Are Animals Our Neighbors?

Taking the View From Below

Nutrition expert and activist Neal Barnard once made a presentation to elementary school students. As he tells it in Breaking the Food Seduction, at first he was at a loss for an effective beginning:

What could possibly motivate a grade-school child to think about diet? . . . In the end, all I could think to do was to ask the students how they felt about farm animals. "If you were a pig," I ventured, "would you rather be stuck in a huge indoor farm—in a stall where you could barely even turn around—or would you rather be out in the field with your families?" They reacted instantly. "With our families! With our families!" the kids yelled.

Barnard’s simple approach has parallels in the burgeoning philosophical field of animal issues. Ethicists propose thought-experiments that have names like "the impartial position," in which identifying traits of a being are hidden by a "veil of ignorance." Imagine that you didn’t know what your species was, says philosopher Mark Rowlands: would you be in favor of some species being killed and eaten by others?

The particular form these mental exercises take may be new, but the core act of putting oneself in another’s place, imagining her or his thoughts and feelings, and behaving accordingly, is hardly novel. Twenty-five hundred years ago Confucius is reported to have said "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." Jesus is quoted as saying "Whatever you wish that [other people] would do to you, do so to them" (Matt. 7:12). His saying is rooted in the injunction of the Torah, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). Elsewhere, one of Jesus’ questioners, referring to this rule, asked, "Who is my neighbor?" and received in reply the story of the compassionate Samaritan.

Barriers to Taking the View From Below

How does it happen that a rule of behavior so hoary and highly regarded (if often broken) has scarcely ever been even considered for animals, even by most religious leaders in the West? Nearly all cultures train their members to close down their hearts and imaginations to classes of beings that are "beneath" them. And it has often been seen, for example with race and gender, that contemptuous and exploitative treatment leads to vague fears of retaliation, locking still more tightly the doors of the heart.

The locks are maintained by overlapping systems of abusive terminology that discourage sympathy, arouse contempt, and serve to justify mistreatment. Terms like swine, cattle, rat, bitch, cat, chick, cow, fox, buck, and vermin have been applied to Jews, Native Americans, women, African Americans, in order to dehumanize them and to justify violence. Furthermore, the very names of oppressed groups have been turned into terms of abuse; the word "animal" is frequently applied to one who commits atrocities. When members of oppressed groups work to raise their status, they rightly protest the demeaning intention of being compared to animals; but they are also eager in most cases to deny any kinship when the oppression of animals is compared to their own. The assumption seems to be an up-down world: if one group is to be raised up, another must remain down.

To Challenge the Barriers

From the beginning, Friends have challenged the barriers between human beings that are set up to maintain the power and privilege of some and to limit their fellow-feeling for those "below." Though our performance has too often failed to measure up to our professions, we have affirmed that all human beings, as bearers of the Divine Light, are to be loved as ourselves. None are to be seen as existing only for the benefit of others; none are to be treated with violence. This includes even our enemies, who continue to bear the Seed of God.

But most Friends maintain the barriers between human beings and animals. We have accepted our culture’s assumptions that farmed animals are not our neighbors but resources or property: cows exist to provide us with milk, pigs and turkeys exist to be eaten. There seemed no reason to question these ideas; only a decade or two ago, most Westerners believed it a scientific fact that eating animal flesh was necessary to human health. With research leading to increased knowledge of nutrition, more and more people now acknowledge that this is not the case, and that, overall, those who eat no meat have better health and live longer. But Friends have barely begun to come to terms with the implications of these changes, to delve into the subject of the use of animals in our daily lives in order to see if, in Woolman’s phrase, the seeds of war are to be found there.


In his 1785 poem "The Task," William Cowper does not hesitate to use this term for human violence against animals: "Earth groans beneath the burthen of a war / Wag’d with defenseless innocence.. . ." Cowper was speaking of sport hunting, long a favorite amusement of the gentry and aristocrats. But the bloodshed he referred to was the merest skirmish compared to our culture’s assault on animals today. More than 9,000,000,000 defenseless innocents a year, year after year; Niagaras of blood, Atlantics of blood.

