Familiar and Unfamiliar Atrocities

My FindLaw column, which will appear (here) later today, discusses the case of United States v. Stevens, on which the U.S. Supreme Court granted review in April. The defendant in Stevens brought a First Amendment challenge to a statute under which he was convicted of knowingly selling depictions of animal cruelty with the intent of placing the depictions in interstate commerce for commercial gain. My column discusses several arguments for the validity of the statute, including the vulnerability of the animal victims, the role of market demand for videos in motivating acts of cruelty, and the unjustifiable nature of cruelty designed to satisfy the violent tastes of consumers. Each of these arguments, I demonstrate, counsels against the consumption of animals and animal products.

I expect that many will find this conclusion startling. When I consumed animal products, before becoming a vegan, I too would have found the conclusion startling. How can eating a sandwich be morally comparable to supporting dog-fighting or other forms of animal torture?

In my column, I explain how these can be and are comparable. Here, I want instead to focus on two emotional facts that may make it difficult to hear or accept this idea.

The first fact is that many of us have come to view eating as an amoral behavior. People speak jokingly of being "virtuous" when they decline a second helping or dessert, but what they typically mean is that they are avoiding an expanding waistline. Some invoke the same "virtue" in talking about working out or exercising on a regular basis. In reality, such measures may benefit one's own health, but it is not the sort of "virtue" one would associate with helping a poor person or refraining from violence or theft.

When a secular person considers religious dietary laws such as kashrut, a common reaction is to find nearly incomprehensible the notion that it could be morally "wrong" to consume a cheeseburger. In reality, of course, our consumption habits can have serious moral consequences, regardless of our religious orientation or lack thereof. We have begun to understand this in our purchases of cars, use of public transportation, and decisions about recycling. The impact of our food choices (on animals as well as on the environment) is no less powerful.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, an Orthodox rabbi who was the principal of my elementary school, observed that Jewish dietary laws may make the consumption of animal products so much more complicated than the consumption of plant foods to help ease human beings toward a plant-based diet. The notion that consuming animals has moral implications is therefore familiar to many religious groups (especially to Jains, Hindus, and Buddhists). This is worth remembering when we are tempted to dismiss the idea out of hand.

A second phenomenon that helps explain resistance to the notion that consuming animal products could be a profound wrong against sentient animals is the force of habit. Most of us, including vegans, grew up with parents who fed us flesh, dairy, eggs, or all of the above. These same foods were on the menu at schools, at restaurants, and at our friends' homes, and this has become increasingly true over time. When something is ubiquitous, we do not tend to question its presence or its inevitability.

Many worry, needlessly, that a vegan diet will not give them the nutrition that they need. I recall "learning," for example, that vegetarians (I had never even heard of vegans) must be especially careful to get enough protein, an omnivore's mantra that bears no relation to the realities of a vegan diet (or to the fact that people in the U.S. suffer from the effects of too much, rather than too little, protein).

Animals' use for food has come to seem a "natural" and "unavoidable" fact of life, perhaps unpleasant -- when we bother to think of it -- but really no different from our own mortality.

It is crucial, however, to struggle against the impulse to believe that something is right or true by virtue of being all around us. Not that long ago, chattel slavery and female subordination were "normal" and legally enshrined parts of our nation's life. George Bernard Shaw offered both wisdom and a cautionary tale when he said that "[c]ustom will reconcile people to any atrocity...." Let us hope that we can become "unreconciled" to the atrocity that is animal agriculture.

Posted by Sherry Colb