BANNED from The Atlantic Monthly

I posted the following comment (in italics below) on this linked article. The Atlantic Monthly deleted it and blocked me from posting on the site. Just more evidence that speciesist prejudice is just as strong today (at least at The Atlantic) as racial prejudice was in the 1700s and 1800s in the US.

A reasonable acid test as to whether you, regardless of your race, would have freed your slaves in the antebellum South is to ask whether you’re vegan for moral reasons now, or, if you’re not vegan, whether you would consider going vegan for life.

If you’re not an ethical vegan and wouldn’t even consider it, you almost certainly would not have freed your slaves in the antebellum South. It is very easy for most people to go vegan today. It was significantly more difficult (much more of a sacrifice, anyway) for most slave owners to free their slaves prior to 1865.

If you are an ethical vegan or would seriously consider it today (especially after learning why and how!), then you *might* have freed your slaves prior to 1865.

I look forward to the day when we’re as disgusted by speciesism as any other prejudice.

Edit to add: Someone asked if this comment was the only reason I was banned, or were there contributing factors.  The answer is yes, it had to be the only reason; and no, there were no other possible contributing factors.  It was the first and only comment I made in at least a few weeks (if not several weeks) on The Atlantic.  When I have commented on Atlantic articles in the past, the comments have certainly been no “worse” than this one, and I’ve never had a comment deleted by The Atlantic in the past.

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Filed under racism, speciesism

Taxpayers Fund Animal Cruelty and Environmental Devastation

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 October 10, 2011 on Care2.
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“A new report finds that $62 of every $100 that U.S. farmers earn comes from one level of government or another.  In 2009, that added up to a staggering $180.8-billion (U.S.).”

As explained in Animal Cruelty: Who is to Blame?, the atrocities of animal slavery are essentially consumer-generated. What this means is that not only are consumers responsible for the brutality that is inflicted on our behalf, we also have the power to actually put an end to widespread animal cruelty by refusing to purchase products and services that involve exploitation in any form.

But many people may not be aware of how much taxpayers are indirectly, but overwhelmingly, helping to fund this excessive and corrupt business in another way: government assistance. When you begin to investigate the huge excesses and waste associated with large-scale animal farming, it becomes clear that assistance from the government is an essential factor in helping this industry to stay afloat.
Because industry and investors are primarily business people, who are focused on making money by fulfilling demand for specific products, they would ordinarily be indifferent to whether they are selling apples or animal products. There are, however, two strong economic factors which cause industry to nurture the demand for animal products, and, on the flip side, resist efforts to promote vegan living.

The first economic factor is the highly profitable excesses of animal agriculture. Animals consume (in plant foods) multiple times the protein that they provide. Depending on confinement and feed factors, cows require 9 to 13 times as much protein as they provide; pigs 5 or 6 times; and chickens twice as much. This means that most of the crops grown in huge monocultures, such as soy and corn, are sold to animal agriculture.

When you add the extra transportation, harvesters, and fuel to the high demand for crops fed to animals, along with the other resources required to raise, transport, and slaughter animals (and refrigerate them afterward), it’s easy to see why multiple large industries have a strong interest in the continued existence and growth of animal agriculture (and why socially responsible consumers should reject it outright, even without taking into account the deplorable rights violations to the individuals in question).  With its extreme waste and inefficiency, animal agriculture makes all agriculture many times larger than it would otherwise need to be to feed its human consumers.

But how is it possible that such waste and excess should actually pay-off financially? The answer is that the animal industry (including the huge monoculture crops that feed it), is supported by tens of billions of dollars in annual farm subsidies and other government handouts that make it highly profitable to produce animal-based foods over plant-based foods. A recent article from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine explains the extreme inconsistency between government nutrition guidelines and the subsidies they provide to suppliers.

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.

This is tremendously important because, according to the economic principle of “demand elasticity”*, the demand for animal products would likely decline to nearly half of its current level if the government simply stopped providing subsidies, since this would cause prices to rise closer to their natural level of 2.6 times current (subsidized) prices. If animal products were taxed to compensate for their disastrous effects on the environment and human health, prices would rise to multiple times current rates, dropping the quantity demanded to a small fraction of its current level – a boon for the environment, human health, and most important, the individual animals whose lives are discarded like one more waste product of this obscene business.

* In economic terms, “demand elasticity” indicates the percentage change in quantity demanded in response to a one percent change in price. (Animal products likely have an average demand elasticity of -0.7, ranging from -0.01 to -1.7).

In addition to subsidies, the animal industry receives various other government handouts which contribute to the deceptively low prices of animal products. These extra “sweeteners” are in the form of extremely low costs for grazing animals on public land, and the purchase of surplus animal products for government activities such as the National School Lunch Program.

Given these huge economic gravy trains enticing Big Food to push animal products as relentlessly as Big Tobacco used to push cigarettes, it is no wonder they do so with such zeal. These powerful special interests are unlikely to be attracted to the strong market potential for environmentally-sustainable, healthy, and ethical vegan food. Indeed, we can expect them to use every trick in the book to thwart efforts to move consumers in such a direction.

A large proportion of animal advocacy hours are currently dedicated to targeting the animal industry and the government with demands for greater social responsibility and tougher legislation. However, not only is it obvious that this approach is heavily flawed when examined according to the principles of demand and supply, but when you remember that Big Food – along with Big Oil and other huge corporate interests – control the government itself (including tax and subsidy policy makers), it becomes clear that we cannot influence such a powerful and heavily entrenched industry on any large scale – either directly or through government policy.

But again, there is one way in which we do have power over them. If we target our advocacy toward the consumers of animal products, by helping people to understand how and why to become vegan, we can actually help to shift demand toward vegan products and away from animal products and the extreme misery that they cause.

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Filed under care2, subsidies

Animal Cruelty: Who is to Blame?

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.
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For many of us who are aware of the multitude of ways that animals suffer at the hands of humans around the world, this ubiquitous cruelty is the most pressing social justice issue of them all. From declawing to debeaking, ear clipping to tail docking, the suffering that human beings inflict on animals being used for food, clothing, research, ‘pets’ and entertainment appears to know no bounds, and the many brutal ways in which we force animals to succumb to our desires appear to be limited only by the scope of our imaginations.

But why does all this cruelty take place? And what can we do about this horrifying brutality as individuals? It’s easy to point the finger at the direct perpetrators of animal cruelty as being villains who need to be brought to justice. It’s much harder – and yet much more significant – to turn that critical eye inward and ask oneself, ‘What am I doing to contribute to this?’ But it is only by asking that question that the path toward emancipation from barbaric injustice becomes clear.

The vast majority of the time, money and effort of animal welfare organizations goes toward trying to develop new laws and regulations to address the many separate issues relating to animal cruelty, while at the same time trying to force the industry to adhere to those currently in place.  As explained in Are Anti-Cruelty Campaigns Really Effective?, these efforts consistently fail to create any significant improvement for animals.

Behind these campaigns lies a hidden assumption that the animal industry is responsible for animal cruelty. But is this assumption warranted? Isn’t industry simply a middle agent put in place to do the dirty deeds requested by consumers of animal products? Although it’s true that the animal industry is an eager and aggressive middle agent, its role is only that of middle agent. As such, while institutionalized exploiters certainly have a lot to answer for, it is consumers who are primarily responsible for animal cruelty through their purchases of animal products.

Many people will likely respond that their concern is not with the rights of animals not to be enslaved and killed, but with the excessive brutality in the animal industry; gratuitous violence for instance, and the cruelty that is inflicted on animals along the way to being slaughtered and butchered – debeaking,  dehorning, detoeing, mulesing, castration, tail docking, etc. But as long as our society continues to treat animals as property and economic commodities, our legal system will continue to accept such mutilations as a necessary evil on the way to providing goods and services to a human population largely indifferent to what is hidden behind remote sheds and slaughterhouses.

In any case, even if we did find some way to eliminate every single practice involving physical mutilation, it’s impossible to make slavery and murder anything other than slavery and murder. We can slap fancy labels on the products of animal misery and market them as ‘humanely-raised’, ‘animal compassionate’, ‘ethically-produced’ or ‘guilt-free’, but needless killing is needless killing, and no amount of regulation can change that.

It is understandable that individual stories of horrific suffering make people want to seek out the perpetrators, bring them to justice, and protect potential victims from experiencing the same treatment. But pointing the finger at institutional exploiters ignores the most significant issue – that no matter what the suppliers do along the way, consumption of animal products ultimately requires taking animals’ lives.

How can we expect morally decent behavior from the people we ask to carry out the task of breeding, confining and ultimately killing and butchering the animals we choose to enslave and eat? These are innocent beings who most people would rather caress and embrace than hurt and kill.

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.

But our distaste toward being involved in such violent acts isn’t something that should be squelched and suppressed, as Michael Pollan or Julie Powell would have us believe. No – we should be grateful for the revulsion we feel when we imagine what happens to animals in between being born and being on our plates. Our horror is a sane reaction to practices that are nothing short of horrifying.

