“The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes.”
-Jeremy Bentham, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789)
An innocent gorilla was killed last Saturday. His name was Harambe.
By now you should have heard the news.
The incident was sparked when a 4-year-old boy managed to fall into the “Gorilla World” enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, only to have the enormous animal rush over to the child, drag him around like a toy, and proceed to stand guard over him for several minutes. All while onlookers gasped with fright, and parents pleaded for divine intervention.
Ruling out the use of tranquilizers, the zoo opted for the abhorrent—the unthinkable—and shot down the beautiful beast, depriving him of precious spirit, rendering his 450lb frame cold and lifeless. His family will likely grieve uncontrollably. The zoo will forever be marred with darkness. And all because some damn humans couldn’t keep an eye on their child!
This was nothing short of a tragedy.
And how tragic it was! So tragic, in fact, that the internet has exploded demanding justice for Harambe’s life. Protests have formed. Memorials have been mourned over. A petition on change.org now has over half a million signatures detailing legal action against the boy’s parents; it is only natural they get blamed as murderers, after all . . .
And to believe there are so-called “experts” out there who say otherwise! Who argue that the gorilla was a lethal risk to a young boy who had an endless list of possibilities ahead of him, and if swift action had not been taken, that could have all been squandered into an oblivion of unrealized potentiality.
Well to those detractors: I say to you it’s not the point to focus on what could have happened! How dare you undermine such a tragedy. So let’s focus on the facts, shall we?
An innocent gorilla was killed last Saturday. His name was Harambe. And he was only 17 years old.
This is not the first time such internet outrage has erupted over the murder of an animal. Just last year, in fact, the death of Cecil the lion inspired such vigorous riots and crying TV hosts that the deadly dentist ultimately had to close down his practice.
And how heartwarming it is to witness this unabashed hatred for those who don’t love animals! Surely we have come a long way since René Descartes maintained that all other species are “automata” that cannot reason or feel pain—any reaction we perceive merely mechanical. Of course we now realize it absurd for Immanuel Kant to claim we have no direct moral duty towards animals, as they are only “things” to be used for human benefit . . .
These claims are ridiculous, right?
Well not so fast, my human brethren. Dismount from your moral high horse, for we have some soul searching to do.
It pains me to say this, for the sake of Harambe, but the more I think about this whole ordeal, the more something burns in the back of my mind. It is a question I am almost afraid to ask; a paradox so extreme it seemingly denies logical explanation. And it doesn’t take more than a glimpse at the exquisite nutriment they’re advertising on television to notice this phenomenon. So, here it goes:
Why are human views on animals so drastically discriminatory?
In other words, why do we care so much more about the life of a caged gorilla than the lives of the millions of other animals slaughtered daily by human hands? And certainly for reasons much more petty? (Just imagine the outcry if Harambe was killed for gorilla meat, instead of the more-defensible justification of endangering a child’s life.)
I mean, it’s not something we really like to think about, do we? And who can blame us? It’s only natural for us omnivorous demigods at the top of the food chain to think this way, after all! Some animals we designate as food, some as friends, and others as kings of the jungle. Some we use for sport. Others we like to kill just for sport. It’s just how it is, man, and it’s how it has always been.
But is it really inherent in human beings to discriminate against animals in such an extreme fashion? Is there any objective moral basis for choosing to eat pigs instead of dogs—to name just one example? Or, as your friendly neighborhood vegan would tell you, are carnivorous instincts and mechanisms even physiologically inherent in us at all, for that matter? (Would you chase down that cute little bunny and dig into its raw flesh? Or do you just wanna pet it?)
Well just because we eat them doesn’t make it bad, does it? We slit their throats nice and easy, minimizing the pain. And as any shitty fast food ad would tell you, the cows killed are “all natural”—without any additives and shit. They even get to breathe some shitty air!
Oh, how wonderful. Case dismissed.
But the reality is much more shitty than what you are shown: Several undercover investigations expose the cruel truth of factory farming (where the vast majority of our meat comes from). These animals are jam-packed into filthy, overcrowded conditions, most not seeing a shred of sunlight until they are shipped to slaughterhouses. Moreover, suffering from injuries, illnesses, and unnatural genetic modifications, they often collapse under their own weight—simply too sick to stand up on their own.
But don’t listen to me—listen to that old English dude who once teamed up with Kanye. According to him, “if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.” So it’s simply a matter of ignorance, right? We would start caring about these animals if we could actually see what happens to them, just like we could with Harambe, or Cecil.
But even then, to tell the truth, I am not totally convinced. Although vegan lifestyles are gaining ground in the internet age, we are so conditioned to see animals in a certain light that it is acceptable to ridicule any who dare to question the paradigm.
And still, as those shitty fast food ads demonstrate, we care more about making a “great burger” than the ethical implications of the suffering in itself! The lone intent for these animals being born is to produce “quality meat” for human consumption. Their flesh is farmed for our pleasure, coming into the world just to die again and again. What a depressing purpose. What a gruesome fate.
And don’t hit me with that “circle of life” nonsense! Because with no chance of escape, there’s nothing natural about this . . .
So now I ask once more: Are we really that far removed from the views of Kant and Descartes?
Well then, let me go back to the facts on this one!
An innocent gorilla was killed last Saturday. An estimated 4,000 cattle are slaughtered ever hour in the US alone. 13,000 pigs. 27,000 turkeys. And over one million chickens. And that’s after suffering through the torturous conditions of factory farming, as well as often unnaturally exhausted of milk and eggs.
Every year over 56 billion land animals are killed globally for human consumption. We don’t name them. We don’t mourn them. And we don’t go after the butcher, do we now?
So why are human views on animals so drastically discriminatory? Why is it okay to love some creatures and torture others to use as meat? Is there any solid ground for this reasoning?
It is More than Simply Intelligence
“The limit of sentience (using the term as a convenient, if not strictly accurate, shorthand for the capacity to suffer or experience enjoyment or happiness) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary way.”
-Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (1979)
To all my thousands of readers: I invite you to explore your freedom. Wiggle your toes, twirl your thumbs! Pee in the pool but don’t tell anyone! Dance around to that song you love! Meet a stranger on the internet and fornicate for fun!
But as you wash up afterwards, make sure to take a good look in the mirror. Peruse your naked body, every section of symmetrical perfection, every muscle jointed together through a superior breed of evolution. See the light in your eyes. Delight in your every breath. Celebrate your self-awareness.
Marvel at the miracle of consciousness that is YOU.
We are human beings.
Made in God’s image, as some would say, and blessed with an intellect unlike any other. We are truly a reflection of the divine, and as such, the lone souls allowed salvation in heaven . . . despite there being numerous prominent philosophers who disagree.
So who cares if we eat creatures so beneath us, right? It’s only natural that these inferior animals be factory farmed—and some lucky few we like better be chosen for pets and entertainment! Besides, these anthropocentric practices have become so rooted in our infrastructure that it would tear apart society as we know it if we dare to bring them down.
Something tells me we’ve heard this argument before.
Sure enough, the more we’ve studied certain animals—observing their use of tools, communication skills, complex social structures, and even the ability for inter-species empathy—the more we’ve come to grips with the fact that this intellect only differs in degree, instead of transcending it completely. But it’s not like we even need science to back us up on this; any sensible dog owner would tell you that their dog is not only self-aware, but capable of reason and intricate emotion.
Well then that’s precisely why we choose not to eat them, along with those other smarties! Cows on the other hand . . . such bland animals. Pigs love to roll in their filth anyway! And don’t even get me started on those chickens.
The fact of the matter is that cows exhibit remarkable emotional sensitivity, from crying when separated from their mothers, to delighting when mastering cognitive experiments. Chickens are changing the definition of what it means to be a bird-brain. And pigs as well are extremely complex creatures—perhaps even “smarter” than dogs—which dares Marc Bekoff of Psychology Today to question why we let one suffer so much instead of the other:
“Also of interest is the question ‘why do some people have radically different views about other animals?’
