Earlier this month, I signed onto an amicus brief urging the New York Court of Appeals to grant review in the case of NHRP v. Breheny. The brief argues that the primary issue presented in the case, whether a captive elephant named “Happy” can qualify for a writ of habeas corpus, is an important one that calls for the court’s attention. It is (I hope) easy to sympathize with an elephant in captivity because she is so intelligent and grand, and her freedom would require so little from most of us. For that reason and because such able attorneys represent Happy, I am cautiously optimistic about her case. I recognize, however, that protecting other kinds of animals who also deserve rights may prove more challenging. I believe all sentient beings are entitled to freedom from confinement, hunting, slaughter, and all the innumerable ways in which humans inflict suffering and death upon them. Many people share this belief in surveys. But when the topic of veganism comes up, something interesting happens.
Most of us prefer to stay the same, not to change. If someone suggests that we make a particular alteration in how we do things, what we eat, how active we are, how we speak to people, we tend to resist the suggestion. Sometimes our resistance persists even when the proposal would be relatively simple to carry out. Skip the midnight television show and go to sleep. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Pay closer attention to what your partner is saying. Reply kindly to messages from your parents. We do make some changes, but we often do it kicking and screaming. As a vegan, I know that this was true of me.
I had thought about becoming vegan for some time. I had always loved animals and hated to see them suffer. I had two dogs, Scooter and Mandy, and I knew from being around them that nonhuman animals were complicated, feeling beings who experienced love, jealousy, fear, anger, empathy, and sadness, just like ordinary people do. Why were they property? And if they had the right not to be bought and sold like objects, then what entitled me to eat the flesh of slaughtered cows, birds, and fishes? Why was I buying eggs when the male chicks of the layer breeds were thrown into a meat grinder alive because they weren’t useful? And how could I buy all of the cheese that I loved when cows produced milk “for humans” only after giving birth and watching their babies taken away one by one? And yet…
I was reluctant to change. So what did I do? For a long time, I didn’t change, though I began at some point to call myself an “aspiring vegan,” as though I was ABD on my vegan degree. Whether I felt guilty or not seemed to depend very much on whether I was with someone who was similarly unwilling to change. Together we would rationalize our decision to remain the same. The primary argument was that changing was too difficult. Unlike other people who had become vegan, we really really got a lot of pleasure from eating animal flesh and secretions (though we did not use that language). Thinking back on some of the things we said, I believe the arguments were transparently pretextual.
After becoming vegan, I wrote a book about the questions that people ask vegans, offering my own answers to each one. But I did not address every argument that I made in my pre-vegan days, mostly because some ideas seemed almost consciously designed to lull myself back to sleep, back to a time when moving from animals to plants did not even seem like a possibility. I will review one of the arguments here to make a broader point about human rationality.
Everything Has Rights
When I began to appreciate the profound suffering that I inflicted by participating as a consumer in the animal foods industry, I discovered the rights of shrubbery, of glasses, and of ceramic bowls. Was it not a type of violence to bite the end of a pen or smash a mirror or throw a saucer against the wall? In one sense, the answer is yes. Doing any one of these things can frighten another living being, perhaps one who inhabits our own home. It is for a reason that breaking a dish in the middle of a fight with one’s partner is a kind of domestic violence. We may not actually believe that saucers have rights; we may think merely that people should be free of frightening displays of aggression. If you see your partner break a breakfast bowl by throwing it violently across the room, you could reasonably fear your partner’s turning his ire on you next.
And what if I had truly believed that bowls had rights, that it is a harm to the bowl for me to throw and break it? More plausibly, some invoke the rights that “nature” has in various countries including Ecuador. Giving nature rights sounds good because many of us want to protect bodies of water, trees, and hills from those who would pollute and destroy them. The problem is that if the pond starts housing disease-laden insects, we will drain it. If we require wood, we will chop down a tree. And if we are looking to replace coal as a dirty fuel, we might decide that fracking is for us. In nature, it is not the individual item, whether a river, a tree, or a mountain, but the whole that counts. We allow small fires to burn down some trees because we believe it will benefit the entirety of the forest. Until, that is, a human’s life is threatened. At that point, people will fight the fire because we value humans as individuals with, as Tom Regan used to say, not just a biology but a biography as well. To become an ethical vegan is to manifest the belief that we ought to value sentient animals as individuals, not only as groups, because they too have not only a biology but a biography as well.
