In 2014, roughly 200 Jain monks engaged in a hunger strike. Their goal: to have the holy city of Palitana, located in the Indian state of Gujarat, declared a “meat-free zone.” A central tenet of Jainism is ahimsa (nonviolence toward all creatures), and many Jains could no longer tolerate the slaughter of animals and sale of meat in a city where the religion’s first tirthankara (or savior, named Adinatha) is said to have walked the hills.
After weeks of peaceful protests, the government of Gujarat agreed to extend the existing “meat-free zone” to cover all of Palitana. The killing of animals and the sale of meat, fish, and eggs is now banned — much to the consternation of the Muslim majority, which comprises about 25 percent of the city’s population. With this decision, Palitana officially became the world’s first vegetarian city.
To the average secular-liberal onlooker, the Jains’ demand — and the government’s decision — must seem doubly anathema: not only did the government allow the Jains to impose their religious beliefs on the city’s minorities, but the ban also severely circumscribes the freedom of those who produce and sell non-vegetarian food to sustain their families.
But what if the ban, all of the religious mythology and superstition aside, actually is good policy? What if banning the slaughter and selling of meat is the right thing to do — not to respect religious tradition or sensibilities — but to prevent undue harm to the animals? More radically, what if Palitana is just the first place where such a ban is implemented? What if Palitana is the site of the beginning of a second abolitionism?
To most in the West, this must seem like an unlikely and even absurd prospect. After all, vegetarianism has relatively few subscribers in the developed world: in the United States, 5 percent abstain from eating meat, while in Italy — the country in Europe with the highest percentage of vegetarians, the figure is 10 percent. However, attitudinal, behavioral, and even legal revolutions can and do happen quickly, often within the span of a couple generations.
But convincing one person, let alone entire nations, to end the killing of animals and sale of meat will require serious intellectual work. And it will require convincing hundreds of millions of people of the two following propositions: (1) that killing animals unnecessarily is wrong, and (2) that the government can and ought to intervene to protect animals from being slaughtered.
As to the first point, one might quibble with the word “unnecessarily.” What does it mean to say that killing animals “unnecessarily” is wrong? In the case of killing animals for sustenance (I’ll bracket in this essay questions about the ethics of hunting, animal testing, and the vegan’s concerns about the production of eggs and dairy products), it means killing an animal when alternative sources of nutrition are readily or easily available.
The word “unnecessarily” here is of real significance. Vegetarians ought not ever argue that it is always wrong for a person to kill an animal. If a person’s only means of survival is the killing and eating of an animal, then it would be immoral to argue that the person should die so that the animal might live. After all, humans are capable of far greater suffering (and pleasure) than animals: for this reason, the interests of the human outweighs those of the animal.
It’s also for this reason that vegetarians, no doubt well-intended, ought to refrain from deploying the term speciesism in their evangelism. Claiming that humans do not have more inherent moral worth than less complex, intelligent, and sensitive species is as unscientific as it is damaging to the vegetarian cause.
Fortunately, Melanie Joy has offered a more accurate term to replace speciesism — carnism, the belief that certain animals are acceptable to eat and that others are not. Like other belief systems, carnism has its own ideological blind spots and defenses. Joy identifies three common justifications for meat-eating: that it is necessary, natural, and normal.
The first justification for eating meat is that it is in fact necessary. However, for many people in the world today — especially those in the industrialized West, eating meat is a choice. As a visit to any local grocery store can confirm, there is a bountiful variety of vegetarian options. It is by choice, not necessity, that most people in the West pass over the veggie burger for the chicken cutlet.
Some might argue that while killing and eating an animal is not necessary for short-term survival, it may be necessary for long-term health and well-being. After all, how do vegetarians get the recommended amounts of protein, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B12? However, nutritional studies show that vegetarians can and often do get the suggested amounts of these nutrients. There is no reason why a careful vegetarian cannot be as healthy as, if not healthier than, the average meat-eater.
The second justification for meat-eating is that it is natural. Animals in the wild eat each other, so why shouldn’t humans — who are, of course, animals as well — eat other animals? But this justification is a textbook example of the naturalistic fallacy, or an illogical “appeal to nature.” Just because something happens with regular frequency in nature does not mean that it is moral. Rape and infanticide are prevalent in the animal world, but few would argue that humans ought to imitate such “natural” behavior.
Yet some argue that eating meat is an essential component of who we are as a species. Indeed, scientific studies do show that early humans likely developed such neuronically dense and complex brains because of their consumption of meat.
But the fact that eating meat was integral to our evolutionary development does not mean that we are somehow physically or morally obligated to continue eating meat today. One reason that eating meat was evolutionarily advantageous is because our ancestors expended less time and energy chewing meat than they did root vegetables like yams, potatoes, and carrots. Given the Hobbesian environment of our prehistory, time and energy were precious resources, and conserving them no doubt improved one’s ability to survive. But today, within an entirely different environment (including one that features blenders and ready-to-eat protein bars), eating meat is no longer the adaptive advantage that it once was. Simply put, our survival as a species no longer depends on eating meat.
The third common justification is that eating meat is normal. This, too, though, is a fallacious argument. Appealing to what is widely accepted (or rejected), called the argumentum ad populum, is irrelevant in determining whether something is true or untrue, or moral or immoral.
The absurdity of this defense is revealed by recognizing the variations in what is considered “normal” across societies. In China, for example, 10 to 20 million dogs are eaten annually, while in the United States, dogs are treated more or less as family members. And while millions of cattle are killed in the United States each year, in India, the killing of a single cow can turn one into a criminal, and, increasingly, the target of Hindu nationalist vigilantes. Taken to its logical conclusion, defending carnism on the basis of custom requires a subscription to moral and cultural relativism — two of the silliest and most dangerous ideas to emerge from academia in recent memory.
Melanie Joy calls these defenses — that eating meat is necessary, natural, and normal — the “Three Ns of Justification.” However, I believe one can add one more “N Justification” to the list: the belief that eating meat is not immoral. This justification can take two forms, which I’ll call the strong and weak forms.
The strong form of the claim that eating animals is not immoral rests on a fundamental indifference toward the suffering of animals, either because of a belief in divine permission to eat them, or a philosophical belief that they do not suffer. According to some Jews and Christians, for instance, God gave mankind “dominion” over the animals, and the Abrahamic God, through his pronouncements about kosher and halal foods and ritualistic slaughter, clearly seems to condone eating meat.
Debunking the claim that God condones eating meat would be a laborious task. True, some scriptural interpretations do suggest that the Abrahamic God may prefer vegetarianism, but refuting the justification for meat-eating on the basis of “divine command theory” is outside the scope of this essay. (For those who are interested, Justin Vacula deftly and rather succinctly undermines divine command theory as a justification for meat-eating here.)
There is a secular, philosophical rationale for eating meat as well, which stems, in its modern form, from the thought of René Descartes. For Descartes, animals were mere automata — mindless, unfeeling machines whose incapacity for language and reason made the experience of pain impossible. Remarkably, this belief has had profound influence and staying power, as the philosopher and animal rights activist Bernard Rollin recounts in his memoir The Horse Before Descartes. For instance, not until 2001 did the International Association for the Study of Pain (yes, there is such a thing) concede that a creature’s inability to verbally communicate does not preclude the possibility that it might experience pain – hardly a ringing endorsement of animal sentience.
The Cartesian argument, though, has been thoroughly discredited by modern science. In 2013, Marc Bekoff presented the overwhelming evidence that (many) animals are conscious and experience pain in an op-ed with the thunderously conclusive title, “After 2,500 Studies, It’s Time to Declare Animal Sentience Proven.” Indeed, recent experiments show that even fish are capable of experiencing a variety of conscious states, from fear to pleasure.
The weak form of the claim that eating meat, on the other hand, recognizes that while animals can suffer, the production of meat can take place in a morally justifiable way. For instance, one might argue that animals can be rendered unconscious before being slaughtered, thus eliminating the prospect for the experience of pain.
This claim, though, is highly idealistic. Though the Humane Slaughter Act (HSA), passed in 1958, does mandate that animals be rendered insensible to pain before being killed, ample evidence shows that slaughterhouses, often overwhelmed by breakneck line speeds, fail to fulfill this basic requirement. Gail Eisnitz’s 1997 book Slaughterhouse — The Jungle of the late 20th century — exposed the widespread and repeated violations of the HSA in abattoirs across the country, as well as the failure of workplace management and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials to enforce the law. So too did a Washington Post article published in 2001, “They Die Piece by Piece,” which recounted grisly details and alarming statistics concerning the cruelty inflicted on countless animals. One worker quoted in the 2001 article commented that he had seen “thousands and thousands of cows go through the slaughter process alive,” sometimes for as long as seven minutes, when the cows were being dismembered.
And chickens, which represent nearly 95 percent of the roughly 9 billion land animals slaughtered in the U.S. each year, are inexplicably not covered by the HSA at all. Before having their throats slit, chickens are normally dragged through an electrified water bath, which is supposed to paralyze them (not render them unconscious). However, each year, nearly 700,000 chickens are not sufficiently stunned and manage to avoid the automatic throat slitter, resulting in their being scalded — for the purpose of defeathering — while still alive.
