Do Humans Eat Animals To Cope With Meaninglessness?

Jonathan Dickstein
6 min readApr 26, 2021

Perhaps there is a much darker reason behind the persistent opposition to animal-free products

Some are made uncomfortable by the mere mention of animal rights. Discomfort does not always indicate disagreement, but at the very least it expresses some pause, some concern. This discomfort resembles the reaction others have to any reference to animals as “persons,” or “people,” two terms that have historically been restricted to humans.

Why this reflex apprehension? What is so worrying about the suggestion of “nonhuman people”?

Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka have drawn attention to two common, practical, anthropocentric fears regarding the promotion animal rights: the trivialization and displacement of human rights. The basic claim is that the elevation of animals’ problems and interests somehow necessarily cheapens or dislodges the problems and interests of oppressed humans, which is unacceptable. However, and more often than not, little evidence is provided for the actuality of this human-animal “value seesaw.”

Relevant to the question of rights, yet much more fundamental, is Syl Ko’s insight that while humans are biological animals, “human” and “animal” are intrinsically opposing social concepts (Consider how no one wants to be “treated like an animal” even if they admit to being one). This conceptual opposition amounts to a human-animal binary that inherently resists any narrowing of the gap between the two terms — thus the assumed absurdity of extending (“human”) rights to animals or referring to animals as “people.” In the public sphere, one also notices how demands for human rights often stress the humanness of the oppressed, who are “humans too” rather than “just animals.” This refrain displays how combining, analogizing, allying, or even juxtaposing human rights and animal rights is perceived as either illogical or politically self-sabotaging.

Consider how no one wants to be “treated like an animal” even if they admit to being one.

While the analyses of Donaldson, Kymlicka, Ko, and others certainly ring true, there is an additional, much darker, component. This is the enduring need of humans to safeguard the fragile conviction that their lives have objective meaning, a conviction intimately tied to their conceptual proximity to animals. The prevalent assumption among most humans is that their lives, objectively-speaking, have meaning and value. “Objectively” here refers to any impersonal, theoretical perspective, be that the perspective of God, “the universe,” or “humanity.” These perspectives are theoretical because they are not literally held by anyone: God does not really exist and “the universe” and “humanity” are only concepts and not minds with actual perspectives.

Still, from any such perspective, the meaningfulness and value of a human life is not simply a function of the meaning and value the life has for the one who is living it, or the meaning or value the life instrumentally has for others, but rather the human life has meaning and value in itself, in its mere being. According to most humans, if anything has meaning in itself in the world, then it must be a human life. Nonhuman lives may also (or may not) have objective meaning, but a human life is both the benchmark and apex of such meaning.

If human lives are the standard for objective meaning, then nonhuman lives must have lesser if not zero objective meaning. Importantly, the process by which humans confer or deny this meaning to others (human or nonhuman) is usually determined by the kinds of interactions they already have with those others, as opposed to pre-established ideas pre-determining these kinds of interactions. Humans act first and justify later, especially with respect to animals.

Humans do quite awful things to animals — manipulate, confine, mutilate, violate, torture, kill — things that are generally deemed intolerable if inflicted upon humans (which is not to say that they are not still done). The simplest after-the-fact rationalization for these awful acts is the assertion of the objective meaninglessness of animals. If animals have no objective meaning, then there is no fault in having acted in such ways towards them. From that point onwards, the assertion of animals’ meaninglessness functions as a before-the-fact justification for committing similar acts towards them in the future.

These awful acts (yet much more commonly, the products of the acts) not only provide superficial pleasures to millions of humans, but more profoundly affirm humans’ sense of meaningfulness. By performing acts on others that are intolerable if performed on oneself, one is reassured of the distance between themselves and those others, between one’s meaningfulness and their meaninglessness. By physically consuming these meaningless others, one, in a sense, consumes and overcomes meaninglessness itself. For biologically-finite and cognitively-limited humans tormented by the question of their meaning and value in the cosmos, the annihilation-via-consumption of meaninglessness serves as a form of palliative transcendence.

By performing acts on others that are intolerable if performed on oneself, one is reassured of the distance between themselves and those others, between one’s meaningfulness and their meaninglessness.

Human worry about meaninglessness is connected to the fear of death, although it does not seem that even with eternal life humans would be relieved of the question of meaning. Nevertheless, the fear of death is extremely powerful on its own, and nonhuman animals constantly remind human animals of their biological expiration dates. By distancing themselves from animals — ideologically and materially — humans perform a distancing from death itself. And by consuming animals, humans, once again, go beyond mere distancing to enact a form of palliative transcendence, this time over mortality (here it resonates with Terror Management Theory, especially when linked to animals). Yet while “eating death” offers some existential relief to humans, I sense that it is not death itself that truly agonizes them (or at least some of them), but rather the prospect of living meaningless “animal-ish” lives prior to their unavoidable deaths.

Most humans do not enjoy seeing animals harmed or killed by other humans. Yet this does not mean that these very same humans do not take comfort (a form of pleasure) in the phenomenon of animals dying by human hands. I sense that everyday humans consume animals, at least in part, because subconsciously they derive existential pleasure from the harming, killing, and consumption of animals. This pleasure is not necessarily the core human motivation for consuming animals, or even the most dominant, but at the very least it must be added to the list of usual motivations such as conformity, taste, tradition, convenience, affordability, and so on. This claim is likely controversial, but it does help explain why some humans fiercely resist animal-free diets and insist on consuming animals even when reasonable alternatives are right at their fingertips.

Consuming animals is surely not a sadistic pleasure for most, but rather a pleasing subconscious affirmation of objective meaning. It is a way to powerfully substantiate — literally and metaphorically — one’s own meaningfulness by categorically segregating oneself from meaninglessness, and then conquering it by means of annihilation-via-consumption. By contrast, refraining from animal consumption challenges the legitimacy of the human-animal binary, and thus endangers our already brittle confidence in the meaning of our lives. Being both unable and unwilling to bear our own existential burden, we take out our despair on others, and brutally so.

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*It would be remiss of me not to mention the influence of David Benatar’s insights on meaning in The Human Predicament .