Animal farming is cruel! Animals should have equal rights to humans! - what lies behind these claims?

It is no coincidence that the world’s first animal protection law was passed in the British Parliament in 1822. At the time British moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the founding father of utilitarianism, was a prominent figure in British society. Bentham’s utilitarianism states that the moral right action is the one that produces the best outcome for the greatest number of individuals – and this includes animals. The best outcome is calculated as the total amount of pleasure or happiness minus the total amount of pain or suffering.

While Bentham’s powerful idea paved the way to today’s welfare-focused societies, it is also the philosophical foundation of animal welfare. The idea that farm animals should not suffer from for example stress, fear, disease, or injuries has been a well-established guideline at least since the 1960s. Since then the concept of animal welfare has developed in a direction demanding not only avoidance of suffering, but also the presence of positive emotions, e.g.European Commission’s Welfare Quality. 

Animal welfare research eliminates animal suffering

Any claim that animal farming is cruel is directly related to the notion of animals suffering. Suffering may occur on animal farms on rare occasions, but it is in no way the norm in Europe. Acts of animal cruelty may be due to poor management or lack of training and should always be signalled to the appropriate authorities.

With proven scientific methods animal welfare researchers are indeed well equipped to establish whether animals suffer or not, and much modern animal welfare research focuses on enrichment designed to increase the positive emotional state of farm animals. Such science-based knowledge is and will continue to be developed and reflected in the modern housing systems for farm animals. These housing systems are designed for animals to have an overall positive experience of their own life – if animals were generally suffering such housing systems would simply not be allowed. 

Balancing pain and pleasure quickly becomes a personal matter

An important critique of Bentham’s utilitarianism is how we are supposed to calculate the outcome of our actions in measures of ‘suffering’ and ‘happiness’. Obviously such calculations can quickly become a matter of personal opinion and interpretation.

We can argue in favour of animal farming in terms of the jobs it creates, the families it supports, the necessity of animal protein in our diets, the creative diversity of chefs and designers, food supply security and many other things which contribute to human welfare. But some people will argue that these benefits do not outweigh any kind of suffering on individual animals, and just as it is impossible to have traffic without traffic accidents, there can be no animal farming without animals occasionally in distress. As such the ‘zero pain’ position is legitimate, but of course it exists among other legitimate positions in our free society with its diverse values. 

Whether animal farming is cruel or not ultimately comes down to personal values and interpretation of suffering. It is however difficult, if not impossible, to find any life – human or non-human – which has not been exposed to some pain at some point. It is standard in modern farming to treat animals in distress as quickly as possible, and if we can accept this, animal farming can hardly be deemed cruel.

EU Welfare Quality Network
– Brambell 1965 reference