The Nature Argument

Questions this post explores:

- Do animals have a sense of morality?

- Is animal rights a product of human arrogance?

- Should we interfere with animal behaviour in the wild?

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Most vegetarians will be familiar with what I term the Nature Argument: Why is it wrong to eat animals when other animals do it all the time?

There are typically four responses:

(i) Humans are not like other animals. We hold ourselves accountable to far higher standards of morality and justice. We are not ruled by a law of the fittest, where we are free to discriminate against and harm weaker human beings simply because we have the power to do so. We are capable of cognitively understanding what it means for other living creatures to suffer in ways many animals cannot. If our actions could always be justified by natural, animalistic instincts, then we would no longer have any reason to respect some of the most basic human rights. Racism, sexism, robbery and murder should go unpunished, since it happens all the time in the wild. Not many people would be willing to commit to such a position. If so, this argument cannot hold unless there is a good reason why the treatment of animals should be such a special exception – one that does not stem from prejudice or convenience.

(ii) Humans are not meant to eat animals. We are able to eat many fruits, nuts and vegetables raw, and they still look and taste delicious. When it comes to animals, I don’t think anyone is really going to salivate at the thought of gnawing flesh off a carcass of an animal that died just seconds ago (even though it won’t get any fresher than that). Moreover, humans are not able to handle cholesterol as well as carnivores are able to, resulting a far higher risk of cancer, obesity and heart disease than both carnivores and humans on a vegetarian/vegan diet. Lastly, a lot of our biological features are much closer to that of herbivores. Our long intestinal tract length, stomach acidity, saliva alkalinity, need for dietary fibre and lack of claws or sharp teeth to hunt wild prey are all traits we share with herbivores, not carnivores or omnivores. These suggest that our bodies are simply not designed to consume animals, and we can’t use the argument that it’s in our ‘nature’ to.

(iii) There is nothing natural about factory farming, which accounts for basically all our meat production today. We are capable of inflicting far more suffering on the animals we consume that any other predator in the wild. Predators don’t trap other animals in tight cages or drag huge nets along the ocean floor that devastate the entire ecosystem. Predators don’t experiment with hormonal injections and selective breeding, and create a farming breed of animals so grotesque that it is impossible for them to live up to a third of the lifespans of their natural counterparts, and they will most certainly die of sickness unless they are given antibiotics all the time. Predators aren’t capable of the kind of calculated abuse, slavery and genocide that we inflict on the animals we eat. It doesn’t even make natural sense for any animal to create a system so unsustainable that we could all very well go extinct within the next few hundred years if we don’t stop what we’re doing. A predator causes its prey to suffer for an hour. Humans cause animals to suffer for life. Unless we close down all our farms and go back to individually hunting our own food, or at least be prepared to shell out $30 for a single, traditionally and ‘ethically’ farmed chicken drumstick, there’s really nothing natural about how we consume animals.

(iv) Humans are one of the only animals who, despite presently subsisting on a meat-based diet, have the option to entirely cut out animal flesh and still be healthy. While this argument is similar to (ii) (and in fact can be explained by it), it is treated as a separate argument because (ii) does not need to be true for this argument to hold. Even if we were historically carnivores, that does not change the overwhelming amount of empirical evidence that vegetarians and vegans are presently capable of being very healthy individuals. I don’t claim that ALL of us are healthy. There are cases of vegans suffering from severe nutritional deficiencies (most commonly vitamin B12 and vitamin D), even resulting in death. It is unfortunate that these cases happen, because such deficiencies can be easily and cheaply dealt with by the wide range of vegan supplements and fortified foods available (and also in the case of vitamin D, staying out in the sun more). The important thing is that we are still capable of leading fully functional lives (arguably better, even).

I am now going to go over the counter-arguments. Many of them do carry a lot of weight and are worth discussing. Let’s talk about (ii) first. Nobody denies that humans aren’t carnivores, but the argument that humans are naturally omnivores is very strong. Biologically, we are clearly more adapted to eating animal flesh than your average herbivore is. Herbivores are able to synthesise vitamin B12 through their stomach bacteria and need not depend on external sources (vitamin B12 can only be naturally found in animal products, not plant products). We, however, lack a reliable means of synthesising our own vitamin B12 (although traces of B12-synthesising bacteria can be found in our bodies, they are in far too low quantities). As I mentioned earlier, there are cases of vegans neglecting their external intake of vitamin B12 who have suffered severe health repercussions. Moreover, we are far better at digesting animal flesh than most herbivores are, both in terms of absorbing nutrients and dealing with the negative effects of cholesterol. It’s nothing compared to the capabilities of carnivores, but it’s somewhere in between.

And then there’s the historical evidence of what we actually ate. Let’s take a walk back in time. We developed the tools needed to hunt animals as early as 2.4 million years ago, around the time that the Paleolithic era began. There are signs that we may have learnt how to control fires (and thus were able to cook our food) as early as 1.5 million years ago, but that is unconfirmed, and solid evidence of mastery over fire dates back only about 300,000 years. We invented fishing and the bow and arrow about 30,000 years ago. The Paleolithic era finally ended some 14,000 years ago with the discovery of agriculture and animal husbandry, heralding the transition into the Neolithic era. This was when our world population, then capped at about 1 million, really exploded. Fast forward another 12,000 years, and only then does vegetarianism begin to appear in the records. Principles of animal non-violence in Jainism and Buddhism and vegetarian philosophy and practice in Ancient Greece date back to 6th Century BC (600-501BC). Of course, our reasons for abstaining from eating animals by then were wildly different from those of our ancestors more than 2.5 million years ago.

Our earliest Paleolithic diets were probably still similar to that of chimpanzees in the wild today. Chimpanzees are known to hunt other animals and eat animal flesh, but they very rarely do, and do so only for ceremonial and not nutritional purposes. I doubt the meat-based diet really emerged until the Neolithic era or later. Even then, farmed animals were expensive, and were more a luxury than necessity. It was not until the 1900s, when the era of factory farming and processed foods began to dominate the world, that people could really afford to eat animals every single meal.

So yeah. We do, unfortunately, have a history of eating animals that dates back 2.5 million years. I don’t know how to best put that into perspective, but trust me, it’s a really long time. It’s more than enough to bring about a couple of evolutionary changes, which is why I suspect we no longer have the ability to synthesise our own vitamin B12, and are in turn better able to digest animal flesh and cope with cholesterol. If this isn’t enough to consider humans ‘naturally’ omnivores, then we’d better come up with some really good reasons why not.

I’m not going to probe this argument further, because I don’t find this a setback to the vegetarian cause at all. It doesn’t and shouldn’t matter what humans are ‘naturally’ meant to eat. In fact, I dislike concept of a ‘natural diet’ to begin with. There is no such thing as a fixed diet that we are supposed to eat. If we want to talk about our original original diet that goes so far back that nothing else precedes it, we wouldn’t be eating at all because we’d all be single celled organisms. Beyond that, our diets have never remained stagnant. What we ate changed first; our bodies adapted afterwards. If we wanted to, we could force ourselves to adapt to become biological carnivores by only eating animal flesh for a million years. Of course, we’d have to kill off the sick to get rid of the bad genes, and we’d have to cut our world population size by a thousand-fold ,otherwise the environment would never last long enough for us to see it happen.

In this sense, it’s entirely up to us what we want to eat. Let’s say we discovered new evidence that animal husbandry has actually existed for millions of years, and the meat-based diet is indisputably THE ‘natural’ diet. And that our science has been wrong and our biological features are actually identical to that of carnivores and worlds apart from that of herbivores. So what? I’m still not gonna go back to eating animals. I don’t care what I’m evolutionarily meant to do. This is not going to make a nonvegetarian diet any less cruel than it already is. It does not make a vegetarian diet any less of a moral necessity.

Yes, our nutritional needs are determined by how we have evolved, and what we have evolved to eat. In that sense, we may claim that our ‘natural’ diet is our healthiest diet, and nature has decreed that the omnivorous diet is best for us. However, this only holds true if we rely on natural selection and evolution to survive as a species. We don’t. We’ve stopped relying on it ever since dying stopped being the solution to our problems. When we encounter a deadly new disease, we don’t wait for the people with susceptible genes to die off and ‘evolve’ to become more resistant to it. We try to solve the problem using medicine and technology. In the end, we end up surviving many situations where, according to our genetic makeup, we should’ve died. Perhaps this leaves us weaker as a species in the long run. However, it makes us moral beings. I don’t know anyone who supports passive genocides as a means to strengthen the human gene, and I don’t want to. Going back to the fact that vegans need to take B12 supplements or B12 fortified food to prevent nutritional deficiency, I don’t think that’s any indication that a vegan diet is not right for us. With advances in technology, we can give vegans the cheap supplements they need to survive, just as we presently give nonvegetarians the expensive medical attention they need.

