Volunteer with MN350's Communications Team
NOTE: This is the second part of a three-part blog on the industrial farming of animals and its implications for the impact of eating meat on the environment. Part 1 provides history and background, Part 2 explores the ethical problem that eating meat poses today, and Part 3 offers solutions.
The fate of industrially farmed animals is one of the most pressing ethical questions of our time. Tens of billions of sentient beings, each with complex sensations and emotions, live and die on a production line.
– Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens
I love my dog.
Of the more than 90 million dog owners in the U.S., it’s safe to say most of them would say the same, with many of them, like me, considering their dogs part of the family. It’s not that dogs are categorically superior to other mammals but, as canine behavior scientist Dr. Clive Wynn reminds us, “because of their unique capacity for interspecies ‘love’ they are bred to bond, not only with humans, but with any animal it is raised with—a cow, goat, sheep, or a person.” This is a dramatic demonstration of how humans’ perceptions of and relationships with other animals, including those found on farms, are culturally determined and not a function of their inherent value.
People who raise their animals in a natural environment, especially on farm animal sanctuaries, see daily evidence that the members of each species have their own complex social, mental, and emotional lives that play out in relationships with their own kind and with the humans and other animals on the farm. The pigs, chickens, goats, sheep, and cows alike bond with their young and chosen companions in their group whom they recognize as individuals, as they do the humans who care for them. In their own way, these animals learn from the past, plan for the future, problem-solve, and demonstrate other cognitive skills. And like us, they experience pleasure, joy, frustration, anger, sadness, and grief. They communicate these feelings to their human and animal companions through a variety of nuanced sounds, gestures, facial expressions, and body postures. Cows specifically have demonstrated rich emotional lives, actually mourning the death and even separation from those with whom they have bonded.
And yet most people are able to objectify these animals as the mass-produced food products coming out of the factory farms I described in Part 1 and justify their cruel treatment as necessary to feed the ever-expanding populations borne of technological advancements they proudly point to as the hallmarks of modern civilization. If these animals are indeed sentient creatures, worthy of our compassion and regard, how did humans come to the point where they are able to hold this ethical dilemma in their consciousness, seemingly without guilt and, for the 95% of meat-eaters who are served by factory farms, showing little willingness to change their behavior?
At least since humans developed spoken language some 200,000 years ago (although estimates vary considerably), the experience of self-consciousness began to emerge whereby humans’ sense of separation from other species became a defining factor in their behavior. Over thousands of years, this self-consciousness informed the evolution of cultures through the development of traditional religions, political systems, aesthetic and scientific theories, and other social constructs. This historical process eventually manifested in the dominance of nature by Western culture as it spread across much of the globe, confirming in generations of people their sense of being categorically different from other animals. In modern times, even with the gradual, if reluctant, public recognition of the legitimacy of Darwin’s theory of evolution and countless subsequent scientific findings placing humans within the natural order, most people continued to hold onto a belief in their distinctive, superior status in regard to non-human animals. It is largely by this complex, historically determined psychological construct that people have been able to justify dominating other animals as servants, food, and entertainment, not to mention confining them in the tortuous conditions found on industrial farms.
In his seminal book, Animal Liberation, philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer calls this speciesism, “…a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” He dismisses the common argument for human superiority due to intelligence, citing the lack of intellect in a baby or a person with disabilities as not justifying anyone causing their suffering, then applying the same principle to non-human animals. Two-time Pulitzer prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson has made an even starker assessment of human superiority in his book On Human Nature. He claims that the pursuit of a new naturalism generates two spiritual dilemmas:
The first is that no species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by genetic necessity…the basis of the second dilemma: innate censors and motivators exist in the brain that deeply and unconsciously affect our ethical premises; from these roots, morality evolved as an instinct.
This is radical stuff, and not easy to swallow for most people whose self-worth has been tied to a traditional belief system that purports to lift them above nature. We often experience these allegiances as the basis for ethics and morality, which raises the question: Can we find ethical or moral guidance if we come to truly know ourselves at the fundamental level described by Wilson as “an animal among other animals”? It is my contention that this is how we will learn to see ourselves as a part of nature, knowing other animals as fellow creatures worthy of our compassion. We can then honestly claim genuine ethical or moral authority as we make choices about eating meat.
We have no shortage of role models for making these choices. An increasing number of people who avoid meat or limit their meat intake (such as to only free-range farm animals raised humanely) base their decision on moral and ethical beliefs to minimize unnecessary animal suffering.
Many of these people have a religious basis for their choices, most dramatically the Jains and some Hindus and Buddhists who have vegetarianism built into their theology. Several Jewish scholars see the Torah as pointing to vegetarianism as an ideal, with a number of prominent rabbis advocating for not eating meat to avoid animal suffering. Although vegetarianism is not specifically considered by Islam, there is historical evidence of some support for humane treatment of animals among Islamic religious leaders, especially among Sufis. (Mohammed is quoted saying, “Whosoever is kind to the creatures of God is kind to himself.”) And an increasing number of Christians are also able to include animals in following the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.
Indigenous tribal people in countries around the world have long considered animals as their fellow creatures, imbued with the same spirit that gives life meaning. For Native Americans, this is often referred to as “Great Spirit” or “Great Mystery,” which is personally interwoven with the web of living things, humans, and other animals alike, across the Earth. This accounts for the respect many tribes gave to the animals they hunted and killed for food, which, unlike the occupying Europeans who all but destroyed the buffalo in North America, allowed them to take only what they needed to feed their families and tribe.
There is also a new breed of scientists and philosophers who take the discoveries in quantum mechanics to imply the existence of a larger consciousness pervading the universe; manifested specifically in life on Earth, this consciousness, comparable to the role of Spirit in tribal cultures, grants animals, both human and non-human, an equal status as conscious beings. Donald Hoffman is one of the cognitive scientists who believes that what we perceive with our brain and our senses does not reflect the true nature of reality. Thus, while evolution has shaped our perceptions to guide adaptive behavior, it has not enabled us to perceive reality as it actually is. Hoffman considers that there are far-reaching implications of such a radical finding for understanding the mystery of consciousness as the source of that reality.
Animal suffering aside, there are practical people—motivated by self interest and concern for their families and the fate of the planet—who choose to not eat meat, or who limit meat intake, simply because it is bad for their health and for the environment.
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This case I’ve made for a shift in consciousness— to see ourselves as an animal among other animals—can offer a foundational perspective (reflected in several of the models discussed above). It supports an ethical basis for not eating animals who suffered on industrial farms. No longer able to deny their suffering, we are challenged to change our behavior to fully realize personal ethical beliefs that guide how we treat our fellow creatures. That is the subject of Part 3, the final section of this blog series.
 Yuval Noah Harari, The Guardian, September 25, 2015
 Dr. Clive Wynn, Dog is Love (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019)
 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009)
 Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Harvard University Press, 1978)
 Dr. Gabriel Cousins, Conscious Eating (North Atlantic Books, 2000)
 “Reality Is Not as It Seems,” Noor Foundation symposium, February 7, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MvGGjcTEpQ&feature=youtu.be
Sid Farrar is a writer, editor, and volunteer with MN350’s Communications Team.