There is a new species of lifeform that has invaded our planet. You may have heard of them. They call themselves the “Plant Eaters”. For thousands of years, humans have eaten meat to sustain themselves, but these Plant Eaters refuse to do so. They have been known to engage in other strange behavior such as eating burgers made out of beans and making cheese out of nuts. You can spot a Plant Eater by the amount of time they spend looking at the nutrition facts label at the store, or by their strange vocabulary which often includes words like legumes, seitan, tempeh, and nooch. Most non-Plant Eaters cannot even pronounce these words but the Plant Eaters talk about them as if they were gods. Seitan, though, sounds more like the devil. Now that these strange aliens have set up their own restaurants and taken a whole isle for themselves at our super-markets, the questions is: who are they and what do they want?
The reasons why people switch to a plant-based diet are often not fully understood. I’d bet nearly every vegan and vegetarian has gotten a look from someone that made them feel very much like an alien. This post attempts to explain why people choose to go plant-based for ethical reasons. Before I begin, I should mention that there are many reasons why people might choose to go plant based that are not primarily ethical, such as for their health. There are also many ethical considerations reasons going plant-based that I will not cover, such as environmental considerations. What I will cover are two ethical stances that lead to people taking on the plant-based diet: animal welfare and animal rights. Finally, I do not purport to give a full description of what every person who holds these beliefs thinks. I simply want to give an overview of what these beliefs might look like and why they exist.
Those who give up meat and/or dairy from an animal welfare stance believe that the meat and/ dairy industries are unnecessarily cruel and that we should not support the horrible practices that take place within them. Many are aware that the meat industry is far from humane. Chickens are packed into sheds so tightly they can barely move. In these sheds, feces are not cleaned off the floor and as a result many chickens suffer from chronic respiratory illness and bacterial infections. Many peck each other, causing injury or even death, because of the frustrations of their confinement. As for cows, they have it no better. Cows used for beef are branded with a hot iron that can cause third-degree burns and are castrated without pain-killers. They are sent to unsanitary feedlots where they are fattened up until they are sent to slaughter.
In the case of both chickens and cows, they are often conscious when they are slaughtered. Chickens are meant to be shocked into unconsciousness, but the electric charge is not strong enough to do this effectively. Cows are shot in the head before slaughter but workers often miss or do not care to do it right. Therefore, when their necks are cut and they bleed out for several minutes, they are conscious. Those who find these practices unacceptably cruel give up meat under the principle of animal welfare.
What about the dairy industry? Many think the dairy industry is much more humane than the meat industry. In some cases, and in some ways, this might be true. However, those who give up dairy for animal welfare reasons recognize there are still great wrongs committed against animals in the dairy industry. First of all, it must be noted that cows are very social and emotional animals. Therefore, when young calves are taken away from their mothers to be used for meat or dairy within a day of their birth, it causes both the mother and the calf immense distress. In fact, mothers are often seen calling for their calves for days after they are taken. Female cows are meant to produce milk for their children so they must be artificially inseminated yearly to keep producing milk. They are given drugs like rBGH to increase production and this often leads to inflammation of the udder and in some cases death. With this constant wear on the body, dairy cows are often killed after five years because they are too weak for further use. Many think that their dairy consumption does not contribute to the killing of cows, but this assumption is often not true. Those who support animal welfare believe humans are above causing this type of suffering to others, despite who the other is. Supporters of animal welfare maintain that we must try harder to decrease the amount of suffering these and all animals go through. They give up meat and dairy and as a result remove themselves from contributing to the success of these inhumane industries.
Now that we understand the animal welfare approach, we will go over the animal rights approach. Those who commit themselves to animal rights understand that humans are not the only animals with inherent value. Rather than assuming that other animals do not have any significant value because they are not us, supporters of animal rights ask themselves “what makes any individual valuable?” While there may be many answers, fundamentally what we seem to care about is that individuals are engaged in the world in such a way that it is meaningful to them. Usually this comes in the forms of consciousness (that is, they understand themselves as part of the world), and/or they have some emotional capacity so that they can feel pain and pleasure. Simply, an individual has value if it is a life-liver. Animals, just like humans, fall under this definition.
Since animals have value as individuals, it is wrong for us to force them to suffer or to take their lives away from them for our own benefit. Additionally, animal rights supporters may go one step further. Take the example of free-range chickens. Some companies who say they are free-range do not actually treat their chickens how you might think. However, let us imagine chickens roaming as they please at all times. They are only disturbed when a person comes around every so often to take their eggs and feed them. A supporter of animal rights might still think this is wrong. The reason can best be summed up by PETA’s logo “animals are not ours”. By purchasing the chickens, keeping them in our field, and taking their eggs, we are using them as if they are our property. Slavery, even under the best conditions, is still slavery. Those who believe in animal rights understand that animals are autonomous and should be allowed to make their own choices about how they live. Animals are not ours to dominate. They have their own value outside of us and we have no justification to take away their freedom for our own profit. Therefore, those who support animal rights support a world where animals are seen for who they are and not for what they can be for us.
People may switch to a plant-based diet for reasons having to do with animal welfare or animal rights. It is important to note that one can make the switch for reasons of both animal welfare AND animal rights. They are not exclusive. Both are causes that need to be fought for. Consider fighting for both.
Maybe the Plant Eaters aren’t so strange after all. Perhaps they are right to want to remove themselves from the unnecessary suffering of animals and maybe they are right to see that all animals have worth. So, next time you ask for no cheese at a restaurant or have a veggie-burger at the cookout when everyone else is having a beef burger, don’t feel like an alien. Remember why you chose this path. And remember the galaxy is filled with other aliens just like you.