Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
I was sitting with a group of friends recently at dinner. I was the only vegan among them, and one of them asked, “Do you mind that we eat meat in front of you?”
My answer to this question has historically been “no”. I wasn’t born vegan, wasn’t raised vegan, and I lived as they do now for many years. My approach has been to lead by example. I figured that if they saw me thrive as a vegan, they would have to question why they live the way they do. But, to date, they have not. I realized this is because I have not been leading, only modeling the behavior I want to see. As a wise friend once said to me, “People will not follow where you dare not lead.” So, here is one attempt at leading.
The true answer to the question above is “yes, it does bother me.” I dare not say that during dinner, however, as the question posed at that point is a set-up. The answer I will give from now on is “Yes, but I don’t discuss it during meals.” Why does it bother me? Consider the following:
Premise 1: Humans are animals that share 50% gene identity with bananas and 98% of gene identity with chimpanzees. We fit into an evolutionary tree along with every species alive now and every one that has ever existed. The most brilliant human who has ever lived is only 2% different genetically from the dumbest (modern) chimp.
Premise 2: Other animals that we currently raise, sacrifice, and eat as food are alive and possess consciousness. Although it is hard to define consciousness, like pornography, “I know it when I see it.” A pig that is alive is conscious, and if you give it anesthetic, it is unconscious. In addition, these animals are capable of feeling pain (they have nervous systems for such a purpose) and they react to pain (i.e. they can suffer physically).
Premise 3: Animals have emotional lives. Dogs react with joy when their human companions return from long absences, cows react strongly when their calves are taken away immediately after birth (as they are in the dairy industry), and pigs at a sanctuary choose specific other pigs to hang out with (I have seen this personally, and dare I call it ‘friendship’? If this were not the case, pigs would associate randomly with other pigs, but they do not.). This means other animals, perhaps most other animals, can suffer emotionally.
Premise 4: Animals have language. Prairie dogs have a complex language complete with syntax, and birds communicate in complex ways as well. Just because we humans cannot understand an animal’s language does not mean that it is not there. Language has historically been viewed as part of that 2% difference between higher primates and humans. That difference is therefore blurred or absent completely.
I often remember the great Star Trek: TNG episode about whether Data is alive when I consider Premises 1,2, and 4 taken together.
Premise 5: It is possible for humans to survive and thrive by not consuming animals. Many top athletes are vegan, and there is sound nutritional evidence supporting a vegan diet (note that vegan here refers to a diet only, not an ethos, as above).
If you accept these premises, I submit the following conclusions follow from them:
Conclusion 1: Humans are different from other animals but not better. Our abilities match most other animals and are inferior to many.
Conclusion 2: Every other animal, if it meets the premises above, is unique. We cannot speak of “a chicken” any more than we could speak of “a dog”. We must speak in terms of “that chicken” or “that dog”.
Conclusion 3: To remove a unique being from the world is to lose that uniqueness forever.
Conclusion 4: If it is possible to survive and to thrive without ending the lives of unique individuals (any animal), I should do it. There is no need to kill animals that we might live.
And there you have it. Why extinguish a unique (and therefore precious) intelligence from the universe if you do not have to?
Feel free to pick this argument apart. I think you will find the exercise more illuminating than the result. By the way, in the time it took you to read this, 95,000 animals have been killed for food in the United States alone.