There is a dark side to the argument that nature has rights or that ceramic bowls have entitlements and that it is a wrong to harm each of these items. The dark side, in fact, is what drew me to it as a pre-vegan. If rivers and trees have rights, then we can place animals right in there with the inanimate objects and give all of them the same rights. And those rights will necessarily belong to the whole and not the individual. After all, how could we ask people to treat a tree with the same respect as we treat human beings? Whatever rights “things” have will be degraded by comparison to what humans have. And animals tend to land on the “things” side for some reason.
Indeed, part of the point of such rights may be to equate natural, nonhuman entities with one another, including animals, sticks, and bushes. It is then permissible for us to kill deer and wolves if the ecosystem would benefit from that killing (or if someone who knows little of the biology of deer or wolves claims, with widespread and uncritical acceptance, that it would). To suggest otherwise would seemingly be to elevate an individual part of nature, one tree, over the whole.
We come closest to treating animals as individuals when the animals live with us, whether dogs, cats, or guinea pigs. We make choices intended to do right by the particular beings in our custody. We do not “sacrifice” our animals because animal-kind or nature would gain from such a sacrifice. In the film “Old Yeller,” the boy Travis, who came to love his yellow lab as a best friend who ultimately saved the boy’s life, initially told no one when his buddy first showed symptoms of being rabid. Old Yeller’s life as an individual mattered to Travis, and killing him would not be easy in the way that killing the family’s rabid cow, considered a mere piece of property, was. The family featured in Old Yeller was nothing close to vegan and certainly did not regard any animal, including Old Yeller, as deserving of the same protection as humans enjoyed. But Travis’s relationship with the dog was one of two individuals, “I and thou.” Travis would never have placed Old Yeller in the same category as a tree.
Rationalizing and the Human Heart
When we spend a great deal of our time thinking and reasoning our way around the world, it is easy to fall into the rationalization trap. It works like this. I am thinking maybe eating as a vegan would be more consistent with my values than eating as a non-vegan has been. The closer I get to drawing this conclusion, which would involve changing my behavior, the more anxiety I feel. Initially, I enjoyed the intellectual puzzle of thinking about animal rights, but now my “way of life” is in jeopardy. How will I explain to Grandma that I won’t be eating her turkey? And how will I find a dinner I enjoy at a restaurant? I must eat something, after all. When I destroy a cabbage or a bag of peanuts by eating it, that is harm too. A tree and the fruits it produces also have rights, and destroying them is wrong unless I have a reason. But I do have a reason. And similarly, I have a reason for paying the slaughterhouse to torture and kill animals, which is the need for food. I apply what the Supreme Court has called rational basis scrutiny (a toothless constitutional test) or what I might name “rationalizing basis scrutiny.” I have thereby created a home for animal rights, alongside the rights of inanimate objects. The sentience that we share with the animals disappears from my moral imagination. Voila.
I have to say, however, that I am glad I became vegan fifteen years ago and overcame the tempting rationalizations for doing otherwise. No one ever pressured me to eat a turkey, and ordering from restaurants was relatively easy (and is far easier now than it was then, when they are open). I do not miss animal products. At this moment, people who want the experience of eating animal foods without the carnage can enjoy Beyond Meat beyond burgers and beyond sausages (which even avowed omnivores say are fantastic), Just Egg (which makes a delicious scramble or omelet), and some of the cheeses here if you enjoy fancy ones that go with crackers (and wine). I never truly believed that sentient beings were no more significant than “nature” or that treating animals as a whole quantity (like we might treat rainforests) makes sense. We can continue to value the world and all of the wonders in it, including trees and hills and bodies of water. But animal rights mean that we recognize that when anyone suffers, anyone regardless of species, we have an evil that rightly commands our attention and action. Animals are different from inanimate objects in the way that humans are. We must see the individual and respect her boundaries, no matter how much the whole might wish to violate them.