“. . . I always like to ask people if they would do something to a dog that would cause them prolonged and intense pain and suffering, such as that endured by food animals, and the most usual answer is ‘no’, marked with surprise and incredulity about why I would ask that question in the first place.”
Thought experiments like these could make you think twice before you pick up that ham. For they may not be able to speak, but they sure can feel.
But even if it is established that our basis of animal discrimination has no direct correlation with intelligence, why does it matter in the first place?
Indeed, several utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Peter Singer have discovered that a difference in intellect is not an adequate ethical defense for our cruelty to other animals. For thinkers in this vein, our duty as humanity should be to minimize the suffering in the world to the best of our ability, and the mere capacity for a being to feel pain is enough to extend it this moral obligation.
Instead, we humans love to draw arbitrary lines to justify often horrendous acts of violence and subjugation, before inevitably discovering the folly of our ways. It was Bentham who once remarked in The Principles of Morals and Legislation that:
“The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor.
“It may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.”
And yet centuries later, we are still obsessed with drawing these lines not only between human beings, but between sentient, intelligent animals—and often in extreme fashion. Moreover, a difference in how intelligent or emotional we perceive them to be is not a sufficient defense for killing them in the first place. Neither is their overall attractiveness, predatory nature, or stark disparity in how they are portrayed by the media.
So why do we care so much about Cecil the lion and so little about Emma the cow? Especially when her grief and pain are so clearly visible in the video below?
(But y’all don’t wanna hear me you just wanna dance)
It is a Process of Systematic Depersonalization
“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.”
-Arthur Schopenhauer, On The Basis of Morality (1840)
As self-aware human beings, we each recognize ourselves as an individual among a group of other individuals—except no one is the same, really, and that is precisely what makes us all so special.
We each have our own thoughts, dreams, fears and desires. We each have a specific name assigned to us since coming into this world. And we all have those people in our lives who love us unconditionally; who we know will cry when it is time for us to leave.
And yet with the exception of our pets, we’re not used to thinking this way about animals. We would prefer to think of the ones we eat as the same slabs of meat rather than as sentient individuals entirely unique to this world, with them too experiencing a wide range of emotions, and them too having loved ones. This is a status I know they deserve.
It has become apparent to me that whether we view animals as individuals or slabs of meat is simply a consequence of how we were raised. Cats and dogs are the former, for example, while pigs and cows are the latter. And if I grew up in another environment, the animals I am talking about may be unnervingly interchanged.
This is a process of cultural conditioning and systematic depersonalization.
So animals are people now too, huh? That’s a good one.
Well, I’m not trying to say that legal personhood should be extended to animals, as much as many would like that to be the case. I just find it ethically unsettling to empathize so deeply with some animals—respecting them as rightful individuals—while simultaneously sucking the soul out of others, even if we perceive them to be less outwardly emotive than the former.
And too bad for those types of animals.
We like to take their flesh and smush it together, not stopping to think how it got to our plate in the first place. We systematically disassociate the individual from the meat itself.
There’s a reason we call it ham and not “pig butt,” after all, or beef instead of “cow insides.” There’s a reason why our favorite pizza topping is pepperoni instead of “the fused together processed flesh of pigs and cows” (on top of their coagulated milk, nonetheless); but hey, we just all grew up being conditioned to love it instead of questioning what it is we’re actually eating—some of us before we even knew that a pig goes oink, a cow goes moo, and chickens speak with fine British accents.
Well, at least a hot dog isn’t really a dog, right? Nah . . . it’s just a delightful blend of three animals our culture decides to not really give a shit about. We can all breathe a collective sigh and revel in the 4th of July.
But would eating these animals taste much different than eating your cat or dog? Or—dare I say it—the flesh of another human being?
Probably not, to be blunt about it. As Darwin discovered, our biology differs in a degree smaller than we might think. And it is dependent on culture whether you view certain meat as disgusting or a tasty treat.
This differs to such an extreme that it depends whether humans eat cows or are slaughtered instead for eating them. Whether bacon is craved over or forbidden by God. And in certain environments still, it would be no big deal to eat Cecil. It would be commonplace to eat Harambe. Even our ultra-intelligent brethren of the sea are not yet free from the all-encompassing human appetite.
