A question commonly posed to animal advocates (frequently in the form of an accusation) is, “Why worry about animal suffering when there is so much human suffering?” I would like to take a closer look at this reaction and suggest constructive ways of responding to it. First of all, the underlying belief that drives this fabricated conflict between human problems and animal problems is the denial that humans are in fact animals ourselves. Homo Sapiens belong to the hominid class of apes. There is simply no escaping or denying this fact, regardless of thousands of years of humanity’s efforts to position ourselves outside the animal kingdom. We are one species among many who share a common ancestry with all other species in the animal kingdom. The false dichotomy between us and them pits humans against the rest of the animal kingdom and reinforces the myth that humans are so superior from the other animals that it’s practically blasphemous to even suggest that other animals possess lives that matter to them in the way our human lives matter to us. And while humans certainly possess qualities that are amazing and distinct from other animals, none of these differences are morally relevant to how we should treat others.
It’s Not An Either/Or Situation
The problem is not that animal advocates somehow care too much about animals at the expense of humans. In fact, beyond animal suffering our exploitation of other animals also causes tremendous human suffering in a variety of ways that most people who claim to care so much about human problems are completely overlooking. But before we take a closer look at how human suffering is connected to the suffering of other animals, exactly how much effort would be necessary to eliminate most of the harm we cause to other animals?
Consider the fact that 99% of the animals exploited by humans are those who become food products that are unnecessary for our health. The vast majority of this 99% (some 70 billion land animals) are animals that we artificially breed into this world only to violently kill in their infancy or adolescence. For many of us, eliminating this unfathomable scale of animal suffering would not actually require any more time or effort on our part. It would simply mean choosing from the abundance of plant-based alternatives that are easily accessible to many of us, and that are better for our health and better for the environment, too. Choosing plant foods instead of animal-based foods does not require that we shift any attention away from human problems.
And the beneficial impact of these food choices extends far beyond farmed animals themselves, also affecting the tens of millions of wild animals who are forced out of their habitats or gruesomely exterminated in the name of protecting ‘livestock’ interests. According to the International Livestock Research Institute, “livestock systems occupy 45% of the global surface area…. .” Environmental activist and author Will Anderson calls domesticated farmed animals a form of “invasive species” that force out indigenous plants and animals that once thrived there.
Eating Animals Hurts Humans, Too
Animal agriculture also exacerbates food insecurity and hunger, which in turn drives political and economic instability in several vulnerable regions of the world. According to A Well Fed World, an NGO that studies world hunger, animal product consumption “reduces the amount of available food and increases the price of basic food staples.” This is because “vast amounts of food are fed to animals to produce meat and other animal-based foods. Animals are extremely inefficient converters of food… that is, they eat much more food than they produce.”
And animal agriculture contributes far more to climate change, environmental destruction and global depletion of natural resources than plant agriculture. A plant-based diet has a much smaller and kinder impact on the planet overall. If we care about reducing human suffering and increasing human well-being and survival, then we cannot in good conscience continue to support this destructive and unnecessary industry. As the Worldwatch Institute recently concluded: “The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future — deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.”
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that the world adopting a vegan diet could cut food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 70%, save 700 billion to 1 trillion dollars in healthcare costs, and save more than 8 million lives by the year 2050.
A Burning House On A Desert Island
In a disingenuous twist on the issue of caring more about animals than humans, animal advocates are frequently asked whether they would save a human or an animal in some hypothetical emergency scenario where they could only save one of them. The question seems to suggest a “test” of one’s loyalty to humankind, yet falsely portrays a world in which helping animals can only be done at the expense of humans. In the burning house hypothetical, whether we would save a human or a dog has no bearing on how much we care about humans in general. Consider that if the animal to be saved was our beloved family dog, Fido, and the human who could be saved was a trespasser who had actually set fire to our house, then saving Fido in this case does not infer that we believe, categorically, that other animals are more important than humans. It just means that in this specific emergency case where we could save only one individual, we chose the animal with whom we had a close attachment.
Another related hypothetical frequently posed to animal advocates is whether we would kill and eat an animal if we were trapped on a deserted island, as if our decision to kill and eat an animal as our only means of survival would somehow demonstrate hypocrisy in our everyday choice of a plant-based diet in real life. When these hypothetical scenarios are raised in the context of a discussion about eating animals, they are simply functioning as red herrings, or distractions meant to diminish or derail the real moral question at hand. And they ignore the fact that under normal, everyday circumstances, we clearly have a choice to spare a life or take a life each time we sit down to eat. Under such circumstances, eating animals means paying for animals to suffer for the pleasure we derive from eating them, and is not a question of survival. Humans do not suffer as a consequence of eating plant foods instead of animals.
But We Should Solve Human Problems First!
Another popular assertion connected to the criticism of caring too much for animals is that we should first solve human problems before we try to help animals. This logic is based on a false, either/or dilemma in which our efforts to help animals necessarily compete with efforts to help humans. Actually the opposite is true. Helping one social justice cause — whether it be human rights, environmental justice or animal justice — advances all of them. And of course the inverse is also true. As we have seen earlier, contributing to one injustice, like consuming animal products, also contributes to the exploitation of workers and the environment, climate change, world hunger, and political and economic instability. Oppressive systems are also connected ideologically, stemming from similar notions of superiority and a belief that might makes right; we can and should work holistically to challenge these ideas at their root.
Finally, yet another variation on the theme of caring too much about animals is the idea that humans are more important than other animals. But aside from the obvious self-serving nature of this belief, whether we perceive ourselves as subjectively more important than other animals is not at a justification for our unnecessary exploitation and killing of billions of them for food. In other words, just because we may not value other animals as we do humans does not mean anything goes. For example, while most of us subjectively value our own family members more than we do strangers or acquaintances, and while many of us value progressive thinkers and socially responsible citizens more than people who don’t do anything for anyone but themselves, this doesn’t mean we are entitled to go around inflicting needless harm on the individuals or groups who are less important to us, or whom we feel are less valuable members of society. We don’t have to believe other animals are as important or less important than ourselves to respect their basic desire to stay alive and not to suffer.
In closing, a basic level of caring about other animals also does not mean that we believe that animals deserve all of the same rights as humans. It is obvious that animals don’t need the right to vote or to bear fire arms or marry, but this does not mean that they should be denied the fundamental right to be free from unnecessary harm and suffering.