Before it was trendy, before it was understood, vegetarianism had a fierce ally – Benjamin Franklin. A vegetarian from age sixteen, Franklin chose to abstain for meat in an attempt to boost his health and save money. However, his eighteenth century ‘Vegetable Diet’ was not without lapses. The first major break occurring on board a ship headed to Boston, when Franklin happened to observe a man remove a small fish from the belly of a larger one. Tempted by the cod, Franklin thought the matter over and decided that if the fish was to eat others, than he might as well eat the fish. “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature,” Franklin concluded, “since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”
Whether or not Franklin returned to strict vegetarianism after this is contested, as is his conclusion that we should act as other omnivores do. Yet regardless of these debates, to me, this story is important because in it Franklin states one the main reasons why many people do not become vegetarian. If someone wants to eat meat, or does not want to think of its consequences, then they will find a way to legitimize it. If the desire is there, the reasoning will soon follow. Once again, we find that rationalization is one of our best traits, and, undeniably, one of our worst.
It is for this reason that I dread bringing up animal cruelty when I recite my “Why I’m Vegetarian” liturgy to the curious, although I feel it is the foundation behind my dietary choice. People are just ready, eager even, to defend their meat-eating rationalizations, and have a rebuttal ready to go. In my experience, this barrage can be divided into four parts:
- There is no way to prove that animals suffer, because they do not have the ability to anticipate the future or remember the past. Therefore, their pain (if animals can feel pain at all) is restricted to momentary incidents. Besides, they cannot understand the difference because a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ life, since their entire existence is married to a single environment.
- Animals cannot have rights because rights reside in a human-created system, which animals do not have the sentience to understand. Even if humans wanted to include them into the rights system, having rights requires reciprocal responsibilities that animals can never fulfill.
- Killing animals is not unethical because humans are the smarter creatures; and so, following the laws of nature, we are the fitter species and deserve our reward.
- Animals are animals; humans are humans. Variation 1: God wants it to be this way. Variation 2: “I just don’t care.”
…and there are more. But, basically, what it boils down to is that there is no way to prove that the mass slaughter of animals is cruel. Eating meat is guiltless because there is an incontestable reason negating every argument against it. There’s nothing to worry about.
My response? They’re right. There is no way to “prove” that suffering exists, because the word exists to uniquely describe the human experience with and understanding of pain. However, if we’re going to play that game, let us look at the quantifiable components of mass production and slaughtering of animals – the “facts,” if you will.
- When animals are raised for slaughter in large groups and in confined settings, an overwhelming percent of the stock’s bodies undergo physical damage. This may be because of overcrowding, and how this can lead to both trampling and attacks. It may be due to the affects of the sicknesses that run rampant in the poorly ventilated, waste-filled lots, cages, and trucks that livestock spend all of their lives in. Disturbingly, this may be caused by in-breeding and over-breeding, so that an animal’s bones can break under its own weight, or large groups never develop immune systems equipped to handle common diseases. Even before slaughter, animals undergo injury and sickness that can lead to death or incapacitation.
- The living situations found in stockyards and mass-scale farms are vastly different than those that the animals would experience in a natural habitat. Although food and water may be readily available, the animals can not engage in natural behavior; however, animals in captivity still attempt these behaviors (such as attempting to make nests, achieve dominance, fly/run, etc.), showing an inherent inability to adjust to the new setting.
- All animals feel pain because pain is necessary for survival. What we term “pain” is a bodily negative impulse which signals an organism to stop an action, escape a situation, or seek help. Pain is deeply engraved into evolution, because without the ability to feel pain, an organism has a significantly higher chance of dying or being injured before it can reproduce.
- Killing is a destructive act. To slaughter an animal is to kill it. Humans are solely responsible for slaughterhouses and other resources of mass-produced meat.
These inherent components of raising animals for meat are deeply disturbing in themselves, and are worsened if you believe animals can feel suffering, fear, and the effects of a reduced quality of life. And, even more depressingly, reform of this system may be impossible, especially if we continue demanding meat at an unsustainable rate.
However, what each individual does have control over is whether or not s/he wants to be a part of it. Even if the role of the animal can be contested, deciding to reject this practice has undeniable benefits for the individual. Eating habits reflects one’s view on life: where one places oneself in relationship to others; one’s ability to feel empathy and understanding; the thoughtfulness one bestows in one’s actions; and the awareness one’s choices have on those outside of oneself. Everything we do is connected, every choice we make reflects upon our character. By saying no to meat, I feel I am better able to engage with my human companions. By saying no to meat, I am not teaching myself to ignore problems, and the pain of others. By saying no to meat – by saying no to animal cruelty – I am showing a fuller, healthier, and more respectful understanding of the earth and its creatures – sentient or otherwise.
For a full-text reading of Franklin’s autobiography, click here: