by Sherry F. Colb
In my Verdict column for this week, I write about the argument that many have made for why animals lack rights and may therefore be slaughtered and consumed with impunity by humans: the fact that animals lack moral agency. Quite apart from the responses I give in my column, it is also the case that animals have what one might call emergent morality, as discussed by ethologists such as Jonathan Balcombe. In this post, however, I want to focus on a different issue that comes up in debates about animal rights: the notion that unlike frivolous uses of animals (such as in dog fighting), which are morally wrong, the use of animals for food is a necessity and therefore morally beyond reproach.
We see this argument play out in different forms. People will say that they are against sport hunting, for example, but that they are fine with hunting for one's food, because then one is hunting for a necessity rather than a luxury. People will also say that they are opposed to cruelty to animals, and our laws reflect this value (by prohibiting such cruelty), but such people regard the infliction of suffering on animals as necessary and acceptable when it is an essential part of raising those animals for food. For example, kicking a cow for fun would be considered cruelty, but taking a cow's newborn baby calf away from her and thereby inflicting far greater suffering than would a kick is acceptable conduct, because it is necessary to the dairy industry (which impregnates cattle and then steals what was to be their babies' milk for human consumption).
The way people think about food and animals resembles a false syllogism that appears in the Woody Allen Movie Love and Death. In the movie, Woody Allen's character states as follows: "All Men Are Mortal. Socrates Is a Man. Therefore, All Men are Socrates." The analogous syllogism that seems to operate for people discussing the use of animals for food is as follows: "All Humans Need Food. Animal-based Food is Food. Therefore, All Humans Need Animal-based Food."
In most of the world, people who have access to animal-based foods also have access to plant-based foods. In fact, animal-based food is in some impoverished parts of the world considered a luxury, so that plant-based staples such as rice and beans are the rule. Plant-based foods (and mushrooms, technically a fungus rather than a plant) can be prepared deliciously and are nutritious and, even according to the conservative Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, can meet the needs of people in every phase of life, including childhood, pregnancy, and nursing, and offer benefits in resisting chronic diseases (such as heart disease and diabetes). Virtually no one has to eat animal-based foods (just as almost no one is Socrates).
So when you come across (or yourself advance) the argument that hurting and killing animals for food is "necessary" and therefore less objectionable than other uses of animals (such as fur coats or circuses), remember the syllogism. That people need to eat is obvious, but they do not need to eat animals and their hormonal secretions. When they choose nonetheless to do so, they are therefore unnecessarily causing great suffering and distress among our fellow earthlings. And as most people will acknowledge believing, it is wrong to cause unnecessary harm to nonhuman animals. Happy Thanksgiving.