It is in our nature to anthropomorphize. Most of the time, this tendency is fairly harmless, but when it leads us to prioritize the welfare of pets over other humans, or fetuses over women’s health, or animal lives over vital medical research, it can be unhelpful and even dangerous. The proposition that conscious humans aren’t special—as opposed to, say, human embryos or simpler life forms—is superficially attractive and non-judgmental, but leads to horrible decision-making in the inevitable scenarios in which we must choose which life forms live and which die. Such positions tend to be born out of non-scientific assumptions about the nature of plants, animals, developing babies and life forms in general. They readily evolve into absolutist positions, driven by powerful ideological convictions or religion, and from there burst into the public realm. It’s extremely important that modern culture debates and explores the ethics of life, and builds up a strong legal foundation and protections—it wasn’t so long ago that humans perpetrated monstrous acts against their fellow humans because people closed their eyes to such matters. People do sense that there are some ethical holes in modern life that need filling, but radical absolutism not only fails to provide the structures we need, it also throws up new and very worrying dangers.
Last year, an increasing number of UK farmers reported harassment and even threats of violence by radical vegan activists with an operating philosophy that meat is murder—these are people who literally consider livestock farmers to be mass murderers and dairy farmers to be rapists. The rhetoric of these activists co-opts extreme language and slogans, referring to an animal holocaust, gas chambers, extermination and so on, and their goal is to achieve through intimidation what they cannot achieve through the ballot box. The BBC devoted several programs in January 2018 to the phenomenon in the UK—covering, in particular, the case of Alison Waugh, a trainee farmer in Northumberland, who went public after she received death threats from radicals, and activists began turning up at the farm at night. She noted that it was “quite ironic from people that want peace for animals but then they tell you, ‘I hope you and your family go and die in a hole for what you do.’ ” One protest group called the “Save Movement”—active both in the UK and globally—holds vigils outside abattoirs, and sometimes storms the properties to shout slogans or spray graffiti. In one case, they abused staff because they were “helping to kill babies” (i.e. young animals).
The appearance of this kind of radical animal rights activism has taken many people by surprise, but it was a foreseeable development. The radicals who proclaim that meat is murder are plugging into the same monochromatic emotional ideology as radical anti-abortionists. They deploy the same logical arguments, driven by the same moral certitude, fervor and belief that they are protecting life, as those other radical “pro-life” campaigners. And what could possibly be wrong with protecting life?
In an interesting coincidence, there has also been an upswing in anti-abortion protest in the UK in recent years. A rise in protests of a kind not normally seen in the UK—demonstrations and vigils outside abortion clinics—has led to the first instance of a local council imposing a 100-meter protest “exclusion zone” around a clinic in Ealing, West London. Soon afterwards, another eight councils announced that they were considering exclusion zones, and dozens of MPs wrote to the Home Secretary to ask for legislation that would impose an exclusion zone around every clinic in the country. The MPs argued that women going for abortions now have to walk past intimidating protests—which involve tactics like being handed teddy bears and being called “mum”—which are occurring in front of at least forty-two clinics across the country. The anti-abortion protestors often use the same extreme language, referring to an ongoing “holocaust,” mass exterminations, and so on.
Both radical groups elevate the status and moral value of certain living things, in an effort to demonstrate that they are equivalent to a full human. Radical vegan and animal welfare activists claim that animals are “sentient,” feel pain, and that killing them is therefore murder. These claims are analogous to those made on behalf of human fetuses by radical anti-abortionists. Both claims, however, are flawed because those characteristics alone don’t make animals or fetuses physically or morally equivalent to humans. We should of course encourage and support scientifically grounded protections for both animals and fetuses, to prevent the infliction of unnecessary suffering. But that does not mean that either animals or fetuses are equivalent to living and self-aware human beings, nor does it require us to consider them as such. Doing so can lead us into false and dangerous dilemmas—such as risking the lives of women when a pregnancy runs into trouble, or being unable to develop life-saving new surgical techniques for people, such as organ transplants, which must first be perfected on animals for obvious reasons.
The odd thing about these two “pro-life” movements is that activists against one are very likely to be among the activists in favor of the other; the abortion is murder movement is dominated by the conservative Right, while the meat is murder movement is dominated by the progressive Left. This in itself accentuates the possibility of political polarization, at a time when absolutism is returning to political debate across developed democracies. With each side claiming the moral high ground of saving lives and preventing suffering against its traditional political opponent, there is a risk of an escalation of inflammatory rhetoric and activism, which does not bode well for society or for a sober consideration of the issues at hand.
The Nature of Life Forms
Vegetarianism and veganism originated long before we understood the underlying differences between animals and plants at the cellular level. The historic origins of these philosophies in South Asia drew upon the religious understanding of karma, and the belief that all animals contain “souls” no different from our own. The Jains go even further: their doctrine of ahimsa teaches that even harming plants has karmic consequences. Interestingly, the Jains operate a sliding scale of five degrees of life between plants and humans—a fairly sensible way of acknowledging that all life forms exist on a spectrum of complexity and sophistication. There’s obviously a profound difference between a tiger and a turnip, but for lower animal life forms, philosophical arguments about sentience aren’t applicable and the perceived differences between plants and animals narrow.
