Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Case for Ethical Warning Labels on Animal Products

Like cigarettes, meat and dairy packaging should include no nonsense factual warnings about the negative consequences of one's consumption choices. Just as with cigarettes, exercising our sovereign right to free choice requires that we be adequately informed about the significant negative implications of our choices by someone other than the manufacturer that wants us to buy their product. In this case the significant consequences relate to living up to one's ethical values rather than safe-guarding one's prudential interests in long-term health. But the principle is the same.

Ethical warning labels would inform consumers of the physical and mental suffering involved in producing the animal products they are considering buying. I envisage labels like this:

Thanks to whoever made this mock-up. Via the Vegan Mothership

Servers of cooked animal products, from lowly hot-dog stands to the fanciest restaurants, would also have to include prominent ethical warnings on their menus. Like cigarette packaging in some countries this might even include full colour pictures of the living conditions of the animals your food comes from, such as the battery cages and concentrated agricultural feeding operations.

The labels could be graded to reflect the conditions under which the source animals lived and died, for example if they pass the requirements of the various animal welfare certification programmes. That would allow better but more expensive standards of animal welfare to be recognised and encouraged by consumers. Many restaurants might prefer to pay more for their groceries merely to avoid having pictures of debeaked hens ruining the aesthetic of their menus. Still there are limits to how positive such labels can be. Even an animal that lives quite well and is killed quite painlessly has still had its life treated as a commodity, and this should be acknowledged. For example:

        This chicken was killed at 7 weeks of age. It could have lived up to 7 years.

My proposal may seem outrageous and paternalistic on first reading. But it seems to me that such ethical warning labels are not only permissible in a free society; they are actually required by the liberal conception of freedom.

A liberal society is defined by its respect for individuals' free choices in their private personal domain. First, whatever is not illegal is permitted. Second, making some practice illegal in the first place requires a public justification for its necessity and legitimacy that even those affected can appreciate. Mill's 'harm principle' provides an ideal benchmark for this. It is legitimate to ban behaviour that harms others and their freedom to live their own life, but it is illegitimate to ban behaviour that merely offends others, even if they are the 'moral majority', by going against their private moral beliefs. Thus, in a liberal society, people are free to decide for themselves whether to do things that others strongly disapprove of, such as following 'weird' religions, or engaging in unorthodox sexual practices, or eating meat.

Ethical warning labels would need to be mandated by law, since individual companies' incentives are precisely opposed to being forthcoming about the shortcomings of their products. But they would not restrict people's freedom of choice because consumers would remain as free as before to buy those products. Indeed, they respect the 'democratic' mainstream view of meat-eating as a private ethical concern about which individuals should make up their own minds, on the model of a consumer lifestyle choice.

Of course ethical labelling would interfere with the freedom of manufacturers to present their products as they wish to and would therefore need to pass a public justification relating to that. But this is not a great challenge. Corporations are not persons (whatever the Roberts Supreme Court says) and so their freedom of expression does not deserve intrinsic respect and can be abridged on purely utilitarian grounds. Labelling laws are consistent with the liberal understanding of individual rights and hence permissible in a liberal society.

Indeed, most countries already have labelling laws compelling manufacturers to present certain kinds of information (like use by dates) in a clear way, and these are often justified by customers' interest in having easily comparable information available in their decision-making (like information about nutritional values on packaged food and restaurant menus). Nor need such labelling laws relate to scientifically proven 'medical' facts, as the campaign for GM labelling demonstrates. Nor need they only reflect the interests of the majority of the population, as warnings that products may contain nuts demonstrate. Justifying an ethical labelling law merely requires showing that it could significantly help consumers to make better decisions and not harm others.

This brings me to why I think ethical labelling is actually required by liberalism. The idea that the free choices of sovereign individuals are trumps contains a complication. What counts as a free choice? One can't tell merely from the fact that someone chose x over y (an outcome) that their choice was a free one (a procedural quality).

Let us leave aside the 'free will' challenge and adopt the liberal starting point that individuals are indeed more or less sovereign agents who are responsible for their moral character and can therefore make choices for themselves. Nonetheless, there remains a question mark over whether particular choices that we make are really free in the sense of being our own. In particular, if we are not sufficiently informed about both the negative and positive implications of the options we are presented with we won't be able to relate those options to our own values and interests. We can still perform acts of choosing in such cases - we still have the power of choice. But we would not be choosing freely because we would not be able to exercise our right to choose in a way that follows from the personal moral beliefs that make us us.

This issue seems particularly problematic in consumer choice cases where two factors are present. First, where the negative consequences of consuming something seem very significant and thus have a prima facie call on the attention of the chooser. Second, where the manufacturer of a product has a strong interest in encouraging its consumption even at the expense of the customer's own interests, and has substantial power to misrepresent the product to the consumer in a way that undermines their ability to consider its negative consequences. These factors were clearly present in the case of cigarettes, a poisonous product designed to be addictive and routinely advertised in a deceptive way. I believe they are also present in the case of animal products. (And other cases too perhaps, like chocolate, palm oil, etc).

Killing or hurting animals is increasingly alien to our modern values and sensibilities. We don't gather anymore in the public square to enjoy the entertainment of cats being set on fire. We don't even drown surplus kittens anymore. Indeed, pets and working animals enjoy a variety of legal protections against mistreatment or even mere neglect that would have seemed astonishing 150 years ago. News items about incidents of animal cruelty, like dogfighting rings, generate widespread public outrage and disgust. Animal welfare seems to matter a lot to many of us. Yet while the strength of this social consensus against inflicting suffering on animals is a fact, it is also a fact that a great many of us continue to consume meat and dairy produced by an industrial factory system that, in the name of efficiency, arguably inflicts far more suffering on each individual animal than 150 years ago and certainly inflicts far more suffering overall.

There are two possible solutions to this puzzle. First, that we just hold inconsistent moral views. That is, the majority of us have freely decided that some animals in some domains deserve special protections (the ones in our homes, and public spaces like zoos), and also that 'food animals' don't. The animal rights movement has tended to focus on this moral inconsistency as a problem of moral irrationality. Thus, moral philosophers like Peter Singer argue that meat-eaters should modify their moral views and beliefs by affirming the moral status of animal welfare in all domains.

The second alternative is that something external to ourselves may be preventing us from acting consistently by applying the strong moral views we have developed about the treatment of animals to the animal products industry. In this perspective the problem is not that our moral reasoning has gone awry, but that our freedom to make ethical choices of our own has been infringed. This consumer sovereignty perspective is the basis for my proposal for ethical labelling.

The animal products industry has adapted to society's changing moral views about animals as well as to the technological possibilities of factory farming. Noting that most of us cannot bear to see animals suffer, they have endeavoured to seclude livestock and their slaughter from our gaze. When we go to a supermarket or restaurant we are presented with meat rather than with animals, and with deliciousness rather than with killing. This is an obviously one-sided and deliberately deceptive presentation of the basic ethical facts about animal products that have a clear call on our attention. It undermines our ability to choose what we eat in a way that is consistent with our moral beliefs about the treatment of animals. Ethical warning labels would allow people to make better informed and therefore freer choices by breaking open the controlled and biased information environment created by the animal products industry.

Some will argue that ethical labels would be coercive and thus undermine free choice. There are at least two routes to this conclusion which I will consider in turn. First, the idea that such labels are designed to be emotionally manipulative and this actually undermines people's ability to make a rational choice.

The problem with this critique is that emotions are an indispensable part of our moral reasoning. Indeed, the core ethical argument against eating animals developed by Peter Singer, and taken up by the modern animal rights movement, is that animal suffering deserves the same kind of consideration as human suffering. His argument is a call for empathy across the artificial boundaries which restrict us from imagining and taking seriously the suffering of others. Truthful ethical warning labels support that act of imagination, certainly, but they don't enforce it.

In addition, one must acknowledge that the emotional manipulation argument goes both ways. Advertisers and restaurants produce sophisticated 'food porn' that artificially inflates our lust for meat, and manufacturers tweak recipes to manipulate our sense of the deliciousness of animal products. If their emotional manipulation is permissible, surely turn about is fair play. Most people by now have some understanding of the fact that the way livestock animals are kept is rather horrible, but in the moment when we make our consumption decisions this rather abstract knowledge must go head to head with the full sensory propaganda of companies that are only interested in making us buy as much of their products as possible. Just as with cigarettes there is a strong case for countering this asymmetry in propaganda by forcefully presenting the negative side of the case to consumers at the moment of purchase.

Second it may be argued that there is an inconsistency between the public justification for such labelling laws (enhancing freedom of choice) and the motivations of those who would support them (to induce people to reduce their consumption of animal products). The model here might be the laws in some US states requiring that women seeking an abortion first watch an ultrasound of their foetus. The Republican legislators behind these laws give a public justification in terms of supporting women's freedom of choice, but this is only a pretext for their actual motivation: to reduce the number of abortions women have, in line with their religiously based moral views that abortion is killing if not murder. Likewise, although ethical labelling laws can be given a superficial justification in terms of free choice, they are really a pretext for a minority group (animal rights fundamentalists) to impose their own moral views onto society as a whole in an indirect and illegitimate way.

This kind of partisanship is disappointing. Democracy should aspire to more than the kind of tribalism that rejects proposals merely because they come from the wrong party. Proper public reasoning requires focusing on the quality of the public justification for policies like ethical warning laws rather than ad hominem suspicion of the motives of people that support them. Objectors would do better to try to show one of three things: that the concept of ethical labelling is inconsistent with a free choice model (principle clash); or else that it is likely to undermine it in practice (bad consequences); or else that, as in the case of abortion perhaps, the free choice model is itself inadequate (wrong theory).

Yes, the consequence of mandating ethical warning labels on animal products would likely be a dramatic reduction in their consumption, and this is certainly what many supporters of such a law would like to see. But this no more counts as evidence of coercion than the fact that a university education correlates with liberal political views and lower religiosity proves that universities are a conspiracy against the Republican party. Evidence that people change their minds is not necessarily evidence that their minds have been changed for them. Indeed, supporters of ethical warnings can fairly claim that they do not impose contentious moral views on other people, but only help people to better live up to their own existing moral views if they wish to do so.

Many meat eaters justify their lifestyle by reference to their ability and right to make their own free choices. But if they are already making a free and fully informed choice that follows from an ethical value system which rates the moral status of animals simply as 'delicious' then it hardly seems that providing factual information about the suffering of livestock animals could affect their consumption behaviour. (Here they resemble smokers who genuinely don't care about living past 70.) Because these meat eaters are already choosing freely - according to their personal moral beliefs - labelling laws could not affect them.

Those meat eaters who would be affected by labels would be those who already suspect that their practice is morally wrong for them - i.e. inconsistent with their own personal moral beliefs about how animals should be treated - but prefer to evade being confronted with that fact or find it hard to resist temptation in the moment of decision. (Here they resemble smokers who don't want to acknowledge that tobacco causes cancer.) Ethical warning labels provide information at the right time and place to help such people live up to their own moral beliefs, but do not force them to. The burden of proof is on objectors to explain why this should be seen as suppressing rather than as supporting their freedom of choice.

Prize details

An earlier version of this essay was published on 3 Quarks Daily.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher at at Tilburg University. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.


  1. To be practical, perhaps the warning labels should start say in a state like California, then build momentum. A referendum could pass there and if it succeeds spread.
    Legally is this a matter for local or federal government?

  2. Thank you so much for this article! Much needed valid points raised. I hope all countries in the world would follow this. At least then we might see some improvement in the condition of livestock. Photographs such as the one posted in the article is a common sight here in India. I wish people were more aware of the impact of their choices and made informed decisions.
    Thanks again for this article.

  3. Thank you for an intelligent observation on this ethical debate

  4. Surely the fact as humanity has bred and industrialised the use of animals in our survival means this is all kind of, you know, pointless?

    We accept our place in the food chain, and we try to minimal the effect of brutality in a way that pure nature does not. That is enough. We should feel as guilty about the fact or manner of eating other beings as lions do to their prey. We will are not that secure as a species long term, despite your 21st century comfortable life, and we use the resources that work for us and ensure need our survival need no apology.

    1. In what way are we minimising brutality? Given that eating meat is not necessary for most of our survival, then surely the minimum amount of brutality would involve not killing and eating animals? Given that the energy required to produce meat, and its environmental impact, is much greater than that required for plant protein, I'd have thought that your point about survival leads us to abandon meat eating rather than continue it. Finally, the difference between us and lions is that we are moral beings - we can make choices. Your argument would commit us to doing whatever we desire - raping, murdering, stealing, etc. - and abandoning morality altogether. We shouldn't be cruel to animals because we have a choice, we are capable of acting so as not to cause harm. The lion cannot be required to refrain from harming because it is not a moral being and cannot make that choice.

    2. Anon. If you are so morally sure of your position then you should have no objection to ethical labels. They could only make a difference to the decisions of weak sentimentalists, not Nietzschean supermen like yourself.

    3. This is just another version of the invalid argument that uses animals as scapegoats again: "Animals don't treat each other humanely because they're too stupid or unfeeling, so why should we?"

      We're superior to animals (women, people of colour, etc.), therefore we have a right to treat them badly.

      But we're also "just" animals, so we should be within our rights to continue to behave as they do.

      Great arguments that cover all bases, eh?

      Besides, killing is a lot faster than hoeing and harvesting, right? Go convenience!

      Or how about, "If we don't kill some of them, they'll overrun us!" I think someone's been applying that particular argument to the "lesser" echelons of the human species all this time...