And it’s not only the animals’ slaughter that is sometimes inhumane. Many animals are subjected to conditions of extreme confinement, deprivation, neglect, and even abuse before they’re killed. Most “broilers” (chickens raised for food) live for only six weeks and spend nearly their entire lives indoors, in cramped and disease-ridden quarters. And many sows (female pigs) spend months on end in crates barely large enough to contain them — in a state that is detrimental to their physical and mental health.
(Meat-eaters may want to believe that such mistreatment is rare and isolated, but dozens of investigations by groups like Mercy For Animals, Compassion Over Killing, and the Humane Society show that this cruelty is rampant and widespread. No wonder some states, at the urging of wealthy and powerful agricultural interests, are passing constitutionally dubious “ag-gag” laws that would make such undercover investigations illegal.)
Some may argue that eating meat could, in theory, be acceptable — that is, if animals are able to live decent, worry-free lives right up until the moment of an instantaneous and painless death. After all, isn’t it better that the animals be born and experience life rather than never live at all?
The true test of this thought experiment is to substitute, say, the premature killing of a happy pig with the premature killing of a happy dog. Should we, would we, tolerate our neighbor killing his dog, either to eat her meat himself or to sell it? Glance out your window and imagine your neighbor now readying his dog for a swift execution. Would you stand for such a thing? Then, imagine your neighbor killing not just one dog, but hundreds of dogs per hour (as is the rate in many slaughterhouses). Would you be consoled knowing that the dogs lived several joyous years and were dispatched in a painless slaughter? Probably not. You’d more likely recognize that the dogs, as conscious beings, had interests, including an interest in staying alive.
Even if eating meat is immoral, some might say, what one chooses to eat is a personal decision. The government, the argument goes, has no business imposing this view on society.
But the government should, and does, have an interest in how animals are treated. All 50 states currently have felony provisions for animal cruelty, and given the moral outrage that has accompanied recent instances of cruelty toward dogs, I suspect that few would be in favor of repealing such laws. The question thus becomes not whether animals should be legally protected from such cruelty, but which ones. And given what we know — and what we continue to learn — about the intelligence and personalities of farm animals, the same laws that protect pet hamsters and exotic birds ought to apply to cattle, pigs, and poultry.
Yet for culturally and morally arbitrary reasons, state anti-cruelty laws explicitly exclude farm animals from such protections. These Common Farming Exemptions allow farmers to mistreat and kill animals in the name of “standard industry practices.”
It’s for this reason that Mark Bittman, commenting in the New York Times in 2011 on the ethical confusion at the heart of existing animal law, was right to state that “it’s time to take a look at the line between ‘pet’ and ‘animal.’”
If you kick a dog or cat or hamster or, I suppose, a guppy, enough to “cause extreme physical pain” or do so “in an especially depraved or sadistic manner” you may be guilty of aggravated cruelty to animals, as long as you do this “with no justifiable purpose.”
But thanks to Common Farming Exemptions, as long as I “raise” animals for food and it’s done by my fellow “farmers” (in this case, manufacturers might be a better word), I can put around 200 million male chicks a year through grinders (graphic video here), castrate — mostly without anesthetic — 65 million calves and piglets a year, breed sick animals…, allow those sick animals to die without individual veterinary care, imprison animals in cages so small they cannot turn around, skin live animals, or kill animals en masse to stem disease outbreaks.
“All of this is legal,” Bittman ruefully concludes, “because we will eat them.”
Such moral and legal hypocrisy is no longer excusable. In an age of such nutritional variety and abundance, no honest moral reasoning can justify legally protecting some animals (i.e. pets) from being abused and killed while tolerating (and even subsidizing) the abuse and slaughter of others (i.e. farm animals). The science, ethics, and logic all converge on these points: eating meat by choice is morally wrong, and the government ought to intervene and provide consistent protection to all animals in the care of human owners.
Fortunately, killing animals to obtain meat may soon no longer be necessary. Companies like Memphis Meats (based in San Francisco) and Mosa Meat (based in the Netherlands) are now producing meat products grown from self-reproducing cells. Within the next few decades, it may be possible to grow enough meat to all but supplant the current meat industry. Once such options become widely available and affordable, it is conceivable that we can — and will — align our food choices and laws with our ethics. Soon, people may no longer be forced to choose between their preferences and their compassion. In the near future, the rest of humanity may soon join Palitana, and, as Jeremy Bentham put it, “extend its mantle over everything which breathes.”