Guest Blogger: Sense About Sentience

Another guest blog post from Helena, newly vegan and a fabulous new friend!  I'm so grateful for the wonderful vegan community we have here in NYC.

It seems that becoming vegan is bringing up all sorts of questions—all the time!  Yet how to discuss this topic with friends? Some of the arguments for animal rights use such angry speech that all I want is to run and hide.   The question of Animal Rights is a big issue, often discussed in its own terms.

The second paragraph of Becoming Vegan begins with,

“What does a vegan lifestyle have to do with social justice? Nothing—if animals are regarded as resources; everything—if animals are recognized as sentient beings.”

If Becoming Vegan were a video instead of a book, this phrase would likely be followed by images of cute piglets and then factory-farmed hogs.  These images would first intend to establish the fact that I am just like a pig, and second shock me with the horror of how some pigs are treated.  Finally, the conclusion would be that I should not eat pigs!

But, might I come to the same conclusion, at least with respect to factory farmed Animals, if I stuck with the tried and true Human Rights?  After all, how should we go about proving that non-Human Animals are sentient? What does sentience even mean? Are we Humans sentient? At least several physicists are unclear on that account. 

So lets just start there, lets consider for a moment that humans are sentient.

I find a Chicken breast on my plate.  Where did it come from? The answer is simple and there can be no doubt about it, it came from a Chicken.  Scientists are beginning to learn how to grow meat on a petri dish, but the latest petri-dish burger I believe cost half a million dollars.  So lets suppose that I do not have access to such rarities and indeed the meat on my plate came from a Chicken.  It could not have come from on old Chicken, or it would not be so juicy.  It could not have come from a Chicken who died of disease, because then it would not be FDA approved.  Thus, without any reading of labels or of inquiring into the processes that took place to bring me this Chicken, I can without a doubt conclude that a healthy, reasonably young, Chicken had been killed.

Who killed the Chicken?  Who grew the Chicken and prepared it for slaughter? A Human must have done it!  This premeditated plot to bring me a Chicken breast was at the very least orchestrated by a Human, and only a moments thought or a brief Google search will convince me that in fact a Human was directly involved in the process of killing the Chicken. 

In effect, to bring me this meal, I have asked another Human being to commit an act of cruelty on my behalf!  Am I responsible?  Unlike a pair of jeans for which there is no a priori reason that child labor must have been involved, I know for certain that cruelty was involved in bringing me the Chicken!

To counter, my friend suggested that in eating meat I am merely supporting the meat industry, I am not directly causing an act of cruelty to take place.  His argument was that, because I am not forcing anyone to kill a Chicken, I cannot be held accountable if one does die. But, I am starting to disagree.  The link is simply too direct. 

Chicken breast on plate = Chicken killed by a Human

My actions have caused another Human being to commit an act that I could never be proud of my self.  It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which I could be fully aware and mindful of the situation and kill a Chicken.  Certainly no normal conditions I am aware of would warrant such a confluence of contradictions. 

One might wonder how game meat fits into this, and I would encourage them to read my first post about the fried egg experiment.  In any case, game meat is not available to me in New York.

I must conclude that to eat meat is to cause suffering on a Human being.  So in the end, I do not have to be able to project Human emotions onto other minds, like the mind of the Chicken (who knows what weird and wonderful things go on in those brains!).  It is enough to consider my own condition.