Freedom’s New Frontier: A Guide to Animal Rights

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.  I have intentionally left the links in this article directed to Gentle World’s marvelous website.

This article will be the last post on this blog.  For various reasons, I have decided to turn my attention to other projects.
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The movement for animal rights is perhaps one of the most misunderstood social phenomena of the 21st century. Despite the sincere efforts of an increasing number of individuals willing to speak up on behalf of the animals who suffer at the hands of humans, our cause continues to be misconstrued, misrepresented, and maligned. Admittedly, the blame for this lies partially with the movement itself, or at least with certain organizations and individuals perceived to be at the helm, who seem to create their own PR nightmares, or to be so off course that one sometimes wonders if they could actually be working for the other side.
This may come as a surprise to some, but for those of us who view animal rights as the most pressing social justice issue of our time, the antics of the large organizations are often as embarrassing as they are hurtful to the animals they purport to serve. Sadly, these groups have a monopoly on not only the available funding, but subsequently, to a large degree, the hearts and minds of those watching and listening, making it painfully obvious why the animal rights movement has gained such a poor reputation.
Meanwhile, in 2012, while many of our society’s advances progress ever more rapidly, our behavior toward animals is more objectionable than ever. Despite the emergence and growth of an entire industry devoted to providing excellent alternatives to virtually everything we obtain from animal exploitation, the number of animals enslaved and killed every year is greater than at any time in history.
Even to those of us who are deeply involved with animal rights and vegan education, a brief look at the math veritably boggles the mind.
Every year around the world, for no purpose other than providing food alone (food which is not only inappropriate for human physiology, but actually contributes significantly to many of the most significant global health crises), approximately 56 billion nonhuman animals are intentionally bred, raised, and killed.
This entirely unnatural population of living beings not only causes our planet to strain under the weight of so many individuals, each requiring food, water and land that could otherwise be used much more efficiently, but also produces so much pollution and waste that the planet simply cannot recycle it fast enough.
The number of 56 billion does not even include those animals who live in water*, or those who are killed for other reasons, such as for clothing, experimentation or “sport”. In the US alone, we kill 10 billion land animals for food every year; far more than the entire current human population.
At this rate of killing, the number of deaths is greater in five days than the deaths we’ve inflicted on humans in all wars and all genocides in recorded human history (approximately 619 million). Even if every non-vegan cut their current animal product consumption by 90%, it would take us only about 41 days to kill as many sentient nonhumans as we’ve killed humans in recorded history.
  • It is hard to find accurate figures with regard to the number of fishes and other aquatic animals who are killed by humans every year. However, a conservative estimate would likely be around 100 billion, making the total number of animals killed for food at least three times as much (156 billion annually).
How did we come to this? It’s obvious that the situation has been made much worse by the disastrous combination of continually increasing human population growth, technological advancements, industrial capacity, and economic demand during the 20th century and continuing into the 21st. However, all of this is occurring on top of a deep social and cultural prejudice against sentient nonhuman beings that is exacerbated by the fact that we humans are frighteningly indulgent of our destructive habits; willing to persistently put our frivolous desires above the indisputable needs and rights of those we oppress.
To animal advocates faced with the harsh reality of this situation, it is abundantly clear that we have an enormous amount of work to do in order to shift society’s current paradigm from one of unimaginable and extreme violence to one of relatively peaceful sanity. Shifting away from the common belief that other animals are renewable resources – objects, insentient ‘things’, and economic commodities fit to be owned as property – will lead to a new perception that recognizes other animals as the conscious, feeling, innocent individuals they are.
Following is a collection of articles written for those who are interested in understanding what this movement for animal rights is all about, as well as for those who are trying to figure out how to most effectively inform public opinion. We hope that these will offer some inspiration and clarity, so that together, we will be able to elevate the collective consciousness, bringing about a paradigm that will one day grant animals freedom from persecution and slaughter. And that is a freedom one surely cannot deny they deserve.
Veganism is not a fringe philosophy – it is a moral baseline that is consistent with beliefs that most of us already hold. Veganism is a simple matter of refraining from participating in unnecessary and harmful use of sentient beings. As most people are naturally opposed to unnecessary violence, becoming and staying vegan is not a matter of changing any of our basic moral beliefs. It simply requires us to be willing to change the habits we have developed that prevent us from living according to our principles.
As surely as the abolitionists of the past knew that no man or woman should be the property of any other, the abolitionists of today know that the legal property status of animals stands in the way of their ever receiving any meaningful rights or protection, let alone being granted the freedom to live according to their own needs and desires.
We consider killing humans to be wrong regardless of the individual’s cognitive abilities, moral capacity, mental health, sex, race, nationality, age or sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter whether the person in question is terminally suffering from dementia, psychologically ill, severely retarded or a productive genius – we believe it to be seriously wrong in all cases… By stark contrast, the majority of us act as if there is absolutely nothing wrong with unnecessarily killing a member of certain other species of sentient beings. But what rational basis do we have for such a discrepancy in our perception? What quality is found in all and only humans that could possibly point to the conclusion that the lives of other animals are unimportant?
There is something very unjust about the fact that we delegate the most obscene work of our society to a select few who are emotionally hardened enough to carry it out, only to later denigrate them for their disconnection from their natural sense of empathy. When thinking about it honestly, most of us would be hard-pressed to find it in ourselves to slaughter an animal – or to rip off her skin, or slice open her body to remove the entrails, or butcher her flesh into supermarket-sized pieces… And yet, we continue to ask others to do it for us, while most people refuse to even watch these things on video or hear others describe them.
Speciesism, racism, sexism, and other prejudices rely on a morally irrelevant criterion (in this case, species) as the basis on which to deny the interests of an individual belonging to a different ‘group’, even if those interests are more significant than one’s own. As such, speciesism is simply a different form of the same underlying wrong at the foundation of all prejudices. It really doesn’t matter which morally irrelevant criteria we base our prejudice on – sex, race, skin color, age, sexual orientation, species – it is ethically wrong to use such arbitrary criteria to deny the rights of others.
Animal advocacy organizations work side by side with the animal industry in developing and promoting “humane” labels for animal foods. Not only does this sort of “product development” consulting provide invaluable public relations assistance for these companies, but it also effectively gives these products the “animal people” stamp of approval when they reach the consumer. Although these programs may appear on the surface to offer greater protection for animals, it is painfully clear that they are designed as an (albeit very clever) PR campaign to increase sales, by making consumers feel better about using animal products. These labels, which include Certified Humane Raised & Handled, Humane Choice, Freedom Food and the Whole Foods 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards, could quite reasonably be viewed as the ultimate betrayal from the perspective of the victims.
Because animals are property and economic commodities, we have a wide divergence of social acceptability regarding the treatment of animals.  On one hand, the law permits extreme cruelty for the most trivial of economic benefits, as long as the end use is socially acceptable.  On the other hand, most people would be horrified to see a dog – especially their own dog – endure what animals raised for food or used in experiments endure. Single Issue Campaigns reinforce these irrational dichotomies by singling out specific uses of animals as though they are worse than others. When we campaign to eliminate one branch, such as the fur or seal-clubbing industries, while ignoring other branches, such as the leather, egg, and dairy industries, we send a message to the public that certain forms of exploitation are worse than others.
Not only do such colossal government handouts artificially affect supply, these subsidies also lower the prices of animal products, which would be close to three times as high without subsidies. Considering the exorbitant costs of animal agriculture to the environment; and the costs of saturated fat, cholesterol, and excess sodium to human health, a responsible government would tax, not subsidize, animal products, even if the rights of animals were not an issue.
During the past few years, the call to reduce our consumption of animal products has grown tremendously. There is a great deal of diversity amongst the individuals and organizations behind this appeal, as well as in the reasons and benefits they point to, and most of them are not vegan. However, there is one thing they have in common, and that is that they are all making it easier for people to be vegan for life. Indeed, the movement away from animal use is shaping up to possibly be the most significant social phenomenon of the 21st century.
“I found the minds of the people strangely indifferent to the subject of slavery. Their prejudices were invincible—stronger, if possible, than those of the slaveholders. Objections were started on every hand; apologies for the abominable system constantly saluted my ears; obstacles were industriously piled up in my path… What was yet more discouraging, my best friends—without an exception—besought me to give up the enterprise! It was not my duty (they argued) to spend my time, and talents, and services, where persecution, reproach and poverty were the only certain reward. My scheme was visionary—fanatical—unattainable… But opposition served only to increase my ardor, and confirm my purpose.”
~ William Lloyd Garrison (July 14, 1830)

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Opposition Confirms My Purpose

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

 

This article was originally published February 29, 2012 on Care2.
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“I found the minds of the people strangely indifferent to the subject of slavery. Their prejudices were invincible—stronger, if possible, than those of the slaveholders. Objections were started on every hand; apologies for the abominable system constantly saluted my ears; obstacles were industriously piled up in my path… What was yet more discouraging, my best friends—without an exception—besought me to give up the enterprise! It was not my duty (they argued) to spend my time, and talents, and services, where persecution, reproach and poverty were the only certain reward. My scheme was visionary—fanatical—unattainable… But opposition served only to increase my ardor, and confirm my purpose.”
~ William Lloyd Garrison (July 14, 1830)

 

We live in a world where the vast majority of people consider it perfectly acceptable to oppress and exploit other animals, despite the fact that we have no moral justification for doing so. Every year in the United States, approximately ten billion land animals are killed, after being intentionally bred and enslaved, all for human gain. Worldwide, the numbers equal approximately 56 billion annually. When we count animals who live in water, there are tens or hundreds of billions more every year.

 

All of these animals are as innocent as children, but we treat them as though being born as a member of a different species is a crime worthy of life in prison, often accompanied by torture, ending with the death penalty. In fact, for the vast majority of them, the lives they are forced to live are so unbearable that premature death – itself a severe harm – might conceivably serve as some kind of merciful release from a life of physical, psychological and emotional suffering.

 

Widespread veganism is the only hope these nonhuman beings have for emancipation from their brief, brutal existence. Such a fundamental change in our society will only be brought about by a radical moral paradigm shift similar to those which resulted in the abolition of human chattel slavery and the voting rights of women.

 

Moral paradigm shifts, however, do not cause themselves. They are caused by small groups of people within society – always considered “radical” in their own time – who persistently educate others over decades about why change is necessary. Indeed, William Lloyd Garrison founded The Liberator, a weekly anti-slavery newspaper, in 1831, and it wasn’t until after 34 years and the bloodiest war on United States soil* that slavery was finally abolished in 1865. Similarly, the women’s suffrage movement’s first well-known spokesperson was John Stuart Mill in 1865, but women were not permitted to vote until 1918 in the United Kingdom, and 1920 in the United States.

 

* Note that William Lloyd Garrison, the authors of this article, and the abolitionist approach to animal rights reject violence, and support only non-violent education and reasoned dialogue as a means to social justice, regardless of the cause.

 

In their efforts to educate and to engage in civil disobedience in the name of noble causes, abolitionists and suffragists endured ridicule, anger, imprisonment, and death threats, both from the establishment itself, and also from counter-movements made up of citizens with an interest in maintaining the current situation.

 

Nobody minded a quiet abolitionist or suffragist. Respecting “everyone’s personal choice” with deferent silence was deemed “moderate and respectable” by those vested in the status quo. Challenging the injustice with moral education was called “self-righteous,” “offensive,” “extremist,” and “off-putting.”

 

Take, for example, the following quote from 1847, in which human slavery proponent Joseph W. Lesesne criticizes anti-slavery advocates and the abolitionist movement:

 

“[The abolitionists’] conduct has been most atrocious. No language is strong enough to denounce it. The shameless impudence with which they have trampled the Constitution under their feet, and their mean and despicable contrivances to deprive us of our Slave property ought to be held up to the scorn of the whole Union.”

 

The more direct and unequivocal an advocate’s position, the more resistance he or she encountered.

 

And so it is with vegans today. Despite the fact that we stand so clearly on the side of justice for all sentient beings, we can expect to encounter resistance most of the time. As strong vegan educators and advocates, we can expect to be dismissed, ignored, misrepresented, and to be subjected to whatever treatment those opposing us believe would be most effective at discouraging our efforts. Recognizing and accepting this situation for what it is, and realizing that other successful social justice movements faced similar resistance and criticism over spans of decades, can help us persist in our efforts over decades as well.

 

Aside from simply being on the justifiable side of a cause, a major reason that social justice movements of the past succeeded was persistence. Realizing that even the most effective vegan advocacy will take decades, rather than months or years, to have its intended goals achieved can give us the perspective we need to ultimately succeed by avoiding the burnout that comes with obsessive activity, unrealistic expectations, and a short-sighted focus on short-term results. We should recognize that it might sometimes be beneficial to take a break and recharge our batteries,  and that, alongside our personal advocacy, it’s important that we also strive for physical, mental and emotional health, so that we can be as effective as possible in our efforts to educate and inspire others.

 

So let us relentlessly persist in the struggle for justice at a pace we can maintain for as long as is necessary. Let us not measure our progress in insignificant welfare “victories”, which, during the short time they last, only serve to perpetuate the exploitation paradigm and make consumers feel better about their purchases of animal products. Let us instead measure progress in terms of the increasing number of ethical vegans, the decreases in animal product consumption, the increases in vegan alternatives, and the gradual transformation of the collective consciousness, which, only 65 years ago, didn’t even have a word to describe someone as being ‘vegan’.

 

Over time, the irrepressible power of justice will prevail, as we overcome the shameful prejudice and despicable discrimination that attempts to justify and maintain the moral status of animals as economic property and tradable commodities. Until that day comes, let whatever opposition comes our way serve only to increase our ardor, and confirm our purpose.

 

Drawing on the wisdom of another of the great voices of the anti-slavery movement of the 1800s, Frederick Douglass,

 

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

 

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Humans: Red in Knife and Gun

We say that “Nature is red in tooth and claw.”

Well, sometimes that’s true. But since the notorious “food chain” is shaped like a steep pyramid, with prey far outnumbering predators, and predators often going hungry, most animals in the wild live much longer and more enjoyable lives than popular documentaries would have us believe.

For animals bred, confined, and slaughtered by humans, on the other hand, life is usually a hell of constant and severe pain, fear, boredom, torture, and terror. Further, unlike predation in the wild, where nonhumans kill almost only for survival reasons, humans kill for the trivial reasons of pleasure, amusement, convenience, and blind tradition.

One might wonder how many innocents are unnecessarily and intentionally killed annually by humans. Statistics published by the United Nations claim 56 billion annually, and that’s only those who live on land. Add sentient beings from the water and you can at least triple that number to 168 billion.

So, that’s 3.2 billion weekly; 460 million daily; 19 million hourly; 319,635 per minute; and 5,237 per second that humans intentionally and unnecessarily kill innocents.

When we say that “Nature is red in tooth and claw,” we’re ridiculously overstating the case. But it’s an understatement to say that “Humans are red in knife and gun.”  No species is more violent than us, and the vast majority of our violence is unnecessary.

You can opt out of this moral and cultural imbecility: Be vegan for life.

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Creative, Non-Violent Vegan Advocacy (A Beginner’s Guide)

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

This article was originally published January 31, 2012 on Care2.
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During the past few years, the call to reduce our consumption of animal products has grown tremendously. There is a great deal of diversity amongst the individuals and organizations behind this appeal, as well as in the reasons and benefits they point to, and most of them are not vegan. However, there is one thing they have in common, and that is that they are all making it easier for people to be vegan for life. Indeed, the movement away from animal use is shaping up to possibly be the most significant social phenomenon of the 21st century.

Vegan recipe blogs, which illustrate innovative techniques for preparing a huge range of delicious, satisfying meals and treats, have proliferated into the hundreds, if not thousands. Both the number and the variety of vegan food items are increasing annually in restaurants and supermarkets.  New vegan businesses are opening every year, and thriving more than ever, including cafes, bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, clothing and apparel stores, online boutiques, and even retreat centers and B&Bs.

Professional dietitians, in increasing numbers, are helping to guide consumers through the sea of books, blogs, articles and DVDs to learn how to achieve vibrant health on naturally wholesome vegan diets, as well as making it easier than ever to avoid the poor nutritional choices that frequently result in the “ex-vegan” phenomenon.

Note: Some may be surprised to find this out, but it is becoming more and more well-known that all nutrients required by the human body can be obtained from non-animal sources, including plenty of protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and fatty acids such as Omega and DHA oils. If there were any nutritional deficiencies in well-planned vegan diets, the mainstream American Dietetic Association, American Medical Association, and similar science-based organizations would be broadcasting them far and wide.

For those of us who are committed to ethical veganism, it is essential to derive all our nutrients from non-animal  sources. Although there are those who claim to have experienced nutritional deficiencies caused by a plant-based diet, it seems ever more likely – in light of the information we now have access to – that these individuals may not have been sufficiently informed about vegan whole foods nutrition and the many options for nutritional supplementation, including the huge range of whole-food supplements that are becoming increasingly accessible for all of us in the developed world.

As the devastating environmental effects of animal agriculture become increasingly apparent, environmentalists are speaking out about the industry’s blatant offenses against the global ecosystem, such as deforestation for grazing, the cultivation of vast feed crop monocultures, extremely high emissions of carbon and other warming gases such as methane, the careless squandering of oil, water and other finite natural resources, and the pollution of our air, water and soil – all while this filthy industry is artificially propped up by tens of billions of dollars in government welfare funding.

With the growing popularity of social media, the educational resources shared by dedicated advocates are making it easier for the previously uninformed to bear witness to institutionalized cruelty that is not only perfectly legal, but so horrific that most of us turn away in distress, unwilling to endure with our eyes what innocent others are forced to endure with their bodies.

And a growing number of abolitionist vegans are explaining and demonstrating the simple fact that unless we shift the paradigm to fully include these sentient beings in our moral community by embracing veganism and rejecting the property status of animals, there will be no end to the socially-acceptable barbarism which allows us to treat beings as innocent as our children as economic commodity units.

The Internet, while still dominated by large corporate interests, has comparatively democratized the ability of grassroots advocates to share information. Blogs, forums, and social media sites have opened up communication lines for rational dialogue among everyday people at a rate of growth unprecedented since the invention of the printing press.

In the past, some individuals may have felt tempted or even obligated to tap into the wide reach of large organizations that soak up the majority of the funding available for animal advocacy by appealing to mainstream values with a message promoting animal welfare or vegetarianism. But now, individuals who are genuinely concerned with fundamental issues of animal rights are able to make their voices heard independently.

Given the burgeoning opportunities, advocates can pick and choose what methods and media suit their talents, personalities, preferences, and geographic locations. If you’re a gregarious extrovert in the city or suburbs who loves to chat with people on the street, you might do well setting up tables at festivals or street stalls with cupcakes or finger foods.

If you’re confident about your ability to prepare amazing food, you might enjoy holding a vegan cooking demonstration in your own home or elsewhere, or hosting vegan dinners or potlucks with a suggestion to guests that they bring a friend who’s interested in learning more about veganism.

Or, if you’re an introvert who would rather cross the street than engage with people you don’t know, blogging, vlogging, and social media advocacy would likely be your preferred venue. (Those of us who live in rural areas also usually find it easier and far more effective to use the opportunities offered by the Web for our advocacy.) Not confident in your writing ability? No problem – perhaps you can team up with another advocate who inspires you, and help them to be more productive by doing research or writing outlines that they can polish up into an engaging article for publication. Maybe you’re better at editing than writing; you might be able to find someone who’s in need of assistance with that. Collaboration (with someone whose approach appeals to you) can be a great way to achieve more and reach out further.

Note: There are some activists who insist that face-to-face outreach is somehow superior to online communication. However (in the absence of comprehensive studies), is there any reason to think offline or online advocacy is more effective than the other? It seems that the strengths of online are the weaknesses of offline, and vice versa, but neither seems to be more effective than the alternative.  Offline, face-to-face advocacy can often be more personable and forthcoming than online due to the subtle nature of nonverbal communication (not to mention the unquestionable power that mouth-watering vegan food has over the skeptical consumer harboring imaginary fears of sensory deprivation as a result of eliminating animal products). But online advocacy – which works around the clock, everyday, for all those who understand the language – can reach many more people, oftentimes by a few orders of magnitude.

More important than the venue or media used in advocacy, however, is the quality of the content. Excellent vegan food, a powerful vegan message, and friendliness and charisma will obviously do much better while tabling at a festival than bland or unappealing food, a message of compromise, and mediocrity, aggression or a judgmental attitude. And good photography, terrific vegan recipes, and well-researched, convincing writing will do better online – all other factors being equal – than content of lesser quality.

Finally, quality entails knowing what not to promote. Encouraging the purchase of animal products purported to be produced under ‘ethical’ conditions (free-range, cage-free, humanely-raised, grass-fed, organic, etc.) serves only to reinforce the common, traditional belief that it is morally acceptable to use other animals as resources for human consumption.

The same can be said for the confused and confusing message generated by the promotion of a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, which ignores the violence inherent in the production of milk and eggs (not to mention the barbarism involved in the manufacture of other animal-based products including clothing and toiletries), as though these equally brutal industries should somehow be exempt from the moral examination undertaken by those who view meat production to be an intolerable form of injustice.

The fact is that none of us needs any animal products in our lives. We exploit animals and consume the products of their bodies because of pleasure, amusement, convenience, and blind tradition – all trivial reasons to rationalize the brutality of unnecessary exploitation.  Sadly, no matter what we say or how well we say it, the fact is that most people won’t go vegan simply upon hearing our message. However, as vegan advocates, veganism is the message we should exclusively and unequivocally promote.  Anything less – promoting vegetarianism, or the consumption of ‘humane’ animal products – betrays the fundamental truth that brings us to veganism in the first place: the understanding that we must bring an end to all exploitation if we are to move beyond the pandemic of violence that underlies our current cultural paradigm.

It is not unusual for animal advocates to be deeply troubled and frustrated by the state of our society and its hardened attitude toward animals who are not human. But social change, while often slow, is also unpredictable, subject to tipping points, paradigm shifts, and peaceful revolutions in attitudes and behavior. As someone who advocates unequivocally for widespread veganism, don’t forget that you are among the gentle, strong, and independent-minded pioneers of a growing, positive, and peaceful movement to protect our environment, improve public health, and most important, to eventually end the social acceptability of violence and injustice inflicted on the innocent.

With a little effort, courage, creativity, and the willingness to share what we’ve learned with patience, persistence, and understanding, we can all help others to understand the significance of this essential change we are trying to bring to fruition.

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A Matter of Life and Death

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

This article was originally published December 31, 2011 on Care2.
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In recent years, the debate about the welfare of animals has centralized around specific cases of egregious suffering, with a strong focus on certain practices and procedures perceived to cause extreme harm, including intensive confinement, bodily mutilations, and physical and psychological torture.

This focus on specific welfare violations has led to an interesting phenomenon: The public’s attention has been sidetracked from the primary issue involved with economic exploitation of sentient beings, which is the commodification of their very lives.

In other words, the current direction of the debate has obscured from view the fundamental question of whether it is unethical, or morally indefensible, to take the life of another sentient being for any reason other than self-defense or compassion toward an individual who is severely suffering from a terminal illness or fatal injury.

This is the reason that the animal industry now markets itself as a stronghold of ‘ethical death and dismemberment‘. In this new territory of animal slavery double-speak, consumers are actually expected to believe the ever-more-frequent and increasingly perverse accounts of ‘happy farming‘; the proliferation of animal exploitation sites where the victims are so content with their circumstances that they happily offer the products of their bodies, then go gladly to their deaths at the side of kindly oppressors whom they trust unconditionally.

But doesn’t this absurd marketing scheme fundamentally betray something that is firmly secured inside each one of us – the knowledge that other animals, just like human animals, care about their lives and don’t want to die?

With the exception (for some people) of the violence of war, and the execution of violent criminals who are deemed to be morally incorrigible, the vast majority of us agree that it is unquestionably wrong to unnecessarily kill a member of our own species (except in genuine instances of euthanasia, which is a highly sensitive issue and remains illegal throughout most of the world).

We consider killing humans to be wrong regardless of the individual’s cognitive abilities, moral capacity, mental health, sex, race, nationality, age or sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter whether the person in question is terminally suffering from dementia, psychologically ill, severely retarded or a productive genius – we believe it to be seriously wrong in all cases. If we consider any given case to be particularly egregious, it is often due to the individual’s vulnerability, not to any mental or moral characteristics he or she may possess.

By stark contrast, the majority of us act as if there is absolutely nothing wrong with unnecessarily killing a member of certain other species of sentient beings. But what rational basis do we have for such a discrepancy in our perception? What quality is found in all and only humans that could possibly point to the conclusion that the lives of other animals are unimportant?

Intelligence or moral capacity as a criterion would make the lives of millions of humans (such as certain individuals suffering from dementia, those who are mentally disabled, and infants) equally expendable. Among human and nonhuman animals, traits such as intelligence and moral capacity exist on an overlapping continuum, making any line-drawing in this regard arbitrary.

But even if there was a distinct cutoff with regard to some criterion such as intelligence or moral capacity, would it matter when it comes to an interest in continued existence and not being killed unnecessarily?  When we stop and think about it, such a distinction wouldn’t matter in the least. This is because, just as eyes are sufficient for an interest in continuing to see, and ears are sufficient for an interest in continuing to hear, so sentience alone – the ability to experience one’s life – is sufficient for an interest in continued existence.

It has been suggested by some that a concept of death, plans for the future, or an interest in some form of ongoing activity is necessary for an interest in continuing to live. But again, if this were the case, as explained above, many humans would not have an interest in continued existence either.

Note: An analogy to a legal contract is helpful to explain why sentience alone, rather than any conception of the future, is the necessary and sufficient criterion.  Legal contracts are often complex and contain unfamiliar terms and meanings to people who are not lawyers.  Suggesting that an individual must conceptually understand the future in order to have an interest in future existence is analogous to suggesting that a party to a contract must conceptually understand a harmful clause in order to be harmed by the clause.  But we know that we can be harmed by clauses in legal contracts that we didn’t understand when signing the contract.  Similarly, it is obvious that sentient nonhumans (just like sentient humans of limited mental capacity) can be harmed by killing even if they don’t have an understanding of their future or their death as an abstract, conceptual matter.

In fact, wouldn’t it be fair to say that untimely death at the hands of another is, with the possible exception of severe torture, the ultimate infliction of harm? Even a quick and genuinely painless death deprives an individual of the chance to experience his or her life, in any capacity, ever again. It stands to reason then, that if we believe animals other than humans ought to be protected from being harmed unnecessarily, they ought to be protected from being killed unnecessarily. Since our society’s reasons for using animals are based on custom and convenience, and are, in fact, all unnecessary, we have no grounds on which to justify the continuation of such archaic and barbaric practices.

It is straightforward to see that if death is harmful to sentient humans, regardless of intelligence or other capacities, then it must also be harmful to sentient nonhumans, regardless of their intelligence or other capacities. When people who consider human lives and deaths to be important are willing to dismiss the importance of the lives and deaths of nonhuman animals, they are making an arbitrary distinction based on a speciesist prejudice, in the same way racists or sexists arbitrarily dismiss the important interests of minority groups or women.

When we make a sincere and honest effort to place ourselves in the position of another sentient being, it is very easy to see why we should respect their lives, regardless of their species or any other characteristics they possess. Like us, they want to be happy, healthy, free from harm, and to enjoy the most precious thing they have: life itself.

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On Fact-Value Entanglement

(This essay was originally published in The Abolitionist.)

In our modern society, what we call “facts” are usually held in much higher epistemic esteem than what we call “values.” And the most esteemed of all facts are what we call “scientific facts.” And of what we call “values,” the least esteemed as knowledge are what we call “moral values.”  Indeed, many people go so far as to deny that there can be any such thing as a “moral fact;” claiming instead that all moral claims can only be an expression of a human culture’s or individual’s values, which in turn are little more than expressions of emotion or (weak) subjective opinion.

But should any such dichotomy between facts and values exist?  As I will argue below, while a distinction between facts and values can be useful, the widely-accepted modern dichotomy between facts and values is plainly false.  Rather, facts and values are interdependent; and it is a great source of confusion, especially moral confusion, to pretend that facts and values are two entirely different and unrelated categories of thought and perception.

Scientific Values

It may come as some surprise to many readers that the theory of knowledge supporting scientific claims of fact relies heavily on epistemic value judgments; therefore, as the American philosopher and mathematician Hilary Putnam has rightly claimed, facts and values are entangled.
Let me explain.  The vast majority of scientific claims, with the usual exception of boring, unaided observational data, are theory-laden.  For example, when we see the sun “rise” in the morning (an observation), whether we believe the sun is moving (possible fact) or we’re moving (possible fact) depends on our theory of planetary motion.  When there is an earthquake (an observation), whether we believe the quake was caused by a break in a fault line along a plate (possible fact) or caused by Zeus (possible fact) depends on our theory of what causes earthquakes.  Being theory-laden does not mean the claims of fact are unreliable or false, but it does mean they are entangled in values.

What does it mean for a scientific theory or claim of fact to be entangled in values?  The scientific values of parsimony, elegance, falsifiability, verifiability, logical consistency, mathematical consistency, observational consistency, explanatory power, and predictive power are all values of both scientific theories and claims of fact, none of which make the theories or claims true (especially by themselves), but taken together, significantly increase the probability of any given theory’s or claim’s truth. These values are the reasons, for example, why biologists choose evolution over “intelligent design” or young earth creationism to explain the existence of species and other biological phenomena.

Thus, science and scientific claims of fact are chock-full of values. This does not mean truth is subjective or relative in science, any more than entanglement with values means that truth is subjective or relative in morality. It means there are useful value criteria (values) for determining which theories, claims of fact, and interpretations of observations are more likely true.  And our certainty regarding scientific truth is heavily dependent on values.

Moral Values

Nihilists aside, people will readily admit that there are values in morality.  Moral values would include justice, fairness, empathy, integrity (consistency of attitudes, beliefs and behavior both between each other and over time), and flourishing of all sentient beings.  Like scientific values, accordance with moral values (especially by themselves) do not make a moral claim of fact true (e.g., a moral claim of fact such as “It is wrong to torture a child.”), but taken together, increase the probability of any given moral claim’s truth over a competing moral claim.

As is the case with science and scientific claims of fact, morality and moral claims of fact are chock-full of values. This does not mean truth is subjective or relative in morality, any more than entanglement with values means that truth is subjective or relative in science. It means there are useful value criteria (values) for determining which claims of moral fact are more likely true.  And, as our certainty regarding scientific truth is heavily dependent on values, so is our certainty regarding moral truth.

Conflating Human Psychology and Morality

Added to the confusion of the false dichotomy between facts and values is the conflation of human psychology and morality.  When we attempt to derive moral facts and values from human psychology, much as did David Hume and the British sentimentalists, we end up with personal or cultural moral infallibility and the countless contradictions that result from the wide variety of so-called “moral sentiment” among different cultures, people, and historical times.  “Moral sentiment” arises in the form of racism, sexism, and speciesism to result in genocide, slavery, and oppression in some cultures.  “Moral sentiment” is often nothing more than cultural prejudice combined with blind tradition.

What if we conflated human psychology with science in the same way?  We should then say that evolution and intelligent design, while contradictory, are equally valid ways of viewing the world from the perspective of those who hold the respective epistemic values supporting each theory.  We should maintain that we are infallible regarding scientific knowledge, and the resulting contradictions of scientific “fact” are acceptable.  In other words, if we accept cultural and individual prejudices in morality, then cultural and individual superstitions ought to be accepted in science.  After all, isn’t it merely a difference of values, moral or scientific?

Justification of Values

Why should we accept the scientific and moral values listed in the two respective sections above?  How do we know that those values themselves are not a matter of superstition or prejudice?  In both scientific and moral values, ultimately we can rely only on the values themselves (and reliance on our experience of the world is one of those values) to confirm the certainty of truth in each case – morality and science.

But isn’t relying on values to confirm the values a circular justification?  Yes, it is; but we have no choice in science or morality.  It is our intuition, rationality, and experience on which such values are based.  Since we cannot transcend our intuition, rationality, or experience to confirm our intuition, rationality, and experience, we ultimately end up with a Quinean web of entangled values and facts, not a “foundation” on which we build values and facts.  Our core scientific and moral values can be thought of as the strongest and most indispensable part of the web, since they provide most of the support for factual beliefs in the web.  If we are to avoid internal contradiction, we must consider the implications of any adjustments to the web.  As such, adjustments to core values will be the least likely kind of adjustments we should be comfortable making.

Moral Values Applied to Veganism

Accordance with the moral values of justice, fairness, empathy, integrity, and flourishing of all sentient beings is the reason abolitionist vegans reject animal exploitation.  In addition to vegan food being delicious, there are no known nutrients in animal products that are not available from non-animal sources (including vitamin B12).  There are viable and more effective alternatives to almost all (if not all) animal testing.  It follows that at least 99.99% of animal exploitation is both unnecessary and harmful toward the innocent.  Exploiting other animals flagrantly violates core moral values.  From a moral standpoint, exploiting other animals is the scientific equivalent of preferring the theory that has been falsified, posits excessive explanation, and fails to explain or predict anything, while rejecting the theory that satisfies scientific values.  Attempting to justify the exploitation of other animals is morally absurd.

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Speciesism and Veganism: Transcending Politics and Religion

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

This article was originally published November 10, 2011 on Care2.
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Although this may come as a surprise to some, there are ethical vegans across the political spectrum and in every major religion. Veganism transcends politics and religion because it is based on the simple matter of rejecting a particular form of prejudice: speciesism.

Speciesism, racism, sexism, and other prejudices rely on a morally irrelevant criterion (in this case, species) as the basis on which to deny the interests of an individual belonging to a different ‘group’, even if those interests are more significant than one’s own. As such, speciesism is simply a different form of the same underlying wrong at the foundation of all prejudices. It really doesn’t matter which morally irrelevant criteria we base our prejudice on – sex, race, skin color, age, sexual orientation, species – it is ethically wrong to use such arbitrary criteria to deny the rights of others.

Despite the cultural evolution that has brought humanity a long way from the ‘kill or be killed’ mentality of prehistoric times, the world today remains profoundly speciesist. The extreme prejudice of our cultural speciesism reaches far beyond disregarding an individual’s right to avoid persecution. It extends as far as absolute indifference to the right to be free from unjust imprisonment, mental and emotional torment, extreme physical violence in the form of mutilations and the infliction of injury and death. Owned as chattel property, with no laws to protect their most fundamental rights, those who are not human are condemned to a life with no protection against the brutal and unremitting oppression from those who control their world: Us.

Animal exploitation is perfectly legal and socially acceptable everywhere in the world, despite the emergence of satisfactory alternatives to virtually all uses (not to mention those yet to be developed, once our society rejects our current speciesist practices). Although there is a growing movement drawing attention to the many brutal rights violations routinely carried out against nonhumans being used for human gain, we continue to confine, injure and kill animals of all kinds, maintaining unnecessary, antiquated exploitative practices for food production, research, fashion, and even entertainment.

The ubiquitous nature of this extreme cultural prejudice explains why speciesism (and the proper moral response to it: veganism) is unrelated to political leaning. Although social justice movements generally arise from the left, there are some political conservatives who are principled vegans, while some on the political left, sadly, continue to scoff at issues of animal rights. In fact, it is remarkable that the vast majority of those on the political left choose to remain uninformed and to deliberately ignore these glaring justice issues, including their own participation in practices that would be rightly abhorred by anyone in touch with their conscience.

As it is with politics, so it is with religion. Christians were strongly divided over human chattel slavery in antebellum America, with slavery proponents using Bible quotes to defend their “God given” right to own slaves. Opponents of slavery used different Bible quotes to point out that slavery was condemned by God. And so it is with regard to animal rights today. Those on both sides of the issue use quotes from religious texts either to justify unnecessary killing, or to validate the vegan ethic of nonviolence.

Eastern religions are no exception. Many of today’s Buddhists attempt to justify animal use, unnecessary killing, and speciesism by pointing to loopholes in the various contradictory writings about the Buddha’s teaching of universal compassion for all sentient beings. Other Buddhists choose instead to practice and promote veganism as the rational response to the essential Buddhist teaching of nonviolence. Presumably, having been liberated from their own speciesism, vegan Buddhists are able to see through such prejudiced rationalizations, and recognize the higher authority in the truth the Buddha was apparently trying to impart to his students.

(In other words, if the Buddha wasn’t a vegan, as some people claim, then he wasn’t living up to his own teachings, which state very clearly that reverence for sentient life is a fundamental principle of a spiritual existence.)

In any case, it is clear that politics and religion are irrelevant to rejecting our common prejudice against fellow sentient beings. Regardless of whether we are conservative, liberal, leftist, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, or fall under any other category, we have the choice to acknowledge and reject the underlying cultural speciesism that we have all been conditioned to accept.

In fact, one might say that a deep-seated awareness of the essential rights and needs held by all sentient beings is the common ground that we every one of us shares.

Despite our many differences and divergences, underneath religion, politics, worldviews, interests, personalities, shape, size, sex, color, and even species, underneath it all, every single one of us is made from flesh and blood. Or, as the Buddha himself is said to have taught:

“All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?”

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