To Eat or Not to Eat
Disclaimer: This is again an article or post which is severely different from what I normally do. It is in essence a response to Alex O’Connor, better known by his YouTube moniker Cosmic Skeptic. This speech of his, delivered at Tel Aviv sparked inside me curiosity about a matter which I had frankly never considered before. Personally I do eat meat and so it felt that I did have to search for justification within myself to continue this practice. This post is my attempt at going against the arguments of a man who I follow and to a large degree look upto. Most probably this article will not reach him or get his attention that being said I do believe that introducing this issue to my limited audience is necessary. Please do watch the video as it is not only important to the contents of this post but also it is admittedly an incredible speech.
Not worth the Exploitation:
This is one of the very first points made in this particular speech in which a basic assertion is made that the end products of animal exploitation are not worth the cruelty and exploitation in the first place.
To actually counter this point we must look at what exactly do we get from animal exploitation. Meats, milk, clothing materials are the basics but then we get more specialised material too such as pet food, soaps, cosmetics etc. Therefore, are all of these products not justification enough for exploitation? Of course using just a wide variety of animal sourced products to justify the use of animals is to take the easy approach.
Instead, one the first points I must make is that of pet food. Now, as far as I know Alex hasn’t spoken about the ethics of pets but supposing that he is alright with people having pets the question then becomes whether or not meat based food for these animals is morally justified. Cats for example due to the inability to synthesise the protein Taurine on their own are dependent on meat being a part of their diet. There have been attempts of spiking non animal sourced food with taurine but most veterinarians believe so far that this method is neither functional nor a correct substitute for meat in the diets of cats.
Human consumption of meat has been qualified in this particular speech as having no purpose except sensory pleasure however this seems blatantly oversimplified and it is. An example for example are Inuits or any other group of people who live in challenging climates often in isolation. Is the consumption of animals for various uses cruelty for cruelty's sake and for sensory pleasure only?
In many countries, especially amongst populations that are by and far plagued with poverty, meat remains an affordable source of nutrients. Of course Alex goes ahead to also talk about how the animal industry takes away food that can otherwise be used for human consumption which is a point I shall address further on.
Factory Farming is cruel:
This is a point I agree with, it is incredibly clear that the industrial standards are extremely low, cruelty is not only accepted but it is also in many cases inflicted without much need. The issue here however is that this is a criticism (a valid one at that) of the manner in which the industry is functioning right now. This is why many producers have come up with more humane, less cruel methods which in my opinion must become standards.
However this criticism does not extend to the use of animals as a whole. Milk for example can be taken and is in fact taken in a humane and natural method by local cowherds especially in developing nations. Use must not become an excuse for abuse and I wholeheartedly support the implementation of standards and checks within the industry itself.
Killing a Dog on Stage:
This is where Alex takes a page from Hitchens (a personal hero of mine but one who used one liners and quips to score cheap points which when explored do not stand the test of critical thinking). Here we have a classic example of cruelty for cruelty’s sake. In making a comparison between a baseless act of slaughter and a process which feeds and clothes millions across the globe Alex does himself and his side a disservice.
Funnelling Money within the industry:
Alex here claims that by boycotting the use of animal products we can essentially shut down the industry. In this I believe Alex makes a mistake in supposing that animal exploitation is solely based around an industry and huge conglomerates which while true to an extent does ignore the mass of people who rear animals by themselves for personal consumption. Even if a large majority of people refused to fund the industry it would not end personal use by many across nations, especially developing nations such as mine.
Equality within Human Beings, Rights and their origins:
Here we come to a point which despite Alex’s assertion that Animal Rights is not characterised by philosophical flights of thought indeed does come under the ambit of philosophy.
Using a quote by Jefferson, Alex attempts to illustrate those human rights and their extension to all humans is not based on the intelligence of humans across the racial spectrum or in fact any factor of natural equality between human beings but rather on the basis of morality. (This is in fact Singer's argument in his magnum opus Animal Liberation which is a must read to begin to understand the reasoning behind Animal Rights.)
In this case it is extremely reductive of Alex to give this view to human rights. Human rights as a concept is extremely nuanced and its foundation and roots of legitimacy are one which is still hotly debated amongst philosophers. To simply put it down to morality is extremely dangerous and seems almost deliberately simplified and watered down.
For example, from an objectivist point of view human rights are not based on morality but the ability to reason. They originate from the social structure of humanity in which multiple individuals must be allowed freedom and rights to produce optimally. Again this is just one ideological take on human rights but it illustrates perfectly why exactly the extension of such rights to non-humans isn’t as simple as Alex would have you believe.
It takes an incredible amount of research, study, debate and discussion to even understand a fraction of what human rights entail and how they have come to be. To reduce them solely to a moral principle based ideal is to say the least, scratching the surface of the concept itself.
Disabled Child example:
This example is where Alex brings in the Marginal-Human argument. Of course the ideal of reason being the distinction between humans and non-humans has been a longstanding argument and thus this counter has developed.
The issue with this however is that this is a clear case of extraordinary circumstances. An example could be made with just a toddler, unaware of reason and having no chance at grasping it at this stage. The issue then becomes that a child still does grow up to have reason. For a disable child for example it is already clear that a lot of rights are not given. Mental disabilities for example are one of the most common reasons to exclude from someone the right to vote. Those with mental disabilities are often not given many of the liberties given to those without said mental disabilities. They cannot take part in contracts; they often lack the freedom of movement.
Another fallacy is of cruelty of cruelty’s sake. The only way this example would ever work is for it to be a hypothetical wherein torturing said disabled child would yield something. Take the example of medical experimentation for example and then we encounter the issue of medical ethics which have developed both for dealing with human and non-human subjects.
Here Alex gives the correlation between the animal industry and global warming as a sort of cherry on top. He even says that it is not the main reason behind him going vegan or for anyone else to go vegan because of Alex’s aforementioned morality argument.
If we look at actual statistics and compare the composition of greenhouse gas emission from crops for humans and livestock and fish farms we see that while fish farms and livestock make 31% of the production of food based greenhouse gas emission, crops make up 27% (of which 6% is for animal feed). The data report also explicitly says that agricultural development will be needed to decarbonise the entire food production cycle. Therefore it is important to understand that greenhouse gas emission is not something unique to livestock only and that the entire industry (both animal and non-animal products) will need to develop better techniques to counter the eminent issue of global warming.
Choose something else on the Menu:
In this Alex has attempted to simplify a change from the consumption of the occasional animal product to veganism as a whole. I do not wish to contend veganism being a valid dietary system that being said I do believe it is not as easy as Alex puts it especially for those who suffer from metabolic issues and need supplements of various proteins.
Crops going to Livestock:
In this again I feel that Alex needed to clarify an incredibly crucial detail and that is animal feed and the crops that are produced for it are majorly not fit for human consumption. In fact a major part of this feed consists of by products and crop wastes rather than crops grown necessarily for human consumption.
Even if these wastes could be used for human consumption the issue of feeding a hungry and growing population is still not solved. Even with meat a large chunk of the world goes hungry not because of lack of sufficient quantity of crops but instead due to the breakdown of supply chains poverty.
To conclude, I would like to point out that there are a multitude of logistical issues with the entire human race going vegan. It is however just as necessary to fight for better conditions and standards within the industry. The videos and audios which he mentions are definitely grotesque and until pressure is put on the industrial giants to get their act together I’m afraid we will be going down a darker path of not only unnecessary cruelty but also of planetary harm.