The act of exploiting animals is often justified as a “personal choice,” but personal choices stop being personal when they affect others.
When we eat a vegan diet, when we refuse to attend rodeos and zoos, when we pass up leather jackets, wallets and shoes in favor of synthetic or plant-based goods, we are practicing peace. We are behaving consistently in a manner that directly fosters justice.
It is ironic to hear people use their power of choice (typically, only as consumers) in and of itself to justify harming animals. “It’s my choice to eat or not eat animals,” they assert. But this directly violates the freedom and choices of another living being who has every right not to suffer.
Only the aggressor, or the more powerful, can choose to inflict misery and death upon others. By definition, victims are victims, they do not have a choice in the matter of being used.
What about crimes against our fellow humans? We do not say that rape is permissible because rapists are “making a personal choice,” yet rape is absolutely what is done to female cows to force them into pregnancy and thus eventual lactation. We do not say thieves and murderers are excused of their crimes because they chose to commit them. Yet what is more theft and murder than stealing breast milk and killing the children, then their mother when her body is too worn out to produce milk at a profitable rate?
The aggressors want to wiggle out of the truth of using words like “rape” and “murder,” because of a simple speciesist view that only rape and murder can be done to humans.
One fact which cannot be wiggled out of is by enslaving others, we strip them of their most basic choice: to be free. Actions we take are only a “personal choice” until they infringe upon the freedoms of others. Freedom to move about, freedom to avoid pain, freedom to reproduce (or not) at will: these are all choices denied to enslaved animals who would naturally make them if left alone. When we confine and eventually kill our powerless captives, we deliberately and irreversibly engage in violence that annihilates all of their choices.
We all have the capacity to inflict harm. We all have the capacity for enormous good, as well. Abraham Lincoln put it perfectly when he said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”