There is a meme doing the rounds on Twitter with the caption “Vegan: I don’t eat meat because I respect nature.” Then the word “Nature:” followed by a photo of a hawk swallowing a live rodent.
I’m not going to reproduce the photo, because why would I want to circulate a photograph of a sentient being struggling for its life in its final moments? I’ll publish a happier picture instead.
I assume that the implied message of the meme is that vegans are hypocrites, because we claim that we are vegans because we respect nature, while nature involves other animals eating each other.
I know that the meme is a joke, and I support the right to tell jokes, even if some people find them offensive. I am sure this meme is hilarious for people who think looking at sentient beings being killed is funny.
But I don’t know any vegan who says that the reason that they don’t eat meat is because they respect nature. Indeed, the only google search returns for that phrase are links to the meme we are discussing.
Nonhuman animals do lots of things that humans don’t. One is that they typically eat other animals in order to survive, rather than for the more nonessential human reason of preferring one taste to another at the dinner table.
How did we evolve our sense of morality?
I have written before about how my veganism is motivated by my ethical responsibility to extend the golden rule to nonhuman animals as well as to humans.
We are social animals and, like other social animals, we have evolved a sense of morality that helps us to live together. We feel empathy and compassion for each other, we cooperate on common goals, and we want to be treated fairly.
In their book ‘Wild Justice: the moral lives of animals’, Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce give many examples of other animals showing these attributes.
- Rats in cages have refused to push a lever that will give them food if they know that it will cause another rat to get an electric shock.
- A monkey who had learned to get food by putting a token in a slot, helped another monkey who couldn’t do it by putting the other monkey’s token in the slot and letting the other monkey eat the food.
- Dogs and wolves show signs that they are playing with each other, and stronger ones will restrain themselves from biting strongly when playing with weaker ones.
- In South Africa, a group of elephants helped a group of antelopes escape from an enclosure, by undoing the latches on the gates with their trunks.
- In Holland, chimpanzees in a zoo, who don’t get fed until they are all present, punish chimpanzees who are late and who cause them to have their meal delayed.
Bekoff and Pierce argue that these behaviours are not merely ‘building blocks for human morality’ but that they are displays of actual morality in other animals. They argue that social complexity leads to moral complexity.
They suggest that, if we define morality by human morality, then obviously non-humans do not have that, but that human morality is just one example of the moralities that have evolved among animals.
I agree, and I believe that the differences in morality between humans and other animals are differences in degree, not differences in kind.
How we relate ethically to other animals
But there is one area in which we are considerably more advanced than many other animals. We are intelligent social animals, able to reason effectively, and we increasingly attribute our fundamental rights to individual beings.
We used to attribute fundamental rights mainly to groups and to adult males, and even then only to adult males who were of the same race as us and who were not slaves. We are now increasingly seeing rights as being related to individual persons, regardless of their race or sex or ethnicity or age.
I believe that it is a natural extension of this pattern for us to extend our morality to our interaction with other animals. We should be as empathetic, compassionate, cooperative and fair with other animals as we are with ourselves. We should want to minimise suffering, and maximise wellbeing, among all conscious sentient beings.
It seems gratuitous in this context to circulate, for entertainment, a photograph of a sentient being struggling for its life in its final moments.