Society exploits animals to feed trivial lusts

Meat is murder. It’s a simple concept that makes a serious charge. Meat-eaters are on par with cold-blooded killers. Unfortunately the intended shock value of such rhetoric short circuits people’s willingness to listen. So they end up dismissing it as a crackpot point of view and go back to eating our drumsticks, burgers and BLTs.

Fanatical rhetoric and activism has done great injustice to the animal rights movement. Activists freeing lab mice, destroying lab equipment and throwing blood on people wearing fur hasn’t invoked contemplation or sympathy to the cause; it’s only caused hostility or indifference. These antics and this violence have turned a greatly significant cause into a caricature.

Ignore the messengers. Consider the message: Exploiting animals for our trivial luxuries is morally wrong.

Treating animals as commodities, as mere means to gorge our extravagant appetites, is immoral. Animals are beings capable of suffering, and, as such, we have a moral responsibility to them. We have the moral responsibility not to eat them to satisfy our tastes, not to experiment to test our products, not to use them to indulge our decadent lifestyles.

Surely these are claims that are too easy to dismiss. Using animals as commodities is so ingrained in our lives we do not question it. However, the greatest danger of discrimination is our ability to ignore it – to rationalize it as justified.

As humans, we easily suppress our moral responsibility to serve our selfish needs. Such selfish exploitation is strewn throughout history. In colonial times, white colonialists enslaved blacks for cheap labor. In the not-too-distant past, men denied women equality in order to keep an orderly house and a disempowered sexual partner. The reason? Because both classes of individuals were dismissed as inferior to the dominant class.

Undoubtedly, people will resist this analogy. Is animal exploitation comparable to sexism and racism? Peter Singer, chairman of ethics at Princeton University, presents a compelling argument to establish they are. In his book, “Practical Ethics,” Singer argues that the prejudice against taking the interests of animals seriously is no better founded than the prejudice against white slave owners taking the interests of blacks seriously.

Just as we are not entitled to exploit other human beings simply because they are not members of our race, we are not entitled to disregard the interests of some beings simply because they aren’t members of our species.

Some might argue intelligence is the criterion by which to judge moral considerability; the fact animals are less “intelligent” than human beings justifies using them to satisfy our appetites. If this were true, wouldn’t it, by the same logic, also justify exploiting less intelligent people to serve the needs of smarter people? For instance, wouldn’t it justify experimenting on mentally incapacitated human beings?

If you argue that mentally retarded humans shouldn’t be exploited, regardless of their mental capacities merely by virtue of the fact they belong in the class of human beings, then you are committing the same appeal as the slave owner. If you don’t treat cases alike and you justify exploiting animals but not mentally retarded humans, then you are being duplicitous, inconsistent and hypocritical. You are just as bad as the racist and the sexist: You are a speciesist.

Some people presume animals are inferior due to what their religion tells them: God granted man dominion over the animals on earth, land and sea, and humans are the center of God’s creation. I don’t imagine I can reason with uncontestable faith, except to point out that ever since the dawn of Judeo-Christianity, religion has been used to justify subjugation, whether it be of women or ethnic, cultural and religious minorities. So basing treatment on what the Bible might say hasn’t proved all that reliable.

Furthermore, treatment shouldn’t be based on such characteristics as class membership, intelligence, “rationality” or other irrelevant traits. As the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously quoted, “The question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?” Treatment should be determined on sentience. After all, a full-grown horse or dog, he reasons, is a far more rational, conversable and intelligent animal than any human infant.

If a being can suffer, then it has interests. If it has interests, then we as rational, moral creatures, have the duty to consider those interests when acting. Similarly, the more it can suffer, the more it is deserving of moral consideration (though Singer doesn’t state this explicitly).

The fact animals have interests doesn’t mean we need to stop all utilization of animals. For example, while some experimentation is unconscionable, by no means should we eradicate important medical animal testing. So we do have to ask questions.

For instance, should we experiment on chimpanzees for the sake of finding a cure to a debilitating disease? Well, we have to consider the chimpanzee’s interests, and the suffering we’d be causing by using it in our experimentation. If the interest of suffering it would prevent outweighs the practice of this experimentation, then it would be morally justified.

Should corporations be allowed to test cosmetics on rabbits in order to determine the lethal dosage? Certainly not, as this is a trivial interest that causes pain and suffering to the sentient animal. Should we experiment on mice to advance legitimate science? Given their lesser degree of sentience, we probably shouldn’t be too worried. After all, basic physiology provides us good reason to believe there are varying degrees of sentience; this is why we’re always concerned about dolphin-safe tuna, but never the tuna itself.

Every day, immeasurable suffering is being mercilessly inflicted on animals merely to sate our lust for trivial luxuries. Modern forms of intensive meat production seek to provide these luxuries to companies at the lowest possible cost, thereby resulting in horrific conditions for animals.

Animals are treated like objects – cramped in squalid conditions for the duration of their lives. Many animals are not only kept in miserable conditions of confinement, but are often then dismembered while they are still conscious and alive. There are countless stomach-turning reports on animal rights Web sites describing this abuse.

Despite all this pain and suffering inflicted on animals by meat consumers, for some reason our voracious consumption of animal products doesn’t bother us. Only if the animal victimized is a dog, cat or some other cute domesticated pet, do we hypocritically denounce mistreatment.

As long as animals are packaged in cellophane, eating meat doesn’t equate to murder. As long as exploitation is dressed up in colorful packaging and comes with a Happy Meal toy, then how can it be immoral? As long as all we see are unidentifiable chicken strips, mulched cow flesh pressed into delicious patties and we don’t see the animals cruelly caged and violently slaughtered, we can continue to kill animals to satisfy our superficial desires.

Perhaps it’s that we don’t have to deal with the bloodshed: the skinning and gutting, the murderous blows repeatedly struck to the head of an animal on the killing floor. In fact, how many of us could countenance actually killing a cow, chicken or pig? We are removed from the killing. What we get is an unidentifiable product, which no longer remotely resembles a once-living thing.

For some reason, this removal from the killing makes us feel we’re not morally responsible. I suppose we shouldn’t feel responsible for buying clothes made by child slave labor as well. We’re not the ones killing or enslaving; we’re just innocently buying products.

I do not exclude myself from this moral discussion. I myself still eat meat, though I struggle with it and try to progressively phase it out of my life. I am convinced by Singer’s argument and hope those who are incisive and open-minded enough to fully understand the implications of their animal-consuming lifestyles come to the same conclusion.


Matt Brophy’s column appears alternate weeks. He
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