We cannot separate ourselves from depravity simply because we have found a way to tuck the dirty deeds out of sight – behind the walls of slaughterhouses and other obscure buildings. And all the disconnection and indifference in the world cannot change the fact that it is impossible to distinguish the immorality of a Pollan-style DIY approach from the immorality of any other act of unnecessary violence.

In any court of law, those who are complicit in a crime are considered to be responsible along with those who carry it out.

As expressed so eloquently by Ralph Waldo Emerson,
“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”

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Filed under animal rights, animal welfare, care2

Are Anti-Cruelty Campaigns Really Effective?

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 August 24, 2011 on Care2.
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“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Economy (Chapter 1-E)

For many activists confronting widespread animal exploitation and related cruelty – from food, to clothing, to experimentation and entertainment – it can sometimes appear as though there are so many issues to focus attention on that the situation becomes overwhelming.

When advocates are unclear about the best way to address these countless concerns, many choose to focus on one issue, such as eliminating battery cages or gestation crates. Others try to spend their advocacy hours doing “a bit of everything”.

As explained in Making a Killing with Animal Welfare Reform, campaigns against specific practices of animal exploitation are lucrative for animal welfare groups, bringing in tens of millions of dollars into their coffers annually for acting as the large, non-profit “regulators” of industry.  Such campaigns are known among animal advocates as single issue campaigns, or “SICs.”

When you combine the financial motivation of large animal welfare groups and the besieged feeling animal advocates often experience from trying to tackle so many different issues, the result is the current dominant culture of the animal advocacy movement, where the efforts of countless individuals are scattered across countless different single-issue campaigns.

It certainly seems that such division amongst animal advocates must work strongly in the favor of the animal industry and the current cultural paradigm of speciesism.  By contrast, a united front of widespread public education focused on why and how to become vegan would address the root of the exploitation problem by challenging not only all of our uses of animals, but our society’s decidedly speciesist attitude in and of itself.

To illustrate the point, it’s helpful to consider the analogy of a tree. The animal exploitation tree can be divided into several sections, including the roots, trunk, and branches.

          The roots of the tree – mostly hidden underground – represent our society’s underlying speciesism; the cultural prejudice against all animals (other than humans) that makes it possible for us to ignore the basic needs of others in favor of our own trivial desires. Speciesism, like racism, sexism, and other oppressive cultural prejudices, ignores morally relevant characteristics (such as the fundamental interests of the oppressed or exploited), in favor of morally irrelevant characteristics (such as membership of a species, race, sex, and so on).  When we eliminate speciesism (individually or as a group), we respect the interests of individual members of other species sufficiently to take those interests into account with our own, and everyone else’s interests. The behavioral result of such respect is veganism – avoiding animal products and uses in our lives as much as is reasonably possible.

       The base of the tree trunk – located just above the surface of the soil, and the foundation for the rest of the tree’s growth – represents the property status of animals; the legal structure which makes it socially legitimate for us to treat other sentient beings as economic commodities. (As explained in Legal Slavery in the 21st Century, this legal status effectively keeps welfare reforms limited to those that optimize the economic efficiency of a socially accepted use, regardless of how cruel certain practices are.)


       The lower trunk of the tree, where the largest branches begin, can be understood to represent our uses of animals for food, as the food industry accounts for the vast majority of all animal exploitation. Growing out of this section of the trunk are the tree’s most substantial limbs – those that represent the production of dairy, eggs, and meat (including fish) – each of which leads to many smaller branches representing the specific rights violations associated with these industries, such as intensive confinement and the horrific physical mutilations that occur in all three. Other smaller branches that originate in the ‘food’ section of the tree could be seen to represent less common practices such as the force-feeding of geese to produce foie-gras.

         As we travel further up the tree, past the most sizeable branches of the food industry, the medium-sized branches represent the other major industries of animal use – experimentation, clothing, and entertainment. Growing out of these major branches are many smaller ones. For instance, the limb that represents animal-based clothing branches off into fur production (which branches off again into issues such as seal clubbing, fur farming, wild trapping, etc.) The entertainment industry branches off into (amongst many other issues) sport hunting, which branches off again into canned hunting and hunting of endangered animals. Another off-shoot from the parent limb of entertainment is the use of animals in circuses, which then branches off into the issue of using bullhooks on elephants.

        At the very edges of the animal exploitation tree, there exists a layer of ‘dead’ or ‘dying’ branches, which represent specific practices that are not economically optimal for industry to continue. These practices include keeping sows in gestation crates, and killing chickens by electrocution (as opposed to Controlled Atmosphere Killing, which is celebrated by industry and advocates alike as being much more economically-efficient).

