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The Carletonian

Reflecting on Pain and Privilege

<uld like to respond to Eli Robiner’s article in the last issue of the Carletonian titled, “Where’s the Compassion?: Reflections on Human Privilege.” Like Eli, I believe that there are compelling environmental and health reasons not to consume animal products, but I find it difficult to accept his arguments about the ethical implications of killing and eating other animals.

Eli states that we have a moral imperative to discontinue our consumption of animals and that in doing so, “We can achieve a world…where no mother has to cry out for her stolen baby.” Such an assertion fails to acknowledge the most basic principle of biological evolution: the fittest survive. All others must and will perish. Resources are limited, and in wild populations, the less fit members will succumb to predation, disease, or starvation. Perhaps humane slaughter is by nature impossible, but in nature, it can be guaranteed that death will not be humane.

Some would argue that humans have moved past the primal brutality of this natural order, and therefore should apply our higher moral standards to our interactions with animals as well as with other humans. We should not, then, impose suffering on animals by killing and eating them. We should, then, let these animals live lives in which they can express their inherent instincts and desires. But had we not spent thousands of years killing and eating animals, the very animals that we eat would not exist. This is true in both specific and broad terms: the individual chickens and cows raised in today’s farms would not have been born were they not destined for the human plate, nor would we even have such creatures as chickens and cows had our ancestors not adopted agricultural practices that led to the artificial selection of species with traits that make them favorable for breeding and consumption. On this last point, I feel strongly that modern factory farming, which utilizes animals that have been engineered to physical extremes that prevent them from achieving normal movement or reproduction and imposes upon them daily brutalities, is unquestionably wrong. Our food system is deeply flawed, especially in its treatment of food animals, but to ignore the fact that their lives and destiny are already the products of the human will is to deny our history and their biology.

Eli defines speciesism by saying, “we continue to hold as fact that humans are more important than all others and can use non-humans as we please,” adding that this is a choice that we can “limit and outlaw.” Indeed, our species has dominated the planet and all life on it to the point at which some argue we have created a new Geological era: The Anthropocene. However, to say that we can limit and outlaw the suffering and death of other species fails to acknowledge another fundamental principle of nature: life can exist only at the expense of other life. Each of us is alive today due to the ability of our immune systems to destroy the lives of pathogenic bacteria. As humans cannot photosynthesize, the energy we require to sustain ourselves must come from the body of an organism that was once itself alive. Whether it is a plant, animal, or fungus that we eat, its life must be destroyed to enable our own. Eli suggests we apply the same rules of compassion to non-human animals as to our conspecifics, in that we should not intentionally engage in their slaughter, no matter how humane, and that we should not cause them to suffer. But even when we derive our nutrition from more distant kingdoms of life, we cannot be confident that suffering is not caused. Habitats are destroyed in the creation of crop fields, and machinery used to harvest plants kills a variety of small animals that unintentionally end up in its path. Even organic methods of weed and pest control are designed to end the lives of those organisms that might threaten our desired cultivars.

Eli writes that we should not define morality in such a way that it serves itself. But to define morality in order to reduce the suffering of others, we must define that suffering. An animal cannot tell us that it is in agony, but we can see its pain and it mirrors our own. But if our goal is to eliminate suffering, then why should we extend our gaze to animals and no farther? Plants can respond to stimuli, and perceive changes in their sensory environments. Plants also lack language, but when they are subject to predation and disease, their physical distress is visible, as are the defenses they mount. Plants are no less alive and no less motivated to remain alive then animals. I am not arguing that we should not kill and eat plants because it causes them suffering, but to criminalize eating animals but not plants is not a solution to speciesism, but merely draws a wider but still circumscribed circle of compassion so that it excludes all beings outside the kingdom Animalia. If speciesism is wrong, but kingdomism is permissible, at what taxonomic level does life cease to be sacred?  

Finally, the idea that humans and other animals are entitled to a life free of suffering is a thoroughly modern and, reluctant as I am to use such a loaded term, a privileged one. Laws that promote equality, medicines that cure disease, and the technology to protect us from food scarcity are all recent developments within human history and unfortunately are still not a part of the reality of many people living today.  Eli argues that if we stop killing animals, it will move us towards a world in which these people will suffer less as well. This may be true, but that is not the world we are living in today, and the idea of human privilege is a construct of those who currently enjoy that privilege. It is not the full story.

If humans ate fewer animal products, we would probably have a world with fewer diet-related illnesses and less deforestation. But we would not have a world without suffering.

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