Through Their Eyes
An essay about why I am a Vegan
People will ask me occasionally, “Why are you a vegan?” To which I will typically reply, “For moral reasons.” Usually the conversation ends there, or turns into some form of “I agree, but I could never do it myself.” Both of these responses I find to be reasonable and socially acceptable. Truthfully though, I prefer when people do not ask the follow up question of what my ‘moral reasons’ are. I prefer it even more when people do not ask me about my diet at all. I tend to avoid talking about being a vegan, especially to those whom I am not particularly acquainted with. I am what you may consider a silent vegan. However, when I reflect on these moral reasons, I find the internal dialog more forthcoming. I begin these reflections by going through the following process, a thought experiment, so to speak.
I start by thinking of some animal that has had a major impact on my life: a beloved pet, the dogs I worked with, a friend’s pet, etc. I pick one, typically one of my own from either my past or present, and I begin to build a picture of their mental life. By the term mental life, I am referring to the sensation of experiencing an internal, psychological world. Put another way, what it would be like to experience the complex thoughts and emotions of that animal. Put even another way, what is reality through their eyes. Before moving on with this thought experiment, I shall address one objection to this approach.
Many may scoff at the proceeding sentiment of animals possessing a mental life, believing them to possess minimal cognitive processes. Animals do not possess the capacity to speak with languages like we do, and as such lack the ability to reminisce about the past like we do, to reflect on their existence like we do, to feel complex emotions like we do, to have as mentally rich works such as we do. Many would argue, to varying degrees of success, that animals are physically incapable of experiencing a mental life remotely comparable to that of a human. In short, they are simply less than human.
But how do we know this, how do we know that they are “less than?” True, the higher cognitive and intellectual abilities are obviously absent from them, or they would have certainly organized against us with their superior physical abilities. However, how do we know that they do not feel the pain and joys of a rich mental life? How do we really know that the pig in the gestation crate, in its lucid moments between bouts of induced insanity, does not yearn for a better world? The short answer is that we cannot ever fully know the answer to this question, any more than I can ever know what it is fully like to live the life of another human being.
The only way can see into the mental life of another, animal or human, is through their behavior, including what they verbally say to us in the case of humans. When we apply such processes to humans, no one questions this, we call it psychology. But when we apply such logic to animals, many reject it, and call it a false equivalency. There is no sound justification to this rejection. I believe, many reject this only because of the discomfort that acceptance would bring. What we are able to perceive and observe of others, animal or human, is the only information that we are able to take in from their mental life. Speculation based on behavior is the only known way to observe the mental life of any other living creature. Which brings me back to my process of personal reflection.
Once I have selected an animal that has had great significance to my life, I reflect on the behaviors that I have witnessed. I think back to the various elements of its personality that I have watched develop. I imagine all of the weird and quirky things that they do that distinguish their behavior from other such animals I have known. I imagine all of the places that they enjoy to be scratched, the toys that they prefer over others, the games they like to play, the various things that they have done to endear themselves to me, and all of the times they have, for various reasons, rebuffed my affections.
I try to speculate where the individual differences have arisen from. Why is it that one cat loves their belly rubbed, while another cat hates it? Why was one dog obsessed with squeaky toys and the other deathly afraid of them? What led to those individual differences? Was it purely genetic or was it purely environmental? We have learned from psychology that it was most likely some combination of both. Knowing this, what impact does environment have on the mental life of animals? When a cat is abandoned by its mother at 5 weeks old, what effect does that have on its mental life? How about when we drop it off at the vet to be spade or neutered? When they get into a fight with another animal? When we come home drunk and loud? What impact does any event have on their mental life?
We humans tend to say none. We tend to dismiss such thoughts as meaningless, as anthropomorphizing animals, and projecting reflections of our own psyches onto them. In some cases, this may be true, but in others, I feel, that we do not consider the impact of these events enough. What is happening when an animal dreams? Anyone who has woken a dog from a dream can see how disoriented they are. They can see that moments before they were, mentally, somewhere else. Where were they? Anyone who has ever seen a dog grieve the loss of a family member, either canine or sapiens, can see that they remember that individual. They can see that they miss them. Anyone who has ever seen an animal arbitrarily choose to give their affection to one person, and withhold it from another, knows that that animal is choosing that person. But why? What has led to this behavior? Is it purely genetic? Is it the result of some memory, some psychological structure we do not understand? What is happening behind their eyes?
I speculate about these complexities. I imagine the richness with which their mental lives exist. I imagine all of the love, affection, caring, and frustration that that single animal has given me. I take all of that experience, personality, uniqueness, pain, and joy… and I put it inside of a crate.
Often times a crate without enough space to properly extend all of its limbs to full distance. I think back to the mental life of that beloved animal, and I speculate what effects such a crate would have on that specific animal from my life. Then, I speculate how that animal would feel, living in that crate, cold and utterly isolated, covered in its own soiled and bloody skin and fur. What mental processes may be happening in that moment? All of the energy that was put into the development of personality, quirks, affection, and all of things that made it who it was; what would happen to that personality inside of that crate?
From there I imagine, what effect persistent physical abuse would have on that animal. Would they eventually become numb to the blows of cruel keepers, or would they feel the sting of every kick? What would the experience of being beaten until your bone break feel like? Would they remember that moment the rest of their lives? I try to envision how would it feel for my childhood dog, an Irish Setter named Hunter, to be jabbed in the leg with a hot branding iron. I imagine the pain that he would go through to be neutered without anesthesia, to have to sit there, bucking against the restraints, while his genitals are mutilated. I speculate on what effect that these events would have on his mental life, how they may have changed him. How would his personality have been different had this happened to him; would he still have been the sweet timid dog who loved to run in the park?
I play out this process with other animals I have known, and other, almost inconceivable tortures. All tortures readily available to watch from the comfort of your home, on YouTube, or documentaries from animal rights groups. They are all inconceivable tortures, that, if you had done to your pets at home would have you labeled, rightfully so, as a sociopath. I go through this thought experiment, over and over again, whenever I begin to question my commitment being a vegan. I try to imagine the pain in my own body, I try to imagine how my beloved animals would have reacted in those moments. I try to imagine the mental anguish that they would experience, how their lives would have been warped, their personalities would have been obliterated. I try to imagine how they themselves would suffer as the countless other animals do who were not born lucky enough to be born as cute as Hunter was.
And then at the end of it all, at the end of the tortures, the abuses, the insanity, the consuming and complete decimation of everything that they were, the moments where they are nothing but a desolate shell of existence; at the end of all of that, I kill them. Sometimes I imagine the feeling of an electrode being shoved inside of them to, hopefully, stun them. However, despite the best efforts of those to incapacitate the animals, this does not always happen. And it happens frequently. I imagine would it would feel like, on my own body, to be fully conscious as a speeding bolt is plunged into my brain. I imagine what the terror must be like to watch as a knife is slid across my throat, feeling the hot blood pouring down my chest and onto the floor. I imagine the final moments of my life being filled the stench of shit and blood, with chaos and confusion, and violence unimaginable to anything I have ever experienced. I bring my most beloved animals to this place to watch them die as so many do every day.
When our Irish Setter Hunter died, he went with dignity and love. We had a veterinarian, a kind young woman, come to the home. He passed peacefully there, on his favorite pillow, surrounded by his family, in as little pain as possible. He is remembered and missed by us. In that moment of death, he was shown more compassion than the entire life spans of most animals we humans eat. In that moment of his death, he was shown more compassion, love, and dignity, than the combined lives of millions of animals eaten every day.
These are the reflections that I go through that make me a vegan, these are my “moral reasons.” Some will read this essay, or another like it, and say, “Well the animals we eat are different.” How do you know? How many cows have you ever met? How many pigs have you lived with? Some will say that those animals are not cute. But how often have you taken the time to look at them not as food, but as an animal with a personality? As an animal with the capacity to suffer, with a mental life worth understanding? Some will say that, it is too hard to be a vegan, it is too much work. To this I say, to what lengths would you go if someone stole your household pet and took them to slaughter? How many sacrifices would you be personally willing to make to get them back? Would you stop at anything to spare them that pain and suffering? Would you be a vegan to save the life of your dog or cat?
Many will try to argue that there is something qualitatively different about the lives of our pets and the lives of the animals killed for food. I have yet to see significant evidence of this. Our pets are not smarter than them, they are not aesthetically more pleasing than them, they are not more deserving than them. Their only difference is that they were born lucky enough to be animals we value more than those we choose to eat. We are only able to eat them by distancing ourselves from them, by imagining that that lack of a mental life comparable to that of ourselves and our pets. We romanticize the notion that they lack something vital, so that we may feel guiltless about what we do to them.
Many will still try to argue that by being a vegan, they will accomplish nothing. “What good can I do by being a vegan, many others will still eat animals?” To which I say, what does it matter if it does no good? If murdering and eating humans were socially acceptable, I would not do that either because it is immoral. Society is a bad yardstick to measure your personal ethics against. Furthermore, we know that it does do good. By eating animals, you are directly contributing to the process of systematically killing animals. By not eating them you directly reduce this demand. It makes as much of a difference as stopping a murder that you can prevent. Additionally, we know that a vegan lifestyle can be done affordably, healthily, and sustainably.
I began this essay by saying that I am a silent vegan. However, my friends, family, and colleagues mostly know that I am a vegan. No matter how much I try to avoid the topic it will come up eventually. All human cultures have food ingrained at their very cores. Eventually it comes out that I am a vegan; eventually it is an unavoidable topic. Yet, I have written this essay out of the guilt of being a silent vegan, a vegan who does not try to push their dogma onto others. I offer this thought experiment as a simple guide to those who wish to understand how I see the mental lives of those animals that we choose to love, and those we choose to consume. I offer it to those individuals who wish to see behind the eyes of those animals we kill in the name of culture, food, capital, and convenience. When you see the world through their eyes, being a silent vegan is truly the least that I can do.