The Stars Were Not Made For Us: Veganism, ownership, and abolitionism
In recent years consciousness around animal ethics has heightened and veganism has been popularised in part due to health movements in food consumption and social media figures and celebrities publicising their Veganuary adventures. It’s now common to see filtered images of appetising plant-based lunches on Instagram, or advocation of veganism as a practice in poignant soliloquies from social influencers. The UK vegan population is thought to be 3.5 million with the US at roughly 1.6 million and even more individuals outside these figures adopting a flexitarian, or more plant-based approach, to their eating habits. The diversity and availability of vegan foods is a far cry from stories of vegans in the seventies having to ‘milk’ their own soya beans to avoid a dry cereal breakfast.
Whilst it’s encouraging to see these developments from an animal ethics perspective, veganism in itself is not a final end; veganism is not the answer. As a practice it does not have to challenge despotic leaders, great wealth inequality or human slavery. Veganism is not the ultimate solution to everything and it is not even a sufficient antidote to animal exploitation. Sustained change with regards to our relationship with animals requires not simply a lifestyle shift but a transformation of values. There is a distinction between the lifestyle and habits of veganism and a coherent philosophy of animal liberation that leads to veganism.
It may be that our future provides the opportunity for ethical meat consumption. I say this tentatively because this will be contingent upon many things. For instance, how would the stems cells used in lab-grown meat be ‘harvested’ from living animals? Would animals still be bred and genetically engineered to produce the best types of cells to be used in lab meat production resulting in growth abnormalities and functional deficiencies? These processes may cause all kinds of unnecessary suffering.
In his 1909 science fiction novel, The Machine Stops, E.M. Forster imagines a dystopian future in which humans live underground and rely on a machine to fulfil their needs. Individuals live in isolation and communicate via ‘the Machine’. Forster describes the protagonist of the story, Vashti, who has become fully enculturated into the ways of the Machine: “Above her, beneath her, and around her, the Machine hummed eternally; she did not notice the noise, for she had been born with it in her ears.” The institution of animal use for a plethora of products operates on a similar level. We tacitly accept it as being common sense, as necessary, to use animals in the manner in which we do — as testing apparatus, for sustenance, for entertainment — rarely questioning this system, this covert ‘noise’.
Humans and other animals
Anyone who has studied basic biology will know that a human being is a type of animal; but linguistically, we refer to ‘humans’ and ‘animals’ as two distinctly separate groups. It seems that this notion, reiterated in our language, that humans are a fundamentally distinct category of being to other animals, has made our exploitation and use of animals all the more palatable.
We ought to be mindful of how our language could reflect an underlying bias or ideology but at the same time it might not be expedient to alter all of our phrases that, on the face of it, show disdain for animals. Simply changing, for example, animal-related idioms such as ‘to let the cat out of the bag’, would not have to necessitate a shift in practices towards animals.
A 2018 PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaign to encourage teachers and educators to promote ‘animal-friendly idioms’ to their students advocated changing old favourites such as ‘to kill two birds with one stone’ to ‘to feed two birds with one scone’ whereas ‘to bring home the bacon’ would become the more peaceable ‘to bring home the bagels’. Those looking for an idiom to demonstrate one who tries to make something happen that has no chance of happening would abandon the phrase ‘to beat a dead horse’ and instead utter that one is ‘feeding a fed horse’. Initiatives such as this, that aim to encourage people away from phrases that denigrate animals, are misguided. These idioms are the surface-level manifestations of an underlying ideology and suggesting alternatives that are more animal-friendly misunderstands the way languages change. People are drawn to phrases and words over time and these are adopted organically. It may be that we will abandon phrases that show an acceptance of animal suffering in the future but an ideological shift in human-animal relations would be required first. The question here is one of focus. The minutiae of colloquial phrases used to refer to animals is not radical enough to get to the crux of the issue. It is not clear that the person who calls an over-indulgent individual a ‘pig’ is more likely to have bacon for breakfast. Furthermore, I’m not going to offend a chicken by referring to a cowardly individual as such, but I probably would ‘offend’ a chicken if I killed them and their family purely because I enjoy the taste of their flesh.
The language we use in relation to animals often shows a tendency to dismiss their plight and not consider them as subjects capable of suffering. At the same time, if you were to ask people if they believe that animals suffer, most would answer yes. Over time our knowledge of the physiology and biological structures of animals has significantly changed; so much so that to assert that animals are inanimate objects, or automata (as René Descartes did back in the seventeenth century) in the present day would be unjustifiable.
It seems that what we say and what we do with regards to the interests of animals are at odds with each other. American Law professor Gary Francione refers to this as our ‘moral schizophrenia’ (2000). On the one hand, many believe it to be morally objectionable to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals; but on the other, the amount of suffering we subject animals to can in no way be thought of as necessary.
Our definitions of necessity when it comes to the use of animals are largely skewed because we have already deemed it acceptable to own and use animals and so have organised society around doing so. However, the fact that we have consumed animal products for our whole lives, or used animals in various ways just as countless generations and societies before us have done so, does not mean that these practices are essential to our lives in a modern industrialised setting, or are necessary conditions to ensure our continued existence.
John Gray talks about human beings as ‘straw dogs’ (2003) in an attempt to debunk the idea that the universe somehow favours human beings above other animals. He makes the analogy between the situation of humankind and the straw dogs used in ancient Chinese rituals and in doing so aims to provide us with an alternative way of viewing humankind’s position in the world. During these rituals, straw dogs were treated in an extremely delicate and careful manner and were the focal point of proceedings. Once the ritual was over however, they were trampled on and ‘tossed aside’; demoted to the status of waste. Gray locates the strongly-held belief found in many religions, (but also in some forms of humanism), that humankind is able, or will be able, to take control of its destiny. It seems that to an extent humanity will alter itself scientifically and remodel what it otherwise could have been without intervention. However, this will not be by way of following a meticulous, pre-meditated plan but by sporadic change where different forces battle for dominance whether these are political powers, economic models, or cultural factors. What many of the prominent thinkers in Judeo-Christian religions do (as well as some humanists), is place humanity on a pedestal above other animals of the world as a species that is capable of controlling its own destiny, or, possessing some kind of characteristic such as a soul that sets it apart from other beings. But in the end, as a species, we will be cast aside by the turning of natural processes just like any other species. The ‘tossing aside’ of humans by the tides of change may indeed come from a source that we have ourselves created. As the English novelist Samuel Butler noted in 1863 in the wake of the industrial revolution: “We are ourselves creating our own successors. Man will become to the machine what horse and dog are to man”. A similar indifference that we have held towards the plight of animals may well be what spells our end in an ‘indifference’ from artificial intelligence (albeit an ‘as-if’ indifference as opposed to an intrinsic indifference); we may become collateral in its pursuit of some wider goal.
Escaping anthropocentrism or striving towards the reverse, biocentrism, consists in recognising the moral significance of various animal species and the importance of certain natural processes and habitats to those species. In his work on the origins of species Charles Darwin, the great naturalist, rejected an anthropic approach. As Mary Midgley describes his philosophy in The Myths We Live By (2003):
“[Darwin] was an agnostic rather than an atheist. Much more deeply, it was that he had no wish at all to be a ‘humanist’, in the sense of a fighter on behalf of Man. In his view, the learned had concentrated far too much of their attention already on the self-important species called Homo sapiens. It was now time for them to turn their attention to the other species that populated the rich earth around it.”
Biocentrism is based on the notion of interdependence and holds that whilst as human beings we are a particular species who inhabit a particular space, there also exists other species that live in this space, who have experiences and are capable of suffering many of the pains we do. Thus, it is the interests of these species as well as our own, alongside the natural processes and ecosystems that affect the quality of the lives of all these species, that ought to be considered.
Animals as property
The overwhelming majority of societies across the world believe it to be acceptable to treat animals as property. For the most part, human beings deem it justifiable to use animals for food, clothing, testing apparatus and ingredients in toiletries and cosmetics as they perceive animals to be incapable of rational thought, missing possession of a soul, lacking comprehension of what is happening to them; most basically, they are deemed different to us. But these differences ought not to play a role in our judgement as to whether or not animals are worthy of moral consideration. Philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1780) and Peter Singer (1975) note that what matters for moral worthiness is the ability an individual has to suffer and experience pain. One may not fully understand the pain one is subjected to, or be able to articulate one’s opposition to it, but nevertheless the biological and physiological structure of many animals means that suffering is something they seek to avoid which a moral agent ought to take into their moral considerations. This is an important building block in the moral argument to give animals meaningful moral consideration, but as we shall see in the following section, it is not sufficient in itself.
