Flawed thinking that allows us to abuse animals
Valerie Wangnet | 23 September 2014
In October last year, a Massachusetts newspaper reported strange noises coming from a local dairy farm. The noises carried out through the entire night and into the small hours of the morning. Residents, who described the low and harrowing wails as 'spooky' and 'scary' were prompted to call the local police, who, after investigating the noise, quickly determined its cause.
The noises were coming from the resident dairy cows who had just become new mothers. Their newborn calves had been taken to slaughter shortly after their births to stop them from consuming any milk. The mother cows were wailing through the night over the painful separation from their babies.
The next day, due to the influx of concern from local residents, the local police issued a short statement on its Facebook page to reassure the locals, 'We’ve been informed that the cows are not in distress and the noises are a normal part of farming practices'.
There is some truth in this statement. The immediate separation of dairy calves and their mothers is a normal function of a working dairy farm. Dubbed as 'bobby calves', the newborns (who are mostly male) are considered waste products by the dairy industry. Every year around 700,000 bobby calves are slaughtered in Australia within the first week of their lives. The routine separation of mother and calf was described by activist Gary Yourofsky in a famous lecture given at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He recounted, 'the worst scream I’ve ever heard – and I’ve heard them all first hand – was of a mother cow on a dairy farm. She screams and bellows her lungs out day after day for her stolen baby to be given back to her.'
So while this part of the Massachusetts police’s statement was true, there is something deeply troubling about the next part of it; a fallacy which is so perpetually drummed into our consciousness that we either refuse to acknowledge it or choose to conveniently ignore it. The fallacy is conveyed in six short and dismissive words: 'The cows are not in distress'.
It’s a peculiar thing when we reserve moral consideration to some but not to others. This is especially true when our reasons for doing so are very murky. The incredible contradiction we live with in our society today is that while we declare our love and appreciation for some animals, human cruelty to the less fortunate of species takes place on an extraordinarily vast and industrial scale.
As humans, we have come to realise the importance of extending moral consideration to other animals. In a society that places our own species as dominant over all others, we have set up legalisation, regulatory bodies and advisory groups to protect the welfare of other animals. We prosecute people who throw cats over bridges, assemble specialised task forces to take down the underground world of dogfighting and impose sanctions, together with other nations, in a bid to stop whaling. But for animals raised to end up on our dinner plates, we apply a very different standard for the sake of justifying our food palette. To be born a Labrador or Golden Retriever is to be loved, adored and cared for over a long and comfortable life. But to be born a pig, more intelligent and highly sensitive to the physical and emotional trauma imposed by modern farming practices, is to endure a short and miserable lifetime of abuse, terror and neglect.
Today the use of industrial methods to kill food animals on a massive scale is standard procedure. Animals are routinely (and legally) forcibly impregnated, castrated, and have their horns and tails cut off without anaesthesia. Sows are crammed into crates where they are unable to move, hens are debeaked without pain relief (leaving many to die from shock), and female cows are milked until they become too weak to stand, at which point they are promptly trucked off to be killed. And finally, like the ill–fated bobby calves who become liabilities to the dairy industry, baby chicks who suffer the terrible misfortune of being born male in the egg industry are ground up alive within the first few hours of their birth, simply because they do not have the profitable ability to produce eggs.
When we think about what is essentially wrong with all of this, what it comes down to is sentience, primarily the capacity for suffering. In 1789 Jeremy Bentham famously wrote, 'The question is not, can they reason, nor, can they talk but, can they suffer?' But while most of us agree that animals do experience pain, fear and distress, we’ve come to master the skill of switching off our empathy when told something like, 'Don’t worry, there’s no abuse happening here. This is all part of the routine'.
And it’s very easy to switch off. In fact, it’s necessary in order for us to continue with our traditional eating habits. Psychologist and author Dr Melanie Joy conducted a series of interviews with abattoir workers, revealing a disturbing occupational necessity for the workers to 'switch off'. One of them put it this way:
'I don’t (think of animals raised for meat as individuals). I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I got that personal with them. When you say 'individuals,' you mean as a unique person, as a unique thing with its own name and its own characteristics…I’d really rather not know that. I’m sure it has it, but I’d rather not know it.'
The dominant meat–eating culture in which we live successfully condemns all of us to suffer from the same moral paradox. When we think about it, we know that food animals are individuals, but we’d rather not know it. We feel compelled to speak up when confronted with images of animals being abused, yet we actively sustain an industry that bases its very growth and success on the lifelong abuse of animals. When we see the dismembered parts of animals on our supermarket shelves or on our dinner tables, we instinctively perceive them as things. This allows us to justify animal abuse in all sorts of feeble ways that remain remarkably inconsistent with our usual line of moral reasoning.
The moral cost of our cognitive dissonance is significant. Factory farming animals, like other oppressive and violent regimes which counter regular human values, depend on a set of psychological defence mechanisms that encourages others to justify and sustain it. These mechanisms enable us to support wide scale and unnecessary violence towards other feeling beings, without the moral discomfort we would normally feel. They enable us to support an oppressive system that we would otherwise oppose, and are enforced by a range of fallacies and public deception. For example, before the American Civil War, slaves were described as not having the capacity to love their children, which made it easier for people to justify separating them. In Ancient Greece,
Hippocrates used the term ‘hysteria’ to account for emotional instability and mental illness in women – a diagnosis that survived up until the mid–19th century with the first sparks of the women’s suffrage movement. In Nazi Germany, a recurrent theme in anti–Semitic propaganda was that Jews spread diseases, which stopped non–Jews from entering the ghettos and witnessing the horrific conditions inside.
In the case of food animals, we are told that they cannot think, suffer or feel pain. That animals are not intelligent enough, or do not hold enough self–awareness, to understand what’s going on around them. Members of the public are not allowed to see inside factory farms or slaughterhouses because it poses serious 'health risks' and 'startles' the livestock. Those who film or photograph the inside of a slaughterhouse, even if standing on public property, can be liable to face jail time, pay hefty penalties and even be charged under terrorism laws.
It is difficult to believe that when we demean and abuse other animals, that our humanity does not suffer also. It is even less difficult to believe that when we allow room for cognitive dissonance, especially when it comes to wide scale suffering at our own hands, that the very scaffolding of our ethical framework as a society does not fall victim to it. The great moral cost is not about animal rights or animal welfare, but of human responsibility, because in our relationship with other animals, our choices hold heavy life and death consequences for other sentient beings. The least we can do in the pursuit of moral progress is to allow food animals a certain degree of our moral consideration before our next meal.
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