In our discussions about veganism, a common—almost unquestioned—assumption is that veganism is a matter of choice. What is meant by this is not simply that we can choose whether or not to eat, wear, or use animal products because these choices are not prohibited by law, but that we have no moral obligation to choose to be vegan. Veganism is like what movies we choose to see, or what art or music we like. There’s not really a moral right or wrong about it.
We want to take issue with that and maintain that there is a moral right and wrong about the matter and that you do have a moral obligation to go vegan. But, we also want to show you that you actually agree with us.
Every day, there are stories about how someone did some terrible thing to an animal without any good reason. These stories often involve dogs and cats, but they often involve other animals. We do not think that it is controversial to say that our conventional wisdom about animals is that we think that they matter less than humans do and that it is morally acceptable to prefer us over them, but only in situations in which there is some compulsion or necessity. Most of us think that the assertion that it is morally wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering or death on animals is completely uncontroversial. We don’t think that it’s a matter of choice; we think it’s a matter of moral obligation.
And what necessity means in this context is also not at all controversial. We all agree that that it is wrong to inflict suffering and death on animals because to do so brings us pleasure, is convenient, or is amusing. Why does 84% of the British public oppose fox hunting? That is simple. They think that the pleasure or amusement of the hunters does not justify the infliction of terrible suffering and a violent death on the fox. They don’t think that hunters should have the right to choose to engage in fox hunting. There’s a moral right and wrong here, and they regard it as morally wrong.
We use animals for a variety of purposes but our most numerically significant use of animals is for food. We kill and eat an estimated 60 billion land animals and one trillion sea animals every year. The most “humanely” (whatever that means) raised and slaughtered animals experience significant pain and distress during their lives and at the time of their deaths. CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses won’t do anything to affect that. Surely, we need to be able to justify the suffering that we impose on the animals we eat. We need to be able to offer a reason that plausibly includes some necessity or compulsion.
The problem is that we cannot do so.
There is no need for us to consume animal products in order to achieve optimal health. Leading governmental authorities and professional organizations around the world accept that we can live in a perfectly healthy way without consuming meat, dairy, and eggs. Indeed, an increasing number of mainstream health professionals are expressing the view that animal products are harmful for human health and that many diseases are linked with our diets of animal protein and animal fat. And there is no longer any doubt that animal agriculture is an utter and unequivocal ecological disaster.
So what is the best justification we have for inflicting suffering and death on the animals we eat? Palate pleasure. Amusement. That’s about it. And how is that any different from the pleasure and amusement of those who hunt foxes?
At this point, you may be thinking that there is certainly a difference between you and those who do things like hunt foxes—they participate in it directly and you just buy animal products at the store. That may represent a psychological difference but there is no moral difference between the person who does the killing and the person who pays someone else to do the killing. Indeed, the law is clear that the person who pulls the trigger and the person who pays to have the trigger pulled are both guilty of murder.
You may also be thinking, “but what if I were starving on a desert island”? The short answer: you aren’t, have never been, and are highly unlikely to ever be. But even if you were, then the element of compulsion and necessity would be present that would make your killing an animal morally excusable. No one reading this is experiencing such compulsion or necessity that removes their moral choices from this framework.
It is clear that, as a society, and as individuals, we are struggling with the matter of our moral obligation to nonhumans. The one thing that is clear is that even if we stay with our conventional wisdom, which is very much anthropocentric, and we don’t venture into animal rights theory, there is a right and wrong here. Veganism in diet is the default position established by what we all claim to believe. And once we stop eating them, it becomes clear why we should not exploit them in every other context–for clothing, entertainment, etc.–as well.
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