As someone who teaches college ethics and who writes on animal rights issues, I was interested to read Lee Warren’s defense of animal agriculture in her letter to the Xpress [“Vegan Activists’ Attacks Are Misguided” online letter, Nov. 19]. Sadly, Warren is unable to offer a single good argument for animal agriculture. But she does offer several notably bad ones.
Warren, director of the Organic Growers School in Asheville, claims that advocates for animals and organic animal farmers like herself are “natural allies,” because both sides, she says, want “less violence toward animals.” But that’s untrue. Animal rights advocates oppose all forms of violence toward other animals, particularly the systemic violence entailed in animal agriculture. They don’t just want a world with “less” human intentional human violence toward animals; they want a world without any of it.
What is at issue in the recent brouhaha in Asheville over so-called “humane” slaughter, then, is not whether it’s better for a chicken to be raised outdoors rather than inside a giant warehouse, but whether we are justified in subjecting chickens and other animals to mass violence in the first place.
Incredibly, Warren denies that killing nonhuman animals is, in fact, “violence” at all. Why? Because killing is “death,” she says, and not “violence.” (She calls it a “humane, sane, life-giving” activity.) By Warren’s Orwellian logic, thus, if a psychopath comes up to me on the street and slits my throat with a knife or shoots me in the head, that wouldn’t be “violence” either, because I would have died. Yes, Warren really is saying that.
Many Xpress readers no doubt view local vegans’ emotional appeals on behalf of farmed animals with bemusement or simply with perplexity. That’s because we’re socialized from birth to think of cows, chickens, pigs, ducks and pretty much every other animal on the planet as stupid, unclean and irrational. Animals are just so much worthless trash. So to complain about killing them is akin to finding fault with the garbage man for collecting our garbage.
But other animals aren’t trash. The available science shows unequivocally that they share with us a wide variety of psychological, emotional and cognitive traits, capacities and experiences. They, too, have emotions, personalities, memories, a capacity to love and be loved, to form relations with others and so on.
People who have lived with cats or dogs, who have formed loving bonds with them, know this intuitively — that other animals aren’t trash. Tragically, though, the same people often have difficulty believing that pigs or chickens could be as emotionally complex, intelligent, sensitive and curious — or as prone to suffering and trauma — as cats and dogs.
So try this thought experiment: Imagine a stranger entering your home, then stabbing to death your cat or dog. Suppose, further, that the killer, in response to your cries of anguish at the sight, turns to you with a smile and remarks calmly: “I’m just affirming a deep contemplation of the role of ego and projection in our collective experience of death.” Would you accept such an “explanation” for the murder of your companion?
I doubt it. Yet this is just the explanation Meredith Leigh, another recent letter writer published in the Xpress [“Slaughtering Class Is About Life and Awareness,” Nov. 16], has given in defense of her “Cycles of Life” workshops with Wild Abundance, during which she and others teach students to stab sheep to death. Though Leigh couches her violence as “education,” as a quasi-spiritual mode of relating to nonhuman life, her tortured excuses fail to mask what is really going on, which is her and her students’ willful brutality and shocking lack of respect for the bodily integrity of other beings.
In the view of Lee Warren, however, organized violence, like the “Cycles of Life” workshop, should be held uncontroversial, because humans have “sovereignty over other beings.” What Warren seems to mean is that “might makes right” — that the powerful have a natural right to dominate and to dispose violently of, less powerful “inferiors.” This ugly prejudice dates back to the ancient world, to a time when humans owned slaves, women were treated as property by men, and parents could sell or even kill their own children with impunity. Surely, however, such a “philosophy” has no place in the modern world.
Warren nonetheless clings to this discredited view, telling us that “the reason animals are born is because they will one day die and provide food. That’s their role.” Warren thus mistakes a human, cultural construct — the animal agriculture system — with a fact of nature. Apologists for slavery made similar arguments during the antebellum period, decrying abolitionism on grounds that slaves were “bred” in order to be sold, and that it was their “role” to labor and to die on the plantations of whites. The fact that nonhuman animals today are forced to reproduce in order that we might kill and eat them similarly tells us nothing whatsoever about the moral rightness of such a system.
Humans exterminate an estimated 150 billion land and sea animals each year to satisfy the insatiable, growing market for nonhuman flesh, ova and milk. The locavore and sustainable farming movements are mere niche markets in the context of this global killing field. And they will remain so, for purely economic reasons. It is neither ecologically sustainable nor practically possible to replace industrialized animal agriculture with smaller, organic farm operations, owing simply to the vast scales and efficiencies necessary to graze, house, feed, transport, kill, dismember and market billions of animals for 7 billion humans.
To the extent that Warren, Leigh, and other boosters of organic animal agriculture continue to apologize for the meat system, then they are essentially defending a gargantuan system of mass violence — forever. Strip away all their rhetoric of “compassion” for animals, and it becomes clear that the future they envision is no less violent, ruthless and immoral vis-à-vis other animals than the world we now inhabit. The only way to mitigate the horrific suffering our species now inflicts on the others is to abolish animal agriculture as such, once and for all.
— John Sanbonmatsu
Associate professor of philosophy
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Editor’s note: A shorter version of this letter appeared in the print issue of Xpress.