I cannot tell you how excited I am to offer the latest in the Vegan 101 series. Gena is one of the smartest bloggers I read. Seriously. She is able to take complicated issues and present them in an accessible way. She is thought-provoking, clever and she lives a passionate vegan lifestyle. I have learned how to be vegan from Gena. And Gena has inspired me to eat a higher raw diet. As I considered the issues I wanted to cover in the Vegan 101 series, I knew the toughest would be about the ethics of being, or going, vegan. It’s tough stuff and I really don’t know quite how to express myself on the matter. I went vegan for my diet but I feel that I’m remaining vegan for the animals. That’s about as articulate as I can be about it … for now. In the meantime, Gena gives us much to consider.
Gena Hamshaw, C.C.N., is the author of Choosing Raw, an online space devoted to conversations about nutrition, body image and plant-based diet. As a certified clinical nutritionist, Gena works with clients of all different backgrounds to achieve optimal health and wellness through wholesome eating. Gena is also a premed student at Columbia University in New York City. She plans on bringing her passion for plant-based nutrition and compassionate living to the medical community.
Vegan 101: The Ethics of Veganism
A few weeks ago, my friend JL wrote to say she’d be doing a series of posts called Vegan 101, and would I consider contributing? I said I would, of course—JL and I go way back, and her blog is one of my favorites. When I asked what she’d like me to write on, however, I was a little taken aback by her answer. “I’d love it,” she said, “if you’d do a post on the ethics of veganism.”
To be honest, I almost said no. I became a vegan in my early twenties, but it wasn’t driven by ethics: it was something I did to feel healthier, and to make peace with a decade of disordered eating. While it’s true that I’ve had a huge ethical and ideological awakening in the past two years—an evolution that I chronicled on my blog, Choosing Raw, and which you can read more about here and here—I’m hardly an animal rights expert. In fact, I’m a legitimate novice to veganism as I now understand it—a lifestyle that is animated by compassion.
The more I thought about it, though, the more it occurred to me that my newness to animal rights might actually make me the perfect person to write this post. I can relate directly to a beginner’s confusion, curiosity, or questions about the ethics of a vegan life. I’m guessing that a lot of you are reading because you’ve gotten interested in veganism for its health benefits, or because you’ve read about Oprah’s recent vegan challenge, or another celebrity’s discovery of plant-based eating. I’m guessing that you’re wondering about the ethics of veganism, too, but you’re a little wary: you’ve encountered hardcore animal rights people in the past, and they seemed a little strident to you, a little preachy. And you don’t want to be like them. You like to think you’re doing something good for animals, but you’re nervous about saying that you’re a proponent of animal rights.
Heck, at this point in the game, you’re sort of afraid to tell people that you’re vegan at all.
If you feel this way, then you feel exactly the way I did six years ago, when I transitioned into a 100% plant-based lifestyle. And guess what? That’s great. There’s no wrong way to get interested in veganism. All paths into the vegan lifestyle lead to good things: if you’re exclusively interested in health—in optimizing your own life—you’ll still save countless other lives, too. Not to mention the life of our planet. Going vegan is a win-win decision.
Even so, it’s my own belief that veganism can be even more rewarding if you happen to feel at least some stirrings of compassion for animals. And my goal today is to help elucidate the fundamental beliefs that underlie vegan ethics, because I think that they’re a lot more sensible, a lot more simple, and a lot more persuasive than you might imagine. So put aside, if you can, any prejudices you have about “animal rights vegans”—we’re not all preachy, I promise!—and prepare to listen with an open mind.
Common Sense: The Foundation of Compassionate Thinking
One of the reasons that animal rights appeals failed to capture me in the past was that they always seemed predicated on outrage, shock, and guilt. I saw images of factory farming, as you probably have, too; I read some of the statistics, just as you have. I somehow managed to continue eating dairy, eggs, and fish in spite of it. The statistics and images were real, and I’m glad I saw them: today, I feel their impact more than I ever could have imagined. But I think we all have a hard time accepting that we’re directly responsible for these kind of atrocities, and I was no exception. The images and videos and statistics made me feel guilty, and that made me recoil from veganism. This wasn’t a mature response, but it was, I think, a very human one. I managed to continue ignoring my own role in the mistreatment of animals even as I began to adopt a vegan lifestyle.
So what was it that ultimately did move me in the direction of animal rights? Common sense, plain and simple. My road to veganism was more intellectual than emotional, more logic-driven than passion driven—at least at first. I had always assumed that one had to be a lifelong animal lover, or a pet owner, to feel strongly about animal rights. I was both right and wrong: vegan ethics are often driven by a strong personal relationship with animals. But they don’t have to be. They can be equally driven by rational consideration of facts.
What are those facts? Glad you asked. Let’s start with the most fundamental principle of vegan ethics: sentience.
