The Real Reason For Interest in Plant Sentience Has Nothing to Do With Plants

The next time you’re eating with a vegan, ask them about MY suffering and death. (Photo source:

I. Plants: They React; They Don’t Respond

Every now and then, the internet lights up with the most recent claim that new evidence indicates that plants are sentient; that is, that they are conscious and have some sort of mind and are relevantly similar to animals.

The evidence on which these claims are based establishes at most that plants are alive and conduct various activities, some of which are very complex. That is, the evidence shows that plants react; it does not show that plants respond. For example, in his 2012 book, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses, Tel Aviv University scientist Daniel Chamovitz wrote that plants could see, smell, and hear. This gave rise to a wealth of claims in the popular media that plants were sentient. But when Scientific American interviewed Chamovitz and asked him point blank, “Would you say, then, that plants ‘think’?” Chamovitz replied, “No, I wouldn’t.” He added, “Just as a plant can’t suffer subjective pain in the absence of a brain, I also don’t think that it thinks.”

Philosopher Michael Marder, author of Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2103) made headlines when he was credited with claiming that plants are sentient. In a debate that I had with Marder, I asked him whether he thought plants were sentient. He responded that he thought that they were capable of “nonconscious intentionality.” What in the world does that mean? How can one intend to do something in a nonconscious way? Isn’t consciousness necessary for intention? Do plants engage in activities that achieve certain states of affairs? Yes. But it begs the question to talk about “intentionality” in this context. At this very moment, there are all sorts of complex biological processes going on in our bodies. We hope that these processes are conducted toward certain ends, such as cellular repair, and not toward other ends, such as tumor formation. But can we talk about the “intentionality” of cancer cells? Only if we assume that cellular reactions have a cognitive component. We could say that the electrically charged particles that travel down the wire are nonconsciously intending to make the bell sound. But we wouldn’t say that because it would be silly to do so.

Plants who prefer rock usually choose Axl Rose or Robert Plant; the classical fans like Tchaikovsky for his Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker. (Photo Source: Modern Farmer)

I do not believe that there is any evidence whatsoever that plants are sentient in the sense of being subjectively aware and able to experience pain and suffering. I do not believe that that there is any evidence that plants have minds that prefer, desire, or want any state of affairs. But I am not presently interested in debating whether plants are sentient.

Rather, I want to argue that claims about plant sentience have nothing to do with any sincere interest in plant sentience. The real interest in plant sentience is in challenging the claim that we cannot morally justify continuing to exploit the billions of cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, fishes, etc. That is, the plant sentience argument is, in a nutshell: we can’t avoid exploiting sentient beings because plants are (supposedly) sentient so it’s fine for us to keep exploiting nonhuman animals. In other words, your salad involved killing sentient beings so go ahead and enjoy that steak.

II. Look at What Recognizing Sentience Has Done for Nonhuman Animals: Nothing

The evidence for plant sentience is non-existent in my view but is, at best, highly speculative. The evidence for animal sentience is certain. Indeed, our recognition of animal sentience is so well-established that we have laws — criminal laws — that reflect the moral principle that we should not impose “unnecessary suffering” on animals and that we should treat them “humanely.” None of these laws, and the moral ideas that animate them, would make any sense whatsoever if animals were not sentient. You cannot impose “unnecessary suffering” on a being who cannot suffer.

According to the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, all mammals and birds are undoubtedly sentient as are cephalopod mollusks such as octopuses. There has long been scientifically sound evidence of the sentience of fish and fish sentience is now widely accepted. Yes, there are philosophers who find consciousness to present all sorts of puzzles, and there are still a very few who deny that animals are conscious, but there are philosophers who tells us that our own consciousness is just an illusion. But this is all academic in the worst sense of the word. There is no real controversy about the existence of animal sentience. Yes, we may not be sure about clams and mussels but there is no doubt about the overwhelming majority of the billions of animals we exploit.

Jeremy Bentham: The cow does not care that we kill and eat her; she cares only about whether we make her suffer in the process. (Photo Source: TLS)

How has our certainty about animal sentience changed our behavior? That’s easy: it hasn’t.

When we recognized the moral importance of animal suffering in the 18th century, we bifurcated the interest of animals in not suffering from their interest in remaining alive. A primary architect of this thinking was lawyer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He argued that animals did not care that we used and killed them but only cared about how we treated and slaughtered them. They did not want to suffer but they were indifferent to whether they lived.

In arguing that animals mattered morally because they suffered, and that it was not necessary for them to have other cognitive characteristics, Bentham noted that the French had already rejected the idea that the skin color of humans should allow them to be enslaved and “abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor,” and added:

[i]t may come one day to be recognised, that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate? What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

But that did not mean that we could not use and kill them. According to Bentham, animals do not care that we use and kill them; they care only about how we treat them and kill them. If we kill and eat them,

we are the better for it, and they are never the worse. They have none of those long-protracted anticipations of future misery which we have.

He also maintained that we actually do animals a favor by killing them, as long as we do so in a relatively painless manner:

The death they suffer in our hands commonly is, and always may be, a speedier, and by that means a less painful one, than that which would await them in the inevitable course of nature.

That is, we decided that, although animals, because they are sentient, have an interest in not suffering, they do not have an interest in continuing to live because they are not self-aware. So we can use and kill them for our purposes as long as we treat them “humanely?” and don’t impose “unnecessary suffering” on them. This gave us a green light to continue to exploit animals subject to the limitation that we accord weight to the interest of animals in not suffering.

The problem is that this supposed limitation was no real limitation. Animals are property with an economic value and, as I discussed in Animals. Property, and the LawAnimals as PersonsThe Animal Rights Debate, and other work, because it costs money to protect animal interests, the level of protection we accord to their interests is pretty low. Indeed, the treatment we accord to the animals who are the most “humanely” treated (the animals who are part of the niche market that goes beyond the legal requirements and supplies supposedly more “humane” animal products to those who are willing to pay more) are treated in ways that would be characterized as “torture” were humans involved. And the killing of animals — however supposedly “humane” it is — requires that we buy into the nonsensical position that a sentient being does not have an interest in continuing to live because that being is not self-aware in the way that most humans are.

Okay, so parrots can do simple mathematics. We can continue to sell them in pet shops until someone shows they can do calculus. (Photo Source: The Conversation)

As I discuss in Why Veganism Matters: The Moral Value of Animals, the accepted position amongst philosophers who believe that animals matter morally is that, although animal sentience is sufficient for the moral relevance of animal suffering, it is not sufficient for recognizing that animals have a morally significant interest in continuing to live. More is required. We need to be able to show that animals are not only sentient but have minds that are similar in relevant ways to the minds of typically-functioning humans. And nonhuman animals can never win what I call the “similar-minds” game. However similar their minds are to ours, they are not similar enough to require that we stop using and killing them — however supposedly “humanely” we do so.

We all claim to embrace that it is wrong to impose “unnecessary suffering” on animals, but we don’t need to consume animal products for optimal health. So, by definition, we impose unnecessary suffering on the approximately 80 billion land animals and the unknown number of sea animals (one trillion being the lowest estimate) we kill every year for food. To put this in perspective, we kill more animals every year for food alone than the number of human beings who have ever lived on the planet. Not only is all of this suffering and death unnecessary; it is an ecological catastrophe. Animal agriculture accounts for more greenhouse gases being spewed into the atmosphere than all of the fossil fuels we burn for transportation.

In sum, our recognition of certain animal sentience has had no significant effect on our behavior. But it does make us, or at least many of us, most uncomfortable. As just about any vegan can tell you — and this vegan will certainly tell you — one’s mere presence at a dinner party at which one is not partaking of the animal products served — even in the complete absence of any proselytizing —virtually guarantees a hostile reaction from other guests who will almost certainly remark about and lament the death of the vegetables on the vegan’s plate. Do any of those guests really think that the vegetables suffered? Of course not. But plant sentience makes those guests feel good about chomping on all of the animal products served.

III. Corn Carnage

Trigger warning: violent imagery showing thousands of sentient plants being killed. (Photo Source: ABC10News)

All of this chatter about plant sentience serves one and only one purpose: it makes those who are uncomfortable about our exploitation of animals feel more comfortable about continuing to exploit animals. I have known many nonvegans who have called a local humane society to report the abuse by a neighbor of an animal. I have never known anyone — including my philosopher friends who purport to take seriously the moral importance of plant sentience — to call the humane society upon seeing a neighbor mow their lawn.

(Source: Philosophy Matters)

I was motivated to write this particular essay by a Facebook post on Philosophy Matters linking to an article that claimed plants feel and may even be able to see. The post caption was “Bad News For Vegans: Plants Feel Pain and Might Even See.” In other words, the vegetables you eat are no different from a cow and that’s bad news if you aren’t eating the cow because you think that the cow is relevantly different from vegetables.

There are literally thousands of articles and posts about how vegans need to get over it and recognize that they are morally no different from those who eat animal products because vegans are killing sentient plants. One essay, “No Face, but Plants Like Life Too,” stands out in my mind as perfectly representing the “vegans and nonvegans are both killers” approach, was written in 2011 by Carol Kaesuk Yoon:

Yoon writes that although she gave up eating meat:

My entry into what seemed the moral high ground, though, was surprisingly unpleasant. I felt embattled not only by a bizarrely intense lust for chicken but nightmares in which I would be eating a gorgeous, rare steak — I could distinctly taste the savory drippings — from which I awoke in a panic, until I realized that I had been carnivorous only in my imagination.

Temptations and trials were everywhere. The most surprising turned out to be the realization that I couldn’t actually explain to myself or anyone else why killing an animal was any worse than killing the many plants I was now eating.

Yoon found that:

formulating a truly rational rationale for not eating animals, at least while consuming all sorts of other organisms, was difficult, maybe even impossible.

She states:

Plants don’t seem to mind being killed, at least as far as we can see. But that may be exactly the difficulty.

Unlike a lowing, running cow, a plant’s reactions to attack are much harder for us to detect. But just like a chicken running around without its head, the body of a corn plant torn from the soil or sliced into pieces struggles to save itself, just as vigorously and just as uselessly, if much less obviously to the human ear and eye.

People like Carol Kaesuk Yoon see carnage here. It’s just not as obvious as what goes on in a slaughterhouse. (Photo source: Healthline)

This essay did not appear on some alternative, new-age website talking about spirituality and plants. It was in the Science section of the New York Times. Remarkable.

IV. But What If Plants Are Sentient? Answer: Eat Plants

But let’s play along for a minute. Let’s assume that plants are sentient; that they, like sentient humans and nonhumans, are subjectively aware and have minds that prefer, desire, or want not to suffer and to remain alive. What should we do if that were the case? Well, first, we would need to decide whether we were going to choose to starve to death. Second, if we decided that we were going to say alive, what should we eat?

The answer is simple: even if plants are sentient, and are thereby subjectively aware, we should continue to eat them.

The simple and indisputable fact is that it takes many times more plants to produce the same quantity of animal foods. Take a look at this chart:

(Source: Our World in Data)

As the chart indicates, when you eat that kilogram of beef, you are consuming 25 kilograms of sentient plants who, according to Carol Kaesuk Yoon, wanted to live. So if you really thought plants were sentient, and decided that you were not willing to starve to death but wanted to act as morally as possible, you’d consume the plants directly. You certainly wouldn’t suggest that plant sentience is a reason to not be vegan.

A related attack on veganism is that, because animals are incidentally and unintentionally killed in the process of planting, growing, and harvesting crops, those who eat plants are just as morally culpable as those who eat animals because the former are also responsible for animal deaths. Putting aside that this argument ignores that human activities (such as building roads and driving on those roads) result in humans being incidentally and unintentionally killed but we still have no problem distinguishing those deaths from murder, it ignores the plain and indisputable fact that eating animal foods means that we have more acres under cultivation than we would have if we were all vegans. As the chart below shows, if we were all vegan, we could reduce the acreage under cultivation for plants by 75% — from 4.13 billion hectares (one hectare is 2.47 acres) to one billion hectares. Think about that. If plants are sentient, eating only plants saves one hell of a lot of plants and it reduces dramatically the number of animals who are incidentally and unintentionally killed.

(Source: Our World in Data)

I know that many vegans find the “plant sentience” argument to be maddening. As someone who has heard this argument probably thousands of times over the years, I understand the frustration. But I always see an opportunity for further discussion. That is, it’s such an appallingly poor argument, the fact that anyone makes it means that they are troubled by the exploitation of animals but have little to say. They can often be persuaded to think seriously about going vegan. In this regard, the “plants are sentient” argument is similar to the “Hitler was a vegetarian” argument so those concerned about animals are likely to be genocidal maniacs. First of all, Hitler was not a vegetarian. And even if he were, Mao and Stalin ate a lot of meat so any attempt to link genocidal conduct to diet is a nonstarter.

In sum, the “plants are sentient” argument is not about plants. It’s about nonhuman animals and it represents nothing more than a feeble and ultimately incoherent attempt to deny the moral imperative of veganism.

Originally published on

Teaching Children Not to Harm Others: Who Counts as “Another”?

Are we others or are we just things? (Photo by Christina Maiia on Unsplash)

“I take my veganism very seriously. I certainly hope that my kids will be vegans. I intended to educate them about the immorality of animal exploitation, and I hope that they will make the right choice. But I cannot impose my beliefs on them, and force them to vegan. I will support whatever choice they make.”

I hear something like this just about whenever I am in a group of vegans. It is a very common sentiment expressed by even the most thoughtful vegans. Joaquin Phoenix, who is clearly a committed vegan, expressed it in a recent interview. This view is not only commonly expressed by vegans; it is commonly accepted by vegans as a position that cannot be challenged or criticized. After all, you can no more “force” your children to be vegan than you can “force” them to believe in God or to accept your political views. All you can do is to educate kids as well as you can, hope they make the right decision, and support whatever decision they make. There is nothing more to say.

Or is there?

I would suggest that this view rests on a confusion between beliefs and actions that directly result in harming others. There is a difference between, for example, the belief as to whether God exists or whether deficit spending is a good idea or not, and, say, engaging in killing or assaulting another. With respect to actions that harm others, we do take the position that not only can we “force” our views on our children; we consider that we must do so, at least to the extent of what happens in our houses.

Whether or not a person is a vegan is more than a matter of what the person believes; it is a matter of what the person does. A person who is not a vegan is participating directly in the suffering and death of sentient nonhumans. In my view, that is simply not analogous to believing or not believing in God or deficit spending.

If you child is bullying other children, you do not take the position that you cannot “force” your child not to be a bully and that you will “support” your child in whatever decision they make. Although part of the reaction here is that your child’s bullying others may end up in a criminal prosecution of your child or a lawsuit against you for your not exercising due care to supervise your children, I think that the concern goes beyond the legal concerns. When our children harm others, we cannot support that because to do so would be morally wrong and profoundly so.

The problem here is that participating directly in animal exploitation is much more like bullying than is the belief as to whether God exists or which political party has a better solution for unemployment. Most parents who will “support” their child’s non-veganism and not think it appropriate to “force” their vegan views on the child and to prohibit the child’s having animal products in an otherwise vegan house would not, for example, think that they must support their child’s decision to be a hunter and allow the child to go out and kill animals and bring those carcasses into the house and then consume them or use them to make clothing.

There is, of course, no morally coherent distinction between purchasing animal products at the store and killing them with a gun or an arrow or in a snare. The only distinction is the appreciation that in the latter situation, the child has harmed another. But any such appreciation is necessarily arbitrary because non-veganism necessarily means participating directly in harming animals.

So I would suggest that if one maintains that veganism is a moral imperative because animals have moral value, one is committed to the position that animals are “others” who count, and that we cannot “support” the decision by children to harm those others. Does this mean that we must “force” the child to be vegan, at least in the house? Yes. But that “force” is no more morally objectionable than saying that a child cannot bully a sibling or another child they bring into the house.

One cannot control what goes on outside the house in the same way. If a child chooses to go to a fast-food restaurant and eat animal products, one cannot stop that just as one cannot stop the actions of children that harm others. But that does not mean that one should not be as clear about not harming animals as one is about not harming other humans. On the contrary, if one accepts that animals have moral value, one has an obligation to be as clear.

As a final note, the belief/conduct distinction is not perfect. That is, there are certain beliefs that a child may have that we have a clear obligation not to accept or “support.” Promoting Nazism is different from having agnostic or atheistic views or views about raising the minimum wage. If you go into your child’s room and find the walls adorned with Nazi imagery, would you think it your obligation to “support” the child and to not “impose” your views? Of course not. You would demand that the imagery be removed, and probably seek to get your child psychological help precisely because, in that situation, the belief is one that is so odious that it is itself regarded as harmful to others.

I am not saying that we should not love others, including our children, if they engage in harmful actions against others (human and nonhuman). I am, however, saying that we should never support, or fail to be clear in our condemnation of, any deliberate and unjustified action that results in harming any sentient being

In sum, if you believe that veganism is a moral imperative, you cannot treat non-veganism as something you can “support” any more than you can support bullying or other actions that harm others. To support the harm of nonhumans when you would never think it remotely permissible to support the imposition of harm on humans is the very essence of anthropocentrism.

Originally published on Medium

Woke Animal Rights Means No Animal Rights, Part 2: Wokeabulary

(Credit: The Babylon Bee)

Part 1 of this essay is here.

Our social discourse is peppered with a great many words that reflect various aspects of woke culture. Let’s consider three that appear frequently in discussions about animal ethics and consider examples from that context.

“Mansplaining”: There is no doubt we live in a patriarchal world that is replete with sexism and misogyny. One (of many) manifestations of this is when men simply ignore the perspectives of women or attempt to tell them what their experiences or thoughts are or should be. Another manifestation of this is that a man and woman can say the exact same thing; what the man says is listened to and is often praised. What the woman says may be completely ignored.

For example, if a woman says that she feels that talking about emotion in addition to reason is an important part of animal ethics, and that we miss out on an important aspect of our relationship with nonhumans by thinking of that relationship only as a matter of rules or principles that ignore the kinship we need to feel to make those rules have meaning, and a man dismisses this and says that emotion is irrelevant and only logic is important, that is properly described as “mansplaining.”

But if a man says that feminists who are not vegan fail to appreciate how we commodify the reproductive processes of female animals and the relationships female animals have with their offspring, this is not “mansplaining.” It is pointing out an inconsistency in the approach to moral issues of the feminist. If a non-vegan feminist disagrees, that person needs to be able to present a non-speciesist/non-anthropocentric distinction between female humans and female nonhumans that would justify the violation of the fundamental interests of nonhumans. To call this “mansplaining” is nothing more than an attempt to shut down discussion by focusing on the speaker and not on the idea being expressed in an effort to avoid addressing the vegan argument.

“Privilege”: We live in a racist and classist society. That is clear to anyone who is paying attention. White people as a general matter, and white people with economic means, enjoy benefits that others do not have. One of a zillion examples: think about the number of white, well-off people who get away with engaging in what is clearly and often serious criminal behavior, such as recreational drug use, as opposed to the many Blacks and other people of color, or poor people generally, who end up serving prison terms for being caught with a small amount of marijuana. If you are White, how many times have you been pulled over by the police for doing nothing at all other than driving? Ask a Black person, and particularly a Black man, the same question and I can guarantee the answers will differ.

If a white person says that all human beings, irrespective of their race or economic status, have an obligation not to violate the fundamental rights of innocent others and that “others” includes nonhumans as well as humans, and a person of color responds that this is true with respect to other innocent humans but that it is “privileged” to extend this protection to nonhumans, that is nothing more than an anthropocentric assertion that innocent nonhumans have no moral value. That assertion says nothing about the person promoting veganism; it says something about the speciesism of the person opposing it. Labeling the position of the former as “privileged” is nothing more than an attempt to shut down discussion.

“White fragility”: It is certainly the case that many White people feel uncomfortable about discussing race issues and, quite remarkably, deny that we live in a racist society. In response to a well-documented claim about discrimination based on race, these people will downplay or deny the facts of racism. That is properly labeled as “White fragility.”

But let’s consider the preceding example involving “privilege.” If a White person makes the argument about veganism as a moral baseline and the only response to this is that it is “racist” to say that veganism is a moral baseline, then a response by the White person that the claim of “racism” ignores the argument in favor of veganism is not an instance of “White fragility.” It is a request for a reason; it is a request to engage ideas rather than to use a strategy — a label — as a bigoted way of shutting down the discussion.

Part 1 of this essay is here.

Originally published on Medium.

Woke Animal Rights Means No Animal Rights, Part 1


Is being sensitive about injustice a good thing?

You bet it is.

Racism, sexism, homophobia — and speciesism — are all around us. We need to be aware of these various forms of discrimination and we ought to reject them. Principle 5 of the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights is clear: Abolitionists reject all forms of human discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and classism — just as they reject speciesism.

Abolitionists reject speciesism because, like racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of human discrimination, it uses a morally irrelevant criterion (species) to discount and devalue the interests of sentient beings. But any opposition to speciesism makes sense only as part of a general opposition to all forms of discrimination. That is, we cannot oppose speciesism but claim that, as animal advocates, we do not have a position on these other forms of discrimination. We cannot say that we reject species as a morally objectionable criterion to discount or devalue the interests of nonhumans but that we do not have a position on whether race, sex, or sexual orientation/preference are morally objectionable criteria when used to discount or devalue human interests. Our opposition to speciesism requires that we oppose all discrimination.

So to the extent that “woke” refers to being awakened to the pervasive societal discrimination against human and nonhumans, that’s great. For example, Black Lives Matter is a movement that is necessary to help to educate everyone about how systemic racism pervades our society.

But there are ways in which “woke” is nothing more than speciesism masquerading as progressive thought. I will give you two examples of the problem — two of the many examples I could give and that I will be writing about at length at a later time.

I. Veganism as a Moral Imperative is “Racist”

It is fairly common to encounter the argument — particularly (but not exclusively) in academic circles — that it is “racist” to maintain that veganism is a moral imperative even for communities of color or other groups that have particular food traditions.

It is important that we ignore the bigoted accusations of racism and see this position for what it really is as a matter of moral theory: the transparently speciesist claim that tradition can justify ignoring the fundamental interests of animals.

The claim of tradition does not take on greater weight because it is articulated by those of a particular community. Just about every culture has a tradition of eating/using animals. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t yet have a vegan world. The argument is speciesist whoever articulates it and it does not — indeed, cannot — have a different and greater moral force when articulated by a particular group.

The claim that their particular ethnic animal foods are part of their group identity is like saying that a particular sort of pornography is part of the identity of a group that practices sexism. When we are talking about pervasive, ubiquitous behaviors, such as consuming animal foods or sexism, using tradition is nothing more than saying that something being criticized is a practice that has been going on for some period of time, and instead of regretting that something morally wrong has been going on for far too long, the tradition argument says “we’ve done it for a long time so we can do it some more.”

As a general matter, we should always reject the argument that tradition can justify a practice that harms others. The fact that we have been inflicting harm for a long time does not mean that the infliction of harm is morally justified.

A version of this argument is that to say that veganism is a moral imperative represents “cultural imperialism” to the extent that it maintains that some tradition in a foreign country violates the fundamental rights of animals. This is nothing more than the application of the tradition argument to other countries and it does not work for the same reason: it assumes that speciesist practices have moral value simply because they are practices. They don’t. Consider female genital mutilation performed on children who cannot consent. That is a tradition in some places. Is it okay because it is a tradition? Of course not.

Yet another version of this “woke” argument is to claim it is “racist” to promote veganism as a moral imperative because many Black people are poor and it is wrong to say that poor people have an obligation to be vegan.

First, if this argument works — and, as we will see, it doesn’t — it cannot be limited to just poor Blacks. There are plenty of poor people who are White, Latinx, people of color who are not Black, etc. So the argument needs to be reformulated as that it is classist to say that poor people have an obligation to be vegan.

Let’s be clear from the outset: poverty sucks. Poverty makes life difficult in all respects. It is imperative that we move toward a more just society that sees poverty as unacceptable. We need to be concerned about and to fight for greater access to healthy food in poor areas. I have long argued that animal advocates who care about justice as a general matter need to educate themselves about how those with limited economic means can avail themselves of more healthy food. Indeed, in the book that I co-authored with Anna Charlton, Advocate for Animals: A Vegan Abolitionist Handbook, we discuss at length the topic of advocacy in low-income communities.

Second, to say that veganism imposes an unfair burden on the poor assumes that veganism is both expensive and difficult. That’s wrong on both counts. Veganism is generally cheaper than non-veganism and, unless you are going to compare all food preparation to the ease of eating the fast food that, by the way, is destroying the health of the poor, making vegan meals is not necessarily difficult. On our website,,we present many cheap and easy vegan recipes.


Third, the theoretical problem with this argument is that it is blatantly speciesist. No one would argue that poverty allows the poor to violate the fundamental moral rights of innocent third parties. Even if someone would argue that it is morally acceptable for the poor to violate the fundamental rights of the rich and to harm them in order to get their resources, no one would argue that it is morally acceptable for the poor to impose suffering or death on other innocent poor people in order to get resources. So why is it okay for the poor to disregard the fundamental rights of innocent nonhumans? It isn’t, unless you make the anthropocentric assumption that humans matter morally and nonhumans do not.