Because humans are animals, and we have reaction and perception speeds comparable to those of other animals, plants seem immobile and unreactive by comparison. This observation has given rise to an assumption that there is an essential difference between plants and animals. But plants do in fact move and react, and they can be exceedingly complex. For example, the cabbage is a more evolved and complex life form than the oyster, which also has no brain; or the sponge, which doesn’t even have nerves. Concepts like pain and suffering are no more applicable to oysters than they are to cabbages, but both react to stimuli and exhibit evasive behaviors when threatened with harm. We only have to look at time-lapse photography of plants to see further evidence of this in action—consider the similarity of a Venus flytrap and a clam as they snap shut, or of plant tendrils reaching out, like fingers grasping for something to catch hold of. Plants can also signal warnings of potential harm by releasing compounds into the air, communicating via the fungal mats that grow between roots in the soil, and even reacting defensively to the vibrations of animals eating their leaves. So arguing that destroying oysters is murder but destroying cabbages is not, solely on the basis of evolutionary descent, is biologically illiterate.
In practice, most people easily deduce that a life form’s complexity—rather than the kingdom of life it exists in—ought to determine how it is treated. If a hypothetical intelligent plant species were ever discovered, it is unlikely that hungry vegetarians would be queuing up to eat it. As fully self-aware beings capable of producing complex language, creativity, art and technology, there is a qualitative difference between humans and lower animals, just as there is a qualitative difference between an embryo and a third trimester fetus, due to the huge changes in awareness that occur during the last phase of pregnancy. But at no point during the journey from embryo to fetus does awareness switch on like a light; nor is there a switching on of awareness as we step up in complexity through living species. Rather, both scenarios exhibit a continuous brightening—like a light-dimmer being slowly turned up. Therefore, the meat is murder and abortion is murder philosophies are both driven by a kind of essentialism: the belief that the life form in question has some special innate property beyond the biochemical that distinguishes it from other life forms and justifies the demand that it be protected as if it were indistinguishable from human.
In the case of animals, this essence is usually called “sentience” by campaigners, but it isn’t sentience in any scientific, measurable sense. Rather, it is a generalized property bestowed by an animal’s nervous physiology—as opposed to the signaling physiology found in plants—a property that campaigners believe conveys the ability to suffer. In human embryos and fetuses, the essence is encapsulated in the anti-abortion slogan life begins at conception. This slogan benefits from a veneer of scientific plausibility, since conception is a biological term synonymous with fertilization. But an egg cell (of any species) is just as alive before fertilization as it is after; the egg must be continuously alive throughout the fertilization process, otherwise nothing living would result. Animals like honeybee drones and ant drones, and plants in the moss phylum, are all haploid, which is to say that they are born from unfertilized eggs. If they were sentient, these species would no doubt be surprised to learn that anti-abortion campaigners do not consider them to be alive. Among religious anti-abortionists, it is the human soul that is injected at conception. This is presumably why such people also oppose human cloning—which doesn’t involve conception—as it would create people with no souls, even though there is no scientific evidence for the existence of such a property.
Every living thing so far discovered on this planet is part of a continuously living sequence of cellular life that reaches back at least 3.5 billion years. Insofar as the phrase life begins has any coherent meaning for an individual life form, a surprising but more biologically defensible point of genesis would be the moment the egg cell is created in its mother’s ovary, which occurs when she is only a twenty-week old fetus in her mother’s womb. My life began before my mother was born is probably too conceptually strange for most people to embrace, but it happens to be true.
There is no vital ingredient or essence in any kind of life—life of all kinds is just an exceedingly complex chemical reaction. A biologically sound defense of a species’ rights therefore has to be derived from the level of cognitive ability and self-awareness of the species involved. People who refuse to admit any distinction between, say, oysters and dolphins, are no different from those who refuse to admit any distinction between a human embryo and a thirty-six-week fetus—they are promoting a form of pseudo-religious fundamentalism without any scientific basis. Society accepts that there is a line to be drawn somewhere between oysters and dolphins, and between embryos and thirty-six-week fetuses, and we use scientific evidence to determine where to draw that line and what protections to grant as a result. Vegan campaigners would be on somewhat firmer ground if they were to argue that the line separating animals that should not be farmed (currently primates, whales, dolphins, cats, etc.) from those mammals, fish and birds that can, should be lowered to encompass the latter group. However, this reasoning fails for the same reason that radical anti-abortion campaigners refuse to agree on a line separating acceptable from unacceptable abortion—theirs are beliefs based on principle, not positions derived from evidence.
