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The Myth of Animal Consent

December 30, 2009

Heidi at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary

I read Foer’s “Eating Animals” recently as part of my participation in a Vegan Book Club. I had a number of issues with the book, but I also learned a few things, and found quite a few interesting tidbits throughout. One of the interesting parts was his discussion of the Myth of Animal Consent.

It is offered by ranchers in defense of the violence that is part of their profession, and makes appearances in agricultural school curricula. Propping up the story is the idea that the interests of the species and those of individuals often conflict, but if there were no species there would be no individuals. If humankind went vegan, the logic goes, there would be no more farmed animals. [..] The animals, in effect, want us to farm them. They prefer it this way.

I’ve never had anyone lay out the logic of the myth before, but I’ve certainly had several conversations where someone has used the short version: “If we didn’t raise them to kill them, they wouldn’t exist at all, and that would be even worse.” I have also had a coworker tell me that cows want to die! This is absurd.

While individuals who do not yet exist would never come to exist if the world suddenly went vegan overnight, those individuals who do not yet exist would not care. Existing individuals would not care if their genetically-engineered breed ceased to exist; the species would continue to exist independent of the farming of them. Not that anyone truly imagines that an individual animal worries about these human ideas, such as the continuation of their species. Individuals want what we all want – to live, free of harm, free of exploitation.

Foer continues:

But species don’t make choices, individuals do. And even if species somehow could, to imply that they would select perpetuity over individual well-being is hard to apply more broadly. By this logic, enslaving a group of humans is acceptable if the posed alternative were nonexistence. (Instead of Live free or die, the motto we script for our food animals is Die enslaved but live.) More obviously, most animals, even individually, are unable to fathom such an arrangement. Chickens can do many things, but they cannot make sophisticated deals with humans.

Foer goes on to talk about welfare, and seems to buy into a different myth: that if the animals were pampered instead of abused, they “might conceivably agree to be eventually eaten in exchange.”

There are a lot of friendly lies we tell ourselves when we are faced with the task of justifying something that our conscience is telling us is not justifiable. The myth of animal consent (or Foer’s myth of animal consent when treated well first) is just one of those friendly lies.

There are many stories about animals running away from the slaughterhouses or busting out of their enclosures on these farms, and making an escape attempt; who would know these stories better than the people making their living from killing and confining the individuals in question? Clearly there is no consent on the part of those animals. The escapes are the exceptions, but that does not imply that the rest of the animals consent.

The truth is that there was never a bargain, and there is no consent on the part of the exploited. There can not be consent when one has power over another. This myth of consent isn’t limited to the way humans kill non-humans, the myth appears whenever exploitation or any form of abuse occurs, no matter the species being exploited.

bella jean at poplar spring animal sanctuary

18 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2009 6:36 am

    I just wrote a short piece about this very topic. I heard a BBC radio report about the annual Eid slaughter of sheep, specifically in North Africa. At the end of the report, after describing how kind the people were to the sheep, the reporter ended by musing that perhaps this was the sheep’s offering TO US. Maybe they want to be protected from predators (what the hell are we???) and the weather, and starvation, etc, and in return choose to ‘sacrifice’ themselves for our needs.

    How incredibly ridiculous.

    ‘Sacrifice’ not only implies willingness but also awareness. Does the reporter honestly think the sheep sit around and figure out their strategy and choose to be killed? I was fuming.

    Just another way for omnivores to justify the pain and suffering they cause and eradicate any lingering guilt they may have.

  2. December 30, 2009 11:08 am

    This is fascinating, Deb. I think it’s great that people are going vegan because of Foer’s book, but I’m just not sure why. Consent is an absurd and insulting myth. It does have one important function, though: it makes purchasing and consuming animal products from Farm Forward-endorsed operations acceptable. Humane. Without the myth of consent, there’s no myth that farming can be humane.

  3. Kram permalink
    December 30, 2009 3:34 pm

    IMHO Real consent can never happen between parties of different languages/intellects/situations where there is power imbalance. You might get acceptance of a situation (IE a child brushes their teeth because a parent insists), but the problem is that animals would not have the communication skills necessary to accept or agree to any terms even if they were cognizant of their fate.

    First as a side, that is why we even make human laws preventing minors and people with mental disabilities from entering contracts ( or provide them with the ability to exit the contract ). Furthermore, due to impulse, coersion etc, states have even set up buyers-remorse laws (IE cars ) because they know even humans get confused/tricked/overwhelmed into making hasty decisions etc.

    Top that with a different language set OR being an entirely different species unable to communicate and anyone can see that there is no real consent from animals to do anything against their well-being.

    The humans whom believe animals are consenting to their demise are pure nuts. Furthering the nuts concept are the people that associate select words and phrases to the situation to make themselves feel ok such as sacrifice, offering, ‘their own good’ etc etc.

    I think we might need to turn the tables on some of the believers of the myth of consent and come up with some questions or scenarios to make them think of a human analogy.’s a quick scenario albeit very far-fetched

    Would you accept your child deciding to do hard drugs?
    Yes – OK they are consistent…they believe their child is making long-term, mature choices for themselves and their children fully understand the short-term and long-term ramifications. [Ridiculous IMHO..but not for me to decide ]

    No- Why Not? Isnt your child mature enough to be able to understand the short-term and long-term ramifications of their consent decision? Your child is just like a smaller adult…are you not trusting his/her judgement? Why not?
    Is this any different from believing an animal (with no human language skills and different mental capacity) can consent to any action without understanding the short-term and long-term ramifications of the humans action?

    Lets get some good ideas going?

  4. Marji permalink
    December 30, 2009 3:39 pm

    “There can not be consent when one has power over another.”

    Exactly! Consent involves agreement. It implies an understanding of what one is consenting to and all the implications thereof. And to think that an animal, with a self-serving desire to live, would ever “consent”in a situation of complete discordance is ridiculous.

    Like you write, the entire premise is false. Everything following is equally illogical and ridiculous.

    Amazing what we tell ourselves to alleviate any feelings of guilt or “wrongness”, right?

  5. December 30, 2009 5:55 pm

    @tvv – oh, I get so steamed when I hear the “sacrifice” myth being thrown around. Especially when people say things like “we are honoring their sacrifice”… As you said, it’s all justification! Do you have a link to your piece on this? I actually searched last week when I started thinking about this post and didn’t find many people talking about it (mostly environmental folks, or people who otherwise were complaining that Foer didn’t give them any solutions, just made them feel bad!), I’d have loved to link in what you wrote!

    @mary – I was thinking about that while I read the book. The best I can say is that he managed to get each of the “best of slaughter/exploitation” people to express ambivalence edging towards regret about what they were doing. He also made it clear that the cage-free/free-range labels were meaningless, and though I don’t agree with his idea that as long as we treat them well it’s all okay, but he did have high standards of the treatment that he saw as acceptable. I think that could influence people “it might be okay if it was a humane place for real, but it’s so hard to find those the only option is to go vegan”. And of course the two places he gave the thumbs up to were, at the very end, facing changes that might mean they no longer were okay by foer standards. For people who were already vegetarian, I can see how his descriptions of egg and dairy industries could force them to confront that issue.

    At the same time, I have seen so many people basically saying “oh, i agree with Foer, it’s okay to eat meat!” or, “he just made me feel bad about everything, but he had no actions we could take!” that I agree – it’s somewhat remarkable that anyone has gone vegan from it.

    It probably has something to do with the fact that we hear what we’re ready to hear, and take what message we’re ready to take from it. I overheard someone at the sanctuary telling Terry that he read Foer’s book and is now going vegetarian. But this is a guy who comes periodically to the sanctuary; he and his wife were there the day that Izzy arrived, and they both have a strong attachment to Izzy and Morty. He was likely leaning in that direction already, and Foer’s book just pushed him the rest of the way.

    @Kram – I definitely agree about the power imbalance. That’s a good point about the laws protecting minors, because that’s to do with power as well.

    As for other applications of the myth of consent, I can only come up with other actual situations where this is applied in really awful ways. Rape victims (“what was she wearing?”), victims of domestic abuse (“why didn’t s/he leave?”), exploited workers (“they could have quit”), etc. I’m not sure those would help people to see the reality of the myth, but it’s all I have for you right now!

    @Marji – it really is amazing what we’ll come up with to justify things. It’s always so convoluted, you’d think it would be a big warning sign to people: “slippery slopes ahead!”

  6. veganprimate permalink
    December 30, 2009 9:04 pm

    Awesome post! I just hate the way the world works. Set up a system of exploitation, and then justify the exploitation. I guess since the animals don’t rise up and kill us, that means they consent to their abuse. Just like men claiming women like to do housework, and they don’t mind getting paid less than men, etc.

  7. December 31, 2009 4:04 pm

    Great post, Deb! But in fairness to Foer, he is speculating here, not concluding anything. There is a big difference between “might conceivably agree” and “probably do agree.” And I think this inability to really know produces some of his own ambivalence regarding consumption of even “humanely-produced” meat.

  8. December 31, 2009 6:11 pm

    @veganprimate – you reminded me of something that pattrice jones has talked about – I think you’ll like this article of hers: (it’s about “direct action” by animals themselves.)

    But yes, those are more great examples of the myth of consent, the limitation/boundaries set by society or cultural “norms”, which people somehow interpret to mean that those are the active choices of the people who are not in power…

    @Ginny – yes, I tried to make his ambivalence clear by directly quoting his “might conceivably agree to be eventually eaten in exchange” but I probably could have been clearer. I thought it quite strange that he’d set up the logic showing how flawed the myth of animal consent was, and then turn around and say “but those arguments might be missing the point,” and go on to talk about how it was conceivable that with good treatment preceding the killing, the animals might consent. Which actually is close to what is being argued in the original version of the myth, so it is all rather contradictory. Or ambivalent, if you prefer.

  9. January 1, 2010 5:26 pm

    I think this kind of “logic” that animals “give” their lives for us originates with the original “contract” of creationalism. That since man is bestowed “dominion” over all creatures, it means he has a “responsibility” to insure they will always be there – for the taking.

    I hear many hunters proclaim the same thing regarding “conservation”. It’s all just hooey to justify otherwise indefensible acts.

  10. January 1, 2010 6:04 pm

    @Bea – that’s very interesting! I didn’t have a clue there could be a tie in with creationism and dominion. I have heard the hunter assertion regarding conservation though. It’s pretty sad, since they don’t understand population biology at even its most basic level, and yet that is what they are trying to argue. Not that they’re interested in any of it – not the biology or the conservation, and there is certainly no concern for the animals themselves. As you said, just hooey!

  11. January 1, 2010 6:19 pm

    @ Deb – It’s all just a theory… Seems to me everything has it’s roots (pun intended) in the Garden of Eden. This “special” contract between gOd, man and all “beneath” the two.

    Regarding hunters… I’ve had a few run ins with them. The last thing they ever want to hear but it is the truth – There is no over population “problem”. There are tens of thousands of breeding facilities for “game” animals, which raise everything from fowl to elk and deer.

    My point to those who advocate hunting is either there isn’t a wildlife population “problem”, in which case we need not kill these animals. Or, there IS a “problem”, in which case we shouldn’t be “breeding” more.

    It confirms the post by Marji – …We breed to hunt. :(

  12. January 2, 2010 11:28 am

    Foer goes on to talk about welfare, and seems to buy into a different myth: that if the animals were pampered instead of abused, they “might conceivably agree to be eventually eaten in exchange.”

    A gilded cage is still a cage. *snort*

  13. January 2, 2010 1:31 pm

    @Bea – I noticed a book on the shelf at the sanctuary today. “The American Hunting Myth” by Ron Baker. Seems like it would be a good read. Though it’s true, people won’t listen to what they don’t want to hear…

    @Kelly – yeah. I am never sure why people seem to think (hope?) that treating them better makes the rest of it okay.

  14. January 3, 2010 12:28 am

    Thanks Deb… I found it on Amazon. A good one to read and donate to my library so others can get informed. :)

  15. January 4, 2010 1:00 pm

    If Foer was truly ambivalent about whether so-called “humane” exploitation is acceptable, then he wouldn’t be sitting on the board of Farm Forward to begin with. He would not be involved with a group that is absolutely sure that “humane” exploitation is OK and makes it a part of their mission to help animal exploiters exploit their animals in a nicer way, legitimizing their atrocities.

    Let’s stop defending Foer’s wishy-washy logic, folks. His intellectual “speculations” about exploitation his, his direct involvement with a group that essentally works to absolve those who consume animal products, and his own admitted consumption of animal products, is causing a lot of harm to animals, even if it does turn some folks vegan.

  16. frank noce permalink
    January 11, 2010 11:06 pm

    Theirs a lot of talking going on . I’m new on this site I’m looking for people who want to do more than talk @ pontificate. Things need to be done . I don’t know what to do or how to do it .I am willing to follow any one who has a plane. Lets do something.


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