Psychologist Hal Herzog specialises in studying the relationships between humans and other animals. In his excellent book, Some we love, some we hate, some we eat, he concludes that humans, from animal activists to researchers and even cockfighters, are basically incapable of thinking rationally about other animals. That’s not to say that it’s completely impossible to logically discuss other animals and our relationship with them at all. But it does mean that Hume’s analysis of moral arguments – that reason is the slave of the passions – is almost invariably even truer when it comes to dealing with other animals.
For most of us, how we choose to regard animals morally is almost always a case of post-facto reasoning trying to justify a gut reaction. This is as true of meat-eaters as vegans – although carnivores seem less impelled to incessantly inform you of their eating habits, let alone resort to violence.
The recent outbreak of militant veganism in Australia has, unsurprisingly, sparked a vociferous social media debate. The basic irrationality of humans’ moral reasoning about other animals (from here onwards, I shall refer just to “animals”) is on full display. As best we can, let’s try to analyse the most popular.
In the carnivore corner, meat-eaters often argue that animals eat other animals, therefore it is only natural that humans eat animals too. This, however, is what is known as the “naturalistic fallacy”. Just because something is natural, does not make it morally desirable: animals rape, torture and murder each other, too. What animals do to each other is hardly a reliable moral guide.
A better argument for meat-eaters is the nutrition argument: animal protein is an important component of omnivorous humans’ diet. Yes, too much meat is unhealthy, but so is no animal protein at all. Yes, vegans can take supplements, but the long-term health effects are still unclear. Certainly, death rates among vegans and meat-eaters show no real difference. For children, especially, animal protein is vitally important. Moreover, maintaining a balanced vegan diet is tremendously difficult.
Vegans no doubt argue that the moral weight of consuming animal products, however, is such that the difficulty (and even health risks) are a price that must be paid. Whether this is so depends on the soundness of the vegans’ own arguments.
Firstly, vegans argue that farming and harvesting animal products is inherently cruel.
It is true that some bad actors in farming and processing mistreat animals, but is this the norm? The evidence is that it is far from being so. In fact, livestock industries have gone to tremendous lengths, often in consultation with sensible activists like Temple Grandin, to minimise animal suffering. To be sure, some degree of pain can never be eliminated, but is pain the same as suffering? If I stub my toe, it is excruciatingly painful – but short-lived. It would be ridiculous to call it “suffering”.
Most livestock, especially in places like Australia and New Zealand, generally live pretty good lives: certainly better than they could expect in the wild. The processes harped on by animal activists normally only occupy the last few days and minutes of an animal’s life. Wild foods, like kangaroos, live completely natural lives until the instant a shooter’s bullet enters their brain. That might be gruesome for some to contemplate, but it is not “suffering” or “cruelty”.
So, it can be argued that a minimal amount of pain is worth the human benefit. Undue suffering, not to say actual cruelty, should be eliminated. But that need not entail eliminating animal products altogether.
But vegans also argue that consuming animals is still morally indefensible because animals are “people” or “sentient beings” with rights that include not being killed and eaten. This is an argument many people find difficult to dismiss, but its apparent moral force relies almost entirely on deliberately muddled language.
What, after all, is a “person”? Or a “sentient being”? Many people use these terms, but as the recent social media discussions often show, few seem to have thought about them deeply, if at all. For animal activists especially, such terms are thrown about as casually as an SJW shouting “Nazi!”
A more thorough assessment of the rights and personhood arguments will follow, in part two.