Integral to many Western democracies is the right to own property. Much of the theory that appears in constitutions and legislation finds its origins in the writings of John Locke (1689). Like the vast majority of others alive in his time, John Locke subscribed to the view that humankind reigned supreme in the world over other animals. What led Locke to this assertion was his view that the Judeo-Christian God gave human beings dominion over the other animals of the world. Locke explains that after God created the ‘irrational’ creatures of the world “he considers of making man, and the dominion he should have over the terrestrial world”. This conclusion was reached from Locke’s reading of Genesis, ver. 26. Due to the fashioning of ‘man’ in God’s image, human beings, whilst to an extent belonging to God, owned their own bodies and their labour. Humans could acquire property by mixing their labour with a natural object which was otherwise owned by humankind in common. Locke argued that the right to property was ‘natural’ as opposed to legislative. In other words, human beings had a right to possess property as it was God-given and not granted by a legal system or government. That is not to say, however, that the God-given right to property would not be violated and thus legal systems and governments, in Locke’s view, ought to uphold and maintain the right to property.
Locke perceived animals to be resources much like trees or plants, created to be used by human beings. However, Locke’s conception of the physiology of animals was different to Descartes’; Locke believed animals held the capacity to feel pain and suffer, they were not ‘merely automatons’ as Cartesian thinking maintained. But animals remained of instrumental significance alone and were not ends in themselves. They were only to be respected inasmuch as their exploitation could lead human beings to be more callous towards each other. Locke, due to his theological commitments, disregards the principle of equal consideration, a rationale that underpins almost every moral theory. The principle is extremely simple; fundamentally it requires that we ought to treat like cases alike. There may be a great wealth of differences between humans and other animals but there is one extremely important similarity — the capacity to suffer. If we are to maintain consistency in our ideas on morality and treat similar cases in similar ways, then we ought not to inflict suffering on animals that we would not consider inflicting on humans, as the fundamental reason for not doing so in the latter case exists just as much in the former.
Lessons from the anti-slavery movement
What often arises within a dialogue on property and ownership is the issue of slavery; this typically being understood as the system in which one person is the property of another; many similarities can be drawn between those who were opposed to the liberation of human slaves and those who are opposed to the liberation of animals. In general, these arguments have consisted of trying to pick out a physical characteristic of the enslaved group with the hope of illustrating how it would justify our disregard of their interests. In the case of human slaves this characteristic was, more often than not, skin colour. Some claimed black people were better suited to manual work as they were stronger, or less capable of rational thought.
The arguments presented to justify animal slavery follow a similar vein. Animals are said to be incapable of rational thought or speech and therefore unworthy, or less worthy, of moral consideration. But the irregularity in this way of thinking is clear as at present the overwhelming majority of people would not believe an individual with severe mental impairment, who demonstrates no signs of capacity for rational thought, or anybody thought to be incapable of clear communication, to be of less moral worth than another human being who is capable of rational thought and speech. The only reason left for giving humans a greater level of moral consideration than other animals is species.
To give preference to one being over another purely because they belong to a certain species category is discriminatory. It is ‘speciesist’ (coined by Richard Ryder, 1970), a form of discrimination analogous to racism or sexism, that arises when one judges an animal as inferior solely on the basis that they hold different physical characteristics to oneself. As the human slave was not ‘born to serve’, as those who were pro-slavery maintained, the animal does not exist on this earth for human purposes; animals are not here to be used as resources. Just as speciesism is prevalent in the exploitation and abuse of animals (insofar as those responsible justify exploitation by appealing to physical differences that are irrelevant for moral worthiness), racism was present in the exploitation of black slaves. Their status as mere property was rationalised by their masters as being justified due to a claimed physical or intellectual difference to white people. Again, perceived characteristics that ought not to have had any bearing on our moral consideration of beings anyway were appealed to. In time these inconsistencies were recognised and the anti-slavery movement was born.
Two emergent strands within the anti-slavery movement that are likewise found in the animal liberation movement are welfarism and abolitionism. Welfarists in the anti-slavery movement claimed that it was not owning and using slaves itself that was of moral concern but the way in which slaves were treated by their owners. In other words, it was morally acceptable to own slaves given one met their basic welfare requirements. Abolitionists, on the other hand, campaigned for the full emancipation of slaves. They argued that it was morally unacceptable for an individual to own and use a human being for their own ends regardless of how they treated them. These strands are also found in the philosophy of the animal liberation movement, with welfarists asserting that it is acceptable to use animals but it must be undertaken ‘humanely’ and abolitionists arguing that animal ownership and use is almost never justified (some might argue that in extraordinary circumstances animal use would be justified just as human use would be). Brycchan Carey notes in his discussion on the anti-slavery movement, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility, abolitionism was a more profound challenge to those in power; to their domination over slaves. This being the case the establishment set out to stifle the abolitionist movement by deeming those involved in it as ‘utopian’ or ‘radical’ and guilty of emotive posturing.
The ways in which abolitionists in the animal liberation movement are often referred to by those in power is similar. As in the case of slavery, as well as animal liberation, those in power, whilst being heavily influenced by corporations, have adopted welfarist policies, appearing to address the growing concerns of citizens about the welfare of animals whilst also maintaining a position in which they can control and continue to draw considerable profits from animal use. The main issue in both the case of human and animal slaves is that the use of them as resources generates masses of wealth. These forms of exploitation in a profit-driven society become even more difficult to challenge. Adam Smith provided a frank analysis that slavery was abolished for the simple fact that the work done by the free person in the end came cheaper than that done by the slave — the free person did not have to have their welfare maintained, be clothed and fed. The same shift is unlikely to happen in the case of animals any time soon. In the current climate, businesses and corporations are keen to incarcerate animals with a view to using them to generate as much profit as possible through the harvesting of their products, or rearing of them to be killed for meat.
Welfarism treats the interests of animals as secondary to those of their owners and simply does not meaningfully take into account the ability to suffer of the individuals in question, be they human slaves or animals. A society cannot expect fair treatment to be given to those who are owned by others. In balancing the interests of property and property owner, the property owner will always have a marked advantage as their interests will trump those of the individual who is owned. This is where both the welfarist position and the arguments of Bentham and Singer are limited, in that they fail to tackle the property status of animals. Welfarism does not accord sufficient consideration to animals as in moral dilemmas their interests tend to be treated as secondary. The ways in which we raise them for consumption is reflected upon but whether or not it is morally acceptable to consume them in the first place is often ignored. This is not meaningful consideration, just like in the times of widespread human slavery meaningful consideration did not consist in beating slaves less or giving them more food whilst still holding them captive and paying them nothing for the work they did. If a being is capable of suffering, then they ought not to be treated merely as property and a means to our ends.
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In approaching the animal ethics issue, many are operating within a moral framework of minimising suffering, something Bentham and Singer rightly point out as a key foundation of moral consideration. However, as long as animals are treated as and widely regarded to be owned as property it’s impossible to minimise their suffering, because their interests will be treated as secondary to those that own them. Essentially, owner and owned must be decoupled; the suffering of the owned can never be hoped to reach its full potential minimisation until this state of ownership is abolished. Therefore, that is where our moral energy ought to be focused: challenging the property status of animals, and affording them meaningful moral consideration.
The growing tendency towards veganism and rejecting animal products (as far as is practically possible) is an important part of animal liberation but to avoid subsiding into a fleeting trend, this new movement will need something to tie it down; a philosophy that considers the wider relationship between humans and other animals. Part of this comes in recognising that we as human beings are just one of many species on this planet who suffer, and it is the interests of those other beings who also suffer we ought to consider in our moral judgements. As the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli remarked on our position in the universe, ‘We are like an only child who on growing up realises that the world does not revolve around them alone, as they thought when little. They must learn to be one amongst others.’ The universe does not exist solely for our homo sapien desires to be satiated, for us to use at will its resources and life forms to benefit our own ends. Recognition of this could spark a radical transformation of the relationship between humans and other animals; but it will require a new degree of human humility.
Bentham, Jeremy (1780) The Principles of Morals and Legislation New York, Prometheus Books.
Butler, Samuel (1863) Darwin Among the Machines Christchurch, New Zealand The Press Newspaper.
Carey, Brycchan (2005) British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
Francione, Gary L. (2000) Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Philadelphia, Temple University Press.
Gray, John (2003) Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals London, Granta Books.
Locke, John (1689) Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration Stilwell, Digireads.com Publishing.
Midgley, Mary (2003) The Myths we Live by, Routledge.
Singer, Peter (1975) Animal Liberation London, Pimlico.