Monday, January 11, 2016

Veganism is a Way We Can Make a Difference

Several years ago I was taking a class at Arizona State University on health behavior change theory. It was part of the curriculum for the Exercise and Wellness undergraduate degree program I was pursuing. One day the professor mentioned that we typically have control over only 16% of the things that affect our lives. He mentioned an earthquake (I believe it was in New Zealand) that was in the news at the time that had resulted in many deaths and serious injuries, as an example of something that the people affected had no control over. I’m not sure where the 16% figure came from, but I understood the general idea he was trying to convey that day in class—that we are born into a complex world with powerful forces to which we must adapt, and in seeking solutions to our problems we tend to focus on the things we really cannot control while neglecting the fewer, but very important things we indeed can control and change.

We live in a world of absurdities, widespread violence, political gridlock, climate change, conflict, and confusion. None of us really understands it, knows how long we’ll live, how long our loved ones will live, or how long our species will endure. All these things create stress that if not properly dealt with leads to unhappiness and poor health.

We long for control over our lives. We seek purpose and meaning. As much as our culture gets in the way, most of us want to do the right thing and make a positive difference in the world. Veganism is a way of living we all can commit to that’s comprehensive, all-encompassing, and sets a beautifully simple moral baseline—that we should not unnecessarily impose pain, suffering, and death on other sentient beings—consistent with existing moral truths almost all of us already accept. It’s part of that 16% of things in our lives over which we have control. Veganism, understood and carried out in accordance with its original meaning as a moral and political rejection of violence, is deeply empowering, liberating, purposeful, and meaningful.

Clearly our largest use of animals by far, the tens-of-billions of land animals and a roughly estimated one-trillion-plus fish and other sea animals that we kill annually, worldwide for food, qualifies as “unnecessary.” Leading nutrition authorities including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics confirm that vegan diets are adequate and healthful for all stages of human life. We hear regularly of the benefits of eating fewer animal products and more plant foods, both to human health and the environment. Compared to diets that include animal products, vegan diets require far less land, water, and energy investment, and result in much less groundwater pollution. Years ago a United Nations report concluded that animal agriculture was responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector. Since then, animal agriculture has only grown in size as more people in developing nations adopt Western diet patterns. So even if you don’t care at all about the lives of animals, eating animal products is not only unnecessary, but also bad for your health and environmentally destructive on a large scale.

As comprehensive as veganism is, there is a reason why its core principle is referred to as a “baseline.” Being vegan is the minimum we need to do as individuals. We ought to also consider adopting or fostering homeless animals if we have the means to do so. Animals stuck in shelters are there because of us. We created the institution of domestication (animals bred and raised for our use, e.g. for food or clothing, as pets or biomedical experimentation subjects, etc.). It was a mistake to do so and like any mistake one that should not be perpetuated, yet the domesticated individuals who are already here desperately need our care. Providing that care with the attitude of “what can we do for these animals?” as opposed to the culturally normative “what can these animals do for us?” removes “use/exploitation” from our relationship with animals and in so doing not only benefits animals tremendously, but benefits us as well by providing some of that much sought after meaning, purpose, and positive difference-making in our lives.

The other thing that we need to do beyond being vegan is to educate others. Here again the 16% figure comes into play. Overall we don’t have much control over how other people think about veganism or other issues. But in the case of people close to us, we do. So focus on that. Friends, coworkers, relatives, and spouses may be more likely to listen to someone who they know personally and can relate to. You can serve as an accessible, living example of veganism, helping those around you to start thinking outside the conventional paradigm about animals.

Recognize the areas of your life that you have control over. Indeed, you can make a difference. Please go vegan, adopt or foster an animal if you can, and find ways to share veganism with others around you.

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The six principles of the Abolitionist Approach to animal rights may be read here.

Learn how to be vegan here and here.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

We Seem to Want to View Animal Exploitation as a Narrow Problem Practiced by Horrible Others

Shouldn’t the 57 billion land animals and roughly one-trillion fish and other sea animals killed annually for food elicit at least as much outrage in the social media circles as what Kendall Jones does? People who purport to care about animals recently responded with petitions and hateful, sexist, and threatening comments to photos she posted on her Facebook page of her smiling while posing with animals she shot dead.

The author of the Daily News article on the matter referred to the lions, elephants, buffalos, leopards, and rhinos she hunts, as "exotic" animals, while a Facebook user commenting on a photo of Kendall posing with a dead lion, asked: “How can you kill such a 'majestic' animal?” But the terms “exotic” and “majestic” are subjective, arbitrary, and speciesist. All animals have inherent value—which is independent from their species membership—and all animal use is wrong. Jones gets pleasure from shooting animals, while most of us get pleasure from eating them, wearing them, or looking at them in zoos or aquariums. She makes excuses for her exploitation of animals, as do most of the rest of us. There is no difference in any morally relevant way in how she uses animals versus how other people who are not vegan do so.

Some may fault her for targeting animals who are members of an endangered species, but an animal’s species membership has nothing to do with that individual’s moral value, any more than one’s race or ethnicity does in the human context. The desires to avoid pain and suffering, to explore one’s environment, and to continue to remain alive, are not characteristics of species (which is merely a classification system for living organisms), but of the individuals within a species.

So before we single out and admonish with sexist or racist overtones, Kendall Jones, Melissa Bachman, or Michael Vic, let’s take a look at and fix what’s on our own plates, filling our own drinking glasses, hanging in our own closets. We will never recognize and respect the moral status of nonhumans if we continue to point fingers and view their exploitation as something other than a pervasive social norm.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why Animal Advocacy Needs Theory

Abolitionists spend significant time talking about theory. It’s an integral and indispensible part of our rationally based arguments. In contrast, those who pursue animal welfare (welfarists) generally take the view that theory is unnecessary. They are often dismissive of it, characterizing its use by abolitionists as wasteful and elitist intellectualism or dogmatic divisiveness. Ironically, whether they realize it or not welfarists also use theory, at least as the basis of their positions and goals—though as I will explain shortly, they embrace a distinctly different theory. Theory is an important part of any social change movement because it informs us of what position to take, what our goal should be, and the best way to get there. In a world where our time and energy are finite, it is critical that we not waste those resources on approaches that are ineffective, or worse, counterproductive. Furthermore, theory helps us stay focused, serving as a template to ensure that our means and messaging remain consistent with our identified ends.

The abolitionist position rests on the theory that our very use of animals represents harm to them, and that all use is wrong. Use is synonymous with exploitation and abuse. Welfarists, on the other hand, do not challenge our use of animals, but instead promote a theory that reflects the dominant thinking in our culture today: the idea that since animals are cognitively different from us our use of them doesn’t necessarily constitute harm. This belief informs the welfarist position that how we treat animals, not our use of them in the first place, is the pertinent issue.

19th century utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham was an early animal advocate whose views formed the basis of the animal welfare movement and continue to shape current thinking. While he maintained that animals could suffer and therefore should be included in the moral community, he pointed to their cognitive differences with humans to justify his idea that they lacked an interest in continuing to live. Since Bentham didn’t acknowledge animals’ fear of death, he didn’t see killing them as necessarily harmful or morally problematic. Assuming we did so “humanely,” when killing animals for food, “we are the better for it, and they are never the worse,” he wrote.

Bentham’s views are essentially the same as those of philosopher and Animal Liberation author Peter Singer. They are essentially the same as those of all the big animal organizations and of the vast majority of people who exhibit any concern for animals. They represent the default cultural paradigm, so ingrained and so pervasive that few of us see its flaws.

We know that sentience, the condition of perceptual awareness or the ability to perceive or feel things, is present in almost all of the animals that we exploit. We may question the sentience of insects, but scientific consensus confirms what is obvious to almost anyone who has ever lived with an animal, which is that sentience is present in the fish, land animals, and birds that we regard as resources and unnecessarily kill by the tens-of-billions annually worldwide. The very nature of sentience, when combined with the fact that none of us need animal products to live a healthy life, contains all of the justification we need to conclude that animal exploitation is wrong. Given that, requiring something beyond sentience, specifically the presence of normal humanlike cognition, is a speciesist position. And speciesism, like all forms of discrimination, is based on an arbitrary characteristic that in this case harms nonhumans and privileges humans.

Once we accept the validity of our underlying theory and our resulting position and goal, it becomes clear how we should get there. If we agree with the cultural norm that animals are property and it’s acceptable to continue to use them as resources as long as we treat them “well,” we can support groups like PETA and Human Society of the United States (HSUS), and corporations like Chipotle whose animals are “naturally raised” and Whole Foods with its 5 Step™ Animal Welfare Rating system endorsed by many animal organizations. We can encourage people to choose “cage-free” eggs, and milk from small farms where the cows are given names yet are still exploited and killed. But if instead we see the problem as one of animal use, deciding in favor of the clearly distinguishable abolitionist path that decries speciesism and denies the property status of animals, we focus on promoting veganism and coherently articulating why it should be the baseline of moral behavior.

Additionally, if properly used, theory will keep us consistent. This is where the welfare groups fail miserably, and their aversion to theory most shows. PETA, for instance, explains the wrongfulness of speciesism by comparing it to sexism and other forms of discrimination. These are valid analogies. Yet PETA bases many of its campaigns on sexism, portraying females as mere sex objects and using fat shaming tactics. Putting aside its wrongfulness on its own, objectifying women in the context of a sexist and patriarchal culture is not an effective way to teach people why they shouldn’t view animals as objects.

HSUS is another big welfarist organization that professes to care about animals, yet closely partners with corporate animal exploiters to actively promote the sale animal products, and views veganism as just another option to reduce overall suffering rather than as a moral necessity.

Both organizations favor single-issue campaigns that focus on things like fur, dolphins, nonhuman apes, etc. These campaigns leave the impression that some kinds of animal use are a problem while others are not, that certain animals (those we find cute, belonging to an endangered species, or that are believed to possess cognitive qualities closer to our own) have greater moral value than others, and that the problem constitutes a handful of separate issues requiring individual attention and separate solutions rather than an overall problem of speciesism in need of a single solution. Granted, single-issue campaigns can be remarkably successful at eliciting donations, as many of them target narrow and unpopular animal uses and don’t ask people to make fundamental changes in their behavior, i.e. going vegan. But rather than helping animals, the donations are recycled into bloated upper-tier management salaries and still more sexist and speciesist campaigns that don’t target the root problem.

These are just the more blatant examples of confusing positions that open these organizations and the overall movement to well-deserved accusations of hypocrisy, and divert attention away from meaningful discussions about the legitimacy of animal use.

Even if you believe in the welfare model, its benefit to animals will remain minimal in the best of circumstances as long as animals remain property. The costs of their “humane” treatment will always be limited by our property-valuing market system to that which still allows owners to make a reasonable profit and consumers to have an affordable product. In the economic equation animals, as mere commodities, will always lose out. Indeed, even if you believe people will never go vegan, welfarist theory simply doesn’t work. Historically, big progressive social changes came about not from big, wealthy organizations seeking small, isolated improvements, but from the bottom up with visionary individuals taking strong, straightforward positions that were radical for their time. Every day welfarism continues to be promoted delays the shift away from the animals-as-property paradigm and the arrival of abolition.

So while some of us may not like theory, it’s vital to any advocacy movement. We avoid it at our peril.

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The six principles of the Abolitionist Approach to animal rights may be read here.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Some Thoughts on Chipotle

Many people are excited about the fast-casual restaurant chain Chipotle. They think it’s being socially responsible and doing good things for animals. But in spite of what the U.S. Supreme Court says, corporations aren’t persons. They’re merely legal entities without the cognitive capacity to either comprehend or exhibit social responsibility. And when they do “good” things, it’s geared toward maximizing returns to their stockholders. Everything else is just hype. Like it or not that’s the way corporations function through their charters and our laws.

Chipotle likes to throw around the term “naturally raised” in its advertising. It sounds good, but when it comes to food there exists no legal definition of “natural.” It can mean whatever a marketer decides it means. But whatever “naturally raised” may mean at Chipotle is irrelevant anyway because it misses the bigger point. For the issue for anyone who respects animals ought not to be how we raise animals, but that we enslave and raise them in the first place. And by that standard Chipotle is no different than any other business that exploits animals. Quite simply, a business that cares about animals would not be selling them.

“Happy animal product” marketing embraced by Chipotle, Whole Foods Market, and others—and approved by the major animal welfare oriented animal groups—makes consumers feel more comfortable about exploiting animals, and in so doing reinforces existing morally inconsistent thinking and behavior. That is exactly what it’s designed to do, lest people begin to question the legitimacy of animal use. And that’s why it’s good for marketers (like Chipotle), but terrible for animals.

Animal exploitation is ultimately about demand, not supply. Thus the solution ultimately depends on the consumer. Corporations—again, since they are not persons—cannot comprehend or exhibit ideology. So they will continue to meet our demand for animal products but are not ideologically wedded to that category of product. Should enough people stop demanding animal products, they would not hesitate to make the necessary investments and shift their marketing to vegan food.

If you wish to do something meaningful for animals, reject corporate feel-good propaganda, reject animal commodification, skip the “happy animal products,” and go vegan. Discover for yourself how easy and rewarding it is.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Vegan World

What do abolitionists mean when we speak of a future vegan world? First of all, we are talking about changing the world that we have created for ourselves. Our world includes humans and the animals that we have forced into domestication, including those that we use for food, clothing, companionship, entertainment, and biomedical experimentation; but not the wild animals existing outside of our sphere of domination such as the carnivores that need to eat other animals to survive.

Just as murder, rape, and other forms of violent assault against humans continue to occur even though virtually all of us consider such things to be morally wrong, in a vegan world there would still exist instances of animal exploitation. However, the vast majority of people would consider speciesism—much like racism is today—a scourge, and veganism would be a social norm. The legal system would no longer recognize the property status of animals, and harm to any sentient being would be treated similarly regardless of the victim’s species.

Animals would no longer be recognized as resources for our benefit, but rather as persons with self-interests, inherent value, and basic rights. Animal sanctuaries where nonhuman refugees displaced from their natural habitats could live out their lives with minimal interference would exist for as long as they were needed, but institutions that exploit animals for their entertainment value such as pets, animal actors, zoos, marine parks, and aquariums, would not. Animal domestication, similar to how human domestication is regarded today, would no longer be acceptable, and we would no longer be perpetuating it by breeding animals for any purpose.

A vegan world will require a major paradigm shift, with societal attitudes changing first, followed by changes in the legal systems once there exists a sufficient political base to support that. Given that most people already accept the premise that it’s wrong to impose unnecessary pain, suffering, and death on an animal, we are closer to a vegan world than many may think. Increasing awareness of animal agriculture’s damaging effects on human and environmental health will force many changes. However, the more important challenges are to acknowledge that animal exploitation, in all of its many manifestations, is a form of violence, and to then bring our behavior in line with our core beliefs. But we won’t get there without a collective sense of self-efficacy—a durable belief on the part of enough of us that a vegan world can be achieved. We also won’t get there if we don’t change our focus to challenging animal use and killing, rather than continuing to spin our wheels by talking about “humane” treatment of animals that we shouldn’t be bringing into our world and exploiting in the first place.

The world is vegan! If you want it.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Why Abolitionism is an Inherently Optimistic Approach Essential to the Emergence of a Vegan World

A key difference between abolitionists, who focus on the abolition of animal exploitation, versus welfarists, who focus on treatment through the furthering of animal welfare measures, is where we fall on the optimism-pessimism spectrum. Abolitionists are optimists in the sense that our goal of a vegan world is driven by the belief that it can be achieved. Most welfarists on the other hand—assuming that the majority of them would welcome a vegan world—are pessimists regarding its emergence. In countless instances over many years, animal advocates who embrace the welfarists campaigns of groups like PETA and the Human Society of the United States (HSUS), have expressed to me their belief that most people will never go vegan, and therefore we must direct our time and energy toward making animal exploitation more “humane.” There are several problems with this position.

First, animal exploitation and the speciesism that forms its foundation are social justice issues that can only be fixed through an approach that seeks their eradication. For instance, had movements seeking to improve the lives of females taken the position that most people would never accept the concept of equal rights for women, and instead focused on making existing discriminatory practices less objectionable, it is unlikely today that females would have as many opportunities to participate in high school and colligate sports, or to enter traditionally male dominated professions. If movements seeking to improve the lives of members of the LGBT community had taken the position that marriage equality was an unrealistic goal and instead settled for civil unions that provide far fewer benefits, we would not today be looking at a growing number of states where marriage equality is legal. Nor would we be seeing rapidly evolving social attitudes in which even many of the critics of nationwide marriage equality are acknowledging its inevitability. History shows us that major changes in attitudes do occur, and that while the process can be frustratingly slow with pauses and setbacks, progressive social change is all but certain. However, it is always dependent on optimistic individuals with a vision, working towards goals that are radical for their time, who fervently believe that they can be achieved.

Second, the welfarist starting-point position that most people will never go vegan, leads to other positions and campaigns that indeed make it more likely that will be the case. While there are many problems with the welfarist model, which I discussed in detail in this previous post, it is the “happy” animal products phenomenon that best illustrates this point. Animal products marketed as being better for animals, in fact have the opposite effect by encouraging continued consumption. The interests of the animals whose body parts or secretions end up in the grocery store with labeling proclaiming “cage free,” “certified humane raised,” or something similar, are never more than minimally recognized or addressed, and that will continue to be the case as long as animals are considered property. As mere property or commodities, animals always lose out to the economic interests of producers. The “happy” animal product marketing schemes are designed to perpetuate animal consumption by making consumers feel more comfortable about continuing to do that. And they achieve this by effectively keeping the focus on treatment and away from discussions about the more fundamental issue, which is given what we know today about animal sentience, human nutrition, and the devastating environmental effects of animal agriculture, why so many of us are still exploiting animals to begin with.