Let’s move on to (iii), the argument that factory farming is not natural. I only have a single paragraph of discussion about it, really. Let’s face it, factory farming is exceedingly difficult to justify. It’s only the managers, executives, shareholders and the smartass consumers (who know nothing and want to know nothing about what’s really going on) who try to downplay the cruelty. The people know who see, live and breath the situation on the ground every single day don’t hang around to defend it. The factory farmer job has annual turnover rates above 100% (if you need 5000 workers for your factory, you’re expected to replace more than 5000 workers within a single year), compared to the US annual nonfarm average of about 2-3% in the past few years. It causes one of the highest rates of psychological, stress and trauma related disorders amongst its workers. My problem with (iii), rather, is that it only presents a case against factory farming, and is not a direct argument for vegetarianism or veganism. It is very possible for us to hunt animals in the same way wild animals do. Granted, our bodies aren’t designed to hunt animals without the use of tools, but animals are known to use tools as well, such as the sea otter who uses rocks to break the shells of its prey. Moreover, when we hunt, it gives us the right to claim that we are not inflicting a disproportionate amount of pain on our ‘prey’, and therefore should not be wrong. ‘Natural’ methods of killing animals, however, are still cruel. It’s amazing how factory farming can be so nightmarish that it makes hunting look tame and compassionate, but objectively speaking, you’re still shooting an animal with a freakin’ gun. When was the last time someone shot you with a gun and you thought, ‘Oh, at least it’s not as bad as factory farming’?

Finally, we have (iv), the argument of choice. This, however, only argues for the feasibility of vegetarianism, and not the necessity of it. It’s still an important argument because a lot of nonvegetarians like to think we’d die if we stopped eating animal flesh, thereby making it a necessity. Even if we are biological omnivores, or carnivores for that matter, that could not be further from the truth. The evidence? WE are the evidence. All of us who abstain from animal flesh are living proof of it.

Ultimately, I believe the best response to the Nature Argument still lies with (i). It is the main reason people become vegetarian or vegan besides religion, and it is the most intuitive. We should be exceptional about animal rights for the exact same reasons that we are exceptional about human rights. We do it because we know pain and suffering is wrong. We are against slavery, discrimination and oppression. These behaviours are arguably ‘natural’. Throughout history, we’ve always regarded the creatures dissimilar to us, humans and animals alike, with cruelty and apathy. Males are programmed to want to be polygamous and dominant, making sexism the biological norm. However, we’ve come to the point when we’re not comfortable with doing what is ‘natural’ any more. Empathy towards dissimilar living creatures is by no means a recent development – we’ve always reserved a special kindness towards certain animals or people in our lives – but more than ever, we are recognising a need to be unconditional, unselective and unhypocritical who we offer our kindness to. We are realising that all human beings have rights, even if we do not know them very well. Along with this comes the necessity of treating them as equals. I don’t know why we’re like that. I don’t know why we care about living creatures other than ourselves. However, I know it’s happening and I’m glad it is. And if we are obliged to be unconditional, unselective and unhypocritical about our moral values, animals are a necessary extension. Already, we intuitively know it is wrong to kick a dog on the street or run it over with a car the same way it is wrong to do that to a human being. The moment we acknowledge that we are not heartless, the need to care about animals becomes just as legitimate and worthy of consideration as the need to care about humans.

Yet, getting into this argument always leaves a bitter aftertaste. Animals are not known to be particularly kind to members of their own species with all the infighting, let alone to other species. What seems like a moral necessity to us can be construed as a supererogation in the context of nature – we are taking it one step further than everyone else. If we claim that causing animals to suffer is cruel, we are necessarily saying that what animals do to each other – today, tomorrow and every single other day of their lives – is cruel. Wolves and hyenas are known to eat animals alive because they lack the jaw muscles to break the necks of their prey. There are many horror stories about what parasitic animals do to each other, like the Cymothoa Exigua that eats the tongues of living fish. The cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds on tall trees, and its hatched baby instinctively pushes the other eggs out of the nest, sending them plunging to their deaths.

When confronted by the rampant cruelty in nature, our moral concerns start to seem extraneous. At best, they seem like a purely human construct, something that only the human race, no longer faced with the dangers of surviving in the wild, has the kind of time to go and philosophise about. At worst, they seem like a product of human arrogance, a result of an incessant need for us to see ourselves as superior beings to animals, be it scientifically, economically, socially or morally. Somewhere in the middle of all that is the idea that, having risen to a position of power where we can abuse animals with the kind of sadism beyond the wildest imaginations of our ancestors, we are finally beginning to feel sorry for our actions and we are trying to atone for them. This has manifested as vegetarianism/veganism. If other wild animals evolved to the point where they too discovered the farming system and subsequently factory farming (realistically, we would murder them in cold blood before they ever came close, because humans are the only ones given the divine authority to rule the world), and they began to eat not out of necessity but luxury, would they eventually come to the point where they started to feel guilty as well? Who knows.

Speciesist Imperialism vs Powerless Relativism

Here’s a more confrontational way to present the issue at hand: Given that we believe animal cruelty is wrong, what about natural cruelty? What should we do about the millions of animals that are injured and killed by natural predators every single day?

Let’s say we recognise that animal cruelty is wrong, and we should intervene in nature. What then? We can’t possibly deny predators their food. They will go extinct, and their prey will begin to overpopulate the area, resulting in an ecological disaster. Also, we can’t possibly march loving, compassionate vegan activists into the forests to fight off hungry bears and lions. It’d be an absolutely one-sided massacre.

On top of that, the idea that we should police the natural world and correct ‘cruel’ animal behaviour reeks of human self-righteousness. Who are we to dictate what other animals can or cannot do? We are denying animals a very fundamental pattern of existence that underpins their entire way of life. Stop the cruelty, and the animal kingdom would collapse. By giving animals rights, we are forcing upon them a standard of morality that they themselves cannot accept. Replace humans with ‘Europeans’ and animals with ‘Asians’, and it’d be the darkest parts of the Colonial era all over again. It sounds xenophobic, ethnocentric, racist. By claiming that cruelty to animals is wrong, we are in danger of being speciesist ourselves. I remember a PETA campaign that said humans who ate the flesh of living creatures were essentially no different from the kind of zombies we see in movies. I found this very curious. Would PETA therefore claim that all carnivores in the wild are zombies as well? Not that it matters – I don’t think animals would be particularly offended if you called them zombies – but I can’t help but feel that PETA wasted their money on that one.

But let’s say we take the other route. We claim that we have a moral obligation to minimise animal suffering under the hands of humans, but at the same time, we also have a moral obligation not to interfere with animal suffering at the hands of other animals, simply because doing so would be disrespectful their animalistic ‘culture’.

This implies that animal rights are relative. Animals who interact with humans have rights, animals in the wild don’t. This position is equally untenable. All animals suffer the same, regardless if the perpetrator is human or not. Drawing a line between the cruelty committed by humans and animals is just as arbitrary as drawing a line between their rights. Here we are, claiming that we should extend our moral considerations to animals as well, but moral responsibility somehow stops at us. If we’re so keen to respect animal culture, then why not respect indigenous human cultures that require animals for ritualistic purposes as well? And if we allow ourselves to respect them, then why not respect the non-vegetarians who can’t stand the thought of abstaining from animal flesh as well? We’ll never see the end of it.

So, it seems that either way, we’re committing ourselves to something undesirable. What now?

Morality in Animals

Of course, I can’t argue about the moral concerns of humans and animals without talking about what morality means, especially to animals. It is increasingly accepted that the more intelligent non-human animals have some sense of morality, but it’s still not clear how this differs from human morality, or where morality ends and instinct begins.

We know that amongst many species of birds, mammals, fish and even insects that live in groups, codes of conduct exist. These animals know what they can or cannot do. This is both instinctive and learnt; animals who break the rules are often punished by members of their species, just as with humans. There are studies that claim systems of punishment exist even amongst ant colonies.

Compliance to a code of conduct, however, is not the same as morality. Morality can only be said to exist if there is moral belief; or the belief that a course of action is inherently right and obligatory. If you have a moral belief that something is right, you’ll do it even if there is no reward for doing it, and no punishment for not doing it. This does not mean that morality and a reward-punishment-system are mutually exclusive. You can be vegetarian primarily for moral reasons, but enjoy the health rewards at the same time.

I think that we have enough records of animals performing actions of kindness in the absence of a reward-punishment-system to conclude that animals are capable of moral belief. These cases are often interspecies interactions, especially with humans, because they are the ones where a reward and punishment system is the least clear. How was Binti Jua, a gorilla at Brookfield Zoo, supposed to decide what to do when a toddler fell into her enclosure? It’s not as though her zookeepers had previously taught her reward-punishment-system for such a scenario by dropping toddlers in her enclosure all day. Yet, she promptly cradled the boy and took him over to the paramedics by the door. If it were a human being, we would say that he or she did it out of moral belief. It should be no different for a gorilla.

Here, I want to address the idea of instinct. If you look up this incident on the web, the reports attribute Binti’s actions to her maternal ‘instinct’. If it were humans who saved the toddler, we would have said it was out of ‘kindness’, not instinct. The term ‘instinct’ implies that Binti did not make a conscious moral choice – she merely acted as she was biologically programmed to. This is a double standard. As humans, we instinctively empathise with others as well. Nobody ever teaches us to feel bad when we see another living creature suffer, human or animal. But we do. It’s a harrowing experience. Yet, cruelty seems to be the societal norm, not kindness. Many humans are only too willing to abuse and manipulate other living creatures for their own comforts. I believe that our instincts tell us very contradictory things. On one hand we instinctively see a need to care for others. On the other hand, we are instinctively selfish. We want to exercise our power over the rest of the animal kingdom for our own comfort, even if they manifest in the most brutal ways. It doesn’t matter if these instincts were present at birth, or if they were indirectly taught to us as we grew up. We’ve come to accept a kind of doublethink that puts Big Brother to shame. The dissonance is truly shocking. When a policeman rescues an animal stuck in a drain, we praise him for being compassionate, promptly ignoring the fact that when he goes home and eats animal flesh for dinner, the cruelty he inflicts completely dwarfs his deed. Perhaps we should apply the same standards that critics apply to Binti, and tell him that he did not act out of kindness, but mere instinct. But we can’t, because if we did, we’d realise that on every other normal occasion where he consumed animal flesh, he’d be displaying some very dangerous psychopathic tendencies. If we started denouncing people for the cruelty of their actions and stopped praising them for their comparatively insignificant everyday acts of kindness, we’d realise that most humans simply would not qualify as beings of moral fibre. With the exception of a few individuals who really pushed themselves to better humanity, the average human would be incapable of making moral decisions.

Maybe morality is just a human construct. Maybe we just want to paint an overly rosy picture of ourselves. Maybe, objectively speaking, there is no difference between morality and instinct. Some humans are just better at following their instincts to care than others, like Binti. Vegetarianism strikes me as something that should be instinctive, once you learn the truth. I don’t see myself as an especially compassionate person. I haven’t really risked my life for a greater good enough, and I’m not sure I’d want to. But when people tell me that my decision to become vegetarian is based on compassion, not instinct, I don’t say anything. I’m afraid I might end up implying all that non-vegetarians need to be locked up and given serious psychiatric treatment as soon as possible. I don’t think they do. I know many non-vegetarians who are wonderful people, on the whole. I just find it regrettable that they’ve been conditioned to crave animal flesh so much that they develop the carnivorous instinct to shut off their empathy when it comes to their food. All I’m saying is that we should apply the same standards of morality to humans and animals. Either both we and Binti are capable of making moral decisions (and Binti saved the toddler because she KNEW it was the right thing to do), or neither of us are. The argument that one is moral and the other instinctive is bullshit.

Also, not all animals are capable of moral belief (or following their instincts of empathy, if you will). Most mammals are. There are claims that birds have saved human lives before, making them worthy of consideration. But when you go down to fish, it becomes far more dubious. Go down further to crustaceans, arachnids and insects, and then to animals who do not even have brains like the jellyfish, and it’s quite safe to say that they are out of the realm of morality (but this does not mean they are incapable of suffering).

What animals lack that humans have, instead, is moral reasoning. Moral reasoning is the ability to make moral decisions based on reason and logic, not instinct. Our history of moral reasoning does not not date back more than 2500 years, by when we had already invented all other sorts of things, so it’s pretty safe to say that most animals are not advanced enough to be capable of it. Ideally, reason should be universal, and given the same premises, all human beings should reach the same logical conclusions. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. Most cases of applied logic are heavily ideological and skewed. This makes moral reasoning a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can lead us to make moral decisions that would otherwise seem counterintuitive (or where instinct alone is often insufficient), such as a decision to abstain from animal flesh after you’ve been raised in a culture that is addicted to it. On the other hand, it can be used to justify some of the most horrible things we do. Humans, despite possessing an overwhelming penchant for cruelty, still like to think of themselves as moral beings. That’s why Hitler tried to justify his anti-semitism by claiming that it was for the greater good of a superior human race. It allowed him to believe that his hatred was not arbitrary, and there was a universal rationale behind it. The bottom line is that moral reasoning does not automatically make us morally superior to animals. It can, but doesn’t always, and usually doesn’t.

Negotiating the Dichotomy

The idea that animals are incapable of moral reasoning is important, because it means that animals are almost entirely unable to overcome their instincts through moral belief. If you nurse an injured lion back to health it will be grateful towards you, out of a moral belief in the importance of reciprocation, but it won’t be able to use moral reasoning to realise that it should offer the same kindness to the animals it preys on. You can try to use a reward-punishment-system to steer a lion away from eating animal flesh, and maybe it’ll work for awhile until the lion really begins to starve, but you can’t instill a moral belief in the lion that eating animals is wrong.

Yes, it is possible to adapt carnivores to cruelty-free diets. We’ve done that with the domestic dog, who, after 20,000 to 30,000 years of selective breeding, has become capable of subsisting on vegan food. If we can tame the mighty grey wolf, I’m sure we can find a way to do it with sharks, alligators, bears and any other carnivore on the planet. We just haven’t tried it yet. However, no matter how success we can be at domesticating animals, we cannot get them to make the change because they will it. It has to be forced.

Let’s return to our aforementioned problem. I guess the solution is to claim that what predators are doing in the wild is cruel, but not wrong. It is cruel because these predators continue to cause other animals to suffer, but it is not wrong because they aren’t in a position to make a moral choice. Let’s say someone you trust offers you a dessert, and tells you that it contains no animal products whatsoever. Based on looks or smell alone, you can’t tell. Upon eating it, however, you immediately realise that the texture must have been made with gelatin. Maybe you’d feel bad for not having been more careful, most probably you’d be furious at that person, but reasonably speaking, you did no wrong. You could not have known that it was made of gelatin until you ate it. In this sense, animals do no wrong because they are incapable of understanding the cruelty that they inflict to each other when it is fuelled by their instincts. Humans, on the other hand, have the unique ability to overcome their instincts and cravings for animal flesh through moral reasoning. And because we can, it therefore becomes our moral obligation to. If this requires us to bite the bullet and say that humans have the ability to be morally superior to animals, then so be it. But we can’t consider ourselves morally superior to them until we demonstrate the ability to use our moral reasoning to do something good.

In this sense, there is an objective reason, grounded in nature, why humans have more moral responsibilities than animals do. Both humans and animals share some basic moral concerns, like the importance of reciprocation of love. However, we have an additional moral responsibility, and that is to use moral reasoning to overcome our instincts where they cause us to be cruel. If we could convince animals that a lot of their instincts were cruel, then I guess we probably should. But we can’t, most definitely not in the way we can with humans.

Still, this does not automatically mean that we should leave animals in the wild alone. There are psychotic killers who are incapable of feeling repentant for their deeds, or possessing the moral belief that what they did was wrong. In a way, we can’t say that they are morally responsible for their actions – that’s why mental disorder is a valid legal defence. That still doesn’t mean we should let them run amok. Once again, why does this not extend to animals?

I guess that’s where a second argument comes in: An argument of practicality. The animal rights movement is more than just a principle, or an idealistic belief. It is something that needs to work in order to be of any worth. We aren’t at the stage where we’ve already convinced everyone who can possibly be convinced, and now it’s really about forcing those who can’t. I can spend my time daydreaming about a world in which animal suffering does not exist, and I can say that it would be vastly preferable to the world we Iive in now. However, the moment I actually think about how I’m going to go about spending my time contributing to the cause, it becomes apparent that intervening in nature – something we really can’t do much about – is a huge black hole that greatly distracts from our efforts towards other humans – something we can do a lot about.

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Did I cover this issue adequately? Are there any other aspects to this issue that are worth exploring? Do you have any disagreements with what I’ve said? Let me know in the comments section! Thanks!

Is cruelty-free lacto-octo-vegetarianism viable?

Hindu vegetarians are almost always lacto-vegetarian, but it doesn’t reflect an apathy towards cows. If anything, Hindus have cared more about cows than anyone else for centuries. They see cows as a sacred and selfless figure, willing to give so much, expecting so little in return. One of the reasons for this is cow’s milk, which Hindus see as a symbol of a cow’s caring and motherly nature. That’s why the slaughter of cows is seen to be so sacrilegious in Hinduism.

Sadly, the reality is that cows are being treated as anything but sacred animals today, even in India. P.E.T.A has documented cases of overcrowding, dehydration and deliberate injury on cow farms.1 Cows probably haven’t always been treated this badly. Considering the fact that human-animal interaction has been going on for hundreds and thousands of years, industrialisation and the rise of the corporation are relatively new phenomena. For a long time, animals were probably owned by individual families and roamed on an open farm. Ruthless cost-cutting, severe overcrowding and the injection of hormones only came about in the last 200 years thanks to ‘advances’ in business and science. The bigger corporations get, the more impersonal human-cow interaction becomes, and the more cows are treated as commodities and not living creatures.

If you were to ask whether humane meat is possible, the answer is a resounding no. Animals want to live just as much as humans do. The only remotely humane form of ‘killing’ humans is passive euthanasia, and even that is extremely controversial. Why should it be any different for animals? The only other option is to restrict ourselves to eating animals who have died natural deaths, which simply cannot support an entire industry (not even counting the legislative nightmare it would cause).

What about lacto-octo-vegetarianism? Yes, it is undignified to see animals purely in terms of their capital value. But we do that with many human beings too. A lot of companies hire people based on how good they are at their jobs (aka their capital value). Even if we demand for animals to be accorded the same rights as human beings, it does not immediately become apparent why this should preclude milk and eggs, provided they have been farmed the right way.

