Have you ever heard someone exclaim, “I love my pets, but still eat meat. What’s wrong with that?” or “There’s nothing wrong with that!” So what is wrong with differentiating the animals we claim to love from the ones we stick forks into because we like the way they taste?
Our culturally-engrained assumptions
The statement or question itself reveals a lifetime of cultural conditioning that promotes the view of chickens, turkeys, cows and pigs as worthy of a far inferior standard of treatment and use when compared with our companion animals, as if raising and eating farmed animals were a foregone conclusion rather than a conscious, daily choice. But anyone who claims to give farmed animals even the slightest moral consideration must first admit that we are all products of this cultural conditioning which perpetuates the myth that they are worth nothing more than the products derived from their flesh and secretions. Many of the most influential narratives in popular films, novels, TV shows and food brands we grew up with reinforce this same message. And, as adults, we are rarely, if ever, challenged to think critically about those assumptions. The first step in taking the issue of eating meat seriously is to question what we’ve been taught.
Farmed animals are fundamentally like cats and dogs
Anyone who has spent some time with a farmed animal on a sanctuary or with caregivers who value their animals as companions rather than commodities can plainly see that there is fundamentally nothing different about these relationships with chickens, turkeys, cows or pigs than with the relationships most of us have with our traditional cat and dog companions. All species of domesticated animals, by virtue of their total dependence on us, rely on our good will to properly care for them. And if properly cared for, they often respond by bonding with their caregivers, seeking their affection, attention and recognition. Regardless of what we think about a species or an individual member of a species, each individual animal — including each individual chicken, turkey, cow and pig— cares about what happens to them. All birds, mammals, and fish (and various other marine animals) are highly sentient and socially-complex beings, with a strong sense of self, will to live and an equally strong aversion to suffering and death. They will fight for their lives as vociferously as would our cats and dogs. And beyond basic sentience, farmed animals have individual personalities just like our cats and dogs. So there is no moral justification for treating them differently.
The absent referent
Everyone uses the word meat, even those who care passionately about animals. But we rarely consider the meaning behind the word. Meat, rather than animal, is the word our culture conditions us to use in place of animal. Meat is the objectification of a someone who had a mind equipped for functioning in a complex social world: finding the right mate, building shelters, giving birth, finding and storing food for the family, raising and educating young, negotiating and communicating with others in large social groups, learning from past events and anticipating future events, experiencing and expressing likes, dislikes, pains, pleasures, loves and losses. As author Carol Adams so aptly puts it in her groundbreaking book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, “Behind every meal of meat is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. This is the ‘absent referent.’ The absent referent functions to cloak the violence inherent to meat eating, to protect the conscience of the meat eater and render the idea of individual animals as immaterial to anyone’s selfish desires. It is that which separates the meat eater from the animal and the animal from the end product. The function of the absent referent is to keep our ‘meat’ separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep something from being seen as having been someone, to allow for the moral abandonment of another being.” In reality, the animals that become our meat are fundamentally the same as those we call our pets.
Our striving for justice conflicts with our legacy of speciesism
When we bestow upon some animals love and empathy and other animals disdain or indifference, it reveals more about our own prejudices than about the intrinsic worth of the animals we are judging. A just society condemns discrimination on the basis of such morally-irrelevant criteria as race, color, religious belief, sexual preference, or gender because they are morally irrelevant to how we treat others. Unfortunately, we live in an age when even many social justice people ignore discrimination based on species.We get away with speciesism because it is so acceptible today just as human exploitation was so acceptable in past ages. But this does not change the fact that species alone does not justify our systematic exploitation and killing of billions of chickens, turkeys, cows or pigs. Speciesism, just like all of the other isms, is inconsistent with our striving for a more just world. In this sense, eating animals violates our core values of justice, reciprocity, fairness and non-discrimination.
Morality is about consistency
We eat meat, not because we must, but because we can. Meat is the ultimate, most universal expression of power over powerless, captive beings. Yet society almost universally agrees that animals should not be made to suffer gratuitously, unnecessarily, and particularly in cases where someone sadistically derives pleasure from that suffering. For this reason, we condemn instances of individual animals who were tortured and/or killed for no good reason. And society generally condemns violence and blood sports, such as dog and cock fighting, where spectators derive pleasure and even make money on animal suffering. So how then can it be acceptable to harm billions of animals for the pleasure we get from eating such things as bacon, chicken wings and cheese? How is it acceptable to ignore these victims and even hide them away from public view? And how is it acceptable for animal agriculture, worth over 150 billion in the U.S. alone, to profit on the suffering of billions of animals? One instance of unnecessary and pleasure-driven harm cannot be right while another is wrong. In the end, claiming that our “pets” matter but all the other animals be damned makes no sense at all.