I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “I’m Vegan because I have compassion for animals,” “We should be Vegan to stop cruelty to animals,” or “I’m Vegan because it’s the right thing to do for people, animals and the planet.”
All three of these statements are counter-productive to the cause of Animal Rights, and so will cause the amount of suffering that we as a species inflict on both nonhuman animals and human animals to increase.
Both “compassion” and “cruelty” are concepts related to kindness. All three terms are about what kind of emotional responses we have and are related more to our own perception of our need to feel a certain way than whether we are meeting our moral obligations. Kindness is also essentially an act of charity from a position of advantage. Animal Rights and Veganism are not about being kind to someone who needs our charity. Animal Rights is about justice, which is born from a basic notion of decency, fairness, and respect. It’s a “Social Justice Movement,” not a “Social Kindness Movement.”
Living Vegan is not an act of kindness that we grant to nonhumans, it’s a moral baseline, a moral responsibility that we must observe if we want to claim to be morally consistent. If we can’t claim to be morally consistent then we can’t claim that we deserve to not have our claims to our own rights dismissed without due consideration. Veganism is, by definition, the attempt to refrain from intentionally engaging in any act that would inflict unnecessary harm on other animals. But above and beyond anything else, it’s a rejection of speciesism.
That is why Veganism is the absolute minimum standard of decency we need to enact to call ourselves morally consistent. Being Vegan is not about granting someone pre-legal, moral rights that they don’t already have, just as being against racism or sexism is not about granting non-male or non-white people moral rights they didn’t already have; they already had those rights. We’ve simply been violating them all this time.
Veganism is about choosing to cease violating those rights; it’s about a commitment to nonviolence in order to withdraw our participation in the massive, systemic, intentional violence that we are already constantly perpetrating on all sentient beings. Not just “other people” have a responsibility to cease committing these wrongs, but each one of us. Nonhuman animals don’t need primarily for us to have compassion for them, they need for us to be just and stop committing these massive and ongoing violations of their rights.
Using the term compassion to drive a theory of Animal Rights is seriously flawed. Promoting the idea that anything except justice for animals is the driving force behind nonhuman rights diverts attention from the truth. Using terms like compassion as the basis for animal rights also causes most people to believe that the problem with animal use is that we need to reform our treatment of animals in some way, because it’s our “cruel” treatment of animals that’s morally wrong, and not that any *use* of animals at all is fundamentally morally wrong. It causes people to believe that there is some sort of “compassionate” way to use animals.
This is not an accident; indeed, the idea of compassion as a basis for animal rights is in and of itself a tool that our welfarist society uses both intentionally and also subconsciously to perpetuate our speciesism and hence, the welfarist paradigm that we’ve been slaves to for hundreds of years. The institutional animal exploitation industry and their partners the big “animal charities” want to keep us focused on “animal cruelty” instead of allowing us to focus on why all use of nonhumans is morally wrong. They have a very good reason for doing this. If we were to focus on ending animal use instead of merely “decreasing cruelty,” then enough people would reject animal use that those large animal exploitation companies would lose profits. In the same way, that would cause the “animal charities” to lose donations, so they can’t abide our species going Vegan en masse either. Their financial health relies on keeping people from realizing that we have a moral obligation to stop using nonhumans.
The very meaning of the term “welfare” has become hopelessly corrupted by now: in a rational world, that word should never be used to refer to allowing the use of nonhumans as chattel property at all. Let’s be perfectly clear about this: There is no compassionate way to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals, as all use of animals involves unnecessary violations of their right to not be used. And it’s not our treatment of them that needs to be reformed; we need to stop using them, period.
Compassion also can be seen as a way to achieve forgiveness for a rights violation someone has committed. Since we are the ones committing the violations on them, nonhumans don’t need our compassion anywhere near as much as they need our empathy, our reason, our fairness, respect, and justice. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have any compassion at all, or that cruelty is a good thing. Indeed, having compassion towards humans -who can understand human moral codes and still commonly break those codes- for their transgressions is a very important way of setting an example for people who would otherwise have no reason to believe that they should have compassion nor forgiveness for anyone, human or nonhuman.