A common rebuttal to this is that the animal farm business is practically slavery. Human beings are free to choose their jobs; animals aren’t. Human beings are free to decide how many children they want to have or when they want to retire; animals aren’t. Human beings own themselves instead of being owned by their companies; animals aren’t. Even the most humane animal farm business gives its animals less freedom than the worst human job (assuming it isn’t guilty of human rights abuses).

Yet, by this logic, the ownership of pets is inherently cruel. Even the adoption of a pet from an animal shelter is simply the transference of power from one party to another. You still have authority over your pet’s life, you still infringe upon your pet’s freedom, and in this sense your pet is ‘enslaved’ to you. Far less vegetarians and vegans have qualms with the ownership of pets, provided they have been obtained by ethical means.

Even then, when people adopt pets from animal shelters, they know that regardless of the philosophical and ethical issues behind it, the immediately reality is that their pets receive a better life. This is very different from an industry where animals are bred for the express purpose of being put to work. There is no immediate promise of a better life, no ‘before’ and ‘after’ to support your claim that you’re treating the animals properly. The alternative to this is usually the animals not even being born at all.

But let’s take a step back. Recently, the promise of ethically-sourced milk, eggs and wool has become just a little bit more real with the existence of two companies: Ahimsa Milk and Good Food Nation.

Ahimsa is a term meaning to do no harm. Ahimsa Milk prides itself on selling slaughter-free milk that ‘guarantees no cow, calf or bull is ever slaughtered as part of its production’. It ‘aspires to the highest possible standards of cow welfare’ and the cows are ‘[retired] to a sanctuary when their productive days are over’. They are also ‘exploring innovative ways to work with bulls to ensure their economic viability.’2

Good Food Nation, on the other hand, is a parent company that sells milk, eggs and wool under the respective companies Cow Nation, Hen Nation and Izzy Lane. Cow Nation claims to use ‘a dairy model which allows each cow to live out its full, natural life along with all their off-spring’ and ‘[m]oney from the sale of their milk goes into a pension fund from which each animal will benefit in retirement.’ They try to reduce the number of male calves born using ‘sex-selected semen’, but guarantee that ‘each calf, male or female can look forward to living out its whole life in the herd.’3 Hen Nation takes it one step further, and prides on using ‘1680 rescued hens’ with ‘a further 18,000 hoping to become part of the scheme.’ The hens live ‘happy, traditional free-range lives – free to graze grass and forage’. Each hen is also able to ‘live out its full natural life.’4 Lastly, Izzy Lane creates fashion products from wool, obtained from its ‘500 rare breed sheep which have been rescued from slaughter’, and are guaranteed to ‘live out their whole natural lives’.5

So, the standard for ethically-sourced milk, eggs and wool appears to be that (1) the animals are not slaughtered and are be allowed to live their full, natural lives, and (2) they are allowed to roam in an open field during the day. This, at least, addresses some of the most pressing concerns that vegans have of the animal industry.

Now, regardless of whether lacto-octo-vegetarianism can truly be cruelty-free or not, I wholeheartedly applaud the efforts of Ahimsa Milk and Good Food Nation. The main aim of these companies is not to convince vegans to consume animal products once more, or to weaken the force of their arguments. These companies exist because they know that a majority of lacto-octo vegetarians and non-vegetarians still spend money on an industry that doesn’t care about the welfare of its animals, and they want to provide an cruelty-free alternative that vegan substitutes cannot quite provide. Furthermore, Good Food Nation even rescues animals that would have otherwise been sent for slaughter. This is very similar to the spirit of adopting a pet from an animal shelter. Sending the animals to a sanctuary might be better, but it is more costly and cannot be done on such a large scale. To me, the question of whether animal farms like these are right or wrong only really becomes relevant when a majority of animal farms are already slaughter-free.

But that doesn’t mean that this issue shouldn’t be explored. From a philosophical standpoint, we must know about the various arguments that can be made on even the most abstract level. It’s only when we are familiar with the guiding principles that we can then fine-tune them to what the present circumstances demand.

