Animals Are The Ultimate Victims
The moral bankruptcy of using social justice rhetoric to justify the torture of animals.
Those who defend ethical veganism are often claimed by those who defend left-wing positions to be “speaking from a position of privilege,” or “failing to speak up for the marginalized.” Many on the far left seem to believe there to be a fundamental tension between the injunction not to eat meat when one can and advocacy for the oppressed. Such people often point to the existence of food deserts, claiming that huge numbers of people are unable to go vegan because of lack of access to vegan foods.
This talking point is totally wrong. For one, it is people in wealthier countries who eat most meat. The cheapest foods—rice, lentils, beans—are generally not meat; as such, many of the poorest people are mostly vegetarian because they cannot afford expensive meats. As for the claim about food deserts, it’s totally wrong—as Nobis notes, most people in food deserts just travel a bit to get their groceries.
Furthermore, vegan advocates generally claim that one should not eat meat only if they can. There might be rare cases where one has to eat meat for health reasons or because that’s all that’s available or all that gives minimal nutrients—in such cases, most vegans will agree that it’s permissible to eat meat. Thus, even if it were true that lots of people couldn’t go vegan, this would be totally irrelevant to the majority of people who can go vegan; it would be like justifying failing to give to charity on the grounds that some poor people can’t. Maybe the people who can’t give to charity aren’t required to, but that does not apply to most of the people making the argument.
The attempt to claim that veganism is somehow antithetical to the interests of the marginalized is particularly demented. The global meat industry is especially bad for many marginalized humans; a vegan world would have much less hunger, environmental destruction that particularly harms people in poor countries, and disease. Somehow, these people who convince themselves that they’re speaking up for the marginalized endorse rich westerners stuffing their faces with hamburgers, when that same farmland could have been used to feed many more people if it had grown plants.
Very often the things said when people try to argue that veganism is in conflict with the rights of the marginalized don’t even rise to the level of arguments. The food desert “argument,” for example, isn’t much of an argument; it’s not clear how you get from it to the nonexistence of a general duty to go vegan. Instead, it just arises because some people feel that veganism is in some way elitist, even if they don’t have a way to articulate why.
But the biggest mistake that this class of arguments makes is that it fails to treat animals as a genuinely marginalized group. Animals are, without a doubt, the most marginalized group on the planet. If we treated any humans the way we treat the 92.2 billion animals we torture and kill every year, it would be undeniable that we had recreated Auschwitz. If one replaced the animals with people, it would undeniably be the greatest holocaust in human history.
Animals are so thoroughly neglected that it’s seen as offensive to compare any other group to them. Dehumanizing any group is seen as a grave offense because being like a nonhuman animal is seen as sufficient to make one totally morally insignificant. Animals are so thoroughly marginalized that it’s regarded as totally morally fine to eat their corpses after they’ve spent their entire life being tortured. If you make any fuss about this, if you so much as encourage people not to pay for these ghastly industries to torture animals, you’re seen as some type of pushy moralist.
And yes, the conditions animals endure are torure. Read through the conditions described here and ask yourself, if these were inflicted on any person would we hesitate to call them torture? If we found out that the U.S. government was confining prisoners in tiny cages, covered in the feces of the prisoners above them, before having their nose sliced off with a hot knife, would anyone hesitate to call this torture? If you found out that the U.S. government castrated prisoners with a sharp knife and no anesthetic, would you regard it as controversial to regard this as torture? If prisoners were shoved into tiny crates in ways that broke their bones, that killed about a quarter of them, would calling this torture be seen as anything beyond the most trivial of utterances? Of course not. We only take are hesitant to call factory farms torture chambers because we give so little of a damn about animals that we don’t consider their torture to be real torture.
Every second of every day, over 24 billion land animals are left languishing in these torture chambers. More than three times the population of Earth is being tortured every single instant and most people don’t care in the slightest. We torture and kill more sentient beings every two years than there are people that have ever lived. The agony inflicted on these poor, helpless creatures is plausibly enough to cancel out all the joy humans experience, and makes it so that the world contains far more pain than pleasure.
So we have a situation in which three times the population of Earth is being tortured before being killed, often quite brutally. And some people still somehow think that social justice is opposed to doing anything to stop that. These people think that the really marginalized people are slightly below-average income people in the world’s wealthiest countries. That the people who want to take these helpless victims out of these ghastly Guantanamos are somehow privileged. This would be a bit like claiming that abolitionists are privileged because poor people can’t afford to sell their slaves. It’s moral blindness of the highest order. It fails to recognize that the ones being viciously tortured in the cruelest ways imaginable are the victims, and we must do everything in our power to end their plight.
Of course, you might think that the fact that three times that population of humans on Earth is being tortured right now is not a big deal. You might have some view according to which animals don’t matter and so we should shed no tears about the fact that we’ve inflicted hell on three times the human population of Earth. But why would this be? No one can give a good answer.
It can’t just be that they’re not biologically human. If we discovered an alien race that was relevantly like us, even if they weren’t biologically human, it would be wrong to torture them for food. It can’t be that they’re not smart, for this would imply that it’s okay to torture some severely mentally disabled people for food, or babies, who aren’t very smart. It can’t be that they’re part of a species that is mostly not smart, for if we discovered that mentally disabled people had some genetic defect that made them not technically human, it would still be wrong to torture them for food. The wrongness of torturing one cannot have anything to do with their species; it must be about features intrinsic to them. To figure out if mentally enfeebled people deserve to be tortured, you don’t need to look at other members of their species. You can know it’s wrong to torture them because of how torture feels. When Hitler sent severely mentally disabled people into gas chambers the reason that was bad wasn’t because of their species but because of the agony they felt and the death it brought about. But on this view, it’s only wrong because of their species.
Maybe it’s that they feel pain less intensely. But Rethink Priorities has checked how intensely they feel pain in the most detailed report to date. They’ve concluded that the most commonly farmed animals feel pain about a third as intensely as people. This means that factory farming causes as much physical pain as it would if we were every moment torturing about 8 billion people—and that’s even ignoring aquatic life. Now, maybe some of the badness of torture comes from the fear and the dread of it or from things related to our higher faculties. But there are some severely mentally disabled people who can’t experience those things. So factory farming is about as bad as torturing 8 billion babies or severely mentally disabled people every second of every day, even by conservative estimates.
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas tells a story of a society in which almost everyone is happy. However, for their society to be happy, one child must be tormented in a basement. Leguin describes the room vividly:
The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes--the child has no understanding of time or interval--sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked; the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother's voice, sometimes speaks. "I will be good, " it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, "eh-haa, eh-haa," and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.
We are like the people of Omelas. But in their society, there is just one child being tormented for an entire civilization to flourish. In ours, a group much larger than the current population of people on Earth is being tortured. This isn’t necessary—it’s simply so that we can enjoy the taste of the flesh of the victims of our torture. And yet people have the gall to claim that when they defend this psychopathic torture they are speaking up for the oppressed. Anyone who thinks this is morally blind and doesn’t know what oppression is. If you’re incapable of recognizing that the beings who we torture and kill on a scale unforeseen in human history are the real victims, and that in an oppression Olympics, they would win handily against any other group, you have a quite significant moral blind spot. If you feel more sympathy for the people doing the torturing primarily out of convenience and pleasure than those being tortured, your moral priorities are seriously screwed up. There is virtually nothing more despicable than using the real plight of the downtrodden to justify furthering the mistreatment of history’s most thoroughly immiserated victims, who rot in torture chambers because of people’s lust for their flesh.