Most people I meet seem decent. They are people who believe in being kind, who often fawn in delight when they interact with non-human animals. They are people who wouldn't want to contribute to the suffering of another creature if they could help it. Many mornings when I would walk through a park on the way to work, I would see people who had made the effort to get up early to walk their dogs in the morning, to their obvious mutual enjoyment and benefit. I would smile and think to myself, this is how people can be towards the other animals, loving, considerate, selfless.
My next thought, however, will be to ask how is it then that these same decent people ignore their own contribution to the vast brutal factory farming system? Ignoring is probably being too kind, it is more deliberate than that. They actively avoid watching what goes on in places like factory farms, because they know what it is they will see. The system of animal exploitation and suffering that they pay for would make them uncomfortable to witness, though they don't spare a thought for the animals for which it is a lived experience.
So that would be my first request to you. This system that you involve yourself in, where you make choices about the lives of other beings every day by your spending, you should educate yourself fully about. You owe this to the hundreds of billions of individuals who have had to endure this system, consciousnesses that the human race creates just to manipulate and destroy. Once you understand the many brutalities being perpetrated to non-human animals by our culture, only then you can be in a position to ponder whether their suffering is morally acceptable to you. Until you have sincerely made that effort, the only rational response you can have to claims of the animal liberation movement that you are repeatedly participating in a terrible injustice on an unimaginable scale is, "I may be".
The human being has a remarkable ability to use its creative brain to justify almost any behaviour. Some people have never even comprehended the lives and suffering of the animals which somehow arrive as packaged products for them to buy, they need to educate themselves. Many others believe they do understand what goes on and think the suffering we inflict upon animals is generally justified or ethically irrelevant, even that animal farming is somehow a moral good in the world. To them, I now speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
People too often forget we are an animal ourselves, in the primate family, one of the great apes, with similar biological makeup to most other mammals. The idea that we are somehow magical or different to all other species is more rooted in a religious pre-Darwinian conception of humanities place in the centre of the cosmos than it is in any reason or science. Darwin himself made clear that other animals had a full range of emotions, and science since that time has only confirmed and deepened that view. Our central nervous systems and their connections to the brain are almost identical to our other animal relatives, they were formed in an early branch of the evolutionary tree and have changed little since that time. It would be strange indeed if we evolved almost identical internal wiring and receptors to other animals including our close genetic relatives, but they somehow worked dramatically differently. There is simply no doubt that other animals experience pain, pleasure and a whole host of other sensations familiar to us. By their reactions which we can recognise in ourselves, we know at the very least the sensations seem real to the animal experiencing them, just as we use the same reasoning to believe that the sensations of other humans are real. On some purely philosophical level, we could say that we can only assume other people feel emotions as we do, so to a lesser extent with non-human animals, even though they behave exactly as we do to the same stimuli.
The only scientifically valid question one might ask is whether non-human animals ponder their suffering from the 'higher level' that we ascribe to ourselves. Science has yet to answer this question if perhaps it ever can. If they do not however does less intelligence automatically make their suffering matter less? Does the lack of understanding the complexities behind ones suffering somehow interfere with the transfer of pain impulses through the body? Does the torturing of a human cause such deeper pain to the torturing of a close biological relative, that it makes one an injustice and the other something we can simply turn away from? I think its a logically flawed to say it does, and a convenient ethical delusion to make us feel better about our tacit cooperation with their oppression. Even if the case is less clear than I believe, wouldn't we hope we lived in a society that demanded unshakable evidence for a proposition being used to justify suffering on the scale we currently tolerate? Scientifically there is no unshakeable evidence that non-human animals feel the painful wire of the chicken's battery cage, the coldness of the sows concrete floor, or the sharpness of the hook through the roof of a fishes mouth, any less than we do. Yet we ignore it so what does this say about us?
If we take the precautionary principle there is no logical basis for the unnecessary suffering our lifestyles inflict upon animals. The overwhelming probability is that they feel pain, and if we would like to consider ourselves an ethical, caring person, we should do what we can to avoid unnecessarily contributing to that. Are we the logical creatures we think we are though, is there a logical basis for our treatment of animals? People will consume the products of intensive piggeries without question. Yet, if someone we interacted with kept dogs in a room with a concrete floor, no sunlight, so tightly they could barely turn around (only beginning on the horrors of piggeries) until the animals started having psychoses, we would find it offensive, we might even try to call a relevant authority. According to current scientific research pigs are more intelligent animals than dogs, so how can we then justify the different moral values we place on their treatment by our culture? We treat them differently because we interact with dogs daily we know that they feel many emotions similar to our own because we recognize the reflections of our own soul in their reactions to stimuli. It is the distance of the suffering in the piggeries from our daily lives, not the question of whether it exists, that allows us to tolerate it and still consider ourselves civilized and caring people. Out of sight out of mind is no basis for morality, especially of humans who would call themselves a 'higher' being.
An often used excuse for farm animal exploitation is that there is suffering in nature, so any unnecessary suffering we cause is just part of the 'natural' order, and somehow exempt from moral justification. This argument is so common in philosophy it is called "The Naturalistic Fallacy". It allows for all sorts of horrors to be perpetrated to humans themselves, cannibalism, murder, torture, these things have been part of human cultures down through history, often sanctioned by society. Because they are part of the 'natural' order, does this imply that we should do nothing about them as a society, not try to make the world a kinder and fairer place particularly for those without power? If we accept that this is dangerous logic with respect to humans, it is hypocritical to propose the same logic somehow makes sense when applied to every other animal in our evolutionary tree. What is natural is not necessarily what is moral, to humans or other animals. Even if it were, it would require a definition of exactly what is a natural behaviour, something which science is not at a point to comprehend, therefore it is again no useful basis for human morality. To use the word 'natural' as a justification for the intensive farming systems that the vast majority of animal products come from is an intellectual absurdity.
Some people like to posit some idealised system of slaughter in which animals would be better treated. Even if we accept that fundamentally violating someone's right to a full life, freedom, community and the ability to pursue their natural desires is possible, this idea seems to be more about making people feel better about their contribution to current suffering; as if the animals in factory farmings are in any way helped by these future fantasies. To say that someone could theoretically be raised in more ethical conditions, therefore it's not immoral for you to continue to finance their current suffering, is so illogical it almost needs no argument against it. What matters is what you do now, in the real existing world which animals are experiencing in this moment, not some fabricated reality where they gratefully go to slaughter because of the wonderful life we have given them. If we are concerned with what is natural perhaps we should let animals be, to lead their natural existences, free from barbed wire, the cage, the brand, the cattle prod, the intensive farm and the slaughterhouse.
What do we as a society today gain from our abuse of animals, that it is so necessary that each human life should correspond to many thousands of often torturous animal lives? We can fulfil all of our dietary needs efficiently with plant-based foods, the highest nutritional bodies in the world affirm that a well planned vegan diet can be healthful at all stages of life and even beneficial. A number of champion athletes, Olympic gold medallists have been vegans and lifelong vegetarians. There are alternatives available to the vast majority of animal-based products and given larger production no doubt the prices would be less than the resource-intensive production of animal products. The basis of many world cuisines has always been grains, beans and vegetables, the cheapest and healthiest foods. What is gained, is the logic behind so much of our society, economic value. Animals are abused for profit. If there is any doubt about this look at the level of advertising the industry engages in. Generally the more barbaric the conditions of production, the bigger the profit margin for the livestock corporations and the cheaper the price to consumers, thus cheaper simply means crueller. When economic interests and feeling, emotional beings intertwine, exploitation with little regard to their suffering is the predictable outcome.
This is what people concerned with animal suffering are trying to fight against, unnecessary suffering, suffering on a scale that only a commercial production system feeding a mass of unaware or uncaring consumers can create. We all are confronted with ethical decisions, every decision we make in our lives has a potential ethical dimension. By making choices in a compassionate manner we are able to affirm what sort of person we are, what sort of life others will have and what sort of world we choose to be. If there is any sort of meaning in this existence, it seems obvious that compassion is a large part of it, and that this compassion does not begin and end with the human species, it is about our attitude to all life that shares our world.
Living a totally cruelty-free lifestyle is difficult, especially in our current society, but starting on the road to reducing suffering is easy. Take your time but always have to live a more compassionate life as part of your long term goals and aspirational self-identity. Pick an animal product you use, especially one you feel involves the most cruelty and figure out an alternative. There is help out there if you need it, many organisations have starter kits, meal plans, and nothing would make people like me happier than to help you make the transition to a more plant-based diet. It probably won't make the difference between happiness and suffering for you, you'll probably notice little change except that you eat a wider variety of foods, but it will make a difference in other lives. Ask most vegans what they regret and it will be that they didn't become vegan sooner.
We may not be able to converse with other species, but in so many other ways they express to us what sort of life they desire. We who have been deaf to their cries for so long, as part of the progression of our species should finally start listening. We who have realised that compassion should not have arbitrary boundaries of race, religion and culture, should now take the next logical step and extend our compassion to our fellow earthlings, who seek to be happy just as we do.