Why Animals Matter

People often ask me why I think animals matter, when compared to all of the other problems in the world. World hunger, world peace, economic and political stability—aren’t these things more important than animal rights?

It’s a fair question, and actually a very important one because the answer to this question turned my world upside down when I learned it.

Why is the world so violent? Why can’t we manage to implement solutions on issues of simple justice?

Animals matter precisely because they are deeply integrated into issues such as world hunger and world peace. They matter because our treatment of animals affects our psychological outlook on the world. And they matter because caring about animals and adopting a vegan lifestyle is perhaps one of the most powerful things we can do to change the world for the better.

World Peace

Imagine an idealised future in which humans have learned how to live without physically harming each other. There’s no need for armies, bombs or guns. The people live in peace and prosperity all the world over.

Except at the slaughterhouses. These are places of massive slaying machines, steeped in blood and entrails. People work at the slaughterhouses. They numb themselves to their emotional connection to animals, then come home to our peaceful paradise..?

If something seems wrong with this image, it’s because it’s so farfetched as to be nearly unimaginable. We can’t expect to live in an enlightened peaceful world while we’re still practicing mass slaughter of innocent creatures.

Now turn the example upside down: imagine a vegan future, in which our hearts are so sensitive that we fully reject outright the harming of animals. Could people of this temperament really go to war and kill other people? We can’t rule it out, but it certainly seems less likely.

Dig behind the surface level of burger ads and war propaganda, and you’ll find that our treatment of animals and violence in our culture are so interlinked that it’s nearly unimaginable that we could ever solve one without solving the other.

Happiness


I think most people want to feel inner peace. When we’re at peace with ourselves and the world, we’re content and happy.

I also think most people are kindhearted. In fact, I think the vast majority of people would choose not to harm animals if all other things were equal.

When we eat animals and animal secretions, we create an inner conflict; on the one hand we are kind, compassionate beings who would rather not harm anyone, and yet, there are the bodies of innocent beings on our plate.

Empowerment

Adopting a vegan lifestyle is dramatically empowering. It’s empowering because it’s a radical rejection of violence and coercion towards all beings, of environmental devastation, and it requires no assistance. An individual can decide to make a stand for peace and love, directly, without needing help from any community, government, or corporation. It’s a profound expression of the power of the individual.

And it has resounding effects. Right now, it’s estimated that less than 1% of people in the modern world are ethically committed to a vegan lifestyle. And yet, as a testament to the power of the vegan message, nearly everyone in society knows about us and has given at least some small thought to the perspective.

Imagine a world in which 75% of people are committed, ethical vegans. Restaurants that serve meat are the exception to the rule, and most people think meat eating is strange and disturbing. Wouldn’t that pressure quickly convert the remaining 25%?

At 50% or even 25%, huge pockets of society would be committed to the cause of animals and we would begin to see radical shifts in the public perception of animals and veganism. Each person who commits themselves to veganism can truly have a far-reaching effect, not just for animals, but for humans as well.

Star Trek is vegan

The philosophy of Star Trek is a vegan philosophy.

You don’t see it on the surface, because the characters aren’t vegan. They replicate chicken dishes and shrimp gumbo. But the philosophy is vegan, and if we ever evolved to a Star Trek -like future, we would all be vegan. (Actually I think we’ll all be vegan long before we have interstellar travel, but that’s for another post.)

The Prime Directive

You can’t watch a season of Star Trek without coming across the Prime Directive. Everyone in the Federation (that’s Earth and her allies) is intimately familiar with this central tenet. You could go so far as to say it’s the most important common value held by Federation citizens. While the directive is most explicitly concerned with the dominant species on planets visited by Federation ships, the core ethic is one of general non-interference.

“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”

          —Jean-Luc Picard, Symbiosis

The Prime Directive has been further defined this way:

As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.

Giancarlo Genta, Lonely Minds in the Universe: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Springer, 2007, p. 208.

This attitude is reflected in episode after episode, where the crew takes great lengths to avoid harming or interfering with alien beings. For example, in Nothing Human (Voyager), even though a crewmember’s life is at stake as the alien sucks away her vitality, as many precautions as possible are taken to protect the alien life as well. In Justice (TNG), they even go so far as to risk Wesley Crusher’s life out of respect for the laws and customs of another culture.

Sentience as the litmus test

So what does all this have to do with veganism?

The Prime Directive is mostly focused on not introducing new technologies, or even sometimes just ideas, into developing cultures; it’s not hard to extrapolate from here that enslaving, breeding, and killing an alien race to suit our convenience would constitute a gross violation of their normal cultural evolution. And yet, that’s exactly what we do to the races of pig, cow, and chicken on Earth today.

It’s quite clear that the values of Star Trek require fair treatment of alien species. The question then is only one of which species qualify? And in particular, would nonhuman Earthling animals qualify? What is the test of whether a species qualifies to be treated with respect?

In the Star Trek universe, sentience is bestowed on even the most foreign of species; blobs of goo, giant jellyfish space beings, and computerized intelligence, to name a few.

giant space jellyfish
Odo (blob of goo)


So why not nonhuman animals?

The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor [see Louis XIV’s Code Noir]… What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
Bentham, Jeremy (1823). Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (second edition). Chapter 17, footnote.

Most or all of Earth’s animals have that capacity, and as we move towards our idealized futures, we will inevitably be forced to confront and set right our own ethical inconsistencies.