Shelley, Wish You Were Here


Vegetarian or vegan statements in literature are rare, just as they are rare in everyday life (which does not include Facebook where like-minded people seek each other out). Reading literature frequently serves up one dead animal after the other, akin to the quotidian reality of driving down the road and passing the meat truck and turning on the radio to hear that politicians are cramming down dead pigs in Iowa. Case in point is All Quiet on The Western Front, where hardly a page goes by without canned meat, a dead fowl, some occasion to find and kill an animal as if vegetables and grains do not exist. Maybe there is a thematic link between the ubiquity of animal slaughter and the horrors of WWI, as the novel depicts to the veganistically aware reader the notion that one insensate carnage deserves the other.

How thrilling then to meet the anti-speciesist philosophy of Percy Bysshe Shelley inhabiting the lines of his lofty poetry. Over two hundred years before Peter Singer helped us out by clarifying speciesism, Shelley had the concept down pat: he saw all animals (humans included in that category) as kindred and abhorred the cruelty of raising animals for slaughter whether in the name of religion, sport, or food. He gave up meat, as did Mary Shelley, his second wife. Mary Shelley, by the way, created one of the most famous characters in literature, the creature in Frankenstein, who is a vegetarian; existing in a natural and childlike state, he is innately good and therefore does not eat animals. He only turns to vengeful acts after suffering cruelty and isolation.

In Shelley’s philosophical poem “Queen Mab,” a fairy leads a spirit on a tour of humanity — past, present, and future. (I wonder if Dickens got the idea of his various ghosts taking Scrooge on tours from this poem.) The future constitutes his utopia of which one feature is that animals are no longer subjected to the cruelty of Man.

“. . .no longer now
He slays the lamb that looks him in the face,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh,
Which still avenging nature’s broken law,
Kindled all putrid humours in his frame,
All evil passions, and all vain belief,
Hatred, despair, and loathing in his mind,
The germs of misery, death, disease, and crime.”

Also, in “Alastor,” the narrator/poet avows that he has not injured any “bright bird, insect, or gentle beast . . .but still loved and cherished these my kindred.”

Aside from the feeling of serendipity that discovering such lines brings, can any importance attach to the fact that one or two random literary geniuses from the past share in my beliefs? Shelly’s veganism has importance to some degree as inspiration for others, those English majors who take a course in Romantic poetry and pay attention to what Shelley says. For me personally, Shelley’s magnanimity of spirit endears him to me, attracting me even more to his work. However, just as I have to associate with nonvegans in daily life, I still must and will read non vegan writers and will still revere my household gods, Emily Bronte and John Keats, who were not vegan. (By the way, I do believe that Emily Bronte would have been if circumstances had been different.)

Beyond serving as possible inspiration to the select few and a kindred link to my world, his conviction against cruelty to nonhuman animals illustrates what I, as a Stoic, value most among Stoic ideals: self-sufficient thinking and the application of reason. How odd he was at the time, not eating meat (and not believing in god, an avowed atheist). He knew of Pythagoras as a vegetarian forerunner, but his decision to quit meat made him a renegade and activist facing a culture notable for an extremely callous attitude toward nonhuman animals, fueled by a religion that insisted that Man, of all the species, was the only to have the all-important soul. He arrived at his principles through the exercise of his own reason and he had no qualms about living in accordance with his principles.  Although I might value my own independent judgment and don’t need Shelley’s example to endorse what I know is right, I suppose there is nothing wrong in harboring a hero or two and feeling slightly smug that I am in good company.


Along the Appian Way

I believe that I saw my first crucifixion when I was ten, getting a pretty close look at the arresting spectacle as I rolled past in the family ox-drawn cart that was taking us from our villa in Apulia down the Apian Way to visit Uncle Antonius at olive picking season.  My first experience gave me a lot of bang for my buck because there had been a little slave revolt in a neighboring town and a hundred of the rascals were all nailed up along both sides of the road at intervals of about an arm’s length. One could hardly miss taking in every detail with the crosses lining the road at no more than a man’s height from the ground, but my gaze stayed the longest on the ones that were most alive. We did whip up the ox a bit to get through quickly because the flies were really annoying.   I asked my father how come I had never seen a crucifixion before, given that they were common; I heard all about them and had thought about practicing one for myself on a cat, but he got away and then I lost the nails.

“Well, figlio mio,” Pater explained, “crucifixions are for the vilest kinds of criminals, like slaves and traitors. So you wouldn’t see one every day.”

“But it seems like a waste when they could have gone to the Colosseum as entertainment.  I’m sure we would rather see them trying to run from a hungry lion and then get ripped apart one limb at a time rather than hanging there groaning and making faces.”

“I guess there is no shortage of folks for the games, and the Tribune needed to make a lingering example. For some reason slaves keep trying to revolt; they don’t get it that there will always be slaves and that is their lot in life.”

“Maybe a revolt will succeed one of these days and there will be no more slaves?”

“No, no, figlio, there have always been slaves; that is the way of the world.  It is human nature to take captives from a conquest. Look at the example of history.  Everyone has done it. I think it is in our genes as humans to subjugate other weaker individuals. Some day we might evolve to be able to take another creature’s perspective, but as of now our credo is, “If it’s good for me, then it’s good.”

“But slaves are sort of like us.”

“No they are of an entirely different sort—not Roman at all; so we can do whatever we please.”

Pater’s way of looking at things has stuck with me for a long time and has worked out all right as my approach to living.  However, there have been moments of doubt . . . when I think of our conversation I also remember the distorted bodies and anguished cries and at times I wonder at my feeling a vague sense of unease and dislike for crucifixions.  However, I just cannot get over the immutable truth that both slavery and severe punishment are part of our culture, that Rome’s culture is the best, and that such practices have gone on for thousands of years.  Who am I to question something that Pater and his pater and so on have done?  We couldn’t live without slaves and my needs are perfectly served by the suffering of other creatures. Well!  Glad I settled that.  I’m off to the games to for some rollicking good entertainment. Wild beasts are on the schedule today; then off to a pig roast.

Ignorance is Bliss and What Else?

I have at times reflected on that old adage that ignorance is bliss in connection with my fairly recent understanding of the horrors perpetrated by humans against other creatures. I have even stated to a friend in conversation that never was the phrase “ignorance is bliss” more true than for me in facing the reality of animal food (and nota bene that is a matter of knowledge and not belief; I don’t believe animals suffer; they do — empirically provable).  At some point, I succeeded in drawing back the heavy, opaque, and vast curtain of culture, and behold . . .the horror.  Oh! the happiness of being a part of the mainstream, fitting right in, arm and arm with my fellow humans eating steak and thinking yum, isn’t this tasty.  Not fitting in with the majority is difficulty; the price for awareness is a calm and complacent mind.  Should I not lament the knowledge I have acquired?  Should I not wish to turn back the clock to the time when I could sit down with people without disgust and amazement? I would not be at odds with my family, who persist in believing that turning a blind eye is an acceptable way to live; I would have my choice of items from menus based on cruelty;my tolerance for human beings would be much higher. That would be the bliss of ignorance.

None of these questions of the value and cost of knowledge arise because I miss the steak or any of the animal food—not in the least. Foregoing animal flesh as a matter of sustenance and taste is easy. Good things to eat abound (as long as I don’t seek them in a restaurant). As a Stoic, I would agree with Seneca that caring greatly what one eats is excessive and elevates the trivial. Looking at everyone going after meat without a thought, slicing up the dead pigs, and tossing out the pieces of uneaten cow that they couldn’t finish is the hard part.  Knowing that some animal suffered horribly and died a frightful death so some overweight human with a bulging belly could chew it up is repulsive.  Should I then lament my knowledge and awareness and shield others to preserve their ignorance?

Maybe an indication that a thought is moral is that it is not necessarily tranquility-producing; it is indeed disturbing, troubling, and a through challenge to tranquility (which, as a Stoic, is my goal to make me bearable to myself and others).  I propose as a touchstone for morality, then, this test: does taking a certain course of action make things more difficult?  If it does, one is probably doing the right thing.

