Tonight I was asked why did I become vegan? The answer I came up with is pretty good I think, and worth sharing with the internet.
I’m vegan because I agree with the goal – animal liberation, although I remain skeptical about the tactic. Skepticism about the tactic of “being vegan” to achieve the goal of liberating animals was the reason I was not vegan before I became vegan, and if I’m honest, I’m really no more convinced of the effectiveness of the tactic today. But this is beside the point, what is it about the goal that appeals to me, that feels right, that elicits my conviction?
I value experience. I think life is worth living because “worth” is something experienced, and I think that we can know something about what makes life worth living. And, here comes the motivation for animal liberation: the things that differentiate humans from non-human animals don’t play a terribly large role in making life worth living.
It might be retorted that we can’t know anything about animal experience because we can’t speak to animals. This was a serious argument for Descartes, but it’s not a serious argument today when the neuroscience can actually tell us quite a bit about the emotional lives of animals. We know animals are not mere machines, we know they are animals, as we are animals. We know that mammals have a lot of the same emotions as humans, because they share the brain components that are dedicated to these motivational structures. We know that even lobsters share the same basic motivational centre as humans – the Amygdala. But cows or dogs or cats, they are almost the same as us. Of course what differentiates us from cows and dogs and cats is important for human inter-subjective interaction, which is largely based on language, but as every animal lover knows it is absolutely possible to have relationships with animals and that’s because relationships, especially personal relationships,
Now think about a dairy cow. Lots of vegetarians think it’s ok to drink milk and eat cheese because you aren’t eating the animal. It’s easy to respond that all dairy cows are in fact slaughtered and eaten, but that’s not the retort I want to offer here. Dairy cows have their calfs stolen from them at birth, and they experience extreme trauma in reaction to this. They wait, for example, by the gate where their calf was taken away crying for days or weeks. It’s easy to see the similarity to a young mother having her baby taken away by force – this happened plenty in the 20th century thanks to institutions like the United Church forcing pregnant rape victims to give up their babies. Now, this might be a bit offensive but i think it’s a worthwhile comparison – do we really think that the experience of the mother having her child taken away from her is so different than the experience of the cow? Do we think that what is abhorent about stealing a human mother’s baby has to do with the things that make the human mother different from the non-human animal mother, to do with her capacity for complex language and rationality? Or, do we think it’s horrible because the motivations to hold onto one’s child run much deeper than modern evolutionary trappings like reason and language, and run on older systems – emotional systems, systems we share with cows. I hope no one reads this and thinks I’m calling human mothers “cows”, but then again, the fact we find that an insult is a trapping of our speciesist attitude – cows are valuable animals, they experience meaningful lives which can be more or less conducive to their flourishing.
I’m willing to stand on this idea: that what makes life worth living is primarily our emotional engagement in our social world, in our projects, in relationships, and although the sophistication of these engagements might be very much increased by our capacity for language, it is not their sophistication but their gravity and significance that makes them worthwhile. And if it’s only the cognitive-linguistic aspect that we don’t share with other mammals, then we don’t have any reason to think that their lives are not worthwhile. And if their lives are worthwhile, then our decision to act as if their lives are not worthwhile, speciesism, is not morally different from racism, or any other exclusionary moral ideology which prescribes as valuable only members of one arbitrarily defined group and permits the devaluing, and in this case, wholesale slaughter, of another.