This leads to my third point, which is that whatever the misleading “happy” animal product marketing campaigns may claim, there is no such thing as “humane” or “compassionate” exploitation. If a serial killer took measures to reduce the suffering of his victims before he killed them, no rational person would describe him as “humane” or “compassionate.” Nor would we settle for programs designed to make serial killing “nicer” or “kinder.” Yet we are blinded by convenience and tradition to the very same kind of injustice in instances where the victims are nonhumans.

In summary, we have historical evidence that major social change can and does occur, the pessimistic welfarist approach that focuses on our treatment of animals rather than challenging our use of them and promoting veganism, gets us nowhere, and however cleverly it’s marketed, there is no way that animal exploitation can be made “humane.”

Abolitionism takes a direct path toward a vegan world by focusing on convincing more people to become vegans. Polling done by Harris Interactive for the Vegetarian Resource Group shows that the number of self-identified vegans in the United States rose from 1% of the population in 2009 to 2.5% in 2012—a 150% increase in just three years. Even considering sampling errors (not all self-identified vegans are true vegans), and the fact that three years is not a sufficient period of time to predict a long-term trend, the figure is very encouraging. As each new vegan convinces others to go vegan, and as those they have convinced in turn convince others, and as environmental and global food supply pressures intensify, it is likely that the rate of increase will rise over time.

Probably much sooner than even most abolitionists can imagine, we will have a vegan world. I’m optimistic.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Horse Slaughter is Horrible, but so is all Animal Exploitation

There has been a burst of activity in social media and the blogosphere among animal advocates and those who just have a special affinity for horses in the hours since it was announced that the USDA had approved the opening of the first horse slaughtering facility in the United States since the 2011 expiration of a five-year-old ban. Commercial horse slaughter has not occurred in the U.S. since 2006, though horses have been exported to slaughtering plants in neighboring Mexico and Canada during the intervening years, and surely will continue to be due to demand.

Many of the posts and tweets have implied either subtly or not that horse slaughter is especially horrible. I could not agree more that horse slaughter is horrible, but equally horrible is the slaughter of billions of cows, pigs, chickens, fish, and other animals that occurs at our hands every year for trivial reasons.

We are conditioned to insert animals into a moral hierarchy, with horses, dogs, and cats closer to the top, rodents and fish near the bottom, and other land animals somewhere in between. But moral hierarchy is wrong precisely because it is a moral hierarchy—a mechanism that arbitrarily assigns higher value to the interests of some over those of others. It is a cultural construct in which animals move up or down the hierarchal ladder based on the cultural norms of a given society at a given moment in its history. Just as ranking the importance of humans by using race or gender is understood by most of us to be wrong, it is similarly wrong to do so using species.

Our world largely runs on supply and demand and we wouldn’t be discussing domestic horse slaughter if not for our continued demand for horses. Minus that demand, we would not be breeding more of them in the first place.

We look harshly upon foreigners who enjoy horsemeat, furthering our underlying xenophobia and false feelings of moral superiority, while failing to recognize the harm we are doing here at home when we patronize horse-drawn carriages, equestrian shows, or horse races. These are all forms of exploitation that treat horses as just another one of our resources. None of them are benign. All of them are abhorrent and contribute to the overall demand.

All animals have self-interests. They all value their lives just like we do and have value that is independent of how we may think about them individually or as members of a particular species. Abolitionist veganism rejects moral hierarchy and species favoritism, and treats similar situations in similar ways.

Please go vegan. It is the moral and political commitment to nonviolence that protects the environment, promotes human health, respects the interests of other sentient species, and as I truly believe will someday be evident, puts us on the right side of history.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

You Need Not Turn Over Any Rocks

Animal exploitation is so pervasive in our culture that you need not turn over any rocks to see it; in fact you can't seem to get away from it. During my run early this morning I ran past a large group of goats grazing in a grassy field surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Accompanying them was a dog. Both the dog and the goats are victims of domestication. They are someone's property, their lives are controlled, and they are forever dependent on humans. The dog is exploited for her ability to watch over the goats and chase or scare away predators. The goats are exploited for whatever horrible purposes they are used for. Everyone inside that fence is valued more for what they can do for us than for who they are as individuals.

Later this morning while stretching at the gym, I overheard a man on the mat next to me saying into his cell phone: "She wants to go to SeaWorld. I think we can find a coupon." We detain animals in zoos, aquatic parks, and aquariums where we strip them of their personhood, manage their lives in unnatural settings, put them on display, and profit off them, merely because we find them entertaining.

A coffee shop was my next stop. While paying for my coffee and bagel, I couldn't help notice the tubs of cream cheese neatly stacked in the refrigerated display case next to me. The dairy industry involves such terrible violence that those containers might as well have been smeared with blood.

I see animal exploitation everywhere I turn, and honestly, it sickens me. But I always remind myself that the discomfort I feel is trivial compared to what the nonhuman animals we exploit have to go through.

If you haven’t already done so, please recognize that animals have an interest in their lives just as humans do. Please reject violence and go vegan.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Past Mistakes Should be a Basis for Change, Not a Justification for Their Perpetuation

My animal rights position has sometimes been challenged by friends who maintain that without our history of animal exploitation we would not be where we are today. First, I agree, but that can also be said about our history of human slavery, the persecution of Native Americans, and other practices that we no longer regard as morally justifiable. Second, the argument presupposes that "where we are today" is better than what would have otherwise come about. There is simply no way to know that. Certainly we could be in a better place or a worse place, but assuming for the moment that our present-day society represents a desirable outcome, I do not accept that the ends justify the means. Third, regardless of what we did or did not do in the past, we have the capacity to choose today to take a different path.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Our Conflicted Attitudes Toward the Death of Animals

The following is a research paper I recently wrote for an ASU class called "Death and Dying in Cross-Cultural Perspective."

Most people agree that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary pain, suffering, or death on animals; and many people say that they love animals. In spite of this, we routinely cause harm to animals in ways that would objectively be described as abuse, for reasons that in almost all cases qualify as frivolous. We often fail to recognize the self-interests and intrinsic worth of animals as thinking, feeling, sentient beings, as we focus instead on how they can be most useful to us.

We may not always agree on exactly what constitutes the necessary use of animals, but surely in today’s society, it is not necessary to use animals for food, clothing, or the majority of the other things we utilize them for. In fact, regarding food, the American Dietetic Association clearly states in a position paper that: “Appropriately planned vegan, lacto-vegetarian, and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets satisfy nutrient needs of infants, children, and adolescents and promote normal growth” (Craig, Mangels). Furthermore, our consumption of animal products has been linked to increasingly serious E. coli outbreaks and elevated rates of various degenerative diseases, and is devastating to the environment.

Clearly our behavior is often inconsistent with our professed beliefs. Depending on the particular species of animal, our actions may reflect anything from resolute consistency to absolute contradiction. The basis for our belief that it is wrong to cause the unnecessary death of a human or other animal is the universally understood idea that death represents severe, and perhaps ultimate harm, to any perpetually aware or sentient individual. Yet while we regard some kinds of animals, such as the dogs and cats that many of us live with, as nonhuman persons whose lives and interests we value deeply and whose deaths we mourn, we accept with little or no thought the routine, and often large-scale killing of other kinds of animals—who exhibit no meaningful cognitive differences—for food, clothing, biomedical research, and other uses. While most of us do not regard animals as mere “things,” they are nevertheless considered property under the law and are frequently treated as resources or commodities with considerable latitude granted to their respective owners.

Animal rights theorist and Rutgers University law professor Gary L. Francione, calls this inconsistent situation “moral schizophrenia” (Francione, Introduction). His theory, which is based solely on animal sentience, calls for the abolition of animal exploitation, the promotion of veganism as the moral baseline of the animal rights movement, the rejection of measures that seek to regulate exploitation, and the clear rejection of violence, both generally and as a tactic to further social change (Francione, “Mission”).

In 2009, the estimated 59 billion land and sea animals killed in the United States for food represented the vast majority of our animal use (Mohr). It should be noted that this figure includes animals used for dairy and eggs, as they too are sent to the slaughterhouse, once they are no longer economically productive. This cannot by any reasonable definition be considered necessary. Rather, the pain, suffering, and death we impose on nonhumans is a combined result of cultural tradition, habit, convenience, and the pleasure and enjoyment we derive from eating animals, wearing them, and being entertained by them.

