Commentary | Hyde Park: Curing our moral schizophrenia

Incoherence and contradiction is the norm with our attitudes toward nonhuman animals. We are, as Rutgers University law professor Gary Francione puts it, guilty of “moral schizophrenia” in our relations with other animals.

People generally agree that it is morally wrong to inflict suffering on animals when this suffering cannot be justified by necessity. In fact, this idea is so widely accepted that it has been enacted into provisions of Canada’s Criminal Code, which prohibits causing “unnecessary pain, suffering, or injury to an animal.” But what about our practice of raising animals for meat, dairy products, and eggs? Could it fall into this category of acts we consider morally wrong? In order to answer this question, we must first examine two sub-questions: first, does our current treatment of farm animals cause suffering? And second, is this suffering necessary?

The answer to the first question is undoubtedly affirmative. Each year in Canada, over 650-million animals are slaughtered for food – over 1.5 -million daily. Contrary to what the meat, egg, and dairy industries lead us to believe in their advertisement campaigns, which depict cows happily grazing in pastures and chickens running about in a courtyard, the modern farm has nothing to do with these idyllic country scenes.

Today, the overwhelming majority of animal products consumed by Canadians comes from large-scale industrial farming operations known as factory farms. These farms strive to produce the most meat, milk, and eggs as quickly and as cheaply as possible, in the smallest amount of space possible. The unavoidable side effect of this mode of operation is a complete disregard for the most basic physical and behavioural needs of the animals. Animals are raised to grow up in incredibly large numbers, spend their lives confined to cramped living quarters, and undergo systematic mutilation without the use of anaesthesia – tail docking, castration, and de-beaking, in the case of chickens.

These practices are considered industry standard and are perfectly legal in Canada. As soon as animals raised for meat have put on enough weight, or when dairy cows and laying hens are no longer producing enough, they are loaded onto trucks to embark on a painful and lengthy journey to the slaughterhouse.

Now that the suffering inherent in current farming practices has been established, can this suffering be deemed necessary? The question of what constitutes necessity is subject to debate, but if the term is to have any meaning at all, then it must exclude acts committed purely for pleasure, habit, or convenience.

Easy access to meat, dairy, and egg alternatives has dramatically increased in the past few years. These products are now readily available, not only in health food stores, but also in large supermarket chains, even in rural areas.

Specialists agree that well-balanced vegan diets are just as capable of satisfying our bodies’ nutritional needs as omnivorous diets. Vegetables, beans, nuts, grains, and soy products are excellent sources of protein, iron, calcium, and even omega threes. Not only are vegan diets safe, most experts consider them healthier than diets containing meat. Studies consistently show that eliminating meat from one’s diet is associated with a reduced risk of developing cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, arthritis, and certain cancers. Thus, for the great majority of Canadians, the consumption of meat and other animal products does not constitute a nutritional necessity. In fact, it may even be detrimental to our health.

Clearly, current farming practices result in tremendous suffering on the part of farm animals, and that eating meat and other animal products is not, in any meaningful sense, necessary. The only justifications for imposing suffering on farm animals are pleasure and habit. We are shocked and outraged by animal cruelty cases that make headlines – and rightly so – but what is the difference between a sadist torturing and killing an animal for entertainment and the systematic, intensive confinement and mutilation that millions of farm animals are subject to daily for our gustative pleasure?

Our morally schizophrenic attitudes toward other animals are probably best illustrated by our differential treatment of certain species: the ones we consider pets. We love our dogs and cats and treat them like members of the family. Yet, there exists no significant difference, in terms of sensitivity to pain or cognitive capacity, between dogs and cats on the one hand, and pigs, cows, and chickens on the other. What makes us love the former and not care in the slightest about the latter?

Being vegan seems weird and extreme to most people, but it isn’t. It’s simply an attempt to live life in a way that is coherent with the moral attitudes that most of us share. Veganism is the cure to our moral schizophrenia.

Sophie Gaillard is a Law I student and a Master’s ‘07 Speech-Language Pathology grad. She can be reached at sophie.gaillard@mail.mcgill.ca.


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.