Veganism has an image problem.
Ask anybody what thoughts the word veganism conjures up and chances are that most people will mention the word ‘hippie’ in their response. Being vegan is associated with a counterculture that is based on a stereotype of free-love, flowers-in-the-hair and peaceful anarchy. Vegans are seen as soft, out of touch with reality and idealists. They are seen as sentimental animals lovers and tree-huggers. For a lot of people this is more than enough to turn them off veganism for life.
But here’s the thing – you don’t have to be any of these things to become vegan. You certainly don’t have to be a hippie, but you don’t even necessarily have to be an animal ‘lover’ in its purest form. The arguments that validate and justify veganism aren’t all sentimental – they are rational, logical and firmly based in science and philosophy. I would argue that anybody who considers themselves to be an intelligent human should be vegan by default.
When I first considered going vegan I’d certainly experienced feelings of empathy and compassion towards animals, but i realised that to make such a permanent and profound change I had to be fully convinced of my decision, or else i’d never be able to keep it up. This required something more complete than hippie idealism.
I’ve never been particularly sentimental, my mind usually works in a straightforward, logical manner. I definitely have an affinity for some things in the spiritual and psychedelic realm, but I tend to take a rational approach to most issues. Now, I understand that in strict Philosophical fields the terms ‘rational and ‘logical’ are separate, but lets treat them as synonyms here.
So how does this tie in with veganism?
Well, it’s rational to respect the basic rights of other beings. Forgive the religious reference (I am an atheist) but “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” makes perfect sense. If you believe that you have the right to be treated with respect and ethical consideration for your rights, then the least you can do is extend that courtesy to others. Otherwise the whole system collapses.
The most basic of these rights is our right to life – we want to live and nobody should be able to take our life away from us. This would be considered the most heinous violation of a person’s rights. Furthermore, we also want to live a life free from pain and suffering and thus we believe that nobody should be allowed to harm us or enslave us. I’m sure that all of you would agree that you possess these basic rights and are entitled to have them respected by others.
Most of you would also agree that it’s equally important to respect the rights of others, otherwise we fall into hypocrisy and contradiction. But why does this circle of ethical consideration only extend to other humans? Why do we believe that the life of a human has more innate value than the life of an animal? After all, we are just another species of animal, so why do the rights of other humans trump the rights of non-human animals?
The fact of the matter is this; a non-human animal values its life as much as you value your life and all animals feel physical pain and emotional suffering. If the justification for respecting another person’s right to life hinges simply on the fact that that person wants to live, then in the words of Ingrid Newkirk; “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy”. There is no difference between an animal and a human.
Humans have fallen into an egotistical pit of self-importance. We seem to believe that our lives have an innate value that makes us more important than any other species. There is no doubt that we are an amazingly intelligent species. But intelligence should not be a factor in determining how much value a life has – what about severely mentally disabled people? Surely our intelligence should be lifting us out of barbaric behaviour, not enable us to exploit other beings.
A lot of these ideas I picked up from Peter Singer’s excellent book “Animal Liberation”. This seminal piece of literature puts forward a comprehensive picture of the emotional and psychological capacity of non-human animals. Contrary to the general understanding of animals, they have profound capabilities to think and appreciate their lives. They can experience pain, fear, grief and love. Most importantly of all, they WANT to live, just like us.
So what’s the difference between the life of a human and an animal at its most basic level? There is none. The animals wants to live, just like you want to live. The animal wants to be free from pain, just like you want to be free from pain. And if you think it’s okay to violate these rights, then why should anybody be stopped from violating your own right to life and non-suffering?
In the words of 18th Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham; “The question is not ‘can they reason’, nor ‘can they talk?’ but ‘can they suffer?’.