October 1 marked World Vegetarian Day, an annual celebration “to promote the joy, compassion and life-enhancing possibilities of vegetarianism” that was established by the North American Vegetarian Society in 1977 to bring awareness to the ethical, environmental, health and humanitarian benefits of adopting a vegetarian diet. World Vegetarian Day kicked off Vegetarian Awareness Month, which culminates in the November 1 celebration of World Vegan Day. To commemorate these events, I would like to discuss the ethical basis of animal rights and the individual imperative to practice veganism.
In 1975, philosopher Peter Singer published the book “Animal Liberation,” effectively initiating the animal liberation movement. In his book, Singer argues against speciesism — discrimination on the grounds of species — holding that the interests of all beings capable of suffering are worthy of equal consideration, and that giving lesser consideration to beings based on their species is no more justified than discrimination based on skin color. Consequently, animals deserve rights on the basis of their ability to feel pain, rather than on the basis of their intelligence. Singer notes that while animals do show lower intelligence levels than the average human, many severely intellectually-challenged humans show equally diminished, if not lower, mental capacity, and that some animals have displayed signs of intelligence on par with that of human children, such as primates who have learned elements of American Sign Language and other symbolic languages. Therefore, intelligence does not provide a basis for providing nonhuman animals any less consideration than intellectually-challenged humans.
On July 7, 2012, a prominent group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists released the Cambridge Declaration of Animal Consciousness. The report explains that the absence of a neocortex, the region of the brain commonly associated with language, does not preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Evidence indicates that non-human animals possess the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the evidence confirms that humans are not unique in possessing the substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals, birds and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these substrates.
The ability of these nonhuman animals to experience affective states is of paramount ethical concern. Scientific consensus has confirmed what many had already expected: certain nonhuman animals are conscious, regardless of whether they possess a neocortex, spatial reasoning, conscious thoughts and motor commands. The sentience — the ability to be aware, feel, perceive or be conscious of one’s surroundings or to have subjective experiences — of these nonhuman animals indicates the capacity for these animals to experience rich emotional and psychological states similar to human beings.
Exploitation of sentient species for human interests ought to be abolished. Humans no longer have the excuse to treat sentient beings as a means to an end. If we ought not to slaughter a human being for its meat or skin, exploit its body for our own satisfaction, or experiment upon them in the name of scientific inquiry, why would we do so to other sentient creatures? These animals and human beings can all suffer, lead pleasant and fulfilling lives, and experience affective states. Profoundly disrupting the vivid lives of nonhuman species for human interests proves to be a severe ethical transgression, particularly when we have no imperative to do so. Regarding veganism, let’s be clear: it’s absolutely possible, and even beneficial, for humans to survive on a plant-based diet. According to the American Heart Association, many studies have shown that vegetarians [and vegans] seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease — which causes heart attack — high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer.
I am calling on the Swarthmore community to seriously reflect upon the decisions they make regarding animal exploitation and consumption. Human beings must no longer neglect the insidious nature of their conduct toward nonhuman species. I urge members of the Swarthmore community to adopt a vegan lifestyle and eliminate their consumption of goods derived from animals and decry abusive animal experimentation practices and urge scientists toward alternative methods of inquiry. It is critical to relinquish the abridgment of the fundamental rights to liberty that these nonhuman, sentient creatures deserve.