Author’s note: When I refer to veganism in the context of this article, I am referring to the ideology and principles surrounding it. I am not referring to the value of the diet in and of itself, nor the vegan plant-based “lifestyle” individuals may abide by for a variety of personal reasons. I have complete respect for those who “agree to disagree” on our dietary choices and human-animal relationships. Rather, this is a critique and evaluation of the radical vegan philosophies which conclude that morality demands the elevation of animals to the human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In light of the Fair Oaks Farms incident, there has been a lot of reignited discussion about the philosophies of veganism and what is considered moral or immoral in our relationship with the lower animals. Yes, I say lower animals very intentionally as, intrinsically, their lives are of less value than that of our fellow human beings. Allow me to elaborate my perspective…
I find the animal industries (and most omnivores) to be at odds with veganism on the foundational level. The discussion between activists and the industries isn’t really about improving reasonable animal welfare. It isn’t about human health and nutrition nor is it about the environment, though all those topics do come up in vegan-omnivore debates.
At its core, veganism is about the belief that animals are entitled to certain rights on the basis that their lives have the same intrinsic value as human beings. I’ve heard it argued things like sentience, intelligence and ability to feel pain are enough to grant them these things. These arguments, however, fall flat using flawed logic and morality, but I will elaborate on this a bit later.
Back to the matter of animals having basic rights to life and human-defined freedoms – if animal lives truly are to be held at the same value of human beings, veganism rationalizes that retaining, manipulating and interacting with them for any human-ended purpose is therefore immoral and wrong. We have no other choice but to abide by a “hands off” policy unless of course we are running a vegan rescue or animal sanctuary. This type of thinking, equating not only equal value but humanistic attributes to animals is what we call anthropomorphism, a danger not only to logic and reason but also to the animals themselves. I highly recommend checking out this article from Protect the Harvest tackling this issue.
This brings forth a fair question – what is it that makes our humanity? There is obviously something. Even the most intelligent animals are incapable of innumerable things we are. No one can criticize even the most barbaric behavior in the animal kingdom, after all animals exist in a perfect shade of immoral gray not capable of being innocent nor guilty for their actions. Why is all this exactly?
Human beings inherently have a few defining features. I want to pause for a minute and revisit that word: inherent. I say this because every time I present these features, folks are quick to hit back with “But developing children and disabled persons may be incapable of these things, so are you saying they’re not human and worthy of rights?” Not at all.
By inherently, I mean that these traits are a part of our human nature. We are endowed with them by mere virtue of membership of our species. If these traits are not present in an individual, it means there is an inhibition preventing them from functioning. It is not that they are the wrong species to have these features, there is simply an inhibitor on these features either temporarily or permanently. But if it weren’t for that inhibition, they’d be present. No animal, no matter how intelligent, healthy or refined could ever be capable of these features.
What are these features that give us our humanity? They are our rationality (the ability to reason and self-reflect) and our morality (the ability to define good and evil and a consciousness governed by them). These concepts aren’t new, they are what religious folks will refer to as “being made in the image and likeness of God,” the ability to achieve “enlightenment” or something similar.
Rationality allows us to relive the past, strategically evaluate the present, and plan for the future. We are capable of expressing these thoughts, even to the point of symbolic imagery to display our thoughts. (I’m speaking of written and vocal language here, a much more psychologically advanced concept than we give ourselves credit for!) This allows us to learn and pass down our learning and use it to improve.
Lower creatures, alternatively, display a very limited window of learning and rely primarily on instinct to function as opposed to passed down knowledge. Likewise, they have no way of expressing any advanced thoughts through articulate communication. Yes, scientists have found some species, such a prairie dogs, care capable of using different calls to alert to different things. But no two animals can sit down and have a conversation expressing intangible thoughts and emotions with one another.
Self-reflection, the other aspect of rationality, tells us a little something on how animals perceive the world. While we can never literally get inside the head of an animal, scientific research and studies on animal behavior has revealed to us a lot more about them than I think a lot of folks realize. In her literature, Dr. Temple Grandin has been very fond of using the phrase “thinking in pictures” to refer not only to her autistic worldview, but also that of the livestock she works with. Animals exist primarily in the present moment. Yes, it is obvious they have memories and learn from past experiences, but there is no evidence they can contemplate future events or fantasize.
A lot of vegans argue by having “sentience” animals are aware of their own mortality and wish to avoid it at all costs. While there is a very real survival instinct inherent in all creatures, there is no evidence to support they have any concept of mortality. Grandin often illustrated that in her slaughterhouse traffic system, things were designed to keep the cattle calm and when used properly they had no fear of the knock box as to them, they were just going into any other chute.