The Meaty Family Reunion

I had planned the Memorial Day weekend trip to Oklahoma for the big family reunion for several months, working out the logistics of taking my parents, who at 86 and 91, make travel challenging. Little did I know that the trip would coincide with my fervent conversion to animal activism. Various ideas that had floated around my mind for years about animals and meat- eating coalesced just a few weeks before the trip when I read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer; that book explained that “speciesism,” i.e., favoring the human species to the cruel detriment of other species, is immoral, just as other self-serving and oppressive views, also ending in “ism,” are immoral.

One material way I expressed my epiphany was in donating to organizations and acquiring pamphlets and tee shirts.  One had the message “Compassion Over Killing,” with a paw print.  I began to consider the trip as an opportunity for activism. I was headed for a gathering of people who did not even consider questioning the culture of animal production for meat or of hunting. Some of my cousins had grown up on a farm and had raised “prize” animals for the FFA without any qualms about the animal’s destiny at auction.  Maybe I should wear my tee shirt. I debated with myself at some length about wearing it on the plane and to the first night’s potluck dinner. When I dressed for the flight, I wore a silk shirt and tossed the tee shirt in the suitcase.

We gathered Saturday evening for dinner, which, according to tradition, included milling and chatting before dinner and a time for each family representative to update the group on the latest news.  Amidst a lot of hugs and nice-to-see-yous I nailed my cousin Andy, who works for the Department of Agriculture, wanting to ask him if he had any experience with factory farms.  He did. To him, some were okay and some were “pretty bad.”  Then, changing the subject, he wanted to show me photos on his phone of two pigs that his son Luke had bought as part of an entrepreneurial project. He thought that it would show initiative and look good for college applications. I told him that pigs are smarter than dogs.  He agreed, adding that they have lots of personality and loved to have their bellies scratched.  I suggested that he keep them as pets and not sell them.

After dinner where every dish was laced with meat, we took turns standing to update the group. Hungry, I talked briefly about my husband and kids and, for myself, I stated that I had become very interested in animal rights, particularly opposing the cruelty of factory farming. Next to speak, sitting right beside me, was my cousin by marriage who focused, as mothers will, on her son, who plays soccer, football and… he hunts.  She proceeded to graphically describe his prowess at shooting the squirrels and harmless trundling armadillos in his backyard, “right between the eyes.” At that point she did realize rather suddenly that I might have found her anecdotes offensive; I chuckled and said that the slaughterhouse anecdote was no doubt next.

The next day I wore my tee shirt. We reconvened for breakfast and for a repeat pot-luck at the cemetery where we met to put flowers on the graves. I appreciate my cousins.  I have fond memories of things we did as kids; I remember their kindness at my brother’s funeral at that same cemetery, and I believe I will count on them to help me out when I show up there for my parents. But I think they can stand the challenge of a new idea without taking offense — or they might take offense.  It’s an offensive world, especially for people with ideas outside of the mainstream like not treating animals like commodities. It turns out that a couple of cousins that last day did ask my about my vegetarianism because they were truly interested.  Maybe my expression of concern for animals, either spoken or worn on my tee shirt, will be one little notion that, added with others, will someday make them question the practices of our culture towards other species

The Practice of Not Thinking

I heard on the radio that there is a movie coming out about David Foster Wallace. I have read very little by him, but I always take notice of the name because he was my brother’s favorite writer. I am not drawn to his style of writing, but my opinion will stop there pending better acquaintance with his work. I am, however, very drawn to his essay “Consider the Lobster.”  I can relate to his experience at a lobster festival, having had to endure a Maine lobster dinner on a large scale at Bowdoin College.  It was impossible to look away; the boiled creatures were everywhere. How do we engage in such cruelty?  We simply don’t think, just as Wallace points out in this excerpt I have reprinted below. How many of the ills of the world can we attribute to a lack of thought and a reliance on that self-serving substitute for thinking, culture? Countless, no doubt. I would be curious to know if Wallace’s depression arose, to any extent, from a sad disgust with the practices of human beings such as the one he describes here. I also wonder if anyone did shy away from eating lobster after reading his essay in “Gourmet Magazine” or elsewhere.

“However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into a steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster is fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little light-weight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole purpose of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?”

An Amazingly Ordinary Goose

I heard a “delightful” animal anecdote today about a Canadian goose who had been rescued as a young bird by a family of animal-sensitive humans. They had found him injured beside his crushed sibling, took him home, and raised him as a companion animal. The point of the anecdote was to relate, with due amazement, this bird’s remarkable behavior that includes the utmost attachment to his saviors: he follows them everywhere, acting more like a faithful and well-trained family dog than a wild bird. I am the odd man out, I suspect, in my reaction to the story. It just makes me sad, not charmed. I don’t think that this one bird is a genius goose. I don’t take him as the remarkable contrast to the typical “bird-brained” animal just because he shows interests, such as an attachment to other creatures, which bespeaks a true degree of intellect and emotion. People need to find this goose sui generis or rara avis (the better Latin phrase in this instance). How can your generic goose be like this clever goose when we stuff geese into cages and force feed them to swell their liver so we can feast on foie gras or make their carcass the centerpiece for a Christmas meal? We like to think they are not “smart” or capable of affection and that this one goose is simply remarkable. He is a goose and his behavior is not astounding any more than the behaviors of so many animals, such as cows, pigs, and turkeys, when they are not consigned to cruelty and cages. I have a cockatiel who knows my son and likes him more than anyone else.  When he hears his voice he flies to him even if he is several rooms away; I might offer that as an “amazing” animal exhibition, but I don’t think it is at all except to people who insist on denying the depth of an “animal’s” existence (forgetting we are animals too) which makes eating them so much easier. I wish I could be exempt from hearing such stories as it only disturbs me.  Oh well I am doomed to be disturbed — hunting season is coming to New York State… oh that pesky deer population, must bag a few as a service to what?  Our yards?  One last thought, now that I have segued to hunting:  humans have proven that one of the most firmly entrenched needs for many is to feel superior to someone else: whites had to feel superior to blacks or indigenous people or any one they could find; one tribe or religion had to feel superior to some other; men had to feel superior to women.  Even some mean girls have to feel superior to other girls and on it goes.  People might not like to admit that they have fallen so low as to need to be better than other species, but I think so.  Hunters need to feel superior to other animals. One lucky goose and millions of very unlucky other creatures.

Your Cultural Heritage—Question it!

It is the common view that the culture of a society or group is special, valuable, and worth preserving. The term culture is vast, encompassing all aspects of daily life, as well as history and beliefs touching the larger issues of law, morality, and an afterlife. Given the breadth of what constitutes culture, in considering our culture as valuable we pave the way to affirm a host of behaviors and beliefs in one fell swoop without giving them any thought.

That common view might well be erroneous, so that, to the contrary, the culture of any given society (or large chunks of it) might not be in the least necessarily or inherently special, valuable, or worth preserving. Why should the practices from a long time ago, in more ignorant times, hold sway over a thinking individual years later in a different time and even a different  place?  The even more insidious role of culture it to circumvent the use of reason –when one can’t muster a good and non-self-serving reason for some act or idea, he or she resorts to the safety blanket of culture. I should give examples here, but then I would seem biased against one set of cultural values over the other, so I will say generally, any cultural practices that perpetuate oppression or cruelty, subjugation of one group over the other, or defy any rational explanation need to be questioned and not accepted.

Two examples of culture have come up lately in the news that exemplify my contention that we should step back and stop waving the banner of our culture like it was a grand accomplishment and consider it for what it is: a load of ideas from other people, who might have gotten things very wrong. First, the story in the New York Times about the Chinese eating dogs illustrates the way we use culture without thought to obfuscate an unfathomable amount of suffering and a practice that could easily be considered repulsive.  The Chinese find it culturally acceptable to eat dogs; Americans find that abhorrent because in our culture we have an affinity for dogs.  In that difference of views, one might contest that the Chinese are not wrong in eating them, why? Here it comes: “ it’s their culture.”  I would say, “so what;” of course it is, but that does not make it right. However, are we right, and is our cultural practice of not eating dogs better?    It is better that we don’t eat dogs, not because we culturally find them non-edible, but because not eating them shows a side of compassion and empathy that any society would want to encourage, since those are two good and non-self-serving qualities that make the world a better place.

