The vast majority of people within a commercial and consumer food economy don’t think about the source of their food. In industrial society, food is experienced as a product: a few flashy images, a commercial jingle, and the flavor in their mouths. In this system, we see certain kinds of nonhuman animals exclusively as food. In America we kill and eat 10 billion “food” animals a year. The majority of these animals spend their lives in massive industrial operations called factory farms, where they are raised in grisly conditions. Some are purposefully kept hungry, none are given sufficient nutrition, and all babies are separated from their mothers. Through our system of food production and consumption, we are collectively oppressing nonhuman animals. How is it that we see this happening around us and allow it to continue… yet when humans are subjected to similar conditions, we are horrified beyond measure? If we are to follow a consistent system of ethics, there would seem to be no reason to inflict vast suffering simply because those who suffer are not human. This disparity in the valuation of human and nonhuman animal life is known as speciesism. In his book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer makes a strong case against this long-standing and institutionalized oppression ofnonhuman animals by humans. His argument can be summarized as follows: Suffering is bad, and thus inflicting suffering with no outweighing benefit is immoral. Humans inflict suffering on nonhuman animals with no outweighing moral benefit in the vast majority of cases. Therefore, the human treatment of nonhuman animals in the vast majority of cases is immoral.
Some argue that because animals are raised in factory farms, they don’t know any other life and therefore don’t suffer. We know from our own experience that this is not true. Many humans have only known suffering, and we recognize and grieve their suffering. Just because someone doesn’t know anything else doesn’t make his or her experience less real. The only animal for which we have detailed knowledge of suffering–ourselves–makes it clear that suffering is not purely relative. If we look closely at the living conditions and behavior of “food” animals, a strong case can be made for their suffering. For example, hens are shoved into overcrowded cages, usually in complete darkness, with no room to stretch their wings, let alone sit comfortably. After visiting an egg farmTexas naturalist Roy Bedicheck said, “To me they seem unhappy.” One might object that calling them “unhappy” is simply a projection of human emotions. We don’t know what their experiences are like, and so we don’t actually know they are unhappy. However, we can observe their behavior and make inferences. For example, in the cramped cages, it is impossible for hens to build a nest and lay eggs in private. This creates much distress for the hen, who “tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow-cage mates, to search there in vain for cover.” Hens’ instinct to lay eggs in privacy has been indicated by a study in which the hens worked just as hard to reach a nesting box as they did to reach food. In another study, they were released from their cages into a yard with straw, and they immediately started to build nests– “even after more than a year spent in a bare metal cage” (115). Furthermore, in their natural state, hens don’t turn to cannibalism; in the overcrowded cages, cannibalism is common. By seeing these behavioral differences, we know something is wrong. To say they are in pain is not a projection of human emotion. Rather, we’re looking at behaviors, and their behaviors are clearly suggestive of stress and pain.
As a solution to factory farming, Singer advocates vegetarianism, or a meatless diet. At the time he wrote Animal Liberation, vegetarianism was largely unheard of. It is much more widely practiced today, even though the majority of people maintain that eating meat is natural. But how does one define natural? Trying to make sense of what is natural is almost impossible. Some say that if we’ve done something for centuries, then it’s natural. This, however, is a naturalistic fallacy, meaning that they are taking a descriptive claim about how things are and making a normative claim about how things should be. The same argument could be made for any atrocity that we practiced for centuries yet condemn today, such as slavery. Humans have owned slaves for centuries, yet at no point has this been “natural.” Even if we could prove that meat eating is natural, it does not follow that factory farms are natural. My earlier examples of the hens show just how unnatural the conditions for food animals are. They are taken out of their state in nature and shoved into a system that thwarts their natural instincts. Even if meat-eating itself is “natural,” the conditions that produce meat in a factory farm are not.
By now the majority of mainstream society is aware of the atrocities of factory farming. Yet most of us don’t do anything about it. We tend to find a way to justify it, usually with faulty logic, or we ignore it completely. Many of us continue to eat meat “without pausing for an instant to think that they are eating the dead body of a once living creature, or to ask what was done to that creature in order to enable them to buy and eat its body” (105). This is largely due to the fact that in consumer society, when something, or someone, is turned into a commodity, we become separated from its value, whether that is the labor time of the worker or the moral status of the living being. Through the system of exchange, living beings lose their moral status as they are turned into commodities whose value is based solely on the benefits we receive from them. Singer writes, “The unchallenged assumption is that humans may use animals for their own purposes” (145). This is how speciesism becomes institutionalized. We are socialized to view species as consumable, which blinds us to the possibility that they are sentient beings with their own interests. Our food system warps us into speciesists.
Some have justified the subordination of nonhuman animals by arguing that our capacity for reasoning makes us more intelligent than nonhuman animals, and thus nonhuman animals are not deserving of equal moral status. Yet the same kind of justification pops up when structural prejudices give rise to widespread oppression. White colonists believed Native Americans were less intelligent and so exploited and killed them for their land. American capitalism was built on the backs of enslaved Africans who were considered “private property” and also believed to be intellectually inferior. Women, too, have been oppressed by the belief that they are intellectually inferior to men. Today most of us agree that these prejudices are both immoral and groundless. So Singer asks us, “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit nonhumans for the same purposes” (6)? Some might be offended by the comparison of the suffering of animals to that of indigenous people, Blacks, and women (or any oppressed group). However, In The Dreaded Comparison, Spiegel notes that this “is offensive only to the speciesist… To deny our similarity to animals is to continue struggling to prove to our masters… that we are similar to those who have abused us, rather than to our fellow victims, those whom our masters have also victimized” (15). He is not implying that the oppressions of humans and that of nonhuman animals are identical, but rather that they share the same basic relationship– that between oppressor and oppressed. Whether it is sexism, racism, classism, transphobia, or speciesism– all forms of prejudice seem to stem from a worldview that leaves out the interests of some other beings.
In the Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels asserts that the minimum conception of morality is an effort to follow reason while treating each being equally. Thus morality requires impartial consideration of each individual’s interests (6). With this view, our moral sphere must include any individual with interests. Most people, as speciesists, do not believe nonhuman animals have interests. But what does “having interests” entail? At the very least, if an individual has the capacity to suffer, then that individual has an interest in not suffering. Singer writes, “If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration” (8). If a nonhuman animal can suffer, which we have shown that it can, then its species membership is morally irrelevant. And if we don’t want to base our discriminations on morally irrelevant categories, then we shouldn’t discriminate based on species. Therefore we need to give equal consideration to the similar interests of human and nonhuman animals. It is important to note that equal consideration does not necessarily mean equal treatment. For instance, although all humans should have the right to freedom of religion, this wouldn’t make much sense for groups of other species. However, it is imperative that we stop viewing animals as consumable commodities, and start viewing them as sentient beings with whom we share the planet, and who have their own purpose. We are collectively witnessing a massacre in our own backyards, and we have a moral obligation to put a stop to it.
By KC Mackey
K.C. Mackey is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences studying philosophy and religion. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.