Thursday, May 23, 2013

Personal Freedom, Animal Rights, and Privilege

A little while ago, I shared this blog post in a Facebook group that I moderate.  (Please take a moment to read it if you haven't already.)  The ensuing discussion included the following comments:

Some of these same arguments could used for religious reasons too. One persons ethics are not the same as another's tho I think it's appropriate to take a stance on personal ethics. My quandary here is that when the Christian Right believes the exact same thing and want to make their ethical concerns laws that rule my life I [am] absolutely against that. I think many people really don't think about their food choices and feel attacked by this approach. I think it's easier to get people to challenge themselves by helping them learn about the differences and what's going on with the food industry. Also extreme poverty does not make way for food choices. If I lived any further from STL or made any less money I could avoid meat but not gmos and /or would be dependent on food pantries again and they don't share produce.

 ...[M]y concern, and just processing this mind you, is that the message is you are a bad person if you are not vegan. And people who are poor get the message they are bad a million ways. I was attacked a lot the first few weeks I stopped eating meat, and I am still not vegan, from people on both sides I never expected it from. It was a much harder transition because of that.

Those comments raise some valid concerns.  Here is my response:

The Religious Right wants to legislate interactions between consenting adults, or between adults and fetuses that are not yet sentient. There's a fundamental difference between that and wanting to extend legal rights and legal protections to other sentient species.

Instead of looking at it from the perspective of the human having their choices restricted, try looking at it from the perspective of the animal being protected from abuse and exploitation. How do you think the animals would feel about the idea that it's a "personal choice" whether or not to confine them in factory farms, abuse and neglect them, slaughter them and consume their flesh? What about their personal choice, their intense preference not to be used and abused in that way? The "personal choice" philosophy is centered around the choices of the oppressor, not the oppressed.

As an analogy, consider the debate around smoking in public places. People who are against public smoking bans look at the issue in terms of smokers' personal freedom. They view smoking in public places as a personal choice, and the bans as an unfair restriction of that choice. Those who favor the bans, however, view it as a right of people who don't smoke to be protected from the harmful effects of secondhand smoking that they haven't consented to being exposed to. One person's rights end where another's begin. It may be a personal choice to smoke in one's own space away from other people, but it is not a personal choice to harm others by exposing them to secondhand smoke.

When one claims that this argument harms people who have no choice but to eat some animal products, one ignores the fact that this argument is not directed towards such people.* Perhaps this point needs to be made clearer. Survival is the most basic right and priority of any being, human or not. What "survival" means, is, of course, up for debate. But this argument is directed towards people who have the privilege of making a choice whether or not to harm others. If you hit someone in self-defense, you are not an abuser. If you steal bread because you are starving, I would not call you a thief.

The fact is, most people who are not impoverished and who don't live in food deserts have at least some choice about what they eat. (The amount of choice varies widely, of course.) I believe that people are morally obligated to do whatever they feel they can, based on whatever privilege they have, to fight oppression, both against their own and against other species. The keyword is privilege. With privilege comes responsibility. That's why I'm not going to hand out a booklet on veganism to someone living on the streets.

*Some people claim that everyone on the planet can be vegan, but I do not make any such claim.  There are people for whom that option is not realistic or even possible.