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Elisa Freschi

Hi David, very good points. For the sake of the argument, I will focus only on animals which resemble human beings enough (like human apes), although I am convinced that the argument could be applied more broadly (certainly to all mammals, probably also to all vertebrates and to some invertebrates like octopusses).
The only objections I can think of are very weak:

1) One might uphold a Cartesian-like position and maintain that animals are ontologically different than human beings and only *seem* to perceive pain etc. In this sense, treating them differently than human beings would not be speciesism (which in fact is, I think).

2) Your arguments are sound, but they are impossible to put into practice. We depend on animal farming and it would be not economical in the capitalist system to stop eating meat and allow hens to lay eggs when they want etc.

3) Animals are enslaved for a bigger good, namely human beings' happiness.

Now, 1) is, I think, very weak now that we have cross-evidences of the fact that (at least some) animals have emotions and we are no longer ready to say that only intellectually-able human beings have rights. And I do not think that 2) or 3) hold either, although this takes more than just philosophical arguments, I am afraid.


(3) Does this apply to free-range farms? What kinds of farms do you have in mind?

(4) Can you say more about the sense in which livestock animals have the capacity to endorse things? Mentally speaking, what is involved in endorsing? Is it just some sort of expression of a preference?

(5) In my experience, it is false to say that most livestock owners exhibit no non-instrumental concern for their animals. Obviously, some are guilty. But many are concerned about the welfare of their animals, even if this can't be (from their pov) their main concern.

I got my Ph.D. at a school that had a college of agriculture. I talked to those students on many occasions about their relationships with animals. Nearly all of them expressed non-instrumental concern for their animals. But nearly all of them also felt like this didn't outweigh other concerns, such as keeping their farms, feeding their kids, paying the bills, and so on. They frequently said they wished the livestock market were restructured in ways that would allow them to make a living without treating animals in inhumane ways. They felt agribusiness was largely responsible for this unfortunate change.

(Aside: Rollin's book "Animal Rights and Human Morality" has some nice examples of this. The story of the pig farmer and his son is on point.)

Anyway, I'm not saying they have properly evaluated or ordered their concerns. Nor am I saying that our treatment of livestock animals is ultimately justified. I am just saying that I do not think it is true generally, and it isn't true in my experience, that livestock owners have no non-instrumental concern for the welfare of their animals.

Angra Mainyu

Hi, David,

I have a couple of questions:

It seems to me that regardless of whether they're considered "livestock", many animals used by humans also meet those conditions. That includes, for example, fish and crocodiles (in farms), and crickets used for food, as well as - perhaps; the harm condition is debatable - bees used to make honey. Are the bees slaves?
That would also apply to laboratory animals, including cockroaches, fruit flies, and so on.

Do you think that in all of those cases, there is also a strong prima-facie case for their being slaves - in the sense of the word "slave" that is relevant here -, or at least some of them (crickets, fruit flies, etc.) are not slaves? How about cyborg cockroaches, or slave ants? (in the case of slave ants, the slavers would be other ants, so they don't meet the five conditions, but I'm not sure why you focus on those conditions in particular)
Or are there further conditions involving their minds?

More generally, given that you give the example of plants (and we may add bacteria, fungi, etc., used in laboratories), and your reply to the objection that livestock animals are not autonomous beings, I get the impression that you're basing your claim that there is a strong prima-facie case for considering some beings slaves on some further conditions, which involve some features of the minds of some animals.

With regard to your reply to the pets objection, it seems to me that some slave owners may care about slaves in a non-instrumental way - surely, they're human, and human emotions and bonding can occur -, but that would not make them not slaves.

All that said, it may simply be that the word "slave" has different usages in colloquial English, and on one or more usages, those animals are slaves, on one or more other usages, they're not. Clearly, they're not slaves in the legal sense.

David Killoren

Hey folks, thanks for all the interesting comments!

Elisa, I totally agree that the Cartesian view is a big mistake (although I should say that I know of a few very smart folks who endorse Cartesian views and this reduces my confidence somewhat).


(3) I think it does apply to so-called free-range farms but it might depend on what "free-range" means. One interesting related question concerns hunted animals. It doesn't seem to me that hunting an animal is a means of enslaving it. (Similarly, I don't think killing a human being amounts to slavery.) I suppose that a very free free-range farm might be relevantly similar to a game preserve, in which case I would hesitate to say that the animals are enslaved.

(4) I didn't say that livestock animals are able to endorse things. I said they are used for purposes they don't endorse.

(5) I didn't say that livestock owners exhibit no noninstrumental concern for their animals. I said they exhibit "very little (if any)" such concern. This judgment is amply supported by the facts about factory farms (unless I am deeply mistaken about the facts about factory farms).


You raise some really interesting questions. I am very unsure what to say about them. I think sentience might be a necessary condition for enslavement. But I am just not sure.

I want to object to your final sentence. I think that livestock animals are "slaves in the legal sense," i.e., they are legally slaves, because they are legally considered to be property. The fact that the law does not call them slaves is immaterial, I think.

Angra Mainyu


I meant that in the sense in which the law uses the word "slave", they are not slaves - else, for example, people could be legally imprisoned for having those animals. I used that as an example of different concepts or definitions of the word "slave".

On the issue of "sentience", do you mean something like subjective experience, or do you mean something else? If it's the former, it seems to me insects would probably qualify - at least, they would if they feel pain, and I don't see why they wouldn't.

But in any case, what I was trying to get at is that there are cases in which some living organisms can meet all conditions but cannot be slaves (e.g., plants, bacteria, fungi), whereas some other entities clearly would be slaves if they met them (e.g., humans), so there are some other conditions that the word "slave" seems to be sensitive to, and they seem to be related to minds, but I'm not sure which ones you're (implicitly) accepting - hence, my question about cockroaches, fruit flies, etc.

Also, it seems to me there is a potential difficulty: English speakers learn how to use the word "slave" usually considering only human cases as the paradigmatic cases; by similarity, one can apply the word to other agents as well. But it may be that different competent speakers are using the word in a sufficiently different manner, so that some organisms you're talking about would be slaves by the way a person is using the word, and not slaves by the way someone else is using the word.

That would not prevent communication using the word "slave" in usual cases because usual cases are either human or (in fiction) fictional entities very similar to human, but it may be that the English word "slave" is not precise enough to address the cases you have in mind.

For example, it may be that some - many, perhaps most - people are using the word "slave" in a way so that only a person - not necessarily human, but a personal agent - can be a slave (I think there is some imprecision in "person" too, as in all colloquial terms we use to talk about the world around us, but that's not getting in the way when it comes to assessing whether, say, a horse is a person. It's not.)

That's apart from the issue of different usages of "slave" by the same person, in different contexts.

So, I think imprecision is a potential difficulty, but assuming for the sake of the argument (personally, I'm not sure whether this is the case) that the word "slave" is precise enough to do the work required by your argument, then a potential reply to your argument would be that the property that is a necessary condition for being a slave is not the ability to form complex life-plans, but it might be personhood. That would match the paradigmatic cases, and avoid the counterexamples you raise.

Michel X.

It sounds to me like (1) is doing all the heavy lifting here, but it's a condition that I think needs to be unpacked a little more (i.e. what is it about the property-relationship that, when extended to the animal kingdom [humans included] seems objectionable/slave-like?). I further suspect that unpacking (1) will probably yield something like (4). Or, at least, the temptation is to go somewhat Kantian and draw a (4)-like breach of autonomy out of a (1), among other things.

By contrast, I don't think (2), (3), or (5) are doing any essential work here.

David Killoren

Angra, that's a very interesting proposal: only persons can be slaves. I feel the pull of it and actually this idea had occurred to me as well. The next challenge of course will be to figure out what personhood is, a tall order.

Michel X., I think I'm on board with the thrust of your post. I definitely wouldn't say that (1) all by itself is doing all the work. Not everyone who is regarded as property is a slave; there has to also be some actual power relation between the master and the slave in order for genuine slavery to obtain. That's all in the spirit of your post.

Nicolas Delon

Another possible objection -

Slave has been in its best specified sense, historically, a *legal* concept. Part of the legal status of slaves is to be chattel property, but whether in Roman law or modern forms of slavery, different statutes and codes also regulated the treatment of slaves as slaves and not just like any other form of property. There were specific things you were allowed or not allowed to do to slaves which attached specifically to slaves.

In other words, it does not follow from the fact that slaves are effectively property that any relevantly similar being that is effectively property is a slave in the best specified sense. And as a matter of fact, livestock animal are *not* subject to codes or statutes that legally make them slaves even though they make them property.

Now, there's of course a commonsense understanding of slave that has moral, political and emotional undertones, and people who understand it in this way may tend to apply it to nonhuman animals in relevant circumstances – or at least it's arguable that it would be appropriate if they did.

But the legal genealogy of the term is important in that it emphasizes that *the law* really makes people slaves, not the way you treat them. There's a subtle distinction between "being a slave" and "being treated *like* a slave" [i.e. like a real slave would be]. Absent such laws, nobody is a slave. Once this is made clear, what actions are required to improve the situation of those who fall under either understanding of the concept depends precisely of which sorts of slaves they are. While changing laws - by moral reform, campaigns, public policy, legislation - did abolish the (legal) status of slaves, by focusing, ultimately, on slave-related codes and laws, it is advocacy targeted at working laws, fair trade, social reform, etc. that will improve the lives of contemporary "slaves". So, it might be important to understand what is at stake here. For, if livestock animals are actually *not* slaves but rather animals treated in ways that are deemed unjustifiable regardless of whether this is slavery, then we can avoid some confusion.

It's very likely that, in fact, they are treated *like* slaves were - perhaps even worse - but the question is not whether they qualify as slaves because really they are not as long as the law does not establish that they are. The problem is not that we treat animals *as* slaves, the problem is that we treat them *like* slaves, even worse: in ways we would not even think appropriate to treat some other forms of property.


Hi David,

I'm finding this discussion very interesting. Thanks for bringing it over from Facebook, and for answering my questions. I'm going to bring the problem to my classroom next week. (I hope you don't mind, since you posted this here.)

I completely overlooked the fact that you were limiting this to factory farm animals. I think the situation is more complex than we have acknowledged so far, but I do agree than many are guilty.

I don't know if I would give up on the idea of animals endorsing things. Hog farmers in England (? I'll have to find the reference) discovered that hogs like the room temperature to be much lower than they realized. They discovered this by allowing the hogs to set the temperature themselves. This ended up saving the farmers some money on heating. If someone asked, "why is it so cold in here?", it would be reasonable for these farmers to say "because this is how the hogs want it."

Others try to rank animal preferences by having the animals solve increasingly difficult puzzles or complete increasingly difficult tasks, in order to see how far they will go to gain some reward. (In less ethical research, some us pain to develop these preference rankings.)

It might also make sense to talk about hypothetical endorsement or endorsement by proxy of some sort.

In any case, I guess I worry about this because it is not obvious to me why it matters that animals are subject to treatment that they do not endorse, if they do not have the capacity to endorse at all. Can you say more about why this troubles you?

David Killoren


Yes please feel free to share with your students. (This is a public blog post, not private at all.) And let us know what they think. I'm always interested in students' perspectives on these sorts of things.


Lets not mistreat livestock animals, they depend on us and we also depend on them as a source of wealth.

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