Isn’t eating meat a personal choice?

Can a choice be personal if it has a victim?

Justice is the concept by which fairness is administered. In democratic societies, justice dictates that we are generally free to do what we want as long as it doesn’t harm, exploit, or infringe upon the same rights and freedoms of others.

Truly personal choices include how to style your hair, what color shirt to wear, and whether you prefer to use a pen or a pencil. Consuming animal flesh or secretions is also a choice, but the consequences of your choice extend far beyond you, so they can hardly be called “personal.” Animals are victims of non-vegans’ choice to exploit them. “Personal” choices don’t have victims.

Choice requires free will and a basic understanding of the options and their consequences. So when did you first “choose” to consume meat, milk, or eggs? As Dr. Milton Mills likes to say, “We were all born without preferences. No one asked for fried chicken, ice cream, or pork chops in the delivery room.” The fact is, you probably can’t remember the first time you “chose” to consume animals, because, like most of us, you were given animal flesh and secretions by your parents when you were too young to make a choice. Now that you’re older, eating this way has become a habit.

Humans live in societies, where our actions and choices are governed by what that society deems acceptable. Most people in the Western world believe that it’s wrong to torture and eat cats and dogs, but perfectly acceptable to do the same to animals equally as sentient and capable of suffering. There are no apparent negative social consequences to eating certain species of animals. These beliefs are reinforced by many cultural norms, particularly the norm of presenting animal flesh and secretions for sale in tidy packages in a brightly-lit grocery stores.

So, your consumption of animals has been a socially acceptable habit, until….you encounter a vegetarian or vegan.

Up until that time, you may have never considered the ethics of your food choices, and they probably weren’t discussed at the dinner table. But suddenly, you can’t open Facebook without encountering a vegan, and undoubtedly, the vegan’s comment will be followed by a comment that goes like this: “I respect you for being vegan, but eating meat is my personal choice.”

A person who gets defensive at the very mention of veganism is experiencing a state of cognitive dissonance: the psychological discomfort that occurs when confronted with new information that contradicts deeply entrenched beliefs. In order to relieve that discomfort, they often use the “personal choice” claim as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

Claiming that the issue is “personal” is their way of saying that they don’t want to be judged or held accountable for their actions that harm animals. It’s not so much a defense as it is an attempt to block further evaluation. It also removes animals from the discussion and keeps them out of sight and out of mind, which is exactly where the animal agriculture industry wants them.

By declaring animal consumption to be a “personal choice,” non-vegans are essentially stating that:

  1. Consideration of others (if they belong to certain species) is optional, or morally relative.
  2. My momentary palate pleasure is more important than the life, suffering, and death of someone else.
  3. Animals of certain species are objects, and have no interest in, or understanding of, the value of their individual lives.

These statements require a suspension of moral reasoning. How can one meal, quickly forgotten, equal an entire lifetime of suffering ending in a violent death? The animals we use for their flesh, milk, and eggs are sentient, with at least as much of an interest in staying alive, avoiding pain and suffering, and seeking pleasure as the dogs and cats with whom we share our homes.

For non-vegans, the basic concept of justice does not apply to certain species of non-human animals. The animal victims arrive on their plates already transfigured into fork-ready products, and their suffering and death therefore remain absent, both physically and psychologically, from those who consume the end result. This absence is the basis of the denial inherent in the claim that people are making a “personal choice” to consume animal flesh and secretions.

Carol Adams explains in her landmark book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, the concept of “the absent referent.” Behind every meal of animal flesh is an absence: the death of the animal whose place the meat takes. The absent referent functions to:

  • Cloak the violence inherent to meat eating, which protects the conscience of the meat eater
  • Keep “meat” separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, which renders individual animals immaterial to selfish human desires
  • Keep something from being seen as having been someone, which allow for the moral abandonment of another being

From the safety of this fantasy, non-vegans can perceive the choice to eat animal flesh and secretions as harmless. It is equivalent to eating plants.

Someone who claims that eating meat is a personal choice, equivalent to eating plants, is engaging in the logical fallacy known as false equivalence: they pretend that two opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when, in fact, they are not.

In reality, the “choice” to confine, mutilate, forcibly impregnate, kill, and eat other animals extinguishes choice and free will for them. This “choice” requires violating, killing, and dismembering others against their will.

The exploitation of, and profiteering from, the horrific deaths of around 70 billion land animals and another approximately 1 trillion marine animals every year globally is clearly not a “personal choice” for individual humans. The animal exploitation industry depends on a complex system of enabling legislation, institutionalized violence, and distribution. The ongoing holocaust against non-human animals that humans consume eclipses all human atrocities combined by its unfathomable scale and amount of suffering.

The most abhorrent aspect of this system is that it is completely unnecessary. Humans have no biological need to consume the flesh or secretions of non-human animals. The science on the health and ecological benefits of a vegan diet is overwhelming and will continue to infiltrate mainstream culture.

For the vast majority of us who have access to an abundance of plant-based food, the only choice is an ethical one: If we can live well without harming others, why wouldn’t we?

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