“…we are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty, and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that ours is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing [animals] ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them” (119). This excerpt, taken from Elizabeth Costello’s lecture, “The Philosophers and the Animals” illustrates the idea that humans are committing violations equal to that of the Third Reich, in their harsh slaughter of animals for food purposes. She makes an interesting and valid point when she maintains that we deemed the Germans inhumane because of a kind of “willed ignorance” on their part about the slaughter of the Jews, and then argues that the major crime of the Holocaust was the way in which the Nazis treated humans like animals. However, Elizabeth formulates a controversial argument when she compares all humans to the Nazis in our slaughter of animals- that we mercilessly raise and kill innocent animals, and then walk away feeling that our conscience is still clean.
At first, I was a little taken aback and somewhat angered by her comparison between the Nazis treatment of the European Jews and our treatment of animals, because it was hard to imagine that in eating meat, I was helping to perpetuate a process that was equal, or worse, than the Holocaust. However, upon reading more of the lectures, I realized that this was probably due to this accepted philosophical belief that humans are, in a sense, morally superior, because of the notion that humans have abilities that humans do not have, such as abstract reasoning and fear of death (144-145). Some of the audience even used the religious argument, that man was the only being created in the image of God, to prove man’s superiority and therefore the acceptability of slaughtering animals.
Elizabeth Costello counters these arguments. She maintains that using the inability of animals to speak/reason as a justification for their inferiority and prove that humans are the only people over which we don’t have the power of life and death highlight the falsity of the argument (151-152). She asserts, “…in history, embracing the [superior] status of man has entailed slaughtering and enslaving a race of divine or else divinely created beings and bringing down on ourselves a curse” (154). This quote seemed especially interesting when looking at previous subjects and atrocities committed through out history. We can argue that the slaughter of animals does not matter because of their inferior status, but haven’t humans used this justification all through out history to legitimize the torture and destruction of entire groups of people? The “inferior intelligence” and “unclean” argument that we use when justifying the slaughter of animals seems awfully similar to that used by the Nazis in exterminating the Jews, and in genocides committed through out history. The idea of a superior status has been utilized in justifying the Americans’, and other groups’, atrocious treatment of entire groups of people through out history.
When looking at it this way, it does not seem so ridiculous to compare the daily massacre of animals to that of the Jews in the Holocaust. Each day we raise animals and herd them into abusive conditions only to kill them later for our own enjoyment. We too close our hearts to sympathy for these creatures, just as they did so many years ago.
We claim that humans are superior because of our reason and intelligent skills, but we seem to be the only beings that terrorize and kill other members of our own species because of ideas like “ethnic cleansing” and as a source of entertainment, as in the torture at Abu Ghraib.
While I felt the comparison was a little far-fetched in the beginning, I was surprised to find myself recognizing the reason behind her arguments. However, I wonder how much of an effect these arguments can really have on people. The process of killing animals has become so institutionalized and accepted, as have other forms of mass violence through out history, that I wonder if it is possible to really get people to change their views and habits. Is it a fight worth fighting? While I accept her arguments, I realize how easy it would be to continue to close our hearts to sympathy and just go on with life eating meat, because it tastes good and provides nutrients that we are told we need. I recognize the atrocious conditions in which we subject animals, but found myself struggling with the right action to take after this acknowledgement.