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Treating them like animals

A personal choice?

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When people are treated monstrously, we say they are “treated like animals.” This is because we treat animals monstrously.

We mistreat and abuse them on farms, transport them in cramped and stressful conditions, torture them in laboratories, hunt them for sport, and use them for our entertainment in circuses and zoos. You know that, I know that, everyone knows that. And yet, the horror continues, and it continues on a scale that is truly mind-boggling.

The vast majority of animals used by humans are used for food. According to the latest data available from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 332 million cows, 501 million goats, 604 million turkeys, 617 million sheep, 1.4 billion pigs, 4.3 billion ducks, and 73.8 billion chicken are killed for meat every year. This list does not include the tens of billions of fish we eat every year, the male chicks that are killed in the egg industry, and the laying hens and other animals the food industry exploits in ways other than killing them for meat. The total number of land animals killed for meat every year comes to roughly 82 billion – more than 2,500 animals per second. With a world population of currently 8.1 billion people, that equals a little more than ten land animals per person per year. Of course, there are vast differences in meat consumption across age groups, social classes, and geographical regions. The daily meat consumption of an average American, for example, is many times higher than that of an average person in Tanzania or Bangladesh. In a year, the average American eats 23 chickens, a third of a pig, a tenth of a cow, three quarters of a turkey, a small amount of duck, twelve fish, and 137 shellfish.

82 billion is such a large number that it is almost impossible to comprehend, and easy to ignore. A comparison may help us here. Have you ever wondered how many people were born since the birth of Jesus, about two millennia ago? Demographic researchers have calculated that the answer is 62 billion. The number of humans who have ever lived, including those who are still alive, is roughly 117 billion. The number of land animals we kill for meat in one year hence exceeds the number of people who were born in the last 2,000 years – by a lot. If meat consumption continues to rise at the current rate, it will just take a few decades until that number even surpasses the total number of people ever born!

When we talk about animals, we often forget that we too are animals. One reason why we forget this simple fact is that, much like George Orwell’s pigs, most of us believe that we are “more equal” than other animals. Philosophers refer to this attitude of superiority as speciesism. They say it is speciesist to give more moral weight to our interests than the like interests of nonhuman animals, just like it is sexist to favor the interests of men over women. This definition, however, does not capture the massive magnitude of our bias. Our speciesism is nothing short of pernicious. The sheer number of animals we are willing to make suffer and kill so that we can have a steak rather than protein-rich tofu, beans, or lentils suggests that we don’t think of our fellow animals as half as, or ten times less important than us. Even if the life of a cow or a chicken was a hundred times less important than yours or mine, we would hardly be justified in ending it for the trivial pleasure of eating meat. Rather, we regard our claim to dominion as a license to treat animals as disposable objects, with no or negligible concern for their lives or well-being.

As we learn more and more about how little difference there is between humans and other animals, our claim to dominion over other species seems increasingly dubious. The 82 billion land animals we kill for meat every year are very much like us. They experience and navigate the world around them, and they exist for their own sake. Each one of them has a unique history and personality. They can feel, and they don’t want to suffer. They want to live, and they don’t want to die. These interests, to be free from suffering and not to be killed, are vital, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that they cannot possibly be outweighed by the comparatively trivial human interest in consuming meat and other animal products. Against this backdrop of thought, the typical responses to veganism appear puzzling and unsettling. There are the shrugs and the smirks – smug or evasive, it’s hard to tell. And then there is the seeming indifference to the horrors of modern animal farming, as if those horrors were banalities, perfectly normal. Often, these are the reactions from otherwise compassionate, well-meaning, and morally conscious people. “Your reasons to abstain from animal products are good reasons, but they are your reasons, and they don’t apply to me,” they say. “I’m not a vegan. After all, what I eat is my personal choice, and what you eat is yours.”

A personal choice. Is it really?

Dr. Rainer Ebert holds a PhD in Philosophy from Rice University in Texas and is a Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, Practical and Systematic Theology at the University of South Africa. He can be reached at rainerebert.com, and you can find him on Twitter @rainer_ebert.

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