Sentience: you’ve probably heard the word before, but what does it mean? If you’re exploring veganism, this is a good time to ask. Sentience is a capacity to have the basic experiences—called “qualia” in the Western philosophical tradition—that are fundamental to being alive: seeing, hearing, smelling, experiencing pain and pleasure and emotional attachment. This is not the same as human consciousness: when animal rights advocates talk about animals’ sentience, we don’t mean that they can engineer bridges, compose verse in iambic pentameter, draft a constitution, or perform open-heart surgery. (By the way, there is very good research to prove that some animals do experience something very close to human consciousness—the capacity to prioritize, to think in a premeditated way, and so on. But for the purposes of this particular point, let’s put that aside). When we say that animals are sentient, we mean that they participate in the most fundamental parts of lived experience, and that this makes them worthy of our reverence and care. As Jeremy Bentham wrote in the 17th Century, “The question is not Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
It’s very difficult to convince those who aren’t sympathetic to veganism of the validity of sentience as a moral imperative. Try it: you’ll see. They’ll ask—not irrationally—why sentience alone should make animals worthy of our non-interference, especially if it’s in our own interest to interfere? My answer to this question is simple: a creature needn’t be possess all of the benchmarks of higher consciousness (and again, many animals do experience some) to be spared unnecessary and profound suffering.
Speciesism: The Overlooked Prejudice
Look at it this way: infants aren’t yet fully capable of language, self-awareness, intentionality, or creativity, either. Neither are human adults with various sorts of impaired cognitive functioning. Are these people therefore less worthy of protection from suffering and death?
That last comparison tends to make people uncomfortable, and with good reason: we squirm at the notion that a baby and an animal are comparable. But why? Well, there are various religious traditions in which human beings are situated at the top of a chain of being, and if you subscribe to such a world view, then it may be easy for you to accept that animals lives are inherently less valuable than human ones, even if their capacities are in some cases comparable.
But if your feelings about animals aren’t governed by a religious creed, then it’s very difficult to answer for why animal life should inherently be less worthy than human. If the answer is that humans are capable of self-awareness and intellectual achievement, and animals aren’t, then how do you justify preferencing a cognitively impaired human being over an animal?
Various animal rights champions have suggested that our reluctance to make these sorts of comparisons is based purely on speciesism: a prioritizing of human life simply because it’s human. This isn’t so very different from racism or sexism, or other forms of prejudice that rest on the simple assumption that one’s own ethnic or gender or class or race is better than another.
This is a very important point to keep in mind as you explore vegan ethics, especially when you encounter arguments about historical precedent. People often point out that we humans have always killed and eaten and used animals for our own purposes, so why should we stop now? I like to point out that, until quite recently, we also killed and used different racial groups for our own purposes, too; two hundred years ago, the notion of racial equality was utterly foreign to an average white man or woman. Perhaps the notion of animal rights, no matter how marginalized in this day and age, will be equally vindicated in future centuries.
Back to Basics: Compassion for Suffering
With all of that said, I don’t think you have to fully accept the notion of speciesism in order to feel that animals are worthy of protection from suffering. Today, I see animal and human life as equal, but it took me a long time to feel this way—it was a very foreign notion to me, and it wasn’t an ethos I was raised on. It took me no time at all, however, to grasp the concept of sentience. I asked myself: need a living being be capable of the full scope of human ability in order to be entitled to basic freedoms and protection from pain? My answer was a definite “no.”
Do we know for a fact that animals do feel pain? Do we know that they’re capable of suffering as we are? This question has been hotly debated in the past, but the evidence is actually quite clear: animals are without question capable of feeling and expressing physical pain, and some animals are likewise capable of feeling and expressing emotional pain. Many animals—especially mammals—have nervous systems quite like our own, and most neurologists will concede that mammals feel physical pain as acutely as we do. There’s new evidence that fish have sensory neurons and nociceptors (these are the sensory receptors that detect physical damage) that are similar to ours.
More compelling still, there is a world of evidence to suggest that primates, dogs, cats and birds (this includes the more than 8 billion chickens killed each year for chicken meat, and the more than 280 million hens who are used for egg collection) are also capable of experiencing emotional pain, and will indicate their suffering in many of the same ways we do: through listlessness, anorexia/self-starvation, lethargy, and anti-social behaviors with other animals.
Do we need any more evidence that animals are fully capable of suffering? They may lack the language we have to express that suffering, but then again, so do infants. Do we consider babies any less capable of feeling pain because they can’t articulate it the same way adults do?
Companion Pets and Farm Animals: The Great Double Standard
Of course, I don’t have to tell most of you that animals feel pain—along with affection, empathy, loyalty, and devotion. Most of you know this, because most of you have owned a companion animal, or pet, at some point in your lives. And if you did, you saw clearly how very capable animals are of a rich spectrum of emotions. You know that they feel loyalty to the creatures they cohabitate with. You know that they have an uncanny capacity to recognize and share your emotions—in other words, empathy. You know that they can yelp, wimper, or cry when they experience sickness and hurt, and you know that they find all sorts of glorious ways to express joy and contentment: tail wagging, running, jumping, barking, and so on.