However, another story in the New York Times flips the scenario between American and foreign culture, putting the empathy and compassion on the other side.  The article lends a critical tone to the cultural practice of Hindus not being able to kill cows. American culture is all for killing cows. I must acknowledge that the reason Hindus do not kill cows might not comport with my ideas of reasonableness, being (I suspect) a religious practice adopted without question. However, if Hindus were to question the received practice, the conclusion to not kill them could be the same. By the same token, our predilection for cow-killing needs to be questioned. Eating dogs strikes us as horrible, but cows are sentient creatures, not as dumb as we like to think, that have interests and affections and that most importantly fear death and can suffer (and of course do suffer at the hands of dog-loving Americans by the millions).

Maybe eating dogs makes as much sense as eating cows or not eating cows.  The point is all three cultural groups need to question the practice and not trot out the old excuse—it’s our culture. Cultural examination should, like charity, begin at home; let’s consider our practices of not eating dogs, but eating cows and pigs and birds.  Food is one of the most central aspects of culture, to the extent that people say they have enjoyed a visit to a foreign land (or not) because of the food.  People commonly choose a travel destination for the food.  I find all of that a bit silly.  Elevating food to a passion does not comport in the least with my Stoic side, but I realize that I am the odd man out on the topic of feeding oneself. Hence given the importance of food and its centrality to culture, let’s take a look at what we are doing under the blanket of culture. One way of questioning the acceptability of animal consumption is to imagine a school field trip to a factory farm or slaughter house. “Children, we visited the bakery and the fire station last year.  This semester, as part of our nutrition unit, we will visit the factory farm and its associated slaughter house to see where our meat comes from. We will need chaperones and are having a hard time finding parents who want to make this trip, so please encourage one of your parents to come along with us.”

How can we defend a part of our culture that we have to keep hidden away? Culture dumbs us down and suffocates our own faulty of reason. Reason (of the sort that embraces the value of compassion over self-serving interest) might dictate a few conclusions along the following lines: if something is so horrible that I could not stomach seeing it, then it is not something that should be tolerated; if what I am doing in eating meat necessitates the suffering of millions of sentient creatures then that is not compassionate, but supremely selfish and I should stop it; if there are so many good things to eat that do not inflict suffering, that reduce greenhouse gasses, and that support good health then I should eat those things and not animals; if I can be compassionate rather than cruel and self-serving, I should do that because a world based on compassion creates a better place to live.

Someone’s beloved culture at one time whole-heartedly supported human sacrifice, gladiatorial games, the subjugation of women, slavery, racism, anti-homosexuality, bull-fighting, bear baiting.  Reason taught the wrongness of those practices. Consider giving reason a chance against culture to subvert the most pervasive of non-compassionate and bloody of practices at work in America today.

Most Influential Books

What books have had the greatest influence on your life?  That sounds like a prompt for a college admission essay. Many long years away from college applications, I can now easily answer that there are two books.  The first is The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William Irvine, which then led to another, The Essays and Letters of Seneca. (I might more correctly say I have three influential works, except those two I take together as responsible for revealing Stoicism to me).  The second is also in the philosophical genre: Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer.

