By Karen Davis, PhD, United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
The plea for ethical veganism, which rejects the treatment of birds and other animals as a food source, is not rooted in arid adherence to diet or dogma, but in the desire to eliminate the kinds of experiences that using animals for food confers upon beings with feelings. Historically, ethical vegetarianism has rejected the eating of an animal's muscle tissue, or "meat," as this requires killing an animal specifically for the purpose of consumption. The ethical vegetarian regards killing an unoffending creature simply to please one's palate and conform to society with revulsion and likewise disdains premeditating the premature death of an animal. Thus, Plutarch mourned that "But for the sake of some little mouthful of flesh we deprive a soul of the sun and light, and of that proportion of life and time it had been born into the world to enjoy."
Confronted with factory farming, more and more people have come to feel that the degradation of animals is intrinsic to producing them for food. While in nature, animals exist for their own reasons, not only for others' use, in agriculture, by contrast, animals are brought into the world solely to be used, whereby any happiness they may enjoy is secondary to their utility and dependent upon the "permission" of their owner, who has complete jurisdiction over their lives, including the right to kill them at any time at will.
Though vegetarians may choose to consume dairy products and eggs, in reality the distinction between "meat" on the one hand and dairy products and eggs on the other is moot, as dairy products and eggs are every bit as much animal parts as "meat" (muscle tissue) is. No less than muscles, these parts derive from and comprise within themselves the activities of an animal's body, and a magnitude of bodily expense. A hen's egg is a generative cell, or ovum, with a store of food and immunity for an embryo that, in nature, would normally be growing inside the egg. Milk is the provision of food and immunity that is produced by the body of a female mammal for her nursing offspring. Milk, literally, is baby food.
In reality, the production of milk and eggs involves as much cruelty and killing as meat production does: surplus cockerels and calves, as well as spent hens and cows, have been slaughtered and otherwise brutally destroyed through the ages. Historically, there have been two main solutions to the problem of unwanted bull calves: club them to death or bleed them out slowly for a couple of days and then slaughter them for veal. The "veal" calf was a "solution" to the surplus bulls of dairy farming for many centuries, long before 20th-century factory farming. The male chicken of the egg industry cannot lay eggs, and he has not been genetically manipulated to develop excess muscle tissue for profitable meat production, so the industry trashes him at birth. Spent commercial dairy cows and laying hens endure agonizing days (four or more days) of pre-transport starvation and long trips to the slaughterhouse because of their low market value. To be a lacto-ovo vegetarian is not to wash one's hands of misery and murder.
The decision to eat or not to eat animal products should not be regarded as a mere personal "food" choice. This perpetuates the view of animals as material objects, rather than as fellow creatures with precious lives of their own. It hides the fact that in choosing to consume animal products one chooses a life based on slavery and violence. Peace activist, Helen Nearing, said that one can assume a degree of sentience in plants and still recognize that "There's clearly a distinction between a new-born baby lamb and a newly ripened tomato."
Some argue that the only way to persuade people to adopt a plant-based diet is to emphasize the effects of animal product consumption on human health and the environment. While these effects should be stressed whenever possible, it is a mistake to assume that people cannot care about their fellow creatures or about a life based on equal justice. Millions of people have impulses of compassion that have been stifled by fear of social reprisal. Many will openly care and move toward change when they feel it is socially safe. Eventually, some of the physical problems that are caused by an animal-based diet may be resolved by technology. Only the shared mortality and claims of our fellow creatures upon us are lasting.