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The worst thing in the world

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This week, the Danish radio show Radio 24syv’s host bludgeoned a 9-week-old rabbit named Allan to death with a bicycle pump during a live discussion of animal rights. Editor-in-chief Jorgen Ramskov explained that the station did this to expose Danish “hypocrisy when it comes to animal welfare.” The Danish public has a hearty appetite for meat, and he claims that their horror at his killing of a single rabbit is at odds with their complacency and support for the slaughter of many millions of animals in their country every year. Perhaps an effective publicity stunt, but why should we care? Because to billions of sentient creatures, we are murderers and torturers. And sadly, the station might be right to resort to these drastic measures.

As it turns out, egg-laying hens are forced to lay so many eggs that over time, the muscles responsible for pushing the eggs out of the hens’ bodies weaken. Eventually, this causes their intestines to fall out of their bodies and become entangled in the mesh of their cages while they are still alive. Pigs, which are smarter than dogs and young children, are often confined to cages so small they cannot physically turn around.

Animal agriculture is big. 69 billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption every year: about 189 million a day, and 131,250 a minute. This number is conservative; it includes only land animals and only those killed for consumption, not those killed in the process of animal product production (for example, most male chicks are killed by being run through a grinder in egg-laying operations, since they cannot lay eggs). Although it seems crass to assign a number, it’s a useful thought exercise for seeing the tradeoffs we have to make: Let’s conservatively say each of these animals has just 1/100th the moral worth of a human being; then, animal agriculture is the moral equivalent of killing 1.9 million humans a day, which exceeds the number of people killed throughout the entire Holocaust every six days. If they have just 1/10,000th the moral worth of a human being, that’s still the equivalent 19,000 humans murdered per day, slightly more than the number of students at Stanford.

But humans have trouble wrapping their heads around big numbers, so let’s focus on the general scale of this mass killing. Fewer than 108 billion people are thought to have lived over the course of all human history. In just two years, animal agriculture has killed more sentient beings than all the human wars, diseases, suicides, natural disasters, murders, starvation and old age combined for all time. By even a conservative estimate, that’s the biggest moral problem that exists today.

Humans and nonhuman animals can have very different abilities and desires. But we now know that many nonhuman animals seem to be conscious in the same way we are and feel pain, fear, jealousy and grief, as well as love, empathy and pleasure. You don’t need to be a philosopher to realize that causing others to suffer through psychological and physical torture and death so that you can indulge your own tastes is at least somewhat unethical. You don’t need to love animals to think this is wrong, just as you don’t need to especially love poor people to care about reducing poverty, or especially love gay people to care about marriage equality.

Although we hope the station’s act will embarrass the public into sparing as many animals as possible, we suspect that real, widespread moral outrage about factory farming will be spurred by the development of ever better, cheaper animal product alternatives, not stunts like these. Although there are always outliers, it seems that in most situations, people avoid inconvenience, even when the moral argument against inconvenience is extreme, obvious and urgent. That’s why we question whether profound change can occur while vegetarianism and veganism remain even slightly inconvenient.

The horror of Radio 24syv’s rabbit killing dwindles to nearly imperceptible compared to the killing caused by the average developed-world meat-eater. It won’t surprise you to hear that we think you should reduce, if not eliminate, your meat consumption. Meat consumption is declining in the U.S., and each of us saves 371 to 582 animals for each year we are vegetarian, even more if we are vegan. Each year we aren’t, if animals have 1 percent of the moral worth of humans, each of us horrifically causes to occur the equivalent of the suffering and death of more than three to five people. Beyond that — or to mitigate that, at least — you can have a greater impact on reducing animal suffering by donating to organizations like the Humane League, which have been thoroughly evaluated and shown to effectively prevent the suffering of three to four animals for each dollar in donations (meaning it costs about $25 to $33 to prevent the moral equivalent of a human death) they receive.

Promoting animal rights and animal welfare is not a side issue. It is the immense, towering moral problem of our time. And all of us have the luxury of ignoring it, as long as savvy farmers keep the billions suffering in ceaseless torment hidden away. Thus far, most of us have chosen to do so. And yet, most of us care deeply about suffering, aspire to right injustices and believe ourselves to be good people who stand against cruel and unnecessary killing and torture. But while we support these brutal animal agriculture institutions and pay them to kill on our behalf, our belief in our positive impact on global well-being remains an empty delusion.

Contact Claire Zabel at czabel ‘at’ stanford.edu and Joseph (Joey) Zabel at joezabel ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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