Why the Liberation of Animals is One of the Defining Ethical Question of our Era
My aspiration is to map out a logical, rational and ethical basis for why I consider veganism to be an urgent and pressing issue in 2020, and why the emancipation of non-human animals more generally represents one of the great moral questions of our time. I see there being three predominant bases for why people ought to consider eliminating animal products from their diet:
3. Personal Health
I will deal with each of these in chronological order, moving from what I perceive to be the strongest argument to the least strong.
In early 2016 I stopped consuming animal products. There was no eureka moment. No book or video or talk that altered my perspective. Something within me had shifted and I gradually realised that I could no longer consume other animals. It was the culmination of a process that still continues to this day.
My journey since has been an exploration as to why I felt the need to take this decision, a pursuit for an intellectual and a rational justification that I could articulate and make sense of. Yet I have never been entirely comfortable discussing this topic, as it entails so much cultural and social baggage. I avoided discussion of the subject for fear of alienating people, including concerns that others would perceive me as being just another proselytizing and righteous animal welfare advocate. More than that, animal agriculture is an inherent part of my proud homeland. It is embedded into our social fabric and all of our familial history. But this discussion is not an attack on any particular profession or industry. Most people are trying their best to make a living within the given economic frameworks, and they are doing so by acting in good faith with the knowledge that they have. This conversation is much more inclusive in addressing all stakeholders in society, as it relates to the seismic consideration of whether we ought to reframe our fundamental relationship with food.
Although this may initially read like a personal memoir, it is not, and any anecdotal references are used merely as a means of providing an insight into the psychological and social challenges that such a significant change in lifestyle entails. I have intentionally sought to avoid the use of provocative and disturbing words or descriptions that can — almost always justifiably — be used when making the argument for veganism, in particular descriptions of the practices of factory farming and the welfare, or lack thereof, afforded those animals. I would direct anyone to read Peter Singer’s seminal Animal Liberation for a detailed and graphic description of these practices. YouTube also offers a raw insight into what happens behind the veil of abattoirs and factory farms. This comes with a trigger warning — in the true sense of the word — to anyone who ventures down this path of exposure. You will not be the same person for having witnessed this reality.
Within this sphere I have sought to address the most common arguments justifying the consumption of animals, providing a rebuttal as to why I believe these to be fallacious.
Argument 1: “Humans have greater intelligence and/or sentience than animals”
One of the key arguments justifying the eating of non-human animal products is that humans are superior to animals by a particular trait, for example that human beings possess greater sentience than cows. We sanctify every human life as being equal to any other human in the world without a conditional threshold of sentience being met, absolutely and rightly so. It is therefore deductively inconsistent to assert that a disparity in sentience can be a justifiable basis for inflicting suffering and harm on a non-human animal when we know that they possess levels of sentience which allow them to feel immense degrees of pain. In fact, many animals have far more sensitive pain receptors than humans’ equivalents.
The other trait often leveraged is our superior intelligence as against non-human animals. The problem with claiming any trait superiority is that the line drawn is completely arbitrary. There exist instances where certain humans would fall below this arbitrary line of intelligence, yet we do not think that it is moral to kill any person for food. Not only that we consider cannibalism to be immoral, but it is also illegal. We also know that the animals most popularly exploited by humans — cows, pigs, dolphins and whales — are extremely intelligent and receptive to external stimuli. We use our own barometer of measurable intelligence (say, IQ) when comparing ourselves to non-human animals, but it is fallacious to set the terms of the argument when they skew in favour of our collective, but subjective, definition.
It may seem like a slightly facetious aside, but another flaw with claiming trait superiority is that many animals are superior to humans in numerous other traits — eagles with eyesight, dogs with sound and smell, leopards with speed. Our propensity for claiming trait superiority is therefore selective, preferential, inconsistent and arbitrary.
“The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.” — Dmitry Merezhkovsky
“There was a time when people ate each other. They no longer do so, but they still eat animals. The time will come when more and more people drop this terrible habit” — Leo Tolstoy
Argument 2: “Humans are a different species to animals so you cannot equate our treatment of a human with that of a cow”.
People rightly point out that there is a biological distinction between humans and the animals that we consume, given that we are a different species. Whilst this is true, it discounts the fact that we ourselves are part of the animal kingdom. We are mammals and we have evolved from apes. Darwin’s outstanding discoveries removed the long-held hubris of humans viewing themselves as somehow distinct from other mammals, endowed with priority in the cosmological hierarchy . Furthermore, claims of biological superiority has a murky history even within humanity itself, give that this was the justification that fuelled historical examples of racist, ethnocentric ideology.
Of course, this is not to say that there does not exist biological differences between humans and non-human animals. However, the line drawn is again arbitrary and inconsistent. The mistreatment of dogs has been criminalised but the very same actions can apply to pigs and chickens with impunity. If there was a binary choice between the death of a human or the death of an animal, I for one think that it would be preferable to save the life of the human (I anticipate someone here saying “but what if it’s Hitler/Stalin/Mao” — I am speaking merely in principle in here, discounting the particulars of the hypothetical dilemma, nor would I ever consider myself capable of weighing up such an option in reality). I am not an anti-natalist — I detest such a philosophical position. Nor am I a pure utilitarian. It is possible to prefer one species over another where there is, theoretically, a binary choice between the two — due to familial or community bonds (such as a parent who naturally favours saving their drowning child over any others as their ultimate priority) — but this does not justify voluntarily mistreating another species for the satisfaction of our taste buds and for the inculcation of culinary tradition. Peter Singer coined the term ‘speciesism’ to describe our unjustified propensity for making claims of superiority on the grounds of biological differences. Speciesism is merely another “-ism” that now ought to be reserved for the annals of history and for future generational disgust, the same way we now look upon slavery as a repugnant stain on the history of humanity.
Argument 3: “Human beings rose to the top of the food chain through their own ingenuity, and evolution rewards the survival of the fittest. We are therefore justified in eating weaker animals who sit below us in the evolutionary hierarchy”.
“A person is not higher than animals because he can mercilessly torture them, but because he can take pity on them” — Buddhist wisdom
As a society we seek to avoid discrimination based upon genetic and hereditary inequalities. We have laws and social codes which restrict anarchy and avoids an “every person for themselves” approach to life. We pool and redistribute public resources through social security mechanisms to provide for people who fall on hard times. We provide care for those in society who cannot look after themselves independently. It is inherent in our nature to be compassionate. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members”.
“In the depth of your soul some divine voice stops you from spilling this blood. There is life in it. You cannot return this life” — Alphonse Lamartine
What differentiates humans from every other non-human animal is our capacity to reason. It is this very capacity which should enable us to decipher the inherent flaw of mistreating animals the way that we do. Whilst Social Darwinists may claim that human beings are entitled to flex their evolutionary superiority to appease their palette, I think our collective agreement that caring for those less fortunate in society is a worthy use of resources should be extended to non-human animals, all the more so given that we are conscious and aware of their relative helplessness.
Argument 4: “We need animal products in our diet in order to survive”
This argument ties in with my discussion on personal health further below. As I will outline, there is significant evidence — scientific, anthropological and anecdotal — indicating that a whole-foods, plant-based vegan diet is nutritionally complete. It may even be superior to a diet containing animal products. The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has categorised processed red meat as a Group 1 carcinogen. Many of the Blue Zone areas of the world eat a predominantly whole foods, plant-based diet. There is no conclusive evidence that we absolutely require animal products in our diet in order to survive. This lack of necessity makes the consumption of animal products morally indefensible. What’s more, pandemics like the Coronavirus (COVID-19) originated from people eating so called ‘exotic’ animals in so-called “wet markets”. Beyond the personal health argument, the consumption of animal products now represents a risk to public health through viral epidemics, not to mention the potential costs to the public health system of individual poor health that results from the consumption of animal products.
In 2019 The Lancet, one of the oldest and most respected independent medical journals in the world, published a report titled “Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems”. The Lancet Commission brought together 19 commissioners and 18 co-authors from 16 countries in various fields of human health, agriculture, political science, and environmental sustainability to develop global scientific targets based on the best evidence available for healthy diets and sustainable food production. The researchers found that:
§ more than 820 million people around the world lack sufficient food but yet “almost two thirds of all soybeans, maize, barley, and about a third of all grains are used as feed for animals”;
§ food production of animal products is responsible for up to 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions. The report states that projections for the future show that “vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with the greatest reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions”;
§ agriculture accounts for between 75–84% of freshwater use, making it “the world’s largest water-consuming sector”. Meat and dairy products lead the way in guzzling up large quantities of water — producing just 1 kilogram of beef requires a staggering 14,000 litres of water. By way of comparison, 1 kilogram of wheat requires 1,500 litres of water. Water is the “bloodstream of the biosphere” and supports all biomass growth and determines the extent and distribution of biomes and ecosystems*.
*Water is also a humanitarian and a geopolitical issue. A 2012 report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in the USA stated that the increased threat of water shortages was likely to lead to political turmoil both within and between countries, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia;
§ about 60% of world fish stocks are fully fished, more than 30% are over-fished, and catch by global marine fisheries has been declining since 1996;
§ manure from animals produces large quantities of methane gas, which warms the earth 56 times faster than carbon dioxide;
§ agriculture is the largest driver of deforestation, desertification (which happens when livestock grazing destroys native vegetation and speeds up soil erosion) and land-use globally;
§ overall, a meta-analysis of studies concur that plant-based foods cause fewer adverse environmental effects per unit weight, per serving, per unit of energy, and per protein weight than does animal source foods across various environmental indicators. Vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with the greatest reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, land use and water use.
The Lancet report states that the application of their recommended ‘reference’ diet — which is a predominantly whole-foods, plant-based diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated oils, in addition to a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry, and no or a low quantity of red meat, processed meat, added sugar, refined grains, and starchy vegetables — can provide a healthy and environmentally sustainable diet for an estimated global population of about 10 billion people by 2050. However, the report states that “even small increases in consumption of red meat or dairy foods would make this goal difficult or impossible to achieve”.
The Lancet report states that transformation to a predominantly plant-based diet from sustainable food systems is necessary if we wish to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, and to initiate what they term the ‘Great Food Transformation’ — meaning a substantial change in the structure and function of the global food system so that it operates with different core processes and feedback. They estimate that changes in current food production practices (within the context of a meat-producing industry and without corresponding changes in food consumption demands) could reduce agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions in 2050 by about 10%, whereas increased consumption of plant-based diets could reduce emissions by up to 80%.
It should be noted that some popular vegan foods can score relatively poorly on environmental metrics due to their water intensive production process (although still far less than their animal product equivalents). Most highly processed, vegan ‘junk’ food that is now being marketed by the likes of Burger King and McDonalds as a replacement for traditional fast food meals can have just as high carbon emissions as their meat equivalents, while some of these products have actually been found to contain animal products in their ingredients. The evidence shows that the key is to focus on eating a predominantly whole-foods, plant-based diet (or a variation of such, in line with The Lancet’s reference diet).
Whilst it is admirable to cycle instead of drive, to use a KeepCup or reduce your air miles, if you wish to authentically call yourself an environmentalist then the single best thing you can do for the environment and your carbon footprint it is to reduce and eventually eliminate your consumption of animal products. Food production is evidently the largest cause of global environmental change, and a transition to sustainable food production is necessary for environmental sustainability, global development and even the alleviation of ecological catastrophe.
3. Personal Health
I intend to largely ignore the personal health argument for the purposes of this discussion. Food is an incredibly divisive subject. Internet forums — and more importantly, real life conversations — are marked by confused and misinformed debates between an eclectic mix of food ideologies. Strawman arguments, moving the goalposts and talking past one another are hallmarks of these discussions. They rarely achieve anything, instead leaving most participants feeling more entrenched about their preconceived views. The beauty of the synthesis produced by the dialectical method is lost.
There is increasingly compelling scientific evidence suggesting that a whole-foods, plant-based diet can improve many indicators of optimal health, in particular by reducing the risk of heart disease. There are also certain studies that contradict these claims, although when one cross-references the industries funding these studies it would inevitably lead to questions of objectivity, in light of the clear conflicts of interest. This is not a ‘tinfoil hat’ assertion, it’s simply the recognition that there will always be kickback from established stakeholders when their economic and financial positions of power are systematically threatened. Movements like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — a group of medical doctors advocating for a plant-based diet as a form of preventative medicine — are reporting very interesting long-term results with their patients. A well planned, predominantly whole-foods plant-based diet can not only be nutritionally optimal, but also satiating and satisfying.
From an athletic perspective, my physical health and athletic performance metrics have never been better. I am continually amazed by my body’s ability to perform and recover on a vegan diet. Anecdotal as it may be, some of the best ultra-endurance athletes in the world are vegan: Scott Jurak, Abdullah Zeinab, Rich Roll. Professional sports athletes are increasingly finding the merits of a plant-based diet: Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic, TJ Perenara.
I think it would be prudent to provide the (conservative) caveat that we are not at a position just yet — scientifically and medically — where we can conclusively assert with total confidence that a plant-based vegan diet is optimal for everyone, or would suit certain individuals based upon their specific genetic and physiological constitution. Purely within the context of the health-based argument, any ill health you might experience by adopting a vegan diet due to your particular physiological and biological needs should not outweigh the corresponding personal health benefits adopting a vegan diet entails. However, if it is merely your taste buds that are taking precedence over the life of a sentient animal, then there is a problem.
“Compassion for animals comes from the same source as compassion for humans” — Arthur Schopenhauer
I try my best to assign greater weight to my own internal moral compass than any external judgement I perceive others may be casting upon my actions, because the true litmus test of any action is the reflection in the mirror. Fortunately, I am relatively content with where I currently stand and how I have endeavoured to conduct myself in the world, the causes I have devoted my time and energy towards — all without ever attaining perfection or flawlessness. This imperfection is an inherent part of the human condition. The alleviation of ignorance is an ongoing pursuit. Yet — at least at this moment in time — I ascribe as much moral and ethical ‘capital’ in embracing vegan lifestyle as anything else I have done in my life. My use of the term moral ‘capital’ does not mean social kudos, nor the unfounded pious virtue that we sometimes bear witness to online, a feature that can be alienating and self-defeating in instigating change within one’s social circle and wider society. Anyone who chooses this lifestyle for the wrong reasons may be stumbling upon some good from a utilitarian standpoint by default, but as a normative exercise their intentions are at best misguided. Everyone is on their own journey, and in my eyes the ‘carrot’ of veganism is a much more effective (not to mention, compassionate) tool than the ‘stick’. The majority of vegans were once blissful meat eaters themselves, no matter how much amnesia they appear to display in this regard, so it is important to apply compassion and tolerance when having thoughtful and nuanced conversations with people considering making the change.
Why do I attach such significance to this choice? Apart from the reasons outlined, veganism represents a daily decision to reduce suffering and harm in the world by sparing the lives of the tens of billions (yes, billions) of animals killed each year. You are also voting with your economic power — which is perhaps the most influential language that our world speaks — and through your own network of cultural influence. We are now witnessing corporations like Burger King and McDonalds — the purveyors of horrific and destructive industrial factory farming practices — offering plant-based alternatives (even if one might question ulterior motives, in addition to disputing how healthy these alternatives really are). Demand affects supply, and there is a growing collective of individuals demanding a greener and more compassionate approach to our food production and food consumption.
I wholeheartedly encourage dipping ones’ toes in this lifestyle and experimenting. See how you feel. Play around with the varieties, find what works best for you personally — be that pescatarian, vegetarian, flexitarian, Meat Free Mondays et al. These are all gateways to a predominantly plant-based vegan diet. Achieving abolition is going to entail people commencing their journey on the road to becoming vegan with small steps. I think that for many people, this will be a gradual transition rather than a once off, radical change. Research shows that people who become vegan more gradually are more likely to stick with it in the long-term. Therefore, at least in my view, this is a more sustainable method for encouraging people to make the full transition to veganism. This is one gripe I would have with some of the outreach and advocacy work that vegan organisations engage in. I hope that this article has struck a healthy balance between the two.
“The question is not, can they reason? nor, can they talk? but, can they suffer?” — Jeremy Bentham
Thank you for making it this far, and for being open-minded enough to at least consider this pertinent question. The arc of history shows that the world’s diet can change rapidly. Goal 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals states that
“A successful sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society. These inclusive partnerships built upon principles and values, a shared vision, and shared goals that place people and the planet at the centre, are needed at the global, regional, national and local level”.
While systematic change requires buy-in from all stakeholders, historical and civic social movements has always been instigated at the level of the individual. Your personal choices absolutely have an impact, both directly and indirectly, through the butterfly effect — a concept in chaos theory whereby a small change in one state of a nonlinear system can result in exponential changes in a later state — and this means that reframing your food choices to incorporate a more compassionate and sustainable approach can:
§ alleviate the unnecessary suffering and pain of non-human animals;
§ contribute to avoiding ecological catastrophe (and thereby ensuring a viable world for your children, grandchildren and all indefinite future generations); and
§ maybe even improve your own personal health.
Our consumption of non-human animals infringes one of the most paradigm shifting moral edicts ever formulated, Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative:
“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end”.
I believe that the next frontier of moral expansion concerns the universal rights afforded non-human animals, so that we no longer view them merely as a means to our culinary ends.
Brian Cronin — February 2020
*Postscript: This article is predominantly aimed at people who live affluent and prosperous lives, particularly those in Western countries where food availability is profound. About 220 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are nutritionally insecure and undernourished. According to The Lancet Report, this under-nutrition is sometimes associated with low consumption of animal source and other protein rich foods. Therefore, within the context of our current global food supply chain, promotion of animal source foods for malnourished children can improve dietary quality, micronutrient intake, nutrient status and overall health. In the words of that report, “achieving healthy diets from sustainable food systems for everyone on the planet is possible; however, to accomplish this goal, local and regional realities need to be carefully considered”. These local and regional realities can be enhanced and improved through the adaptation of a plant-based diet, given the significant difference in production capacity between plant-based foods and animal products in the context of land use and efficiency. But it is worth bearing in mind the nuance and complexity required when considering these edge cases that inevitably arise when considering moral dilemmas.