A Human Factory Farm in Tahrir Square
There is something annoying about vegetarians. I can appreciate that fact. There is also something annoying about being asked to imagine something elaborate without being told what exactly it relates to. Yet that is precisely what I am about to ask of you. But don’t worry, it does not concern annoying vegetarian blabbering; it concerns Tahrir Square.
Imagine the square is packed with 200,000 human beings. They are not there to protest. Actually, they are all severely mentally disabled. Policemen have fenced them in the square, keeping them cramped and suffocated. In fact, the police are systematically torturing them all: chopping off things like their fingers tips, castrating the men without anaesthetics, pumping everyone with drugs that make them so overweight they can’t even walk properly. Eventually, one by one, the police zap their brains dead or slit their throats in a shed near Hardees that reeks of death.
Yes, yes, I lied: this isn’t really about Tahrir Square. And yes, this is a seemingly outlandish attempt to compare mentally disabled humans with livestock. But before you dig your teeth into the next admittedly delicious farm animal, I would ask you to think about what it is exactly that would be so horrible about the above hypothetical situation in Tahrir.
When we think about the things that distinguish us from animals, we usually point to capacities like our superior intelligence, the complexity of our emotions and social ties, our sophisticated languages, and ultimately, the fact that we are self-aware and have desires regarding future goals and achievements.
But the thing about these 200,000 mentally disabled humans in Tahrir – let’s call them Tahrirzies – is that they lack all of these distinguishing capacities. In fact, let me tell you a little bit more about them: while they can feel pain and basic pleasure in a way that’s no different than normal, healthy people, their capacity for rational thought and language are all but gone, and their overall limited cognitive capacities have left them locked in the present, torturous moment, unable to make sense of their circumstances or project any hopes or desires into the future.
There are millions of humans who are, to varying degrees, unfortunate in this way, whether because of an accident or disease. In other words, there are millions of humans whose mental lives are similar to and often far more limited than those of farm animals. Yet most people would argue that these mentally disabled humans still deserve a more privileged moral status than farm animals.
How can we justify this sentiment?
Is there something about the mere possession of human DNA, regardless of one’s state of health or personal capacities, which in and of itself somehow endows us with a privileged moral status?
It’s difficult to see what is morally relevant about the possession of human DNA. If it somehow turned out that half the people on the planet had alien DNA, or that their DNA was of extra-terrestrial origin, would that in and of itself suddenly mean we should treat them differently? Sure, the discovery could be used to propagate some kind of xenophobia between the two groups, but that’s all it would be: xenophobia rather than any rational reaction to the discovery.
While this DNA scenario makes no scientific sense, the point is to illustrate that a being’s DNA in itself, regardless of its nature or origin, is morally irrelevant, just like skin colour. Clearly, when it comes to how we treat others, what is relevant is the mental capacities that DNA (usually) leads to.
Alternatively, perhaps we can argue that the Tahrirzies should not be treated like animals because, despite lacking the capacities that distinguish us as a species, humans in this unfortunate state are usually loved and cared for by others who are cognitively normal – people who would suffer greatly if we suddenly treated their mentally disabled loved ones no differently than farm animals.
But what if no one personally knew the Tahrirzies? What if they were all orphans, raised in uncaring orphanages for the mentally disabled, with no healthy friends or loved ones? I think we’d all agree that wouldn’t make a difference at all: what the police were doing to them would still be equally atrocious.
At this point, we have crossed off possessing intelligence, emotional complexity, social ties, language, and human DNA as relevant factors we can use to justify why we would want to say that what is being done to these mentally disabled humans in Tahrir is wholly unjustifiable.
The one thing we haven’t yet explored is their ability to suffer. Despite lacking the capacities that distinguish us from other species, the Tahrirzies can still clearly feel pain: they still scream while being tortured just like any other mentally healthy human, and they still try to flee the source of that pain. Anguish and distress can be seen on their faces and in their postures.
At this point, it should be clear that the right question to ask regarding these poor humans in Tahrir is not, “Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
But if their capacity to feel pain is the only relevant reason we can identify in order to say what is being done to them is unjustifiable, we have a problem: farm animals have that same capacity for pain.
