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Why Do We Eat Animals When We Profess to Love Them?

How can they be both our friends and our meals?

Key points

  • Animals are our friends—cats and dogs foremost among them. Yet many of us eat animals. Why?
  • The carnivorous industries are key components of unwelcome climate change.
  • There is a rich philosophical heritage defending and criticising the idea of human superiority over other spcies

Friendship is a much-misused concept nowadays. Even the verb "to befriend" has been excised from the vocabulary in favor of "to friend." People who have never met or corresponded are deemed to be "friends" on social media.

Dejan Dundjerski/Shutterstock
Source: Dejan Dundjerski/Shutterstock

Friendship is fragile materially as well as conceptually. Reflecting in 1960 on the tragic automotive loss of Albert Camus’ life, his fellow writer and public intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre referred to the early death as, “both a gramophone record being smashed and a complete life.” He experienced loss and memory in equal measure, a mixture of grief and admiration for the fullness of the writer’s world. Eight years earlier, Sartre had lamented the erosion of his friendship with Camus, which he described as, “not easy, but I shall miss it... Many things brought us together, few separated us.”

Nostalgia for a lost friendship is akin to that of lost love, but subtly different. The physical memories are not the same, but the sense of amity and togetherness are alike.

The question this leads us to is: What does it mean to think of animals as our friends? The emergent field of anthrozoology seeks to answer this puzzle, and why it only applies to a limited range of species, with the remainder seen as edible or exotic. The Lexington Attachment to Pets Scale measures how people feel about "their" cats and dogs. It comes complete with the cute acronym of LAPS.

Cave drawings and fossil studies suggest we have domesticated dogs in particular for thousands of years, perhaps commencing with their appropriation as guards and fellow hunters.

We usually outlive pets, and the loss of their companionship is keenly felt by young and old alike. This has led to a vivid online world seeking and offering ways of dealing with loss and grief, from poetry to therapy.

Perhaps the most famous instance of dog-human grief is Blackfriars Bobby, a Skye terrier who legendarily (and it may be a mythic story) guarded his human’s grave for 14 years in a life largely spent in an Edinburgh cemetery. Bobby is himself commemorated in statuary, literature, film, a bar, song, and a fountain.

Domesticated animals are species whose way of life has been changed by humans incorporating them into the everyday. Undomesticated species, by contrast, are frequently ignored in their living state, and eaten. Their processed lives remain invisible other than as remains to be consumed. They do not receive eulogies.

Why is this so? Why are the suffering and death of a dog or cat more important than those of the carcasses we welcome into our kitchens as protein?

René Descartes argued that, “As for reason or good sense, I’m inclined to believe that it exists whole and complete in each of us, because it is the only thing that makes us men and distinguishes us from the lower animals.”

Immanuel Kant regarded people as uniquely valuable because they were conscious of themselves and their place in the world “through rank and dignity.” Human beings were, “An entirely different being from things, such as irrational animals, with which one can do as one likes.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel exalted in a world dominated by our physical and symbolic mastery, avowing that, “As a person, I have the right to put my will into everything, which thereby becomes mine.”

Such thinkers reasoned that because our species is unique in its desire and capacity to conserve objects and represent them via semiosis, a (strange) dialectical process supposedly affords humanity a special right to destroy as well. Willpower is independent of simple survival and sets "us" apart from other living things. The capacity to transcend our spontaneity and natural constitution supposedly distinguishes us from other animals.

That transcendence permits the destructive use of power—what Hegel called, “the right of absolute proprietorship.” The necessary relationship between people and nature asserts itself at the core of human consciousness as a struggle to achieve freedom from risk and want. This is akin to William James noting that, “nature is but a name for excess; every point in her opens out and runs into more,” therefore, nature must be tamed and transcended. Those words signify the need and the right to manage or eradicate exposure to harsh climates and ensure plentiful food supplies.

David Hume questioned that anthropocentric perspective. He maintained that animals, like people, “learn many things from experience and infer that the same events will always follow from the same causes,” developing “knowledge of the nature of fire, water, earth, stones, heights, depths, etc.,” in addition to processing instructions as part of their domestication. Rather than being merely sensate, some of our fellow creatures apply logic through inference—what he called “the reason of animals.”

Jeremy Bentham asked empathetically of our duty of care to animals. “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Many people who depend on carcasses for their livelihoods or diets profess a love for animals. A new area of psychology examines this bizarre double-declutching, a classic case of cognitive dissonance made common sense everywhere from families to sitcoms, schools to religions.

Research suggests that a devotion to traditional masculinity goes cheek by jowl (so to speak) with the notion that dominance and inequality are the natural and desirable order of things, with humans atop a chain of life and our fellow animals and their interests subordinate, due to our intellectual superiority. This allies with the putative physical pleasure of tasting meat.

Next year marks the bicentenary of the first law protecting animals, Britain’s Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded soon afterward.

So two centuries ago, democracy began to pave what has become a long road towards formalizing rights for animals, incarnating Hume’s side of philosophy. Yet it is rare to see this perspective represented by the media, even as veganism and vegetarianism are on the rise, in part due to a recognition of the catastrophic impact of carnivorous industries on the climate.

That said, perhaps human self-interest will come to match the discourse of animal rights. The sticky issue is the psychological shift required. Such a change would make for a lasting friendship, enabling a more secure future for our fellow animals—and ourselves.