Veganism, Animal Rights, and Cognitive Dissonance

I am not a vegan, or even a vegetarian, but I recognize my own cognitive dissonance on the issue. That’s not to award myself any brownie points or anything, just a statement of fact. Indeed, it likely only makes my own cognitive dissonance on the issue even worse.

I think even the most avid hunter or advocate of the carnivore diet would decline to offer any defense of the factory farming industry, which is an important subcategory of the overarching animal rights issue in general. But there is more hypocrisy involved than just the overt acceptance of factory farming imposed by law and the tacit acceptance of factory farming in everyday people as they turn a blind eye to it and continue consuming animal products, thereby maintaining the very demand that resulted in the invention of factory farming.

This post was inspired by the following video:

As the video points out, there is also the cognitive dissonance involved in our preference for some animals over others. Why, for instance, do people react so strongly to the suffering of a single dog but give barely a thought to the suffering of millions of chickens, pigs, and cows? Why do people get upset when Cecil the lion is killed by a hunter, but care nothing about the bludgeoning, gassing, and slaughter of untold numbers of livestock?

Humans have a tendency to sacralize things. This sacralization is passed down through generations. Dogs, for instance, in the western world, are imbued with a sacredness that makes their well-being more salient and emotionally charged to us. In the west, it’s sometimes almost played as a joke that Hindu people have sacralized cattle, since in the west cows are seen as lesser creatures – indeed, as a resource rather than a living thing – and therefore sacralizing them appears in western cultures as bordering on the absurd.

An argument sometimes proffered (and one to which I still subscribe to some degree) in defense of human omnivorousness is that the basis of ethics is consciousness (see, for instance, “I Am a Strange Loop” by Douglass Hofstadter). Given that different organisms have different levels of consciousness (with the lowest level being, perhaps, something like a dust mite, the highest being that of animals like dolphins, whales, great apes, and humans at the very pinnacle), we can then assign moral value to different organisms based on their level of consciousness. This is justified by the fact that humans treat other fellow humans as more deserving of ethical treatment than we do creatures with lesser consciousness – you’ll receive a greater punishment for the inhumane treatment of a person than you will for the inhumane treatment of a dog, and will receive no punishment for the inhumane treatment of an insect.

Of course, the human tendency for sacralization means that this ethical principle based on “level of consciousness” is not (and likely never will be) perfectly applied. Pigs are relatively intelligent, but are still seen as food in western cultures, while an animal with comparable levels of consciousness, like the horse, is not seen as food in western cultures.

There are other problems with this consciousness argument as well. For one, if we are going to base ethical treatment on an organisms level of consciousness, we must confront the inconvenient fact that we cannot even say for sure that all humans have the same level of consciousness. For instance, what about infants, or those with severe mental handicaps, or those in a coma? How could we even consistently define what is meant by an organism’s level of consciousness? One way might be to say that it is an individual’s potential level of consciousness given the species that individual belongs to and the sort of consciousness-generating architecture (i.e. the brain) that individual possesses, regardless of how it is utilized in practice. This may work, with qualification, but this post isn’t meant as an exposition on levels and degrees of consciousness.

A further problem, though, is that one still cannot ignore the fact that, lesser consciousness or not, the animals we use for food are still suffering as a direct result of our continued demand for meat. We can pass the blame for animal suffering onto factory farms all we want, but the fact is that factory farms arose as a direct result of our demand – if people did not have such a high demand for (cheap) meat, then factory farms would not have been necessitated as an answer to that demand.

But, let’s assume for the sake of argument that we could outlaw factory farming and/or convince the vast majority of the world’s population to drastically reduce their meat intake (without going full vegan). The world comes together with rainbows and unicorns to pass laws that mandate livestock be treated humanely while they are alive, that they are free range and fed natural foods (i.e. not force-fed corn), and that the animals are not separated from their parents or abused during their life. Further, let’s assume that these laws are implemented consistently and followed diligently by everyone raising livestock. The fact remains, though, that for us to eat any amount of meat, animals have to die.

I can think of two responses to this, though neither of them are terribly convincing. The first is that livestock would not even be alive if it were not for humans raising them as food. The second is that humans just are omnivores, that we evolved not only to desire meat, but to require it in our diet. I’ll examine these two responses in order.

