Most people seem decent. They believe in being kind to animals and often fawn in delight when they interact with them. Few people would consciously contribute to the suffering of another creature if they could help it. I used to walk through a park on my way to work each morning and I would see people who had made the effort to get up early to walk their dog, to their obvious mutual enjoyment and benefit. I would smile and think to myself, this is how people can be towards an animal, loving, considerate, and selfless.
My next thought, however, will be to wonder how it is that these seemingly kind people ignore the greatest source of human-caused animal suffering, the vast and brutal factory farming system. Actually “Ignoring” is probably overly generous, it is more deliberate than that. The treatment of animals in our food system is a dirty secret that lies suppressed beneath polite society, censored from our media. People actively avoid what goes on in places like factory farms and slaughterhouses; they don’t want to see it and certainly don’t want children to see it, because they know it is violent and disturbing. People don't spare much thought, however, that if it is emotionally disturbing for them, what is it like to be an animal for which it is their entire lived experience?
This is perhaps the minimum people who choose to eat them owe to animals. They have a moral obligation to educate themselves about the system through which they wield the power of life, suffering and death over other beings. They are responsible for each sentient individual they cause to endure this system of forced breeding, confinement, cruelty and slaughter. When a person has a fuller picture of the brutalities being perpetrated on animals by our culture, only then can they be in a position to ponder whether this suffering is morally acceptable. The animal liberation movement says people are participating in a terrible injustice on an unimaginable scale. If someone’s response is to turn a blind eye, to prefer not to know, then identifying themselves as kind towards animals is not rational or tenable.
Many people live largely unconsciously beyond their directly experienced world, the small details of their lives are much more real than the larger details of, especially distant, others. It has never properly entered many people’s consciousness to think about the life of farmed animals, pieces of whom lie on their plates next to other food, or who arrive as packaged products like any other. For people largely oblivious to the reality of the industrial farming system that covers much of the earth, the focus needs to be on education, of waking up to reality. Many others however believe they have a reasonable understanding of what happens in industrial livestock production. They believe that the suffering we inflict upon farmed animals is either minimal, generally justified or ethically irrelevant; some even believe that animal farming is somehow a moral good in the world. To these people, we have a duty to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
People often forget they too are an animal, one of the great apes or hominids in the primate family. We share the vast majority of our biology with other mammals and much of it with many other forms of life. We have unique and complex parts of our intellect, but beyond that, little of how we experience the world, our senses and emotions are unique to us. The idea that we are somehow magical or different to all other species is more rooted in self-aggrandisement, a religious or pre-Darwinian conception of humanity's 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 that humans are different to other animals more in degree than type. 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 animal relatives because they were formed before humans branched off from the evolutionary tree and have needed little modification since that time. It would be strange indeed if we evolved almost identical internal wiring and receptors to other animals, especially our close genetic relatives, but they worked dramatically differently. All evidence points to other animals experiencing pain, pleasure and a whole host of other sensations familiar to us. Most people of empathy need little more evidence than the fact we can recognise animals’ reactions to the experiences of the world in our own reactions. Philosophy can lead us to strange places, we could say that we only assume other people feel emotions as we do, so too to a lesser extent with non-human animals. Common sense and modern science however coalesce in the rejection of this. When our eyes meet those of an animal we know much of each other as an extension of knowing ourselves.
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 struggled to answer this question if perhaps it ever can, but we know many species remember suffering, experience trauma from past suffering, try to avoid suffering and try to help others avoid suffering. How might varying levels of intelligence change the experience of suffering for an individual? It’s possible a less complex understanding of the reasons for suffering might make it worse. Why is violence towards a human usually considered a crime and injustice, but similarly treating a non-human is an unimportant part of consumerism? It is untrue to say humans and all other animals live in separate worlds of experience; it is a convenient ethical delusion to make us feel better about our tacit cooperation in their oppression.
Even if we believe farmed animals suffer significantly less than humans, the sheer scale of the suffering and death in the industrial farming system makes it morally relevant. Ten times as many land animals are killed in our food system each year as there are humans on earth; every year we kill more animals than the total number of humans killed in all the wars of our history, and this is before we include fish. Slaughtering animals is only one of the ways in which they are mistreated, there are the regular physical brutalities of life in our farming systems and laboratories, the denial of their natural desires, the taking of their freedom, the disruption of their families and communities. So much that provides solace in life is taken from them. Non-human animals feel the restriction of the cage, the coldness of the concrete floor, the attachment to their children, the pain of separation, the sharpness of the hook and the blade, very much like we do. We cannot appeal to science or rationality to justify our lack of concern, we must face the unpleasant truth that it says something about our choices.
It is worthwhile considering an example to understand whether our mistreatment of non-human animals has a rational basis. People consume the products of intensive piggeries without consideration for the lived experience of the animal whose flesh they consume. If we knew someone who kept their dog on a concrete floor, without sunlight, confined in a stall or cage, if they took away almost every comfort from the animal until they started having psychoses, we would not only find it offensive, we might want to call a relevant authority. Yet these and other cruelties are what people pay for to be done to pigs. Animal behaviourists rank pigs as significantly more intellectually complex than dogs, so how can we justify the different treatment and moral worth we give them? We treat them differently only because we interact with dogs regularly and experience their emotional lives. It is the distance of the suffering in the piggeries from our daily world, not the question of whether it exists or whether it is ethically justifiable that allows us to participate in it and still consider ourselves decent people. Out of sight out of mind, however, is no basis for a system of morality.
An often-used excuse for farm animal exploitation is that there is suffering in nature, so the unnecessary suffering we cause is part of the 'natural' order, and exempt from needing moral justification. In philosophy, this is called "The Naturalistic Fallacy", the falsity that we can justify anything purely by calling it natural. This logic would allow many horrors to be perpetrated on humans themselves because they could be said to be part of nature: cannibalism, murder, torture, slavery and other violent and oppressive behaviours have been part of human cultures throughout history. Many terrible things might be considered within the 'natural' range of human behaviour, but should we accept them or participate in their perpetuation? If this makes little sense with respect to human welfare, it seems hypocritical to apply the same logic towards other sentient beings. To humans and non-humans, our level of moral concern should be appropriate to their level of sentience, not arbitrarily apportioned due to species. In any case, to use the word 'natural' as a justification for the intensive corporate farming systems that the vast majority of animal products come from is an intellectual absurdity. If we are concerned with what is natural we should look to its positive aspects and let animals be, to follow their natural desires, free from barbed wire, the cage, the brand, the hook, the cattle prod, the intensive farm and the slaughterhouse.
Some people like to imagine an idealised system of animal farming in which animals would be well treated. Even if we accept that violating a sentient being’s ability to live a full life, experience freedom, family, community and the ability to pursue their natural desires can be consistent with their welfare, this idea seems to mostly serve to help people feel better about their part in animal suffering. To imagine that an action might be more ethical and think such imaginings should absolve us from any qualms about participation in injustice is so flawed it shouldn’t need to be argued against. The lives of animals in factory farms aren’t improved by positive thoughts, virtue signalling or our self-regard. What matters is what we do each day, in the tangible world that animals experience along with us, not the imagined reality where they go to slaughter gratefully because of the wonderful life we give them.
What is it we gain as a society from our abuse of animals, that makes it necessary that each human life should be based on many thousands of tortuous animal lives? We can fulfil our dietary needs efficiently with plant-based foods at all stages of life as confirmed by the highest nutritional bodies in the world. Even at peak levels of performance, many champion athletes, including Olympic medallists follow plant-based diets. Eating a predominantly plant-based diet is not a new innovation either, the historical basis of most world cuisines has been grains, pulses and vegetables, the cheapest and healthiest foods. For those attached to particular animal products, there is an ever-increasing number of alternatives available. The pleasures of food are all present in the myriad of textures and flavours that plant foods provide. Any nutrients such as B12 which are less present in plant foods can be cheaply and reliably supplemented. There is no compelling need for us to eat animal products, what is gained by our treatment of animals is the logic behind so much of our society, economic value. Animals are abused for profit, to understand this we only need to look at the level of advertising the industry can afford to engage in. Generally the more barbaric the conditions for the animals, the bigger the profit margin for corporations. Cheaper invariably means more cruel, suffering only hampers corporations when it affects their bottom line. When economic interests and the interests of feeling, and emotional beings conflict in the capitalist system, cruelty is the predictable outcome. This is what people concerned with animal exploitation fight against, unnecessary suffering on a scale that only vast corporations feeding a mass of unaware or uncaring consumers can create.
When we consume we create the world, and thus are making ethical decisions that affect the environment and the lives of humans and other animals. Removing animals from our plates is one of the most powerful actions we can take to have a more positive impact with our lives. There is a movement of millions of people around the world who are educating themselves, turning away from destructive consumerism and trying to change the relationship between the human and non-human world from one of oppression to one of co-habitation. Many call ourselves vegans. By making more compassionate choices we can each affirm the sort of person we are, what sort of life others should have and what sort of world we are trying to create. If there is meaning in this existence, it seems obvious that compassion is a large part of it, and that compassion cannot begin and end with the human species. Our meaning and compassion should embrace consideration for all life that shares this experience of existence with us.
We are powerful and our choices matter. We can start to make a kinder reality by making different choices when we consume, especially when we eat. Our individual and collective morality cannot progress fully until we understand and integrate the simple truth into our lives that animals are here with us, not for us.