But for the Sake of Some Little Mouthful Of Flesh…
By Tom Regan
Most people like animals. Cats and dogs are favorites. But the good feelings many people have for whales and dolphins, baby seals and elephants show that even wild animals can come within the mantle of our affections. Animals don’t have to live with us to be liked by us.
Children reveal how generous we are in our natural love of animals. Any grade school teacher knows that nothing gets the attention of youngsters like a class visit by an animal, whatever the species. Children’s bedrooms are veritable menageries of stuffed creatures, and the stories young people eagerly read, listen to, or watch are as much about the travails of bears and rabbits as they are about the adventures of human beings. Even adults find it natural to drive cars named Mustang, Lynx, and Cougar, or to root for athletic teams called the Colts, Rams, or Cardinals. Some of the habits of childhood remain for a lifetime.
One of these habits concerns food. Most people who live in the Western world are taught to eat meat from infancy onward. And most people who acquire this habit never give it up. Perhaps some never stop to think about it. But whether thought about or not, we face a strange paradox: On the one hand, people naturally love animals; on the other, they eat them. How is it possible to eat what one loves?
One possible answer is that people do not love the animals they eat or eat the animals they love. And it is true that comparatively few Westerners feel much affection for domesticated “food animals,” as they are called — cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys, for example. Why these animals tend not to be loved by us, while others are, poses many interesting questions. We in the West are shocked to learn that Koreans and other Asians eat dogs. And yet Hindus are no less aghast that Westerners eat cow, and many other people from various parts of the world wonder how humans can eat any animal. Love is fickle, it seems, even in the case of our love for animals. It is difficult to understand how some people can adamantly refuse to eat cats and dogs because they love them, and then turn around and gladly eat other animals who are not essentially different. Cows and pigs, for example, just like dogs and cats, see and hear, are hungry and thirsty, feel pain and pleasure, like companionship and warmth. If we do not eat the latter, how can it be fair or rational to eat the former?
Perhaps part of the answer lies in the fact that people do not have to kill the animals they eat. Other people do this for them. So perhaps the ancient adage, “Out of sight, out of mind,” applies. Because we do not see animals die, perhaps we can pretend they are not killed. By not being a party to their slaughter people can have a psychological shield that protects them from seeing steaks and chops as parts of dead animals — as pieces of corpses. Certainly many people would give up eating meat if they had to slaughter animals themselves. The emotional trauma would be too great.
These psychological defenses may not be strong enough. How would we fare psychologically if the walls of slaughterhouses were made of glass? What would we feel and do if we SAW the death of so-called “food animals”? Might not the psychological shield break if people peered through these glass walls and saw the meat on their plate for what it really is, not for what they pretend it to be?
But slaughterhouses do not have glass walls. And few people ever venture inside. And why should they? Whatever the details, everybody understands without looking that they can’t be pretty. So why go in? Who wants or needs to see all the blood and gore?
Most people are satisfied with this response, at least until they begin to think about many things that aren’t “pretty” — the mass graves of innocent women and children massacred in Vietnam, for example, and the merciless exploitation of Jews at the hands of Nazis. We do not want to look, of course, and we do not enjoy what we see. Yet we understand the need to confront the truth, however ugly it may be, lest we forget. We owe the victims of large-scale human evil at least this much.
Do we owe less to the animals slaughtered for food? Certainly the statistics are staggering: over 5 billion slaughtered annually, just in the United States, approximately 4,000 killed every second of every day. In terms of sheer numbers even the worst human atrocities are dwarfed by comparison. Of these atrocities we understand the need to remind ourselves. In the face of animal slaughter we look away. How can it be right to force ourselves to confront the one and allow ourselves to avoid the other?
For many people the explanation is simple: Despite the natural affection we humans have for some animals, it is not wrong to kill them for food. Of course these people don’t like the idea of animals being slaughtered and would not (or could not) perform the slaughter themselves. But while it is wrong to kill human beings for food, for example, it is not wrong in their view to do this to animals.
How can this be? How is it possible for the one to be wrong and the other not? Some reason must be given. Many have been. One relies on religious beliefs about the soul. Many people think killing is wrong only when the victim has an immortal soul. And this belief, coupled with the additional belief that only human beings possess immortal souls, does offer a reason which, if true, could justify killing animals for food.
How adequate is this response? Different people dispute it for different reasons. Some dispute it because they believe that nothing has an immortal soul. Others dispute it because they believe that everything does. Who (or what) has an immortal soul, in short, is a controversial question. But whatever the answer offered, it proves to be irrelevant. For how long individuals live makes no difference to how they should be treated while alive. If a dog has been hit by a car and we can alleviate her pain, then it is wrong not to do so. It would be morally grotesque to say that we need not help “because she will not live forever.” It would be no less grotesque to suppose that we might justify killing “soul-less” animals “because they have no life beyond the grave.” If anything, just the opposite would be true. For if animals have no prospect of a life after this one, then we should do everything we can to insure that the life they do have — this one — is as long and full as possible. This we hardly do by slaughtering them at the rate of almost 14 million a day — just in the United States. Rather than this defense of slaughtering “food animals” serving to justify what goes on in slaughterhouses, it actually demands that we close them.
A second response also relies on religious beliefs. “The Holy Bible reveals that God has given us dominion over animals,” it is said. “This means we are entitled to do to animals whatever is necessary to promote our interests or satisfy our needs, including slaughtering them for food.” As was true of the previous response, this one encounters dissenting voices — for example, the voices of atheists, who deny that there is a God to tell us anything, and the voices of followers of religions other than Judaism and Christianity, who do not accept the Holy Bible as God’s Word. But one can counter this response without abandoning the Judeo-Christian basis on which it stands. For “dominion” in the Biblical context clearly does not mean “tyranny”; it means “stewardship.” God enjoins us to be as caring and compassionate in our relationship with His creation as He is in His relationship with us. Like Him, we are to be “Good Shepherds.”
Are we? No one can attempt to answer this question and ignore what goes on in slaughterhouses. For it is there that we see most vividly what our God-like stewardship comes to in the end. It is scarcely believable that anyone could hope that God will someday treat us in the way “food animals” are treated by the slaughterer. Who could possibly look forward with joyful longing to the prospect of meeting this sort of deity “face to face”? The influential Anglican cleric William Ralph Inge (Dean Inge) writes insightfully when he observes that “we have enslaved the rest of the animal creation … so badly that beyond doubt, if they were to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.” The massive scale of animal slaughter for food more than confirms our failure to live up to our role of “good shepherd.”
“Even so,” it may be said, “it is undeniably true that God did give us animals to eat. And since we can hardly eat them without slaughtering them, He cannot look with disfavor on our killing them, either — provided, of course, we do so humanely.” This response overlooks too much and accepts too little. It overlooks the fact that, judged in Biblical terms, the original diet given to human beings clearly was vegetarian. As Genesis 1:29 declares, “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed: to you it shall be for meat.” That was humankind’s diet “in the beginning.”
The current response also accepts too little because it is satisfied with the spiritual status quo. Genesis reveals how things once were and should have remained. In the Biblical account we find that it was only after humans disobeyed God and were expelled from Eden — indeed, only after the Flood — that God gave us the choice to eat animals. To act on that choice thus is a sign of our disappointment of God’s original hopes for us, “the first step” in our journey back to a proper, loving relationship with God and His creation. “The vegetarian movement,” Tolstoy writes, “ought to fill with gladness the souls of those who have at heart the realization of God’s kingdom upon earth … because (the decision not to eat animals) serves as a criterion by which we know that the pursuit of moral perfection on the part of man is genuine and sincere.” People who defend eating meat and slaughtering animals “because of what the Bible says” thus are somewhat confused. It is a graceless religious faith, one grown fat and sloppy from lack of spiritual exercise, that happily accepts humanity’s permanent alienation from God. One would perhaps do better to have no religious faith at all.
Whatever one’s religious beliefs, each of us can agree on a number of plain facts. Humans belong to one biological species (Homo sapiens); all other animals belong to other biological species. Perhaps it will be suggested that this is why killing humans is, while killing “food animals” is not, wrong.
No thoughtful person will accept this response. As a piece of logic it is indistinguishable from defenses of the worst human prejudices. Consider the racist: “Only members of my race really count; people who belong to other races aren’t our equals.” And the sexist: “Only members of my sex really count; others really aren’t our equals.” Both prejudices rest on the same error. Both take some biological fact (one’s race or sex) and make that fact the basis of moral preeminence. but no members of a given race are better than another just because they belong to that race, and no members of a given sex are better just because of the sex they are. Biological facts (race and sex, for example) are not the foundation of morality.
This is no less true of species membership than of other kinds of biological classifications. We humans are not morally preeminent just because we belong to the species Homo sapiens. People who believe that we are preeminent for this reason are called “speciesists.” Speciesists purvey as much truth as racists and sexists. A speciesist can justify slaughtering animals at least as much as a white racist can justify lynching blacks.
Biological considerations about species membership are not the only allegedly “scientific fact” put forward to defend slaughtering animals for food. The French philosopher Rene Descartes teaches that nonhuman animals lack consciousness. Not a little but a lot. Hogs, chickens and cows, cats, dogs and dolphins — every nonhuman animal — are totally lacking in conscious awareness in his view. Some people who today profess to have a “scientific understanding of the world” continue to accept Descarte’s teachings. For these people a chicken and a hog are fundamentally like an ear of corn and an eggplant: Like vegetables, animals have no mind. Since neither is aware of anything, neither feels any pain. And since both lack consciousness completely, death does not cancel any of their future experiences. For these scientists it is no more wrong to slaughter an animal than it is to pick a radish or harvest a potato. In the case of human beings, however, Cartesian scientists, because they see the presence of mind, also see the evil of death. It IS wrong to kill humans for food; it is not wrong to kill nonhuman animals for this reason.
Cartesianism is so much at odds with common sense that most Cartesians are of the “closet” variety: They keep it to themselves. But there are Cartesians out there, and not a few can be found in commercial animal agriculture. They think people who care about animals are dumb and emotional, not like Cartesians, smart and scientific. In displaying these attitudes, present-day Cartesians continue to keep alive the attitudes of Descartes himself. “My opinion,” he writes, “is not so much cruel to animals as it is indulgent to men — at least those who are not given to the superstitions of Pythagoras — since it absolves them of the suspicion of crime when they kill or eat animals.” Pythagoras, it is perhaps unnecessary to note, was a vegetarian.
Descartes denies a mind (consciousness) to nonhuman animals because he thinks they are unable to use language. Critics have pointed out that the same is true of many human beings and that some animals, contrary to Descartes’ denial, can use a language (for example, some chimpanzees have been taught American Sign Language for the Deaf).
Both objections have a place. But neither gets to the crux of the matter. That concerns the Cartesian view that individuals lack consciousness if they lack the ability to use a language. These are overwhelmingly good reasons against this assumption. To see what they are, consider the following:
Human children don’t come into the world knowing how to talk; they have to be taught. Unless they contribute something to the learning process, however, they will never learn. If we say “ball” to a child and the child does not hear, or does not see, or does not understand what we are referring to, or does not remember what we said a moment ago — if the child is deficient in these ways, no instruction can take place. We can say “ball” until we exhaust ourselves and the child won’t learn a thing. Human children, in other words, must be conscious, must be aware of things, before they learn to use a language. If they were not, they could never learn to use one. And this means that children must have pre-verbal and, so non-linguistic awareness. In some way (which may remain forever mysterious to us) young children are able to represent the world to themselves without using words.
This finding destroys any plausible “scientific” basis for Cartesianism. It must be rank prejudice, not respect for science, that would attribute non-linguistic awareness to human children, on the one hand, and deny this in the case of nonhuman animals, on the other. If the former can be made aware of things without knowing how to use language, the same can be true of the latter. There is no good reason to deny a mind (consciousness) to hogs, cows, chickens, and other “food animals.”
In fact, of course, there are very good reasons to affirm the presence of mental awareness in their case. The central nervous system for these animals resembles that of human beings in fundamentally important ways. It is not as though we humans have brains, for example, while chickens and veal calves have empty heads. The behavior of these animals, moreover, resembles human behavior in many instances, including, for example, aversion to pain and the expression of preferences, and the display of feelings such as anger and boredom. By way of illustration: Piglets not only suckle at the teats of their mother; they enjoy doing so. And adult sows rather dislike being severely confined; they are frustrated when tethered, sometimes to the point of chronic depression. Will those who profess to respect “science” judge otherwise? Then they must swallow Voltaire’s barbed wit: “Has nature arranged all the means of feeling in this animals,” he said, “so that it may not feel?” Against those who profess to understand the world from a “scientific point of view” Voltaire has the last word: “Do not suppose this impertinent contradiction in nature.”
“But Man is the only rational animal,” it may be said. This is both false and irrelevant. It is false because many animals, including so-called “food animals,” display their capacity to reason by their ability to learn. And it is in any event irrelevant since the ability to reason is not a decisive consideration in determining the wrongness of killing. If it were, we would be at liberty to kill a human being who, for one reason or another, lacks this ability: infants of a few days or a few months of age, the insane, the senile. But not even those most anxious to exploit “food animals” would go so far as to suggest that these humans may be killed with impunity. Or so we must hope. Once again, therefore, it can only be a blatant double standard that would forbid the killing of these animals but allow the killing of these animals.
So-called “food animals,” then, are not on all fours with heads of lettuce and stalks of celery. Like these vegetables, it is true, these animals are alive. But like us, and in this respect unlike all vegetables, they live their lives. They are somebody, not some thing. Their death marks the end of a biographical, not merely a biological life. To kill them inhumanely is, of course, to cause them gratuitous pain. And that is gratuitously immoral. But to kill them at all is to cancel their psychological sojourn on this earth. It is to nullify their future, depriving them of those experiences that would have been theirs but for the human hand. In certain fundamental respects — thought not, of course, in all respects — “food animals” are like human beings. Both are selves with beliefs, preferences, desires and social needs, not just bodies with hearts and lungs. As Charles Darwin noted more than 100 years ago, the mental life of these animals differs from ours in degree, not in kind.
This insight into the nature of “food animals” presses the ethical question of their slaughter home with additional force. How can it be moral to kill someone so that others might benefit? In the case of human ethics we recognize a very limited range of circumstances in which killing may be justified. When it comes to self-defense or on grounds of mercy, many people believe we are morally justified in killing another human being. But no one will seriously maintain that some human beings are entitled to kill other humans just because members of the former group stand to gain something as a result. Nazis may have thought this of Jews, and members of the Ku Klux Klan may think this of blacks. But otherwise sane and sensible people will abhor such an ethic.
And yet it is this same pattern of discrimination that allows us to tolerate (and, in the case of many, to support) the slaughter of more than a half million animals every hour of every day — in the United States. It is ludicrous to suggest that beef cattle and broiler chickens are threatening our lives and so may be killed in the name of self-defense. No less preposterous is the suggestion that these animals must have their throats slit in the name of mercy. No, the only plausible reason why people tolerate or support this carnage is because they see animals as other than they are. Animals are “them.” Humans are “us.” And the standards of decency that apply between “us” just don’t extend to the treatment of “them.”
So many will say. But so, too, says the moral racist who withholds equal moral consideration to those who belong to the “inferior races.” And so, too, says the sexist who denies equal moral considerations to those who belong to “the inferior sex.” Those people who do not see the moral ties that bind humans to animals suffer from the same kind of moral blindness. Of course they do not see animals as “us.” Of course they see animals as “them.” In these false perceptions lies the very blindness from which they suffer. Only, of course, it is the animals who really suffer. And on a massive scale. Do we dare to speak of a holocaust for the animals? May we depict the horror they must endure, using this fearful image of wanton inhumanity, without desecrating the memory of those innocents who died in the death camps?
