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Marna Frida Olsen, Faroese animal advocate, on ethical concerns about animal consumption.

Is it ethically justifiable to eat animals? Can we really know if animals have minds? Should animals have rights? How does eating animals affect the climate? These and more questions were discussed during a seminar held by the Nordic Committee of Bioethics in Helsinki recently. The seminar was called ‘Ethical Dilemmas of Consuming Animals’ and the purpose was to address some of the ethical challenges of meat consumption and discuss possible solutions.

70 billion animals are killed in the food industry every year, most of them in intensive production systems. 2-6 trillion if we count fish as well. And why shouldn’t they be counted? Over 650.000 whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions and other marine mammals are killed or seriously injured annually due to overfishing and harmful fishing practices. The oceans suffer because of what we choose to eat. The planet suffers. There is no doubt that the current meat production has devastating effects on the environment, on nature and on resources we currently depend on. People suffer. Plant foods could be fed directly to people instead of to livestock. This would have positive effects on hunger and malnutrition as well as overeating and lifestyle diseases. And, needless to say, animals suffer.

 

Though a few scientists keep a skeptic stance, science generally acknowledges that animals have minds. Having a mind means having cognitive capacities, consciousness and sentience, as explained by Elisa Aaltola, a Finnish philosopher and author speaking at the seminar. Animals are capable of experiencing pain in other words, which is why their wellbeing should be considered. To think we share certain attributes with other animals isn’t exactly rocket science. Biologically humans are animals too after all. Animals have an inherent will to live, just like we do. They seek to avoid suffering and threats. They fear. They play and enjoy.

The Violent Norm

There are plenty of reasons to change our ways. And there are plenty of reasons to adopt a plant-based diet, or at least cut drastically down on our meat consumption, so that our current treatment of living beings and planet Earth one day will become nothing more than a dark spot in history.

A shift in eating habits does not come easy though. Just the mere thought of not consuming animals makes many people uncomfortable and some even get defensive. But who can blame them? Eating animals is so deeply ingrained in our cultures, our ways and habits – even in our common understanding of what it means to be a human being. It doesn’t make it easier that eating animals is a norm strongly represented in our education system through what Swedish senior lecturer in education, Helena Pedersen, calls the ‘hidden curriculum’. “Violence against animals is rarely seen as violence because it is the norm,” she said. She encourages critical thinking in schools and an unlearning of previously received knowledge and norms about animals.

Focus on Common Ground

The topic ‘eating animals’ tends to divide people. There are those who believe that eating animals is justifiable per se and then there are those who believe it is not. These fundamental belief differences tend to create a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and this gap was indeed present in the wooden lecture hall at the University of Helsinki. Mutual understanding is then hard to come by.

But David Clough, professor in theological ethics, made a good point: Focus on common ground. “We live in a messy world in which moral perfection is far from reality,” he said and stressed the need to put our energy into the things we have the possibility to change and to consider the urgency of the challenges we face. “What changes do we need to make today and tomorrow?”

While the question whether it is ethically justifiable to kill animals for food is an important one it is not necessary to agree on an answer before taking action. If not all of us then most of us think that animals should be treated with a certain care and respect. Have you ever met a person who thinks animal abuse is okay? Even people who kill animals for a living would say that animals should be treated with a certain dignity. They should be killed ‘humanely’. And this is because we all know that animals are sentient beings that deserve our moral consideration.

What Motivates Ethical Actions?

There can be far between thoughts and action. We know animals suffer in the food industry. We know it’s not necessary for the vast majority of us to consume animals in order to survive and live healthy lives. And we actually have the possibility to do something to change the way animals are treated. Yet most of us don’t do what is needed for change to happen.

We need to confront our own inconsistency between our values and behavior, according to David Clough. And we need to confront reality. The fact is that our actions have consequences, whether we acknowledge them or not. And the consequences of our current eating behaviors are grave. We not only have the possibility to change our diet to a more conscious and compassionate one – there is a genuine need for us to do so.

An interesting final comment came from Norwegian veterinarian Siri Martinsen from NOAH – for animal rights in which she referred to research that shows how people react positively to altruistic behavior. Simply put: Doing good makes you feel good! What can be more motivating than that?