause terrible suffering for a mere gustatory pleasure in order to motivate an argument against purchasing and consuming factory-raised meat (click here to access Norcross’s paper title “Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases”). In the same vein, Mylan Engel (2000) argues that our own moral beliefs about unnecessary suffering commit us to the immorality of eating meat (click here to access Engel’s article “The Immorality of Eating Meat”). Engel begins by suggesting that we all share the moral belief that we should “reduce the amount of unnecessary pain and suffering in the world, if [one] could do so with very little effort” (Engel 2000, 860). He then points out that since (1) abstaining from meat requires little effort, and (2) our choice to consume meat necessarily causes an incredible amount of suffering, our basic moral beliefs commit us to vegetarianism (Engel 2000, 888).

While these two arguments successfully illustrate that raising and killing animals for food on factory farms is impermissible due to the horrifying amount of suffering and pain that the animals endure and the insignificant gustatory benefit that people experience from eating animals, there is a further question we must also consider: is it morally permissible to “painlessly” kill an animal in order to eat him, provided that the animal lived a “happy, pain-free life”?

The argument from nonmaleficence is able to address all circumstances where animals are raised and killed for food, including the issue of raising and killing animals for food on so-called “humane” farms. This is ultimately because the nonmaleficence argument employs the more expansive notion of “harm” rather than focusing on the specific harm of “pain and suffering.” As Tom Regan, the father of animal rights, points out, harm can take the form of either an infliction or a deprivation, whereby a harm of deprivation refers to a harm that denies individuals “opportunities for doing what will bring satisfaction” (Regan 1983, 303). That is, we can harm a being by depriving her of something valuable, even if this deprivation does not produce physical pain or emotional suffering. For instance, we would harm a child if we refused to provide that child with an education or foster that child’s intellectual capacities, even if the child grew up to live in blissful ignorance, without ever “hurting.”

According to Regan, death causes a similar harm of deprivation, even though it does not “hurt” the ones who die. In the case of killing animals, Regan maintains that we harm them by depriving them of opportunities for future satisfaction and we prevent animals from enjoying satisfactions that they otherwise would have had if they were kept alive (Regan 1983, 324, 99-120). Furthermore, an untimely death, according to Regan, is the ultimate, irreversible harm “because it is the ultimate loss- the loss of life itself” (Regan 1983, 100). Thus, anytime we “humanely” kill an animal, including one who led a so-called “happy life,” we harm that animal; we cause that animal the ultimate harm.

(Below is, in my opinion, the most moving video which illustrates an animal’s desire to live and the goodness that transpires when they are permitted to continue their lives):

The Harms Animals are Subjected to are Unnecessary

Anytime we raise and kill animals for food, we cause serious harm. Factory farm operations harm animals by inflicting intense pain and suffering upon them. And, even the most “humane” farming operations harm animals by killing them and thus depriving them of the future opportunity of doing what would bring them satisfaction. Yet, it is not enough to just illustrate that animals are harmed when they are raised and killed for food. In order to justify the conclusion that raising and killing animals for food is impermissible, we must demonstrate that the harms the animals face are unnecessary. Now we must ask, what does it mean for a harm to be necessary?

In order for some harm X to be characterized as a moral necessity, two conditions must be met:

1. The harm X must be caused in the name of some end Y that is worth the cost, or proportional to, the harm X.
2. We cannot achieve the end Y unless we perform some activity that produces harm X.

In the case of killing and raising animals for food, one might argue that we cause animals harm for a “worthy end,” i.e. human nutrition, which is worth the cost of the harm done to animals. Yet, we must keep in mind that we are able to achieve this end (human health) by performing another activity that does not involve harm to animals. That is, we can harvest plant based foods because, as the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (2009) reports, humans do not have an inherent biological or nutritional need for animal product. So, even though the end we seek (human nutrition) in the practice of raising and killing animals for food is a significantly important and good end, the practice of killing and raising animals for food is not necessary for achieving that end because we have an alternative practice (plant based agriculture) readily available to us that enables us to achieve the good end of human nutrition without harming animals (click here for a brief but excellent response to the “humans need meat for survival myth”). Thus, we can conclude that raising and killing animals for food is impermissible because it causes unnecessary harm to animals.

Objections and Responses
There are at least two common objections to the argument that it is wrong to raise and kill animals for food: (1) some individuals must kill and eat animals because there are no healthy alternatives to eating animal flesh where they live, and (2) some individuals must kill and eat animals because they have certain dietary needs.

The first thing to note is that I specifically limited this discussion to raising and killing animals for food in the developed world, where healthy vegan options are abundant and people are not faced with a “me or the cow” scenario. In addition, I assume that those of you reading this will not encounter socio-economic or geographical barriers to pursuing a vegan diet. While there may be individuals in parts of the world who must eat animal flesh in order to survive (for instance, in climates that are not suitable for the growing of row crops), one person’s need to harm animals does not excuse another person’s choice to unnecessarily harm animals. Furthermore, as residents of a country that is technologically advanced, we are able to access the internet in order to research how to affordably and responsibly satisfy our nutritional needs on a plant based diet, including those individuals with unique dietary restrictions (a quick google search will provide you with page after page of information about how one might get the essential nutrients from a vegan diet, such as this article). In fact, there have been numerous studies that show that people with varying dietary restrictions and needs can satisfy their health demands on a plant based diet with a little bit of effort (see the series of articles I list in the reference section below that are published by Evelyn Pluhar (1992, 1993, 1994) for empirical research that supports this claim).

It is important to note that the claim that “it is wrong to raise and kill animals for food,” is different from the claim that “it is wrong to buy and consume animal flesh.” Yet, if it is wrong to raise and kill animals for food, then there is an argument that follows naturally which concerns the impermissibility of giving financial support to those who raise and kill animals for food. By purchasing animal flesh (and other foods that contain animal product), we increase the demand for animal flesh, thereby supporting and perpetuating a morally reprehensible practice. Essentially, by eating animals, we are paying others to kill and raise animals for food which is arguably no different, in a moral sense, than raising and killing animals for food ourselves.

If we want to live a minimally decent life, we should start by refusing to harm other beings unnecessarily (and we should refuse to perpetuate such harm). One easy way we can do this is by refusing to participate in the harming of animals for food. Animals are not mere objects or instruments who deserve to be harmed just so human beings can derive a trivial and fleeting gustatory pleasure. Rather, animals are beings with rich mental lives; they possess a wide array of mental states such as fear, pain, suffering, happiness, and joy. It matters, morally speaking, when we harm them by inflicting physical pain upon them or by depriving them of the lives that they are entitled to live. We owe it to the animals to stop killing and eating them. Go vegan.


American Dietetic Association (Craig WJ and Mangels AR). (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. Journal of American Dietetic Association. 109(7):1266-82.
Degrazia, David. (2005). Regarding the Last Frontier of Bigotry. Logos, 4(2).

Degrazia, David. (1996). Taking Animals Seriously: Mental Life and Moral Status. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engel, Mylan. (2000). The Immorality of Eating Meat. In L. Pojman (Ed.), The Moral Life (pp. 856–890). New York: Oxford University Press.

Farm Forward. (2015). Factory Farming. (accessed 04 February 2015).
Norcross, Alastair. (2004). Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases. Philosophical Perspectives 18: 239-244.

Pluhar, Evelyn. (1993). “On Vegetarianism Morality, and Science: A Counter-Reply.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental 6(2):185-213.

Pluhar, Evelyn. (1994). “Vegetarianism, Morality, and Science Revisited.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental 7(1):77-82.

Pluhar, Evelyn. (1992). “Who Can Be Morally Obligated to Be a Vegetarian?” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 5(1):189-215.

Regan, Tom. (1983). The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California.