More than nearly any other ethical question, “to eat or not to eat meat?” confronts us with the unfeasibility of removing all subjective considerations from ethics and relying only on our reason. At some point, meat-eaters will evoke happy memories of family meals or point out how tasty bacon and burgers can be in order to underline the normality of consuming cooked animals. Similarly, vegetarians and vegans often stress the revulsion and horror we would experience if only we would watch this one video… Perhaps this is why arguments that appeal to rationality and utility, like those of Peter Singer, leave us cold. We need to feel something to be convinced of ethical arguments.
As the novelist and vegetarian Jonathan Safran Foer argues in his 2010
Unfortunately, vegetarians and vegans all too often attempt to make meat-eaters feel shame over their dietary choices, an emotion which tends to have far less compelling power than we think. One sees the same mistake frequently befall the political left- when our parents and religious leaders shame us as children, it can powerfully shape our behavior. When friends and strangers try to shame us? More often it compels us to raise a single finger in response.
A vegan couple I know takes a somewhat different approach, most often pointing out the hypocrisy of meat-eaters. You are outraged when someone is cruel to a dog and would never dream of eating your pet cat, but have no problem with your dinner coming from an animal like a pig that is just as intelligent and cute? But this is really a variation on the shaming argument and, while I think highly of this couple, I’ve never found it particularly compelling. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, etc. Safran Foer goes so far as to offer a recipe for dog meat in Eating Animals, which he may or may not realize actually sounds delicious.
Nevertheless, I think we generally recognize there is an ethical question here. There is something deeply wrong not quite so much with meat-eating as such, but with the way that meat is produced today. Industrial agriculture – or factory farming – has produced genetically mutated animals that live short existences of significant suffering in such great numbers that it has revolutionized how the world eats and how certain species exist in relation to humans. Schopenhauer would also argue that we can’t understand human nature without first understanding animal life, but we have utterly removed ourselves from that equation.
Thus, Safran Foer spends much of his book detailing how the largest meat suppliers undertake factory farming and it is sufficient material to trouble even the most keen meat eater. The current industry model is inefficient, exceedingly risky to public safety, excessively cruel, and will surely and ultimately prove unsustainable. Treating living beasts like cogs in a factory process has made unimaginable horrors commonplace (which is why we prefer not to imagine them) and resulted in very bad food. It seemingly has as much to do with farming as a Ford plant has to do with building a hot rod in the family garage.
I actually began thinking about meat for two reasons that fall outside of Foer’s book, and of most arguments by vegetarians. First, a few years ago, I was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, an annoying but treatable condition that is not uncommon in vegetarians. My doctor wrongly assumed I am a vegetarian, in fact. Since I began treating that cheaply with vitamins, however, I had fewer concerns about going off meat.
The other incident was reading the startling info that industrial agriculture has eliminated the vast majority of crops that were grown in North America one hundred years ago, and in many cases has made the species extinct. Safran Foer cites the equally striking fact that Americans eat one quarter of one percent of the known edible foods on the planet. We eat almost nothing that we could, which I find somehow even more depressing than the facts of meat production. What sort of experiment are we willingly taking part in here?
On the other hand, though, this means that we rely on a limited number of animal species for food. So, for the New Year, I simply stopped eating beef. It was easy – certainly easier than cutting out processed sugars has proven. Before this post, I never even told anyone I did it. Now that I’m also cutting out pork, which has consistently given me more heartburn than any other food, I find myself, strangely enough, finished with mammals. It’s pretty hard to find rabbit around here, not that I’m looking hard. I know where to get kangaroo meat, but it’s not worth the trouble.
Fish and fowl are harder steps to take. Safran Foer argues for the sociability and smartness of those with feathers and fins, but there’s something unsettlingly dead in the eyes of a living fish, a wider existential gap than that lying between us and other mammals. When I was a child, we raised chickens on our small farm for the eggs and I have to say that I never found them endearing or clever. Werner Herzog’s description of the fiendish stupidity of chickens is not entirely off the mark.
Nevertheless, Safran Foer’s book makes me glad for the few changes I’ve made and eager to make more. Interviewing numerous farmers, animal advocates, and factory farm workers, he succeeds in painting a deeply unsettling, if not damning portrait of the industry. The majority of us would want the animals we eat to lead relatively pain-free lives and have easy deaths, but the industry defines those things in ways that amount to lying (Safran Foer uses the more agriculturally apt term “bullshit”) and the reality of how we make food of animals approaches an unending atrocity. Interestingly, the strongest voices for animal welfare in the book come from the small farmers Safran Foer interviewed.
But this raises the question of whether meat-eaters would do more good by supporting those small and ethical farmers than by going off meat. It’s not exactly impossible – most areas still have farmer’s markets and they tend to be cheap. Most vegetarians would say “no”, this doesn’t help, because small farmers are such a miniscule percentage of meat producers, but I wasn’t so sure and Safran Foer comes down more strongly on the side of opting out of the factory farming system one way or the other. But what percentage of people are becoming vegetarians now? How do working people manage to change their diets in a major way when just getting the time and money together to keep the refrigerator stocked can be daunting? How do you even broach the question when most people would rather discuss their most embarrassing high school memory?
And what happens to the animals next? It sounds like a flippant question, but a major argument for vegetarianism is the ecological damage caused by dedicating so much land to animal production. So, what happens if we all stop eating meat? Where do all the cows and chickens and pigs go?
Then, of course, if we stop eating meat, there is the dismal feeling that it makes very little difference, given that most people won’t stop eating meat, not to mention that industrial agriculture is only a single facet of our tragic disconnection from the natural world and our own humanity. It comes to mind that it has been years since I’ve even seen a living pig or chicken and I can’t be alone. Add in war, ecological devastation, racism, genocide, pollution, and the overall manner that we live our lives now and it’s hard not to think we’re waging a war of extermination against our own species along with many others.
But I suppose we do what we can. A more traditional way of understanding ethical choices is that they exist at a level deeper than reason, at the level of will or a place “written on the heart”. In that case, it matters little if we save a single being or the world entire. But we’ve still got a very long way to go.