Some Questions from the Vegan Freaks

I regard the Vegan Freak Forums as one of the most intelligent and lively places on the web to discuss vegan issues. One of the participants posted four questions that were posed to her by someone defending animal use and other participants said that they had received similar questions. These questions are typical and I am offering some short replies that I hope you will find helpful in your advocacy.

1. Turkeys don’t have the brain power to have interests other than breeding or fulfilling basic survival urges, do they?

A fundamental principle of the animal welfare position is that nonhumans are like us in the sense that they can suffer so we have some vague (and meaningless) moral and legal obligation to treat them “humanely,” but because animals are otherwise not like us in that they have minds that are not like ours, they are “inferior” to us and we may, therefore, use them as we want.

We really do not know what goes on in the minds of other humans, let alone what goes on in the minds of nonhumans. My guess is that turkeys have many, many interests and are cognitively very complicated creatures. They certainly do not have many of the interests that humans have but turkeys probably have interests that humans do not have.

But let us assume for the purposes of argument that turkeys have interests that are limited in the way that the question suggests. What does that say about whether it is morally acceptable to kill turkeys and eat them, or otherwise to exploit them?

The answer: It says nothing.

If turkeys do have limited interests, or interests that are different from ours, how is that logically relevant to whether it is morally acceptable to eat them?

The answer: It is not relevant.

We see this where humans are involved. There are humans who have very limited interests, or who have interests that are not similar to those of “normal” adults. Are those differences relevant?

They may be for some purposes. Let us assume that a particular human is mentally disabled and thinks only of “breeding or fulfilling basic survival urges.” We might not give that person a job as a teacher, or give that person the last place in an entering class for medical school. But would it be acceptable to use such a human as a forced organ donor or as an unconsenting subject in a painful biomedical experiment?

Of course not.

Such characteristics may be relevant for some purposes but have no bearing on whether it is morally acceptable to treat a being as a resource, as property, or exclusively as a means to the ends of another.

2. What will happen to the cows, pigs, chickens, etc. if we stop eating them? Do you support extinction?

If we took animal interests seriously, we would stop bringing domesticated nonhumans into existence.

And it’s not a matter of “extinction.”

There is nothing “natural” about domesticated nonhumans, which we have created through selective breeding and confinement. We do not need to perpetuate these nonhumans for purposes of biological diversity. To the extent that domesticated nonhumans 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.

I have addressed this issue in greater detail in a blog essay from January.

3. Lions kill gazelles. How is that different than what we do to farmed animals?

Neither lions nor any other nonhuman commodifies other animals and raises them in the way that we do. There is simply no comparison between what a lion does to gazelles and we do to animals in the most “humane” farming situations. But what this question really asks is why we should not act violently toward nonhumans if they act violently toward each other.

I do not know whether a lion makes a moral decision to kill a gazelle. I do not know whether a lion can choose not to kill gazelles or other animals in order to survive. I can make moral decisions and I do not need to eat animal flesh or animal products in order to survive.

So the question is how can I justify my choice to impose pain, suffering, and death on a sentient being when there is absolutely no need for me to do so? If I take seriously the widely-accepted moral principle that it is wrong to do so in the absence of a very good reason, then the answer is that I cannot justify eating flesh, dairy, or eggs.

I also addressed a similar question in a blog essay from earlier this month (see question 5).

4. If a steer gets distressed at the slaughterhouse, it’s just because he fears predators, not that he doesn’t want to die.

First of all, I am not sure what this question means given that it is predators who will kill the steer! I think what the question is trying to get to is whether it is morally acceptable to kill and eat animals because they do not think about death in the same way that we think about death. That is, when we contemplate our death, we think in an autobiographical way about the end of a series of events that we conceptualize as our “life.”

Anyone who has ever been at a slaughterhouse knows that the nonhumans there are terrified. Are they thinking biographical thoughts about their life, or having thoughts such as: “it’s a real shame that I am dying before my time?” Probably not. But who cares?

What does this tell us about whether it is acceptable to kill and eat these animals?

The answer is, of course, that it tells us nothing.

Again, think of how we would think about this situation if there were humans involved instead. Imagine we had a situation in which we were purporting to slaughter a mentally disabled human who did not have the sense of self that “normal” humans have. That person might not be thinking about her life in the autobiographical sense that most of us think about our lives. But there would be no doubt that she has an interest in not being slaughtered; she prefers, wants, or desires to live. Who says that she has to be thinking about her life in a particular way in order for her interest in her existence to be morally significant?

The answer is, of course, those of us who want to eat animals and who struggle to find every lame excuse that we can to justify conduct that we would never think of as appropriate if humans were involved.

The cows, pigs, chickens, etc. who we slaughter are all sentient beings. Because they are sentient, they are beings who have an interest in continued existence. They care about their lives. They are self-aware; when they perceive another animal running or climbing a tree, they know that it is not they who are doing the running or climbing. When they experience pain and suffering, they are necessarily aware that those experiences are happening to them and not to some other animal. The notion that they have to think about their lives in the way that most of us think about our lives in order for their interest in their lives to matter morally says a great deal about human arrogance and nothing about whether nonhumans care about their lives.

There is a disconcerting tendency, even among “animal people,” to accept that it is wrong to cause animals to suffer but that it is not wrong to use and kill animals as long as we do so “humanely.” But this is not surprising. This notion—that using and killing animals is not inherently immoral—is proposed by the so-called “father” of the animal rights movement, Peter Singer. And there is no intellectually sound defense of his position. I discussed this in a blog essay entitled, The “Luxury” of Death.

The podcasts will be coming soon.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione