Animal culture and morality

A new approach to industrial farm animal reform

Gary Comstock

Abstract: Philosophers interested in the moral standing of so-called food animals have helped to raise awareness of the pains and deprivations suffered by cows and pigs. In its first phase, the animal rights movement—led by Peter Singer (Singer, 1975; Regan, 1983) and Tom Regan among others—drew attention to the normative status of individual animal cognitive states such as sentience (for the utilitarian, Singer) and subjective consciousness (for the rights theorist, Regan). Their work emphasized the role of animals as individual moral patients. Joined by other thinkers, leaders of this first wave played an instrumental role in changing public understanding of the psychological lives of the mammals on our farms. They made the case, persuasively for many, that animals mattered and were fit objects of moral concern.

Today, philosophers call attention to other dimensions of animal experience; their pleasures as well as pains; their moral agency as social participants as well as their status as moral patients. Consider the writings of, for example, Kristin Andrews (Andrews, 2017; Vincent et al., 2019), Lori Gruen (Andrews and Gruen, 2014; Gruen, 2011), Jeff Sebo (Sebo, 2022), Mark Rowlands (Rowlands, 2012), and Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka (Donaldson and Kymlicka, 2013). While varying in emphasis, all these writers recognize the empathic, nurturing, and normative capacities of many species: the animals’ abilities to form social relationships, act purposively, behave cooperatively, and derive enjoyment from cultural activities. The works of new wave scholars present a novel opportunity for changing public attitudes about our treatment of other mammals. By highlighting the agential and cultural dimensions of animals, recent authors are building a new pragmatic approach: enlightening the public that the animals raised in industrial conditions could, under other regimes, not simply be free of pain and deprivation. The animals could also enjoy their lives.

I survey this historical development in philosophy with particular attention to the nuanced structures of animal sociality and normativity currently being uncovered. I also explore the question whether the animal rights movement might profitably re-direct its efforts, focusing less on policies and regulations to outlaw the pains of individual animals and focusing more on ways to enable animal cultural expressions. By doing the latter one might more successfully achieve the former. Here is a new vision and strategy for those “on the ground.” Whether one seeks the reform or abolition of animal farming, progress with the voting public may come sooner if we positively describe the benefits of animals living in species-specific cultures. We might demonstrate on farms, for example, how pigs form cultures when allowed to flourish. These demonstration projects would have obvious educational and entertainment value. More important, they might improve the wellbeing of more animals more quickly than can be accomplished by the current strategy of decrying (as we should) the harms of factory farms.

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