Is the consumption of dairy products or eggs compatible with a) the theory of animal rights and b) equal consideration?

Ad a) How can a right of ownership be defended, i.e. every animal is owner of her product, and what follows from it? How plausible is a right of "no intervention", i.e. that no human may use, deprive another animal of their products or make any actions that may result in the afore mentioned? For what animals does it count? And if this right holds for bees or clams, why not for plants?

Ad b) Is there an interest of a sentient animal towards her products, comparable to our interest towards our "products", that would forbid us to use it? Is a cow in the same way interested in her milk as a mother is in hers? (Provided that the cow can feed her calf as long and as much as she wishes.) Considering that even human mothers donate their milk, and considering that an animal cannot verbally express agreement, how strong should one judge the relationship between a mammal and her milk? Or a bird and her eggs, if reproduction is guaranteed?

NOTE: Please excuse the chain of questions. I feel that those questions lead into on another and wish to find answers to as many as possible.

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    Doesn't that totally depend on what rights you give to animals? If animals have or should have rights that, for example, ascribe to them the ownership of their body and the product of their work, there would be no way you could just take it from them...
    – iphigenie
    Commented Aug 7, 2014 at 11:36
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    @iphigenie ...this seems specious, and rather badly formed. Claiming it's wrong to divest a cow of its milk or a chicken of its eggs implicates that animals have a right of ownership in the things they produce. Kant at least explicitly speaks of humanity in his talk of respecting ends, but if self-ownership (a la Nozick) doesn't separate cows from people, then we have a problem: how is it moral to use anything, from any creature (or flora, even), if we expect consent from an organism incapable of giving it?
    – Ryder
    Commented Aug 7, 2014 at 13:14
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    In order to make this answerable, you need to reference it against a specific moral context. For instance, "in the Singer tradition of a moral context that forbids eating meat, can eating dairy and eggs still be defended, and if so, how?" Commented Aug 7, 2014 at 14:15
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    @RyderDain I wasn't trying to defend that position. I just said, in my very first comment, that I think that the answer would mainly depend on the notion of animal rights you're arguing for. Which means that the answer is too broad, as I see it. And yes, the point you're making would be valid. I just don't know what exactly it was you found "specious".
    – iphigenie
    Commented Aug 7, 2014 at 15:04
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    @MegaMark: You are right, this view would reduce the animal to a factory, or more precise, to a factory farmer. Imagine an assembly line worker building cars: Even though he produces them (does all the work), he does not own them, since the materials don't belong to him. Does this mean, however, that we should grant animals a kind of "labour right"? Additionally, we use a bodily product of the cow, not just something she made. So maybe we could compare her to a wet nurse?
    – Frederike
    Commented Aug 8, 2014 at 8:17

5 Answers 5


I think that perhaps the biggest point here is that chemically identical but ethically "clean" dairy products could be developed using humane methods, and this would allow consumption with no ethical ramifications. However, that isn't immediately viable or what you're asking, so I've attempted to address your sub-points more closely.

a) To borrow from economics, animals could reasonably be held to own everything they produce themselves. I believe that technology is the long term solution to no intervention: eventually we put all the humans in spaceship and fly off, leaving Earth as a nature reserve (maybe clean it up a bit first). The costs of doing this immediately would be incredibly high, even just measuring in terms of animal welfare, but in the mean time I believe equal consideration is a fairly reasonable guide as a global utilitarianism (across species). As plants don't implement nervous systems, they can be reasonably held to either have no utility curve, or at the very least, the worst possible endocrine distress a plant can experience can be held to be less costly than that of any organism with a nervous system. I would argue that equal consideration does hold for plants, it's just that they experience pain and utility to a lesser extent due to their structure's natural tendency toward stoicism.

b) Reproduction and associated overhead are not zero cost processes, that is, even if there is sufficient milk for offspring, a maternal mammal would still have to more rapidly deplete her body to provide additional milk. As this is nonconsensual by definition, it is relatively difficult (but not impossible) to defend morally.

Attempted defense:

It is important to consider that this probabilistically increased milk production and associated body degradation is a low cost operation, and violation of rights in this case may be globally optimal in equal consideration as, for example, the provision of milk for a human caretaker may be considered a form of mutual welfare or a service purchased with labor. In some cases, the greater good invalidates the need for consent. Just as paramedics are permitted to assist unconscious patients incapable of communication, it is not unreasonable to argue that a non-consensual partnership between humans and other animals is not just ethically acceptable, but possibly necessary. Perhaps a better example is the idea of spaying and neutering cats and dogs- non-consensual, a violation of individual liberties, but generally considered a moral mandate.

As mentioned earlier, eggs are an even more difficult argument, but it could still be made.


If done in a humane way, using natural animal 'products' such as milk and eggs is perfectly fine. Animals should be treated with respect, and they should not be 'over-used', but otherwise I see no problems with it.

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    Is there any chance I might be able to persuade you to explore this a bit further? :)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 16:36
  • Not sure what there is to pursue...
    – user8669
    Commented Aug 13, 2014 at 1:22
  • This is somewhat tautological: "if action X is done ethically, then X is ethical." The major contention is that some people argue that X is not done ethically and that there is no practical way to do X ethically without it really being a different action Y. To counter this claim, you would need to give an argument as to why X is at least morally permissible (i.e. define "treated with respect" and argue it applies it to X). Commented Mar 28, 2021 at 14:51

If we grant that a single dairy cow does indeed have a right to her own milk, what would she do with it?

Cows that have calves that are young enough to nurse are allowed to do so. Their milk is used for its intended purpose until the infant no longer requires it. At that point, in nature, her milk would dry up until she gave birth again. Instead she is artificially suckled to stimulate continued milk production and that milk is taken for use by humans. It is, in a sense artificially produced in that it is not produced to nourish a calf. If the cow was allowed to keep it she would have no use for it.

  • Thats a very good point. So maybe the question should rather be, whether it is correct to artificially stimulate the cow to produce something she doesn't need.
    – Frederike
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 7:53
  • Unfortunately, or not, rights do not depend on usage. I'm not obliged to be spending my money to be allowed to own it. Neither does my owning of my bike expire if I stop using it or even if I lose my legs and thereby my faculty to use it. I don't think asking "What would the cow do with it?" is useful, at least not for determining whether or not it has these rights.
    – iphigenie
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 11:33
  • But you worked for your money and bought your bike. You have a right to your purchases because you spent money you earned on them. The fact that the cow has owners who spent money on her complicates the issue as they have property rights over the cow as long as they don't do anything that harms her. As the production of milk does not harm the cow but does allow the farmers to pay for the dairy herd and without that income the herd would be slaughtered for meat it could be argued that the farmer actually has a duty of care to keep milking the cow.
    – JonS
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 15:28

From my perspective, the only rights animals and plants have, are those provided by their "owners." If they are "wild," then it's the rights provided by the government (and the laws). On their own, I only see their right to fight and defend themselves (and/or other members of their group) to the best of their ability against all predators. If they are owned by somebody, then it is the owner's responsibility to provide any rights they want for them. From this perspective, the questions of "compatibility" and "equal consideration" are indeterminable/irrelevant, as animals and plants, on their own, have no/minimum rights.

  • Why do you think that animals have no rights of their own? Could you elaborate on this point?
    – Frederike
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 7:54

The more fundamental question is what rights should animals be given. That said, the animals would never have lived were it not for their product. If you take a evutionary view the organisms are benefiting from a symbiosis that has allowed them to successfully reproduce far beyond what they would otherwise have achieved. If succes for an animal is judged by a life free from discomfort and meeting their biological drives then it is perfectly possible / realistic that they would, if sentient, select the current arrangement. The alternative being an end to their species in its current form or a life of hardship and peril if returned to the wild.

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    I think one should be aware of the difference between an individual animal and the species of this animal. You are right with the observation, that biologically speaking, the current arrangement surely guarantees the specie's survival. But I don't think that entails any individual rights. In this view, a single cow has no right to her own milk (and body). But shouldn't she have those right?
    – Frederike
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 9:05
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    I down voting at least do courtesy of a comment...
    – Andy Boura
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 14:52

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