Fighting Seals: Reflections on Daniel D’Amico’s Defense of Factory Farming

The written form of this lecture originally appeared in the Journal for Critical Animal Studies.



In a written defense of factory farming, Daniel D’Amico argues that our instinct to prioritize human life over animal life in certain lifeboat scenarios reveals that human interests are so much more important than animal interests that the bloody system of factory farming can be justified by its (alleged) benefits for humanity. Through an exploration of Rawlsian reasoning, the reflections in this lecture show—contra D’Amico’s claims—that our instinct to favor humans in lifeboat scenarios can and ought to be justified in a way that does not also commit us to defending the cruel system of factory farming. In service of this rebuttal, the lecture proceeds to demonstrate, via an appeal to intuition, that certain violent acts (e.g., killing animals) that may be permissible in lifeboat scenarios are totally unacceptable when committed in the course of ordinary life. In pursuit of some agreement, the lecture finishes by noting that D’Amico’s apparent commitment to human flourishing may provide an opportunity for collaboration with animal liberationists who also take an interest in universal human uplift. 

Keywords: least well off, animal liberation, lifeboats, utilitarianism



In a written debate on factory farming, Daniel D’Amico outlines a thought experiment that invites readers to weigh the importance of human interests against the importance of animal interests (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). Although D’Amico leaves some of the details unclear, his description suggests that this thought experiment could take one or both of two general forms. In the Sadistic Gunman scenario, a sadistic gunman has forced you onto a beach where, before leaving, you must kill 1,000 baby seals or one human baby. If you refuse to choose, the sadistic gunman will keep you on the beach and kill all of you. Seal Attack describes a situation where you are walking home from baseball practice one day when you find 1,000 baby seals moving towards a human infant. The seals will overwhelm and kill the infant if you continue walking, but the infant will survive if you stop to pummel the seals to death.

D’Amico appears to argue that our strong intuition to save the human infant in both scenarios reveals that human welfare matters more than animal welfare (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). In fact, human interests are so “vastly more important” than animal interests that factory farming—which provides our species with tasty food—is morally permissible, even though it imposes tremendous costs on animals bred for hellish lives of servitude (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). 

The forthcoming reflections offer one of many conceivable liberationist rebuttals to D’Amico. If successful, I will prove in this lecture that it is logically possible both to advocate saving the hypothetical human baby and to condemn factory farming as a moral crime against real-world animals. Then, in the spirit of concord, I will explore a potential implication of D’Amico’s appraisal of Seal Attack that shows that D’Amico’s moral commitments might not be too different from the universalist commitments of many animal liberationists. It is in this harmonious spirit that my reflections will end.  

Rawlsian Objections

Animal liberationists hotly debate the utilitarian method of evaluating public policy, whereby analysts weigh the sum of a proposed policy’s good consequences against the sum of its bad consequences (Regan & Singer, 1985). Whereas some liberationists—Peter Singer, most notably—fiercely defend this utilitarian method of moral calculation, liberationists like Tom Regan feel that this utilitarian approach perilously discounts what John Rawls called “the distinction between persons” (Rawls, 1971, p. 27). Cognizant that pain is experienced on an individual basis, Regan and other Rawls-inspired liberationists claim that the aggregate harm that a policy promises is less important than the policy’s probable impact on the affected individual who, once the policy is enacted, will be least well off (Regan & Singer, 1985). It is most moral, these liberationists claim, for us to pursue the greatest well-being possible for whatever hapless individual will end up occupying this bottom position, even if this pursuit requires us to sacrifice some utility overall. 

Regan’s liberationist doctrine is itself liable to powerful challenges. For example, it may be true, as utilitarians insist, that forcing a psychologically neutral individual into a negative psychological state actually would make moral sense, assuming that this move would somehow allow many (say, one thousand) other individuals to transition from a neutral psychological state to a positive psychological state. However, an exhaustive defense of Regan’s position against such challenges is unnecessary to show that his view, whatever its potential deficiencies, is at least plausible and may very well pose a potent challenge to D’Amico’s position.  Although D’Amico seems to think that no set of pro-liberation ideas could yield arguments in favor of saving the human baby in Sadistic Gunman and Seal Attack, Regan’s pro-liberation Rawlsian ideas do exactly that. 

Unlike utilitarians, who would begin their moral calculations by weighing the potential suffering of the human baby against the potential suffering of all 1,000 seals in either hypothetical, Rawlsians would begin by weighing the human baby’s potential suffering against the potential suffering of only one of the 1,000 seals. Of course, the linguistic limitations of seals and human infants would make it difficult for ethicists to measure these beings’ potential for suffering and for Rawlsians, therefore, to compare their potential suffering reliably. Even so, Rawlsians could note that human babies and seals both have nociceptors and central nervous systems and that, despite their unmistakable aversions to noxious stimuli, individuals in both groups have only a rudimentary understanding of the pains they experience (Costa & Crocker, 2009, pp. 873-878). 

Perhaps Rawlsians would feel, at first glance, that the psychological and physiological similarities between seals and human babies mean that saving the human baby, in either Sadistic Gunman or Seal Attack, is not morally required. But thoroughgoing Rawlsians would know that the threats facing the human child and baby seals in our posited hypotheticals are not the only harms for which ethicists must ultimately account. Surely it matters morally that any human baby’s death is overwhelmingly likely to break the hearts of the child’s adult relatives, subjecting them to a tragedy that, according to some bereaved parents, can feel like a nightmare from which one never really awakes (Mendoza, 2016).

If it is true, as it seems to be, that a human baby’s death would generally haunt that child’s adult family more than a seal’s death would harm the seal itself or any of the seal’s loved ones, then Rawlsians’ choice would be clear. If they opted to save the human baby by bringing about the seals’ deaths, they would be creating a situation in which the least well off individual is a pained seal being beaten to death. In contrast, if they opted to save the seals by bringing about the human’s death, they would be creating a situation in which the least well off individual is an inconsolable human adult whose psychological suffering is deeper than that of which any seal is capable. Because the former option would involve less suffering for the least well off individual, this is the option that consistent Rawlsians would choose. 

We should note that the preceding account would fail if the endangered human infant somehow had no loved ones. But maybe Rawlsians would then have other reasons to save an orphaned human baby at the expense of seals. To wit, if it is true that the human baby’s living future—unlike that of the seal—would involve finding a loving home environment that would allow this human to create art, tell stories, fall deeply in love, and pursue other long-term professional and personal projects, then the joys of the human’s life might outweigh the joys of the seal’s life. Consider:

World 1: Seal Survives and Human DiesWorld 2: Seal Dies and Human Survives
Seal: +5 hedons
Human: -2 hedons
Seal: -2 hedons
Human: +20 hedons

The least well off individual in World 1 is the human baby who experiences -2 hedons as a result of being shot or trampled to death, and the least well off individual in World 2 is the seal that is killed in an equally painful way. Upon first glance, we might feel that this is a Rawlsian “tie” and that Rawlsians would, therefore, be obligated to flip a coin (or something like that) in order to choose between the two worlds. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes hard to believe that this is the correct Rawlsian approach. Indeed, if it were the correct Rawlsian approach, then a Rawlsian would also have to flip a coin between Worlds Y and Z, each with 100 people, where (1) World Y has 1 person at -10 hedons and 99 people suffering nearly as much at -9 hedons and (2) World Z has 1 person at -10 hedons but 99 people living positively ecstatic lives at 1,000 hedons. It is reasonable to suppose that the correct Rawlsian approach to such “ties” is instead to compare the second least well off individual in the first possible world to the second least well off individual in the second possible world. Because the second least well off individual in World 2 (i.e., the surviving human at approximately +20 hedons) is better off than the second least well off individual in World 1 (i.e., the surviving seal at +5 hedons), World 2 is the one that Rawlsians ought to prefer. 

If we accept the preceding analysis, then we may be asked to concede, as an aside, that human fetuses resemble human babies in their capacity to be made better or worse off based on whether they live or die (Marquis, 1989). Of course, many anti-abortion Rawlsians would probably view any such “concession” as a simple truism, the validity of which one would be silly to deny. But it is possible that even abortion-condoning Rawlsians can make this concession without abandoning their defense of abortion. Consider:

World A: Fetus is AbortedWorld B: Fetus Lives
Baby: 0 hedons
Mother: -3 hedons
Baby: +20 hedons
Mother: -8 hedons

