Can rocks be wronged? One reason to say no is that rocks don’t have feelings. If you break a rock, you cause no suffering to it. You might be doing wrong to others – like anyone who might use or enjoy it – but not to the rock.
The situation seems different for conscious beings. Whatever has feelings – in particular, whatever can suffer – can surely be wronged. And we are doing wrong when we cause suffering that is extensive, avoidable, and undeserved.
If you agree, then please consider the fact that every year, tens of billions of chickens, pigs and other animals are killed on factory farms. During their lives, they may be separated from their mothers after birth, be crammed into living spaces so small they cannot turn around, experience only aggression from their frantic fellow animals, and endure other circumstances that many people find distressing even to read about. And here I have a dilemma: my subject requires that I mention some of these conditions, but I dearly do not want to put you off from reading this. So I have put more details in a separate paragraph that I have placed after the conclusion of this piece. I hope you decide to page down and read it, but if you choose not to, I hope you go on reading anyway.
The animals in factory farms can suffer. Their behaviour, anatomy and physiology are all evidence of that. It appears they can experience a range of negative feelings, such as anxiety and fear, and they can clearly feel pain. So they can be wronged. Are they in fact being wronged? The suffering inflicted on them is certainly undeserved. It is avoidable: there is nothing necessary about factory farming practices. And it is unimaginably extensive, in its nature and quantity; no respite, from birth to death, for many thousands of millions of animals every year. So we are not merely doing some wrong to animals. This is a vast wrong, and it goes on and on.
I find this hard to face, because it is so horrible. I suspect that factory farming maintains itself partly by committing wrongs so great that we turn away. We care for our dogs, and ignore their fellow mammals in factory farms. We read books about happy farm animals to our children, and we drive past the long, windowless buildings off the highway. We take the kids to a petting zoo, making sure that the children handle the lambs and chicks gently, but the billions of their fellow creatures in factory farms get none of our attention. We are touched to learn that mother pigs sing to their young while nursing, or that hens cluck softly to their chicks before they are born, and that they chirp back to her and to each other from inside their shells. And when we enjoy the cooked body parts of animals on our plates, we prefer not to think of the cost, in pain, of our meat.
In a world that receives much of its produce from such tremendous suffering, there are many occasions for grotesquely inappropriate displays of sentiment. Take National Braai Day. Desmond Tutu is the patron of the organisation Braai4Heritage, which urges us all to have a braai on Heritage Day. At a press function in 2008, Tutu said, ‘It’s a fantastic thing, a very simple idea. Irrespective of your politics, of your culture, of your race, of your whatever, hierdie ding doen ons saam…Here is one thing that can unite us irrespective of all of the things that are trying to tear us apart.’ Asked what vegetarians should do on National Braai Day, Tutu said, ‘They can stand and watch’.
Much of the meat that will be consumed on National Braai Day will come from factory farms, but any talk of the suffering en route to the braai seems to be off the table. We are to listen to Jan Braai’s views on lamb – ‘The lamb loin chop is a member of the braai royal family’, as he remarks in his latest book – but to point out that lambs identify their mother by her bleat, while sheep can perform sophisticated cognitive tasks, is to be a spoilsport. Are we not true South Africans, then, if we won’t have the lamb chop and pork wors? On the contrary: anyone who believes that consuming factory farmed meat together is a source of pride has very low standards. And since I am as South African as you are, let me sum up my point in a sincerely South African way: Braai Day se ma se p**s!
Here’s a different suggestion. If we want to be proud of our country and ourselves, one way to do it is to show some care for our fellow creatures, and reject factory farming. Many of us already display concern for some animals – if they’re our pets, for instance, or fellow primates, or very large, or scarce, or beautiful. But animals can be wronged even if they are none of these things. Two months after his speech in favour of Braai Day, Desmond Tutu spoke in support of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s campaign to stop the killing of whales. He said: ‘Are we surprised that we have lost a sense of the worth of human life, when we kill so carelessly?…This [campaign against the killing of whales] warns us that we are slowly ourselves committing a kind of suicide. If it is not a physical suicide, it is a moral and ethical suicide. For our own sakes we need to recover our humaneness, and our humanity. It is time to say no, no, no! to the killing of whales.’ Whales differ in many ways from chickens, cattle, pigs and other factory farmed animals. But these creatures all have in common the capacity to suffer. To regard our killing of some animals as moral suicide while treating the pain we inflict on others as being of no moral concern is a mistake.
Attention to human interests adds to the wrongs of factory farming. For example, factory farming is hugely wasteful of environmental resources, can pass on disease and undesirable chemicals to meat-eaters, and pollutes the atmosphere. There is much more to say, but this piece has focused only on the wrongs done to the animals themselves.
Note that I have argued against factory farming without taking a position on many questions in animal ethics. Do animals have rights? How much consideration should be given to their interests, in comparison to human interests? May humans ever raise animals in order to eat them or experiment on them? Is it acceptable to kill animals if one does not cause them to suffer during their lives? I have also said little about the many abilities of animals, emotional and cognitive, beyond their capacity to suffer. There is plenty of writing on all these topics. Much of it reveals that our everyday attention to the treatment of animals is completely inadequate. But in this piece, for the sake of focus, I have not dwelt on these questions. Here I want only to argue that if any creature that can suffer can also be wronged, then we ought to reject factory farming.
I hope that future generations will be appalled by our treatment of animals in factory farms. I hope that they regard those of us who turn a blind eye exactly as we deserve. But even now – to return to Desmond Tutu’s jocular suggestion for vegetarians – people who decide to pay moral attention to the way we treat animals will indeed stand, as we braai, and watch. They will watch us, and they will judge.
Below is the part that may be difficult to read. Seeing pictures or watching footage is worse.
Many factory farm animals experience conditions including mutilation of body parts (beaks, tails, teeth) without anaesthetic, breaking of bones due to inactivity and overcrowding and aggression from other distressed animals, imbibing of anaesthetics to keep them alive for enough time, protracted periods without food or water on the way to the abattoir, beatings from abattoir workers to keep them moving, and finally a slit throat, or – if they have been missed out on the killing line, or are still alive after being wounded – being dropped into vats of scalding water while conscious.