True, we cannot venture inside their heads to confirm this, but then, nor can we go inside any human’s head other than our own to confirm that a person’s screaming is accompanied by actual, subjective pain. All we have to go by are their behavioural cues. In the case of an animal, which will screech no differently than a human if you cut it open, and which will attempt to flee the whip and the hot poker with the same ferocity as a human would, these cues are all too clear. More concretely, the fact that the nervous system and the parts of the brain associated with processing pain are quite similar between humans and farm animals suggests that their experience of pain is no different than ours.
Perhaps you don’t think the capacity of the Tahrirzies to feel pain is the relevant issue. Perhaps you still insist, “Pain or no pain, they are still human beings! That’s what matters.” Again, though, how is one’s mere membership to a species morally relevant? In our case it is usually relevant because that membership normally entails a host of capacities that are actually morally relevant (our self-awareness, complex desires, future ambitions, etc.). But that’s not the case among the severely mentally-disabled. The only relevant moral reason we could identify for why they should be treated decently is because their capacity for pain is retained. But if pain is the relevant moral factor, we must rationally apply it to other animals as well because, as I’ve tried to show, species membership in and of itself is as morally irrelevant a factor as one’s race or gender.
Ultimately, maybe I’m missing the point. After all, you might say that eating meat is natural, yet nothing about what is happening in the Tahrir scenario is natural.
Natural = Justifiable?
Fact: unless you are stuck on an island with few things to eat but wild animals, have a rare health condition, or are (for whatever reason) impoverished and will eat whatever you can get your hands on, you never HAVE to eat meat. All the evidence suggests that a balanced vegetarian diet confers a mountain of health and environmental benefits. This is reflected in the fact that there are millions of healthy vegetarians, ones that tend to significantly outlive meat-eaters.
Nevertheless, it is true that eating meat is natural. In fact, there is evidence that it’s thanks to the invention of cooking meat that early human brains grew rapidly and evolved to be what they are today (though, given the ongoing stupidity in the world, I’m not sure if all this cooked meat has helped much!)
On the other hand, it’s far from clear how referring to what is natural is in any way relevant to what is justifiable or beneficial. Violence, greed, poor hygiene, even rape and infanticide, are all arguably “natural” dispositions, and there’s no doubt that expressing these tendencies as a species, in one way or another, has contributed to getting us to where we are today, including on an evolutionary level. But that’s no reason to argue for why we should continue doing and being these things.
And, in the same way that something as important as medicine has only advanced to where it is today thanks to centuries of abuse and unethical human and animal testing, that is not an argument for why we should remove the current ethical guidelines behind practicing medicine and start conducting experiments as we did in the 19th century, or even the 1970s.
Hence, presuming you aren’t poor or live in an unusual circumstance like an isolated location, the only valid reason why you would eat meat is because of the pleasure you derive from it: the fact that eating it may be “natural” or has contributed to our evolution is completely irrelevant.
To put the significance of this into perspective: as a meat eater, you are constantly paying other people to abuse, mutilate and eventually slit the throats of creatures with a capacity for pain that is, as far as we can tell, no different from a human’s, and you are doing so for absolutely no reason other than to satisfy a taste preference.
In case you thought this kind of mass cruelty only happened in American factory farms
Ultimately, I have tried to show that there is zero moral difference between what we are currently doing to animals in order to mass produce meat, and what the policemen are doing to the mentally disabled humans in Tahrir. Of course, it would be all the more disturbing and abominable if it turned out what was being done to the Tahrirzies was for no reason other than some pleasurable outcome, as in the case with slaughtering farm animals.
If you agree with this, it should be clear to you that, as a meat eater, what you are doing is morally no different than constantly paying these policemen to continue doing what they are doing to the mentally disabled in the Tahrir scenario – and that you are, furthermore, paying them this money for no reason other than that you indirectly derive some kind of pleasure from what they do.
That should be a horrifying realisation.
It should be a realisation that I hope would make you want to stop paying people to do these horrendous things to literally billions of animals every year – things that you personally, in all likelihood, would find revolting and unthinkable to do yourself, especially if it were for no reason other than to satisfy a taste preference.
(If there’s a anything you disagree with here, please do share your thoughts in the comments below.)