The first column reminds us that a fetus, if aborted before the onset of fetal consciousness, experiences no joy but also no pain. Thus, the claim that this fetus is “harmed” by abortion makes sense only by reference to the counterfactual: had the fetus entered conscious existence, this fetus would have experienced joy. In that latter world, the baby might experience +20 or even +100 hedons, but what matters to Rawlsians—searching for the social arrangement whose least well off member experiences the greatest level of happiness—is that the abortion-desiring mother experiences -8 hedons (or some other amount of pain) when enduring the hardships of a pregnancy and mother-child relationship that she does not want. Rawlsians compare this lowest number in World B to the lowest number in World A (i.e., -3, reflecting the emotional distress sometimes associated with getting an abortion) and find that the least well off individual in World A (i.e., the mother getting the abortion) is better off than the worst-off individual in World B (i.e., the mother prevented from getting the abortion). Thus, Rawlsians—even while granting that fetuses can have interests—have good reason to prefer World A and to condone abortion at least before the onset of fetal consciousness (at which point the abortion of the baby might cause the baby in World A to experience suffering). 

In any event, it is now clear that Rawlsians, whatever their positions on abortion, can make a logical, non-prejudiced case for saving one human newborn at the expense of 1,000 seals. However, nothing in this case requires Rawlsians to support factory farming. A brief survey of the conditions under which billions of farm animals live and die every year can prove it so. 

As a result of genetic manipulation, chickens have overly large bodies and place such great weight on their legs that they sometimes lose their ability to walk (Rachels, 2011, p. 3). So that they do not injure each other through anxiety-induced pecking in cramped spaces, billions endure the gruesome process of debeaking (Rachels, 2011, p. 3). After a little more than a month of living, these mutilated creatures are shipped to slaughterhouses to be killed for human consumption (Huemer, 2019, p. 118).

The industry’s pigs and cows fare no better. Workers painfully detach piglets’ tails and press searing irons into cows’ hides (Huemer, 2019, p. 24). Dairy cows are routinely overmilked, and their offspring are hauled away shortly after birth (Rachels, 2011, p. 2). Though many are sent straight to abattoirs, some of the females are kept behind to live painful lives as dairy cows themselves (Rachels, 2011, p. 2). Hundreds of millions of turkeys suffer similar horrors in order to sate Americans’ appetites every year (Rachels, 2011, p. 4). 

So grim are the realities of factory farming that most of this system’s victims—who account for the vast majority of the animals consumed in the United States—probably experience more suffering than joy (Huemer, 2019, p. 64). Thus, billions of potential farm animals, who will enter lives of misery if and only if humans incentivize animal production by consuming animal products, seem to fare much better in a vegan system than in a non-vegan system. Consider:

Human A Eats PorkHuman A Does Not Eat Pork
Human A: 2 hedons
Pig A: -20 hedons
Human A: -2 hedons
Pig A: 0 hedons

Much like factory farmed animals generally, the pig (1) suffers immensely if Human A consumes meat and (2) suffers nothing if Human A does not consume meat and the pig, because of that non-consumption, is never brought into existence. Of course, this consideration alone is not dispositive; if Human A’s giving up pork would cause Human A greater pain than Human A’s not giving up pork would cause Pig A, then Rawlsians would have to support Human A’s pork consumption. But not only can most Americans (even if they love the taste of meat) go vegan without experiencing diet-induced suffering, they can downright flourish without animal products (Huemer, 2019, p. 59). Therefore, Rawlsians—who notice that the least well off individual (i.e., a person annoyed by having to go vegan) whose well-being is affected by a vegan system fares better than the least well-off individual (perhaps a tortured animal) affected by the current food system—must favor Americans’ transition to veganism. 

The Deceptiveness of Lifeboat Scenarios

D’Amico seems to assume that any plausible premises that would lead us to share his ideas about Sadistic Gunman andSeal Attack would also lead us to share his ideas about factory farming. Our exploration of Rawlsian reasoning has shown that this assumption is unfounded. But perhaps we do not even need to delve into a complex system of moral thought (such as Rawlsianism) in order to demonstrate that D’Amico is misguided. It may be self-evident, whether we are Rawlsians, utilitarians, or something different, that the moral “rules of engagement” in grim scenarios like Sadistic Gunman and Seal Attack ought to differ from the rules of engagement in less dire circumstances.

We intuitively grasp this point when our moral calculations involve humans alone. If a sadist stuck a gun to your head and forced you to choose between killing one thousand strangers and killing your own child, perhaps it would be defensible for you, as a loving parent, to kill the strangers. For there is an undeniable, if uncomfortable, wisdom to the adage about necessity’s knowing no law; when nothing less than our child’s life is at stake, otherwise operative moral prohibitions lose their force. But in the course of regular affairs, where the stakes are much lower, those moral prohibitions remain firmly in place. Even if you could be excused for killing one thousand people to save your child’s life, you could not be excused for killing one thousand bright children just to secure your child’s admission to a selective university. Favoring our loved ones is not categorically wrong, but killing innocent others in order to secure such minor benefits for our loved ones undoubtedly falls outside the realm of legitimate favoritism.

If we consider all humans our “loved ones”—as we should—and would thus feel inclined to save one human infant at the expense of hundreds of animals, then maybe D’Amico is right to think that it would be proper for our universalist commitments (to ensuring the well-being of all sentient beings) to give way temporarily, just as it would make sense for our universalist commitments to vanish if we were forced to choose between our own child’s life and hundreds of strangers’ lives. But even if it is possible to justify killing 1,000 animals in order to save one human’s life (just as it is possible to justify killing 1,000 human strangers in order to save our own child’s life), surely humans are not so much more valuable than animals that we can justify killing hundreds of animals on factory farms for one human’s trivial enjoyment. Generally speaking, extremely aggressive acts that might make sense in life-or-death scenarios do not make sense when, in the course of mundane affairs, the promised benefits of extreme aggression are much less significant.

The Preciousness of Human Life

Until this point, we have not considered the important differences between the scenarios described in Sadistic Gunman and Seal Attack. Although an exhaustive exploration is neither possible nor necessary here, it may be worthwhile—for the reputation of the animal liberation movement, and in the interest of closing on a resonant note—to point out a particular one of these differences and to consider what D’Amico’s treatment of this difference says about his ethical doctrine.

Remember that the gunman in Sadistic Gunman will kill us if and only if we refuse to choose between the human baby and the baby seals. Thus, it is in our own narrow self-interest to take action in this scenario. In Seal Attack, it is not in our narrow self-interest to take action, seeing as killing seals is a physically and psychologically draining act that nobody will punish us for refusing to commit. Therefore, it seems that the moral obligation to save the human in Sadistic Gunman, if such an obligation exists, is less demanding than any moral obligation to save the human in Seal Attack.

D’Amico seems to think (though I may be wrong) that a readiness to kill the seals in a situation like Sadistic Gunman is not enough. As he would have it, human life is so valuable that, if necessary, we should be prepared to kill one thousand baby seals for the sake of a human baby even when, in a situation like Seal Attack, our personal interests are not at stake. Surely this view, if it is indeed his view, attests to the depth of D’Amico’s affinity for all humankind. His concern for his fellow man runs so deep that he is prepared, on behalf of any unknown human infant, to participate in—and to urge others to participate in—what he calls the “deeply unpleasant” process of beating hundreds of sentient animals to death (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018).

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of D’Amico’s professed philanthropy. But if his commitment to every human child is indeed as strong as his apparent response to Seal Attack suggests, then it seems fair to wonder whether rich humans, under D’Amico’s moral code, also have a moral obligation to save human babies from threats other than belligerent seals. That is, if every human life is really so precious, then perhaps lethal phenomena beyond improbable seal attacks ought to spur us to action on behalf of vulnerable humans. Specifically, the preventable ailments plaguing impoverished human babies overseas may demand a response from Westerners who are well-equipped to donate money to highly effective social action organizations (Singer, 1972). After all, if it would be wrong to let these infants die in seal attacks, then is it not also wrong to let them die of starvation and illness?

Of course, in most conversations about humans’ obligations to animals, one would be content to table this sort of consideration about humans’ intra-species obligations. However, D’Amico’s repetition of a common anti-liberationist allegation—that liberationists “prioritize the well-being of animals over people”—may make this consideration relevant (D’Amico & Huemer, 2018). The least charitable reading of his statement is that, however unimportant human well-being is, surely animal well-being is even less important. The charitable and more plausible interpretation is that, in D’Amico’s eyes, the furtherance of human well-being is a vital project to which animal liberationists are insufficiently committed. But if D’Amico is suggesting that proponents of animal rights—many of whom have unimpeachable track records of working to alleviate human suffering—should be doing even more for humans, then D’Amico must be something of a humanistic superman, a person so committed to human well-being that he can put Tom Regan, Coretta Scott King, Dick Gregory, Henry Spira, and other humanistic champions of animal liberation to shame. If D’Amico is such a superman, then perhaps, in spite of our (present) differences on the question of animal liberation, he and philanthropic champions of animal liberation can at least find common ground in the struggle for universal human uplift. 


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