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Eating Animals and the Illusion of Personal Choice

Of all the rationalizations we make for eating animals in an age when we now know that eating animals is not necessary for our health or survival, many people today are borrowing a popular slogan I call “the personal choice defense.” It goes something like this: “My decision to eat animals is a personal choice.” At other times, it is simply implied, in the casual way animal and plant food choices are compared, as if the two set of options are somehow morally equivalent. And it is usually followed by a statement sympathetic to their vegan and vegetarian friends, acknowledging that they too are making personal choices that are right for them. Yet, upon closer examination, the choice to eat animals, whether it is never, once a week or every day, is not strictly a personal choice. Eating animal products is indeed exercising a choice, but the repercussions extend well beyond the individual. Here are at least five of them:

1. Eating animals is made “personal” only upon public scrutiny

The ethics of food choices had never been discussed at the dinner table, much less defined as personal, until a growing number of vegans and vegetarians — by their very presence at the table — question the legitimacy of eating animals. A person who tells you that their eating of animal products is a personal choice is experiencing a state of cognitive dissonance (deeply entrenched beliefs are being challenged and that challenge causes them to defend old beliefs). In other words, they have made this issue personal precisely in response to you making it public. Making the issue personal is a nice way of saying, “I don’t want to be judged or held accountable for my actions that harm animals.” So this is not so much an attempt to defend eating animals as it is a defense intended to block any further discussion or evaluation. Moreover, personalization removes animals from public discourse and keeps them tucked away in our closet of denial and silence.

2. There is no free choice without awareness

The irony explained in point 1 is that while non vegans defend their choice to eat animal products as a personal one, they will nonetheless go to great lengths to defend it publicly when confronted with a vegan or vegetarian. Like some apologetic white liberals who defend themselves by defiantly exclaiming to a new black acquaintance, “But I have Black friends, too!,” some will painstakingly explain how intimately they understand the vegan lifestyle. After all, they will assure you, they have already heard and evaluated the vegan friends’ reasons for going vegan, and they deeply respect them for it.

They’ve carefully considered being vegan themselves, they will tell you, but have concluded that it’s just not for them. In this conclusion, they are essentially declaring that caring about animals is “optional,” a morally-relative option. When pressed further, instead of arriving at some novel new argument for eating animal products in an age which presents them with an increasing number of alternatives, they simply revert back to the traditional arguments that are all pretty much centered around what social psychologist Melanie Joy calls the three N’s of justification: eating animal products is normal, natural and necessary. (1)

But their reasoning reveals the fact that they have sorely misunderstood even the most fundamental tenets of veganism. By simply reaffirming the supremacy of personal choice, they simultaneously reaffirm the belief that even trivial palate pleasures can be made more important than life and death itself. This reaffirmation requires a suspension of moral reasoning. One forgettable meal = an entire lifetime cut drastically and violently short.

3. Merely “Personal” Choices Don’t Have Victims

Let’s take a look at the issue from the animal victim’s perspective, which has been completely denied by the non vegan’s unexamined assumption that animals have no interest or understanding of the value of their individual lives. In essence, animals are denied victimhood because they are viewed as objects rather than animals who actually have lives that matter to them, full of rich experiences and interests. The notion that conscious omnivores think they have done their due diligence by examining the pros and cons of eating animals means nothing for the animals that value their lives as we do. Without a doubt, the animals we raise for meat, dairy and eggs are sentient in the same manner we are, with at least as much of an interest in staying alive, avoiding pain and suffering and seeking pleasurable experiences as our companion animals.

As Canadian activist Twyla Francois so aptly puts it: “All animals have the same capacity for suffering, but how we see them differs and that determines what we’ll tolerate happening to them. In the Western world, we feel it wrong to torture and eat cats and dogs, but perfectly acceptable to do the same to animals equally as sentient and capable of suffering. No being who prides himself on rationality can continue to support such behaviour.”

4. Justice Informs Our Choices

Choice requires free will and a basic understanding of the options and their consequences. In the spirit of justice, we live in a society where our actions and choices are governed by what society deems acceptable. If we choose to maim, rape, enslave or kill someone, our actions have consequences and are punishable by law. In a democratic society, we generally understand on principle and in practice that we are free to do what we want as long as it doesn’t harm, exploit or infringe upon the same rights and freedoms of others.

Yet, for the non vegan, the choice of eating animals is divorced from the standards of justice we uphold for ourselves, since justice, according to this specious worldview, does not apply to non human species. Therefore, there are no visibly negative consequences to eating animals. The victims have already been transformed into products and therefore remain conveniently absent, both physically and psychologically, from those who cause their suffering and death. This absence is the basis of the denial inherent in the claim that we are making a personal choice to eat animal products. Framed from this fictional perspective, these choices then become perceived as harmless — as harmless as eating an apple that has fallen from the tree. Moreover, This belief is reinforced by a variety of cultural norms, such as the consumer’s routine experience of viewing these products, pristinely packaged and elegantly assembled on a store shelf.

5. The Negation of Choice

In reality, the choice to eat other animals paradoxically annihilates choice and free will for others who were designed by nature as free agents like ourselves. This choice necessitates the domination and violation of animals against their will, as well as their murder and dismemberment by no choice of their own.

In the words of author Carol Adams, “Objectification permits the oppressor to view another being as an object. The oppressor then violates this being with object-like treatment, e.g., the rape of women that denies women freedom to say no, or the butchering of animals that converts animals from living breathing beings to dead objects. This process allows fragmentation, brutal dismemberment and finally consumption.” “Consumption is the fulfillment of oppression, the annihilation of will, of separate identity.” (2)

Moreover, the artificial breeding, exploitation, enslavement, killing and profiteering from the slaughtered corpses of some 60 billion land animals and another approximate 60 billion to 1 trillion marine animals every year globally is certainly not a personal matter for individual consumers. On the contrary, the animal industrial complex depends on a system of laws, standards, political power structures, institutionalized violence, economics and distribution. In sheer scale and degree of suffering, the ongoing atrocity against farmed animals dwarfs all human atrocities combined. The most contemptible aspect of this system is that it is unnecessary. Plant-based alternatives to animal products are growing in number and availability. The nutritional science on the health benefits and advantages of a vegan diet are overwhelming and will continue to permeate mainstream culture. For the vast majority of us who have other options, the only question left to answer is an ethical one: If we can live healthy lives without harming anyone, why wouldn’t we?

A Postscript: After reviewing a lot commentary on this post, I decided to publish a follow up piece, addressing many of the points raised in these comments. See Seven Reasons Why We Have NOT Evolved to Eat Meat. This may become a series where I continue to address the most common reasons people use today for continuing to eat animal products.

(1) Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, (San Francisco: Conari Press, 2010) 96–98, 105–122

(2) Carol Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory