Works in progress
Forty eight billion animals are killed for food each year. That equates to one thousand five hundred deaths a second. Ninety-one thousand a minute. The mathematics is appalling. We regularly talk in billions. We think we have a handle on just how big a number we mean. If we assume it is possible to count one number per second (it isn’t – try saying ‘four hundred and sixty-four million, three hundred and forty-seven thousand, one hundred and twenty-one’ in one second), it would take over 31 years to count to one billion. No sleeping, eating or other activity at all – so 93 years if you only want to put in an eight-hour day. One billion is a huge number. Forty eight billion is appallingly huge. It is also about forty eight billion too many.
It is my contention that many non-human animals – and in this I include mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish – are like us in morally significant ways which ultimately make our use of them for our own ends an unethical use. I shall argue that animals feel pain, fear, sympathy, empathy, frustration, loneliness and a whole gamut of phenomena previously and perhaps condescendingly believed to be human-only traits. Whilst I shall accept that most non-human animals are incapable of acting as moral agents in the sense that we are able to, I shall argue that non-human animals do have a right to respectful treatment, as moral patients. This does not entail being treated well up to the point where they are killed and served up as a meal, but being ‘treated’ to a life free of cruelty, captivity and premature death. I shall also argue that, despite a number of strong moral theories championing a duty to treat animals well, only a direct recognition of rights for animals will go far enough in ensuring their equitable treatment, and ultimately morally bind us to vegetarianism.
Line-drawing within the realm of ethics is inherently difficult. Deciding and agreeing on what a ‘person’ is and who or what can be included and excluded from the definition, for example, is fraught with difficulty. It is not my intention to justify drawing a line. If I did, much of what follows would be a justification of the line, rather than an argument in support of the ethical treatment of animals. There is a case to be made for the Great Apes which is harder to make for rabbits and harder still to make for frogs and snails. At any point where a line is drawn, some will question the placement of animals immediately above or below the line. My argument is that some animals – possibly all animals – have a right to respectful treatment.
I am not forgetting here that humans are also animals, and that there is much to be done in terms of better treatment of humans. When I use the word animals in all that follows, however, I am intending it to mean non-human animals. This, in itself, is perhaps part of the problem in our general view of animals. We have hijacked a word which includes us, and somehow managed to set ourselves apart, to cast ourselves as superior, to use language as a means of justifying the unjustifiable. And as wrong as racism and sexism are, so ‘speciesism’, in its turn, is wrong.
David Sztybel defines speciesism as ‘intended to be analogous to forms of discriminatory oppression such as racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, and discrimination on the basis of religion, creed, or nationality. The core idea is that all of these forms of discrimination involve harming others (or refusing to benefit them) on the basis of an arbitrary and irrelevant characteristic (e.g., skin colour, sex, or species)’.
There are many ways in which modern society mistreats animals. Raising animals in abhorrent conditions for the sole purpose of satisfying a fairly fickle taste preference is but one of these. However, it will serve as my sole example as I seek to find philosophical support for the notion that we are, indeed, obliged to leave off eating meat. Other wrongs we inflict on animals are their use as entertainment (in circuses and zoos), scientific experimentation, hunting and trapping and the fur trade, to name but a few major cases. To attempt to address all of these would render this account superficial and without adequate structure – and so it is to the production of meat, in its many forms, that I shall focus my attentions.
‘The Year of the Monkey’ – A work of fiction
Prologue – Paris 1984
“I’ve locked your tummy with my magic key, mummy,” Tien announced to her mother one morning, “so the baby can’t come out.” So simple. The pink plastic key hung from her neck on a white ribbon. It, and the treasure chest it opened, had been a birthday gift the day before from Mamy Ngoc. Reincarnating Ngoc in this way had been Hung’s idea, a typical deference to his daughter’s fantasies; Huong herself disapproved. Tien then skipped off happily downstairs to where breakfast awaited. Problem solved.
Huong marvelled, nonetheless, at her daughter’s ingenuity. Such intelligence, such vitality: wasted in a girl. She put her hands to her stomach, the fluttering movements inside reminding her of the subject of Tien’s early morning announcement. As suddenly as it had come, her good humour left her. She turned to the shrine at the top of the stairs, lighting a handful of incense sticks as she did so, and prayed briefly once more, “Please, a boy this time.”
Ngoc’s sombre but sympathetic shake of the head, so near, yet so very far away, translated as a barely discernable waft of smoke from the incense burning on the alter, but Huong had already turned away.