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.
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.