Source: Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, Brazil
Date: January 2011
A WORLD WITHOUT SUFFERING?
An interview with David Pearce
(1) In which sense are abolitionism and veganism important in the construction of a more ethical and solidary society in the present?DP: Let’s take a concrete example. Consider a pig. A pig has the intellectual capacity – and critically, the capacity to suffer – of a human toddler. We recognize that toddlers are entitled to love and care. By contrast, we factory-farm and kill millions of pigs using methods that would earn a lifetime prison sentence if our victims were human. Of course, a pig is not a member of “our” species. But the question is not whether genetic differences exist between members of different races or species, but whether these differences are morally relevant. Unlike humans, non-human animals lack the neocortical structure that supports language use. Yet why should this functional module confer some kind of unique moral status on its owner? Should human deaf-mutes be treated in the way we treat “dumb animals”? Intuitively, we imagine that human beings are “more conscious” than the non-humans we exploit. This is because most adult humans are more intelligent than most non-human animals. But is there any evidence for such a connection between intellectual prowess and intensity of consciousness? What’s striking is how the most “primitive” experiences we undergo, for example raw agony or blind panic, are also the most intense, whereas the most cerebral – e.g. language generation or mathematical theorem-proving – are phenomenologically so thin as to be barely accessible to introspection. In short, one doesn’t need to be intelligent to undergo profound distress. A convergence of evolutionary, behavioural, genetic and neuroscientific evidence suggests that the non-human animals we exploit and kill suffer intensely – just as “we” do. So what’s needed, I think, is a more inclusive, solidaristic sense of “us” that embraces all sentient beings.
A meat-eater might respond that we should value a human toddler more than a functionally equivalent non-human animal since the toddler has the “potential” to become an intellectually mature adult human being. Yet this argument simply doesn’t work. For we recognize that a child with a progressive disease who will never reach his third birthday is just as worthy of love and respect as youngsters who are developing normally. By the same token, the intellectual limitations of non-human animals are reason to give them greater care and protection, not to exploit them.
Perhaps a terminological note would be useful here. The term “vegan” is quite well-defined. A vegan is a strict vegetarian who doesn’t consume animal products. By contrast, “abolitionist” has multiple senses. In this context, two are relevant. One sense derives from bioethics: abolitionists believe that we should use biotechnology to phase out all forms of suffering, human and non-human alike. The second sense derives from the writings of American legal scholar Gary Francione. Francione argues that non-human animals require only one right, namely the right not to be regarded as property. Therefore we should abolish the status of non-human animals as property. Now it’s certainly feasible to be an abolitionist in both senses. But they reflect distinct perspectives: it’s possible to be an abolitionist in one sense and not the other.
(2) Why shouldn’t we eat products of animal origin?
DP: Hundreds of millions of people in the world today enjoy a cruelty-free vegan lifestyle. The cultural traditions of the Indian subcontinent are largely vegan. A small but growing minority of people in the Western world have adopted a cruelty-free vegan lifestyle too. Whether one eats animals and animal products is ultimately a matter of choice. Giving up foods of animal origin demands no heroic personal sacrifice – merely mild personal inconvenience. Indeed if one takes the trouble to explore vegan cusine, there is an immense variety of dishes from which to choose. For there are literally thousands of different vegetables but only a few types of meat. So ethically, I think we need to ask: does the enjoyment many consumers derive from eating dead animal flesh morally outweigh the suffering that went into its production? Can we ever justify “owning” another sentient being – whether human or non-human? By what right?
I won’t here attempt to tackle the amoralist or the moral nihilist. Moral nihilists claim that all value-judgements are purely subjective i.e. neither true nor false. But even moral nihilists typically deplore human child abuse. Insofar as child abuse is morally wrong, then it is arbitrary to deny that the abuse of functionally equivalent creatures is morally wrong too.
(3) What are the challenges faced by abolitionism and veganism today vis-a-vis the meat industry and the massive growing of soy and corn to feed livestock?
DP: Perhaps the most daunting challenge is moral apathy. George Bernard Shaw aptly remarked that “Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity”. Sadly, this observation is no less true today. If pressed, many people – perhaps most people – will acknowledge that factory-farming is cruel. But in the main, they’ll then shrug their shoulders and carry on consuming meat and animal products just as before. Other meat-eaters seem to imagine that factory-farming is merely a bit crowded and that “livestock” are painlessly put to sleep, like an ailing family pet euthanized by a kindly vet. Few of us have ever been inside a slaughterhouse.
Not all meat-eaters are so unwilling to engage in moral argument. Some meat-eating intellectuals try to rationalize self-interest with the so-called Logic of the Larder. [ http://www.abolitionist.com/resource/logic-of-the-larder.html ] The Logic of the Larder is the argument that if non-human animals weren’t factory-farmed for us to eat, then they wouldn’t exist – the assumption here being that factory-farmed life is at least minimally worth living. So in some sense, our victims are unwittingly indebted to us. As it stands, this argument would justify raising babies for human consumption, not just non-human animals. The argument would also by analogy license human slavery, at least if slaves were bred for that purpose. But more to the point, factory-farmed animals spend almost their whole lives below “hedonic zero”. In many cases, their distress is so desperate that they need to be prevented from mutilating themselves. The belief that humans are doing factory-farmed animals some kind of favour requires an extraordinary capacity for self-deception.
It’s worth stressing that the misery endured by factory-farmed animals is institutionalized suffering, not isolated “abuse”. Firms in the meat “industry” have a legal obligation to maximise shareholder profits. Even if meat-industry firms wanted to treat captive animals less callously, such reforms would be unlawful if the welfare measures diminished shareholder value, since the cost would drive “inefficient” firms out of business.
So what can be done?
Well, I think a twin-track strategy is vital. On the one hand, we must use moral argument and political campaigning to raise awareness of the plight of non-human animals. Many meat-eaters seem genuinely shocked when they see videos smuggled out of factory-farms and slaughterhouses showing what really goes on. “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, we’d all be vegetarians”, said Paul McCartney. Maybe not, but certainly the conversion process would accelerate. More controversially, however, I think we need a fallback option to use when moral persuasion fails: in vitro meat technology. The development of delicious, cruelty-free cultured meat of a taste and texture indistinguishable from the flesh of intact animals will be potentially scalable, healthy – and cheap. The world’s first in vitro meat conference was held in Oslo, Norway in 2008. I’d urge everyone to support New Harvest [ http://www.new-harvest.org/ ], the nonprofit research organization working to develop lab-grown meat.
One might suppose that most consumers will never eat such an “unnatural” product when cultured meat comes on the market. But a moment’s reflection on the unhealthy, unnatural conditions of factory-farmed animals shows that the “yuk” argument cuts little ice. Indeed our sense of disgust may even work in favour of cruelty-free products rather than butchered animals. If consumers knew what currently goes into meat and dairy products – the cows’ udders with mastitis and tumours that fall into the milk, the pigs with tumours that go straight into the grinder, swine flue, bovine growth hormone, tons of antibiotics that decrease human resistance, rampant E. coli contamination, etc – then shoppers probably wouldn’t want to buy them at any price. Admittedly, with current technology we can produce only mincemeat-quality in vitro meat; but in future, it should be possible to grow and mass-produce gourmet steaks. The biggest uncertainty is timescales.
I know many animal activists are queasy at the prospect of in vitro meat. I am too. Wouldn’t total moral clarity be better? If I see a butcher’s shop or meat of any kind, I think of Auschwitz. Yet many meat-eaters salivate at the sight of dead animal flesh, and claim they could never give it up. Nutritionally, this is nonsense; but I think we must embrace the development of cultured meat because its mass-manufacture and marketing will enable the morally apathetic to eat a cruelty-free diet too. When the majority of the world’s population has made the transition to a vegan or cultured-meat diet, I predict that rearing other sentient beings for human consumption will be made illegal under international law – just like human slavery today. Of course, predicting the values of future generations has many pitfalls. But I suspect our descendants will look back on how their ancestors treated members of other species, not just as unethical, but as a crime on a par with the Holocaust. As Jewish Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer observes in The Letter Writer (1968), “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”
(4) To what extent does the practice of veganism and abolitionism demonstrate a concern for alterity [otherness] and the health of the Earth in a broader sense?
DP: Both a vegan lifestyle and a commitment to the wider abolitionist project can certainly express a reverence for life on Earth. Ahimsa, meaning to do no harm (literally: the avoidance of violence – himsa), is an important tenet of the religions of the Indian subcontinent, notably Buddhism, Hinduism and most especially Jainism.
The abolition of red meat consumption would also cut the gases emitted by cows, sheep and goats that contribute to global warming – one of the biggest planetary threats we face this century and beyond. But equally, the practice of veganism can express a purely secular hated of cruelty and suffering. An atheist whose inner life is a spiritual desert can embrace a commitment to the well-being of all sentience too. To succeed, we’ll need to build the broadest possible coalition of activists and sympathisers, religious and secular alike.
(5) How are we to understand the so-called post-human condition in the 21st century when millions of people continue to feed themselves on meat and thus on suffering and death?
DP: The global adoption of a cruelty-free diet will mark a major evolutionary transition in the development of civilisation. The transition may take centuries. On the other hand, it’s possible that a combination of animal activism and the development of in vitro meat technologies will bring about the dietary revolution worldwide within decades. But becoming posthuman is more far-reaching than personally adopting a cruelty-free lifestyle. Free-living, “wild” animals often suffer terribly too – through hunger, thirst, disease and predation. Darwinian life on Earth is based on exploitation – basically, living creatures eating each other. The “food chain” might seem a perennial fact of Nature, on a par with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Over hundreds of millions of years, this has been true. Yet a fatalistic response to “Nature, red in tooth and claw” underestimates the unprecedented transformative power of modern science over the living world. Now we’ve cracked the genetic code, biotechnology potentially allows us to rewrite the vertebrate genome, redesign the global ecosystem, regulate the fertility of whole species via immunocontraception, and ultimately abolish suffering throughout the living world. [ http://www.abolitionist.com/reprogramming/ ]
Right now, this sort of scenario sounds fanciful, not to say ecologically illiterate. But such a project is technically feasible later this century. The biggest obstacles to a world without suffering will be ethical and ideological, not technical.
(6) In which sense do veganism and abolitionism dethrone human beings from their anthropocentric position?
DP: The Judeo-Christian tradition – and indeed all the Abrahamic religions – locates Man at the centre of the universe. This conception of humanity is hard to reconcile with the theory of evolution via natural selection and the neo-Darwinian synthesis. But suppose that God does exist. All traditions agree that Almighty God is infinitely compassionate. If mere mortals can envisage the well-being of all sentience, are we to suppose that God is more stunted in the breadth or depth of His compassion? This limitation on God’s benevolence seems barely coherent. Recall too how the Book of Isaiah predicts that one day the lion will lie down with the lamb. Well, human ingenuity can make it so – just not by prayer alone. A cruelty-free world can come about only via compassionate use of biotechnology: genetically re-engineering obligate carnivores and other predators; cross-species fertility control; neurochip implants; GPS surveillance and tracking; nanorobots in marine ecosystems; and a host of technical interventions beyond the pre-scientific imagination.
(7) How can veganism help people to change the way they eat and also to reduce hunger in the world?
DP: A global transition to a cruelty-free vegan diet won’t just help non-human animals. The transition will also help malnourished humans who could benefit from the grain currently fed to factory-farmed animals. For factory-farming is not just cruel; it’s energy-inefficient. Let’s take just one example. Over the past few decades, millions of Ethiopians have died of “food shortages” while Ethiopia grew grain to sell to the West to feed cattle. Western meat-eating habits prop up the price of grain so that poor people in the developing world can’t afford to buy it. In consequence, they starve by the millions.
In my work, I explore futuristic, hi-tech solutions to the problem of suffering. But anybody who seriously wants to reduce human and non-human suffering alike should adopt a cruelty-free vegan lifestyle today.
Portuguese version here