What the two have in common and what makes them truly influential is that they caused me to question an entire way of living and to make me change for the better. They both also put together in a cogent and rational scheme disparate ideas that I had formed on my own, but which I did not fully understand or trust.  In particular, with regard to Stoicism, I discovered, as I had partly surmised, that no one was responsible for anyone else’s tranquility.  We are each responsible for our own state of mind and we can influence our outlook by resorting to reason over emotion.  Hence, I had, even pre-Stoicism, suspected that taking your troubles to a therapist or counselor, that complaining generally to others, that extolling and indulging your emotions, including the vaunted ones of joy and romantic love, were detrimental to my state of mind. I had wondered about the point of worrying and hoping—and indeed, discovered the Stoic view that nothing is more pointless or aggravating than ruminating over things beyond one’s control and that hoping causes us to live a life in suspense.  I had often thought that if any given day was my last, I should not want to live it differently than any other day –and right I was; Stoicism would counsel to live each day as your last because it could be your last.  Also, I had learned on my own the hard way how foolish and empty it is to seek notoriety or the good opinion of others, which Stoicism affirmed.  Last, in this cursory summary, I found in Stoicism a context for two axioms I had developed on my own: regret nothing because, if what you did was reasonable, you would do it again; and everything is an end in itself.  Culture, perpetuated mass ignorance, and the media had rendered such ideas the objects of a meandering, scavenger hunt in the dark.

Reading Irvine and Seneca transformed my outlook. I rethought a status quo that was not doing me any favors. Ditto for the second influential work, Animal Liberation. Another part of the indoctrination I received from culture, the media, and big business interests was eating animals and the attendant notion that the human species is somehow not an animal species like the others, but rather something special and above the rest. First, as for the eating of animals, I think children would have a natural revulsion to eating the flesh of an animal, but we trick them out of it by disguising what they eat in sight and name. Therefore, I ate cheeseburgers and bacon and poultry. Nonetheless, hints of what I was really doing crept up from time to time.  I decided, one type of animal at a time, not to be part of an animal’s slaughterhouse experience and began to see the animal not just the dish.  I was confused, however. Was there any justification to eating some animals based on their lower intelligence, on how they live and die, or on my own sense of necessity? How did we get to the point that practices that most people would recoil from in horror were commonplace and accepted?  I read Singer’s book, and all of those questions were answered.  The revelations had an impact on my daily life and outlook because the concept of speciesism made perfect, rational sense. An anti-speciesist attitude gave a daily voice to the basic moral axiom that disregarding the interests of others to serve your own interests at their great expense is not the moral or good way to exist.

The Stoic and the non-speciesist attitudes that I have acquired from reading do intersect. For one, Stoics denigrate affairs of the palate.  I had (even pre-enlightenment) felt that the momentary taste of bacon could not be worth an animal’s suffering or life; a momentary taste should not be accorded much importance. Stoics are not slaves to appetites. Epictetus, by the way, considered meat as appropriate for wild animals and not for humans. A Stoic outlook also encourages thinking and not accepting or following the mentality of the herd.  Seneca abhorred the slaughter of men and beasts in the Circus, although the “games” were considered a necessity for the Roman mob.  He thought that watching the shows constituted punishment. I would say the same for visiting a factory farm or slaughterhouse. Come to think of it, we might consider it as an alternative to jail for all but the brutally-minded (murderers and such who might find it right up their alley).

The Stoic attitude comes in very handy in facing the shortcomings of existence, and the knowledge of speciesism does underscore a vast human shortcoming.  To deal with that reality, I remind myself to do what I can within my control and to not torment myself with matters beyond my control. I can no more stop the suffering today than Seneca could in his time and my ruminating on it into the wee hours of night is pointless thinking. Ruminating can best be offset by some action in the daylight however small—a letter written, a petition signed, an animal not eaten. Another Stoic approach to achieving tranquility is to realize how good your life is by reckoning how much worse it could easily be; just by the subtraction of one hundred years, current daily life is an entirely pleasant prospect. I enjoy unimaginable comforts and privileges that make my life seem like an Eden compared to the typical or even upper class life of past centuries.  By the same token, if I include the existence of other species, my troubles are indeed trivial. How could I not feel tranquil in comparison? I am not crammed into a cage, at the mercy of strange other beings, cut off from my own kind, my young taken away prematurely, deprived of doing anything that comes naturally, and doomed to a frightful death. The insipid triviality of human affairs as compared to the suffering of other species strikes me forcibly all the time. The government can take my phone records; the price of something is going up – all the fodder of mundane human life is as nothing in comparison. Last, in the realization department, if I needed yet another proof of the non-existence of anything approaching a compassionate supreme being . . . but I don’t and no one really does.