Now what about morality? This word can mean many different things to different people. I am personally of the belief that there is no such thing as subjective morality. Yes, people can have their own interpretations but at the end of the day, as with the law of gravity, right is right and wrong is wrong and no matter how you view it will still impact you. But I think we can all agree; human beings are inherently aware that there are ethical and unethical actions and that there are consequences to those actions.
Any honest look at biology reveals to us the painful truth that these principles are absent in the Animal Kingdom. At the end of the day, each animal is self-serving either to itself or its offspring, mate or herd group. Insects eat their young, males overpower and annihilate their opponents with merciless brute force, predators’ toy with their prey and kill them in the most convenient, not the most ethical, way possible. And these are just a few examples of the less-than beautiful realities of the natural order.
We know that animals abide by no moral code. They owe responsibilities to no one but themselves, so therefore we never blame the actions of an animal as being evil. They lack the psychological, emotional and, if you believe so, spiritual evolution of human beings. We are simply the more complex and higher beings.
Sentience and intelligence alone are not what defines our humanity as these are found throughout the Animal Kingdom. These things alone couldn’t possibly explain the complex emotional relationships we are capable, of the advanced, articulate societies we’ve built and the justice systems we’ve established. Why is it that no other species does these things? Is lack of intelligence alone to explain these things? I think not.
So, if animals don’t have the capacities of having full basic human rights, being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, what are they owed? Well, for one thing, their animalistic tendencies are what help make us all the more human. And as humans, the natural order demands we take responsibilities that come along with the inherent basic rights. And among those is the proper treatment of the lower animals. Having the ability to rationalize and moralize means we owe it by our nature to make good use of them.
In my mind, that means, being as ethical as possible at all times. It means choosing not to make animals suffer for no purpose and intentionally being cruel and neglectful to them. We have the choice to not be cruel, unlike the wild predator, and our conscience directs us to do just that.
And I must ask – whatever is so bad about animals being lesser than we are? Because they have no rights, they have no responsibilities either. They only need think about one thing their entire lives without consequence – themselves. They have no fears of impending death, they don’t suffer emotional traumas or have to worry about politics, finances and so forth. In fact, because of their lessened emotional state and minimal brain development, there are a lot of indicators they feel less pain. Check out this excerpt from Animals in Translationby Dr. Grandin explaining why fear is worse than pain.
I hope that’s the case, it would certainly explain how wild animals can tough out years of extensive injuries and pain while still reproducing and surviving on a daily basis.
Another big issue this leads us to is moral inconsistency within the vegan ideology, something I’ve already touched on. The mental gymnastics to rationalize the humanization of animals is pretty exhaustive. For example, it is okay for wild animals who are obligatory carnivores to kill and consume their prey because they have no sense of morality. But humans, with our morality, are subject to not eat animals regardless of our dietary requirements. But this morality doesn’t make us superior. And yet when we take obligatory carnivores in the form of domesticated housecats into our homes, vegans insist it is within our duty to feed them vegan food without regards to their dietary restrictions, because all animals are equal. WHAT?
Likewise, when it comes to parasitic invasions, the tides also turn. Although parasites do feel pain and can be considered sentient (they certainly don’t want to die) we must ultimately choose between heartworm pills for the dogs or supporting a home for the parasites. Isn’t this an example of that infamous “speciesism” they tout? And yes, I’ve heard activists talk about them intentionally not killing flies in the home and what not. But when it comes to heartworms in the dog or a tapeworm in their kid? At the end of the day, there is a line that is drawn. It is simply impossible to live without harming anything else and impossible to live in the modern era by the “least harm” mantra.
I know some argue that veganism is about the aforementioned “doing the least harm.” But convenience takes precedence over morality. For example, there is gelatin and cholesterol in the LCD screens they use to promote their agendas. There is also gelatin and animal fats in batteries and car tires. Not to mention the glue hiding in innumerable items around the home. Some argue that forgoing these things is not “practical” and falls under the least harm mantra. But I thought this was about morality – no? Apparently in this case convenience can overtake the supposed morality at the discretion of the user?
And don’t get me started on veterinary care and pet products. How else do we know that a product is safe for use in animals unless it’s been tested on animals in a lab setting? Do you think about the hours and days of nutrition trials it took to formulate your dog’s food? What about all the animal products lurking in pet medication, treatments and veterinary supplies? Not to mentioned most vegans would be sick to their stomachs if they saw the number of carcasses and organs collected from euthanized shelter animals and slaughterhouses vet students practice on daily. I laugh when I hear mention of an ideologically vegan vet, being paradoxical as it is. The catch 22 is more real than they care to admit.
I’m not trying to sound like I’m making a total mockery for those who hold a different opinion than mine. What I do want to get you to consider is that veganism, as a strict ideology and moral code, is simply a fallacy. And no one, absolutely no one, has the right to tell you your diet or lifestyle is immoral or incorrect based on a faulty logic.