         Since the practices associated with animal exploitation exist solely to fulfill demand, consumers and users are the lifeblood of every aspect of the tree. Creating demand for these products and services can be compared to giving the tree water and fertilizer. Reducing demand with an increasing vegan population denies the tree of exploitation its essential nutrients, without which it will surely wither and eventually die.

When we view the paradigm of animal exploitation in this manner, it becomes clear that the fatal problem with SICs is that they focus on the outer periphery, while ignoring not only the trunk and main branches, but the roots themselves, which are continually working to deliver vital nutrients to every part of the tree.

Pruning Makes a Tree Grow Stronger

As a practical matter, SICs are focused primarily on clipping either small or ‘dead’ branches off the tree, obviously making the tree healthier. Even when animal welfare groups attempt to cut off a medium-sized branch, such as seal clubbing or fur production, they find that the tree is easily healthy enough to continue thriving despite the loss of a live (i.e. profitable) branch. If a part of the branch is cut or prevented from growing (as was the case with fur production in the 1990s) the tree is still big and strong enough that – down the line – such branches can actually come back with renewed strength (as the case has been with fur production since the early 2000s). Attempting to prune the tree not only fails to harm the tree in the long run, but actually helps it to thrive.

Branches Grow Back

In our global economy, another fatal problem with SICs is that, even if they were to succeed in cutting off small or middle-sized branches, new branches can grow in other areas to replace the branches that were cut. For example, if we eliminate horse slaughter in the United States (cutting a middle-sized branch); industry will simply ship horses to Mexico and slaughter them there (new replacement branch).  As long as demand exists, supply and any profitable practices based on demand will shift to other jurisdictions as required.

Trimming Branches Helps the Roots to Thrive

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.

SICs 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 of the tree, 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. The tremendously popular “Say No to Fur” campaign is a classic example. This particular campaign sends the confusing and false message that fur is somehow worse than other animal-based fabric such as leather, which is just as brutal in its production, yet much more widely used.

SICs could avoid this problem by calling for veganism and an end to all animal use, but we almost never see a strong vegan message attached to SICs.

The Vegan Solution: Uprooting and Eliminating the Tree
The animal exploitation tree exists solely because of consumers of animal products.  Consumers and users are the lifeblood of every aspect of the tree. When we go vegan, we remove our contribution to the tree’s health. When we inform others about why and how to become vegan, we help others eliminate their contribution to the tree’s health. When we call attention to our society’s speciesism, we dig up parts of the tree’s root system and expose them to the light of day – eliminating one more source of nutrition for the branches.

As more and more of us join in being vegan and encouraging and helping others to be vegan, the tree’s health will steadily diminish, causing the outer branches to naturally die off, until eventually the entire tree – and with it, the extreme cruelty it necessarily inflicts on the innocent – will no longer be able to survive.

Rather than contributing to the efforts of thousands in “hacking at the branches” of the tree (while at the same time nourishing it by consuming and using animal products and services), we ought to “strike at the root” by embracing veganism and encouraging others to do the same.

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Filed under care2, Single-issue campaigns

Making a Killing with Animal Welfare Reform

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 August 8, 2011 on Care2.
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“When it comes to animal care policies and processes, count on us to lead the way. In fact, we’re recognized by the world’s foremost experts in animal well-being as setting the standard for America’s pork industry – and we’re applying those same best practices to our global operations.”

~ Smithfield Foods: “Raising the Bar in Animal Care” (Smithfield Foods is the world’s largest pork producer and processor, and kills almost 30 million pigs every year)

During the past 200 years, animal exploitation – from backyard breeders to “factory farms” to circuses – has been steeped in the animal welfare paradigm. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to find any large corporation using animals or selling animal products that does not boast of either their own high standards of animal welfare, or the high expectations they have of their suppliers. In short, the animal industry actually promotes animal welfare, and that is largely because the animal welfare model overwhelmingly benefits industry – not only by providing guidelines which help producers to adopt a more effective business model, but also by assuring consumers that it is possible to breed, raise, exploit, and slaughter animals in an ethical way.

But what are considered “high standards” in animal welfare? High standards generally allow for any well-established industry practice that helps producers to exploit animals in an economically optimal manner, no matter how cruel, harmful, or painful. That is, any cruelty that promotes economically efficient use is acceptable (such as branding, castration, forced insemination, dehorning, detoeing, debeaking, mulesing, tail docking, teeth clipping, forced molting, and more); but cruelty above and beyond that which promotes economically efficient exploitation is considered to be a violation of industry’s “high” welfare standards. In other words, kicking and beating your animals because you enjoy doing so is not okay. Dehorning and castrating your animals without anesthetic because it makes them easier to manage is okay. This definition of “high standards” in animal welfare explains why industry can legitimately make such ludicrous claims in the face of cruelty so severe that most of us refuse to even look at it.

