Ha-ha, Look—It’s Dead!

Ha-ha, Look—It’s Dead!

written by Ryan Schalk
January 10, 2021

High School

When I was a freshman in high school, my class was on a field trip one day, and it was lunchtime. My friends and I were making our way through a self-serve buffet, and I had piled a mountain of fried chicken onto my plate. Across the room, I saw a girl from my class (let’s call her Tiffany) standing and waiting for her friends. I did not like Tiffany, and she did not like me.

Tiffany was outspoken and insightful; she was also abrasive and a little obnoxious. She loved art and animals. But in my adolescent mind, I had her entire personality distilled into one phrase: “annoying vegetarian”. Actually, she was likely even worse—an annoying vegan—but I didn’t know that word at the time.

I don’t know what came over me, but when I recognized the humorous juxtaposition between my plate and her ideals, I became a bully (I do have to emphasize that this was a momentary and uncharacteristic lapse of judgment, which is partly why this scenario sticks out so much in my mind). I sauntered over to Tiffany and made a big show of inhaling the aroma of my chicken-mountain.

“Mmmmm, this smells so good!”

“That’s gross”, replied Tiffany the Annoying Vegan.

I wasn’t satisfied with her dismissive retort. I turned it up a notch with, “Ha-ha, look—it’s dead! This used to be a chicken!”

Tiffany looked like she wanted to punch me, but she didn’t. I immediately felt guilty for my brutish behavior, anyway. For a long time, I didn’t know why I felt the need for such an outburst. What was it about Tiffany and her ideology that evoked a reaction like that in me?


Sometimes I think about going back in time and punching that version of me on behalf of Tiffany the Annoying Vegan. And not just because he was being an intolerant little shit, but because he was a wrong intolerant little shit. Eleven years later, and I’m a vegan, too.

What is veganism, exactly? I always got that mixed up with vegetarianism or pescatarianism or pastafarianism. Let’s come back to the full definition later. For now, just know that I don’t eat fried chicken anymore—or anything that comes from any animal, actually—for ethical reasons. But consider that I admit to all of the below things. Some of them may surprise you:

  • I don’t think a non-human animal life is more “important” than a human life.
  • If I were stranded on a desert island and I had to choose between hunting animals or dying, I would hunt animals.
  • It takes effort to obtain ideal nutrition when not eating animal products.
  • I don’t dislike animal agriculture farmers or want them to be out of a job.
  • I think fried chicken, steak, and bacon taste really good.


What does it mean for something to be ethical—for something to be right or wrong to do? I love philosophical discussions, and if you know me, you know I could talk about morality and ethics for hours. But right now, I don’t want to get bogged down in a nuanced discussion. I only want you and I to agree on the answer to one question: is it wrong to inflict suffering on an animal unnecessarily?

With any luck, your answer is “Yes”; but, admittedly, there are nuances that inevitably go into ethical discussions. For starters: what kind of animal are we talking about? And what counts as “necessary”? Let’s make it less abstract. Consider a hypothetical scenario…

Imagine someone walks outside of their apartment and into the woods. They search for and find a small, wild animal—a rabbit or a chipmunk, perhaps—and they pick it up. Pulling a pair of scissors from their pocket, they cut off the ears. They feel the panicked wriggling in their hand, they hear the shrill shriek—but it’s no use. They cut off the tail. Then the feet. Then the head. Then, they go back to enjoying their afternoon.

If that paragraph made your stomach turn, then join the club. If you find it ethically palatable, then I recommend seeing a psychiatrist rather than finishing this post. There’s a word for people who do things like that: psychopathic. The things that person did are unequivocally, ethically wrong.

But why?

If you and I were to have a longer, more nuanced discussion about this situation, we would probably discover that we reach the conclusion of wrongness in slightly different ways, but we reach the same conclusion nonetheless. It was wrong because they had no reason to kill the animal, wrong because they were merciless, wrong because the animal suffered.

That particular animal’s unnecessary suffering is wrong. But that’s just one hypothetical, and it’s rather clear-cut. How does this apply to the real world?

The Sizes of Souls

I said I didn’t want to get stuck talking about nuances, but there is one thing I want us to keep in mind: consciously or not, we—as individuals and as a society—tend to think of living things as existing along a spectrum. It’s a spectrum of value, of importance, of moral worth, of respectability, of soul size.

In I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter describes this quasi-intuition we have as our ranking of “souledness”—that is, “How much value do I perceive this living thing to have?” If you and I had to rank living things in such an order, I’m sure our lists would differ in certain places. But I bet your list would look something like mine (I’ve obviously omitted one or two items):


What I mean to say is: imagine that we work our way down that list, and with each line, the story of needless violence from above is retold, the animal of the story being the only change. Take a minute to think about how you would react.

Personally, I would be horrified to hear of a person being dismembered in such a way, but by the time we got down to flowers, I wouldn’t have a visceral reaction—I would just think it was rather odd that someone was spending their time attacking a plant so methodically; and by the time we got to bacteria, I would just be impressed that they were so precise with scissors!

The difference in reaction elicited between the two ends of this spectrum would seem to suggest that we care less and less about the fates of living things as we descend in “souledness”. We give them less ethical consideration. But surely, the closer we are to the top of that list, the easier it is to make our stomachs turn with hypothetical stories of violence.

Ethical discussions can quickly become unclear, because in the end, we have to quantify pleasure and pain (good and bad, if you prefer). What are the tradeoffs, and for whom? When is the pain of one person “worth” the pleasure of many others? Does the answer change if one of those people is me? Consider some classical ethical questions—some of them are much more difficult to answer than others:

  • Do I steal bread from the local store to feed my destitute family?
  • Do I flip a magical switch that will prevent the death of five people, instead killing only one?
  • Do I physically force one person to give up their organs to save five people in need of a donor?
  • Do I purchase animal products?


Whoa, what’s with that last question? How is the decision to purchase animal products an ethical dilemma? This is what I didn’t understand as a teenager. Why did Tiffany care what anyone ate? How in the world does that have to do with anything other than personal preference?

The truth is: there are some disgustingly horrible things that happen to living creatures on this planet. Some of those things are uncaused by humans—for instance, hyenas eating wildebeest babies alive, rear end first (I did see a video of this, and no, it’s not a pretty sight). But some of those horrible things are caused by humans. They’re caused on a mind-bogglingly large scale, in fact. We cause untold suffering for trillions of animals, but most of us are unaware of the details. Out of sight, out of mind. And the real tragedy is that purchasing animal products contributes directly to this untold suffering.

To explain what I mean, I need to tell you what happens to animals in factory farms. Keep in mind that I am not trying to be condescending or sanctimonious; I am telling you the things that I desperately wish I knew back when I was taunting Tiffany. Read as much as you wish from the next section, and I’ll meet you on the other side, where I’ll explain how these facts inform my ethical position.

The Fates of Trillions



Dairy cows are forcibly impregnated (about once per year), so that their bodies will produce milk for their babies. Unfortunately, the calves are taken away shortly after birth, usually receiving none of their own mothers’ milk.

While female calves will typically be used for the same purpose as their moms, male calves are useless to the dairy industry; their bodies are sold for veal or beef. Farmers limit calves’ movement to keep their flesh tender, and feed the calves iron-deficient diets in order to control the color of their flesh. When a calf is mature enough, or a dairy cow is “spent”, they are slaughtered—hung upside-down with a slit throat.

In the U.S. alone, about 39 million cows are slaughtered per year.



Pigs outperform 3-year-old human children on cognition tests, making them more intelligent than any domestic animal. Experts consider them more trainable than cats and dogs.

Farmed pigs typically spend their lives on slatted floors, defecating in their own sleeping areas, which are often too small or crowded to permit the animal to turn around in. Pigs’ tails and teeth are clipped, usually without anesthetic. When it comes time to slaughter a group of pigs, they are killed economically—often gassed to death in a CO2 chamber. There are many internet videos of pigs screaming, thrashing, and trying to escape the confines of the chamber as the gas fills their lungs.

In the U.S. alone, about 120 million pigs are slaughtered per year.



Male chicks are useless to the egg industry, so they are disposed of. It is common practice to grind them up or to suffocate them in trash bags.

