It is often proposed that eating animals is justified so long as the animals in question are not harmed unnecessarily. Those putting forward this argument often imagine that the animals they consume, at least, are slaughtered quickly, painlessly and without any unnecessary stress. To give this argument the most generous hearing possible, let us assume that animals really are killed quickly and painlessly, 100% of the time. Let us ignore the fact that most animal products consumed globally are the result of factory farms, and doubt the authenticity of the thousands of hours of slaughterhouse footage demonstrating that animals are suffering on farms and in slaughterhouses, as well as eyewitness testimonies from slaughterhouse workers investigators themselves. Even if we take this rather dubious leap of faith, given the fact that most people can be perfectly healthy without consuming any animal products, we are still forced to accept that since animal products are not necessary for our health, any harm done to farmed animals in order to acquire them must be considered unnecessary. This of course, will not seem to be a problem for those claiming that animals experience no pain, since the argument will simply be that no harm is caused, however dubious that argument may be. However, this defence starts to break down when we begin to analyse what precisely we mean by “harm”.
If harm simply refers to physical pain, then if an animal is killed completely painlessly then we could argue that no harm has been done. This definition however, would be transparently speciesist and self-serving, since that is not at all the same definition we would apply to whether or not a human has been harmed, or even a beloved pet. If a human being is killed against their will and long before their life expectancy, even if their death is painless, no one would try to defend the idea that the murder was harmless. Why is this? The human has not experienced physical pain, nevertheless, harm has definitely been done, because harm is not only about what is done to the human or non-human animal, it is also about what is taken away.
When an animal is subjected to a life of being farmed for their milk, eggs, skin or flesh, they are being exploited, and simultaneously they are being denied not only the many years their natural life expectancy would afford them, but also the right to bodily autonomy and the right to seek out the fulfilment of their own desires and preferences. These preferences may not be the same as ours (farmed animals are not being denied the right to vote in municipal elections), but all animals share the desire to survive and to enjoy some basic freedoms; something which animals in captivity are denied. It would be difficult to operate under a definition of the word “harm” which did not admit that if a being is denied a full, fulfilling and free life that they have not been harmed by that denial, except in cases where doing so would be in the better interests of the being in question. Equally, many farmed animals, if given the choice, would form family groups, would create a home, would play, mate and socialise. Even in the most idyllic settings, many of these desires are routinely denied to animals by their captors in favour of profit and efficiency. This, even without the pain of confinement or slaughter, is a clear demonstration that unnecessary harm is being done.
It may well be that this line of thinking has been helped, if not created, by the focus of animal advocates on the pain and physical torment which animals endure, as opposed to the denial of their basic rights. This easily understood; showing videos of pigs screaming while having their throats slit is much more likely to produce an emotional reaction than a discussion of said pig’s fundamental rights and how they are being denied. However, the focus on physical pain opens us up to claims of “happy” farms and “humane” slaughter. Veganism should not be a protest against poor conditions or painful slaughter, but animal exploitation itself, which we must acknowledge is harmful in and of itself.