“I’d like to start by telling you about a friend that I know,” said Ky Barnett ’18, president of Cornell Students for Animal Rights. “Her name is Julia and she’s very sweet despite her hard and traumatic past.”
Julia is a pig. Barnett shared this story during a heated public debate on “The Morality of Meat” hosted by Cornell Students for Animal Rights, Cornell Vegan Society and Debate in Science and Health in Klarman Auditorium Tuesday.
She went on to describe Julia’s treatment at a farm in graphic detail.
“She lived most of her life inside a cage too small for her to even turn around,” she said. “Her teeth were ground down from constant gnawing at her cage. Julia was forcibly impregnated to bear litters of piglets. She could only interact with her babies through the bars of a metal cage.”
Eventually, Julia was taken by a sympathetic farm worker from her cage to Farm Sanctuary, an animal shelter in Watkins Glen, New York, Barnett continued.
“Julia’s story has a happy ending,” she said. “But it’s very unlike most pigs.”
Barnett condemned the widespread use of confinement farming and the lack of federal welfare laws that would otherwise protect billions of animals. However, she did not condemn farm workers, who “do not want to kill and torment animals, but unlike you and me, have no choice.”
Barnett explained that the employees of slaughterhouses tend to be very poor and are often people of color. They are the victims of a meat industry that profits off of cheap labor and subjects employees to some of the most dangerous working conditions in America, she said.
“Many workers suffer PTSD and are more likely to rape, kill and commit domestic violence,” she said. “They bring the violence of the slaughterhouse back to their families and communities.”
In response, Caleb Carmichael ’19 argued that “the existence of confinement farms does not make the entire meat industry immoral.”
He discussed new developments in the meat industry that have increased the welfare of animals, such as organic farming, which “regulates outside ties, makes space for animals so that they can stand up and move around, regulates environmental conditions, feed and water are stipulated, and sanitation and care is the top priority.”
The U.S Department of Agriculture “does regulate slaughtering of animals to make it painless, so that they are insensitive before they are cut in any way,” Carmichael added.
However, Carmichael’s ultimate argument was that “meat has a massive effect on people, which is ultimately moral.”
“The meat industry is an irreplaceable form of income for many people, like small family farms,” he said. “It is also an irreplaceable part of diets. There are substitutes that are non-meat, but ultimately these are not the same.”
For many people, vegetarianism and veganism is a privilege, Carmichael said. But for people who live in “Food Deserts,” defined by the Department of Agriculture as “a part of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetable, and other healthful whole foods,” meat may be the only feasible option.
“Usually ‘Food Deserts’ are low-income areas,” Carmichael said. “Places like these will have meat, and that’s probably the most nutritious food these people will find. If you cut meat out, they are suffering through processed food, and foods low in nutrition, and there are other countries that rely so heavily on meat in their diet that it can’t be taken out.”
“Ultimately you are weighing the value of animals against the welfare of people,” he added.
The debate then moved back to the other side of the argument, and Chloe Cabrera ’18, vice president of Cornell Students for Animal Rights, also began her argument with a story.
“The story concerns a post on Facebook,” she said. “A post of a picture that contained a skinned animal, and something along the lines of ‘this is my dinner and it’s a dog.’ Facebook flipped out.”
“The man who made this post was found by the police and the skinned body was taken for analysis at Cornell’s veterinary college,” she continued. “The lab there ran tests, and eventually discovered that the body was not a dog, but a lamb.”
“Why should we be relieved?” Cabrera asked. “Is there a morally relevant quality that distinguishes a farm animal from any other animal? What about a cow makes it more killable than a dog? These are questions regarding the animal not as food, but as an individual. As someone, not something. Is there a logical meter by which we can classify one species of animal as deserving of dignity and the other as deserving to be our dinner?”
Cabrera pushed back against the idea that the more intelligent life is, the more deserving it is of life. She posed a scenario in which an advanced civilization of aliens finds planet Earth and “they also think we taste really good.”
“Are they morally justified in killing us and eating us?” she asked.
Cabrera added that this logic necessarily extends to humans with low cognitive function.
“I don’t think I have to explain to anybody in the audience why it is immoral and unquestionably evil to harm infants and the mentally disabled,” she said.
For Cabrera, the question is not whether a lifeform can reason or talk, but whether or not they can suffer.
“If we are to extend consideration to all human beings, we must recognize that their only relevant moral quality is also shared by all animals,” she said. “Philosopher Peter Singer defined this quality as “sentience:” the ability to suffer. To inflict any needless suffering on another is immoral.”
Cabrera then reminded the audience that animal agriculture “is the leading cause of species extinction.”
“Why should one species be deemed more important than every other species on the planet?” she asked. “What makes your burger more important than the Amazon’s biodiversity?”
David Zhang ’20, the final debater in support of meat consumption, posited that five key characteristics differentiated humans from animals and justified meat consumption.
“Our intelligence and our technology should be enough to justify the satisfaction of our own human needs,” Zhang said.
He argued that “the human ability to problem solve,” the ability to mix “different domains of knowledge” and create “complex social structures,” humans’ “advanced and developed brains” which can “form mental symbols and create language” and their capacity for “abstract thought and “introspection” separate them from animals.
While many different species of animals have one or two of these characteristics, Zhang said, “it is nothing compared to what we humans can do.”
“Is a lion morally wrong for using his superior teeth and claws to kill a deer and eat it and survive?” Zhang asked.
Since animals lack the ability to communicate with humans, Zhang argued that humans cannot claim to know what is best for animals.
“They can’t articulate moral needs,” Zhang said. “Therefore we can’t attribute human characteristics to animals.”
In his closing statement, Zhang brought the audience’s attention back to the question of how people should value animal life next to human life.
“The U.S. produces 19 percent of the meat for the entire world,” he said. “Every year we export close to 1.3 billion pounds of meat to over 110 different countries around the world. If we were to stop producing this meat, we wouldn’t just be hurting ourselves, but we would be hurting all these underdeveloped countries that can’t provide for themselves.”
Zhang concluded that we should be “morally justified in prioritizing human needs first, and then animal needs.”
The audience was polled at the beginning and at the end of the debate with the question: “Is eating meat immoral?”
At the beginning of the debate there were 99 votes, with 41 answering “Yes,” 43 answering “No,” and 15 answering “Undecided.”
During the debate, some voters recalculated their opinions.
After the debate there were 91 votes, with 49 answering “Yes,” for a 13 percent increase. Thirty people answered “No,” and 12 remained “Undecided.”