And yes, it is dependent on culture whether cats and dogs are used as best friends or can be eaten as meat instead.
Oh, but those Chinese are simply horrible, are they not? Those Africans are gross. And those Indians are just plain silly! There should be outrage over their eating habits!! Because surely it is us Americans who choose correctly which animals to cruelly slaughter, and which ones to cry over when killed.
It is not inherent in human beings to let some animals suffer while empathizing exceedingly with others. It is a choice. A choice rooted in a tradition that celebrates these practices. We don’t eat tofu on Thanksgiving, after all.
As a consequence, we must be open to the idea that certain tradition, when ingrained so deeply in our society, can establish itself as a stubborn obstacle to human progress. We must be perceptive to the notion that human culture as we know it is rooted in barbarism.
Furthermore, as children, it is extremely difficult to question the practices of this world in which we’re thrown—much less “What the heck is all this?!” or “What the hell am I doing here?!”—before we start to just go with it all and forget. We are simply forced to accept the reality of the world in which we are presented.
Oh, cheer up Charlie, I didn’t mean to bring out that daily dose of looming existential dread! Now no need to worry, just lie down in your bed. Put on some Radiohead. Read some fairy tales to brighten up you day. Because I get it man. It isn’t easy to undermine human culture when you’re well, a human and all . . .
Especially when you come from a culture like mine.
And yet reactions like these to vegetarians can alone provide a deep commentary on this paradox in our society. No self-respecting human being can claim “I love animals!” and be simultaneously A-okay with factory farming. Do you really love all animals? Or do you just want that damn meatloaf?
Now what if I told you that you and that meatloaf are connected in ways beyond your wildest comprehension? Yet only once you transcend your ego and find the meatloaf in you can you truly arrive at this understanding . . .
Recognize Our Connection to Every Living Being
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
-Albert Einstein, Letter of Feb 1950, as quoted in The New York Times (29 March, 1972)
To all my millions of readers: I implore you to cause yourself temporary displeasure. Touch a hot stove! Slap yourself across the face! Squeeze your mammary glands! Sit through a Celine Dion video. Then examine the emotions that emerge from within; it’s something you can’t really put your finger on, can you? But you know you can feel it—albeit immaterially—so you know it is real in ways you cannot quite comprehend. And it has always been an essential aspect of your human journey.
Indeed, we have all suffered in some way or another, and we have all cherished the relief it ultimately implies, for what you have experienced with this exercise is but a temporary passing of pain. Our emotions fade with focused breath; our thoughts dissipate as quickly as they came into being. And even as you interpret the symbols on this page, what popped into your mind a mere second ago has already passed, etched into eternity, yet slipping quickly through the pores of memory . . .
What remains is the “I” we treasure so dearly: Our body. Our brain. Our skin color and our name. This is the individual that interacts with the rest of the world; the unique persona that others can see, can know, and can even love if they prod deep enough.
And yet still, this exterior is a mere fragment of our personality. Even our loved ones can only realize a minute portion of our hate, our shame, our deepest fear and most unabashed desire; surely, they can never illumine our mind’s darkest shadows—all these demons locked in somewhere between the light in our eyes. For this pain is born and bred inside the brain, in complete disconnect with the outside world. And all we can do is hide the key and put on a smile, these emotions only for us to know, and us to feel.
It would make perfect sense, then, that the suffering of a stranger has absolutely no bearing on our being—and much less that of an animal! Their pain is to them only, after all; their thoughts fleeting and unaffecting; their consciousness ending at the confines of their skull. Alas, physical space is a barrier all too impenetrable to transcend.
Yet the more and more I challenge my surroundings, meditate on eternal oneness or listen to George Harrison lyrics, the clearer it is to see through the wall of illusion this logic is rooted in—a harsh byproduct of thinking terribly too three-dimensionally! Instead, it is crucial to recognize our metaphysical connection to every living being, as well as the astonishing influence of consciousness itself on the world.
At least if you’re a quantum physicist. For decades, bizarre phenomena such as quantum entanglement—or, more scientifically termed, “spooky action at a distance”—have forced scientists to question our strict separation in spacetime from well, everything else in this existence. Basically, an event at one point of the universe can instantaneously influence another event at any other point on a photonic level, arbitrarily of distance! In fact, the simple act of measuring a particle can somehow communicate, through unseen channels, the properties of another particle it is entangled with light-years away.
This seemingly violates the local realist view of causality that the properties of physical objects exist independently of our observation. Now that’s some matrix-like shit indeed. Theoretically, everything in the universe is connected through a quantum web.
Oh, and those thoughts you think with such cursory negligence? Well, don’t take them for granted, as each one of them actualizes themselves with their own unique electromagnetic imprint—an energy governed by the same universal law as all that funny quantum stuff. Further experiments, among other interesting phenomena, emphasize the participatory power of human perception, leading physicists to make conclusions ranging from “thought can influence matter” to the whole damn universe is “entirely mental” in nature!
Okay crazy dude, what the hell are you going on about?! And what’s this gotta do with chicken rights??
Oh . . . right. Well basically: Everything in the universe is energy, and this energy is all entangled on some level, even our innermost emotion. Hence we should care about the suffering of all forms of sentient life, progressing towards a more metaphysical worldview which prioritizes the power of thought and the primacy of consciousness—an energy infinitely expansive and creative. Moreover, we mustn’t denounce this as simply a byproduct of the body, but think of the body instead as a physical manifestation of a multi-dimensional entity, one in turn linked with everyone and everything there is in three-dimensional space and time.
In fact, space-time itself may be seen as a collective illusion—as is our rigid independence from the outside world, and all other beings in it . . . but that’s for another day. (Or is it??)
Introducing metaphysics into the equation for animal welfare is hardly a new concept. Philosophers as early as Pythagoras, when journeying to the largely vegetarian civilization of Ancient Egypt around 535 BC, became an impassioned advocate for animals, pleading to show sympathy for sentient beings who—at least on some level—share with us the same soul. For scholars in this vein, eating intelligent life was akin to cannibalism.
It is Arthur Schopenhauer, however, who was perhaps the most vehement defender of animal rights among modern Western philosophy, going on to state in his On the Basis of Morality that “Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to living creatures cannot be a good man.” This is because for Schopenhauer, all animals (humans included) are subjective manifestations of the one metaphysical will. And although the intellect may differ, the emotions, desires, and overall lifeforce are essentially the same among all sentient life.
As a result of this Buddhist-influenced monistic philosophy, the empathetic German condemned violence against any animal, and implored his followers to identify with other beings when they exhibit grief or suffering—to understand that the underlying essence of the universe flows through them as it does within us. This understanding is thus crucial to achieving a transcending state of awareness, thereby developing a form of universal empathy.
Henceforth, we are each of us ways for the cosmos to know itself. And, on a fundamental level, we can recognize ourselves deeply in other animals.
We are not above nature. We are an essential part of it: our consciousness connected, our biology intertwined. At the same time, human beings are blessed with an almost God-like capacity for choice, reason and creativity. We have the ability to transcend carnal desire. We have the heart to see love in every being.
“Would this habit of eating animals not require that we slaughter animals that we knew as individuals, and in eaten as meat whose eyes we could gaze and see ourselves reflected, only a few hours before our meal?”
-Socrates, as written in Plato’s Republic (circa 380 BC)
And this love does not discriminate. (Why yes, René, not even in automata.)
And I know, there is a sacramental air that comes along with our human existence, but it is precisely this use of reason and creative freedom why our decisions are so important, for we have the capacity to alter this world to any extreme our hearts desire. Indeed, we are left with a choice to foster and quicken the consciousness of less developed personalities instead of pervading them with so much fear and suffering.
With great power comes great . . . well, you know. So which choice will you make?
Well whatever choice you want to, that’s what!
