The torture and suffering of animals constitute a moral emergency; but few acknowledge that the suffering of innocent, helpless creatures is a serious issue too
A nationalistic objection to veganism is that the West has a higher burden to reduce its carbon footprint whereas India doesn’t. But ethics are universal. Photo: @mccartneyist / Twitter
You’d probably agree that if we can reduce unnecessary suffering, then we ought to do it. Let’s test it. The suffering of factory farmed animals such as cows, chickens and pigs is unnecessary because we can survive just as well on a plant-based diet.
If a vegan diet is nutritious enough for Olympians, then it must be nutritious enough for everyone, except perhaps those with medical allergies. Hence, the real choice isn’t between a chicken’s life and your survival but rather a chicken’s life and your taste buds. With this established, let’s tackle the most common objections raised against veganism.
Read Blurring identities
The first objection is that it is their personal choice to eat whatever they want and no one else should have a say in that. I’m all for personal liberty, but as John Stuart Mill argues in his seminal work On Liberty, the actions of individuals can be limited to preventing harm to other individuals.
In other words, your right to wave your fist ends where my nose begins. But animals aren’t individuals; there comes your counterpunch. Agreed. They’re not individuals as in they’re not equivalent to humans, but they’re individuals in the sense that they’re worthy of equal moral consideration.
My argument stems from Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which says that the grounds on which we grant moral rights to sentient beings are as applicable to animals as they are to humans.
The question that Singer poses is this: What is that trait / quality that is present or absent in animals, which if present or absent in humans, would justify our treating humans the way we treat animals? Is it the ability to speak, intelligence, friendliness, or what is it?
Human rights are for everyone; whether you’re a noble prize winner or illiterate; black or white, male or female, fully able or disabled; and even criminals.
We acknowledge that tremendous differences exist among humans, but they are not morally relevant when it comes to conceptualising rights. The only relevant moral question we need to ask is, “Can they suffer?” (Bentham). And the answer is a resounding yes.
The second, and perhaps the most insidious objection is that “sacrificing” animals is a part of my religious, caste, or historical identity. But slavery, untouchability and Sati were also linked to someone or the other’s identity.
One way to read history is to trace the moral progress of humankind. Moral progress has been an exercise in expanding the net of moral consideration to more and more sentient beings.
We have gone from the darkness of enslaving fellow humans or stoning apostates to death or burning wailing widows on the pyre of their husbands to the light of secularism, equality before the law and the equal right to vote regardless of gender or social status.
Animal Rights are just another step in this direction.
On the third objection that veganism would steal the livelihoods of poultry farmers and butchers, again, on principle, the duty to not cause harm precedes the right to earn a living.
People are also dependent on human trafficking, arms trafficking, murder, and extortion; would you say that it’s okay to do so? Unemployment is a larger debate to be had in India. Even millions of college graduates are unemployed.
A boost to entrepreneurship and skills-based training is needed for the entire country. The same can be taught to people employed in the meat and dairy industries. When the demand for vegan food increases, the jobs in the industries manufacturing such food will also increase.
Popular food joints in London or Melbourne have plenty of vegan options today that were completely absent ten years ago. Several companies, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers, have already come up.
The fourth, rather nationalistic, objection is that the West has a higher burden to reduce its carbon footprint whereas India doesn’t. Again, ethics are universal. Think of any heinous crime — would that crime be ethical in any particular part of the world? This is not difficult ethical philosophy.
Child rape is unethical no matter where it occurs in the world. Similarly, cows who are forcibly inseminated and have their calves separated from them after birth or chickens who are scalded to death suffer just as much in India as they would in the US.
Furthermore, research from the UN, the Economist, and the University of Cambridge suggests that reducing meat is the single biggest change that we, as individuals, can inculcate to combat climate change, which is a common enemy of the world.
Read Sentient beings
The fifth objection is that plants feel pain too. Sorry, nope. Plants don’t have a central nervous system, they lack sentience and hence, they do not feel pain. Furthermore, if you believe that eating plants is violent, even then, the solution lies in going vegan.
This is because the grains that we produce to feed animals can simply be used to feed ourselves, which will overall reduce the amount of grains produced by eliminating the intermediary consumer (the animals).
Taste, convenience and livelihood are concerns reflective of an anthropocentric worldview. The more important question is the ethics of eating animals. Try thinking from the perspective of a lamb who is raised for the sole purpose of being slaughtered and ending up on your plate.
What justifies humans exercising abusive power over them? Is this not the tyranny of the strong over the weak? How is the nature of the relationship and power different to that of a master-slave?
The torture and suffering of animals constitute a moral emergency. This is an emergency just as grave as ending slavery or equal rights for women. The slight difference is that while many acknowledge that racism and sexism are serious issues, few acknowledge that the suffering of innocent, helpless creatures is a serious issue too.
Abhishek Garg is an advocate for animal rights. He tweets at @abhishekgarg70
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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