Objection (1): Personal Choice / Personal Freedom
“Respecting animal rights is a matter of personal choice and personal freedom. As individuals, we make different choices. In so doing, we simply exercise our individual freedom. We should respect our different choices and avoid moral evaluations. I don’t question your decision not to consume animal products, so please respect my decision to do otherwise.”
This is arguably one of the most common objections around. It is also one of the most fundamental ones in the sense that it precludes any further debate. Yet, upon closer scrutiny, it seems to become a debatable point whether it’s truly as powerful as its proponents believe it to be. For the questions arise whether the qualification ‘personal’ is justified and whether it is a ‘choice’ at all.
(1.1) Conversation Stopper
Qualifying the choice of respecting animal rights as ‘personal’ is, strictly speaking, not a real argument to defend and justify a certain practice but in fact merely an attempt to stop any further discussion or evaluation. When people declare the consumption of animal products a personal issue, they try to suggest that this decision is independent of anyone’s acceptance but their own. And this is not a way of inviting further constructive debate but just another way of saying: “Let’s not discuss it!”
(1.2) Impossibility of Moral Progress
If we consistently adhered to the principle of respecting different views and avoiding evaluations, we would end up cementing the status quo, making any form of moral and cultural progress impossible. For moral and cultural progress has always consisted in not blindly accepting and insisting on the status quo but in subjecting it to critical scrutiny. And ethical debate is an indispensible means to this end.
The willing suspension of moral reasoning demanded by this argument seems even harder to justify given the fact that human beings tend to pride themselves on this very capacity and readily use it to distinguish themselves from animals.
(1.3) Choices Affecting Others Aren’t Personal Choices
Freedom of choice is indeed an important good. But according to common understanding, one’s freedom ends where another’s begins. Decisions and practices that affect the well-being, life and freedom of others are matters of morality rather than personal choice. And there now seems to be very little controversy that animals, as sentient and vulnerable beings, are negatively impacted in various ways by human consumption of animal products. Consequently, the attempt to qualify choices about consuming animal products as ‘personal’ is ill-founded.
(1.4) Narrow Understanding of Freedom
Considering any limitation as an undue restriction of personal freedom seems indicative of a rather narrow understanding of the concept of freedom. Freedom is not simply the idea that persons should have an unlimited range of options to generate and satisfy needs; this reeks of an unleashed sense of entitlement rather than of freedom. Instead, freedom – in the more sophisticated sense – is the idea that persons are free to choose between different options rather than being determined to blindly follow what their needs and drives dictate.
In fact, it is this very understanding that humans like to fall back on when they claim that freedom is the defining characteristic that sets them apart from animals. And, more often than not, humans invoke this characteristic to justify their privileged moral status over animals. So why not at least try and live up to that much cherished self-conception?
(1.5) Result of Socialisation rather than a Conscious Choice
Consuming animal products is usually not the result of a conscious choice but simply the consequence of socialisation in a deeply entrenched and all-encompassing system of animal use – a system backed up by a corresponding ideology which has aptly been termed carnism. A real choice – like opting for vegetarianism or veganism – presupposes that one is consciously aware of the options available and capable of reflecting on them. Within such a ubiquitous system, however, this would seem to require a considerable amount of critical distancing.
Thus it seems safe to assume that, within the given system, a conscious decision to consume animal products is the exception rather than the rule. Some people seem to be confusing ex-post rationalisations of unwittingly acquired behaviours they have become accustomed to, and are fond of, with real conscious choices.
(1.6) It’s about Animals, not Animal Advocates
Insistence on mutual respect for different views and practices completely misses the point. For animal advocates, it’s not at all a question of having their own views and practices respected or their own interests and feelings considered. Instead, it’s all about the ethically sound treatment of a third party – namely animals.
If animal advocates witness someone mistreating an animal, they usually don’t experience this first and foremost as an act of disrespect, and they don’t usually feel personally offended by this act; instead they are outraged because another sentient, feeling being is subjected to suffering. Animal advocates act as proxies for animals rather than on their own account.
(1.7) Indirect Effects on Humans
Even if we leave direct concern for animals out of the picture here, the argument from personal choice runs into serious moral problems. For many practices engendering animal suffering also affect other human beings negatively (e.g. the impact of the consumption of animal products on the environment, world hunger, (food) justice, mental and physical health of those working in the animal industry, as well as effects like the spread of multi-resistant bacteria, or the outbreak of epidemics or pandemics, to name but a few). At least as regards those practices, the argument from personal choice clearly has no clout. For choices that obviously and seriously affect other human beings cannot be a mere matter of personal freedom.
Of course this counter argument is both indirect as it excludes animals from the moral arena and indirect as it only holds true for those practices that do in fact have a negative impact on other humans. Be that as it may, it suffices to show the limits of the argument from personal choice.