The impact of the war has also grown exponentially. The meat that in 1785 only the upper classes could afford every day has become the staple of millions; and to meet their demands, the fast-food industries and factory-farm death rows have burgeoned. They make animals’ lives a nightmare of misery, turn rain forests to deserts, hasten global warming, hasten the disappearance of aquifers, pollute streams and wells. They foster human degenerative diseases from coronary heart disease to kidney stones, and set us up for potential Black Deaths against which antibiotics have become useless.

The war against animals is not the only cause of these and related evils; scarcely anything is simple. Furthermore, it is not always easy to know whether a particular creature such as a clam has feelings or not. Among animals who obviously do, we cannot always be sure whether the behavior that looks like our own means that they are feeling just what we human animals would feel in their places. This uncertainty is enough to make some persons feel justified in excluding animals from the circle of neighbors. If they are not our neighbors, there can be no war, except in the metaphorical sense of an assault on the planet in general, and our Peace Testimony is not relevant. We need not open our hearts to what the animals are going through at human hands.

Extending Justice

It is true that we have to live with complexity, but we should consider very carefully, seeking Divine guidance, whether we are not using this fact as an excuse to avoid the discomfort of change, the loss of favorite gratifications, in some cases the anxiety of facing up to old wounds without our usual anesthetics and defenses. Our reluctance usually shows that the concerns of the human self still remain central for us. In "On the Keeping of Negroes," John Woolman wrote:

When self-love presides in our minds our opinions are biased in our own favor. In this condition, being concerned with a people so situated that they have no voice to plead their own cause, there’s danger of using ourselves to an undisturbed partiality [meaning that, not hearing the viewpoint of the oppressed, we assume that only ours matters] till, by long custom, the mind becomes reconciled with it and the judgment itself infected.

In place of this bias he holds up the impartial, open-hearted love of God:

God’s love is universal, so where the mind is sufficiently influenced by it, it begets a likeness of itself and the heart is enlarged toward all men.

Though Woolman urged kindness toward animals, he did not question their status as property, as food; he had his hands full with the issue of human slavery. But I believe we are being called today to take his insights further. All persons of goodwill would condemn unnecessary cruelty to defenseless animals; but most reserve justice for the two-legged and many-worded, those who look like us. It is time—past time—to question this position. At the core of the likeness may be That of God, the Divine Light and Seed; but there are also many similarities of experience and feeling, as ordinary observation indicates and physiology and behavioral science confirm. We must consider whether what we human animals owe other animals is not, after all, justice.

Understanding the "Enemy"

Our physical and psychological life is not, of course, identical with that of any animal; the form justice would take for particular species will differ. For human beings it includes the rights to education and freedom of speech; for animals it may center on being free to find the food they evolved to eat, and associate with family and friends of their own kind. We can help out Love’s process of enlarging our hearts by educating ourselves, by looking at some examples of the behavior "food" animals are capable of, both in congenial situations and in the constraints of human control. We are then in a better position to try out the risky experiment of imagining how we would feel in their place—of taking the view from below.

Some examples: pigs, so greatly maligned, are described by those who know them well as resembling dogs in intelligence and affection. They are not "filthy" because of self-neglect; they cover themselves with mud to keep cool. In a state in which their needs are met, they are gregarious, curious, and playful; know their names; wag their tails when happy; and will follow a loving guardian about. They also have individual personalities; one is strong and resilient, another may be ultrasensitive. In The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, Jeffrey Masson reports the case of Floyd, a pig of the latter sort who together with his siblings lived in pig-heaven in the Northern California Farm Sanctuary. For various reasons it was found necessary to transfer him to another, equally fine sanctuary. Floyd was very kindly treated there, but he apparently went into a deep depression; he whined, would not eat, would not play with the other pigs, scarcely moved. But when his previous caretaker came over to help solve the problem, Floyd suddenly came to life. When he saw her he squealed with delight, ran up and sniffed her, then raced to the back of her van and jumped in. His problem had only been loneliness for the home and the person and the brothers and sisters to whom he was attached.

If Floyd had been a human being, we would call such bonding love. But if our only contact with pigs is eating them, it would be uncomfortable to think of the particular creature whose corpse one is now consuming as having once perhaps been a Floyd, capable of love and longing. Or to think of a Floyd enduring his whole, brief life jammed with hundreds of others in a vast, stinking concrete building, his tail cut off without anesthetics to prevent the unbearably stressed creatures from biting each other. In nature, pigs do not foul their nests any more than people do, but here his instincts for sanitation are frustrated by having to sleep in his excrement; his curiosity and need for play are blocked, and he has nothing to do but eat until (thanks to selective breeding) he grows so heavy that his feet are in constant pain on the concrete. The only release from this purgatory is a hell—the crowded, thirsty ride to the terror of the killing floor. In fact, our meat will be more enjoyable if we can altogether avoid thinking of that once-living creature with feelings, which most of us quite effortlessly do.

The same is true of dairy products; seldom do we think of their source beyond "Cows give milk." If we tried to look from the cows’ point of view, dairy products might seem more like ill-gotten gains. Theoretically, it is possible for humans to take some bovine milk without distress to the mother cow or her infant, after a stint of nursing. But there would not be much; and when the calf is weaned, the milk would run dry. Unless most of the males are killed, the cow family ("herd") will cost twice as much to maintain. Milk would be so expensive that the enterprise would not turn a profit. To get enough milk to meet consumer demands for daily milk, cheese, butter, and ice cream means taking the newborn calf away from the cow so that we can take her milk for ourselves.

We might prefer to think that neither animal minds this very much, but that is hard to believe when we actually observe them. They scream and bellow for one another. Masson reports a particular case described by John Avizienius, an officer of the RSPCA in Great Britain: after the calf was taken away, the mother stood outside the pen where she had last seen him, bellowing for hours. Even after six weeks, the bereaved mother would gaze at the pen, and would stop there briefly, as though still hoping against hope. The calves likewise cry out in great distress at the separation. The males are shut up into crates in darkened, concrete-floored rooms, to be fed an iron-deficient diet that weakens them and apparently makes them perpetually thirsty, all to turn them into pale-colored veal. In Animal Factories, Jim Mason reports that the calves, apparently desperate for their mother’s teats, will reach out to try to suckle on a finger or hand that comes within reach of their crates. After about 15 weeks of this deprivation and misery, farmers ship the calves, barely able to walk, to the killing floor.

Cows and calves and other farmed animals do not have words, but their cries, their depressed behavior, their trembling and shrinking away from the sight and sounds of the killing of their fellows, give a convincing picture of loss and grief and terror. If they did have words, they might call the human treatment of them kidnapping, robbery, and massacre. Animals are not able to reflect on the entire system that victimizes them, but a human being trying to take their point of view might accuse not only the persons who do the deeds, but also those who, by buying the products, finance the operation.

Understanding Cultural Evils

Kidnapping, robbery, and massacre are ugly words, denoting selfish, cruel, deliberate actions; how can they apply when a whole culture, most of whose members are unaware of what is going on, are merely doing what their forebears did? How can we be guilty for actions without malice?

It is worthwhile to consider the human exploitation of animals as a cultural evil. We really do not have an appropriate word for the moral status of people who unreflectingly profit from a cultural evil. They exist in a misty realm of neither innocence nor guilt, entangled by strands of ignorance, half-truths, and misinformation that they cannot comprehend. For lack of a better term I have called their status "quasi-innocence." There are various degrees of quasi-innocence, ranging from that of the infant given a bottle of cow’s milk, through the impoverished immigrant desperate to support his family who takes the dangerous job on the killing floor, to affluent sport hunters who kill for fun. I myself was never very innocent; a farm girl, tender-hearted about cats and cute baby calves, I saw the terror of pigs as they were driven into a local slaughterhouse, and heard their death screams, without the slightest disturbance of mind. Others seemed to feel such scenes were regrettable but necessary.

Necessity and Health

Necessity or its lack is a crucial factor in moral issues. Ethicists agree that however much pain or harm an action may cause, if it is crucially necessary to the life or health of the actors, it is not a moral evil, though it may be a tragic natural evil. But is the human use of animals for food necessary—or is it a moral evil? There may be cultures in which there is no alternative: the traditional Inuit, whose icy climate obliges them to fish or hunt seals to live; or the exploited Galileans to whom Jesus preached, for whom a catch of fish meant staving off hunger-related diseases one more day.

The situation is quite different for most of us in the affluent West, where a good variety of local plant food is usually available. It often involves the violence of prior habitat destruction, but certainly is far less violent than raising 6,000,000,000 beings a year to kill and eat. The burden of proof must be on those who defend such a system; it is they who must show that it is critically necessary, that we cannot maintain health without it.

The issue of animal products and health is an enormous one that cannot be treated here, but a few comments may be made. In Diet for a New America, former Baskin-Robbins heir John Robbins points out that it is not scientific fact, but the dairy industry’s decades of advertising, posing as health education, that has convinced us that dairy products are necessary to health. In fact, there are cultures, notably that of China, in which dairy is not a part of the culinary tradition. Among the rural Chinese who keep to traditional ways, there is considerable variety in local diets and corresponding incidence of degenerative disease, providing telling comparisons. Overall, the consumption of animal products is much lower than in the United States, whole plant foods making up the major part of Chinese diets. And the incidence of degenerative diseases—heart attacks, cancers, osteoporosis—is drastically lower than among U.S. citizens, including those of Chinese descent.

These remarks are only the briefest hint of dietary issues on which gallons of ink are spilled, and agreement seems impossible. This fact does not excuse us from the urgent need to educate ourselves. And we Friends have an advantage; committed as we are to simplicity, to justice, to a lifestyle that does as little violence as possible, we are potentially closer to resolution on certain dietary issues than are many others in our culture. Our commitments are at odds with the continual rich feast of the U.S. diet, and the callousness and bloodshed underlying it.

The idea of the feast is not in itself unhealthy or violent. For centuries people have held feasts to celebrate life and companionship. The feast is also a magnificent symbol of social equality in our own Christian roots. Jesus and his disciples and a few rich folk joined with society’s outcasts to celebrate the peace and plenty of the Realm of God. Periodic feasts can refresh us. But our daily fare should be moderate in quantity, health-friendly, planet-friendly, and animal-friendly.

Seeking Justice with Compassion

Friends testimonies have long made us leaders in the search for justice in a world of inequality and exploitation. We have worked on behalf of women, oppressed races, the poor, victims of war and other violence. But because our tradition has had little to say for animals, whose human-imposed suffering is staggering, we find that here we ourselves are in the misty zone of the quasi-innocent, the beneficiaries of exploitation and violence. But we are also committed to Truth. Trying as a Religious Society to raise our consciousness, to listen to the Divine Spirit, to open our hearts and minds to our animal cousins, is likely to be extremely difficult. Harsh voices from one’s personal past may rise into our minds and taint the message, making it abusive and accusatory, or heard as such even if it is not. There may well be divisiveness, alienation, unimaginable pain.

Thus, it is important to remember that the key to trying to take the view from below is compassion. Because compassion makes us so vulnerable to this huge world of suffering, opening our hearts takes great courage and endurance. It also requires an awareness that the opening of the heart is always a process. We as individuals are all on the journey, are growing at different rates in various areas of our lives. Many of us have old wounds of our own to be healed; we must have compassion also for ourselves and for one another, and seek healing. A person whose heart is actively opening to animals and is eager to spread the word may have much to learn in a different area of life from a person who has not yet taken this particular view from below, and is unwilling to begin it at present. We must continually remind ourselves that the Spirit of God, who is present to all beings, shares the sufferings of all, and never ceases to love all, is the Light deep in the hearts of every one of us. Whatever our views, we all bear this Light; we live from and participate in this love. It will prevail, for Love never fails.

Let us take the adventure that is sent to us.

Gracia Fay Ellwood

Gracia Fay Ellwood is a member of Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, Calif., and an attender of the Worship Group in Ojai, Calif., where she resides. A writer and retired teacher, she is editor of the online journal The Peaceable Table (, a project of the Animal Kinship Committee of Orange Grove Meeting.