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer thinks we may. And must. Himself a Jew and a vegetarian (having changed his diet for ethical reasons late in life), Singer returns to this theme again and again in his fiction. As the character Herman says in one of his stories, most humans think that “all other creatures were created merely to provide (us) with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to (animals), all people are Nazis.” Knowing Singer as we do, we also know that Herman speaks for him when, full of despair, he concludes that “for the animals it is eternal Treblinka.”
This last point highlights the shallowness of most of the moral debate about animal slaughter. That debate centers on which method of slaughter is the most “humane.” Presumably this would be the method that causes the least amount of pain and distress, both before and during slaughter. How we are to decide this is far from clear, but the protracted controversy over the comparative “humaneness” of kosher and non-kosher slaughter, for example, more than confirms the suspicion that this is an issue quite capable of having a life of its own.
Important though it undeniably is, the question about the “humaneness” of alternative methods of slaughter is not the fundamental moral issue. That issue concerns not how we do but whether we should slaughter animals for food. And that issue is not answered in the least by comparing the alleged pain indexes of various methods.
The basic moral issue, then, is simply this: What justifies us in ending the biographical life of sentient, social, intelligent creatures so that we might eat them? It cannot be because we have souls and they do not. Nor because we have “dominion” over them. Nor because God allows us to eat them. Nor because we have a mind and they lack one. Nor because we are rational and they are not. Each and every one of these attempted defenses collapses under the weight of careful thought. Where, then, is the rational basis for a practice which, just in the United States, bleeds the life out of some 500,000 animals in the time it takes to read this article?
“We must eat meat!” may be the reply. “If we didn’t we couldn’t live a long and healthy life ourselves. That’s what makes the sacrifice of animals necessary.” This response is mistaken on every possible count. Meat is not necessary for human health. Every essential nutrient obtained by eating meat and animal products can be obtained by eating a wholly non-animal diet. And as for health and longevity: all the available evidence (at least all the evidence impartially arrived at) points unambiguously to the conclusion that eating meat and animals products is potentially very bad for human health. Why? The reasons are many. Just two examples will have to suffice.
Most commercial animal farmers today practice what are called “intensive rearing” or “close confinement” methods. The animals are kept permanently indoors in conditions that severely limit their opportunities to move. Bodily motion, after all, burns calories, and calories-burnt means pounds lost. (Every erstwhile dieter knows that.) Since the farmer has a strong economic interest in bringing the animals to market with as little investment as possible, it makes economic sense (or so many believe) to minimize the animals’ opportunities for physical activity.
But a potential health problem demands the farmer’s attention. In these crowded conditions a contagious disease could spread like wildfire through the flocks or herd. The financial loss would be very large. What to do? The favored solution is to add powerful antibiotics (penicillin and tetracycline are the most widely used) to animal feed. The idea is to prevent diseases from breaking out rather than to attempt to cure them after they have.
What becomes of the antibiotic after animals consume it? Most is excreted in the animals’ urine and feces. But not all. Varying amounts remain in the animals’ bodies, stored in tissues and organs. When, after slaughter, human consumers eat the flesh of these animals, they can inadvertently take small doses of antibiotics. The results are predictable. By consuming small amounts of these drugs over a long period of time people build up immunities to them. Not surprisingly “wonder drugs” of only a few decades ago increasingly are ineffective in treating serious diseases among the human population.
But the results are even worse than this. Bacteria that thrive in the bodies of animals are beginning to show up in new, virulent strains in the bodies of human beings. These strains have been adapted to their antibiotic enemies in the drug-war being waged by today’s animal farmer; they have “learned to survive” and are no longer controllable using existing drugs. There are documented cases of people dying from bacterial diseases traceable to new strains of old diseases originating in “food animals”. The National Resources Defense Council estimate that 100 to 300 fatal and 270,000 non-fatal cases of salmonella poisoning may occur in humans because of antibiotics in animal feed. These are per year estimates for the United States. The situation likely is no better in other parts of the world. The meat people eat clearly includes more than meets the eye. Perhaps there is more than a little wisdom behind the suggestion that we change the name “Meat Counter” to “Drug Counter.”
