Vegans are often confronted with the circle-of-life argument. Animals in the wild eat other animals, so why must one abstain from participating in this cycle? I explore two angles in addressing this question: first of survival and then of morality.
Do we need to eat animals to survive?
The circle of life automatically conjures up images of one animal eating another animal, and that first animal being eaten by another animal, so on and so forth, as if the size of one species is the sole determinant for which other species it can consume with rightful entitlement. Lest we forget, not all animals are carnivores, and that circle of life includes animals like cows and monkeys who rarely, if ever, consume animal carcasses.
Human beings are not carnivores. We can eat animals to survive, yes, but we certainly don’t need to eat animals to thrive. On the contrary, eating animals increases the likelihood of contracting a long list of health problems such as obesity, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, kidney stones, gallstones, osteoporosis, and diabetes. These are the same diseases that true carnivores will not be subject to with the same kind of high-fat, high-cholesterol, animal-flesh diet. I intentionally omitted any mention of animals consuming other animals’ excrements because of its irrelevance. It is only us humans who consume the milk of another species.
Comparative anatomy also shows that humans resemble the physiology of herbivores more than carnivores or even omnivores.
• Carnivores have sharp front teeth with no molars and limited side-to-side motion that enable them to tear up animal flesh and swallow them whole. Herbivores have no sharp front teeth and their jaws can move both in up-and-down and side-to-side motion to enable them to grind up fruits and vegetables with their molars. Humans have similar flat back molars as other herbivores, and humans do not have anterior teeth suitable for tearing animal flesh.
• Carnivores have shorter intestinal tracts that allow animal flesh to pass through quickly without causing illnesses. Carnivores have intestinal tracts 3 to 6 times their body length while humans have intestinal tracts 10 to 12 times our body length, similar to herbivores. Eating animal flesh poses a greater danger of colon cancer to humans, as our longer intestines provide more time for bacteria in animal flesh to multiply and rot.
• Carnivores do not need fiber to move food through their digestive tracts. Herbivores need fiber to digest food in their long intestinal tracts. Humans, without fiber, will suffer from digestive constipation.
• Carnivores have acidic stomachs that kill bacteria present in raw animal flesh. Herbivores have weaker stomach acids as fruits and vegetables do not require so much acidity. Human stomach acidity resembles that of herbivores. This is why we are at risk of being contaminated with e.coli, listeria, and campylobacter when we eat raw or even undercooked animal flesh.
The default psychology of humans also strengthens the position that we are herbivores. We are not like sharks who are drawn to blood and guts. When human toddlers see animals, they gaze in fascination, wanting to pet them, not eat them. The fact that most humans still eat animals is not an indication that it is natural. It is because it has been the accepted norm, because it is a matter of taste and preference, because it is a habit born out of modern capitalism.
Is it morally acceptable for humans to eat animals?
Given that eating animals is not a matter of survival, the answer becomes a resounding no. We are not entitled to kill other animals. More than that, it is to our detriment that we do. And if we expand the definition of morality to include our obligation to other human beings and to our environment, the morally acceptable position is still to abstain from consuming animals. World hunger, human violence, and environmental destruction are all topics that need a separate discussion altogether.
Gary L. Francione, Professor of Philosophy, Animal Rights and the Law at Rutgers University, refutes the circle-of-life argument succinctly. “It is interesting that when it is convenient for us to do so, we attempt to justify our exploitation of animals by resting on our supposed ‘superiority’. And when our supposed ‘superiority’ gets in the way of what we want to do, we suddenly portray ourselves as nothing more than another species of wild animal, as entitled as foxes to eat chickens.”
Entitlement is a key concept here. We do not have the physiological entitlement to make eating animals morally excusable. We are not wild animals. For many of us humans, our wildest venture into food may be a donkey we mistakenly ate cooked well-done in an industrial-quality stove at a so-called exotic restaurant. Were we to hunt for animal flesh with our bare hands and eat them raw, we are likely to be repelled by the very same process which is natural to physiological carnivores.
Might does not make right. Just because we have found ways to eat animals does not mean we are meant to do so. We are capable of committing arson too, but that capability does not give us the license to go ahead and commit arson. Abstaining from animal flesh – and more comprehensively veganism as a whole – is not about charity or kindness or compassion or heroism or purity. It is not morally equal to using our time and resources to build houses for the homeless. Rather, it is morally equal to not stealing money from the homeless. It is the minimum requirement.
In conclusion, we should not take the circle of life literally. It is not about the smaller animal being eaten by the bigger animal. It is about how we survive and thrive. It is about respecting our role and causing the least disruption in others’. I would like to think that as morally conscious beings, our participation in the circle of life is an enlightened one, where our moral blind spots are shed to light, where we are able to scrape away our desire for conformity and appeal to our true sense of ethics, away from what is convenient and accepted and normal. I would like to hope that one day, you – dear reader – will be at the receiving end of the circle-of-life question, and that you will find the question as irrelevant as the answer is obvious.