To the editor:
Today I'd like to compare the relative wrongness of past human slavery and current animal agriculture in the United States, using aggregate suffering as a measure.
It's a particularly sensitive comparison due to the frequency with which racist subjugation has been justified by likening minority groups to animals. But I think it's necessary because slavery is rightfully thought of as one of the most atrocious human injustices in recent memory. And in comparing it to animal agriculture, I think we help answer the question of just how wrong the latter is.
It's hard to view our exploitation of animals objectively. To do so, I think we need to introduce a word that because of it's novelty might draw laughter: "speciesism."
In broad terms, speciesism can be defined as weighing similar interests of individuals differently on the basis of their species membership. Let's examine what this means within the relatively straightforward context of physical pain, using an example inspired by one provided by ethicist Peter Singer.
Imagine I had a device that could accurately measure comparative suffering. I hook it up to a human baby, whom I pinch. The device registers three "units" of pain. Now I hook it up to a horse, who I pinch similarly. The device registers only one unit of pain. Clearly the horse's skin is less sensitive than the baby's. But when I slap the horse gently the device also registers three units of pain. To say, in this case, that it is more defensible to slap the horse than pinch the baby, because the baby is human, is speciesist.
With this concept of in mind, let's proceed to the comparison between past human slavery and current animal agriculture, still using our imagined device.
We hook it up to the hypothetical "average" American slave in 1860. The device measures all of the physical and emotional suffering this person endures resulting from forced labor, corporal punishment and rape at the master's hands, over a one-year period. The device registers this amount of suffering as Y. Taking into account that there were about 4 million American slaves in 1860, we can roughly say the amount of suffering directly produced by the institution of slavery in that year was 4,000,000Y.
Now we hook the device up to the hypothetical "average" American farmed animal in 2011. The device measures all of the physical and emotional suffering this being endures over a one-year period resulting from a completely immobile, claustrophobic existence in a darkened shed; cannibalism by peers; and eventual slaughter. The device registers this amount of suffering as X. Taking into account that about 9 billion American land animals will be slaughtered in 2011, we can roughly say the amount of suffering directly produced by animal agriculture this year will be 9,000,000,000X.
Now let's divide these two aggregated sufferings. Nine billion divided by 4 million is equal to 2,250.
Unless we can say confidently, from a non-speciesist perspective, that the suffering of the average slave (Y) is 2,250 times greater than the suffering of the averaged farmed animal (X), I think we must admit we're unsure whether, in this case, human slavery causes more suffering than animal agriculture. Given humanity's shared biological heritage with animals and the horrific realities of factory farming, I'm not so confident. In fact, when I'm intellectually brave, I lean toward believing the latter causes more aggregated suffering.