The Myth of Animal Consent
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.
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.