A different but no less serious problem concerns the relationship between diet and general health. People whose food habits center on meat consumption have a diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates, and a diet of this sort has been linked to the major causes of death and serious illness in the human population: various cancers (of the colon and breast, for example) and coronary diseases (heart attack, stroke, and hardening of the arteries, for instance). A vegetarian diet, by contrast, is high in carbohydrates and low in fat, and this dietary way of life has been shown to be far healthier than a diet inspired by meat consumption. It is plainly (and sometimes fatally) false that meat is necessary for “a long and healthy life,” a lesson more and more health-conscious consumers are learning every day. People don’t have to be motivated by respect for the rights of animals to decide not to eat them.
The remaining defenses of animal slaughter are even less palatable than those that have gone before. “Meat tastes good” is one. This settles nothing, either from the point of view of health or that of morality. If “tastes good” was the measure of what is conducive to good health many people would never liberate themselves from the candy counter (and not a few would drink and smoke themselves to death in pursuit of physical fitness). To suppose that “tastes good” is an adequate standard of morality is even more bizarre. One can only imagine how convenient this standard would have been to the cannibals encountered by past explorers. Perhaps that standard would have obligated these explorers to volunteer their tender bodies for the tribal stew. “It tastes good” is no more a reasonable standard of morality than is “It jumps high” or “It runs fast.”
“Eating meat is convenient.” “Eating meat is an American custom.” “Eating meat helps me socially.” “People who don’t eat meat are thought to be odd.” These defenses of the slaughter and consumption of animals are houses of cards. None seriously addresses the basic moral issue. None offers an even remotely adequate reason for ending the biographical life of any animal, human or otherwise. “But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh,” the Greek historian Plutarch wrote almost two thousand years ago, we deprive an animal “of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy.” For reasons of convenience, yes. For reasons of compassion, no. Perhaps Leonardo DaVinci is right when he predicts that “the time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look upon the murder of men.” One can only hope that time is soon.
When the dust of the debate settles, then, one thing is abundantly clear: The arguments against the ethics of animal slaughter win the battle of ideas hands down. The standard defenses of slaughtering animals for food are deficient. And always have been. Why, then, do so many people continue to support the slaughter of animals by buying and eating meat? The simple answer is, “Because we do not always act according to the best reasons.” That is both notoriously — and regrettably — true. There are many forces in addition to reason that lead us to act as we do. Anger. Pride. Jealousy. Greed. Prejudice. Contempt. Habit. Ignorance. These and countless other factors play important roles in motivating human behavior. Reason more than has its hands full in trying to cope with the demands of such powerful forces. No refutation of the possible defenses of animal slaughter is itself sufficient to insure that reason will prevail and that people will stop supporting the slaughter of animals.
For there is more than food on our plates. With every meal we consume something of the substance of our own values and commitments. Do we respect the demands of reason? Do we value our ability to think and act on our own? Are we satisfied that we are doing the best we can with our lives? These are the truths we consume every day, whether we eat with friends or alone.
But this review of the standard defenses of animal slaughter yields at least one other insight. Once we recognize how poor are the reasons for killing “food animals,” we glimpse the deeper explanation of why so few people actually visit slaughterhouses — and why so many want to remain blissfully ignorant of what transpires there. Every thoughtful person understands the truth of Emerson’s observation: “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” That sense of our own complicity is what, deep down, we hope to shield from ourselves by refusing to look the death of animals in the eye. Before any rational reflection begins we understand that, if we looked, we would see the animals’ blood on our hands. We would be aghast at ourselves for what we have done. And for what we are doing. So we look, not inside but aside, in search of every excuse not to face our involvement in the needless massacre (for that is what it is) of millions upon millions of animals, day in and day out. Opaque walls make good neighbors.