No Sacred Cows

In a long essay on the ethics of eating animals, Namit Arora explains the intellectual and cultural backdrop to the West’s comparative indifference and even cruelty to the creatures we raise for food:

What might have arrested this decline in the fortunes of farm animals are big cultural ideas, both religious and secular, that for whatever reasons opposed killing animals. But those did not arise in the West as they did, for example, in India. Depending on whom you ask, Western monotheistic religions, while seeing humankind as God’s special creation, ranged in attitude from passive disaffection to active malice towards animals. Christian doctrine has practically no injunctions against treating animals as a means to human ends, so no sin is committed when mistreating or killing animals. Rather, animals were declared vastly inferior, incapable of possessing souls, and created for the use of humans, who stood right below the angels. And so Western monotheisms have long seen animals as dispensable for human interests, desires, and whims. (This is also true for the “Confucian zone” of East Asia.)

In the modern age, even secular humanism, with its nearly exclusive focus on humans, has shown little regard for the treatment of animals.

“In the West,” writes Mary Midgley in Animals and Why They Matter (1998), “both the religious and the secular moral traditions have, till lately, scarcely attended to any non-human species.” With notable exceptions like Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, Arthur Schopenhauer, and contemporary animal welfare organizations like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the dominant strands of Western culture have remained heavily invested in denying moral consideration to animals. Rather conveniently, animals are presumed to lack feelings, thoughts, emotions, memory, reason, intelligence, sense of time, language, consciousness, or autonomy. Until the 1980s scientists entertained the idea that animals do not feel pain. Such self-serving presumptions, enabled by our estrangement from farm animals, certainly made our consciences rest easier. This helps explain why the animal rights movement focuses so hard on demonstrating many of these capacities in animals (sometimes overstating their case). So tenacious can our habits of life and mind be that even today, despite everything we know and the genuine alternatives we have for a nutritious diet, less than 1 percent of U.S. adults have turned away from factory-farmed meat for ethical reasons.