A reasonable criticism of drawing such ethical boundary lines between embryo and fetus, or between oyster and dolphin, is that such lines are inevitably a bit arbitrary, and lead to boundary cases that seem unfair. Is it better, perhaps, to simply avoid that conundrum by not drawing lines at all, and protecting everything? But just because reasonable people can disagree about where to draw a distinction, that doesn’t invalidate the necessity of the distinction itself. Elsewhere in society, we find plenty of arbitrary boundaries that it would be absurd and even dangerous to do away with entirely—the age of consent and speed limits are the most obvious examples. If we cannot successfully draw ethical boundaries in these cases, then the future holds ever more dilemmas for us. In the future, when we start to create machine consciousness, our first attempts will be minimally conscious at best—insect minds, probably. We will inevitably create a spectrum of growing AI complexity, as the light-dimmer is turned up, and we will eventually bridge the yawning chasm between fully self-aware AI and mere calculators. There will then be no reason not to apply the same absolutist reasoning to AI: not only should all AI be afforded human rights and protections—regardless of whether it is truly self-conscious—but there should also be no lower limit to this application. In such a scenario, throwing away a calculator would also count as murder.
The Culture Battles Ahead
Whether we like it or not, farm animal rights is about to become one of the great social and ethical debates of our time. We are in the formative stages of this debate, and how it is conducted now will influence how it develops over the coming decades. There are many good reasons for someone to decide to refrain from eating meat—sustainability, environmental footprint, animal treatment and welfare concerns, for example—and people doing so for those reasons should be applauded. But the proposition that we should renounce meat because killing animals is murder is not a good reason; it doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny, and it is a potentially dangerous principle to entertain.
However, we should welcome the increased focus on animal welfare brought about by the growing popularity of vegetarianism and veganism. As a society, we eat too much meat, and we demand it at too cheap a price. When I worked on a farm in my student days, conditions were worse than I would have liked—industrial farming has often reduced quality of life for animals, not improved it. We should want to see conditions for farm animals continually improve, until they have a quality of life comparable to what they would experience in the wild. We should, of course, bear in mind that life in the wild is far from idyllic. Nature is pitiless and nearly all wild animals will either be torn apart by a predator or succumb to a painful disease or to starvation. The challenge ethical humans face is to do better than that. Life on a farm will rarely be the same as life in the wild, in the same way that human life in a city is hardly like living on the savanna, as we evolved to do, but that doesn’t mean all those lives can’t be of good quality.
Additionally, the debates about both abortion and animal husbandry will eventually be forever altered by the advent of new technologies. Artificial wombs that make any embryo viable have the potential to break the convenient and sensible compromise operating in most developed countries that allows women to terminate fetuses up to the point of viability. Determining the status of a premature baby saved at, say, nineteen weeks, while the doctor next door is lawfully destroying a baby at an identical stage of development, raises complexities that will not be easy to resolve. Humans must always have the right to remove something growing within them, but it may be that, where possible, aborted fetuses will be allowed to complete their development in artificial wombs before being offered for adoption, so that abortion can be avoided, without forcing a woman to carry to term a child that she doesn’t want.
Meanwhile, the consumption of large farm animals will likely decline, as stronger animal welfare legislation drives up the cost of farmed meat, while the cost of laboratory-grown cultured meat drops until it becomes the less expensive option. The advent of cheap cultured meat will remove two of the strongest arguments for eating farmed animal meat: that it’s both nutritious and delicious. Once cultured meat is indistinguishable from farmed meat, an insistence on getting meat from a previously living animal will seem like so many other religious customs that we have happily relegated to the past and now consider peculiar or even perverse. Animal welfare activists should therefore devote their time and energy to boosting the cultured meat industry instead of intimidating law-abiding farmers.
To avoid yet another divisive culture war, the responsibility on society is twofold: to ensure that the direction of animal welfare on farms is constantly, firmly upwards, thus eliminating the worst practices in factory farming; and also that the rhetoric and campaigning of activists doesn’t indulge the kind of polarizing and unscientific dogma that has poisoned the abortion debate. Unfortunately, absolutism is fashionable once again across the Western world—many people now laud strong emotional beliefs and a refusal to compromise.
Moral and ethical dilemmas like these lend themselves to extremist positions. If someone believes a particular viewpoint is intrinsically good, then it is likely they will believe that holding it even more intensely is even better—this is the inevitable attraction of the extreme. Believing that you’re protecting life and preventing suffering is an extremely powerful motivator. Anyone who seriously considers something currently legal to be the literal—not figurative—equivalent of murder should be considered potentially dangerous. Most people (and the law) accept that it is morally defensible to use extreme or even lethal force to prevent a murder from being committed. If extremists can find a justification for violence within the philosophy of a movement, then that justification will eventually be used.
Nothing in this article should be taken to imply that vegetarians and vegans are extremists or hold extremist positions per se, or that they are likely to be violent. On the contrary: pacifism and non-violence are more common among vegans. Most vegans do not believe that meat is murder, nor do they argue that eating meat should be banned. By the same token, there are a huge number of people who would never have an abortion themselves, but who respect the right of other women to have one (under a range of circumstances). Even most of those who think that abortion shouldn’t be legally available do not stoop to harassing women at clinics, or threatening the medical professionals who actually perform the procedure. People who oppose abortion are not a violent demographic, any more than those who refuse to eat meat. Nevertheless, nearly all movements have their fringe extremists and fundamentalists, and intimidation and violence from animal welfare and anti-abortion activists seem to be on the rise. The important lesson is that if your fundamentalists become a problem then it’s probably time to re-consider your fundamentals.