Anyone who has ever participated in vegan outreach will already have experienced a great number of ill-reasoned retorts to the suggestion of adopting an animal-friendly lifestyle: It’s too expensive! I need my protein! Soya is destroying the rainforests! Plants have feelings too!
But in my own experience, one of the most common and most vehement is that, as free human beings living in a democratic society, we have the right to choose what we want to eat and the beliefs of others (i.e. vegans) should not be forced on anyone.
Understandably, when we feel like our liberty is being threatened, we get defensive.
But the truth is, we readily sign up to ways of living that may indeed impact our freedom but are for the greater good. Take for example the smoking ban. This limits the freedom of smokers to light up where they please but it went largely unopposed – with the exception of the self-interested tobacco industry and is now the norm. There are numerous additional laws that limit our freedom yet we adhere to largely without question.
So why do people feel like their freedom is being attacked when they are asked not to eat animals? Why aren’t we as willing to compromise our freedom for the benefit of animals as we are for humans?
Carnism & cognitive dissonance
Firstly, being considerate of people doesn’t require a change in our behaviour – we are already doing it. How hard did you have to think about not harming others this morning? Hopefully, not at all (unless you suffered a little road rage on your way to work). Most people don’t think about harming animals on a daily basis either and respect the right of some animals to be free from suffering. Most people would stop to help an injured cat or dog in the street - or even a cow, pig or chicken outside the context of a factory farm.
But if they’re anything like me, most people are thinking about food all day long. And unfortunately, for the vast majority, that means meat. People are living within a belief system of carnism, believing that eating animals is ‘normal, natural and necessary’. So, to suddenly start considering the choice of farmed animals would require the adoption of a new belief system and a new way of thinking about diet, which would have to result in a significant habit shift.
The belief system of carnism is upheld by cognitive dissonance. Many people subconsciously detach themselves from the cruel reality of their food’s production. There is nothing normal, natural or necessary about modern animal agriculture. Take for example, the debeaking of hens, the tail docking of piglets and the shooting of bull calves born to dairy cows. Of course it also makes a huge difference that the ones buying the meat and dairy are not the ones doing the killing.
This is reinforced by the sterile and idealised packaging of meats and the fact that we don’t buy a piece of pig but pork. We don’t buy cow but beef. All these things make it easier for meat-eating people, who would agree that animal cruelty is bad, to distance themselves from the reality of what they consume and to continue living under the cruel reign of carnism.
The animal’s choice
Most people don’t even consider the fact that their carnist beliefs are being forced on the animals - who don’t have any choice in the matter of their lives.
Most vegans and non-vegans agree that we should all have freedom of choice if it harms no others and that we should be able to live a life free from suffering as far as is possible. The only difference is vegans put non-human animals in the category of ‘others’ whereas non-vegans don’t. This philosophical difference is the major source of conflict when it comes to the question of choice.
Anyone who has spent even just a little time with animals will realise they have individual personality traits, desires and fears. It is clear that animals have a preference for not feeling pain and for being able to live a life free from suffering. They are able to make intentional choices yet non-vegans choose to ignore them in favour of their own taste preferences. This is an example of speciesism – where human choices trump non-human choices based on nothing more than a difference in species.
Based on what we know about animal behaviour it is reasonable to grant them personhood, or at least view them as worthy of consideration. Gradually the world is waking up to this. Individual elephants, chimpanzees, whales and dolphins have all been granted non-human personhood in courtrooms across the world. And, in 2017, when Toronto Pig Save co-founder Anita Krajnc was on trial for giving pigs water, the question of their personhood was raised in court. But even if animals aren’t granted personhood, that doesn’t mean their choices should be ignored; they are still fellow beings.
Some might invoke the nature argument to show that animals don’t, and shouldn’t, have any choice in their well-being. For example, a gazelle can’t turn to a lion and express its right to not be harmed and therefore neither can a cow turn towards a human and ask the same. But, as with any arguments that compare how humans live to how wild animals live, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There are a plethora of reasons why we shouldn’t base our ethics on what happens in the natural world; infanticide among lions just to name one. A lion’s actions are the product of instinct and it doesn’t have enough insight to alter its behaviour. But we do and we can.
If non-vegans were to agree that the choices of farmed animals should be taken into consideration, veganism would be the only consistent solution.
If we agree that beliefs that cause harm shouldn’t be forced on others, all it takes for non-vegans to align their values with vegans is for them to include non-human animals under the mantle of ‘others’. For this there are two important steps:
- Recognise that carnism is a belief system
- Recognise that farmed animals are individuals worthy of consideration
Once these two significant points have been accepted, no one can reasonably argue that their choice to eat meat trumps the animal’s choice not to be eaten.