And yet there are many who may realize that perhaps that number of 56 Billion is just a tad bit too high; certainly, the amount of suffering being projected into the world from factory farming is absurd. And do we really want to put into our bodies those animals that have been through so much stress? Do we really want to eat all that fear?
Yes, “cruelty-free” meat products are rising in demand, but at the end of the day, perhaps it would be better to eat a little more like most of our cousins and ancestors—for both ethical, and other very important reasons. Perhaps we should eat a little more like Harambe.
To conclude: Attempt to see beyond yourself, and the time will come when you see we’re all one and life flows on within you and without you. You can quote me on that.
Yet even if thy not into metaphysical oneni, that’s still no excuse for cruelty . . .
Understand our Need for Compassion
“I was a hardcore vegan for fifteen years. I’ve even done raw. But socially it became horrible. I was kind of just sitting at home eating a salad. You become mean. That’s not good for you.”
-Andre 3000, to Esquire magazine (27 Aug, 2014)
To any reader(s) still left, I beseech you to attempt this pointless exercise: Drive to your nearest fast food joint and buy the most vile burger on the menu. Then meditate on this video of cows playing with a bouncy ball on repeat. Observe their joyous spirit! Delight in their lust for life! Picture yourself in the same position.
After conjoining with their cow souls on a quantum level, turn to that grotesque hunk of flesh you just spent your murder-endorsing money on. Doesn’t look so appetizing now, does it?!
Oh . . . it does? Ah well, no need to get your panties in a bunch.
The purpose of this article is not to advocate a strict vegan imperative (which wouldn’t be hypocritical of me at all!) because there is no way of winning that argument. Even the form of ethics one ascribes to is completely subjective, and ultimately, each person is free to make their own choices in life, deciding individually what they think is right. We are the ones who create the reality of this existence. There is no objective guideline given by God.
But at the very least, I want this article to make you think. Make you question why some practices are so ingrained in our culture when they can be viewed as so barbaric from another perspective. Because indeed, there doesn’t seem to be any acceptable moral basis for loving some animals while letting others suffer—with the only real answer being it’s just how we are conditioned to think about them.
This doesn’t mean you’re automatically on moral high ground by choosing to undo this cultural bias by not eating anymore sentient life. Hell, you can be passionate about animal welfare and annihilating an entire human race at the same time! But certainly, you’ll be less ethically conflicted by your love for animals and the cruelty that is factory farming.
And by PETA ads.
There are undoubtedly countless people out there who would agree that lessening the pain in this world is a noble purpose to follow, and veganism may be right for them. Likewise, if you are an animal lover, well it’s not right to hate other human beings who have opposing viewpoints. And it certainly isn’t right to threaten them with murder!
As a society we seem so obsessed with trying to bring others down instead of attempting to remind them of all the good they possess within.
Yes, the whole Harambe situation was a mess. But why are people so fixated on trying to punish the parents? What good is that going to accomplish?! Mistakes happen, man. Gorillas die. Those parents have been through enough. And if not focusing more on the immeasurable number of less fortunate animals, we also should never lose sight of our own internal issues; including poverty, death, and discrimination, as well as the myriad of children whose lives are lost everyday—either by homicide, or by growing up in torturous environments.
But maybe, just maybe, if we dare to try something new for a change, and choose to eradicate oppression from the ground up—that is, starting at a species level—then we could be united through kindness and kinship, and other matters may fall into place.
We are human beings. We each have within us a creativity unlike any other; a capacity for the greatest of goods, and most abhorrent of evils. We have the faculty for forgiveness. We have the empathy to see ourselves in every being. Our progression as a species rests on the ability to wake up to this realization, instead of drawing invisible lines between us as justifications for violence and hate.
So now turn off the damn television, put on that song which gives you hope, and take a walk outside, knowing everything is going to be alright.
But before you come back in, make sure to take a long look through the trees, the sky, and the cars passing by—their destination unbeknownst to you. Gaze up at the stars reflecting your image, and then back down to that little caterpillar crawling through the grass, just trying to find a home for himself.
Marvel at the miracle of consciousness all around you, manifest in everyone and everything you’ve ever known. Just don’t let this world make you forget that.