“But isn’t eating animals natural?”
This question is probably the one that I have gotten most frequently in the almost thirty years that I have been promoting veganism. Students in our courses; people in public lectures; listeners who call in on a radio show that I am on; the passenger sitting next to me on an airplane who inquires about why I have a vegan meal when everyone else is eating chicken or fish—they all seem to think that what I am advocating as a moral position is not “natural.”
As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, many heinous practices and traditions, including slavery and sexism, have been justified by appeals to arguments that assume that certain people are naturally superior and others are naturally inferior.
The current swine flu outbreak provides another opportunity to see the failure of the argument that animal exploitation is somehow natural.
Many people maintain that it is natural for people to eat meat. That is, they claim that we have evolved to eat animal products and that eating meat, fish, milk, eggs, etc. is what nature intends us to do. To not eat these things is to act in opposition to what we are intended to do and, therefore, the moral principle that we should not eat them simply cannot be right. We have evolved to be beings who possess eyes; to say that we have a moral obligation to permanently cover our eyes and never to use our eyesight would rightly be regarded as an idiotic position to take.
We have evolved to be omnivores. We can eat animal products. But that means merely that we have evolved to be beings who can choose what to eat and who have the choice to live exclusively on plant foods. The fact that we can eat animal products is no more support for the conclusion that eating these products is morally justified as our ability to engage in violence is support for the conclusion that war (or any other sort of violence) is morally justified. The fact that we can do something is not relevant to whether we should do it.
It is clear that it is not necessary for us to eat any animal products. And the evidence mounts daily that animal products ingested in the quantities that characterize the diets of those in wealthier nations is detrimental to health.
Moreover, none of us (or no one reading this essay) is a hunter-gatherer any longer. We necessarily get our animal products from domesticated animals. The current outbreak of swine flu illustrates the point that to regard the domestication of animals as natural requires us to maintain that it is in the nature of things for us to do something that, as an empirical matter, is harmful to our survival:
[I]t is our proximity to the animals that have sustained us for millennia that makes us so vulnerable to the diseases that can kill us in large numbers. Ever since man stopped being a hunter-gatherer and began to live cheek by jowl with his livestock, he has run the risk of pandemics. Many human diseases originated with domesticated animals: measles and tuberculosis from cattle; smallpox from cattle or other livestock with related pox viruses; flu from pigs and ducks; and whooping cough from dogs. These pathogens developed and spread easily because the animals lived in herds or packs. When they were domesticated by the first farmers, the viruses were waiting to be passed on. These so-called zoonotic diseases are then transmitted more readily among humans because people themselves live in close proximity to one another.
The above quote comes from an article in a British newspaper. But what the writer says is not controversial. It is an undisputed fact that domestication has ushered in a wide range of serious diseases as a result of increased human-nonhuman contact. Apart from any other consequences that ensue from eating animal products, such as heart disease, cancer, etc., and not considering that the environmental consequences of animal agriculture are nothing short of disastrous, the level of human-nonhuman contact that is domestication is itself a very great danger to human survival.
So how can something that necessarily portends such heinous dangers be natural?
The short answer: it cannot be, unless what we regard as natural is that which will kill us. If someone said ingesting poison were natural, we would regard the person as insane. So why do we continue to think of ourselves as rational when we regard as a natural and integral part of our civilization an institution—domestication—that is so lethal?
But, you say, we would never have been able to sustain ourselves without domestication; we needed animal foods from domesticated animals for our population to grow and to have cities and civilization as we know (and love) it. So although domestication has its dangers, it has its benefits and we have to balance. Even if you are a fan of what passes for modern civilization, this response misses the point that we could have sustained ourselves with plant foods. Domestication is only necessary in this context if it is the only choice and clearly it is not.
The bottom line: if you think that we can justify the pain, suffering, and death that we inflict on 53 billion animals annually (not counting fish) by claiming that domestication is somehow natural, or that the solution is to tinker at the edges and make factory farming more “humane,” then think again.
To the extent that anything is natural, it is veganism. And veganism is the only choice that respects the moral personhood of nonhuman animals.
Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione