Animal suffering is human suffering: why human rights support veganism

Friday, 10 June, 2016

Andy West reveals why veganism can alleviate the suffering of all, animals and humans alike.

At seventeen, the idea of turning vegan seemed churlish. My grandfather grew up in an orphanage. The psychological legacy of that meant that I believed that all food was to be cherished. Back then, animal suffering seemed a distant irrelevance. 

Then, at 18, I became vegan. 

At the time, I had a job cleaning the mental health ward of a hospital. One day a patient approached me. He was an older man, stocky and bleary-eyed. He stood just centimetres away from me, clearly having no sense of personal space. Glancing down, I noticed his fingernails had been bitten away and the skin around them was dry and inflamed. He leant in and said, “I’m gonna stab you.”

I froze.

“I’m gonna stab you and watch you die.”

He wasn’t holding a knife, but that didn’t make me any less afraid.

Then he put his face in his hands and shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

I grabbed my cleaning cloth and went to the other end of the ward to get away from him. Less than an hour later he was back, threatening to strangle me this time, telling me he was going to watch my face turn pink, then red, then blue. And, just like before, he flitted from intimidation to remorse and begged me to forgive him. 

The next day I handed in my notice. Throughout the remaining weeks, this deeply troubled man continued his threat- apology-threat-apology routine. I wished I could learn to laugh at it like the other cleaners did. 

During one of my final shifts he approached me again, but this time he didn’t threaten me. His medication had been changed. He seemed more lucid. We chatted about football and I learned that his name was Jez. He told me that before being sectioned he’d worked in a slaughterhouse. One of his jobs was to carry around a sack and collect the heads of the animals. 

I wondered about the violence of Jez’s daily threats and the violence of his old job. Could his debilitating swings between murderousness and guilt have been exacerbated, if not caused, by the workaday experience of clearing away mutilated bodies in a slaughterhouse? 

I’ve written elsewhere about the research on this issue. To summarise: a US study compared abattoir towns with iron works towns. It found abattoir towns had up to a 166% higher arrest rate for rape. A Brazilian study compared the effects of workplace stress on mental health for three groups. Labourers on the cutting floor of poultry plants, slaughterhouse administration staff, and university students. Students only scored 10% higher than administrative staff for their levels of anxiety. But cutting floor workers scored 70% higher than administrators. For depression, students scored 1.7% higher than administrative staff. But cutting floor workers scored 67% higher than administrators. 

This isn’t surprising, since working conditions in the poultry cutting sector involve intense cold (at temperatures as low as 7°C), layers of dirt from entrails and the odour of excrement, squirts of blood to the face and body (because importers require birds to be killed manually), repetitive work, and the impossibility of human interaction due to the intense noise. And let’s not forget that slaughterhouse workers are predominantly poor, and do not have the luxury of being able to turn down such jobs.

After meeting Jez bacon sandwiches carried an entirely new subtext. My concern for human quality of life made me quit eating animals and soon after I ditched eggs and dairy. Egg production requires the same institutional brutalisation of human workers the meat industry does. Even free range egg production requires male chicks to be tossed into grinders, or left in dumpsters to die. Depressed chickens peck at their own bodies (and thus reduce in economic value). Therefore it’s someone’s job to cut off the tip of chick’s beaks with a hot blade for hours on end. Likewise, industrial dairy production necessitates performing tasks that may leave psychological scars. For example, workers are expected to take calves away from mothers at the moment of birth so that her milk is not depleted. The calf is then taken and often used to make veal – an example of the interdependence of the dairy and the meat industry.   

Some vegans find my angle counterintuitive. Giving up meat because of concerns for human welfare is like outlawing slavery to end slave owner stress. Isn’t that missing the point? Isn’t that offensive?  

I’d like to say that I don’t think that animal rights arguments are weak, they just didn’t appeal to me during my youth. The human health argument isn’t antithetical to the animal one. It’s an additional narrative and additional narratives are important. Animal rights arguments often have no purchase with omnivores. Not because they’re bad arguments but because Laurence J. Peter was right when he said “A man convinced against his will is still of the same opinion.” The art of moral persuasion is about reaching out to people’s preexisting sympathies. The appeal to human mental health is one way of doing this. Myself being a case in point: meeting Jez made veganism feel no longer churlish.

Some say my argument doesn’t necessitate the end of meat eating, that the human-centred argument for veganism merely calls for the automation of the meat and dairy industry. If we could take the human trauma out of meat production it would be ethical to eat animals. But, I disagree. My argument isn’t merely ‘human-centred’. Let me explain. 

A person is a core sample of their environment. If you look into the glazed eyes of a solider with PTSD you can see war refracted in them. In the cosiness of the living room, a war zone is too infernal to be tangible. Meeting eyes with the troubled solider offers a flash of comprehension of war’s brutality.  Likewise Jez is a core sample of the meat industry; encountering him I saw, in a refracted way, the brutality of the slaughter industry. 

Therefore, as drone strikes do nothing to eliminate the fundamental horror of war, automating the meat industry would do nothing to lessen the fundamental brutality of the slaughter house. If animals were killed by machines the industry would still be brutal, we’d just have less of an idea of it. To comprehend the humanity – or lack of it – of our actions we need to understand how those actions would affect the people made to do them. The slaughterhouse workers of today are those people and they have given us that understanding. Automation wouldn’t fix the problem, it would merely cure us of the truth. 

By Andy West

Andy West teaches philosophy to children and writes for the Guardian, Open Democracy and TES. Tweet him at .

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