    4. Forgot one, that also applies here.

      "We're just doing what we've always done, so why start arguing with us about it now?"

  5. The harvesting of grains kills large numbers of mammals. Should we stamp photos of these dead animals on loafs of bread and sacks of rice?

    1. Consuming animal products seems to implicate consumers in their suffering in a different way. Animal suffering and killing is integral to the production of meat, dairy, furs, etc, not an unintended consequence as it is for the production of wheat. It is no part of what bread is supposed to be that it caused the death of a mouse. It is part of what meat is supposed to be that it came from a living animal.

    2. What does intention have to do with it? How it is ethically less problematic that these animal deaths are merely a byproduct and not the goal?

      And in terms of informational value, even the most deluded consumer must realize an animal must died to produce his steak, not so for the dinner roll beside it.

    3. "What does intention have to do with it?"

      Rather a lot, according to much of applied moral philosophy and our ordinary moral practices. See e.g. the principle of double effect.

      As for cigarettes, the informational value is particularly in countering the propaganda of the companies that market animal products.

  6. I deleted my previous comment because I think it is better placed as an answer to the post itself. I repeat it here:

    This seems to be an argument from squeamishness. I sympathize: I don't hunt because I'm a poor shot, and hearing a rabbit scream after blowing off its back leg one day soured me on the whole thing. I still classify rabbits as "delicious" (rabbits are food, not friends) and happily ate the ones we brought home after that day's hunting.

    I doubt that "warning labels" would do much for many or most of us; we either now live or have grown up in a milieu in which we know perfectly well where our animal products are coming from. But there are a number of people divorced from the sources of their food. Is the solution to put "icky" labels on their food, or to have them spend a month on a farm?

    1. Yes, in a way this is an argument from squeamishness. I think most meat-eaters would be horrified to consider how their food is produced, yet still enjoy its taste. Such squeamishness hardly befits the sovereign consumer ethical model. It's hard to see cognitive dissonance as a free and conscious moral choice.

    2. As a conservative, militant right wing veg*n, I occupy a space not too often found in these discussions. I did not expect to find myself in so much agreement with TRW about this thorny issue. For the moment, and the foreseeable future, it's all mind candy. I'm troubled by the somewhat hardened heart of my fellow introvert above, but must concede that he speaks the truth. Most people are fairly adept at sidestepping the moral questions, and are entirely too comfortable saying to themselves and to the world: "I like meat well enough to simply cast aside any discussion about the ethics of it."

    3. I think most meat-eaters would be horrified to consider how their food is produced, yet still enjoy its taste.

      Define "horrified." Perhaps I am in a different position from most people. I am, in my own family, only one generation removed from children who participated in raising, slaughtering and eating the same animal. I live in a rural area; I am surrounded by people who hunt deer and eat them, and know at least one family who raise and slaughter their own poultry and hogs. I prefer to buy from them, partly because the meat is tastier.

      My daughter's a veterinarian. She loves animals, but they are animals, not people, and she has little patience with arguments of this sort. Her last comment when I ran something like this past her was "Unhappy animals don't gain weight. If they don't gain weight, you don't make money on them."

      I would prefer it, from an ethical point of view, if everyone had as much contact with the sources of their food as I do. That's hardly possible in an urbanized society; but again, the solution is more likely to be letting them spend some time on a farm so they can make up their own minds in a realistic way, than to slap "icky" labels on their food.

    4. Yes, that might work. But there is a further meta-point here. I think many people would also be horrified by the idea of becoming as desensitised to animal suffering as we were in our more 'natural' past. (Who wants to go back to drowning surplus kittens?) They do not actually want to be that kind of person, yet do want to continue to enjoy some of the benefits of being that kind of person (the aesthetic pleasure of meat). Hence the cognitive dissonance.

      But another way of putting your proposal might be as a much stronger version of mine. People who want to eat meat/dairy must spend at least one day twice a year working in a slaughterhouse/industrial production unit so that there can be no doubt that they really know what their lifestyle involves.

  7. An interesting post - similar to the old idea that slaughterhouses should have glass walls - thanks. Where I disagree is with the claim that liberalism is committed to making the treatment of animals a matter of choice rather than justice. I found it interesting that you justified this using the Harm Principle: if you think non-human animals are worthy of moral concern for their own sakes then I would think that the Harm Principle also extends to them. If someone wants to advance the counter claim that the treatment of non-human animals isn't a matter of justice, and if they want to include the so-called marginal humans within the bounds of justice, then they'll need to explain the morally relevant difference between those marginal humans and non-human animals. I've yet to see a convincing argument that there is a morally relevant difference, and I think we ought to include children and those with severe cognitive impairments within the concerns of justice, so I don't think killing non-human animals, or causing them to suffer, is a matter of liberal choice. Rather, I think the liberal should be committed to the animal rights position.

