Now that the Thanksgiving meal has been eaten and people have moved on to Black Friday or Cyber Monday, we thought it appropriate to mention Gary Steiner’s much-discussed New York Times op-ed from last week, Animal, Vegetable, Miserable.
In the essay, Gary Steiner, who is the author of Animals and the Moral Community: Mental Life, Moral Status, and Kinship and a strict vegan, examines some of the philosophical as well as practical issues connected to not eating meat.
Many people soothe their consciences by purchasing only free-range fowl and eggs, blissfully ignorant that “free range” has very little if any practical significance. Chickens may be labeled free-range even if they’ve never been outside or seen a speck of daylight in their entire lives. And that Thanksgiving turkey? Even if it is raised “free range,” it still lives a life of pain and confinement that ends with the butcher’s knife.
How can intelligent people who purport to be deeply concerned with animal welfare and respectful of life turn a blind eye to such practices? And how can people continue to eat meat when they become aware that nearly 53 billion land animals are slaughtered every year for human consumption? The simple answer is that most people just don’t care about the lives or fortunes of animals. If they did care, they would learn as much as possible about the ways in which our society systematically abuses animals, and they would make what is at once a very simple and a very difficult choice: to forswear the consumption of animal products of all kinds.
Steiner goes on to explain some of the difficulties of living as a vegan in “a meat-crazed society.” Animal products are so ingrained into our consumptive habits, showing up in such unlikely places as band-aids (animal fat for the adhesive) and beer (a gelatin made from fish bladders is often used to purify it) that avoidance of animal products is almost impossible.
Steiner concludes by restating some of his philosophical and ethical rationale for being a vegan:
People who are ethical vegans believe that differences in intelligence between human and non-human animals have no moral significance whatsoever. The fact that my cat can’t appreciate Schubert’s late symphonies and can’t perform syllogistic logic does not mean that I am entitled to use him as an organic toy, as if I were somehow not only morally superior to him but virtually entitled to treat him as a commodity with minuscule market value.
We have been trained by a history of thinking of which we are scarcely aware to view non-human animals as resources we are entitled to employ in whatever ways we see fit in order to satisfy our needs and desires. Yes, there are animal welfare laws. But these laws have been formulated by, and are enforced by, people who proceed from the proposition that animals are fundamentally inferior to human beings. At best, these laws make living conditions for animals marginally better than they would be otherwise — right up to the point when we send them to the slaughterhouse.