The BBC reported that someone dumped about 1800 chicks in a field in Crowland, near Peterborough, in the United Kingdom. The chicks were killed because they were found close to an avian flu exclusion zone.
The RSPCA, which is investigating, believes that the chicks belonged to a commercial chicken producer and were abandoned by a third party who received them from a “rogue” employee of the chicken producer. The RSPCA investigator, echoing considerable public outrage about this matter, stated: “For someone to dump these vulnerable chicks is unbelievable,” adding “I would consider this to be one of the most callous acts I have come across in 20 years with the RSPCA.”
But the British egg industry routinely kills millions of chicks per year. Males cannot lay eggs so they are usually gassed but may be “macerated,” or ground up. The RSPCA approves of both methods of killing the very same vulnerable creatures left to die in Crowland. And the RSPCA actively encourages people to eat chickens (and other animals).
How does this make sense?
The answer is that it doesn’t. We express outrage about the chicks in Crowland, but, by virtue of being consumers of eggs, chickens, and other animals, we support practices that lead to the same conclusion: the very same vulnerable beings are killed. There are no two ways around it: our position is palpably confused.
Is our conventional wisdom about our moral obligations to animals unable to provide greater clarity and moral guidance in such situations?
First, we need to identify what our conventional wisdom about animals is. We would submit that it is encompassed in a simple, uncontroversial single principle: that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals. That is, most people believe that animals have some moral value but have less value than humans, so, in a conflict between humans and animals, animals lose.
We need to think with a bit more clarity about what it is we say we believe.
When is Harming Animals Necessary?
What do we mean by our conventional wisdom, which says that we can use and kill animals when it is necessary to do so? What is the meaning of “necessary”?
Whatever satisfies the criterion of necessity, what most certainly cannot satisfy it is pleasure, amusement, or convenience. That is, we need a real conflict between humans and animals—some sort of compulsion that necessitates our harming animals. If we interpret necessity to include situations where our supposed “conflict” is that we will be deprived of some pleasure or amusement, or we will be inconvenienced, then there is no limiting principle. Our conventional moral thinking about animals would be useless.
This is why many people oppose purely sporting activities, such as bull fighting, dog fighting, and fox hunting. The problem is that our most numerically significant use of animals—for food—has no more claim of necessity than the use of animals for bullfighting.
People used to believe that eating meat, dairy, and eggs was necessary for human health. But for many years now, the National Health Service, the British Nutrition Foundation, and the British Dietetic Association, as well as similar organizations in the United States and other countries, have maintained that a balanced vegan diet of vegetables, grains, fruits, and nuts, and foods made therefrom, is perfectly healthy. Increasingly, mainstream health professionals are claiming that animal foods are actually detrimental for human health. But that is beside the point. No one maintains that it is necessary to consume animal products.
The best justification we have for killing 60 billion land animals, and an estimated one trillion sea animals, for food is that they taste good.
Animal agriculture is not only morally problematic because it involves imposing unnecessary harm on animals, it is also an ecological disaster, responsible for pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than all of the burning of fossil fuels for transport, and for soil depletion, water pollution, deforestation, and a host of other ecological ills.
If it is not necessary to kill and eat animals for food, then all of the suffering and death incidental to this use is, by definition, unnecessary. And our conventional wisdom must rule it out. Otherwise, our conventional wisdom means only that we should not impose more suffering than is necessary given uses that are wholly unnecessary in the first place. Surely, our conventional wisdom goes beyond prohibiting what is purely gratuitous harm to animals.
Back to the Crowland Chicks
The two of us promote the idea that animals have moral rights. But we recognize that most people do not agree with our position. However, it is not necessary to embrace an animal rights position to see where our conventional wisdom should lead: When we are starving on the desert island, or adrift in a lifeboat, there is necessity; there is compulsion. Conventional wisdom would hold that eating an animal in that circumstance is morally acceptable.
If, however, we are not on a desert island or in a lifeboat, and there is no real necessity or compulsion to kill or to pay someone else to kill, our conventional wisdom should lead us to adopt a plant-based diet. The same moral outrage that leads us to reject the victimization of the chicks abandoned in Crowland should lead us to recognize that we should not be killing those very same vulnerable creatures as part of the egg industry.
If you are not vegan, please go vegan. Veganism is about nonviolence. First and foremost, it’s about nonviolence to other sentient beings. But it’s also about nonviolence to the earth and nonviolence to yourself.
If animals matter morally, veganism is not an option — it is a necessity. Anything that claims to be an animal rights movement must make clear that veganism is a moral imperative.
Embracing veganism as a moral imperative and advocating for veganism as a moral imperative are, along with caring for nonhuman refugees, the most important acts of activism that you can undertake.
Learn more about veganism at www.HowDoIGoVegan.com.
Gary L. Francione
Board of Governors Professor of Law, Rutgers University
Anna E. Charlton
Adjunct Professor of Law, Rutgers University
©2017 Gary L. Francione & Anna E. Charlton