While wild hens produce only 10-15 eggs per year, farmed hens have been “optimized” through breeding to produce around 300 eggs per year. Because farmed chickens are often malnourished (partially as a result of producing so many eggs, and partially as a result of getting far too little exercise), “rickets” and “cage layer fatigue” are common: the chicken’s leg bones become bowed and brittle, making it difficult or impossible for the chicken to stand.

Because of the psychological stress endured, some chickens engage in self-mutilation or even cannibalism. To prevent this, it is common practice to “debeak” chickens, despite the pain that this causes.

In the U.S. alone, about 9 billion chickens are slaughtered per year.



Turkeys experience many of the same welfare problems faced by chickens. Most turkeys are forced to live in large, windowless sheds, as the reduced light reduces aggression. Despite having lifespans of around 10 years, factory-farmed turkeys are typically slaughtered at 12-26 weeks old.

Just like chickens, turkeys have their nerve-dense beaks cut short, causing severe pain. Just like chickens, they live in their own excrement, endure widespread disease as a result of overcrowding, and become unable to walk due to malnourishment.

In the U.S. alone, about 250 million turkeys are slaughtered per year.



Even though they do not fit traditional conceptions of “cute” or “lovable”, fish are sentient animals who form friendships and display emotions and unique personalities. Studies have shown that fish respond to and actively avoid pain.

In Ethics in the Real World, Peter Singer describes the alarming common practices undertaken on commercial fishing vessels:

Fish caught in nets by trawlers are dumped on board the ship and allowed to suffocate. In the commercial fishing technique known as longline fishing, trawlers let out lines that can be 50-100 kilometers long, with hundreds or even thousands of baited hooks. Fish taking the bait are likely to remain fully conscious while they are dragged around for many hours by hooks through their mouths, until eventually the line is hauled in.

“Bycatch”, which is ubiquitous in the fishing industry, is the term for when “non-targeted species” are accidentally netted or hooked by fishers. This includes animals like turtles, seals, dolphins, whales, and sharks. Researchers estimate that 17-22% of U.S. annual fishing catch is discarded (“discarded” usually meaning “tossed over the side of the boat, dead or dying”). To put that percentage into perspective, it amounts to about two billion pounds of sea life.

In addition to causing immense amounts of animal suffering, fishing poses a large threat to our environment. More fish are being caught than can be replaced through natural reproduction. This overfishing has a plethora of negative impacts, including poor coral reef health, species endangerment and extinction, and increased water pollution.

By the U.S. alone, some 10 billion pounds of sea creatures are slaughtered per year.

Something in Common

All farm animals have been bred as “optimized products” for our personal gain. They are bred to give us the plumpest, tastiest meat at the lowest cost. We have made them subdued and defenseless. We have played god, and a cruel god at that. These animals spend every moment of their lives giving us whatever we can take from them before we’ve decided it’s time to cut their lives short. Despite having no voice with which to plead for a better life, they are routinely exploited and violated.

Notice that I said “factory farms” above. These are intensive, industrial-scale, animal agriculture farms that are designed to maximize production and minimize cost. These are the animal hells described above. “Ah, but what about small, local farms, where animals roam happy and free?” It would be ethically better if you got all of your animal products from such a place, but unless you’re an extreme outlier, you don’t. You can’t. The demand for animal products is so high that the only way to keep up is to maximize production. 99% of all U.S. animal products come from factory farms.

Animal agriculture hurts us, too. It’s one of the most negative impacts to our ever-deteriorating environment. Toxin runoff from factory farms cause “dead zones” in our oceans. They pollute our air with inordinate amounts of greenhouse gases. In the U.S., a mere 27% of crop calories are consumed directly by humans; 67% goes to animal feed.

In addition, animal agriculture greatly increases the likelihood of the spread of “zoonotic” diseases, like Covid-19, which transmit between animals and humans.


I promised we would come back to the definition of veganism, and here we are. The Vegan Society website says:

Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals … [it] promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment.

Pretty simple, right? Some people call veganism a diet, but it’s more than that (especially because it goes beyond food consumption). It’s a mindset and a form of activism. It is the belief that we should avoid, as much as possible, inflicting suffering on animals (both human and non-human). It is the belief that we are not entitled to exploit other animals to our hearts’ content just because we can.

Going back to the ranking of “souledness”, how does level of consciousness play into my dietary decisions? Well, the state of nature is that you and I have to consume living things to survive. But because we are sophisticated enough to consider morality and ethics, any old being won’t do; we have to draw a line somewhere. I draw my line well below social, suffering creatures.

So when I say that I’m vegan, it means I don’t eat mountains of fried chicken anymore. I don’t eat any meat, nor do I consume eggs or dairy. Here’s why: I don’t have to. It is unnecessary for me to consume animal products. And since I know that many animals have to suffer for many years to support the average non-vegan diet, I find it unethical to consume animal products.

If you are not vegan, I mean no offense by that last sentence. Not only do I mean no offense, but I am also not calling you an unethical person. The reason I’m writing this at all is because I believe that rational people, given enough time to think about such things, will reach the same conclusions I have.


I would like to comment briefly on how non-human animal welfare relates to human welfare, because environmental damage is not the only thing we have to worry about. There is a dangerous yet pervasive mindset that people tend to have: “It’s us and them, and if you are part of them, you are inferior to me.”

When looking back through history, it seems reasonable to say that our collective morality has increased. Progress is very gradual, but very real; with each new generation of people, we become more accepting and empathetic. Today, most people would agree with this statement: no individual should be oppressed or discriminated against on the basis of their race, class, ability, gender, or sexuality. Consider some historical statements that you and I, people of modern society who have benefited from the aforementioned moral progress, will agree are repugnant:

These statements have, among many abhorrent qualities, the quality of being non-vegan. To be vegan is to care not only about non-human animals, but also humans (which should perhaps be obvious, since humans are animals). Not only should we avoid oppression based on race, class, ability, gender, and sexuality; we should avoid oppression based on species. To be vegan is to see an animal not as a product, but as an individual.

Anyone who lives with an animal (a dog or a cat, for instance) would agree that the animal has unique preferences and behaviors. They have a personality. I call myself a vegan because I believe every individual—regardless of whether they are black, gay, female, or non-human—has the right not to be oppressed; therefore, I also consider statements that regard animals similarly to the above quotes to be repugnant.


I’m sure that you have a lot of thoughts racing through your mind, that you are raising many of the same objections that I had when I first encountered these ideas. Below, I have included some of the most common objections to veganism, as well as my responses to them. If you find that you resonate with some of the questions below, please expand my response and take it into consideration.

Of course, I cannot anticipate all arguments or even respond comprehensively to the ones I do anticipate. If you would like to have a real conversation about veganism, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter.

You don’t have the right to tell me what my lifestyle should be. Isn’t what I eat my personal choice?

Expand Response

I believe personal freedom is one of the most—perhaps even the most—fundamental rights we have. When I say “we”, I mean any of us creatures who are self-aware, and who have emotions and desires. The fundamental problem here is viewing animals as nothing but products to create and exploit.

Look, if we find out someone has malnourished and mutilated their pet, we charge them with animal abuse. Why are things different when a farm is involved? I respect your personal choice, but I also respect their personal choice.

You expect to survive on a diet that has no meat in it? Where will you get your protein and vitamins?

Expand Response

I do admit that achieving optimal nutrition on a vegan diet will require some effort. For instance, B12 is a vitamin that pretty much has to be supplemented by vegans. But so what? If you’re concerned about your health, you should be watching what you eat anyway. (And besides, if you're eating meat, you're likely supplementing indirectly.) Among other institutions, the British Dietetic Association has affirmed that a well-planned vegan diet is healthy for all stages of life (including pregnancy!).

There are, in addition, studies that are beginning to suggest that vegan diets actually increase life expectancy, though more studies (in particular, ones that separate vegans from vegetarians), are needed to confirm this.

Isn't my life worth more than an animal’s?

Expand Response

Based solely on “level of consciousness”, I would say yes, your life is “worth more”. But it’s not a question of life vs. life—it’s a question of life vs. taste pleasure. As I say above, you can get all the nutrition you need on a vegan diet. So really, the only tangible loss when going vegan is that of particular tastes. There are plenty of delicious vegan foods out there, even some that taste like real meat. They don’t taste exactly like meat, but are you telling me that’s worth all of the animal suffering you’re supporting?

We've always had the food chain. Surely you aren’t telling me that all lions are unethical because they eat meat. Why is it wrong to eat an animal?

Expand Response

Animals rape other animals as well, but we do not use that as a justification for rape. And tradition does not equal morality; we've killed each other and sold each other as slaves for thousands of years, but we do not use tradition as a justification for those atrocities. It’s not a question of what is historical or commonplace—it’s a question of what’s right.

Lions kill out of necessity, but we do not require animal flesh to survive. As the “most moral” species, I see us as protectors, not conquerors—we have a duty to minimize suffering, rather than the right to inflict it.

What about all of the plants you consume? Isn’t it possible that they suffer?

Expand Response

Plants don’t have a nervous system, so I find it rather absurd to believe they experience pain. But I do grant that they are still living, and to eat plants is to kill living things. That thought does not trouble me much, given that plants don’t have a brain that can anguish over any pain. Still, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that plants feel pain—as much pain as a cow, even. But to raise animals requires feeding them a lot of… plants.

It may seem counterintuitive, but as people switch to vegan diets, the number of plants we have to grow actually goes down. Land used for farming could potentially drop as much as 75% if the whole world decided to go vegan. It would greatly reduce the suffering of both humans and non-human animals.

Be honest: if your house were burning down, would you rush in to save a family member or a dog first?

Expand Response

I’d save my family first. But that’s a bit of an absurd question, isn’t it? The odds are extremely low that I’ll ever have to make a choice like that, and even if I do find myself in that horrible dilemma one day, it will be an exceptional situation, by far. The choice we have to make is not whether to save the human or the dog. It’s not whether to fish or to starve. It’s not whether to help humans or to help non-humans. The choice is: when I walk into the supermarket, do I buy the bacon or the lettuce?

Making a Difference

So, I’ve thrown a lot of information at you, but what am I actually advocating for?

I might call it the fulfillment of a personal responsibility, a duty, or an ethical obligation. Animal exploitation causes truly untold suffering in the world, including the impact it has on us and on future generations. But we can make a difference. As I see it, there are three hurdles for us to clear:

First, we need to understand that animal commodification is unnecessary. At the very least, we need to agree that the scale of animal agriculture at which we are operating is causing immense psychological and environmental harm. Our survival is not contingent on bringing trillions of animals into existence for the sole purpose of slaughtering them.

Second, we need to overcome our speciesism. As I said earlier in regards to intersectionality, oppression of species exists in the same mind-space as racism, homosexuality, and sexism. I envision a world where no one is commodified or treated as inferior. To achieve this, we need to overcome the misconception that there is something special about our membership in homo sapiens that gives us the right to breed, control, and slaughter other creatures.

Third, once we recognize that we have a problem, we need to figure out how to solve it. Donations and public activism are quite effective, but most straightforward is the simple decision not to consume animal products. We need to connect our purchases to the ethical consequences. When someone buys a steak from the supermarket, they are increasing the demand for animal agriculture. This leads to all of the negative impacts to humans and non-human animals described above.

How much of a difference can just one person make? The average American will consume 7,000-13,000 animals in their lifetime—so, as it turns out, one person can make a very big difference. (And you might be surprised by just how many vegans you know of!) Moreover, our collective voice gets louder every time someone new speaks out for those who can’t speak out for themselves. In this way, we have made progress towards eradicating racism, sexism, and homophobia; and in this way, we will make progress towards eradicating speciesism.

I don’t expect to “convert” you on the spot, but I hope I have succeeded in giving you something to think about over the next days, weeks, and months. Let me remind you: I ate animals (a lot of animals!) for most of my life. And when I started thinking about whether it was ethically permissible to do so, I wrestled with my own thoughts for a long while before denouncing my old ways.

But the future is vegan. I am determined to be on the right side of history in a time full of violence, suffering, and exploitation. Will you join me?

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© 2021 Ryan Schalk