I would not have written about these books on my college application essay. I would have had dinner with a friend to complain and eat some animal parts in a sauce. Better late than never and maybe even more to come.

Dear Reader

A reader raised several issues that I have considered, which has led to this post.

Dear Reader,

You noted three main issues in a response to one of my first posts on animals.  You stated that I was chiefly concerned with pain and suffering, but suggested that there were other issues and queried, “Do animals have rights?” You continued to link rights with the power to reason.  You also posited that the forces of evolution outweigh our ability to be moral.

After reading “Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer, I do have a response, which I will give here but not to the exclusion of the complete and convincing discussion of such questions in that book. If I could ask that anyone, at any time and place, to read only one book, that would be it.

Humans favor their species because doing so serves their interests, but to do so is as immoral as favoring one’s race over another or one’s sex over another. The notion of morality used in that statement comes from the notions of Jeremy Bentham and other Utilitarians, that the good of any one individual is of no more importance than the good of any other.  Or as Bentham put it: “Each to count for one and none for more than one.”   Now why should animals be included in “the one”? We are all animals and though we have the power to enslave them that does not mean it is the moral thing to do because they suffer and inflicting suffering on another creature runs against the most basic notion that keeps civilization together: we should consider another’s interests just as we would want our interests considered.  Our self- serving ideas of the special status of our species is in large part a product of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Whether to justify slavery or the subjugation of women, that good ol’ religion always has a part to play. Any question that we are somehow not animals was settled in the 19th Century by Darwin and others. Hence we have “speciesism:” the favoring of our species over all the others.

As for evolution corrupting our reason and compelling us to eat meat (if I read the thought correctly), alleviating the suffering of farm animals and even refusing to eat them does not put us at any evolutionary disadvantage. We are not in any event pitted against chickens, cows, and pigs in an evolutionary struggle to survive. I would say we improve, i.e. evolve, as reasoning and moral creatures by abstaining from meat eating; such abstinence also improves our health and would work wonders for the environment (read about the resources used and greenhouse gasses generated in raising animals for meat).

Some people innately have an affection for animals and find the thought of their suffering hard to bear and the idea of chewing their dead flesh repulsive; I am in that camp. However, beyond that,  I had always wondered how we thought what we did to them was defensible.  I thought for a time we had greater rights because we are smarter—irrelevant.  Various animals differ; we all have different abilities and traits (even among our own species that is true) but we all have the capacity to suffer and we humans have the gift of preventing it—if we just will.

My Frustration with Animal Rights’ Organizations

Dear Animal Rights Organizations,

After becoming aware of and deeply disturbed by the suffering of animals in factory farms, I sought out organizations that would help me agitate against agri-business. I donated to the Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary, and Compassion over Cruelty.  People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was next on my list, but I think that organization would have the same shortcomings as I am about to express with regard to the others.

The tried and true approaches to change, which all rights movements have used, are lacking in improving the lot of millions of suffering farm animals.  When I contributed to the above-named organizations and got on mailing lists, I was ready to join the legislative lobbying campaign for a federal bill to prevent cruelty to farmed animals, to show up at the pig factory in Iowa to protest, to travel to the gathering on a lawn hosted by Ellen Degeneris and Peter Dinklage and Beyonce to raise awareness about the suffering of farm animals. None of that, nothing similar, nothing at all pro-active politically or far-reaching in the media to raise awareness is in the works.  Instead what I found as the strategy for farmed animals is promoting vegetarianism, one person at a time. I am a vegetarian and am glad to promote it, but that is not going to be at all effective to change the practices of factory farms and slaughterhouses.

Where are the full page adds in major newspapers? Why didn’t the recent story about factory farmed chickens present a great opportunity to attack the practices of raising them in metal warehouses? Talking about the disease in the chickens and avoiding the issue of how they live and die is like investigating boll weevils in the cotton while ignoring the conditions of the slaves who picked it.

Please give people like me a change to act and to act in ways that get attention—without that chance, however much we hand out vegan recipes and remain positive we will have to live our lives knowing that every minute that passes marks a universe of unaddressed suffering.


Laura Inman