I am not saying that if you are literally starving, it is wrong to eat an animal product. Compulsion does not justify violating the fundamental rights of others, but it may mitigate the moral culpability involved. For example, if I am on a desert island and will literally die if I do not eat an animal, my killing and eating the animal is not morally justifiable. That is, my killing and eating the animal is morally wrong. But the wrongness of my action may be excused or mitigated by the compulsion in the situation. I did not have a choice. Similarly, if I am a poor person who is in danger of perishing, eating an animal product in a situation where I do not have a choice to eat a non-animal product may be excusable because of the compulsion. But it is never morally justifiable.

II. Only Some People Can Express Certain Ideas

A second type of problematic “woke” argument is that only certain people can articulate certain ideas.

I was giving a lecture at a University on the problems of animal welfare and explaining that, because animals are chattel property, animal welfare standards will provide little protection because of legal and economic limitations. I pointed out that these legal and economic limitations also occur in the context of regulating slavery.

Two Black students interrupted my lecture to accuse me of “appropriating slavery” to further animal rights. I asked them what they meant and they explained that, because I was White, I had no business using a uniquely Black experience in my work. I responded that slavery has existed for thousands of years and not all of it is race-based and there has been race-based slavery that did not involve Blacks. So slavery is not a uniquely Black experience. But let’s assume that slavery was exclusively race based and exclusively Black. Were the students saying that I, as a white scholar, was prohibited from publishing or talking about research that demonstrated that there are, as a factual matter, legal and economic similarities between the regulation of humans as chattel property and the regulation of nonhumans as chattel property?

Their answer: yes, that area of research is off limits to me.

This position, if accepted, would mean that only those who were members of a particular group could talk about an issue that affected that group. Such a position is transparently absurd. In order to determine whether a position is right or wrong, we need to look at what is being said and not who is saying it. Whites participated in the prosecution of Derek Chauvin; some of them worked for free. Was that unacceptable because only Blacks can be involved in a case about police violence against Blacks? Did those Whites “appropriate” police misconduct?

The fact that someone enjoys the benefit of race or class — what is usually referred to as “privilege” — does not make the facts that that person puts forth wrong, and does not make their arguments unsound or invalid merely because of their status. Similarly, the facts and arguments put forth by those who do not enjoy those benefits are not factually correct or sound simply because of the status of the speaker. Privilege or a lack thereof, should never be used to determine who gets to join the discussion. But privilege or a lack thereof has no necessary relationship to truth/falsity or validity/soundness.


In sum, it is important for those who promote the abolition of animal exploitation to embrace the idea that all exploitation and discrimination based on irrelevant criteria such as race, sex, sexual orientation, class, etc. is wrong — just as is discrimination based on species and informed by anthropocentrism. Unfortunately, much “woke” ideology is, far from being progressive or radical, nothing more than reactionary speciesist propaganda.

Part 2 of this essay is here.

Originally published on Medium.

Surprise: U.K. Law Recognizes That Sentient Animals Are Sentient

U.K. law is finally going to make clear that the what is on the right is different from what is on the left. (source:

The U.K. is proposing to do something that is absolutely revolutionary: it is going to enshrine in law that sentient animals are sentient.

Never mind that, in 1789, Jeremy Bentham argued that the moral significance of animals did not hinge on whether animals had humanlike cognitive attributes but only on whether they are sentient: “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” Never mind that the arguments of Bentham and others lead the British Parliament to pass the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act in 1822 and the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1835, as well as many other pieces of legislation, including the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

Was anyone confused about whether these laws applied to rocks or bicycles, wooden stools, buildings, or blades of grass? No, of course not. These laws only made sense if animals were sentient and had interests in not experiencing pain and suffering.

But on May 13, the Tory government introduced a bill that will recognize animals as “sentient.” Big deal. That recognition has been enshrined in British law for a long, long time. But now the U.K. law will recognize that animals who can experience pain and suffering are sentient, which as about as monumental as recognizing that a person who is agreeable to reason is rational.

Why now?

The background to this is that, in 2017, when the U.K. was trying to figure out how to leave the European Union, Conservative Party MPs voted to not include in the E.U. Withdrawal Bill that portion of the Treaty of Lisbon that committed EU nations to recognize the sentience of animals. At the time, the Tories said that U.K. law already recognized that animals were sentient. That statement was undoubtedly correct. All of those U.K. laws necessarily assume that animals are sentient because they would make no sense otherwise. The law recognizes that these laws apply to animals who are “capable of experiencing pain and suffering” but does not label them as “sentient.”

The official Tory explanation was that the E.U. animal welfare law was “insufficient” and the British did not want to in any way import that insufficiency by including it in what became the E.U. Withdrawal Act 2018. The government claimed that it wanted to improve animal welfare and would introduce progressive animal welfare legislation along with an official recognition that animals are sentient.

The government’s announcement that it will enshrine the recognition that sentient animals are sentient into law is being proclaimed by the U.K. government and the animal welfare charities as some sort of paradigm-shifting event that is going to change the world for animals.

To regard this as a monumental change is absurd. So why the fanfare?

That’s easy: politics and money. This meaningless law allows the government to play hero and to pander to all of those “animal lovers” who vote. And the fundraising opportunities for animal charities are endless. Groups like Humane Society International and Compassion in World Farming, both of which promote supposedly “humane” animal exploitation and reject the idea that veganism is a moral imperative, are right there on the website proclaiming support for the legislation of this synonym. The HSI representative says that “45 of the UK’s most respected animal protection organisations have been united in calling for this Bill.” Wow. That will mean that we will be deluged with endless requests from these charities for donations to acknowledge the importance of this non-victory victory.

And the fundraising opportunities will only increase. On May 12, the government announced its Action Plan for Animals that promises to usher in a new era of animal welfare. This Plan is also being promoted enthusiastically by animal charities such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that will no doubt need your support to make it happen. In other words:

Despite the longstanding recognition that animals can experience pain and suffering, there is still a ton of animal exploitation in Britain. People are still eating animals, wearing animals, and using and killing animals for all sorts of purposes. That shows no sign of ending anytime soon.

If animals have moral value, then the only rational response is to not eat, wear, or otherwise use them as resources for our benefit — that is, to go vegan. Everything else is just a sideshow that is more about making us feel more comfortable about continuing to exploit animals and has nothing to do with securing fundamental justice for animals.

Originally published on Medium.

Is the Domestication of Animals Morally Justifiable?

They can’t breathe properly but many people think they are cute so it’s okay. Photo by Sneaky Elbow on Unsplash

For the past thirty or so years, I have developed what has come to known as the Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights. One aspect of that theory rejects the status of animals as chattel property and maintains that we are morally obligated to abolish, and not merely regulate, the use of animals exclusively as resources. My Abolitionist theory sees veganism as a moral imperative and maintains that if animals matter morally, we cannot justify using them for food, clothing, entertainment, or research as all of those uses assume that animals are nothing but commodities, or things we may use and kill for our purposes.

As part of this rejection of the status of things that exist only for our benefit, the theory also rejects domestication and maintains that, although we have a moral obligation to care for those domesticated nonhumans who are here now, we should not continue to produce domesticated animals to use and kill.

But what about animals such as those species we use as companion animals, or “pets”?

I suggest that that domestication itself presents a serious moral problem for anyone who maintains that animals matter morally and even with respect to animals with whom we may have a more benign relationship.

Although some of us treat our companion animals as family members, some of us do not. But however we treat our dogs, cats, etc., they are property as far as the law is concerned. If you regard your dog as a member of your family and treat her well, the law will protect your decision just as it will your decision to change the oil in your car every 1000 miles — the dog and the car are your property and if you wish to accord a higher value to your property, the law will allow you to do so. But if you wish to accord your property a lower value and, for instance, keep your dog on your property for use as a guard dog to whom you provide minimal food, water, and shelter, and no companionship or affection, the law will protect that decision as well.

The reality is that in the United States, most dogs and cats do not end up dying of old age in loving homes. Most have homes for a relatively short period of time before they are transferred to another owner, taken to a shelter, dumped, or taken to a veterinarian to be killed.

And it does not matter whether we characterize an owner as a “guardian,” as some advocates urge. Such a characterization is meaningless. If you have the legal right to take your dog to a kill shelter, or to a veterinarian to be killed, or to “humanely” kill your dog yourself, it does not matter what you call your dog. Your dog is your property. Those of us who live with companion animals are owners as far as the law is concerned and we have the legal right to treat our animals as we see fit with few limitations. Anticruelty laws do not even apply to the vast majority of instances in which humans inflict cruel treatment on nonhumans.

German Shepherd with hip dysplasia (source:

But we could, at least in theory, have a different and more acceptable relationship with nonhumans. What if we abolished the property status of animals and required that we treat dogs and cats similarly to the way we treat human children? What if humans who lived with animals could no longer treat them instrumentally (e.g., as guard dogs, “show” dogs or cats, etc.) but had to treat them as family members? What if humans could not kill nonhuman companions except in instances in which at least some of us regard it as acceptable to allow assisted suicide in the human context (e.g., when the human is incurably ill and in great pain, etc.). Would it be acceptable to continue to breed nonhumans to be our companions then?

The answer is no.

Putting aside that we would have to stop breeding animals with characteristics that are harmful to them — and that includes many domesticated animals — and ignoring that the development of general standards of what would constitute treating nonhumans as “family members,” and the resolution of all the related issues, would be impossible as a practical matter, this position neglects to recognize that domestication itself raises serious moral issues irrespective of how the nonhumans involved are treated.

Domestication represents the ultimate expression of anthropocentrism in that we have through selective breeding and other manipulation created animals who are completely and perpetually dependent on us and have no independence whatsoever. We have bred them to be servile and submissive resources and to have those qualities that facilitate their use as our resources. Domestic animals are dependent on us for when and whether they eat or have water, where and when they relieve themselves, when they sleep, whether they get any exercise, etc. Unlike human children who, except in unusual cases, will become independent and functioning members of human society, domestic animals are neither part of the nonhuman world nor fully part of our world. They remain forever in a netherworld of vulnerability, dependent on us for everything that is of relevance to them.

We may make some of them happy in one sense, but the relationship is made possible because of an institution that is inherently problematic. They do not belong stuck in our world irrespective of how well we treat them and those who are treated well represent only a small fraction.

Certain breeds of cats, such as the Persian, are particularly prone to serious illnesses. Photo by Angela Pencheva on Unsplash

These observations are more or less true of all domesticated nonhumans. They are perpetually dependent on us. We have to control their lives because, as domesticated animals, they are beings whom we have selectively bred to require our control. Moreover, we often select for characteristics that are positively harmful to animals. For example, certain dogs and cats are bred to have an appearance that adversely affects their health and inbreeding generally results in inheritable diseases and disorders. Various animals exploited for food are bred to have certain characteristics that cause them to gain weight quickly, and they will continue to gain that weight if they are not killed.

My partner and I live with five rescued dogs. All five would be dead if we had not adopted them. Three of our dogs were in shelters as the result of cruel treatment. One was born the day after her mother came out of a puppy mill. One is blind and deaf — the result of breeding grey (or merle) shelties so that breeders can produce a predominantly white sheltie, which commands a high price. We love them very much and try very hard to provide them with the best of care and treatment. (And before anyone asks, all seven of us are vegans!) You would probably not find two people on the planet who enjoy living with dogs more than we do.

But if there were two dogs left in the universe and it were up to us as to whether they were allowed to breed so that we could continue to live with dogs, and even if we could guarantee that all dogs would have homes as loving as the one that we provide, we would not hesitate for a second to bring the whole institution of “pet” ownership to an end. We regard the dogs who live with us as refugees of sorts, and although we enjoy caring for them, it is clear that humans have no business continuing to bring these creatures into a world in which they simply do not fit.

There are those who think that recognizing animal rights necessarily means that nonhumans have some sort of right to reproduce, so that it is wrong to sterilize nonhumans. If that view is correct, then we would be morally committed to allowing all domesticated species to continue to reproduce indefinitely. We cannot limit this “right of reproduction” to dogs and cats alone. Moreover, it makes no sense to say that we have acted immorally in domesticating nonhuman animals but we are now committed to allowing them to continue to breed. We made a moral mistake by domesticating nonhumans in the first place; what sense does it make to perpetuate it? Moreover, if some domesticated animals, such a dogs and cats, have a right to reproduce, then that is also true of the billions of cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, and other domesticated animals. There is no limiting principle. So if we all became vegan, but recognized a right of reproduction, our vegan world would be overrun by animals.

If we want to say that domestication is morally acceptable, then, if we are to avoid a transparently speciesist position, we must be committed to the idea that there is nothing morally wrong with bringing into existence humans who are perpetually vulnerable in order to be “citizens” who serve us in various ways. This is not a hypothetical matter. We are on the brink of being able to do all sorts of things in the laboratory. It will be possible to bring into existence humans who have all sorts of cognitive and physical traits and who do not have families that care about them. If it is acceptable to bring perpetually dependent animals into existence so that they can provide companionship and products, why is it not acceptable to being into existence perpetually dependent humans who serve as companions or to do some tasks around the house? My guess that most of us would reject this absolutely.

There are some who claim that we will lose “diversity” if we no longer have these domesticated nonhumans. Even if continued domestication were necessary for biological diversity, that would not mean that it would be morally acceptable. We do not, however, have to address that issue. There is nothing “natural” about domesticated animals. They are creatures whom we have created through selective breeding and confinement and who cannot survive independently in the wild. To the extent that they have undomesticated relatives living in nature, we should certainly seek to protect those nonhumans first and foremost for their own sake and secondarily for the purposes of biological diversity. But our protection of presently existing domesticated nonhumans is not necessary for any sort of biological diversity.

“Yes, I was once a wolf and I consented to be what I now am.” Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Finally, some argue that animals consented to domestication. They point to wolves who stayed close to humans and got food in return for providing an alert in the event that the humans were threatened in some way. This is claimed to show that dogs consented to domestication. Putting aside that this explanation has no application to the many other animals we have domesticated, it also has no application even to dogs. To say that wolves, who had the freedom to come and go as they please and to otherwise live as wolves, stayed close to humans in some symbiotic relationship means that they consented to be domesticated as dogs who live as “pets” is nonsense. To respond that at least some dogs have lives that are easier and less perilous so that those dogs are better off than their non-domesticated wolf counterparts is not only to ignore the absurdity of the claim that wolves would have chosen to be pugs or teacup poodles, but to assume that wolves would have made a decision not be wolves and not to live as wolves in return for a mat near the fire and their daily serving of pet food.

Domestication, Dependence, and Disability, and Slavery

In Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, authors Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka reject my Abolitionist theory in favor of a theory that seeks to make animals “citizens” in our political community. This position is often referred to as the “political turn” in animal ethics. From what I can tell, the “political turn” is, despite its claims of being a radically different way of looking at the human-nonhuman relationship, just another theory that allows us to continue to exploit animals, albeit in a more limited way. Some “political turn” theorists reject killing animals for meat, but many also maintain that we can use animals for eggs and dairy. So, in other words, the “political turn” involves a rejection of veganism as a moral baseline. I have elsewhere argued that we cannot use animals for dairy and eggs without harming them; these uses necessarily involve harm to animals. But for present purposes, I want to explore what the “political turn” in animal ethics says as a general matter about my views on domestication.

In Zoopolis, Donaldson and Kymlicka present two arguments against my position on domestication.

Argument One: It is ableist to think that complete dependency is not inherently valuable

The first argument that there is nothing wrong with the dependency of domesticated animals on humans. Indeed, they call my view “morally perverse” and claim it “would have pernicious consequences” if we applied it to humans because it would be ableist to disregard the dignity of humans who are disabled and dependent on others.

It would certainly be ableist to disregard the dignity of disabled or dependent humans. But it is also certainly the case that we cannot analogize domesticated animals to humans who are disabled or dependent.

The view of “political turn” theorists — that all dependence is the same so that to reject domestication because of the dependence of animals is to marginalize dependent humans — is simply wrong. There can be significant differences in human dependence. A person may be dependent on their partner for emotional support. But that situation is very different from that of a severely disabled person who is dependent on their caretaker for survival, although when talking about humans, we may be talking about degrees of dependence in most instances.

However, any human dependence is qualitatively different from the dependence of beings of another species whom we have, in essence, created through selective breeding and other manipulation to have no independence whatsoever. That is precisely what we want from them: a complete lack of independence. We may make them happy in one sense, but the relationship can never be “natural” or “normal.” They do not belong stuck in our world irrespective of how well we treat them.

This is more or less true of all domesticated nonhumans. They are perpetually dependent on us. We control their lives forever. They truly are “animal slaves.” They exist to serve us and satisfy our interests and they are bred to do just that. We may be benevolent “masters,” but we really aren’t anything more than that. And that cannot be right. The dependence of vulnerable humans on other humans occurs in a context that reflects social decisions to care for more vulnerable members of society who are bound together and protected by the complex aspects of a social contract. And the nature of human dependence does not strip the dependent human of core rights that can be vindicated if the dependence becomes harmful.

In any event, what we would allow or encourage in the context of disabled humans tells us nothing about a practice of continuing to produce domesticated nonhumans who are necessarily and invariably dependent on their human owners for every aspect of their lives, and where the normal safeguards to protect the vulnerable party are not present because they have no application in that context. The analogy fails. The dependency of a domesticated nonhuman is qualitatively different from the dependency of a disabled human. That dependence is deliberate and is intended to result in submission and to facilitate control

We put a great deal of resources into trying to prevent human dependency in most contexts. We put a great deal of resources into helping humans who are dependent to be as independent as possible or as independent as they wish. The fact that we seek to prevent this sort of complete dependency and to enable independence does not mean that we value dependent humans less; indeed, a central tenet of my Abolitionist theory is that all beings — human or nonhuman — who are sentient, or subjectively aware, should be treated equally in that none should be used exclusively as a resource for others. But it is absurd to ignore, as the “political turn” theorists do, that we do not see complete dependency as inherently valuable in the human context. It is speciesist to view it differently in a nonhuman context.

Argument Two: Domesticated animals are like human slaves

Donaldson and Kymlicka talk about domesticated animals as analogous to human slaves but not in the same way that I do. When I say that domesticated animals are like slaves, I mean to point out a factual similarity: nonhuman animals and human slaves are both chattel property that exist for the benefit of others and the regulation of animal use and the regulation of slavery are similarly problematic for jurisprudential and economic reasons.

Donaldson and Kymlicka use the analogy of domesticated animals and human slaves in a different way. They claim that just as we faced the challenge of making slaves “full and equal citizens,” we face the same challenge with nonhuman animals. They claim that to argue that we ought to stop producing domesticated animals is analogous to claiming that we ought “to seek the extinction of American-Americans, or to repatriate them to Africa.” They see domesticated animals as analogous to human slaves in race-based slavery. Yes, we have certainly changed the animality of animals we selectively breed to be compliant. servile, and submissive, but, according to Donaldson and Kymlicka, “the experience of slavery” also changed those who were enslaved: “It changed their cultures, their physical being, their sense of identity, their aspirations and options.”

Putting aside the irony of maintaining that my rejection of domestication is ableist while maintaining the arguably racist position that enslaved African-Americans were, in fact, analogous to domesticated animals, this argument misses an crucial point: slaves are human persons on whom we have imposed the legal status of property. If you remove that legal status, you still have a human person who can live an autonomous life. That human may have to adapt to a new social situation, but that human is the same as s/he was before, minus the legal disability of being someone’s property. Any changes that slavery imposed on humans are simply not analogous to the changes that domestication imposed on animals. The change from a wolf to a dog is not like the change from an African to an African-American, and it is breathtaking that “political turn” theorists would maintain this. Whatever challenge that we face in integrating formerly enslaved persons into the society of free persons — however difficult — is qualitatively different from the challenge we face in integrating nonhuman animals whom we have bred selectively to be submissive, servile, and dependent on us for every aspect of their existence to be “citizens” in our political community.


Originally published on Medium. Some of the material in this essay was taken from Gary L. Francione and Anna E. Charlton. “The Case Against Pets,” published in Aeon at

Do Vegans Who Get a COVID-19 Vaccine Abandon Their Moral Principles? Yes — and No.

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Although the vaccines for COVID-19 that are presently available are being represented as having no animal ingredients, the blood of many thousands of horseshoe crabs is being used to make sure that the vaccines are free of contamination. Although the crab blood is technically not an ingredient of the vaccine, it might as well be. Horseshoe crabs are not really crabs; they are more closely related to spiders and other arachnids than they are to crabs or lobsters. But horseshoe crabs have a complex nervous system and it is very likely that they are sentient, or subjectively aware and able to experience pain. The crabs are captured, placed in racks, and have the tissue around their hearts pierced. Up to 30% of their blood (which is blue) is drained. The process is certainly distressing to the crabs.

Horseshoe crabs being bled. (Source: Smithsonian)

Although they are returned to the ocean, between 10% and 30% of the crabs die in the bleeding process and after they are returned. Many are re-caught and bled again. Although there is a non-animal alternative to using crab’s blood, that alternative has not been accepted and will not be employed with respect to the COVID-19 vaccines.

So Putting aside any issues of animal testing of the finished vaccine, this raises the question about whether it is morally acceptable for vegans to get the vaccine. I have been a vegan since 1982. I take my veganism very seriously. I believe that we cannot justify using sentient nonhumans exclusively as resources for humans for any reason (food, clothing, entertainment, research, and so forth), and that we have an obligation to abolish all animal use. Therefore, I do not think that we can morally justify getting the vaccine.

But I don’t think that that ends consideration of the matter.

I want to make a distinction between actions that are morally justifiable and those that are morally excusable. The former are acts that are morally good acts, or are at least not morally objectionable. The latter are acts that are morally objectionable but where circumstances mitigate the culpability of engaging in the act.

We can see the distinction easily if we look at two doctrines in criminal law; self-defense and duress. If I am minding my business and you approach me in such a way that I reasonably believe that you are about to kill me, I can use deadly force against you to protect myself. My killing of you is legally justifiable and this reflects our moral view that in killing you in self defense, I have done nothing wrong.

Contrast this with the situation in which you approach me on the street and place a gun to my child’s head, demanding that I rob the grocery store across the street or you will kill my child. I reasonably believe that you will make good on your threat so I rob the store, give you the money, and you run off and do not harm my child. My action is legally excusable and this reflects our moral view that what I have done is wrong — I have harmed the store owner who is an innocent party here — but we understand why I did what I did. I acted under compulsion. I did not really have a choice. Moral culpability assumes that the actor chooses to act in a particular way and in this hypothetical, I am being compelled to act in the way that I did. Our view of the lack of moral culpability in this example informs the legal doctrine of duress.

Let’s apply this distinction in a context involving animals. I am shipwrecked at sea. I am starving. My companion in the lifeboat is a rabbit. Am I morally justified in killing and eating the rabbit? No. The rabbit has a morally significant interest in continuing to live and I have no right to ignore that interest because it would benefit me to do so. But if I had no other choice but to starve, my killing and eating the rabbit may be excusable — in killing and eating the rabbit, I have acted in a morally wrong way but my culpability is mitigated by the compulsion of the situation.

Regina v. Dudley and Stephens (source: BBC)

I would say the same thing if the other occupant of the lifeboat were another human. It would be wrong to kill and eat my human companion, but it might be excusable in that it is wrong, but my culpability is mitigated by the circumstances. Indeed, there is a famous English legal case from 1884, Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, where three shipwrecked sailors who were starving killed and ate a fourth. Although they were eventually rescued and prosecuted for murder, their death sentences were commuted by Queen Victoria to imprisonment for six months precisely because although they did commit murder, they were compelled to do so.

Virtually none of our animal use involves this sort of compulsion. That’s the problem. Just about all of our animal use is transparently frivolous; we eat animals because we like the taste or because of habit or because it is convenient. We wear animals because we like the way we look.

But what about situations in which we need to take some medication that has animal ingredients? Assume that you are dying and that your only chance of survival requires that you take a pill that has an animal ingredient. Is it morally justifiable to take the pill? No. It is not morally justifiable. It violates the right of the animal to not be used exclusively as a resource. But is it morally excusable? It may be. If you are able to get the pill without the animal ingredient from a compounding pharmacist, then you should do so. If, however, you cannot get the pill without the animal ingredient, and there is no other alternative to using the pill with the animal ingredient, then your taking the pill is excusable — what you’re doing is not morally okay but you don’t really have a choice. You are not advocating for the institutionalized exploitation of animals; indeed, if you are a vegan, you oppose that exploitation. But you are dying; you need the pill.

The same analysis applies to the COVID-19 vaccine. COVID-19 is a nasty virus. It kills people, including those who do not have underlying illnesses, and it can cause long-term harm in those who survive. We are just becoming aware of the significant adverse consequences that the virus has. If it were possible to get the same level of protection against getting the virus if we wore a mask whenever we were with others, I’d say that we should mask-up and that there is no situation in which getting the vaccine would be excusable, let alone justifiable. But masking-up, although a very good thing to do, especially before the vaccine is widely available, will not provide the same level of protection. The vaccine presents a situation that is sufficiently analogous to the lifeboat situation; there is a compulsion that mitigates culpability.

In sum, getting the vaccine is not morally justifiable; it may, however, be morally excusable.

As this controversy heats up, I have seen countless claims that any vegan who gets the vaccine has abandoned their moral principles. I have asked at least a dozen of these people whether, if they were ill and could be saved only by taking a pill that contained animal ingredients, they would take such a pill. In all cases, they have answered that, although it might not be the right thing to do, they would take the pill but that would be different because they would have no choice except to choose to die and that it is not reasonable to maintain that anyone has a moral obligation to die. Their reaction illustrates that they intuitively accept the justification/excuse distinction; that is, they recognize that where there is no meaningful choice and issues of life or death are involved, preferring to live makes one’s choice excusable even if not justifiable. Their reaction also illustrates that the real dispute here is that many simply don’t see COVID-19 as presenting a serious situation; that is, many vegans are simply pandemic deniers, or do not appreciate that COVID-19 is significantly different from the common cold. They see deciding to take the vaccine as more akin to deciding to eat a steak rather than a salad for dinner and less like the decision to eat the rabbit (or the human) when one is starving on the lifeboat. I find the position that the pandemic is not a real and serious threat to be absurd. Moreover, these people ignore that, if they get the virus and end up being hospitalized, they will end up consuming more medications with animal ingredients than whatever was in the vaccine.

In any event, there is a great deal more that could be said about all of these issues. But I want to keep it short and simple in this essay and to focus only on the distinction between justification and excuse. I do, however, want to make three additional points before closing.

First, I am not making any claim about the safety of the vaccines. That is a separate issue. Although we are being told that the vaccine is safe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. has acknowledged that there are a number (2.79%) of adverse reactions at least to the m-RNA vaccine and these reactions involve more than a swollen arm; recipients were “unable to perform normal daily activities, unable to work, required care from [a] doctor or health care professional.” I have written to the CDC to get further information about this and have thus far received no reply. This matter needs further exploration.

Second, we should always promote the development of drugs to to not include animal products. It is 2020. With our technological sophistication, I sincerely believe that we could develop vaccines (and everything else) without using horseshoe crabs or any other animals, or doing any animal testing (which is crude and inexact anyway). It’s just a matter of demand.

Third, we should be clear that this pandemic, like all pandemics, came from animals. Pandemics involve zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to humans usually in the context of our exploiting animals, and that exploitation often involves using those animals for food. As long as we continue to eat and otherwise use animals, we will continue to have pandemics.

If we really want to do something about pandemics as a general matter — or to avert climate catastrophe — we have no choice but to move toward a vegan world. We would then have no need to worry about the distinction between justification and excuse. And before you think that veganism is extreme, consider that it would be more extreme to let endless pandemics and global warming destroy us. Moreover, veganism is a moral imperative for anyone who thinks that animals matter morally and are not just things.

Originally posted on Medium.

Treating Humans and Nonhumans “Like Animals”

It is often the case that, when a human is mistreated by other humans, the claim is made that the victim was treated “like an animal.”

What is meant by this expression is that the victim has not been treated with any recognition of their moral value. They have been treated exclusively as a means to an end. Their interests have been ignored. They have been treated as a thing.

The problem is that most of us have no problem in treating nonhuman animals as things. Most of participate directly and indirectly in treating animals as things — we use animals for food and other purposes, despite there being no need to do so and despite there being a considerable amount of evidence that animal agriculture is harmful to the planet and to our health. Indeed, most pandemics are the result of humans exploiting nonhumans.

A German leaflet distributed to the Russian army in 1942. Jews were often depicted as rats.

So we object to humans being treated like animals but we do not object to animals being treated like animals. In doing so, we ignore a very large elephant in the room — our treatment of nonhuman animals as things provides a template for our treatment of humans as things. All we need to do is to analogize humans to nonhumans and our treatment of them as things becomes justified.

If you look at the history of discrimination and injustice, you will find in virtually every single case a cultural effort to reduce humans to nonhumans as the pretext for then treating the former as things, as we do the latter. Efforts to justify race-based slavery and racism depended on depicting people of color as subhuman, as did efforts to justify anti-Semitism, as do efforts to justify misogyny and violence against women.

We dehumanize those whom we want to harm unjustly. And the reason for that is transparently simple. If you want to get support for any campaign against any group of humans, the recipe is simple: characterize them as subhuman. Then, anything goes. We can ignore their moral value because they have none — they are like animals.

Promoting the idea that we should think about women in the way that we think about beings we kill and eat.

Does rejecting the idea that animals are things mean that we think that humans and nonhumans are equal? Yes and no. No, in that there are certainly differences between humans and nonhumans that would make talking about giving to nonhumans the sorts of rights we accord to humans nonsense. For example, it would be absurd to talk about giving nonhumans a right to vote (although it might result in our having a better class of political leaders). But yes in the sense that all sentient beings — beings who are subjectively aware and value their lives — should hold one right: the right not to be treated as things. If we recognized that one right with respect to nonhuman animals, it would undercut the main theoretical foundation of injustice and discrimination against humans as well.

We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. President Donald Trump (May 18, 2018)

Although Trump later claimed that he was talking about gang members, his statement remains that many immigrants are subhuman, particularly given his statements that Mexico is sending criminals and rapists into the U.S.

Characterization and objectification of others as subhuman places other humans outside the universe of moral consideration. If a human is a criminal, that person can be held accountable, punished, rehabilitated, educated, and understood. Once labeled as subhuman, we are no longer responsible for our own attitudes and behavior. That is corrosive of moral society.

I am not saying that, in a world in which we rejected the idea that animals are just things with no moral value, there would be no violence against humans. I am saying that the theoretical basis that we have used to justify that violence would no longer be there. That would not eliminate all violence but it would make it ever so much harder to justify. It would involve a paradigm shift in our thinking about the very justification of violence.

Racist literature — from 1950

There are some who claim that, if we reject the status of animals as things, we denigrate humans. That position ignores how treating animals as things facilitates treating humans as things, and represents nothing more than anthropocentrism.

So the next time someone objects to a situation involving one in which the human has been treated like “an animal,” ask yourself whether that event was less likely to have occurred if we did not think it acceptable to treat animals as things. The answer should be clear.

Gary Francione’s most recent book, Why Veganism Matters: The Moral Value of Animals will be published in January by Columbia University Press.

Originally published on Medium.

A Brief Comment on the “Euthanasia” of Farm Animals as a Result of Covid-19

“Thanks for feeling bad because you have to ‘euthanize’ us; how about not killing us for food in the first place?” (photo: Kenneth Schipper-Vera/Unspalsh)

For the past several weeks, news outlets have been telling us repeatedly that, as a result of meat processing plants closing because large numbers of employees have contracted Covid-19, and as a result of supply-chain disruptions for meat, milk, and eggs caused by the virus, many millions of farm animals are having to be “euthanized.” Farmers and industry executives are appearing as daily guests on news shows talking about how heartbroken they are that they have to “euthanize” these animals. The news anchors doing the interviews often treat their guests with a level of sympathy similar to what they show to people who have lost family members as a result of the virus. I saw one report where an anchor interviewed a woman who had just lost her mother to Covid-19 and then talked to a pig farmer who was moaning about having to “depopulate” his farm by “euthanizing” his pigs. The anchor treated both as suffering a similar sort of personal tragedy.

The fact that we are lamenting the killing of these animals shows how deeply committed we are to our horribly confused thinking about animals.

First, let’s deal with the use of “euthanasia” to describe what is going on here. Euthanasia is a death that is in the interest of the being who is killed. If someone were to say, “I decided to euthanize my dog because he had cancer, was in great pain, and had stopped eating or exhibiting any behavior consistent with his having any quality of life,” I would regard that as a proper use of “euthanize.” If someone were to say, “I decided to euthanize my dog because I just didn’t want to live with a dog anymore even though my dog was healthy, happy, and had a great quality of life,” I would regard that as an improper use of “euthanize.” The proper word in the second example is kill. Death was not in the interest of the dog in the second example. Death is not ever in the interest of a healthy sentient being — human or nonhuman.

The deaths of these farm animals is not as a result of euthanasia; it is the result of killing; it is the result of slaughter.

