Notes on animal rights, veganism and empathy

On Thursday, the House of Representatives failed to pass its version of the 2013 farm bill that included $20 billion in cuts to food stamps. Much less attention has been paid, however, to the radical amendment introduced by Rep. Steve King, which would’ve opened the door to unprecedented deregulation of the agriculture industry. According to the Humane Society, the King amendment could “repeal state laws on farm animal confinement, horse slaughter, puppy mills, shark finning, and a wide range of other concerns from food safety to child labor to the environment.”

I’ve always found it troubling that, even among self-identified leftists, animal rights are afforded a marginal or nonexistent place in political debates, as if defending the beings least able to defend themselves is a mere “lifestyle choice”, a petty concern of bourgeois liberals. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Denham-Schrader amendment (which would improve conditions for 280 million egg-laying hens and eliminate the King amendment) to the farm bill received very little attention amid the usual partisan bickering over how much to screw the poor.

While I’ve spent years grappling with animal rights issues, I haven’t really discussed them on this blog. For some time now, but especially since I went vegan in April, I’ve been thinking about ways to approach the question of animal ethics and its place in a politics of freedom and social justice. In some ways, the absence of these issues from public discourse has meant that they’ve remained the most personal part of my politics. That means, for better or for worse, I have to take a detour through the history of my own thinking.

I stopped eating most meat at the tail end of high school, as a way to resolve what my interactions with my cats had made me realize was a pretty major contradiction in the way I related to animals. On the one hand, I’d eat steak or pepperoni or chelo kabab (still the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted). On the other, had the violence involved in imprisoning and killing that cow or pig been visited on one of my cats, I would’ve been overwhelmed by a desire not only for justice, but also for vengeance. 

To be blunt, were I to meet someone complicit in the killing and eating of one of my cats, I’d be liable to beat the shit out of that person – even if it came at great personal cost. What this points to is the role of the empathy gap in our value systems: What we know and love, what is “of us”, is afforded rights, an inherent worth. Everything else, to varying degrees, is excluded.

Although it might sound counterintuitive, the dynamic of the empathy gap is actually central  to our notion of universal human rights: That is, the idea that every human being has rights equal to every other human being, and that those rights include the right to life, to food, to liberty, and so on. There’s no way to deduce these rights, much less equal rights, from the raw facts of existence. It might sound abstract, but that’s the point. The right not to be killed by a cruise missile can’t be measured; It has to be felt first, and then expanded to include everyone.

If we imagine a loved one dying in a drone strike, do we not feel the full weight of injustice? Universal human rights, as a principle, addresses everyone who feels anguish and indignation when we and people we love suffer, and asks of us: Are extrajudicial killings any less wrong when it’s not your community, but a community in Yemen or the south side of Chicago that lives with the terror and grief? Left unchecked, the empathy gap lets us stay agnostic on this question.

To me, ethical veganism (as opposed to, say, veganism for health reasons) tries to make good on the promise of universal rights by extending those rights to bridge an even more radical empathy gap: that between humans and all other animals. Even as I ate fish and other so-called seafood for years, I felt the most logical and consistent ethics was one that refused to link an animal’s rights to its ability to impress humans with its “intelligence”. Here was the same basic contradiction: Some animals were still excluded from my expanded notion of rights.

When I looked at a fish or a clam, I had a much harder time swapping them out for my cats than I did when I looked at a pig. I’d preserved the speciesist hierarchy by using another arbitrary standard (similarity to cats) to gauge the ethics of systematically killing a living being. Furthermore, I was still supporting an industry that abuses and murders animals for dairy and eggs – even as I protested the same industry’s abuse and murder of animals for their flesh.

The problem, though, is much deeper than what I eat and what shampoo I use. Whatever I consume or don’t consume, ethical veganism is totally inconsistent with my acute fear and hatred of pretty much every imaginable bug (insects, spiders, and all such “creepy-crawlies”). I’m so repulsed by the sight of bugs that, in the moment, all enlightened arguments take a backseat to the goal of removing the creature in question from “my space” by any means necessary. It’s long struck me that this sort of reaction would make no sense at all in a “natural” environment, since bugs are, quite simply, everywhere in nature. It’s only our opposition between “nature” and “civilization”, a mentality that regards human space as protected from the dangerous outside world, that could give rise to this strange mix of anxiety and disgust.

So for a few years I tried to reconcile my vegan philosophy with not actually being vegan by referencing my blatant, continuing disregard for the rights of insects, and then throwing up my hands at the inevitability of contradiction. To this day, I’d sanction and even bankroll the genocide of countless bugs if it meant I’d have a living space free of “pests”, so what difference does it make if I’m complicit in the enslavement and killing of other animals? This reasoning, I’ve concluded, is a little too convenient. Two hypocrisies don’t make consistency, and our limitations aren’t a blank check to lay down and accept the status quo.

I’m well aware that my individual choices won’t change the way the system works. For me, ethical veganism is a form of protest. Vegetarians and vegans are known to apologetically insist that they don’t “push their diet on others”. Well, I do. Of course, I don’t call my friends and acquaintances murderers for ordering meat at a restaurant. But I also don’t gloss over the convictions and reasoning behind my “diet” any more than I hide any other aspect of my politics.

I think everyone should stop eating animals and the products of their enslavement, and I think they should stop right now. I think our economic, scientific, and technological capacities should be focused on finding new ways to meet everyone’s nutritional needs without systematically exploiting humans or animals. I think captive animals should be given freedom and reparations, on as massive a scale as necessary. And even if you don’t agree – even if you want to keep eating animals for the rest of your life – it’s still incumbent on anyone who’s cared for a pet to voice their opposition to the most cruel practices, be they in massive factories or local farms.

You don’t need to empathize with every animal. But when feeling ends, thinking becomes all the more crucial. It’s not a question of ideological purity. It’s a question of thinking critically, and of taking seriously the difference between realism and rationalizing.

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One thought on “Notes on animal rights, veganism and empathy

  1. Pingback: Violence reconsidered | The Red Fury

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