In the article "Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal cases" by Alastair Norcross, he mainly argued that factory-farmed meat is morally wrong and that people who support it (including those consuming factory-farmed meat) are also morally wrong. The only point I'm interested in, is that he argued that the pain caused to these factory-farmed animals grossly outweighs any good that comes out of it; he didn't elaborate too much on why that is so.

What if the good that comes out of factory-farmed meat (from an economical and nutritional/gustatory point of view) outweighs the pain suffered by the animals? Assuming that is the case and it was somehow proven, then as a utilitarian (or assuming a utilitarian stance), would Norcross have no choice but to agree that is it morally correct (and permissible) for factory farming to continue the way it is, as long as that is the best way to maximize utility?

The relevant passage is relatively short and states this:

The Doctrine of Double Effect requires not merely that a bad effect be foreseen and not intended, but also that there be an outweighing good effect. In the case of the suffering of factory-raised animals, whatever good could plausibly be claimed to come out of the system clearly doesn’t outweigh the bad. (2004, "Philosophical Perspectives" Ethics 18: 234).

  • Considering that no one ever came up with any credible way of assigning moral "weights" to good and bad one can get the "outweighing" to go whichever way one wishes. We can maybe count costs and benefits, but identifying any such count with utility is just arbitrary. So no, Norcross will always be able to choose whatever conclusion he wants, and come up with a utility count that backs him up by manipulating the weights. – Conifold Sep 15 '15 at 21:03

To be clear, Norcross is not advocating the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE). Norcross is a utilitarian, and utilitarians reject the DDE. He mentions the DDE only because there are other people who believe in it, and he wants to make the point that even if you believe in the DDE, it doesn't help the meat-eater.

To answer the OP, if factory farming maximized utility, then, trivially, a utilitarian would support it. But equally obviously, factory farming doesn't maximize utility (it causes an astronomical amount of net disutility), so in fact a utilitarian should oppose it.

The OP also appears to conflate two different conditions:

  • a. That the pleasure caused by x outweighs the pain,
  • b. that x maximizes utility.

Those are very different. For (a) to be true, x just needs to produce more pleasure than pain. For (b) to be true, x needs to produce more net pleasure than any other possible alternative. In this case, factory farming would have to produce more pleasure/less pain than any other method of production, and any other way of feeding people.


I haven't read the article in question, but based on your description, I would say it might follow that Norcross must if it is the case that factory farming maximizes happiness (or whatever good we are maximizing) that he would then be forced to commit to this position.

Let me explain the might after I explain the principle. (My tendency would be to agree with you at least based on your quote, which makes it seems like Norcross's argument hinges on the almighty word "clear"). The objection you're suggesting sounds like a variation of the utility monster (Nozick 1974). The idea being that there's a monster out there that receives infinitely more pleasure from any suffering others experience than the amount of suffering they themselves experience.

The principle of double effect is a classic part of medieval casuistry which refers to something where you can do something otherwise illicit because the end you are pursuing is not the illicit one. So even if you benefit from the illicit end, you haven't done wrong because that wasn't your goal. There's a lot of complicated factors, and some recent literature (which I don't have off the top of my head) denies that it even works.

In Norcross's case, the suggestion seems to mirror Mill's idea of the harm principle where there's a hidden premise in his utilitarianism that we cannot cause harm while trying to maximize happiness. Double effect, in turn, would be the exculpatory principle for cases where we do cause harm (e.g., removing a rotten tooth hurts like the dickens but helps create a more pleasant future).

Translated into your example, it's imaginable that there are some set of benefits that matter for our consequentialist calculus (here, switching from classical utilitarianism's happiness to allow for other possibilities).

I'm stuck with a might because this is a well-known objection to utilitarian accounts, so it's quite possible a piece of contemporary philosophy tries to add subtleties precisely designed to avoid this, because it does lead to the perverse outcome you mention.

A deeper objection is Bernard Williams' objection to utilitarian/consequentialist accounts. Simply put, his point is that if we are comparing the outcomes of our utilitarian calculation with something to decide whether they are good (for instance, with the disgusting practices involved in factory farming serving as a litmus test [something I say as a meat eater]), then we are testifying that we don't really see utilitarianism as a moral system. At best, it functions as a policy system if the objection holds.

  • Thanks for the answer! I'm trying to write a summary of my opinions on this article and was under the impression that the answer to my own question was a definite "yes". However, I now see why it could also be an ambiguous one. Measuring total utility is a pretty uncertain concept (to me at least) and I felt that I could argue that factory farming produces more utility than if it wasn't a thing. – Chthonic Zyceus Sep 15 '15 at 17:43

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