“People don't think about how each of the animals we call dinner have the same personalities as our dogs and cats.” ~ Emily Deschanel
Veganism is a way of eating that excludes all animal products: meat, dairy, fish, eggs, butter, etc. Many vegans also choose not to wear clothing or purchase goods made of animals (leather, fur). Only about 3% of Americans identify as vegan, while an additional 5% identify as vegetarian. I initially stopped eating meat for a few reasons: 1) I never craved meat, I just ate it because I thought I should; 2) it became impossible for me to separate affection for one animal (the family dog) from affection for another (cows, chickens, pigs).
Humans have interesting mechanisms for rationalizing nearly any behavior. Most people in Western culture have no problem eating cows, pigs, chicken, turkey, etc, yet the idea of eating horses, dogs, or cats tends to disgust us. We've collectively categorized some animals "for eating" and other animals, "not for eating." In countries such as China, South Korea, and Vietnam, eating dogs is incredibly common. In fact, the Chinese city of Yulin hosts a dog meat festival each year where an estimated 10,000 dogs are slaughtered for their meat. This is a disturbing reality for many Americans, inciting anger and disgust. To us, dogs and cats are pets, considered "part of the family." However, the fact that Americans refuse to eat dogs or cats is nothing more than cultural practice.
In Nepal and most states of India, the slaughter of cattle is prohibited and cow meat is considered taboo. Cattle are sacred in religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. In the U.S. however, we consume an average of 265 pounds of meat per person annually, dwarfing the global average of 92 pounds per person. In addition, Americans ate an average of 55.6 pounds of beef per person in 2016. A standard 1,000 pound steer garners about 430 pounds of meat, meaning that one cow feeds just under 8 Americans for a year. The number of cattle raised for meat is enormous, underscoring the very obvious fact that Americans do not consider cows anything close to sacred. There is extreme hypocrisy in claiming that the life of one animal is more important than the life of any other. Any assumptions or beliefs about which animals are food and which are pets are just that: assumptions or beliefs. They are not fact, and cannot claim to be.
In her acclaimed book Why we Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows, Dr. Melanie Joy explores the psychological mechanisms behind ‘Carnism’: the ideology according to which eating certain animals is considered ethical and appropriate. The book begins with a thought experiment:
imagine you're at a dinner party with friends, enjoying a delicious meat stew. When you ask your friend for the recipe, she says: “You begin with five pounds of golden retriever meat, and then…”
This would cause most of us to freeze mid-bite in disgust. Few of us would simply shrug and finish the meal, and most of us would likely lose our appetites altogether. We feel empathy toward dogs and cats, so our instinctual emotion when we think about eating them is disgust. Disgust is considered one of the core moral emotions; the more empathy you feel for an animal, the more disgusted you are about the idea of eating it. Because most people feel more empathy towards dogs than cows, we are more disgusted at the idea of eating dogs.
One reason we may not have deep empathy toward cows, pigs, or chickens is simply because we aren't around them much. Unless you were raised or live on a farm, the only time you likely encounter these animals is when you purchase their flesh from bright supermarkets, where it is neatly packaged and on display. Dogs and cats, on the other hand, are in our homes, keeping us company and charming us with their intelligence and personality.
If you've ever been around a pig, you know that pigs have enormous personalities too. In fact, pigs are one of the most intelligent mammals; an NBC News Report states that, "Pigs are the smartest, cleanest domestic animals known - more so than cats and dogs. A sign of their cleverness came from experiments in the 1990's; pigs were trained to move a cursor on a video screen with their snouts and used the cursor to distinguish between scribbles they knew and those they were seeing for the first time. They learned the task as quickly as chimpanzees."
Empathy toward animals is extremely subjective. Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., conducted an experiment in which people were shown photos of farm animals and then asked to decide how wrong it would be to harm that animal. Unknown to the participants, they were presented with either photos of baby animals or adult animals. Participants largely responded that harming the baby animals is worse than harming the adults. Why? Because baby animals evoke feelings of warmth and tenderness (i.e. empathy) in people, while adult farm animals do not. The intelligence of the animal had nothing to do with the moral value assigned by participants.
The results of this study are not terribly surprising, but they do highlight a glitch in our moral hardware; morality is often guided by involuntary emotions rather than careful, objective reasoning. If the thought of slaughtering a dog upsets you, the thought of slaughtering cows or pigs or chickens should be just as upsetting. A common argument is that dogs and cats are "pets;" chickens and pigs are not. The problem with assigning the "pet" label to cats and dogs is that it allows other animals-which are objectively just as intelligent and sentient as dogs or cats-to be objectified and commodified.
Although I've long labeled myself a "vegan," I do recognize that humans have been consuming animals for a very, very long time. I cannot condemn anyone for it and I do believe consuming meat can be entirely healthful for many people. The meat itself was never problematic. The problem is the moral value we collectively ascribe to certain living things while withholding that same value from others. As Gary Yourofsky said, "Humans have victimized animals to such a degree that they are not even considered victims. They are not even considered at all. They are nothing; they don’t count; they don’t matter. They are commodities like TV sets and cell phones. We have actually turned animals into inanimate objects – sandwiches and shoes.”
P.S. Check out Michael Pollen's popular book, The Omnivore's Dilemma for an in-depth analysis of America's food production. He begins the book with a simple piece of advice, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."