Simon the Sadist

After I published the essay entitled “In Defense of the Term ‘Moral Schizophrenia” on August 4, 2008, a colleague suggested that I write a similar essay regarding “Simon the Sadist”, an analogy that Professor Gary Francione included in his book Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?which has also received some criticism, mostly from the same welfarists who are critical of the abolitionist approach in general.As was the case with my essay defending the term “moral schizophrenia”, my purpose is to offer my opinion and commentary on the “Simon the Sadist” analogy and not to write a defense of the analogy on behalf of Professor Francione, who is more than capable of defending the analogy with his own commentary.

An Exposition of Simon the Sadist

Simon the Sadist is introduced on page 4 of the first chapter of Introduction to Animal Rights entitled “The Diagnosis: Our Moral Schizophrenia about Animals”. To quote the introduction directly from the book:

Consider the following example. Simon proposes to torture a dog by burning the dog with a blowtorch. Simon’s only reason for torturing the dog is that he derives pleasure from this sort of activity. Does Simon’s proposal raise any moral concern? Is Simon violating some moral obligation not to use the animal in this way for his amusement? Or is Simon’s action morally no different from crushing and eating a walnut?

Francione then goes on to ask, what is the basis of our moral judgment? Is it, as Immanuel Kant suggested in the 18th century, merely that we’re concerned about the effect of Simon’s action on other humans? Is it merely because it might upset other humans who like dogs? Is it because by torturing the dog Simon may become more callous when dealing with other humans? Francione points out that while these effects may be concerns of ours, such effects are not our primary reason for objecting to Simon’s action. We would object even if Simon tortures the dog in secret, and even if he is also very charming and kind to other human beings.

Francione then goes on to say:

The primary reason why we find Simon’s action morally objectionable is its direct effect on the dog. The dog is sentient; like us, the dog is a sort of being who is conscious of pain and has an interest in not being blowtorched. We have an obligation – one owed directly to the dog and not merely one that concerns the dog – not to torture the dog. The sole ground for this obligation is that the dog is sentient; no other characteristic, such as rationality, self-consciousness, or the ability to communicate in a human language, is necessary. Simply because the dog can experience pain and suffering, we regard it as morally necessary to justify our infliction of harm on the dog. We may disagree about whether a particular justification suffices, but we all agree that some justification is required, and Simon’s pleasure simply cannot constitute such a justification. An integral part of our moral thinking is the idea that, other things being equal, the fact that an action causes pain counts as a reason against that action – not merely because imposing harm on another sentient being somehow diminishes us, but because imposing harm on another sentient being is wrong in itself. And it does not matter whether Simon proposes to blowtorch for pleasure the dog or another animal, such as a cow. We object to his conduct in either case.

In short, most of us reject the characterization of animals as things that has dominated Western thinking for many centuries.

A few pages later in the first chapter, specifically page 9, Francione comes back to Simon in a section entitled, “Our Uses of Animals: We Are All Simon” in which he discusses the most unnecessary and trivial uses of animals, including food, hunting, entertainment, and clothing, much of what we do to these animals in these uses (i.e. the various ways we cause them intensive misery and pain), what alternatives there are to these uses, and why these alternatives at least benefit us equally as well, and usually benefit us more, than animal use. Because our animal use is so barbaric and cruel, and because our animal use is so unnecessary and there are at least equally beneficial alternatives to these uses, we are all Simon.

Objections to the Simon the Sadist Analogy

I have not read as much criticism of the Simon the Sadist analogy as I have of the term moral schizophrenia, but the three main objections that I’ve read can be charitably summarized as follows:

The first objection is that Simon gets pleasure directly from the torture itself (i.e. sadism), which is a different and more serious moral wrong than getting pleasure from the end product of an undesirable process which caused regrettable pain or torture (e.g. animal product consumption). As a result, the person who gets pleasure from eating eggs, dairy products, and meat is not a sadist and should not be compared to a sadist.

The second objection is that blowtorching an animal is worse than raising and slaughtering an animal, so the relative harms are not comparable.

The third objection is that implying that people are sadists is likely to be off-putting to people who might otherwise consider the argument against animal use.

Replies to the Objections

Reply to the First Objection

The first objection, which (falsely) “interprets” the analogy as an attempt to compare animal product consumers to sadists per se, simply misses the point of the analogy. A careful reading of the analogy in the context of the entire chapter shows us the point of the analogy is that a derivation of a particular pleasure (which isn’t “necessary” in any meaningful sense of the term necessary) directly or indirectly from an innocent’s pain or misery cannot justify intentionally [1] inflicting or permitting the intentional infliction of an innocent’s pain or misery. If the intentional infliction of pain or misery on an innocent is required for the pleasure to be derived, then morally, it is obligatory to abstain from that particular pleasure or derivation thereof.

The fact that Simon is a sadist may provoke additional thought and emotion (which may be partly why the analogy has been misunderstood), but Simon’s sadism per se is merely incidental to the analogy. One could imagine any number of analogies with some incidental or extraneous elements whereby Simon causes or ignores an innocent’s pain or misery in order to derive a pleasure which couldn’t be enjoyed without the innocent’s pain or misery.

Such analogies as Simon the Sadist take the form: A intentionally inflicts harm on innocent B because it is directly or indirectly necessary for, or leads to, A’s personal benefit, pleasure, or preference X. [2] Some examples of such analogies are: Personal benefit X could be A’s relief from hard labor in which innocent B is forced to engage as a chattel slave. Pleasure X could be the taste of B’s flesh or bodily fluids derived from killing or exploiting B. Pleasure X could be sexual or violent pleasure from sexually exploiting, molesting, or raping B. Pleasure X could be Simon’s sadism inflicted on innocent B. Preference X could be pushing drugs to innocent B in the hope of a future cash annuity from future addict B. None of these examples are identical to each other in that they all have different incidental elements that are not essential to the form, but they all take on the same general form written above, and all are therefore morally wrong. We need not compare the incidentals; just knowing that B is being significantly exploited merely for A’s personal benefit, pleasure, or preference satisfaction is enough to know it is wrong.

Reply to the Second Objection

The second objection, that blowtorching the innocent is not a comparable harm to raising and slaughtering the innocent, is a question which requires more details to answer properly. If Simon blowtorches the dog periodically and slowly over days or weeks until the dog finally dies of third degree burns, and we compare that to a person who raises a pig in her back yard in pleasant conditions and then kills the pig with a relatively painless lethal injection that causes the pig to completely pass out prior to dying, then we can certainly conclude that this specific pig raising and killing was, while still a serious harm, not a comparable harm to the dog being blowtorched. Under these particular details, I’ll concede the point.

However, when we examine the conditions, terror, and torture endured by the vast majority of the 12 billion animals raised and slaughtered annually in the United States alone (53 billion worldwide), the harm inflicted is comparable to Simon blowtorching a dog periodically and slowly over days or weeks until the dog finally dies of burn injuries. It is well-known and well-documented that innocents in animal agriculture often suffer to death in the process of being raised. It is also well-known and documented that modern slaughterhouses are at least often, if not always, literal torture chambers in which workers intentionally torture chickens, pigs, and cows on (or off) the slaughter line. Even if an animal escapes intentional torture, he or she often ends up unintentionally tortured in the de-feathering (scalding) tank alive, or, in the case of a cow or steer, alive at the hide-ripping machine. In fact, if I had to choose which fate to endure, being Simon’s victim or modern animal agriculture’s victim, I’m not sure which I would choose or if it would matter. Both fates are so extreme that they are too difficult to compare for the purpose of choosing which is worse. In viewing former “free-range” hens adopted by Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary, it appeared that the psychological effects of the “free-range” facility were so severe at the time they were delivered to the sanctuary that the hens were psychotic, “air-pecking” and paranoid of the slightest movement. After so much pain and terror, the brain no longer functions normally and the clinical condition of psychosis often sets in.

The animal agriculture industry goes to great lengths to hide the gruesome horrors of their business. [3] One cannot easily gain access to the interiors and inner workings and processes of confined animal feeding operations and slaughterhouses. Due to a high division of labor, even employees in various sections of the animal agriculture processes don’t have exposure to the whole life of a typical “layer”, “broiler”, “slaughter hog”, or “dairy cow”. By all honest accounts such lives are an unimaginable hell. When we choose to ignore how horrifically they are broken – physically and psychologically – for our gustatory pleasures, we are Simon. We should not take comfort in the difference between Simon’s pleasure-in-the-misery-itself and our indifference-to-the-misery as manifested in our choice to continue consuming their muscle, fat, and bodily fluids. The difference is disturbingly small.

Reply to the Third Objection

The third objection, that implying that people are sadists is likely to be off-putting to people who might otherwise consider the argument against animal use, assumes the soundness of the first and second objections, and therefore makes the same mistake as the first objection by missing the essential point of the analogy and the same mistake as the second objection by assuming that commercially-viable animal agriculture is not a form of torture. [4]

Ultimately, the analogy of Simon the Sadist says, “Wake up!” It provokes our thoughts and emotions. It should get us examining the analogy and the reality of animal agriculture closely and carefully, and thinking honestly about what the analogy implies in light of animal agriculture, our personal contribution to animal agriculture, and why we might react the way we do. Are we angry, saddened, or distressed? (If not, are we cold, indifferent psychopaths?) If so, what is the proper target of our anger, sadness, or distress? Should we examine our habits and cultural conditioning more closely? Rather than resisting or rejecting the idea that we are wrong in contributing to the serious and intractable cruelty inherent in animal agriculture and coming up with rationalizations of or excuses for our behavior, perhaps we ought to rid ourselves of the wrong by going vegan. Perhaps, while we realize “we’re not Simon” because “we’re not sadists”, that we’re more like Simon than we can or should tolerate. Go vegan and exorcise your similarities to Simon.


[1] The terms “intentionally inflict(s)” and “intentional infliction” mean that the harm was caused with knowing intention (i.e. it wasn’t accidental or incidental) and was necessary or itself led to the personal benefit, preference, or pleasure. This is to distinguish accidental and unintentional harms caused by side effects. For example, intentionally swerving a car into a pedestrian and killing him (intentional infliction) versus accidentally hitting the pedestrian who runs out in front of the car without warning (accidental and unintentional). For a more in-depth look at intentionality in connection with harm, see my essay in this blog, “Do Vegans Violate Animal Rights?”

[2] The idea of “personal benefit, pleasure, or preference” refers to “unnecessary desires” as opposed to “reasonable needs”. People are notorious for mistaking wants for needs. Often what is considered to be a “reasonable need” is no more than a bad habit that, once kicked, is no longer considered a “reasonable need” at all. People addicted to nicotine, alcohol, or other substances may honestly consider a fix a “reasonable need”, but once the addiction is controlled over overcome, the former addict considers the substance undesirable and perhaps even dangerous. (If the addiction is physical rather than merely psychological, it may at the time of serious addiction be a real “reasonable need”; however, animal products are never a physical addiction and it is currently an open question to what degree, if any, they are a psychological addiction.) In our modern society with the vast array of choices for delicious and nutritious vegan food, despite most people’s bad habits, animal products are clearly and solely “unnecessary desires” on par with driving a Hummer or other luxury vehicle.

[3] The horrific conditions and unimaginable misery innocent animals endure are necessary to produce commercially- and economically-viable animal products. The industry cannot make such commercially-viable production significantly less cruel, no matter how much they would like to reduce cruelty. Such commercial-scale exploitation is inherently cruel and attempts by industry and welfare organizations at making it “humane” are utterly futile.

[4] Even if there is a situation where animals are exploited and killed, but don’t endure any pain or misery (an impossibility in commercially-viable exploitation), it is still wrong to kill or exploit an innocent other for our “personal benefit, pleasure, or preference.” [2]

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