    1. Yes of course - that's Peter Singer's strategy. This is a different approach that doesn't go through moral theory.

  8. The picture is not in fact "battery hens" - they are chickens loaded in crates for shipment, likely to slaughter. Note the irregularity in the stacking. This is not a housing system. Regardless of your position on this issue at hand, visual images have enough power to be presented accurately.

    1. Thanks! I think you're right. It was mislabelled where I found it, but I should have been more careful. I've replaced it with an image from the Wikipedia page on CAFOs produced by the EPA. It's not a great picture, but its provenance shouldn't be in doubt.

  9. So, you're not against eating other sentient beings per se; just bringing them suffering in preparing their consumption?
    So eating fish instead of tortured chickens or veal would be ethical?

    1. There is an interesting contrast between how the animal rights moral theorists - like Peter Singer - see the issue and the consumer sovereignty account I propose.

      The moral theorists focus on sentience in terms of the capacity to feel pain (though, BTW they say the science suggests that includes fish too). Thus it is not the actions of killing/eating animals that are morally wrong but the pain that the livestock industry as a whole inflicts on animals.

      In contrast, the consumer sovereignty account advanced here relates more closely to people's existing sentiments or prejudices, including a distaste for killing living squirming animals or for eating many kinds of animals such as pets that died of natural causes.

  10. Hard to ignore the unwieldiness of this principle, supposing that the providing of this sort of ethical information is required in a liberal society.

    "With the 35 minutes you will spend reading and replying to this blog post, you could read 15 pages of Anna Karenina."

    Talk about safeguarding the trajectory of your moral life....

    1. That's opportunity cost. Not quite the same thing I'm concerned with here.

  11. Abuse, pain, and death are not unique to animal agriculture. Lets expand the warning label to include: bad pay, long hours, extreme temperature exposures, not-infrequent abuses by those in charge, and occasionally (though perhaps infrequent) total slavery for workers. Next, include funding for totalitarian regimes and environmental destruction through oil used for transport, cooking, and fertilization. Destruction of natural habitat to grow crops........

    Seems like a very long label to me. But it doesn't seem fair to single out just the meat industry. If we are going to be honest with people about their food, we need to go all the way. Maybe it will promote weight loss.

    1. I think I gave several reasons for why ethical labels would be particularly appropriate for the animal products industry.

      Of course capitalism can be understood in some sense as a system for laundering moral outrages through multiple self-distancing contracts with strangers, such as the child slave labour involved in the harvesting of cocoa beans or the slave coltan mines in the Congo powering our smart phones. Perhaps that can be dealt with on the ethical consumption model - the 'blood diamonds' campaign had some success.

      On the other hand, this would be a different use of ethical labelling than I proposed. Unlike the consumption of animal products, slavery is not an issue on which we acknowledge a private individual right to free ethical choice. It is completely morally condemned and officially illegal everywhere, so stopping it is a justice issue and not really something for individual consumers to decide about.

      However, ethical labelling might be relevant to the collective action problems common to many environmental problems like global warming. In such cases every individual has an interest in behaving selfishly while also desiring that everyone else behaves selflessly. Here it would work by providing information to consumers about what their 'Kantian' obligation would be, if they choose to accept it. Thus, an airline booking system might be required have a pop up saying:

      "If every person emits less than 1.2 tonnes of CO2 per year catastrophic climate change will be averted.Your flight will emit 0.9 tonnes of CO2. Are you sure you want to continue?"

    2. I just happened to stop by today and saw you replied. I agree, it could be useful for collective action problems. But I'm skeptical.

      People look at such labels on packages all the time. "Processed in a facility that produces nuts. May contain nuts. Gluten free. Known to the state of california to cause cancer. Etc"

      The ubiquitous warning label basically means that most of us ignore it. The person suffering from Celiac disease will not ignore the warning about gluten, because it comes with consequences.

      If we want labels to be useful and meaningful, we need to reserve them for things that are really important (to who?). Otherwise I (and I assume we all do) simply ignore it.

    3. Also, I should note that I am another who has witnessed and participated in the killing, cleaning, and butchering of livestock. It isn't pleasant. It is quite messy actually.

      But it also didn't change my opinion of eating meat. Perhaps that is why I would not consider the addition of a label on meat beneficial. But I'm sure I can come up with other examples where a label would be socially beneficial.