When prominent animal welfare organizations like PETA and HSUS propose animal welfare reforms, such as a move toward “controlled atmosphere killing” or the elimination of cages and gestation crates, their campaigns involve appealing to industry to recognize the long-term economic benefits of investing the capital necessary to make such changes. Such economic benefits include healthier animals who are less stressed, fewer worker injuries, less carcass damage, and greater consumer confidence that animals are treated “humanely.” And sure enough, such economic benefits obviously carry weight, as we can see by the fact that large factory farms like those owned by Smithfield Foods are “leading the way” in phasing out gestation crates over several years in all sow “farms” owned by the company. Think they’re doing this out of concern for the pigs? Think again.

From msnbc.com:

“Smithfield is making the change because customers ‘have told us they feel group housing is a more animal-friendly form of sow housing,’ … Smithfield is still determining the cost of the changeover but does not expect it to dramatically affect prices for its pork products because the expense will be spread out over 10 years and will be offset by production efficiencies,’ Dennis Treacy – vice president for environmental and corporate affairs said… He stressed that the decision to change was based on what makes sense for the business.”

This statement confirms that phasing out crates will make it easier for Smithfield Foods to conduct and grow their operations. And what are their operations? Confining and slaughtering animals – by the millions. Not an activity in which you would expect animal activists to be collaborating, right? And yet, rather than using the same time and resources to promote vegan living, animal advocacy organizations spent over $1.6 million and countless volunteer hours on the campaign to convince Smithfield foods to adopt this more economically-efficient business model.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, animal advocacy organizations also 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.

The partnership between animal welfare groups and industry to promote economically efficient animal exploitation is considered a “win-win-win” not only for both sides of the partnership, but for consumers as well. Consumers are assured that they can be excused for their indulgences in the products of animal misery, due to these so-called “higher standards” of welfare, and welfare groups win by receiving tens of millions of donation dollars annually for acting as the industry “regulators” and the developers of these ridiculous labels.

But the biggest winners, by far, are the animal exploiters themselves, who not only receive consulting advice by “welfare experts” and prominent animal activists, but are also given awards and special endorsement from advocacy groups. The payoff they receive in increased consumer confidence must have them laughing all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, the most basic rights of an increasing number of animals are still being sold out to fulfill the trivial desires of those who insist on consuming and using the products that come from their bodies.

Almost everyone agrees that animals ought not to suffer any more pain or harm than is “necessary”, and that no one should inflict unnecessary pain or suffering on another. But what is considered “necessary” has historically and legally meant whatever is necessary to optimize the economic efficiency of any socially-accepted use of animals. It is still the case – as it always will be as long as animals are property and economic commodities – that animal welfare standards permit any cruelty, no matter how severe, as long as it results in optimizing economic efficiency.

But times and circumstances are changing, and so are attitudes toward the meaning of the word “necessary”. Today, an increasing number of people are becoming aware that almost all of our uses of animals are for nothing more than our pleasure, amusement, or convenience – the habitual consumption of animal-based foods; the custom of wearing animal-based fabrics; the tradition of watching animals participate in trivial (and very harmful) activities such as racing or performing. None of these uses can be considered necessary according to any coherent definition of the word necessary.

As more people become aware of how beneficial the dietary aspects of veganism are for our health and the environment, and recognize that being vegan is simply a matter of basic justice, veganism will be recognized more and more widely as nothing less than an ethical imperative and a moral baseline. Certainly, there will always be those who refuse to acknowledge the fact that our uses of animals require the violation of the most basic of rights, regardless of the scale on which these practices are carried out. But the abolition of animal slavery is nothing less than the most important social justice issue of our time. When this fact becomes widely recognized… whose side will you be on?

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Filed under animal welfare, care2

Present Realities and the Moral Status of Animals

Blind Tradition: The Historical Moral Status of So-Called “Brutes”

From pre-history until the 20th century, it was believed by almost everyone that humans needed to use and eat animals to thrive and even to survive. This was especially true prior to the 19th century; and philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant had grossly distorted visions of the nature of nonhuman animals which fit well with the idea that God “put” animals in our world for our use, and that we had no moral obligations to animals whatsoever. Descartes viewed animals as insentient automata or “God’s machines”. For Descartes, one of the founders of modern vivisection, the intense squeals of dogs being beaten or tortured were merely the sounds of a broken machine, not cries of extreme pain. John Locke viewed animals as natural resources, like land and trees, which we may acquire as property and have “natural rights” to that property. For Immanuel Kant, animals were literally “things”: “…Beings whose existence depends…on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things.” (Kant, 1785) The old, traditional distorted view of animals is still in our language today as most of us refer to an animal as “it” even when we know the sex of an individual animal and therefore his or her proper gender.

Given the prevailing view and circumstances of the 17th and 18th centuries that animals needed to be raised, used, and killed for basic human needs, is not surprising that thoughtful philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Kant sought to avoid thinking and writing seriously about the similarities between humans and nonhumans and how those similarities might have serious moral implications. Instead, to protect the perceived need of animal use, they emphasized a morally irrelevant difference between nonhumans and most, but certainly not all humans: rationality. Another, more intellectually honest approach would have been for these thinkers to admit that there were morally relevant similarities, and that these imposed a direct duty to animals to reduce suffering as much as possible, but that ultimately, moral consideration would have to yield to the perceived survival needs of humans. But we have to remember that these were times when women did not count as full persons, and humans owned other humans as chattel property and were often as cruel to human slaves as to nonhuman slaves. We can see how even careful thinkers as Locke and Kant may have been lost in the fog of their culture’s deeply-held prejudices.

“Food” Animals and Human Brutes

The torture endured by farmed animals from birth to slaughter in our industrialized and mechanized processing systems is unimaginably horrible, and there is no significant difference between free-range, cage-free, and “certified humane” versus the traditional industrial methods, despite the misleading claims of large welfare organizations (incorrectly referred to by the media and themselves as “animal rights” organizations). If you are born a chicken in the most “humane” environment, the best thing that might happen to you is that you are gassed or tossed alive into a wood-chipper as a baby chick, so you don’t have to experience a life of hell as a cage-free or “certified humane” egg chicken (a “layer”) or flesh chicken (a “broiler”). Make no mistake; both the old methods and the new, so-called “humane” methods rely on intensive confinement with filthy conditions, diseases, no individual attention, and no veterinary care to speak of. One thing is obvious: It is literally impossible to raise and slaughter hundreds of thousands, millions, or billions of nonhumans without industrial methods. What is less obvious, but nevertheless true, is that “humane” labels are little more than a marketing ploy to ease the growing public sensitivity to the (unavoidable) reality of animal agriculture’s cruelty. Further, transportation and slaughter itself is extremely cruel, with slaughterhouse workers intentionally torturing animals, especially chickens, and animals often inadvertently being boiled or ripped apart alive (such cruelty is common knowledge among welfare advocates and has been documented in the Washington Post [‘They die piece by piece’] and in various films and documentaries of slaughterhouse conditions). When we do these things to a dog or cat, we are charged with a felony; when we do these while marketing unnecessary food preferences, we get paid a wage for it. Even if it were possible (and it’s not possible) to heavily police transportation and slaughter so that the cruelty was significantly reduced, it is still wrong to treat sentient beings with a crucial interest in their life and its quality as a means to an end. We need not wonder who the brutes are; a mirror will tell us.

Animal agriculture, on its modern scale of production, is an environmental disaster, with “cattle” and hog waste polluting groundwater, rivers, and streams and killing millions of fish throughout the country; and flatulence contributing significant quantities of carbon and other pollutants into the air. “Food” animals, particularly “cattle” and pigs, are reverse protein factories, consuming up to 10 times more protein in their short lives than they provide after they are slaughtered for food. A vast majority of the land used for growing plant food is to feed animals who will use up to 90% of that protein in their daily living, returning relatively very little after slaughter. The only way to achieve more pollution and greater inefficiency in food production is to breed and raise more nonhumans for food.

The Solution to Animal Agriculture

Now, early in the 21st century, more and more mainstream dieticians and health professionals are telling us that balanced vegan diets are optimal for our health. (For information about vegan nutrition, see the link on this blog.) There are now vegan alternatives to most animal-based ingredients and expanded vegan options, making gourmet vegan entrees and desserts as delightful to the palate as non-vegan versions ever were, and much healthier too (see the vegan menus links in this blog). Dieticians are also telling us that traditional animal-based diets, especially in the quantities we consume them, are literally killing us with heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, strokes, and cancer. For clothing, there are now synthetic materials, such as nylon, synthetic fleece, faux “leather”, faux “suede”, and faux “fur”, which easily replace, and are better than, the animal alternatives. The solution is to go vegan.

Animal Experimentation: Archaic, Brutal, and Dangerous

The things we do to sentient nonhumans in labs, 90% of the time for trivial reasons and never for crucial reasons, are beyond savage. Again, if we are unspeakably cruel to a dog or cat in the street, we get hit with felony cruelty charges (as we should); if we do the same thing in a lab under a thin veneer of respectability backed up by the law (laws heavily influenced politically by the vivisection industry), however, we get paid a wage.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of well-researched literature showing that modern alternatives to animal testing and training on animals, such as computer modeling and simulation, human tissue research, clinical observation and research, epidemiology, pathology, genetics, prevention, autopsies, and post-marketing drug surveillance are making animal testing archaic, obsolete, and even dangerous to humans. Indeed, it is blind tradition, powerful business interests, and wealthy lobbying which supports a vast majority of current animal research. Jean Swingle Greek, DMV, and C.Ray Greek, MD, have contributed volumes of valuable research, ranging from non-technical research appealing to the lay reader to highly technical research appealing to scientists and health professionals on the lack of need for animal use in modern medicine. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine is also playing a valuable role in educating scientists and health professionals about responsible alternatives to animal testing.

Moral Reflection and Conclusions: The Personhood of Animals

We are clearly no longer in need of any animal use which would preserve the meaning of the word “need”, and in fact, if there is a need, it is a need to avoid animal use for our health and environmental sustainability. This has profound implications for our behavior toward nonhumans. Nonhumans have always had morally crucial and important interests in not being intentionally harmed or killed. The psychological and emotional interests of sentient nonhumans are too similar to and overlapping with our own to continue to ignore those interests, especially at a time when ignoring those interests is so unnecessary and destructive in so many ways. Rationality is a nice tool to use for good or evil, but it has no moral relevance when it comes to crucial basic interests such as the avoidance of serious physical or psychological harm or death. It is arbitrary to look to rationality as defining moral or legal personhood. Also, to do so is to necessarily exclude many humans from personhood, such as infants, the senile, and the mentally disabled or mentally ill. Sentience, the ability to have experiences (including pleasure and pain), is certainly sufficient for moral and legal personhood, and any being who has sentience to the high degree that cows, pigs, chickens, geese, deer, goats, sheep, elk, marine mammals, and many fish do, clearly has crucial interests and profound corresponding moral claims on our behavior. There may well be other criteria which would also suffice for personhood, such as the likely future acquisition of sentience. Such a criterion as a high probability for future sentience would be appropriate for considering the moral and legal personhood of comatose normal human adults and fetuses. Criteria other than sentience for moral and legal personhood, however, are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that sentience itself is sufficient.

It has been clear empirically, even from the 18th century, that there is no non-arbitrary way to distinguish morally relevant characteristics of humans from nonhumans. In other words, there is no morally relevant characteristic which all humans and only humans have which would give humans special moral consideration. As such, attempts to distinguish between humans and nonhumans on species membership alone, without some morally relevant characteristic that all and only humans have, is plainly arbitrary, and therefore, is plainly speciesist. Such speciesism is every bit as morally unacceptable as racism and sexism. There may have been a weak excuse for such speciesism back in Locke and Kant’s day, considering the perceived need to use animals and the cultural racism and sexism of the time (all of which itself was wrong, even then), but with the knowledge and alternatives available today, there are no more excuses, not even half-baked excuses. A speciesist is a racist is a sexist: it is all the same moral wrong. If we do not consider ourselves racist or sexist, and if we are to avoid hypocrisy and maintain consistency, we must eliminate our speciesism by going vegan.

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Legal Slavery in the 21st Century

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World– a non-profit educational 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 the transition.This article was originally published July 24, 2011 on Care2.
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While animal welfare has been a concern of many civilizations throughout world history, its beginnings in modern Western civilization can be traced back to early 19th century Britain with the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and the establishment of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. Since then, there have been thousands of animal welfare organizations created, countless attempts and billions of dollars spent to pass laws and regulations to protect nonhuman animals from “unnecessary cruelty.” In 1975, act-utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer rejuvenated the 150 year-old animal welfare movement with his book Animal Liberation, which contrasts the stark, and often extreme differences between animal welfare prohibitions against “unnecessary” or “gratuitous” cruelty and the harsh realities of routine, systematic, needless cruelty inflicted on tens of billions of animals annually in agriculture, and millions of animals in experimentation, entertainment, and fashion. Animal Liberation was a call to take animal welfare– the regulation of industrialized animal exploitation — seriously.In the 35 years that have passed since Animal Liberation was published, organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have sought to diminish this huge gap between animal welfare goals and the reality of “unnecessary and gratuitous” cruelty so ubiquitous in our use of nonhuman animals. Their approach combines campaigns for various welfare measures with attempts to encourage the reduction of animal product consumption. Thus far, the results of these efforts have been devastating. From 1975 to 2007, the consumption of meat in the United States has increased from 178 to 222 pounds per person; an increase of 25%. During these years, no significant new welfare laws have been implemented, much less enforced, and there are countless videos and eyewitness accounts of routine violations of existing laws. We torture and kill more animals in more horrific ways than ever in human history.

The Problem: Animals as Property and Commodities

Nonhuman animals are legal property and economic commodities. As a matter of both legal theory and practice, owners of property are protected by property rights, which are among the strongest of rights in Anglo-American law; while the nonhuman animals owned as economic commodities are ostensibly protected by welfare laws, which are routinely violated and rarely enforced.In his 1995 book Animals, Property, and the Law, legal scholar and philosopher Gary Francione calls this approach to animal protection legal welfarism, of which Francione identifies four “basic and interrelated components.” (APL, p.26)• Legal welfarism maintains that animals are property.• Such property status justifies the treatment of animals exclusively as means to human ends.• Animal use is deemed “necessary” whenever that use is part of a generally accepted social institution.• “Cruelty” is defined exclusively as use that either frustrates, or fails to facilitate, animal exploitation.Because nonhuman animals are not only human property, but also economic commodities, cost-efficiency in raising and slaughtering them (by the billions) is considered one of the most important factors when determining which practices facilitate exploitation. That is to say, if an industry practice, no matter how cruel, reduces the costs of production, such a practice is fully allowed and protected by the legal property rights of owners.The upshot of legal welfarism is that we weigh even the slightest economic interests of owners, which we protect with powerful rights, against the crucial interests of nonhuman animals, which are protected with no rights. Considering the enormously competitive economic pressure to deliver the least expensive animal products to an ever-increasing public demand, it is no wonder that our society’s legal welfarism approach to animal protection has failed miserably to protect nonhuman animals from extreme cruelty. And it’s no wonder that the animal welfare movement has been unable to create any meaningful change.

The Solution: Being Honest about the Meaning of “Necessary”

There is only one way to reduce the vast quantity and severity of the cruelty inflicted on animals by human hand, and that is to change our concept of the word “necessary.” In direct opposition to the definition outlined by legal welfarism, this far more honest definition rejects the idea that we need to exploit animals at all, given the alternatives to animal use in all areas, not to mention the benefits of the dietary aspects of veganism for our health and the environment. This crucial foundation – the willingness to accept the fact that we have no need to use animals at all – facilitates a whole new understanding, causing us to:

• reject the property status of animals and therefore reject the traditional moral status of animals as “things” or economic commodities,

• see animals as persons within the moral community,

• demand personal veganism as the moral baseline of any movement that purports to take the interests of animals seriously.

Nonhuman animals are just like the vast majority of us in every morally relevant way. And even in morally irrelevant differences — such as conceptual intelligence — they surpass infants and many mentally disabled humans. As anyone who has been around animals a lot can confirm, they are capable of experiencing terrifying fear, excruciating pain, extreme loneliness, tedious boredom, frustration, pleasure, joy, delight, curiosity, satisfaction, comfort, friendship, and apparently even love.

While it’s true that nonhumans may lack the ability to imagine the concept of death as understood by an adult human of average intelligence, it’s painfully obvious that they have an overwhelming interest in continuing to live, and to live a satisfying life. This is made clear not only by the evidence of their sentience and emotional lives, but by the way that they struggle desperately to avoid death and remain alive, often even being willing to gnaw off their own limbs to escape from a trap.

It is our speciesism that causes us to ignore in nonhuman persons those very characteristics that give rise to the most basic rights of all human persons, including infants and the mentally disabled. Speciesism is an exclusionary prejudice virtually identical to racism and sexism that denies the importance of morally relevant characteristics in order to oppress others. The only way to break free from such speciesism is to take the crucial interests of animals seriously and embrace veganism as a moral imperative.

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.

Embracing veganism is simply the logical response to understanding the fundamental truth that no sentient being – human or not — should be used solely as a means to the pleasure, comfort or convenience of someone else.

Widespread veganism is the only way for animals to achieve basic rights protecting their most crucial interests, and the only way to put an end to the legally-sanctioned slavery that is the foundation of industrialized animal exploitation.

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