I know the Rules of Sophisticated Humor as well as anyone, that when we read a news story about some animal-lovers picketing a poultry store where chickens are slaughtered while you wait, we have the opportunity, first, to get a chuckle over the nuttiness of the picketers and, second, to laugh about the well-known stupidity of chickens.

But the fun is dampened when people like Jim Mason and Peter Singer come around. Mason is a lawyer and free-lance journalist, and Singer is a professor of philosophy in Australia. As coauthors of this investigation into how farm animals are raised by factory-like mass-production methods, they are telling us, eloquently and factually, that what we are laughing at is a sick joke. Animals are brutalized. Small farmers who can't compete against the giants are exploited. And the consumer, eating the chemically dosed and genetically hyped food produced on these animal farms, is shafted.

As reporters, Mason and Singer doubtlessly had much more material about our cruelty to chickens, pigs, cows, turkeys and other animals than they included here. What they do report is grisly enough.

Pigs confined in cages -- raised to be motionless and therefore "heavier-bodied" -- develop footsores because their cloven hooves cannot take the strain of concrete or metal floors.

Most of the 3 billion chickens that are factory-reared eat food out of a laboratory.

"Chicken-pullers" are assigned to take newly hatched males -- nonlayers -- and drop them into plastic bags where they suffocate.

In condemning what they correctly define as "the ruthless application of technology to animal rearing," Mason and Singer raise the unavoidable ethical question: "Do we have the right to make animals live miserable lives, just to satisfy our taste for a diet so rich in animal products that it exceeds any sane nutritional requirement?"

The question sounds strident, but this is because many of the people who should be asking it remain silent. Few clergymen ever give sermons on the rights of animals. Institutes for the study of current ethical problems seldom go near the moral breakdowns within modern husbandry. Church-run schools could take a stand against violence to animals by refusing to serve mass-produced animals and animal products in their cafeterias.

More than anyone that I know of who currently writes about ethics, Singer is an articulate and sharp-minded spokesman for those who feel obligated to distance themselves from the acceptable forms of cruelty to animals.

In this book, he joins Mason in well-crafted attacks against the policies that promote factory-animal production. The question they necessarily can't answer is whether the government and the many corporate farmers are so committed to this kind of agriculture that there is no turning back. Mason and Singer advise that "the surest way to avoid helping factory farming is to stop consuming its products." This is sensible, but only a few lone citizens can ever position themselves to be truly independent of these kinds of foods.

Make demands then, they suggest. Mason and Singer list 13 of them, beginning with a demand for the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the drug and the agribusiness companies, to end the use of antibiotics, growth promotants and feed additives on the factory farms. They call for demands to stop meat industry propaganda in local schools, and for subsidies that keep factory farming insulated from marketplace competition.

All of this will eventually come about, but my guess is that it won't happen in a large way anytime soon. Three or four thousand years will probably be needed. The way we look back on cannibals will one day be the way we are viewed. Except that we had a few defiant ones like Mason and Singer on hand to describe our complicity in the modern diet of cruelty.