We Americans are obsessed with our companion animals. In 2007, two-thirds of all American homes housed at least one pet, and that number was on the rise. We write memoirs about our pets. We buy clothing for our pets. We sleep, eat, and lounge with our pets. We speak to them, pet them, cry with them, and play with them. We trust them to guard our families and keep our children company. Yet we are also inhabitants of a nation in which over 27 billion animals are killed each year for food—our food. Farm animals such as pigs, goats, and cows are no less intelligent, empathetic, or loyal than our cats and dogs: their death and exploitation causes no less suffering than if companion animals were subjected to the same treatment. None of us can deny these facts, and yet most pet owners refuse to make the connection. It suits our own purposes to enjoy our pets, and eat our burgers.
Let’s make that connection. We all have the power to opt out. That’s what veganism is: it’s opting out. It’s recognizing the value of animal life—something we’ve all learned to do through our exposure to companion animals—and refusing to partake in its exploitation.
What About Grass Fed? What About Local? What About Organic?
Yes, there’s some reason to believe that small farms and organic farms treat animals more compassionately than do factory farms. But that’s hardly saying much, and you might be surprised to learn that “organic” and “grass fed” labels are hardly synonymous with humane treatment. Animals raised under “organic” ordinances can still be gassed, caged, or force fed according to species. “Grass fed” cows can still be confined or spend small periods of time in feed lots. “Free range” chickens are still subjected to unchecked crowding, and indoor time isn’t regulated; outdoor lots are often hastily added to buildings, and they aren’t easily accessed by all animals. “Cage-free” chickens are still subject to crowding, and newborn male chicks of egg-laying hens are often exempt from all of these protections.
And let’s not forget that most of these animals, no matter what language has governed their confinement, are killed, and that their slaughter causes pain and fear. Grass fed and organic foods may be better for our bodies than their conventional counterparts, but don’t let the trendy labels fool you: they, too, lead to animal suffering.
Where To Begin?
If you’ve read this far, and you agree, you may be feeling stirrings of vegan ethics already. You’re also wondering how to act on these stirrings. You’re ready to start living with compassion for animals, but you don’t want to stop buying wool sweaters. And as much as you find the arguments I’ve summed up for you to be persuasive, you don’t really feel comfortable calling yourself an “animal rights vegan.”
Don’t worry. Veganism is a journey, a process of evolution. I do and say things all the time that belie my newness to a compassionate viewpoint: just the other day, I used the idiom “to kill two birds with one stone.” My bad—language can be lacking in compassion, too! Add to this the fact that it took me ages to stop buying leather riding boots, and I still stare wistfully at the J. Crew cashmere section.
Even so, I’ve slowly and surely arrived at a moral framework that shapes and informs all of my thinking—from food choices to feelings about social justice and to constant reevaluation of my own egocentrism. That framework can be summed up in just a few sentences: I believe that animals are sentient beings who are entitled to freedom and relief from unnecessary suffering. I’m conscious of their lives, feelings, freedom, and worth. I no longer make the casual assumption that human welfare is the only welfare that matters. And I do my best to live in accordance with these core beliefs .
There it is, guys: vegan ethics, plain and simple. They’re really not much more complicated than that.
The “living in accordance” part can begin in small ways. Maybe you go meatless once a week; maybe you stop buying anything with fur, or only buy shampoo that’s not tested on animals. Maybe, if you’re eating mostly vegan already, you have the courage to finally eliminate animal foods from your diet—because that is the most direct and effective way to do your part in not supporting the annual death and mistreatment of tens of billions of farm animals. While you’re at it, you’ll also be taking huge steps toward preserving the environment, making more crops available for the hungry worldwide, and helping to drive the price of produce—which is simply out of the reach of most impoverished families—down.
But to answer my question above, you can begin anywhere you want to. Start small. Do one small thing every day that makes you more conscious of animal life. See where it takes you. I think you’ll be shocked at how long and enriching the journey is.
The Take Home Message
I hope I’ve managed to show you that “animal rights” doesn’t have to be a frightening phrase, or one tinged with negative associations. The fight for animal rights is a commonsense one, once you consider some commonsense facts. Can they suffer? Yes, they can. We human beings pride ourselves on the capacity to evolve, to shake off our own prejudices, tyrannies, and misdeeds. We may not always succeed, but when we do—when we do manage to identify and reverse the unnecessary suffering or injustices we’ve caused—it’s our finest hour. Let’s not exclude our relationship with animals from that possibility.
WANT TO READ MORE?
Evidence of Animal Cruelty
I tried to avoid the standard tactic of shocking you with the real life horrors of animal cruelty, but if you need a kick in the pants, I suggest these videos:
- 6 Examples Of Rampant Farmed Animal Abuse
- The 8 Most Disturbing Animal Videos Available Online Now
- The 8 Most Compelling Vegan Videos Available Online Now
- Investigations, interviews, etc: PETA TV
Vegan Starter Kits / Aid
These online, free starter kits will help you take the first big step toward compassion:
Information About Vegan Nutrition
- http://choosingraw.com (Whoa! How’d that get in there?)
Gena, you are amazing. I cannot thank you enough for giving us all something to consider, deeply.
Readers: my mind is racing. Is yours? I read many, many vegan blogs. And they are almost always all about the food. Please, share with us here. What about the animals? Where are you on the ethics of veganism?
Be sure to add Gena’s blog, Choosing Raw, to your Google Reader— you do not want to miss her posts!