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We Don't Love Animals

Updated: Jun 13

“The question is not ‘can they reason?’ Nor, ‘can they talk?’ but rather - ‘can they suffer?’ ~ Jeremy Bentham

As humans, we’re a funny species. We evolved from apes many centuries ago, and grew into homo sapiens, realising that the one factor distinguishing us from the apes, was our intelligence. Not just apes of course, but from all other animals. We’ve used this intelligence to create technology, architecture, societies, and whole new worlds for us to live in. At some point, because of all this, we also happened to declare that if there is such a thing as a metaphorical or biological food chain, we were the ones at the top of it. We were the ones who decided what parts of nature live, and what parts of nature die. Think of it as a way of playing god. There’s just one problem, however. While we may have evolved in terms of intelligence, which in turn gave rise to various technological discoveries and advancements in society, we have failed in one crucial area - Ethics. And nowhere is this fact more evident, than in our treatment of animals, because as tempting as it is to believe, we don’t love animals.

This article won’t focus on ethics and morality, as I’ve already put one out on that topic. If you haven't read that, I encourage you to do so as it might help you understand this point of view. For this blog post, however, we need a reference point. When it comes to ethics and morality, people tend to have varied opinions. When asked about what’s right or wrong, most people tend to lean towards saying that it’s a subjective matter, that no one person gets to decide what’s right or wrong, and that it’s entirely context-dependent. Yet, ask someone about how they feel about a child being murdered, a woman being raped, an old lady being robbed, or a dog being attacked, and there’s usually just one kind of response that follows unless, of course, we’re talking about a sadistic psychopath. If that does not make the question of morality an objective truth, what does?

When we talk about ethics and morality, at some point, we will have to come to a consensus that the ethical implications and nature of an action depend on how it affects the well-being of conscious creatures. Why? Because from an evolutionary standpoint, we know that certain actions feel ‘good’, and those that feel ‘bad’. Touching a hot stove and experiencing a split-second, involuntary move of withdrawing your hand is a good indication of this in action. That is why, it’s generally a good idea to avoid ‘bad’ things such as this, because touching a hot stove does not support the wellbeing of conscious creatures such as ourselves. Similarly, warming oneself with clothes during winter is good for our well-being, so we have the incentive to continue pursuing such actions. Thus, the growing sales of blankets and fuzzies during winter months.

If we cannot deduce this, then we must ask ourselves - “what is good or bad?” We can’t live without having an understanding of what’s good and what’s bad. There’s a reason people choose to live in houses, wear clothes, eat food, and exercise, rather than choose to live in a swamp, wear leaves, eat stones, and sleep all day for a living. Ultimately, the reasoning for these behaviours boils down to our understanding of what’s ‘good’ to do and what’s ‘bad’ to do.

If we’ve established this, then the next question is, why is our belief limited to conscious creatures? Why aren’t rocks subject to ethics and morality? Well, because when we think about pain and suffering, whether that’s mental or physical, we’re talking about consciousness. Anatomically speaking, to experience physical pain and sensations, a central nervous system is required. To make sense of that pain, sentience is required. Rocks have neither. Plants show signs of intelligence, but not sentience. They also do not have a central nervous system and are incapable of feeling pain or emotions.

bee sitting on a hand

Science, of course, is also limited. Who’s to say that rocks cannot feel pain or emotions, just because they don’t show any signs or evidence of it? Well, science is the best tool we have available to help us understand how the world works. We make decisions based on what we know, not what we don’t know or can’t know. We cannot make laws to protect rocks on the possibility that they may feel emotions or pain. Zoom out and the same applies to all objects.

This brings us to humans and animals, who are both conscious, have central nervous systems, and are therefore capable of feeling both mental and physical pain. In other words, conscious creatures.


The False Truth

When a view such as this is accepted, one can safely say that there nothing in the history of humankind has done more harm and damage, than factory farming. The consumption of meat is one thing, factory farming is another. One’s dietary preferences are often described as a ‘personal choice’, one that cannot be argued against. Therefore, who are we to say that eating meat is wrong, and eating plants is right?

This is where both our morality and our thinking fail us because there is not a single ethically justifiable reason to consume meat.

The notion that eating animal flesh is acceptable, comes from the underlying belief that in some sense, humans are superior to animals, and so we can start by addressing this belief before moving further. Those who believe that humans are superior to animals typically refer to Darwinism, asserting that the law of nature is such that the fittest survive. Human beings are the fittest, and therefore eating meat is acceptable. These people also like to refer to the days of the hunter-gatherers, citing that human beings anatomically have canines and we’ve evolved to consume meat.

The problem with this though, as with any other claim, is that it’s zoomed too far in. Zoom out and we can see the gaps. Hunter-gatherers did not have access to supermarkets like we do. Their lives revolved around actively hunting for food, plants or animals because their very survival depended on it. They also did a lot of other things during their time, such as wearing nothing but rags, living in huts, sitting by fires and telling stories to pass the time. Quite different to how we like to spend our time. How many humans spend their time the way hunter-gatherers did? How many humans today eat meat specifically because their survival depends on it? Unless we’re talking about an autoimmune condition wherein one is compelled to eat a specific food, or a specific nutritional deficiency to consume a particular meat, our survival does not depend on whether our diet contains meat or not.

An easy way to test this is to ask ourselves a simple question. This is also a test to see how open-minded you can be to the possibility of something unconventional for the sake of conversation. Let’s say cannibalism was legal and your local grocery store was now selling human meat steaks. It’s priced the same as the meat you usually opt for, is easy to cook, has great nutritional value, and is rumoured to taste delicious.

Would you try it?

Let’s make it more interesting. Let’s say that human meat contains an essential nutrient that our bodies need to function efficiently, a nutrient that you’re deficient in. The only alternative to obtaining this nutrient is to consume a supplement, so eating the meat is easier.

Now would you try it?

Society has conditioned us to believe that cannibalism is bad, but continues to allow consumption of animals because it’s good. Why? Because humans are considered to be superior to animals. Superior in what sense though? Yes, we may be more intelligent as a species, but the value of life amounts to more than just intelligence. For instance, we cannot run faster than a cheetah, we can’t swim faster than a dolphin, and we can’t climb trees faster than a monkey.

How then did we decide that we’re the superior species?

a cat and a dog sitting on the grass

Photo by Andrew S on Unsplash

What’s worse is that we are selective about how we feel about animals. Why for instance, are dogs and cats given all the love in the world, while chickens, pigs, goats, cows, and fish are slaughtered by the millions every single day? As of 2018, 471 million dogs and 373 million cats were domesticated as pets worldwide by households. It’s safe to say that this number has significantly grown in the past 5 years. In contrast, here are some numbers showing an approximation of how many of the most commonly eaten animals are slaughtered every year for meat consumption, as of 2019. Buckle up:

  • Over 150 billion farmed fish

  • Over 70 billion hens

  • Over 1.3 billion pigs

  • Over 700 million geese and guinea fowl

  • Over 600 million rabbits

  • Over 600 million turkeys

  • Over 500 million goats

  • Over 300 million cattle

These numbers are from 5 years ago, so it’s most likely higher now.

This begs the question - who decides the worth of an animal? If that list included dogs, what would your reaction be? Let’s revisit the previous situation where I used the example of cannibalism and replaced it with dog meat instead. Let’s say you’re offered a steak cut from a labrador, or a retriever, or a beagle, it doesn’t matter. The same rules apply, it’s affordable, nutritious, and delicious.

Would you consume it?

If you flinched at the thought of consuming a dog or a human, it’s worth reflecting on how society has conditioned us to accept the notion of consuming some animals but not others. We’ve marketed it well too. We’ve given animals new names to make it seem as though we’re not eating them directly. Chicken for hens, beef for cows, veal for calves, pork for pigs, mutton for goat, and venison for deer. Why? Because the ‘eating pig’ doesn’t sound as appealing as ‘eating pork’. Or ‘eating cow flesh’ doesn’t sit right as compared to ‘eating steak’.

How well do we trick ourselves into believing certain things just because we want to?


The Nation of Kangaroos

The national animal of Australia is the kangaroo. As an Aussie icon, kangaroos appear on the country’s coat of arms and are the logo of the country’s national airline - Qantas. Despite this, millions of kangaroos are killed each year in Australia known as a ‘kangaroo cull’. Seen by many as pests, the government and wildlife experts say some species of kangaroos are so plentiful they need to be regularly culled to protect the land, other native species, and the animals themselves from starving during times of drought. However, the truth is that under government programs, licensed hunters earn a fee for each kilogram of kangaroo, and the carcasses are processed for meat, skin and hides for export to around 70 countries. This is an industry worth AU$200 million each year, according to the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia (KIAA), the main commercial industry body. The government also has rules around ‘ethical killing’ methods, which involve a direct gunshot to the head to minimise the suffering of the animal during death.

The humans who claim to be making decisions in favour of the environment are the same humans who get behind industries like mining and factories which cause more damage to the land and environment, contributing to climate change significantly more than kangaroos do.

Population is an interesting topic. Amongst switching to a plant-based diet, recycling, owning an electric car, and living in a tiny house, the single most influential decision someone can make when it comes to looking after the environment in a sustainable manner, is to not have kids. The carbon footprint of a human far exceeds that of any animal in the world, ranging from 3-4 tons of CO2 each year throughout their lifetime, excluding the emissions caused by external factors such as vehicle ownership, occupation, housing, etc. Yet, we humans have convinced ourselves that we can have our cake and eat it too, i.e. have 3-4 kids and compensate for the collective carbon footprint by switching to an electric car and virtue signalling to our neighbours about how much better a Tesla is.

We don’t see kangaroos coming and telling us about the risks of overpopulation, do we? Nature has its way of managing itself, and we’re the last species to claim to have anything to do with preserving the environment. The lie we tell ourselves is that kangaroos are killed to protect the land, when in reality they’re treated as nothing more than another revenue-generating industry in the form of kangaroo meat and leather.

The least we can do is stop pretending to not be driven by the forces of capitalism.


Slow and steady

One counter I’ve heard when discussing this matter is that one’s individual choices don’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things, i.e. one person changing their food consumption habits doesn’t change the world because others will be eating meat, so why do it anyway?

Can the same be said for racism or any other form of bigotry? There are racists and bigots in the world, so why don’t we demonstrate the same behaviour? Us not being racist doesn’t change anything because there will always be others who do the same. It all goes back to the belief that humans are superior to animals - that comparing the two cases doesn't work because we're supposedly better.

Not quite right is it?

2 kangaroos on a beach

Photo by Austin Elder on Unsplash

We don’t have control over what others do, we have control over what we do. Secondly, the impact of one’s actions isn’t measured by one meal, but rather throughout one’s life. For example, you might think that having a vegetarian burger rather than a hamburger for dinner doesn’t make much of a difference, but the key here is magnification. Zoom out a bit and you can see the difference.

Let's say you're 30 when you decide to go plant-based, say you end up living up to 80. One vegetarian burger doesn’t change much, but one vegetarian burger every day for the next 50 years, does have a compounding effect. Your carbon footprint as a result of your dietary choices would then be measured by how much of a difference you’ve made throughout your life. Similarly, deciding not to buy a kilo of chicken breast at the grocery store one day might seem insignificant, but when we look at how supermarkets order meat, it can make a difference. to take a simplistic example, consider the following:

Your local supermarket orders 50 kilos of chicken breast each week based on the demand by its customers while keeping a buffer of 10%, i.e. if people purchase anywhere between 45-55 kilos each week, the supermarket would maintain their order quantity. Let’s assume that you usually buy 3 kilos of chicken breast each week, and one day you decide to try going vegetarian for one week. Those 3 kilos you would’ve bought are no longer being consumed. In one given week, the supermarket may monitor a demand of 46 kilos so its purchase quantity remains the same. However, there are other customers as well, so the moment that demand drops to below 45 in a week because of your switch or those of others, let’s say your friends and family, the next order the supermarket requests from their supplier will be of a lesser quantity. Less meat, fewer chickens being killed in that instance. Consistent demand of this sort would lead to more consistent decreases in meat ordered.

This is of course a basic example. Zoom out further and apply this principle to all forms of meat, in all supermarkets, in all cities, in all countries, and you begin to see the impact. Even making smaller switches initially such as opting to buy organic, free-range eggs and chicken and organic, grass-fed beef and dairy can make the difference given how those animals are treated compared to their caged and grain-fed alternatives.

One might argue that economically speaking if everyone were to go plant-based, there would be catastrophic consequences to the meat and animal products industry. While this is true, no one in their right mind expects everyone to instantly stop consuming animal flesh. A change as drastic as this happens gradually, in which case the market forces would find a way to adjust as they always do. Demand for animal flesh decreases as simultaneously the demand for plant-based alternatives increases. Supply will change as a result, with more jobs being created in the latter industry. A change like this is not overnight but rather spread out over years.


Beyond Denial

Either we accept that we don’t love animals as much as we think we do, or we decide to make a change that aligns with our beliefs. As of now, it seems evident that we conveniently choose which animals deserve love and attention, and which animals are to be subject to torture and slaughter. It’s almost as if we’re blinded by our inhibitions to the extent that we give our dogs and cats names, buy them clothes, and celebrate their birthdays as we chew on the flesh of another animal simply because it isn’t cute enough for us.

There is nothing natural about any of this, regardless of how hard we try to convince ourselves.


Podcast Links

Prefer listening?

Check out this podcast episode for the Ideas & More show on Apple Podcasts & Spotify.

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