The first response is based on the fact that livestock are bred for the sole purpose of human consumption and would not survive on their own in the wild. Indeed, the cows, chickens, and pigs we use for meat did not even arise naturally, but were bred to be what they are by humans for the purpose of food. From an evolutionary perspective, this has been a winning strategy for these creatures – becoming delicious and fecund has allowed for the propagation of the species. Evolution is not a loving deity or compassionate designer. It is a process that possesses no sentiments of human ethics or empathy. Evolution does not “care” that these animals live in agony their entire lives and are doomed to a painful death. Evolution is a process of genetic propagation, and through the lens of evolution, livestock are incredibly successful. This does not, however, mean that we can justify cruelty toward these animals based on this fact – we do not get an ought from an is. If we are to base our ethics on any sort of reduction in suffering, regardless of what we use as a foundation to this principle, then it would be better that these livestock animals never existed at all than to have them live a life of nonstop suffering.

The second response uses another type of naturalistic fallacy – humans have evolved to be omnivores (the is) and therefore humans ought to have an omnivorous diet (the ought). That it is the case that something is natural does not make it morally good. Indeed, much of the project of human ethics is based on our attempts to transcend our natural inclinations. For better or worse, humans have attained a level of consciousness that allows us to reflect and become aware of how our actions can lead to suffering, and a level of consciousness that makes us even care about whether our actions lead to suffering. At the very least, we know that when we see other animals suffering, it makes us feel bad. Even if that is the only justification we have for any values concerning animals rights, does it not still dictate that we ought to do what we can to reduce the suffering of animals, if only to reduce the suffering we ourselves incur by knowing about the animal’s suffering?

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The argument in favor of veganism appears to be the following:

P1 – One should not participate in activities that increase suffering
P2 – Growing livestock is an activity that increases suffering
P3 – Eating meat is participating in the activity of growing livestock
C – Therefore, one should not eat meat

We could generalize this in the following way:

P1 – One should not participate in activities that increase suffering
P2 – X is an activity that increases suffering
P3 – Y is participating in X
C – Therefore, one should not Y

As a response, then, we can of course substitute other things in for the variables X and Y, such as:

P1 – One should not participate in activities that increase suffering
P2 – War waged by the government is an activity that increases suffering
P3 – Paying taxes to the government is participating in war waged by the government
C – Therefore, one should not pay taxes to the government

P1 – One should not participate in activities that increase suffering
P2 – The manufacture of smart phones is an activity that increases suffering
P3 – Buying smart phones is participating in the manufacture of smart phones
C – Therefore, one should not buy smart phones

P1 – One should not participate in activities that increase suffering
P2 – The production of psychiatric medications is an activity that increases suffering
P3 – Taking psychiatric medication is participating in the production of psychiatric medication
C – Therefore, one should not take psychiatric medication

Other such substitutions could be made. This sort of response could be construed as whataboutism – instead of addressing the argument in question (whether to be a vegan) one just changes the subject by saying something along the lines of “what about our tax money going to war?” That is a fair criticism, though not a defeater. However, if we are to take P1 to be a general ethical principle in order to establish its soundness, being that it is a prescriptive (ought) rather than a descriptive (is) proposition, then it would need to be universally applicable. The problem arises, though, when universal applicability of P1 is unfeasible. Certainly, focusing on a single application of P1, such as its application to animal rights, is fine – one need not be obligated to cure all society’s ills simultaneously in order to cure one. My issue, though, is how to prioritize which of society’s ills ought to take precedence over others. Veganism is a first world luxury, where we have plenty of options in order to balance or supplement our nutritional intake. And being that it is a source of nutrients, whereas something like a smart phone is a mere luxury item, shouldn’t we concern ourselves more with refusing to purchase smart phones?

I don’t know the answer to what ought to take ethical and moral priority. How I personally live with my own cognitive dissonance is by taking refuge in my craven philosophical pessimism. The pipe dream of convincing all of humankind to become vegan is as useless and conceited as any other hopeless idealistic endeavor (such as halting and/or reversing climate change, eradicating war, or disabusing people of their greed and envy). The only sure way to truly reduce suffering would be for there to be many fewer humans – less demand for meat and fewer humans to experience their own inevitable suffering. But humans are not fixable. There will never be a social, political, or economic system that results in humans deciding to do the right thing, or even of agreeing what “the right thing” even is. All such attempts (e.g. communism) have only ever resulted in even greater suffering. Humans are not evolved to live in the world we have created for ourselves, and no creation or intellectual advance wrought by humankind will ever reconcile the contradictions between our inescapable human nature and this nightmare of a ghetto we call society into which we have mindlessly imprisoned ourselves.

As such, I see the choice as being between going vegan in some vain attempt to make me feel good about myself by becoming convinced of the delusion of my moral superiority, or to continue indulging in the base pleasure of eating the meat that will always be in demand for as long as humans remain human. The former takes more effort on my part, and so out of pure laziness, I have resigned myself to the latter.

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Main image: baby chickens being ground up alive by the egg industry. Male chicks are discarded via ‘maceration’ because they are not needed for the production of eggs sold as food.

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