Sentient or Otherwise

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:


  1. Matthew Koogler

    Good stuff, Jessica! I was wondering what you have to say about “variation 2” in terms of culture? For myself, I am an on-again off-again veggie, and I consider what it takes in order to make someone “fall off the wagon” as I often do.

    I don’t consider myself a murderer, but that is part of it isn’t it? That I either don’t realize it or don’t care enough to treat my eating of meat as such? I don’t consider my eating of meat an act of cruelty, at least not during the act. It’s always after that I consider that I may have participated in violence. It’s not always a sure thing even then, for me personally.

    I bring this up because it’s interesting to me how cultural eating meat is. In my family, there were plenty of meals where the ONLY course was just meet. When I attempted to go on a vegetarian diet for the first time, my well-meaning parents tried to make sure I got poultry instead of beef.

    It is tough to be vegetarian in a culture where vegetarianism isn’t seen by many as an even rational choice, even though there are a great many good reasons for making that choice that have nothing to do with the animal itself.

    Essentially, I always find myself in a war between mindful, healthy eating, convenience, and compassion. It’s amazing to me how often convenience wins out. I wonder how much this convenience permeates other areas of our life, not just in terms of fast-food but in terms of the convenience of not bothering to think about suffering?

  2. Jessica

    Matthew –

    I shared a lot of your thoughts when writing this article. For example, not everyone in my family is a vegetarian , and it would be neither fair nor accurate to assume that my mother and brothers are “bad people” because of it. And of course, I am also not guilt-free: though I buy cage-free and local eggs, I sometimes use un-organic dairy products, and as with all of my neighbors, my reliance upon fresh water, electricity, the use of animal territory, and gas-guzzling transportation is, in a way, contradictory to my dietary choices. If anything, I have to be especially cautious that my vegetarianism doesn’t let me stop thinking, or give me any sort of mental free pass. It’s all too easy to say “oh, I don’t eat meat, therefore, I’m saving the world!” as I drive my car to the ice-cream stand.

    The point is, if you try to do everything that’s best for the environment, the task will soon seem daunting, maybe even hopeless. However, I do echo your worries that convenience can prevent compassion. Not even considering the possibility of suffering, nor the need to show respect to food, can lead to blindness in our expectations, reduce our ability to discover problems in our actions, and prevent us from doing anything but that which came before. Eating is especially important, because thinking about what we eat is a constant, never-ending exercise in choice. Yet while “I don’t care” is a serious issue, “I have considered the options, weighed the consequences, and go into my eating decision with gratefulness” is something completely different, even if it leads to meat consumption. If we could get everyone to do that, it would be a huge victory, and I feel confident in saying that we would see major changes in spheres outside of food. Awareness is key.

    It seems that you already have incorporated this type of thinking into your eating process, and I respect the thought you’ve given the meat issue. When it comes to cultural pressures, however, I understand the risk of convenience. Yet being able to stick to a vegetarian diet (not obnoxiously, mind you, but with a readiness to answer questions and resist temptation) is a great way to provide a lasting example to people who have never considered not eating meat before. I’m always surprised at how some people have never thought about where their food comes from, or what it means to have it, or why it means something else had to be lost. It’s like assuming electricity comes from the wall. And most of the time, people haven’t moved past this point because no one has ever suggested it could be any different.

    My goal in this blog (and in my own actions) is to help raise awareness of our eating habits, because I feel that it is an important way to develop the types of critical-thinking, empathy, openness, and creativity needed to solve some of our most pressing problems, both personal and global. For me, the best eating habit is vegetarianism, and I use this space to talk about it as concretely as possible. I’m glad that you’re a vegetarian as well, but don’t let any guilt from meat-eating get you too down! Making yourself (or others) feel bad will always lead to a sense of defeat , and prevent any learning from the experience. Instead, consider every new meal a new chance, and allow yourself room for some lapses. We are designed to want meat, and while I fimly believe in mind over matter, sometimes there are ways to eat give into that need that allow for the most amount of respect and the least amount of suffering possible (buying organic/free-range, for example, or being at the source of the slaughter by going fishing or shopping at local butchers). But, always think ahead, be prepared, and strengthen your awareness of choice! It might be easier sometimes to grab a fast-food hamburger, but the sense of well-being which comes from eating in a way that you can feel good about is worth the extra effort every time.

  3. Matthew Koogler

    I happen to know a dietitian in training who was very impressed by an animal-rights group on her campus: they asked her from a “safe distance” if she would like to take a flier. She initially refused, and I think they thanked her or otherwise wished her well as she walked by. By then I think she had been impressed by the group’s consideration of her personal space and in a round-about way, her beliefs. So she walked back and actually said “yes, in fact I would like a flier.”

