No one I know wants to harm animals (at least not the mammalian kind, arachnids are a little less fortunate). Everyone I know is kind, caring, and compassionate. They will give a dog or a cat an affectionate pat or belly scratch, entertain an animal’s desire to play, and deliberately ensure the well-being for any non-human animals in their care. They never actively inflict pain and suffering on those non-human animals around them and feel upset and angered when they hear about cruelty inflicted upon dogs and cats and other domesticated "pet" animals.
Our society has made it very easy to be considerate and generous towards “pets” but indifferent towards “food" animals. But is there any significant, quantifiable, difference between the two categories which can justify completely different moral attitudes? What distinguishes dogs from pigs, or cats from cows, or parrots from chickens? The only major difference, really, is how we use them, and that is not a reflection upon the animals but upon ourselves. If we are kind to "pet" animals, I think that it's important to examine whether we are kind to "non-pet" animals.
In a defiant act of philosophical misappropriation, I'm going to introduce the Stoic idea of concentric circles of concern. Stoicism, for a number of reasons which I won't go into here, is not amenable to concern for animals. However, the idea of concentric circles is particularly useful when trying to bridge the gap between oneself, one's companion animals, and the animals that we use for food.
Hierocles, a Stoic, developed an image of concentric circles, like the growth rings of a tree, beginning first with one's self, the nuclear family, the extended family, the neighbourhood, city, et cetera, until it encompasses the whole human race. The ideal is to draw the outer circles ever inward and become one with fellow human beings. That particular ideal has its own criticisms, but I'm appropriating it on a much smaller scale.
Imagine a circle which encompasses you, and then another which encompasses the individuals with whom you closely share your life, both human and non-human. Then imagine another circle circumscribing your daily interactions with others and how your actions affect them and vice versa. Finally, imagine a final circle which circumscribes your actions and how they affect others, but not visibly, for example the clothes which were made by someone else, perhaps in a different country. (Arguably, more circles added to compartmentalise aspects of social interactions even further, but it's not necessary).
It is within this fourth circle, circumscribing our actions and how they invisibly affect others, that our relation with non-human animals used for food (among other things) falls. In examining whether or not we extend the same kindness to these animals, we must bring this outer circle inwards - perhaps even so far as the second circle which encompasses those non-human individuals with whom we share our lives.
Circles in Practice
By mentally holding those animals used for food as closely as we hold our companion animals, we are more likely to be aware that a cow has just as much individuality as a dog or a cat. It allows us to examine with the emotion necessary for kindness whether we are extending consideration and generosity to those animals who are directly, but invisibly, affected by our food choices.
- Dairy cows are artificially inseminated each year so that they can give birth to a calf. Without giving birth, a dairy cow, like a human, doesn’t produce milk. The calf is taken away from its mother within a few days and if the calf is male, he will end up as “veal” or pet food, if the calf is female, she will end up in the same system as her mother. When a dairy cow’s body is no longer able to produce the quantity of milk that she used to (at around four years old), she is sent to slaughter.
- Egg laying chickens, regardless of whether they are free range or held in battery cages, are killed after about eighteen months when their production begins to wane. In order to replace those slaughtered, the industry needs to breed more birds. Statistically fifty percent of those chickens hatched are male and they are killed within a day often being tossed into a grinder or being thrown into containers to suffocate and die on top of one another.
- In meat, dairy, and egg systems (even on “humane” farms) all the animals are slaughtered prematurely. Domestic cows can live up to 20 years, but dairy cows don’t make it beyond four years. Chickens may live up to ten years. Chickens bred for meat are often slaughtered at about 6 weeks and egg laying hens aren’t generally allowed to live beyond two years.
Not one of these examples is brimming with consideration for the lives non-human animals. These are standard practices and they indicate that we view these animals not as individuals who matter but merely as production units. Are these actions the best manifestation of kindness we can extend to non-human animals?
Most people I know are kind but many are not fully aware of what happens to the animals to produce the foods that they consume. Consuming animals and their secretions is so deeply embedded within societal norms, that expecting people to be critical of those norms and to ask them to express sympathy for those individual non-human animals affected, is expecting a lot.
Those who are aware of the realities often believe that it is necessary for health to consume these products. In light of this ‘need’, they believe that we are as kind as we can be. This argument from necessity for is slowly beginning to diminish as health and dietary bodies are claiming that a well-planned vegan diet can be healthy: Dietitians of Canada, The British National Health Service, British Nutrition Foundation, USDA, Dietitians Association of Australia, National Institutes of Health.
Kindness is something that we do from a feeling of sympathy for others. The view of the concentric circles helps us to bring others outside of our immediate reach of sympathy inside, so that they too may benefit from our kindness. Being considerate and generous is not something we do for ourselves but for others. Our food, clothing, and cosmetic choices impact upon others, both human and non-human. When we make choices to consume particular products, we are supporting the use and treatment of others. It is impossible to absolutely ‘do no harm’, but we can strive to minimise the harm we do.
Kindness should not be viewed as radical. We have the power to choose to be kind to animals every time we buy food, clothes, cosmetics, and household products. We ought to empower ourselves to make informed choices about the products that we buy and whether or not those choices reflect our values.
The people I know are already kind; they make kind choices each day. But for a number of reasons they may not be ready to extend their kindness further, whether it be lack of information, social or spousal pressures, fear of change, or other reasons. Most of these are not insurmountable and I hope one day their kindness and compassion overcome these obstacles.
- Stevie Schafer, 2012
Photo credits - FreePhotos