LePan's future humans are doubly prejudiced. Their prejudices about mental disabilities convince them that the impaired are not human. Then speciesism takes over. "Not human" means "morally unimportant" in their minds.
The novel makes us see what a terrible thing it is to be prejudiced, and how that attitude can blind us to important truths. Bravo.
[Pause for emphasis. Really, bravo!]The thing is, LePan invites us to go further--to see a moral equivalence. The kids are kept in filthy pens, fattened up, castrated, tagged, etc. We are to think "That's just what we do to animals!"
Is it the same? LePan's human livestock are impaired children, so presumably no more knowing than cattle. Yet he focuses on a boy who's been miscategorized. He's just deaf, not mentally impaired. So he is aware of what's going on and suffers accordingly. There's no way to equate the boy's plight with a farm animal's.
Most of the "childstock" in Animals don't understand what they're going through. So there's a stronger case to be made for an exact equation. Certainly lots of ethicists think so--the argument from "marginal cases" is ubiquitous in the animal ethics literature. The novel is that argument in fictional form, with lots of "essaying" interspersed with a brief story.
Myself, I'm not wild about the idea that animals and impaired children are morally interchangeable. In LePan's novel, children can wind up being eaten by their own parents. Surely that relationship matters. If there's one duty we can all agree on, it's the duty not to eat your children!
To think animals and impaired children are morally interchangeable, you'd have to think it was morally irrelevant that impaired humans are "the weak among us"--not only children, but particularly helpless children. Note: we have extra solicitude not just for impaired humans but for impaired animals. Think about all those stories about beached whales being helped by humans that turn up in the newspaper periodically.
When we think "how terrible!" about the treatment of the childstock in Animals, there are lots (and lots) of factors that enter into that assessment. (I explore all of this at length in my new book--see chapters 5 and 6). It's not inevitable that we must think exactly the same thing about eating childstock and eating livestock.
Animals is compulsively readable, but truly sickening (perhaps the author will take both descriptions as compliments). After reading it, I decided to go on a people-eating diet. No, I'm not cutting back on eating people, but cutting back on people-eating books and movies.
In the last year, I've read/seen an awful lot: The superb and amazingly creepy novel Under the Skin, by Michel Faber. Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The movie War of the Worlds. In the end, nothing's really going to make us equate eating animals and eating people. Cora Diamond makes that point very effectively in her memorable essay "Eating Meat and Eating People." If you're going to get into this territory, I'd start with that.