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Comparing Lions to Factory Farmed Chickens Is Pro-Human Bigotry

Animal activists get up in arms whenever meat-eaters mourn the death of, say, a famous lion instead of factory-farmed chickens. But this leaves animal activists looking like pro-human bigots.

by Rhys Southan
Aug 6 2015, 5:14pm

Whenever there is a high-profile animal death that upsets a lot of people who eat meat, vegans are quick to point out the inconstancy of caring about this one animal but not the masses of animals being farmed and slaughtered. It's illogical to criticize dog fighting if you eat meat, non-vegetarians can't root for cows who escape slaughterhouses, and you can't hate the killer of Cecil the lion if you eat factory-farmed chicken.

The point is that farmed animals experience more suffering than most of the celebrity animals who inspire the unpredictable and fickle mass public sympathy that arises at random to turn a lion-hunting dentist, for instance, into the world's greatest monster. This outcry for individual animals is irrational if it's not followed by a demonstration of solidary with all animals in the form of veganism.

Continuing to exploit some animals while mourning animal celebrities amounts to species bigotry, which is roughly defined as a bias for one animal species over another. You might assume that opponents of species bigotry wouldn't prefer humans over other animals, yet the way that vegans frequently make their accusations of "selective outrage" implies that they do.

That's because animal activists almost never make these accusations when meat-eaters are upset about the suffering or death of human animals. If the problem is meat-eaters reacting strongly to stories that involve relatively low direct victim suffering at the same time they contribute to massive suffering in factory farms, why only point this out when non-humans are the victims? Why not make this point when meat-eaters are disproportionally upset about a human who suffered far less than a factory-farmed chicken?

By the logic of some animal activists, humans are king—but all non-human animals are equally inferior to us, and we best not forget it.

There are some animal rights activists who would happily make this kind of equivalency, often by comparing factory farming to the Holocaust or human slavery. Animal defender and proud misanthrope Gary Yourofsky certainly doesn't shy from such analogies, and this is the sort of thing that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sometimes likes to say, too—though with PETA, you never know if they believe what they're saying or if they only want attention.

Still, the fact that many animal rights advocates get especially annoyed when meat-eaters spring to defend particular non-humans may be a hint that they haven't internalized anything close to this total equality view, even if they claim to oppose species prejudice. If all sentient beings truly deserved the same care and protection of interests, animal activists would reflexively cry hypocrisy whenever meat-eaters were outraged about harm to humans. But for the most part, that reflex only fires when meat-eaters show concern for non-humans. This leaves animal activists looking like pro-human bigots.

It's almost as if animal advocates prefer to see two castes of animals—humans and non-humans—and only really object to species bigotry when meat-eaters start carving out sub-castes within the non-human animal caste. (Even though vegans with pets often tacitly endorse these sub-castes too.) Lions and cows are in the same conceptual box for these animal advocates, but humans are in a our own special box, which is why it sets off animal activists' hypocrisy alarms when meat-eaters march for lions. Meanwhile, their hypocrisy alarm is quiet when meat-eaters march for humans.

If you don't love one, you don't have to love the other! It's OK to eat tortured chickens, just as long as you don't get upset about Cecil.

These animal activists don't object to the favoring of humans, at least not in a consistent way, but they hate to see anyone act as if lions are more important than cows. Humans are king, but all non-human animals are equally inferior to us, and so we shouldn't give any non-humans preferential treatment over others.

This is one of the unstated assumptions behind a form of activism that might be called "why love one but eat the other?" proselytizing, after an ad campaign which featured that exact slogan. This campaign places human-favored animals (namely dogs and cats) next to animals that humans often eat (cows, pigs, and chickens) in order to show that the dividing line between the animals we devour and the animals we cuddle is arbitrary.

None of the ads that I have seen place a human next to a pig and ask why we love one but eat the other—an implicit endorsement of pro-human bigotry, perhaps.

To be fair, the goal of these activists is to get humans to care about farmed animals just as much as they care about dogs and cats. But "why love one and not the other"-style activism is a curious way to try to get there. For one, this leaves an easy out for meat-eaters: If you don't love one, you don't have to love the other! It's OK to eat tortured chickens, just as long as you don't get upset about Cecil.

Assuming most people do care about some non-human animals and therefore don't get to exploit this loophole, you could write this off as an irrelevant flaw. But it makes for a strange animal rights dogma if it's equally acceptable to care about all animals or no animals, while anything in between is ethically incoherent. This is "don't bring candy to class unless you have enough for everyone" logic.

What do you say to someone who only loves lions because they're big and beautiful and badass? 'Chickens are big and beautiful and badass too!' is a losing argument.

The bigger problem is, it's tough to make a principled demand for the abolition of animal farming if humans get to keep thinking we're the most important animals; for many, human superiority implies that human suffering and death matters more than that of non-humans. From there it's not a stretch to argue that non-human animal suffering and death matters so much less than our own that it's OK to raise animals for food.

This is where "why love one and eat the other?" is supposed to come in and save the day. The hope is that moderate animal activists can grant human superiority but trap human supremacists into veganism anyway by insisting upon non-human animal equality via sentience equality. Lions are no more sentient than pigs, so why treat one better than the other?

This is a decent rhetorical question if sentience alone is the actual reason that people favor particular animals. But if "why love one …" is your strategy, what do you say to someone who only loves lions because they're big and beautiful and badass? "Chickens are big and beautiful and badass too!" is a losing argument.

Maybe you say that speciesism is an indefensible prejudice, just like sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, and cis-genderism. But it's hard to see how you can say this if you've already granted that humans are special.

Perhaps this is a case for pushing the admittedly extremist total equality view. Comparing animal farming to human tragedies is off-putting and—I believe—logically unsound, but it is at least consistent with a demand for the end of all animal exploitation. Granting human superiority and then criticizing meat-eaters for raising only some non-human animals to human-like status just seems futile.

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Cecil the Lion