The ticket necessary to gain admittance into the moral community is supposed to be sentience. If you are able to feel, then your being-ness, your personhood, should be considered. But anyone who has spent any time with willingly open eyes and hearts knows that the animals on the planet, including in her seas and skies, are much more than sentient. Two recent additions to our household through fostering have reaffirmed that fact: two boisterous young feline boys have slowly emerged from their hissing defensiveness to delight and destroy us with their antics, their athleticisim, and their ability to communicate. Because they have been declawed, sadly, they are very vulnerable, making their hissing even more understandable: showing their teeth is their last defense. Anyway, hissing is what cats often do when confronted with new territory and strange cats or people. It their get-back-jack way of saying “leave me alone,” and we respected that. Slowly, over the course of a few days, their individual personalities began to emerge, on their own timeframe and in their own way.
Individuality and Personhood
I can hear the boys exploring their environment. They have knocked down every single item that was placed on an end table or a dresser, including lamps, pictures, and boxes. They have tried valiantly to open the cupboards, as evidenced by the constant banging of the spring-type doors against the cabinet wall. When introduced to a toy at the end of an elastic string on a stick, one of the brothers made amazing aerodynamic flight into midair, fell off beds and furniture, and risked it all for victory. His brother looked on with disdain, preferring to wait until the object came within his reach. One puts his paw in the water dish, the other keeps his paws dry. One eats too fast, the other takes his time. One is super friendly and outgoing, one is defensive, quiet and beautiful. They are littermates, but have developed very different personalities. (Notice the word “person” there?)
While it is easy to recognize personal (that word “person” again) characteristics within the mammals with which we encounter on a regular basis, it is less apparent when dealing with avian and acquatic beings with whom we are less familiar. Those who look the least like us seem to get the least credit for their personhood. Consider the poor chicken, who is not even given even the weak protection of humane slaughter laws and who most people consider without intelligence or feelings at all. Watch any of Jordan Wyatt’s chicken friends on video for a different perspective – they perch on his lap, are very polite in eating a bit of food he offers, and band together in an understood governance that is peaceful and effective. Recent research has shown evidence of empathy in fish as well as altruism. We know scientifically that those with central nervous systems can feel pain, yet many people still deny that animals care about their lives at all. Tell that one to Clara the cow who was rescued by a sanctuary after leaping over a six foot fence to avoid the slaughterhouse she was about to be forced into.
Opting Out of the Slaughterhouse
The grinding alive of newborn male chicks, perfectly beautiful and exquisitely formed, is an example of the lack of empathy exhibited by our own species. Undercover videos show humans kicking newborn calves about, sadistically harming pigs on their way to slaughter even though some of the pigs try to nuzzle them, while traumatized animals are used endlessly for human entertainment. Some poor depraved human beings enjoy crushing small animals under their feet as a sexual fetish — evidence that something has gone terribly awry in the human species. On the recent Oprah shown on “veganism,” the depersonalization of the individuality of animals reached a new low. The slaughterhouse was shown to be antiseptically sterile (no blood, no death throes) with the heads of many cows lined up while someone discussed how using every bit of the animal somehow showed him or her “respect.” Making the killing of individuals appear acceptable seems a travesty, an assault on the very notion of what most vegans know about animals, and a point of departure for those of us wanting to live in a nonviolent world.
Sentience is the ticket into the moral community but it alone tells us little about our fellow earthlings. Knowing that my temporary family members, the two feline boys I mentioned earlier, have feelings doesn’t begin to tell anyone who they are. As they are individually marked on the outside (one gray, one orange), they are also developing into unique individuals from within. It seems unlikely that any game plan would give such individuality to a nonbeing good only for their flesh or their fur. It seems that Clara, the cow bred for her hide and flesh, was destined to become a unique individual, too. She opted out of the plan others made for her life. As a vegan, I have opted out too. Won’t you join me?