“You see, whether we are ‘euthanized’ or slaughtered, we end up dead.” (photo: Annie Spratt/Unspalsh)

“Euthanasia” is being used in the context of animals being killed in the wake of the Covid-19 virus precisely because it evokes the sort of emotional reactions we experience when we think about ending the life of a beloved nonhuman family member. It promotes the notion that we care morally and emotionally about the farm animals being killed. Although I do not defend the institution of pet ownership, it is clear that the context in which we decide to euthanize a nonhuman family member when the animal is ill and no longer has any quality of life is completely different from the context in which we kill farm animals because workers are sick and not showing up for work or because demand for meat is decreasing as a result of the pandemic.

Moreover, “euthanasia,” when used properly, involves a method of causing death that is as painless as possible, and is without distress or fear. I can assure you that the the farm animals being killed as a result of the virus are suffering considerable pain, fear, and distress — just as they do during the conventional slaughtering process.

Second, why is anyone lamenting the killing of farm animals who were going to be killed and eaten anyway? It’s not as if these animals were going to have a nice life if they weren’t “euthanized.” They were going to be killed; indeed, if it were not for the virus disrupting things, most of these animals would have been slaughtered already. The reason why they are being “euthanized” is because the workers are not there to kill them and the demand is such that their butchered bodies won’t sell for the time being and no one wants to waste any more money on these animals because there are others coming up through the supply chain.

These animals have no inherent or intrinsic value. They are property; they are things that have only an extrinsic, external, and economic value. They exist to be used by humans exclusively as replaceable resources. They exist to be part of an institutional use where producers and consumers engage in selling and buying them and their body parts and products. The only difference between a pig who has been “euthanized” and one who has been slaughtered, butchered, and sold in the supermarket is that no humans benefited from the death of the animal in the former case. No one made a profit; no one got to eat the animal. The animal property was wasted. That may occasion feeling sorry for usIt is absurd for us to lament the deaths of these animals as though they were a tragedy for them. They were going to be killed no matter what. We “euthanize” them because it is in our economic interest to do so.

Our lamenting the deaths of these animals, and our use of “euthanasia” to describe what is just plain and simple killing, provide yet another example of our confused thinking about our use of nonhuman animals. We claim to regard animals as having moral value. Most of us believe that it is wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering on animals. But it is not necessary to eat animals for reasons of health; indeed, there is a growing consensus that animal products are detrimental to human health. We eat animals because we like the taste or because it’s convenient or because we’ve been doing it for a long time and it’s a habit. None of those reasons makes the practice of eating animals and animal products necessary. All of the harm that we inflict on these animals is gratuitous. And that means that, despite our claim that we take animals seriously as a moral matter, we don’t.

So we try to make ourselves feel better by lamenting the deaths of these animals and talking about their “euthanasia.” Like many fantasies, it may make us feel better, but it is nothing more than an attempt to make it seem as though we care about animals when, if we did, we would not be using them for food (or for clothing, entertainment, etc.) in the first place.

And as we contemplate the dystopian nightmare that we are all living as a result of this pandemic, and contemplate that it, like almost all pandemics, is the result of humans exploiting nonhumans, and consider the ecological devastation of animal agriculture, maybe veganism will seem less “extreme.” For more information about a vegan diet and veganism as a general matter, including all sorts of easy, cheap, and nutritious recipes, visit here.

Originally published on Medium.

How I Learned to Hate Autumn

I used to love the autumn.

For a good part of my adult life, I lived in New York City. Although New York has experienced hotter summers in recent years, the reality is that New York summers have always been unpleasant. Garbage strikes and subways cars without air conditioning made them worse, but they were never great. So I always looked forward to the fall and there were very few things I liked more than walking the streets of Greenwich Village, where we lived, on a crisp October night. But it wasn’t just that the weather was cooler. It was the overall feel of autumn and the energy that seemed to return to the city after three months of the city being “gone” in some bizarre way. Labor Day came, and my spirits used to pick up in an almost amazing way.

I no longer look forward to the autumn. In fact, I dread it.

Some years ago, we moved out of the city because we thought it was time to have a life that did not impose the opportunity costs that come with just about everything that you do in New York. Yes, it’s a great city. No argument there. But day to day life can grind you down unless you have domestic staff who do all of the things that normal people have to do. In any event, we decided that we wanted more space and what, for us, was a better quality of life.

So we found five glorious acres in an area that was set in the midst of some of the most beautiful countryside we had ever seen. We are surrounded by magnificent wildlife. We see birds regularly in our garden that I had never seen before except in books. We have all sorts animal neighbors in addition to the birds: ground hogs, rabbits, foxes, and deer.

Let me emphasize that although we live in area surrounded by beautiful countryside, we do not live in a rural area. On the contrary, we live in an area that is something between a suburban development and the country. We have neighbors and, although we all have wells and septic tanks, we are only minutes away from a shopping center — three actually.

So we thought we had found the best of both worlds. And I was really looking forward to autumn in a place where we had more trees on our property than I had seen in the whole of New York outside of Central Park. The show of colors was breathtaking.

And then I learned that other people loved the autumn as well: the hunters who descended upon the area to kill the deer. Guns are not permitted because, after all, there are lots of humans around here, and guns would be dangerous. So hunters use bow and arrow. When the arrow hits a deer, the tip of the arrow throws out little anchoring blades that prevent the deer from removing the arrow by brushing against a tree or the wall of a garage or other building. Many deer hit with an arrow do not die quickly. Some are wounded and then the hunter slits their neck with a knife.

Some deer who are injured are never retrieved. On a number of occasions, we have seen wounded deer. We are unable to help because, although the deer are actually fairly tame and, while keeping their distance, will nibble at grass knowing that you’re not far, they become terrified when they are injured. And, even if you were willing to pay the expense, you could not get a veterinarian to help because the local vets are prohibited from dealing with “game” and wild animals. One year, there was a wounded deer in our woods. We were told to call the state game commission. We did. They got back to us three weeks later.

The hunters are supposed to have the permission of the landowner before entering on the land but that is a rule observed largely in the breach. “No trespassing” signs are routinely ignored. Although most (not all) hunters will leave if you see them on your land and ask them, you need to be monitoring your land constantly. The bottom line is that if you don’t want to have hunters on your property, you are often made to feel uncomfortable. Over the years, we have had some very unpleasant experiences with hunters when we found them on our property and said that we did not want them there.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that the hunters are any worse as a moral matter from those of us who go to the store and buy dead animals in plastic packages. Not at all. For this very reason, I have been a vegan for almost 40 years. I do not think you can justify killing another sentient being, particularly when your only justification is that you like the taste of their bodies. There is certainly no need to eat animal products. In fact, a growing number of mainstream health professionals are saying that eating plants is a much healthier thing to do. In any event, it’s certainly not necessary to eat animal products for optimal health so I cannot justify the killing — whether by hunters or commercial food companies.

And we should also be clear that the myth that hunting is necessary in order to do “humane” population control is just that — a myth. Apart from the fact that many state game commissions have policies that maximize numbers of “game” animals, the population will stabilize depending on the food supply available.

One of the does who spends a lot of time in our woods had twins. Her twins are exuberant little characters who spend hours playing while mom watches on. Three weeks ago, one of the twins got stuck in a neighbor’s fence and was crying loudly. The neighbor was away and we rushed over to get her out. She ran off and rejoined her mom and sister. Later, all three were grazing peacefully in our back garden.

And soon, it will start again. From now until the end of January, with time off between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the hunters will be in the woods. The deer will be terrified throughout this period and will stay hunkered down for the most part except when they try to find food or get water by the little creek — where the hunters put their tree stands. When you do see them, they behave nothing like how they did before the woods became a place of slaughter. They are skittish and scared. More of them will be hit by cars as they run into the roads in order to get away from human predators.

The twins will probably lose their mom and we’ll never again see them play with the joy that they exhibited this summer. There are other deer who live on our property and many of them will be killed as well. There will be more fawns in the spring and we will love seeing them play and we will welcome their visits with their moms. But, when Labor Day comes around next year, I will feel that dread that I have now learned to feel whenever I think about the autumn.

And I know full well that, when I lived in New York, I was surrounded by many dead animals. Our loft was not all that far from the meat markets on Little West 12th Street. And, although I never ate any of those animals either, I did not know any of them personally. I know these animals. They are neighbors.

I saw the twins this morning. They were standing about 20 feet away when I opened the garage door. They were scampering back and forth across the lawn. The hardly paid attention to me; they looked at me and then went back to playing. As I watched them, I thought that all of this is going to end very shortly, and they won’t be playing any more. They will be hiding in terror.

Sometimes, I find myself having fond memories of hot subway cars in August.

Originally published on