Most people think that animals matter morally. That is, they reject the view, popular in the West up until the nineteenth century, that animals are just things that are excluded completely from the moral and legal community. They think that it is wrong to make animals suffer. But they also don’t think that there is anything necessarily wrong with using and killing animals for human purposes, as long as we don’t make them suffer too much. They see veganism as an “extreme” position and maintain that, as long as we treat animals “humanely,” we can eat, wear, and use them. This view, which I think is fair to describe as our conventional position on animal ethics, is not only shared by most people as a moral matter but is so uncontroversial that it is embodied in laws that prohibit cruelty and require that we treat animals in a “humane” way.

In my latest book, Why Veganism Matters: The Moral Value of Animals, I explain how this thinking is wrong in three important respects and I argue that veganism is morally required if we think that animals matter morally.

“Humane” Treatment Is a Fantasy

Animals are property; they are economic commodities. It costs money to protect their interests, and the more money we spend to protect those interests, the more expensive animal products become. For the most part, the level of protection we purchase is limited to that which is economically efficient. That is, we pay for the level of protection that will provide a greater economic benefit than what we paid to secure it. That is what “unnecessary” suffering means in this context; it is suffering that results in a greater economic cost than the cost of preventing that suffering.

So, for example, legislation requiring “humane” slaughter is common. Why? Because handling at the slaughterhouse is relevant as an economic matter in that not protecting at least some animal interests during the killing process can result in incurring larger losses as a result of carcass damage and worker injury. Standards of animal welfare are not about morality; they are about economics. They are about identifying standards of treatment that are economically efficient and do not result in imposing gratuitous harm on animals that serves no economic purpose. We protect the interests we have to protect; the resulting level of protection is generally very low.

Could we improve animal welfare and accord a greater weight to animal interests in not suffering—could we build in a moral component instead of leaving it primarily to economics? Sure. Some countries have higher welfare standards than others; some private companies provide “higher welfare” products to more affluent consumers who are willing to pay a higher cost. But the ability to do this is severely constrained by economic and political considerations. The result is that the difference between the most “humane” standards and the least “humane” standards is almost always the difference between horrible and slightly less horrible.

By the way, the pets whom we love and think of as family members are also property. We may treat these animals as cherished members of our families but that is merely an incident of property ownership. As property owners, we can choose to accord a high value to our pets. We can also choose to accord a low value and take them to a vet to be killed or dump them at a shelter that will kill them if another home is not found.

Unnecessary Suffering

Because animals are property, we assume that our uses of animals pursuant to institutionalized practices are just exercises of our property rights over animals; we do not ask whether particular uses are themselves necessary. We ask instead whether suffering that is inflicted in the process of use that may itself be unnecessary use is necessary. That is, we ask about unnecessary unnecessary suffering.

For example, consider our numerically most significant use of animals—for food. We kill and eat about eighty billion land animals and an estimated (and this is a low estimate) one trillion sea animals every year for food alone. That is, every year, we kill more animals for food than the total number of human beings who have ever lived on the planet through all of history. That’s a frightening amount of suffering. And with the exception of those who are literally going to starve imminently if they do not eat animals, none of that suffering is necessary. We do not need to eat animals for reasons of health; indeed, animal products may well be detrimental to human health and certainly are so in the quantities in which we eat them. We eat animal products not because it is necessary to do so. We do so because we enjoy the taste, and it is both traditional and convenient. The same thing can be said for the use of animals for entertainment, including sport hunting, circuses, zoos, and rodeos. None of these uses are necessary and none of them can be justified if we think that animals matter morally. Indeed, our only use of animals that is not transparently frivolous (but is still morally unjustifiable, in my view) is the use of animals to cure serious human illnesses.

Our conventional ethics is nonsensical to the extent that it claims to take animal interests seriously but can tolerate suffering inflicted pursuant to uses that are themselves unnecessary.

Nonhuman Personhood

Our conventional ethical position explicitly rests on the idea that killing animals does not itself raise a moral issue because animals do not have any interest per se in continuing to live. They are not self-aware, they live in an eternal present, and they have no connection to a future self. As long as we do not cause them pain in the process of killing them, we do nothing wrong by killing them. Animals are not persons; that is, they are not beings who have a morally significant interest in life because they do not, as a factual matter, have any interest in life. I discuss this position at length, starting with the observation that sentience is a means to the end of continued existence and to talk about sentient beings as not having an interest in continuing to live is like talking about beings with eyes who lack an interest in seeing.

Although I do not think that animals live in an eternal present, I note that we do not doubt that humans who do live in an eternal present have an interest in their lives. That is, as long as humans are sentient, or subjectively aware, we regard them as persons. For example, there are some humans who have late-stage dementia. They are certainly as stuck in an eternal present as is any nonhuman. But we regard these humans as being self-aware, if only in the present, and as having a connection with a future self, if only that self in the next second of consciousness. They value their lives on a second-to-second basis. Indeed, we recognize that any attempt to posit criteria other than subjective awareness to ascertain the “right” level of self-awareness or connection with a future self is fraught with the danger of compete arbitrariness. For example, if one human can make short-term plans, say, three minutes into the future, and that is sufficient to have an interest in continuing to live, when, exactly, did that interest come into being? If three minutes is not sufficient, then how long is? The idea that we apply a different framework where animals are concerned is just a matter of anthropocentric prejudice and nothing more.

The Bottom Line: Veganism Is the Only Morally Rational Response

My book maintains that if animals have moral value—if they aren’t just things—then we have a moral obligation to abolish institutionalized animal exploitation, and, on a personal level, this means that we should be vegans and stop eating, wearing, or otherwise using nonhuman animals. Veganism is not extreme. What is extreme is claiming to believe that animals matter morally and not to be vegan.

Although I discuss and defend animal rights in the book, I also make clear that veganism is a moral imperative for anyone who believes that animals are not things and that they matter morally, even if that person rejects the concept of animal rights as a general matter. 

Gary L. Francione is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Law and Nicholas deB. Katzenbach Scholar of Law and Philosophy at Rutgers University Law School, Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Lincoln (UK), and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia (UK). He is the author of Why Veganism Matters: The Moral Value of Animals, as well as others, including these from Columbia U. Press: The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation? and Animals as Persons: Essays on the Abolition of Animal Exploitation.

Leave a Reply