The Perfect, The Good, and The Truth in Animal Cruelty

On FindLaw today, I will have a column that discusses the question of why we have anti-cruelty laws, one example of which is the pending Captive Primate Safety Act, approved by the House in the wake of the Connecticut incident in which a pet chimpanzee violently mauled his owner's friend and was subsequently killed by police.

In the column, I propose that although a genuine concern for the interests of animals plays a role in motivating the passage of anti-cruelty legislation, the deeper purpose of the laws is to calm the conscience of those who believe that it is wrong to harm animals but nonetheless feel committed to actively subsidizing the largest and most grotesque treatment of animals by consuming meat, eggs, and dairy products. By having laws that appear to protect animals from cruelty, well-meaning people are able to imagine a comfortable and even pleasant life, along with a humane death, for the creatures who later appear on their dinner tables.

I want to focus in this post on what I predict will be a response that some self-described "conscientious omnivores" will have to what I say. Some will argue (and have said to me in the past) that the perfect can be the enemy of the good and that if the choice is between becoming a vegan and the status quo, most people will choose the status quo and leave the current deplorable conditions of animals unchanged. Wouldn't I prefer, they might ask me, that the animals within the food industry suffer less rather than more? And if so, then why do I find fault with legislation aimed at accomplishing precisely that -- the reduction of suffering in a population of animals who are almost certainly going to die to satisfy human appetites either way.

My response to this point has three parts.

First, I reject the notion that such modifications in animal agriculture as "cage-free" eggs represent "the good" -- something positive that simply falls short of perfection. Though "cage free" sounds like freedom, it means very little in fact. The label of "cage-free" is overwhelmingly applied to cases in which chickens are crowded into dark buildings in which the concentration of their waste products fills the air with toxic gas (though there are no cages, so the setting is literally "cage-free"). The hens' beaks are mutilated, and male chicks are killed as babies (often by suffocation or by being ground up alive) in cage-free facilities. The "cage free" image -- of chickens roaming around a barn filled with hay, able to nest and run around -- is inaccurate. To put the point differently, I view the "changes" made by anti-cruelty laws (and the practices they promote) as representing the introduction of euphemisms into the vernacular.

Second, I do not view current levels of demand as unchangeable. Neither does the food industry. To say that a law or practice might reduce the suffering of farmed animals by a tiny amount -- even if, contrary to the evidence, we were to believe in the reduced suffering claim -- is to assume that the law or practice has no impact on demand. In reality, however, people in the agricultural industry know that our collective conscience is, on occasion, repelled by what is done to animals in our name (especially in the rare case when commonplace practices become public). Participants in the industry have an interest in calming such revulsion so that it does not reduce demand. The misleading labels "humanely raised" or "cage free" and the misleading legislation that purports to protect animals thus serve to expand or prevent the contraction of a consumer-base that might have otherwise been drawn to a plant-based diet for reasons of health, the environment, and a rejection of the suffering inflicted. Such labels -- far from representing "progress" for the animals already condemned to suffer -- can thus increase the number of animals tortured and killed. The "good" -- in this case -- is enemy of the good.

Third and finally, I do recognize that not everyone is ready to become a vegan. I would have to live on another planet to be unaware of this fact. But there is something constructive that a person who wants to reduce animal suffering can do. He can reduce his consumption of animal products. Rather than substituting "cage free" eggs for the regular kind, she can commit to consuming fewer eggs in total. Rather than buying "organic" milk with pictures of happy cows on the container, she can begin to incorporate some combination of soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, and hazelnut milk into her diet as replacements for cow milk. And rather than buying "humane" meat, poultry, and fish, he can begin to include the many plant-based sources of protein and iron (including grains, beans, and vegan meat substitutes) in meals that were previously built around dead animals. The first step to abolishing animal cruelty does not lie in symbolic gestures. It lies in the reduction (and, in time, elimination) of demand for products that require -- by their nature -- the infliction of suffering and death on vulnerable, sentient beings.

Posted by Sherry F. Colb