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A couple of years ago, I became interested in plant-based diets when I read the book How Not To Die by Dr Michael Greger. But it was only when I watched a documentary film called Earthlings, which dives into the ethics of veganism and how we treat animals, that I went vegan overnight (and never looked back!).

Many people will focus on the environmental and personal health benefits when discussing veganism, and undoubtedly these are important. But what I’ve come to appreciate is that going vegan is first and foremost an ethical lifestyle choice. It’s an extension of the social justice issues we’ve fought for amongst humans in the 21st century, broadening our moral sphere of concern to include animals.

So, if you’re new to veganism or simply vegan-curious, then I hope this article will shine a light on an industry that is largely out of sight, out of mind, and encourage you to question your own moral position on the subject. 🐰

Veganism's Ethical Foundation & the Fight for Animal Rights

The speciesist hierarchy

The Vegan Society asserts that veganism is:

A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.

The ethical reasons to embrace veganism are deeply rooted in challenging the concept of ‘speciesism’, or the idea that humans are superior to other animals.

In Animal Liberation, one of the seminal texts of the animal rights movement, Peter Singer describes this as:

A prejudice or attitude of bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.

In this sense, veganism has its roots in compassion and justice, which aligns with various social movements. Whilst we may be more familiar with discrimination based on race or gender, speciesism extends this concept to animals, granting humans higher moral consideration and justifying the exploitation of animals – whether we’re eating a juicy steak, shopping for a cute new jumper, or attending a show at SeaWorld.

No one is arguing that animals and humans deserve the same rights. For example, it wouldn’t make sense for animals to have the right to vote! However, we should consider whether animals deserve basic negative rights.

Negative rights emphasise the importance of non-interference, focusing on preventing harm and protecting animals from being treated as resources for human use. This includes freedom from being subjected to painful experiments, factory farming, hunting, and other practices that cause suffering.

Are animals worthy of moral consideration?

Throughout history, there has been a serious question mark over whether animals deserve moral consideration. René Descartes’ view that animals were mere ‘machines’ incapable of experiencing pain or emotions dominated Western thought for centuries, and has been used to justify treating animals as resources without moral standing.

But as philanthropist Jeremy Bentham argued in 1789:

The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’, nor ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’

If you’ve ever had a pet, then you might doubt Descartes’ perspective. Animals display varying levels of intelligence compared to humans, but this doesn’t mean they aren’t sentient, conscious individuals. In fact, some animals possess intelligence surpassing that of human children. Typically, we provide greater protections for individuals in society who are vulnerable or less intelligent – so why do we do the opposite when it comes to animals?

Extending this protection to animals only seems consistent within our moral framework, advocating for a world that recognises the inherent value in all living beings.

Highlighting our moral inconsistency

Moral inconsistencies in our treatment of animals

In 2022, footage of footballer Kurt Zouma abusing his cat went viral. He faced severe backlash for his actions (including death threats), as well as receiving 180 hours of community service.

Whilst I’m in no way condoning his behaviour, it fascinates me that, as a society, we often overlook or ignore the far worse treatment endured by billions of animals. Factory farming legally perpetuates wide-scale cruelty, and by consuming animal products, we are silently complicit.

This raises questions about the consistency of our moral outrage and highlights the need for greater awareness of the suffering inherent in factory farming practices. Just as we condemn individual acts of animal abuse, we must also examine our collective role in supporting industries that systemically harm animals on a mass scale.

In her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs & Wear Cows, Dr Melanie Joy highlights the societal norms that lead us to value some animals over others. But can this inconsistency in our ethical treatment of animals be justified? After all, animals are sentient beings with their own unique experience of the world. And, just like us, they desire a life free from harm and suffering.

Animals Used for Food

Daily animal death toll according to Our World in Data

If slaughterhouses had glass walls, would we even be having this debate?

Philip Wollen

When we’re presented with perfectly packaged goods on supermarket shelves, it’s easy to detach ourselves from the process of how our food is raised and killed. This ultimately leads to cognitive dissonance. And since eating meat is normalised by society, it’s rarely questioned.

If you’ve always had an image of rolling pastures with happy, free-roaming animals, then I totally understand. This is exactly the marketing message that is perpetuated by children’s story books and by so much of the animal agriculture industry (think The Happy Egg Co or Laughing Cow).

However, the contrast between the marketing used to promote animal products and the reality of factory farms could not be starker. Despite low public awareness, the truth is that the vast majority of animals live and die in horrible conditions. Because even in best-case scenarios, food production is an economic system. When animals are ultimately a means to an end for human consumption and profit, exploitation and poor conditions are an inevitable consequence.

It’s also worth pointing out that ‘by-products’ like dairy and eggs are also much misunderstood, despite people thinking they don’t cause any harm. Here is a quick glimpse into the lives of our most commonly consumed animal products:

Pigs

Pigs

Pigs are often unfairly stereotyped as dirty, fat, and lazy. In reality, they are highly intelligent and sociable animals with remarkable memory, the ability to use tools, and impressive problem-solving skills. Pigs form strong social bonds with one another, live in tight family units, and share an emotional depth that is comparable to dogs.

The life of a pig in the farming industry is one of suffering. Sows (female pigs) are repeatedly force-impregnated through artificial insemination and confined in cramped farrowing crates that prevent them from turning or moving around. Standard practices like castration, tail docking, and ear notching are often performed without anaesthetic.

At the end of their short lives, pigs are typically slaughtered in CO2 gas chambers – a method bravely exposed in Joey Carbstrong’s investigative documentary film Pignorant. Although there is consensus among experts that this method of killing is inhumane, it remains standard practice.

Whilst pigs will naturally live to a ripe old age of 10-12, breeding sows are usually slaughtered after just 3-5 years, and pigs reared for meat are killed at just 5-6 months of age.

Cows

Cows grazing naturally in the wild

Cows are gentle, intelligent creatures with complex emotional lives. They form strong bonds with their fellow herd members and display signs of happiness, excitement, and even mourning. Capable of learning and retaining information, cows can navigate complex environments and remember events for extended periods of time.

Beef cattle

Cattle raised for beef often go through many painful industry-standard procedures, such as tail-docking, castration, dehorning, and branding – typically without anaesthesia.

At around 6 to 12 months old, they are moved indoors to cramped feedlots where they’re rapidly fattened. Many cows won’t survive the stressful journey to slaughter.

Beef cattle are typically slaughtered at only 18 months of age, far short of their 15-20 year natural lifespan.

Dairy cows

If you’ve ever just assumed that cows naturally produce milk, then think about it.

Why do animals produce milk?

As mammals, we do so to feed our young. As such, we’re not doing cows a favour when we relieve their udders – we’re taking the milk that is made for their babies.

Whilst dairy cows might live a little longer, their lives are arguably worse due to the repeated trauma they face. In order to keep producing milk for human consumption, female cows are trapped in a vicious cycle of forcible impregnation, having their calves taken away just hours after birth.

Male cows have no value in the dairy industry, so are typically sold to the beef industry or used for veal, whilst female calves face the same fate as their mothers. Once their bodies are spent and their milk production declines, dairy cows are typically slaughtered for cheap meat at just 4-6 years old.

You can read more on the miserable existence of dairy cows here.

Chickens

Hens kept in cramped cages on egg farms

Perhaps it’s because birds look different to mammals, but people often tend to have a lot less sympathy for chickens compared to pigs and cows. Despite common misconceptions, chickens are intelligent and social creatures, and it’s another form of speciesism to view them as any lesser.

Broiler chickens

In the 1950s, an average chicken used for their meat – known in the industry as a “broiler” chicken – weighed about two pounds at 56 days old. Today, after decades of selective breeding, an individual bird of the same breed and age weighs in at more than nine pounds.

The Humane League

The unnatural growth rate of broiler chickens causes numerous health issues, including an inability to support their own weight, organ prolapse, and even heart attacks. Disturbingly, dead birds are often left discarded on the floor to rot amidst their peers.

Chickens have also been known to peck each other to death under factory farming conditions – something which isn’t seen in the natural world and arises when they’re unable to establish their natural hierarchies. Rather than give them more space, the industry solution is instead to trim or debeak birds without anaesthetic.

Broiler chickens are stuffed into overcrowded sheds housing tens of thousands of birds, before typically being slaughtered at 5-7 months. Their natural lifespan is around 8 years.

Egg-laying hens

Egg-laying hens often face harsh conditions, with battery cages still commonly used worldwide. Although enriched cages have replaced these in Europe, they only provide 9% more space (that’s the size of a postcard, for reference!). Even the RSPCA states that these cages still don’t meet a hen’s physical and behavioural needs.

Whilst some consumers may choose to buy “free-range” eggs, these hens are typically still crammed into sheds, unable to access the outdoors, perform natural behaviours or establish a pecking order.

Just like male calves have no use in the dairy industry, male chicks have no value in the egg industry. Even when eggs are labelled free range, this still involves males either being ground up in a macerator or gassed to death.

Female hens, on the other hand, have been selectively bred to produce up to 300 eggs per year, a drastic increase from the 10-15 they’d naturally lay in the wild. This would be like a woman being forced to have her period every day of the year!

Extreme egg production takes a toll on their bodies, and once it declines, they are sent to slaughter at around 18 months old. I’ve written more on the subject here.

Fish

Fish farming

The consumption of fish raises significant moral concerns due to their capacity to experience pain. Whilst fish have historically been perceived as insentient beings, mounting evidence suggests otherwise.

Studies have found that fish have nerve receptors that can detect pain, and their behaviour changes in response to harmful stimuli. This indicates that fish likely experience pain in a way similar to warm-blooded vertebrates.

Fish farming, which accounts for around half of the world’s seafood supply, is associated with various ethical issues. Fish farms often maintain overcrowded conditions, which can lead to the rapid spread of disease and parasites.

Moreover, the methods used to kill fish, such as suffocation or gutting without anaesthesia, are considered inhumane and cause immense suffering.

Bees

Bees making honey

Many people may struggle to relate to the experiences of smaller creatures such as bees, which can make it more difficult to recognise their sentience and their right to be free from suffering and exploitation.

However, bees are often subjected to various harmful practices in commercial honey production, such as wing clipping to prevent them from leaving the hive, and the culling of colonies to minimise costs during winter.

Honey harvesting allso requires the displacement of bees, which can lead to stress and death. The process often involves the destruction of the hive structure and the displacement of bees through smoking or other methods.

Ultimately, when humans harvest honey, they are taking away a vital resource that bees rely on for survival and growth. It deprives bees of their own hard-earned food source and disregards their well-being in favour of human desires.

Beyond a welfarist argument

Synonyms for 'humane' and 'slaughter' show the phrase is an oxymoron

Whilst most people won’t try to defend factory farming, the more common argument you’ll hear is that as long as an animal has been treated well, it’s fine to kill them for food. This usually sounds something like:

It’s okay if I source products from local, ethical farm shops and the animals lived a good life.

Whilst these animals will undoubtedly have lived a better life than those raised on factory farms, ‘more’ ethical doesn’t equal ethical.

Acknowledging welfare concerns may make us feel better, but in reality it simply allows us to continue exploiting animals for our taste buds. Because no matter how an animal is treated during their life, they still get their throats slit or put into a gas chamber at a fraction of their natural life span.

The term ‘humane slaughter’ makes sense from the point of view of euthanasia, but it’s a completely different concept to killing a healthy animal that has the rest of its life to live. When you truly pick the term apart, it becomes clear that it’s a complete oxymoron.

I don’t think anyone would say that it’s okay to kill a dog at a fraction of their natural lifespan. We agree that our pets have inherent value, no matter their age. This is because we recognise them as individuals with their own quirks and personalities, who are subjects of consciousness with the capacity to feel emotions like happiness, pain or fear.

And, if we spent more time with farm animals, we’d realise that they are really no different.

It’s a slippery slope to the factory farm

If we take the argument that it’s okay to kill animals for food if they’ve lived a good life, then it’s worth asking ourselves why the vast majority of animals killed for food typically don’t live a good life.

Arguably, as soon as you start viewing animals as food, it’s a slippery slope to the factory farm. If animals have no inherent value other than serving our taste buds, how much regard for their well-being can we honestly have? It quickly becomes a production line in which it’s easy to cut corners.

It’s also worth pointing out that from a purely practical perspective, there isn’t enough land in the world to raise animals outside of intensive factory farming facilities and still pump out the volume of meat required to satisfy global demand. The very existence of factory farms underscores the difficulty in balancing ethical concerns with large-scale production.

Animals Used in Fashion

Vintage fur coats

As a new vegan, your initial focus is likely adjusting your diet to avoid animal products. However, it’s crucial to recognise that animal exploitation extends far beyond food – it is woven into the very fabric of the clothes we wear.

In the documentary film SLAY, Dr Melanie Joy highlights how animals quite literally ‘disappear’ into everyday objects like leather jackets and woolly jumpers – the finished product being so far removed from the animal itself. This film sheds an important light on the hidden cruelty in the fashion industry, where billions of animals are raised, trapped, mutilated and slaughtered in horrific conditions, all in the name of fashion.

Although fur has garnered a bad reputation, natural materials like wool and leather remain popular among consumers. But, much like factory farming, it’s a completely different picture when we bring the exploitation in these industries to the forefront of our consciousness.

To learn more about common animal-derived materials such as leather, wool, fur, down, and silk, check out my article here, as well as some of the cruelty-free, plant-based textiles you can opt for instead. 

Animal Testing in Cosmetics

Animal testing

Sadly, we still live in a world where many of the conventional cosmetics and personal care products on your local store shelves have come to life through animal testing. Lab testing means routinely subjecting animals to painful and often lethal procedures.

Vegans opt for cruelty-free cosmetics and oppose laboratory testing on animals due to ethical concerns regarding animal welfare.

Animal rights philosopher Peter Singer extensively discusses the horrors of animal testing in Animal Liberation, arguing that it is an immoral practice that violates animal rights.

Animals experience pain and suffering just like humans, therefore it is our moral obligation to consider their interests and minimise harm inflicted upon them. The benefits of animal testing are often overstated and can be achieved through alternative methods that do not involve animal cruelty.

Vegans believe that animals, as sentient beings capable of feeling pain, should not be exploited for human gain or vanity. By choosing cruelty-free products, we can choose to support brands that prioritise more ethical manufacturing practices.

Animals Used in Entertainment

Whale performing for entertainment

The use of animals in entertainment may be something you’ve never really stopped to think about, but it raises ethical concerns about animal welfare and exploitation.

In settings like zoos, aquariums, circuses, and theme parks, animals are frequently confined in unnatural environments, separated from their families and social groups, and subjected to stressful training methods or performances.

For a sobering look at the plight of animals in captivity, I highly recommend watching the 2013 documentary film Blackfish. This critically acclaimed film delves into the life of Tilikum, a captive orca at SeaWorld, and the tragic deaths he caused. The documentary also sheds light on the dangers of keeping intelligent mammals in captivity, examining the broader implications of our relationship with nature and the pressing need to re-evaluate our practices.

Using animals for entertainment purposes causes physical and psychological harm, placing human amusement and profits above the well-being of sentient beings. More compassionate alternatives might include sanctuaries that prioritise animal welfare, focusing instead on rehabilitation and education.

Food for Thought: Some Ethical Thought Experiments

Theses scenarios encourage critical thinking and challenge our ingrained assumptions, allowing us to view the ethics of our treatment of animals from fresh perspectives. By stepping outside of our own limited and biased viewpoints, we can deepen our understanding of the moral implications of our actions and engage in meaningful conversations about our relationship with animals:

Ethical vegan thought experiments

Conclusion

Given that alternatives are readily available in the 21st century and it’s possible to live a healthy vegan lifestyle, consuming animal products is no longer a necessity. By embracing veganism, we can align our values with our actions and contribute to a world where animals are treated with compassion and respect.

Although ethics often begins with our food choices, it’s important to remember that veganism extends beyond our plates, encompassing the ways animals are treated in fashion, cosmetics, entertainment, and other industries.

If you’re interested in learning more about ethical veganism, then take a look at some of these resources to help you get started:

And, if this post has made you think that going vegan is something you want to try, then check out my post on how to go vegan for beginners, plus download my vegan essentials checklist below.

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