Our conflicted attitudes toward animal death and killing represent speciesism, which is a form of discrimination based on species membership. We tend to take more seriously the protection of species we consider companion animals, those animals that are more closely related to us such as nonhuman primates, and animals that we perceive as cute, such as dolphins, seals, and pandas. Often, intellectual capacity is also a factor that we apply when we insert animals into a moral hierarchy. However, none of these factors are relevant to one’s ability to experience pain, suffering, or the fear of death. The majority of us understand that when it comes to humans it is fundamentally wrong to deny basic rights to those who we deem less intelligent, less attractive, or more “different.” If we can acknowledge that the species of a sentient being is no more morally relevant than a person’s intelligence, skin color, age, or gender, than we must dismantle the moral hierarchy we have created for animals, and give their interests equal consideration. In other words, we must treat similar situations in similar ways.

The value assigned to the lives of animals of a given species can be very different depending on the cultural context. In a 2008 essay, sociologist Roger Yates compared how the killing of dolphins is viewed in Japan and many Western countries. In the West, a number of animal advocacy groups, reflecting—and perhaps to some extent influencing—public attitudes, fund campaigns against dolphin slaughter by the Japanese fishing industry. Western culture values dolphins, while many Japanese consider the animals to be pests, similar to how cattle farmers in the West see foxes. Referring to a conversation about this with a Japanese friend, Yates wrote: “However, one thing tends to unite the Japanese ... and that is a generalized resentment to being told what to do by countries whose peoples are quite happy to chomp away on pigs, chickens and cows. To the Japanese, this is gross hypocrisy to be dismissed as such” (Yates).

Cultural differences regarding animals surfaced during the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, China, when officially designated Olympic restaurants were ordered not to serve dog flesh during the month of August, as a public relations measure directed at foreign visitors. Again, we had a hypocritical situation. In this case, visitors from other countries and cultures may have frowned upon eating dogs, while not thinking twice about eating other sentient species, and the similar pain, suffering and death that resulted. There was no evidence to suggest that the ban would have done anything to reduce overall animal suffering and death, as diners who could not order dog flesh were free to substitute another species of animal on the menu.

“From a moral standpoint, eating dogs is no better or worse than eating cows, chickens, pigs, or fish. That seeing dogs listed on restaurant menus in Beijing may offend or upset foreign visitors, says more about Western speciesism than China’s comparative level of civilization and modernity,” wrote this author in a 2008 blog essay (Hopes).

The case of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is strikingly illustrative of our conflicted attitudes about animals. Vick was convicted in 2007 in federal court for running an interstate dog fighting operation in which dogs suffered terribly and often died as a consequence. Both the case itself and its heavy media coverage were steeped in hypocrisy and speciesism from the beginning.

The NFL player grew up in a subculture where dog fighting was accepted. What Vick did was clearly wrong, and this was by no means a justification for his actions. But it represented an explanation that was most often overlooked by the media, various animal advocacy groups that weighed in on the issue, and the general public. Of course in our larger culture, it is considered acceptable to eat animal products from animals that also suffer terribly and are killed. Morally, what Vick did was no different from what most of us do every day—exploiting animals for the trivial reasons of pleasure and entertainment. The only difference was that Vick used dogs.

Vick, who served 19 months in prison, was unfairly singled out by the NFL, which suspended him, his sponsors who abandoned him, animal groups who called for his punishment, and a legal system that does not imprison animal exploiters in general. But the NFL presides over an inherently violent sport, and accepts advertising from corporations whose operations revolve around the exploitation of animals. Hamburgers, ice cream, and other animal products are sold in the stadiums during the football games. One of Vick’s sponsors, Kraft Foods, is a leading marketer of animal-based foods. His deal with Nike was suspended. Nike is on record for egregious worker exploitation, and sells leather shoes. Finally, none of the big animal advocacy organizations used the case as an opportunity to educate the public about non-violence and veganism, by pointing out that all use of animals, not just dog fighting, represents animal abuse and violence.

Gary L. Francione wrote about this in a 2009 op-ed titled We’re All Michael Vick that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “There is something bizarre about condemning Michael Vick for using dogs in a hideous form of entertainment when 99 percent of us also use animals that are every bit as sentient as dogs in another hideous form of entertainment that is no more justifiable than fighting dogs: eating animals and animal products,” he said. Concluding the piece, Francione asked: “How removed from the screaming crowd around the dog pit is the laughing group around the summer steak barbecue” (Francione)?

Focusing so narrowly on Vick and the comparatively rare practice of dog fighting, served to reinforce the idea of dogs as special and Vick as a monster, while doing nothing to bring attention to the comparatively much larger problem of the billions of animals tortured and killed for food. Some people claim that dogs are indeed special, but unlike a peer-reviewed finding based on empirical evidence, this represents an opinion analogous to someone who believes that membership in a particular racial group elevates a human being to a special status. It was admirable that Michael Vick went on to denounce dog fighting, but by not denouncing all animal exploitation and embracing veganism, existing speciesist thinking was fortified, and lessons were not learned.

It can be said that language shapes the channels within which our thinking flows. How we as individuals, and collectively as a culture, use language—more specifically the words that we choose—has a way of both influencing and reflecting how we think about animals. For example, it is exceedingly rare that we use the pronoun “it” when referring to a human, though we occasionally use the word when referring to a companion animal, and very frequently when referring to other nonhuman animals. “It” implies a thing, an object, commodity, resource, or property, while “he” or “she” suggests sentience, personhood, or an individual. We find it easier to enslave, impose pain or suffering upon, or terminate the life of an “it” as opposed to a “he” or “she.” Likewise, we find it more difficult to recognize the inherent moral value and self-interests of an “it.”

Producers, often in partnership with animal advocacy or environmental groups, have created various marketing terms and consumer labeling programs that attempt to steer our thinking or play on our existing biases. For example, “certified humane” animal products imply better and kinder conditions for animals raised for food, yet those animals are still subjected to intense confinement, painful procedures, and deliberately imposed death. “Dolphin-safe tuna” strengthens the speciesist idea that we should take seriously the protection of dolphins, but not tuna. The intended and actual effect of these measures is to make consumers feel less guilty about continuing to eat animal products.

“We only grow one crop of fish at a time on a farm, and we have crop rotation,” Nell Hales of Cooke Aquaculture proudly told the reporter in a 2009 “Green Week” piece on NBC Nightly News (Thompson). In the story, fish are commodities or “crops” like stalks of corn, not individuals; we are told that the dramatic plunge in the ocean’s fish population is a problem only because there are fewer fish for humans to kill and eat, and that aquaculture, rather than not eating fish, is the solution. Even though fish are more evolutionarily distant from us and may not be as easy to relate to as mammals, scientists have nevertheless concluded that they are sentient with the capacity to feel pain (Sneddon).

In conclusion, one could say that our conflicted attitudes about the death of animals, along with our exploitation of them, largely results from what we have believed and have done in the past for quite some time. We are born into and raised in a culture where nonhuman animals are property, where animal exploitation is the everyday norm, and is convenient and traditional. We are conditioned to not seeing the situation objectively, to not acknowledging that when we kill an animal we are committing an act of violence that destroys a personality. Until we reject our current paradigm, nonhumans will always be valued more for how useful they are to us as things, than for their intrinsic worth as sentient individuals.

Given proper attention by growing numbers of individuals to the core of the problem, which is speciesism and violence, and to the solution to the problem, which is veganism, there is every reason to believe that attitudes will change. Francione, who considers veganism to be a moral and political commitment to the abolition of animal exploitation, sees creative non-violent vegan education as the cure for our moral schizophrenia. “The animal rights position is the ultimate rejection of violence. It is the ultimate affirmation of peace” (Francione, “Mission”).

Works Cited

Craig, Winston J., and Mangels, Ann Reed. “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109:7 (2009): 1266-82.

Francione, Gary L. Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University P, 2000. 1-30. Print.

---. “Mission Statement” Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach n.d. n. pag. Web. 8 June 2011.

---. “We’re all Michael Vick.” The Philadelphia Inquirer
14 Aug. 2009. n. pag. Web. 8 June 2011.

Hopes, Kenneth. “Beijing Restaurants Take Dogs off the Menu During the Olympic Games” Brockway Hall 5 Aug. 2008 n. pag. Web. 8 June 2011.

Mohr, Noam. “59 Billion Land and Sea Animals Killed for Food in the U.S. in 2009.” Free From Harm 15 Jan. 2011. n. pag. Web. 8 June 2011.

Sneddon, Lynne U. “The Evidence for Pain in Fish: the Use of Morphine as an Analgesic.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 83.2 (2003) 153-62. ScienceDirect. Web 12 June 2011.

Thompson, Anne. “Teach a Man to Farm Fish.” NBC Nightly News KPNX, Phoenix. 20 April 2009. Television.

Yates, Roger. “Something Fishy About Campaigns about Dolphins and Whales?” On Human-Nonhuman Relations 31 Aug. 2008 n. pag. Web. 8 June 2011.