On Unnecessary Suffering and Convenience

Everyone – or almost everyone – disagrees with unnecessary suffering. It seems a vital belief for living modern society. After all, how can we coexist with other human beings if we consider their suffering to be insignificant? What constitutes ‘unnecessary’, however, is the subject of disagreement. Especially when it comes to the suffering of those in separate evolutionary trees.

The world becomes more complex if you start looking at alleviating suffering, rather than simply being kind – two very different ways to focus your moral outlook. The former has real-world effects, the latter being an interest in nothing more than your own virtues.

Veganism is seemingly 2018’s buzz word – for all kinds of odd reasons – partly because it makes a pretty strong case for drawing rational lines around what constitutes unnecessary suffering.: that which occurs out of pleasure, taste or convenience. Similarly, it makes sensible concessions, in stating that if you really need animal products (i.e., animal tested medicines), you should take them (this wouldn’t be ‘unnecessary’ given medicines are currently all tested on animals). But veganism maintains that 99.9% of our uses of other animals can only be rationally defined as unnecessary, and so this use must end. Animal exploitation is irrational by our own moral beliefs about unnecessary suffering.

It’s difficult to find fault in this reasoning. Almost a decade ago, after two years of searching for a good argument against it, I certainly folded. Veganism is extending reason based on the enlightenment values of consistency which we have all benefited from, and at some point you have to stop looking for the perfect, imaginary argument against it.

Thus, rather than discussion, the debate often switches to the excuses. After it has been established that you can buy products not tested on animals, and that in the modern world the vegan alternatives to omnivorous treats like ice cream and bacon are actually pretty good, it becomes abundantly clear that the big barrier facing veganism is convenience. I.e., some big companies with their shiny new eyeliners do still test on animals, some snazzy new designers often still use animal skins, and conveniently located shops will sell chicken sandwiches rather than the vegan alternatives to chicken sandwiches. Veganism seems hard because it isn’t convenient as non-veganism.

We should examine what this sort of excuse really means as a moral matter? If you were driving along a country road and saw a fox crossing in front of you, wouldn’t you slow down to avoid hitting her even though it was less convenient? The analogy is unfair – wasting a few seconds in a car journey is not tantamount to the inconvenience involved in becoming vegan in 2018. Let’s make it fairer then. What if the only way to avoid hitting the fox was to reverse and take a different route, significantly impacting your journey time. It’s still the right thing to do, isn’t it?

It’s very difficult to argue that convenience has any sort of pull on our intuitions when faced with this example. The individuals who proudly state they’d run the animal over, for the sake of arriving in a more timeous fashion, seem to be weighing the importance of the small aspects of their own lives in an unbalanced way against the much larger interests at stake in someone else’s. Your timeousness isn’t as important as someone else’s life, even if that individual can not read the collected works of Shakespeare, that’s pretty basic. And it’s not as if you’re spending your evenings reading Shakespeare either. The individual who ignores the suffering of others for their own small gains, or feelings of superiority, is not a common or welcomes sight in normal society.

The problem is that we are all involved in this analogy every single day. When I’m in the supermarket, if I fancy a beef burger I am faced with a moral quandary, almost exactly the same as the previous analogy. I can choose to pay someone, who in advance has killed a cow on my behalf (and will continue to do so if I continue to provide the demand) so I can eat her remains in between two pieces of bread. Or I can inconvenience myself slightly by eating something else, or by travelling to a store that sells vegan ‘beef style’ pieces.

There are important differences between the example of avoiding the fox in the road and killing a cow for a burger. One could claim we gain sustenance from the cow, and many people can be fed, etc. Which of course is entirely devoid of meaning, given the fact we don’t need to eat cows – we can be perfectly healthy eating anything else, and, ironically, you can create far more vegan food with the resources you use to farm one cow. The amount of food and water it needs to grow dwarves the nutritional value it provides – it’s a waste of farmland and resources.

However, the most profound difference between the two examples is the level of directness involved. We are appalled by the idea of not inconveniencing ourselves for the fox, as it would involve us directly murdering another individual, however in the supermarket this immoral choice is backed by public opinion, defended by business interests (and tens of myths), and the act of killing is sub-contracted to someone else on our behalf.

You will notice none of these differences in the level of directness justifies the death or mass suffering they intend to, and yet when mashed together in a cultural mixing bowl, they deceive people to a level whereby the guilt of the immoral act of animal exploitation is temporarily removed. This doesn’t excuse the act of animal exploitation, but it does place moral obligations on those who understand this irrational position to educate others upon it.

In utilising convenience as an argument to allow us to eat and use other animals, we err greatly as a rational matter, we lower ourselves below our ancestors who eliminated the moral problems in their eras (slavery, women and children as chatel property, etc), and we contribute to mass unnecessary suffering. That last part is absolutely unimaginable, in fact. 50-60 billion sentient individuals (10 times the entire human population) every year, killed just for food. That’s not even counting hundreds of billions of sea creatures, and those killed for other purposes. This issue is not just the biggest moral challenge facing humankind today, it’s the biggest moral dilemma we’ve ever faced in terms of pure numbers. And it comes about because people don’t think through what convenience really means.

We can all choose to do something about this right now – we don’t need parties to promise us it during elections, or charities to act on our behalf – we just need to make the choice to go vegan, and to educate others about veganism. We can choose to do it before we even reach the end of the next sentence, or before you reach the tills at the supermarket. It’s as simple and as easy as that.

In historical terms, imagine what is was like for Emily Davidson being trampled to death by the king’s horse, or for Frederick Douglass escaping slavery to write and speak out against it. These were acts of enormous, courageous moral bravery which most of us would likely have failed to act out. Society has always been a hostile place for those furthering the next step in moral matters. Luckily, thanks to the campaigners of our past, you have the freedom to choose to be part of the solution now, merely by how you live. That’s remarkable and shouldn’t be ignored for a more convenient life.

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