    The flier was your (I’m assuming) average document about how animals are treated in most farms, and lots of reasons to consider going veggie. But was really impressive to the both of us was that the flier did not urge giving up meat cold turkey (nyuk nyuk). It asked the reader to be mindful of their food choices, and consider where their food comes from. I have to say it did have an effect on the both of us, even if it did not make us strict converts.

    It was a very good example of how compassionate outreach can help one considering any cause, but also in my opinion a good example of how the attitude one takes during meal time, one of the most important times of every day, can carry over into other areas of life.

    In conclusion, yay mindfulness and awareness!

  4. What about free range meat? Yes…it costs more…but most of your arguments are directed at the way meat is produced…not the actual meat itself. Also…there is a 5th arguement. The 4th you stated as “Animals are Animals: Humans are Humans”. The 5th would be “Animals are Animals: Humans are Animals” … regardless of how enlightened/sophisticated we may believe ourselves to be. There is no rationalization…we simply are what we are. The only benefit/curse of rationalization is that we are able to deny/justify anything we want about ourselves…as Franklin said.

    • Jessica

      Adam –

      You’re right: vegetarians are put in a hard position because when it comes to business, the only way to support/dissuade something is with money. By not buying meat I am (even if it is only minutely) reducing the amount of meat my grocery store needs to keep on stock, which in turn could eventually reduce the amount that the suppliers need to produce. Yet meat isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and so by not buying free-range products I am, in essence, making it harder for those companies to sell their products. If everyone bought free-range it would be cheaper to buy and more lucrative for companies to do – but until then, it will still be easier for companies to use factory farming and other less-humane/green methods. It’s a hard choice, and one that has been on my mind lately. Is being a vegetarian only half of the battle? Should I also be petitioning supermarkets to supply less meat, or only purchase from ethical companies? There are many vegetarians deeply involved in that process, and the debate is worth its own future article. But for now, I’d like to use a good friend of mine as an example of a way to balance this particular meat problem. My friend is very meat-conscious, and only buys meat for special occasions. Because he does not need it often, he is financially able to buy from local markets and free-range suppliers, and only in the quantities that he knows he will eat. In this way he’s able to eat meat while also supporting sustainable practices and local business. I think for the wider populace, though, it will be incorporating free-range into convenient foods (restaurants, fast-food, grocery stores) that will cause real change. So, we’ll see. Of course, free range is a more difficult situation than it seems at the surface, because what constitutes “free range” is usually much less than the cows-frolicking-through-the-Alps conception that most people hope for. In the end all I can say is that while I still stand by a meat-free diet, if you must purchase meat, be as conscious and conscientious as possible, and make informed decisions that are not too clouded by the need for ease.

      As for your “animals are animals: humans are animals” comment – an interesting corollary for sure, and one that I’ve also heard meat-eaters say to legitimize their decision. It’s a hard argument to come up against because, well, let’s face it. Animals are not nice to each other. Recently I was watching the “Amphibians and Reptiles” episode of the BBC’s Life, and it reminded me that when it comes to eat or die, carnivores show little mercy to their prey. In this vein, we do not have a responsibility for anything other than making sure we get what we want when we want it: this ties into the “I don’t care,” Darwinistic, religious, and animal “rights” issues I mentioned above. However, while there is nothing saying, concretely, that desiring meat isn’t natural, choosing whether or not to follow this impulse is a decision over which you have utmost control. It is all too easy to confuse “want” with “need” – an alligator has a limited supply of protein sources which its digestive system can receive nutrients from, and lives in an environment where finding these sources is an all-consuming activity: however, I have the luxury of variety and availability of my food, and so never have a lack of resources and nutrients to choose from. Likewise, I do not live as my hunter-gatherer ancestors did: why would I eat like them as well? So when you say that we are only animals in the end, despite our ability to rationalize, I would advise against any sort of defeatist attitude. We are only animals in the end – but we have the beautiful (and damning) ability to think things through and make my own decisions! I do not have to do what everyone has done before me; I do not have to act in any way that brings me any sort of moral discomfort; and I have an amazing body adapted to eat a much wider variety of foods than many other animals experience. It is a wonderful thing about being a human! And when it comes to using our human traits to change our eating decisions, being able to balance our nutritious and moral needs is a powerful thing, even if our livestock may not know/care/be able to comprehend the sacrifice vegetarians make for their sake. You’re right – the word “enlightened” and “sophisticated” elicit some sense of self-righteousness, and I worry that sometimes people turn to vegetarianism because they want to be rewarded or to feel better than their peers. Being a vegetarian to make a point has its place, but again, if the core of change is unstable, relapse into meat often quickly follows. But regardless, our central abilities of reasoning, analyzing, and synthesizing are a powerful tool, and while this does not make us “better” than any other animal, it does change the ways in which we live, and the pressures to which we respond. In the end, I am not eating other animals for them, but also for myself.

  5. Suzanne

    Jessica, I’m interested in knowing how you evaluate your vegetarian foods, in terms of sustainability of production, of numbers of animals killed in production (although these dead creatures are not physically present on the vegetarian plate, they are just as dead as if a human were eating them), in terms of labour practices and human rights, and in terms of distance travelled from farm to fork.

    Would you continue to eat lentils from India if your research showed that multinational companies were forcing local farmers off the land and into wage slavery or driving them to the slums of Delhi and other big cities, there to die of hunger and exposure on the streets; that Coca-Cola was sucking up and bottling local water at a rate causing the water table to drop beyond the reach of the shallow wells that are all that locals can afford to dig while the multinationals continue to irrigate in the knowledge that they can simply walk away when the water is gone, profits jingling in their bank accounts; that the cultivation of the lentils killed X thousand mice and Y thousand birds, as well as uncountable beetles and ants?

    Some food for thought here; how many of the pesticides referenced in the following story were used on carrots, broccoli, lawns, and flowers?
    Would you eat almonds from California, knowing that this is a most unsuitable crop for the region, demanding drip irrigation and, very often, considerable spraying against moths and beetles? Or conventionally grown potatoes, which have an astounding kill rate of animals? To reiterate, the mole, snake, grasshopper, kite, worm, beetle, and fly are just as dead as if they were on a plate.

    My point: every single food item should be weighed according to the same criteria before one is unequivocally declared “better” or “more humane” or “more enlightened” than another.

    Regarding sentience, pain, and suffering: all animals are sentient in the true sense of the word: registering and responding to environmental stimuli received through the senses. All animals feel pain, to greater or lesser degrees. One problem with fish rearing is that fish will lie atop exposed heating elements, getting severely burnt, but apparently oblivious to the damage! They swim around and feed just like non-burnt fish.

    The Great Divide between ovo-lacto-vegetarians and the gradations of omnivores is, of course, death. The act of taking the animal’s life with the intent of eating the animal’s flesh is seen by the non-omnivore as horrendous, and to at least some of us omnivores as partaking of the sacred.

    Animals do not have to die bellowing in fear and pain, though the government makes it very difficult to ensure a clean death for livestock. When I lived in South Africa, on my smallholding, my meat animals were dispatched with a single bullet behind the right ear, very early in the morning, in a pen next to the main night kraal. They dropped instantly. Their herd mates barely looked up, and did not run around frantically seeking their lost companion. Pigs and chickens must be confined during slaughter operations, as both will make determined efforts to eat the carcass even when it’s of their own species and own family line! Both are notoriously cannibalistic even under good conditions; an animal injured during status jostles will be relentlessly harassed and even eaten alive by its own blood kin if a person does not intervene.

    This makes sense in the evolutionary context of prey animals. It would be evolutionarily destructive to the species if fear of death and strong emotional attachments were dominant traits. Watch any wildlife documentary; I’m South African and have watched lions kill in the Kruger Park. The spooked antelope run in all directions when the lions attack – and stop running immediately the kill has been made. The survivors graze around the horrid blood-gushing carcass being ripped apart (possibly not even dead yet) by the predators, evincing neither horror nor fear despite being within very easy pouncing range of the lions.

    I do not condone cruelty in any form. It costs me a fair amount to source grass-fed-to-finish products, and truly pastured poultry, including eggs. I use milk, butter, and cheese,from family farms certified to base production on pasture. I have considered the costs, as you said, and I am comfortable with my position as a meat-eating animal within the spectrum of eat and be eaten. Nature is not about Eat Or Be Eaten. It’s definitely Eat And Be Eaten. All living things will die, there is a 100% death rate for all populations of organisms, and all will (or should) return their nutrients to the life cycle through the digestive tracts of other organisms. My diet isn’t perfect, by a long shot. I still sometimes eat almonds from California and pine nuts from China, bananas from Mexico, and I even buy about 10lb of sugar a year. Over time I will continue localizing my foodshed, as I find providers, and hewing closer to my ethical line – and in the meantime I will not beat myself up! Each food dollar I spend on animal source products is a direct strike against the cruelties and unsustainabilities of the CAFO operations, because each of my dollars is directly taken away from them and directly (as in from me to the producer) injected into the small-scale, sustainable, humane farms. A double-whammy, right?

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