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”).
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.