If you were walking down the road and you came across someone attempting to kill a dog, what would you do? Perhaps you would try to save the dog, either by intervening yourself or calling the gardaí. Now let’s say that instead of a dog, someone is attempting to kill a pig. Do you also try and save the pig?
Now let’s say that the pig is still being killed but instead of it happening in front of us, it is happening behind a wall in a slaughterhouse. Has the morality of that action now changed? Is unnecessarily killing a pig always wrong or only wrong when it is happening in front of us?
To most of us, the act of harming an animal is morally reprehensible and we think that those who cause undue suffering to animals must be terrible people. Yet we have a huge blindspot. Meat, dairy and eggs.
However, as I discuss in my book This is Vegan Propaganda (And Other Lies the Meat Industry Tells You), this blindspot is not necessarily through any fault of our own. Time and time again we are told that we needn’t worry about what happens to animals, that they are raised with care and compassion and then when they are slaughtered it’s done humanely. But what does this actually mean?
The concept of humane slaughter is used to make us believe that we needn’t be concerned about the slaughtering of the animals we consume. After all, it is because we care about animals that we have to be convinced that what happens to them is humane. However, synonyms for the word humane include compassionate, benevolent and kind. In other words, by referring to slaughter as being humane, we are also saying that it is compassionate.
If slaughterhouses were truly humane, wouldn't we also take our pets to them when they needed to be euthanised?
But is it benevolent to force pigs into gas chambers and suffocate them with a highly aversive mixture of carbon dioxide that causes them to enter a state of panic as they hyperventilate? Is it kind to force baby lambs on to the kill floor of the slaughterhouse with the intention of cutting their throat? Fundamentally, is it compassionate to exploit and slaughter an animal when we don’t have to?
If slaughterhouses were truly humane, wouldn’t we also take our pets to them when they needed to be euthanised? After all, we’ve been told that animals don’t suffer or feel pain in slaughterhouses and that the process doesn’t cause them stress, anxiety or discomfort. So surely slaughterhouses are the ideal places for our non-human family members to be euthanised.
Yet imagine the horror we would feel if we were told that our beloved companion animal was going to be put into gas chamber or hung up by their back leg and bled out.
We all claim that we are against animal cruelty but in practice do we actually live in a way that is aligned with this claim? To be cruel to someone means to cause them either physical or mental harm, meaning that animal farming couldn’t be a more a concrete example of animal cruelty.
Animals in farms suffer physical harm from practices such as being mutilated and being selectively bred to grow so fast their organs fail. They also endure emotional harm as well. Their babies are taken from them, they are locked in farrowing crates, they are denied the ability to express their natural behaviours, they have their autonomy denied to them and are dominated by industries that force them to comply with their profiteering desires.
So why are we only against some forms of animal cruelty and not others? Why is kicking a dog animal cruelty but cutting a cow’s throat not? Why is punching a horse at the Olympics an example of animal cruelty that deserves global condemnation but what takes place in a slaughterhouse isn’t?
It's not because slaughtering animals is good for the environment. In fact animal agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of the climate crisis
It’s not because we have to slaughter animals to survive. Far from it. While the animal farming industries are keen to make the claim that meat, dairy and eggs contain essential nutrients, those nutrients can also be found elsewhere and we also know that the consumption of animal products causes many of our most prevalent chronic diseases. So instead of slaughtering animals being a prerequisite for our survival, the opposite is true.
It’s not because slaughtering animals is good for the environment. In fact animal agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of the climate crisis with the UN calling it one of the “most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”
Even looking specifically at Ireland, over 37 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland come from the agriculture sector, with around 60 per cent of those coming from the methane produced by the digestive process of ruminant animals alone. These figures don’t event take into account the emissions produced abroad for animal feed, with Ireland importing about two-thirds of the animal feed it uses, which includes soya from South America.
A recent report from researchers at Trinity College Dublin and the University of Limerick even found that replacing meatballs produced from Irish beef with a plant-based alternative reduces the emissions produced by as much as 90 per cent. Of the 16 criteria analysed, Irish meatballs were even found to perform worse than meatballs made by beef produced in Brazil in 14 of the criteria.
So how do we reconcile our paradoxical attitude towards animals? Undeniably we have done it for a long time, but does the longevity of an action make it moral? Undeniably we enjoy how animal products taste, but is sensory pleasure a moral justifier for causing harm to others, especially considering we can cook delicious plant-based foods instead?
In truth, the reason we view someone kicking a dog to be immoral is because we have come to see dogs as the sentient individuals that they are, yet we fall into the trap of viewing the animals we farm as abstractions. Whilst it’s easy to empathise with the plight of a singular horse who we see being punched on tv, it’s harder to empathise with the mass numbers of animals who are being exploited out of sight and out of mind.
But cruelty is still cruelty, harm is still harm and an injustice is still injustice irrespective of whether it is happening in front of us or not, and that fact isn’t changed by us disingenuously using words like humane to describe it.
This Is Vegan Propaganda (& Other Lies the Meat Industry Tells You) by Ed Winters is published by Vermilion and is out now.