Already vegans are doubting the viability the slaughter-free model. Vegan writer Erik Marcus has this to say about Ahimsa Milk: ‘Start thinking about the feed, veterinary costs, and housing costs involved and it’s clear that the future financial obligations entailed by a glass of slaughter-free milk dwarf its production costs. And that goes double if the cows are receiving high-quality veterinary care, and are given spacious accommodations during their productive lives and their retirements. Now also consider that at four calves per cow, two of those calves will be males. Are they really going to give these two males accommodations and veterinary care for their natural twenty year lives? And can they really do all this for anything close to $3.65 a liter?’ and ‘I admire the sentiments behind this effort, and the desire to give milk drinkers a way to enjoy their dairy without contributing to animal abuse. But I don’t see how, at these prices, it’s anywhere near possible. Sure, they can do it today, tomorrow, and next week. But for every year they’re in business, they’re accruing substantial new obligations for the next two decades.’6

£3.65 is the price Ahimsa Milk sells a litre of milk for. I don’t know a lot about the operating costs of the milk industry and how realistic this is, but I don’t suspect that Ahimsa Milk is cheating us and secretly abusing its cows to cut costs, because then there’d be no reason for them to get into the business in the first place. According to the prices of fresh milk in Tesco, a litre of milk can be sold as cheaply as £0.44, and the most expensive organic premium milk goes up to £1.76. Based on that, I don’t think it’s entirely out of the question that cruelty-free milk can go for as little as £3.65.

However, this only works because Ahimsa Milk operates on such a small scale. Already many milk companies are squeezed for space, and the average cow stall is barely bigger than the cow itself. A field that gives cows enough space to roam should be at least 10 times bigger than the total space the cows take, and that’s not even counting the shelters for them to return to at night and when it rains, or the sanctuaries for them to retire to when they get old. This would make it impossible for a cruelty-free company to operate in many areas that its cruelty-guaranteed counterparts presently operate in. If even a hundredth of the current world demand for milk went to cruelty-free milk, it would cause a huge supply bottleneck and prices would skyrocket.

In addition to that, we must also consider the environmental impact. The bulls are not slaughtered for meat, and all of them are allowed to live their natural lifespans. This would mean that the companies are producing almost twice the amount of methane, and requiring twice the amount of water and food for each litre of milk they provide. On a global scale, the environmental impact would be disastrous.

For that reason, it seems as though cruelty-free animal products can only exist if their cruelty-guaranteed counterparts are already attracting most of the demand. The presence of a happy cow roaming on an open farm necessitates that a hundred other cows elsewhere are in pain and suffering. When you think about it this way, the case for humane lacto-octo vegetarianism as a whole becomes a lot less appealing. It cannot be a global phenomenon. Yes, if we were to direct more funds towards the research and development on the sustainability and viability of cruelty-free models we might see it becoming just a little bit more viable, but it’s foolish to proceed down this path in the blind hope that science will one day save us.

However, for all the flak that cruelty-free animal products get, vegan products share the same dilemma. Even if vegans abstain from the presence of even the tiniest animal product in their food, the number of vegans that care about the means by which their vegetables are fertilised is far smaller. Animal manure and bonemeal is by far the cheapest and most readily-obtainable form of fertilizer, thanks to the many meat and dairy industries that continue to perpetuate animal cruelty. In this sense, most vegan products still have a hand in making animal cruelty profitable by providing an extra source of income to these animal farms. (An interesting point to note is that humane animal farms provide yet another source of manure for the agriculture industry. It’s not vegan, but neither is it tainted by the blood of slaughtered animals.)

Vegan alternatives do exist. The Vegan Organic Network is one of the few organisations that tries to increase the awareness of cruelty-free plant fertilizers and farming methods. According to its website, it claims that its vegan method of cultivation is ‘sustainable’ and ‘ecologically viable’.7 It probably works out on the current scale that the Vegan Organic Network operates on, but just like the cruelty-free milk, eggs and wool models that Ahimsa Milk and Good Food Nation pursue, it’s not entirely clear if vegan fertilizers can hold up to the demand of a fully vegan world.

I don’t know the science behind this. I don’t know how much vegan fertilizer an acre of soil requires, and how much land and water is further required to grow that fertilizer. I don’t know how its efficiency compares to manure and bone-meal. The point of this article is not to reach a definitive conclusion on this debate (which requires far more extensive research than I am capable of), but highlight the various arguments that currently exist.

Whatever it is, cruelty-free animal products have a niche in the cruel world we live in. Lacto-octo vegetarianism is viable, but only on a very small scale, and for the people willing to pay a high price to protect the rights of the animals they get their products from. For the rest of us who don’t want to put too much strain on this small business model, going vegan is probably the better choice.

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1 http://www.indiatogether.org/reports/peta.htm
2 http://www.ahimsamilk.org/slaughter-free/
3 http://www.goodfoodnation.co.uk/cow-nation.php
4 http://www.goodfoodnation.co.uk/hen-nation.php
5 http://www.izzylane.com/about/
6 http://vegan.com/blog/2011/08/02/on-slaughter-free-milk/
7 http://veganorganic.net/about-us/