There are few things that upset people more than the sentiment carried with the following statement:
Comparing animal agriculture to tragedies such as slavery or the Holocaust is, at best, counter-productive, because it is offensive to most people. Public health research has shown that frightening or guilting people is rarely going to motivate them to reevalutate their behavior. Instead, they will hate you, whatever cause you’re standing up for, and anyone else who stands with you. They will become more firm in their beliefs and less uncertain about the ethics of their behavior.
But just because something is offensive doesn’t make it incorrect. That this even needs to be stated is an indictment of what passes for discourse today. The culture of critical theory and identity politics places feelings above all else; if it seems offensive to a disadvantaged population, then it’s wrong. This fallacy undergirds the social justice warriors who care not about what is true, only what feels good. To them, the truth yields to emotion, not as a matter of human folly to be resisted, but as a matter of policy.
To be sure, slavery and the Holocaust differ from animal agriculture in fundamental ways. For one, slavery and the Holocaust were the result of discrimination based on ethnicity (and religion, for the latter). Black people, Jews, and other victims of the Holocaust were forced to work, were tortured, and were brutally, callously murdered. Today, animals are killed for food. Therefore, a major difference is that black people and Jews were murdered because of their identity, while animals are killed because their meat tastes good. The Holocaust was largely about pursuing the extinction of the Jews, while animal agriculture requires that more cows, pigs, and chickens are born every day in order that supply meets demand. Thus, the former was about exterminating a group of people; the latter is about perpetuating species so that they may provide us with what we want.
The most salient legacy of the Holocaust and slavery is the unimaginable suffering that took place during that time and for many years afterward. Millions of lives were lost, many more were displaced, and the reverberations of those dark times continue to this day. While it is impossible to quantify the suffering that continues— particularly in the form of poverty and inequality of opportunity in the case of slavery — it is possible to compare the body count, even if you believe animals are only capable of a minimal amount of suffering in relation to humans. Again, counting bodies does not take into account the lives that were displaced or the continuing after-effects of tragedies like the Holocaust or slavery, but it does provide a starting point whereupon we can begin to compare these tragedies to animal agriculture. Because it provides an easier, more straightforward comparison than does slavery, I will use the Holocaust as the measuring stick to calculate how the farming of animals compares, but the following argument likely applies to slavery as well.
Alluding to animal agriculture as akin to genocide is offensive to most people because it is seen as a move to trivialize the Holocaust, slavery, or whatever example you’re using. It is seen as a trivialization of travesties committed by man against man because the suffering of animals who become food matters remarkably little (or not at all) to the majority of people; on the other hand, most of us reflexively cringe at the mere thought of another human’s pain. In other words, claiming that animal agriculture is akin to the Holocaust is offensive insofar as one is incapable of recognizing that some amount of animal sufferingis equal tosome amount of human suffering. This is true whether the conversion ratio is 1000:1 or 1:1. It is taboo to even put human and animal suffering on the same playing field, but it is a prerequisite that we accept the reality of evolution — and the consequent overlap in ability to experience pain across species — if we are going to broach this topic honestly. This bias, an unfounded faith contradicted by the sciences of biology, physiology, psychology, neurobiology, neuroanatomy and others, necessarily brings to mind the term “speciesist,” a word that I dislike (for reasons I will get to another day) but which proves useful for the present circumstance.
It is taboo to even put human and animal suffering on the same playing field, but it is a prerequisite that we accept the reality of evolution — and the consequent overlap in ability to experience pain across species — if we are going to broach this topic honestly.
“Speciesism” refers to the preference of the species of which one is a member over other species. It is a term typically used against people who believe they have a right to eat animals. In this case, speciesism is reflected in the assumption that humans are capable of feeling pain, while the victims of animal agriculture — cows, pigs, chickens, and others — are not. (Or that they experience pain so minimally that it is barely, or not at all, worthy of consideration.)
Ethical veganism is a consequence of the adoption of the principle of least harm. It is about pursuing the goal of causing the least amount of harm as is practical. It is not about causing no harm, but rather about diminishing one’s contribution to the amount of suffering in the world to the extent that one is reasonably able. Many view veganism as a preference for animals over humans, but nothing could be further from the truth (despite how some vegans act). Those who believe veganism requires that one prefers animals over humans forget that humans are animals, too.
The evidence that animals suffer is substantial. Researchers from a plethora of scientific fields are virtually unanimous in their understanding that animals consciously feel pain; they have many of the same parts of the brain that cause humans to feel pain, along with the “neurobiological substrates of conscious experience.” Many evolutionary psychologists, cognitive scientists, philosophers, and others who recognize that the experience of suffering is not unique to humans, have begun to speak out about our treatment of animals, including Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Peter Singer, and Richard Dawkins, the latter of whom even ventured to say: “We should all be vegetarians.”
As an aside: even if we grant that humans are the species most sensitive to pain — a position neither supported nor refuted by the evidence — this no more awards us a moral license to cause suffering to members of species less sensitive to pain than preferring the Red Sox over the Yankees justifies killing the latter’s third baseman. Moral consideration is not zero-sum.
So we must be willing to place animal suffering on the same spectrum as human suffering, even if there’s a staggering imbalance. Once we do this, we can then begin to make a rough comparison between the awful suffering endured by the victims of the Holocaust and the suffering of the victims of animal agriculture.
An estimated 52 billion chickens, pigs, cows, and others, are killed every year for food. Each of these species likely varies in its ability to experience pain, but none is off the spectrum, so we are not prohibited from making a comparison. Estimates of the total number of people murdered during the Holocaust generally hover around 12 million. Dividing the two numbers reveals that approximately 4,333 animals are killed every year for every one person that was killed during the Holocaust. If we are to make the argument that animal agriculture is incomparable to the Holocaust, without disputing the scientific fact that animals can and do suffer, then we would have to make the claim that animals are capable of feeling less than 1/4333rd the pain that humans are for any given stimulus. And that is comparing just one year of modern animal agriculture to the Holocaust; each year that 52 billion animals have been killed for food results in a doubling of the above estimated ratio of animals killed per one person killed during the Holocaust, and requires a halving of the fraction of an animal’s ability to feel pain compared to a human’s ability to feel pain for any given stimulus if we are to maintain the position that animal agriculture is incomparable to the Holocaust.
It is therefore a daunting task to make the argument that the mass killing of animals for food is fundamentally unlike the Holocaust in terms of the amount of suffering inflicted. One would have to make the claim that the suffering endured after the near-genocide makes up the balance, but it is difficult to see how that position could be supported.
Again, it is unwise to compare animal agriculture to the Holocaust in an attempt to raise consciousness. While it’s not inaccurate, people find it offensive and distasteful, and will hate you for it. Creating a vegan world means playing the game of public relations; avoiding telling lies while also resisting the temptation to speak every thought, even if you feel as if you might bite your tongue clean through.
Vegans who compare animal agriculture to the Holocaust are usually deliberately offending people in an attempt to reveal to the world the immense suffering inherent in eating animals. It’s a misguided tactic. And it not only doesn’t work, but in all likelihood makes people less likely to actually go vegan.
And that doesn’t make it wrong.