As most non-Vegans will tell you, anyone can feel compassion for someone and still inflict suffering and death on nonhumans merely for their own selfish interests. They will argue ’til they’re blue in the face that they don’t lack compassion, merely because they strive to give nonhumans a good life before “humanely” slaughtering them for “food.” In fact, the very notion that they lack compassion is insulting to most people. This is because they irrationally see themselves as the ones who should decide whether the “inferior beings” that they exploit should get to live or die at all in the first place.
The reason it makes more sense to use the idea of justice to drive Animal Rights is that you can’t observe justice and still inflict unnecessary suffering and death. It can’t be coherently argued that it’s *just* to inflict suffering on nonhumans when there is no necessity. The non-Vegans who you may think lack compassion -and who are insulted by that claim- will often become Vegan when presented with the idea that although we recognize that they do have compassion, that it’s rather their sense of justice that dictates how they need to consider nonhuman animals’ interests and resultant rights.
Another aspect of this issue is that when we say we’re Vegan to decrease or avoid “cruelty” then non-Vegans will argue that it’s not cruel to exploit nonhuman animals, as long as you do it “nicely.” They will argue that the practice of breeding animals isn’t cruel because the animals “have a good life” and “get to have a family” and other such nonsense. It’s much harder to argue against this than arguing that we have a moral responsibility to not exploit anyone -whether human or nonhuman- because humans are not morally superior to nonhumans.
Another word that is implicitly tied to “cruelty” is the word “abuse.” Animals Rights, at its core, is not about the immorality of abuse, it’s about the immorality of use. Even though an airtight case can be made -to anyone who is actually honest about this issue- that there is no way that forcing nonhumans to have children without their express consent and to then take those children away from them and slaughter them merely for an unnecessary preference of ours could be considered anything but cruel, the immeasurably strong main pillar of the Animal Rights argument does not rely on this point. Noted Animal Rights philosopher Dr. Tom Regan got it right when he argued regarding this issue:
“Whatever ethical theory we should accept rationally, therefore, it must at least recognize that we have some duties directly to animals, just as we have some duties directly to each other. The next two theories I’ll sketch attempt to meet this requirement.
The first I call the cruelty-kindness view. Simply stated, this says that we have a direct duty to be kind to animals and a direct duty not to be cruel to them. Despite the familiar, reassuring ring of these ideas, I do not believe that this view offers an adequate theory. To make this clearer, consider kindness. A kind person acts from a certain kind of motive – compassion or concern, for example. And that is a virtue. But there is no guarantee that a kind act is a right act. If I am a generous racist, for example, I will be inclined to act kindly towards members of my own race, favoring their interests above those of others. My kindness would be real and, so far as it goes, good. But I trust it is too obvious to require argument that my kind acts may not be above moral reproach – may, in fact, be positively wrong because rooted in injustice. So kindness, notwithstanding its status as a virtue to be encouraged, simply will not carry the weight of a theory of right action.
Cruelty fares no better. People or their acts are cruel if they display either a lack of sympathy for or, worse, the presence of enjoyment in another’s suffering. Cruelty in all its guises is a bad thing, a tragic human failing. But just as a person’s being motivated by kindness does not guarantee that he or she does what is right, so the absence of cruelty does not ensure that he or she avoids doing what is wrong … The case is no different when we examine the ethics of our treatment of animals. So, yes, let us be for kindness and against cruelty. But let us not suppose that being for the one and against the other answers questions about moral right and wrong.” ~ Tom Regan
Indeed, Veganism is not merely about a reduction in cruelty, abuse or even in overall suffering. It’s about not intentionally causing any suffering at all through exploitation, but that is really only a result of the fact that Veganism is a fundamental rejection of speciesism, which is an irrational, harmful moral double-standard that stems from the Myth Of Human Supremacy. Living Vegan is the attempt to observe the pre-legal moral rights of all individual animals as best we can. Living Vegan does reduce the overall suffering in the world as a natural consequence of that observation of rights, but the reason we live Vegan is that it’s the only morally justifiable way to live. And the treatment of nonhumans is not what we need to focus on, what we need to focus on is educating people on why it’s wrong to use nonhumans as replaceable resources for human interests in the first place.
If Utilitarian concerns of suffering were the main issue, we could justify harming some number of sentient beings, as long as it helped a greater number of sentient beings, or even just reduced a greater amount of suffering. But Veganism is about Rights, not Utilitarian concerns. In order to call yourself Vegan you must, as a Rights matter, reject the very idea that any being who can feel pain should be considered the chattel property of a human being, or used for human interests. Fortunately for everyone, when it comes to the issue of the infliction of unnecessary suffering, Utilitarian concerns are already addressed through Rights solutions.
Basically, if we always keep in mind that it’s a notion of justice that must include both nonhuman animals and human animals if for no other reason than to be sure that it’s rationally and morally consistent, then we can see that arguing about compassion and cruelty are counter-productive to a truly coherent dialogue on the idea of Animal Rights. Making such claims are speciesist, since we don’t argue that we’re being compassionate by not violating humans rights, and speciesism reinforces and perpetuates speciesism, which ensures that even more sentient beings will be harmed.
If we convince enough people of the moral argument for Veganism we won’t have to worry about systemic human cruelty, systemic human-caused suffering or widespread human compassion. A decrease in systemic cruelty and a general increase in compassion among the masses are natural results of Veganism, just like a decrease in the sum total of nonhuman suffering is a natural result of humans observing nonhumans rights. But only by arguing for justice can we convince people to be *just*.
Also, Veganism is not about humans first. Veganism is a human rights issue as well as a nonhuman rights issue, since it’s true that human animals are sentient beings just as nonhuman animals are sentient beings, and thus it makes no sense at all to say that it’s wrong to oppress nonhumans through speciesism but ok to oppress humans through racism, sexism, etc. But the facts are that the exploitation of nonhumans by humans is, by a gigantic margin, the most massive and at the same time the most ignored social justice issue in existence.
Also, the myth that humans are morally superior to nonhumans is fundamentally ingrained into the worldview of almost every human practically from birth. It causes the majority of humans to believe that some sort of physical or circumstantial trait is the criteria by which we should determine who we can dismiss from our moral consideration, which is why it’s the root of all human rights violations as well. we can never get to a world free from systemic nonhuman rights violations or human rights violations merely by observing -and educating others on- human rights, but we can get to a world free from systemic human rights violations by observing -and educating others on- Animal Rights.
Update – On the terms we use to describe how we unjustly use nonhumans: The term “meat” is really a euphemism, created by our speciesist society, that’s meant to divert attention from the real issue, which is that we’re talking about the flesh of an innocent being who could feel pain, fear and other sensations, just as much as humans can. A being who had an interest in their own survival and freedoms just as much as humans do. The reality is that it’s impossible to obtain the flesh of those beings without inflicting unnecessary suffering and death on them. Every nonhuman whose flesh we consume was immorally slaughtered using violence, and it was completely unnecessary. Let’s call it what it really is: animal flesh. Let’s point out with every sentence we utter that we’re talking about actual animals, not some morally neutral “product” that was somehow obtained in a “compassionate” way.
Using nonhuman animals for their flesh is also morally not distinguishable from using any sentient being merely as a replaceable resource for any other human purpose either. All forms of exploitation of any animal, nonhuman or human, are morally equal. Furthermore, to attempt to morally distinguish different kinds of exploitation ensures that the people observing our arguments will inflict even more unnecessary suffering and death on nonhumans (and humans) than before.
If you’re not already Vegan, and you think animals matter morally, then please go Vegan. It’s incredible for the animals, easy and great for you, and wonderful for the planet. If you’re already Vegan, please educate non-Vegans about why they should go Vegan. Please rescue, volunteer, adopt, foster, spay, and neuter the nonhuman refugees of domestication whenever you can. Please feed your nonhuman family Vegan where you can. These things are the most important, morally responsible things to do and are desperately needed by everyone.
To learn more about Abolitionist Veganism and the issues I’ve outlined in this post, check out The Master List Of Vegan Info: