Michael Mansfield : Abolishing meat is an ethical issue that requires everyone's attention


As a barrister, I seek justice for people and defend their rights. As a vegetarian, I like to think that I take a stand against injustice for those who happen not to have been born human and so are confined and killed for their flesh.

World Week for the Abolition of Meat – from 23 to 29 January – is a week when we are asked to reflect on that suffering and try switching to vegetarian meals. Nothing could be more appropriate at a time of political, economic and environmental meltdown. Like it or not our values and priorities must be reappraised lest our planet becomes utterly enveloped by the market forces of greed and avarice under the guise of growth and progress.

I stopped eating meat when I realised that meat production contributes to a society in which the value of a life is measured by profit margins alone and comfort is of no concern.

Cows, chickens, pigs and other animals raised for food are victims of our indifference. Because they are not as familiar to us as the dogs and cats with whom we share our homes, their capacity to suffer is largely but irrationally ignored. Yet there is no longer any question about it: they are emotional beings like us. All experience joy and love and pain and fear, and all are highly social beings who form strong bonds with their friends and families and mourn when they lose a loved one. Yet raised on intensive agriculture's factory farms, pigs, chickens and other animals are denied almost everything that is natural and important to them. Most never see sunlight or breathe fresh air. Crowded together in their own waste – filthy conditions that cause extreme discomfort and stress – many of them are driven insane.

When they are still very young, they are loaded onto lorries bound for the abattoir. They ride a conveyor belt to the person or machine with the knife and then are skinned and gutted. Pleading that we are entitled to snuff out a life in order to accommodate a fleeting taste is an argument that wouldn't stand a chance in court were the victim human.

As any lawyer can attest, legality is, of course, no guarantee of morality. The law changes as public opinion or political motivations change, but ethics are not as arbitrary. Albert Schweitzer, who accomplished so much for both humans and animals in his lifetime, put it this way: "A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist …. He does not ask how far this or that life deserves one's sympathy … nor, beyond that, whether and to what degree it is capable of feeling".

It is our decision whether to pay for vegetables, nuts, fruits, grains and legumes or to pay someone miles away to string cows, chickens and turkeys up by their legs and cut their throats and cut off pigs' teeth, tails and testicles without giving them as much as an Aspro. George Bernard Shaw warned that no matter how far distant the abattoir is, we are complicit if we eat animals' flesh. The choice seems obvious: vegetarian or barbarian?

One day, it is likely that meat-eating will be relegated to the history books alongside other injustices. Until then, we can, as individuals, make the decision to go vegetarian, if for only a week.