In their groundbreaking work Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows, psychologist Melanie Joy opens by inviting the readers into a thought experiment. Say you're at a friend's dinner party. You've not eaten all day, and the fantastic aroma emanating from the steaming pot of stew has you almost salivating. You start eating, and the flavours explode in your mouth. You beg for the recipe, and your friend obliges. That's when you realise you are eating golden retriever meat. So how do you react? Do you:
- Shrug and ask your friend to email the recipe.
- Feel disgusted and perhaps want to leave.
- Try not to think about it and just finish your meal.
- Try to eat around the chunks of meat.
If you answered 1, then congratulations! You are morally consistent when it comes to all nonhuman animals. However, if you felt uneasy at the thought of eating the dog meat, but would continue eating if it was cow or pig meat, then these feelings are worth unpacking. In this blog post, we will go beyond discussing the environmental and health benefits of plant-based food (of which there are many!). Today we will explore some of the conversations around vegan lifestyles. Is it speciesist to eat chicken, drink cow milk, wear leather, and eat lobsters? Let's dive right in!
Who's an animal?
The first thing that we need to unpack is our definition of "animal." While humans are also animals, for this blog post, we will use the term "animal" to refer to other nonhuman sentient creatures. This includes but is not limited to mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and crustaceans. The knowledge that animals are sensitive to pain and suffering has existed for quite some time. In Australia, animal sentience is implicitly recognised in all state and territory jurisdictions. There are legislations in place that criminalise human cruelty towards animals. They acknowledge that such actions can cause emotional distress or physical harm (such as beatings). However, animal rights activists are still concerned that legislations like these are largely symbolic and do little to improve animals' lives. They even help perpetuate the notion that some animals are more important than others.
So, should animals have rights?
Animal rights are based on the belief that animals have an inherent worth—a value separate from their usefulness to humans. On the other hand, animal welfare seeks primarily to reduce animals suffering during human use. It supports regulations to improve conditions for farm animals, guide dogs, animals in research laboratories, and pets. For example, farming practices like docking the tails of dairy calves without pain relief are still practised in Australia. While animal welfare may work toward outlawing such practices, they take for granted that breeding animals for food production are necessary. Animal rights activists would argue that breeding and killing animals for human consumption is morally wrong, regardless of how "humane" the process is.
The problem with welfare is that it does not challenge the fundamental (anthropocentric) belief that humans are superior to animals. This is also known as speciesism - let's explore that a little further.
What is speciesism?
If you have ever been called a "tree hugger" or accused of "loving animals more than people," then you have probably encountered speciesism. Speciesism is the belief that humans are superior to all other animals and therefore have the right to exploit them. In the groundbreaking work Animal Liberation, philosopher Peter Singer defines it as a "prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species." Recent scholars and psychologists have drawn connections between speciest beliefs and racism, sexism, and other prejudices.
So why does this matter?
Suppose we accept that animals are sentient creatures that experience pain and suffering. In that case, it follows that their interests ought to be taken into consideration. Are the lives and suffering of so-called food animals more important than our sensory pleasures? Is the taste of a steak for a 15-minutes-meal worth the years of farming and breeding that animal? These are tough questions to answer, but they are important ones to consider.
With plant-based meat and dairy products becoming more widely available and a growing community of supportive people, going vegan has never been easier. All essential nutrients like B12 and VitaminD can now be found in vegan foods or supplements. If you're interested in a cruelty-free lifestyle, your timing couldn't have been better!
We decided to end our blog series on Going Plant-Based by discussing some of these moral questions to mull over. You've already discovered how delicious and nutritious plant-based foods are, so we wanted to take it further and discuss some of the primary debates surrounding animal rights. Also, here are some further resources we are sure you will enjoy delving further into some of these works.
The questions of morality can be highly personal; we don't have the "right" answer. However, we hope this blog post has helped you explore some of the arguments surrounding veganism and perhaps encouraged you to think more critically about your dietary choices! Thanks for reading!
- Fast Food Nation
- Fern Gully
- The Game Changers
- H.O.P.E.: What You Eat Matters
- Endgame 2050
- The End of Meat
- 73 Cows
- The Animal People
- Forks over knives
- What the health
- Black fish
- Before the flood
- This Is Vegan Propaganda (& Other Lies the Meat Industry Tells You) by Ed Winters
- Why Veganism Matters: The Moral Value of Animals by Gary L. Francione
- Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy