I have been finding it especially difficult to shake off the memory of a recent discussion I happened to overhear at work; a conversation that was initiated between my colleague and his customer, and one founded on the pair’s common love of animals, more specifically their rescue dogs. The tragic backstories of these “helpless animals”, with “no voice of their own” cropped up repeatedly, the customer passionately voicing her disgust at the morally shameful nature of such crimes inflicted upon dogs by their previous owners, and the challenging task faced by new owner in their attempts at regaining the animal’s trust in the wake of such trauma.
What struck me in particular was the lady’s repeated assertion that such negligent, cruel behavior was morally wrong on the grounds of the animal’s helplessness and that it is our moral duty to protect such individuals; in other words that such animals have no voice with which to fight their cause and that we must therefore provide that voice. While a part of me felt compelled to interrupt this vibrant, heartfelt interaction, I somehow held back, reluctant to raise any supposedly contentious moral questions regarding the animal-other in my work place, as a new employee seeking to make a good first impression on my superiors. What I would have said, if I had had the nerve would perhaps have been something along the lines of “but is this not the case with all domesticated animals? How are we not morally obligated to protect all such helpless victims of human abuse? Is there really any objective difference between killing a dog and a cow?” I thought of all the suffering endured by thousands of animals on a regular basis around the globe, all that unnecessary, bloody slaughter for the sake of humankind’s palate pleasure, and was abruptly overcome by a profound sense of disheartenment whilst standing on the periphery of this conversation; a mere shadowy spectator with a very different outlook on such issues related to animal injustice and abuse. I stood in a state of overwhelming disillusionment, watching these well meaning individuals whose inability to witness their own basic moral blindness in the instance of the animal other reminded me of that fatal ethical blind spot, or speciesist mindset that has become ingrained in the majority of humanity.
I wondered to myself, “how can one rationally proclaim to harbor a sense of moral regard for animals whilst simultaneously consuming the very flesh of billions of animals that are equally sentient, equally aware, and equally capable of love and being loved?”. “How can one claim to believe animals matter morally when their behavior implicates the forced impregnation, enslavement, mutilation and killing of animals rich in their diversity of character, their awareness, and their indisputable capability to suffer in equal measure to those pets for which we would so readily sacrifice our lives or in many instances our incomes?” As asserted by Stibbe in his article on the language of animal exploitation, “the coercive power used to oppress animals depends completely on a consenting majority of the human population who, every time it buys animal products, explicitly or implicitly agrees to the way animals are treated”. These same individuals, my colleague in this instance claims that he would be willing to “give my life for my dogs in a heartbeat, no question” the customer reciprocating with an eager nod, alongside the playful assertion that she prefers her dogs to her children sometimes.
I felt deeply hurt and disillusioned by this conversation, more so than I have felt in a long while, in spite of the seeming innocence of the narrative content. I felt that these individuals, alongside the rest of humanity were in dire need of a wake up call. I needed to go full “Earthlings” on them, but changing the public mindset, and promoting behavior change is no easy task as I so blatantly came to realize following my completion of the behavior change segment of my psychology undergrad. Nonetheless, I would argue that the majority of individuals believe in the basic premise of veganism; namely that it is morally wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals; to use animals as economic commodities for reasons of pleasure, habit, convenience or tradition. What is missing, however, is the drive to commit to the task of mirroring one’s professed thoughts and beliefs with their actions; of aligning one’s belief that sentience is the only necessary requirement for a living being to merit our moral concern with the corresponding behavior change; in other words veganism.
Moreover, I did not cease to sense an overarching sense of cognitive dissonance, one woven into the very fabric of the conversation between colleague and customer, as the basic cognitive inconsistencies inherent in couple’s mutual claim to the title of the “animal lover” came to permeate the dialogue. What truly saddened me though, was their inability to make that oh so tangible connection between one case of animal injustice and the billions of other like cases.
In order to free animals from the status of thing or property we must first challenge the status quo, by embracing a vegan lifestyle. By going vegan we choose to acknowledge the right of all animals to equal treatment, in turn inviting not just dogs, or cats but all such common, voiceless victims of oppression and enslavement into our realm of moral concern; because there is simply no empirical difference between a dog and a cow, other than those obstinate, socially constructed dividing lines concocted by man, ones with no basis in the realms of logic and objectivity. We must therefore strive to challenge the basic moral schizophrenia which has come to plague modern society, and one which promotes the senseless slaughter of billions of animals on an annual basis, by acknowledging the fact that all animals are equal in their capacity to suffer, and their basic desire to live. Becoming vegan is the only rational way to do so.
As once observed by Jeremy Bentham “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”