Suffering and dying is harmful to us. But it’s also harmful to other sentient animals. There’s no doubt today that they can feel and suffer. However, they are exploited in ways that cause them to suffer horribly. Huge numbers of animals are killed each year after living terrible lives because they are used to make products such as meat, eggs, dairy products, honey, leather, and silk.
The good news is that we can avoid this. Well-planned vegan diets are healthy during all stages of life. So we can refrain from causing such suffering and death to animals. So why not try?
Today most people reject practices such as dog fights and other forms of animal abuse. But when we think about this, we can see that something very similar happens when it comes to confining animals for life, causing them to suffer, and killing them as is done today in farms and slaughterhouses. For this reason, a growing number of people are choosing to replace animal products with tasty vegan meals.
There’s another way we can think about this. There’s a simple way to evaluate if a certain situation in which some are benefited while others are harmed is just. We can put ourselves in the situation of those who are affected. We can do this by imagining what it would be like first to be in the place of those who are harmed and then in the case of those who are benefited, and see if we would consider it worth it. However, if we do this in the case of the animals we exploit we will hardly think it would be worth it. Suppose that in order to enjoy the taste of certain animal products we would have to endure the harms that animals suffer in farms and slaughterhouses. It’s clear that we would never accept it.
Cats and dogs are eaten in several countries, where they are deprived of their lives, and are also made to suffer terribly in the small cages where they are kept and when they are finally beaten to death. This rightly outrages many people. However, we must note that other animals, such as those typically killed in farms and slaughterhouses, can feel suffering and pleasure as much as dogs and cats can. Moreover, the lives they have are not really any better than those that dogs and cats killed to be eaten endure. Animals such as chickens (who are the majority of the animals exploited in farms today), cows, pigs, and rabbits are confined in tiny spaces indoors where they can barely move. Those who are sick are left untreated and often die in agony. Finally, they are transported in crowded conditions to a slaughterhouse, where they die in pain and fear, sometimes boiled or skinned alive. They are killed when they are still very young.
In light of all this, there’s no sound reason to think that what is done to them is less terrible than what happens to other animals such as the dogs and cats that are eaten in some places.
Fishes have centralized nervous systems that make them sentient (conscious). This has been backed by numerous studies which have consistently shown that they have the capacity to suffer and feel pleasure, just like mammals, birds, reptiles and other animals. Some people believe that fishes can’t feel pain, but this has been shown to be wrong, not only about boney fishes, but also about other aquatic animals including many invertebrates that are fished. You can read more about which animals are sentient here.
Eggs are not sentient, so by eating an egg you’re not causing a harm to it. However, the production of eggs harms hens a lot. First, we must bear in mind that the vast majority of the hens kept today to lay eggs live in factory farms where their lives are dreadful. You can read more about this here. In addition, hens are systematically killed and replaced by younger animals when their production of eggs decreases (they may still lay eggs for years, but it is more profitable to have new hens who lay more eggs than them). This happens everywhere, not just in factory farms. While hens can live for up to 15 years, in factory farms they are usually killed in their second year of life, and in other farms when they are six.
Finally, for every hen used to lay eggs there’s a newborn chicken who is killed. This is because laying hens have been selected according to how many eggs they can lay (while chickens selected to be killed to be eaten are of a different breed). This means that half of the chickens that come into existence due to the egg industry are killed, that is, those who are males and can’t lay eggs.
We don’t have to contribute to this. We can avoid it by eating other things besides eggs.
There are a lot of egg replacements for cooking and baking: one mashed banana or ¼ cup of applesauce can replace one egg in sweet desserts; two tablespoonfuls of instant mashed potatoes can replace one egg in savory recipes; and there are several egg substitute products that can be used for cooking and baking.
Intuitively it seems that drinking milk doesn’t have to harm cows. Unfortunately things are different, as explained here.
Today there are many vegetable milks such as soy, oat, and rice drinks, among others, as well as vegan cheeses and yogurts, so today it’s easier than ever to give up dairy products.
We have strong reasons for not eating invertebrate animals, because many of them have complex nervous systems, due to which they may be able to experience pain. Huge numbers of bees suffer due to their exploitation by humans to make honey and other products. Instead of honey, we can use other similar products such as agave nectar, molasses, or maple syrup. A huge number of bees are used for the production of honey and other products every year. Moreover, insect farming for food is currently growing worldwide. This involves breeding and killing a staggering number of individuals, so it is very important to oppose this practice.
While it seems clear that animals such as bees are sentient, some people have doubts about whether other invertebrates such as mussels are sentient. In fact, there is evidence suggesting they may well be sentient. We can avoid potentially causing them unnecessary harm by not eating them. Note that in the case of other mollusks, such as octopuses or squids, the evidence that they are sentient is overwhelming. Sponges, however, are animals that lack any nervous system and, therefore, are not sentient.
Bacteria are living organisms, but they are not sentient beings. Bacteria don’t have neurons or a centralized nervous system that would enable them to have conscious experiences. Non-sentient organisms cannot be harmed or benefited by our actions or omissions. Thus killing harmful bacteria does not represent an ethical problem.
Mushrooms and yeast are fungi, living organisms that, like plants and bacteria, are not sentient – they cannot feel pain or have any other conscious experiences. They are therefore vegan foods.
Most organic farming techniques involve directly or indirectly harming sentient beings. Popular methods such as “biological control” implies making certain animals predate others to benefit us. From the point of view of the sentient beings who are being destroyed, this is no different from using pesticides, for instance. One way or the other, animals end up being harmed or killed, often in painful ways. Rejecting speciesism means we should be constantly looking for ways to solve our problems that cause as little harm as possible to other sentient individuals.