Thinking like a lawyer or an academic logician and claiming that it is acceptable to harm another sentient being for our own selfish benefit based on hair-splitting distinctions and nimble logic is contrary to the teaching of the Buddha.
I ate meat for 32 years. It wasn’t until then that I read enough to realize that animal flesh simple is not necessary for humans. What a relief! To know that eating meat (and obviously dairy) wasn’t necessary. I can’t tell you how good it felt to find that out.
Since we don’t need it, and there are alternatives everywhere, eating it is really only an act of preference. Okay, some people prefer it, that’s fine. They’ll come around.
The Dalai Lama eats animals. Having people kill animals for him to eat is the opposite of compassion.
Elephants mourning their dead. This must be some kind of robot-instinct acted out in a stupid, robotic, 'instincty' kind of way. Photo by Kelly Landen.
Some want to assert that because animals have “no interest in the future,” or “no concept of the future,” it is morally acceptable to enslave and kill them.
We can say killing someone steals their future. Stealing from an individual, whether or not they have a sense of the loss, is still stealing from them. Just like burning someone with congenital analgesia (insensitivity to pain) is still burning them.
It is the dream of the exploiter to find a blanket statement which permits them to continue the exploitation. The more philosophical and abstract the statement, the better, it seems.
Animals Actually Do Have an Interest in the Future
Why do we remember things? In the case of stoves, we remember they may be hot even when they look inactive because, otherwise, we might get burned. Strawberries are tart and sweet. A red light means stop.
Memory serves the purpose of decision making. The hot stove is not touched and the strawberry is eaten to extract its flavor. Our most basic interests are in avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure.
We remember things because we want to change the future.
Pleasure from anticipated strawberries and pain from anticipated shock collars exist in the future. If they exist in the present, we might salivate or twitch or jump out of reflex, and reflexes are one of the few things we do without decision-making. But reflex is done without cognition, as far as we know. It need not consult memory.
When we spy the hot stove or lay our eyes on the red of a shining, freshly washed strawberry, we are contemplating the future.
One with memories is one with an interest in the future. Even interests as simple as “eat until full” and “avoid hissing cats” concern themselves with the future. And this future always includes one thing: the entity thinking about it.
Do dogs have memories? Of course they do. Pavlov’s experiments prove dogs can be conditioned. And where are they be conditioned but in their minds? The dog who salivates at the ring of a bell because she hears it every time dinner is served is thinking about the past (or, at least, considering it) and preparing her body for the future. She expects to receive food.
The sound of the bell is as good as the smell of a fresh meal. Be the input through ears or nose, something is telling her food is near.
What chicken, as “dumb” as they are supposed to be, would forget the sweetest patch of land with the most worms in their pecking ground?
There is a long-held belief that birds are simply too stupid to remember coastlines and geographic landmarks, that they migrate by “pure instinct,” whatever that is. But even this is in question now, with evidence showing that some birds navigate by memory and reason.
If a creature, bird or bear or hare or fish, has a memory then that creature has self-interest and self-awareness. Why else remember anything? Why remember if not to alter the future?
Penguins mourning their dead children. This must be some kind of robot-instinct acted out in a stupid, robotic,'instincty' kind of way.
The Herd Has an Interest in Its Future
Is gassing a nursery full of infant morally acceptable? Of course not. How about gassing one of them? Again, no.
In the dreamworld where each animal “has no interest in his or her future,” it is easy to overlook the fact that animals do mourn. They need social structures, and dropping in Chimp 520 to replace Chimp 519 does not work. Animals are not machines; they are living beings. Even if the fanciful interest-in-future criteria was morally acceptable, which logic suggests it is not, removing the individuals has a profound impact upon their families and social circles.
It makes no difference that the individuals are black, white, Jewish, cows, chickens or salmon. The type of organism is irrelevant to the crime being committed against his or her group. Unlike the survival situations of lions chomping on gazelles, humans committing acts of violence and enslavement against animals is a crime because the act is completely unnecessary to our survival.
Whose "personal choice" are we talking about? Pictured above: a calf roping at a rodeo.
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.”
This scene is acceptable because it could have been worse. The attacker could have been driving a dump truck over infants while shooting the man on the left. That imaginary scenario makes everything better.
The could-be-worse reasoning is applied every day to attempt justify exploiting cows, chickens, geese, sheep, mice, rats, dogs, elephants, women, minorities, the old and the young. With animals, people compare current, “humane” slaughter methods to some horrible alternative, and then state that snuffing out the life of an enslaved, helpless creature is now honorable and free from any moral condemnation.
Let’s go back to the analogy of theft. If I steal your television, I don’t get out of jail by stating I could have also emptied your bank account. When we do something wrong, we do something wrong. It’s as simple as that.
Moral relativity to encourage animal exploitation is simple manipulation to keep us dim-witted and spend-thrifted (say that five times fast). Many people want to believe they can make a difference without changing a thing. As Gary Francione says, the “happy meat” and “humane” slaughter ideas are nothing more than the modern day equivalent of the church selling indulgences.
When we hear ourselves or others saying, “well at least I buy organic eggs,” or “at least this was free-range beef,” we need to remember that those allegedly great strides in animal freedom are illusions. We do not free animals by encouraging people to eat more of them. “Free range”, “grass fed”, “organic” and “humane” labels encourage consumption. These labels move us in the exact opposite direction of liberation and justice.
At the core of this issue is the notion that people are still okay with using the animals, it’s the “excessive” suffering they’re uncomfortable with. This is simple speciesism. Except in extremely trivial cases, no one would wave away a crime against a human because “it could have been worse.” That would not even work in small claims court. When the crime is against those who cannot speak for themselves, it seems, we sing a different tune.
The could-have-been-worse perspective backfires on meat eaters and works against exploiting animals; we can always define “do not interfere with them at all” as the relative comparison. Why must the relative marker be placed closer to torture, and not closer to amnesty? Easy:
The goal of arguing in favor of exploiting animals is never on behalf of the animals.
It is our duty to remind people that treatment does not need to be “worse than” to be wrong. Slavery is slavery. Nutrition options exist. Let’s use our options, not individuals.
No justice exists when crimes are dismissed by simply dreaming up “worse” crimes that could have happened instead.
The Dalai Lama eats meat. Why this bothers me can best be summed up by my favorite quote from Norm Phelps in his book, "The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights":
Thinking like a lawyer or an academic logician and claiming that it is acceptable to harm