I have struggled with the ethical dimensions of eating animals for most of my life. It first came to my attention when my high school crush, Katie Loughran, shared PETA’s “Meet Your Meat” video. I was appalled, like most who see the short (horror) film. Thus followed nine months of capricious veganism, and then many years of relapse. Even yesterday, my boss cooked up turkey chili in the breakroom and brought me a bowl: I ate it with relish, as he is a fantastic chef. But in the back of my mind lurks the ever-growing concern: The question of what kind a person I am in eating animals.
I write this brief reflective essay regarding a book I just finished, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. Speechless, or rather, so full of words I can’t contain them, I write this rambling account of the ways in which his book moved me; personally, socially, ethically, etc. the depth of Safran Foer’s argument cuts right through me. Personally, I’ve acted via the “conscientious inconsistency” Foer evokes regarding vegetarianism. Socially, I’ve found myself accepting meat from my manager/coworkers because they’re proud of their cooking and want me to share in their delight. As Safran Foer notes, it’s often more rude to turn away the meat than it is to stick to my principles. Ethically, I vacillate between thinking (1) it’s wrong to kill animals, and (2) it’s not inherently wrong to kill animals for consumption, but it is obviously wrong to kill animals in the manner of the factory farming system; this book does wonders to complicate that picture even further, as the author repeatedly suggests that there is indeed genuine ambiguity about killing for necessity. The list goes on ad nauseum, but Foer’s mantra that “Stories about food are stories about us” rings true for my own life.
The brief section titled “Battery Cage,” early on in the book, startled me to my core. Until reading that meager little page, I surprisingly hadn’t performed the thought experiment of being, myself, an animal confined to a cage for slaughter. The horror had gripped me in the studium (intellectual life), but never heretofore in the punctum (emotional life). The way Safran Foer turns the second person into a reinvisioning of the hierarchy between humans and animals is unnerving, to say the least. This is the first motivator for my now vegetarian/vegan-leaning ethical stance (if not yet in practice).
The section titled “Environmentalism” also shook my foundations, in the sense that my higher education is aimed towards Applied Environmental Ethics. In the light of his analysis, I must conclude that being a “casual omnivore,” as Foer puts it, is environmentally inexcusable (again, that difference between the studium and the punctum). It’s one thing to read about the environmental degradation resulting from our agricultural practices and, implicitly, my food choices. It’s another thing to see it phrased so bluntly: “omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.” I don’t want to say something cheesy and (temporally) insincere but, in reading this book, my turbulence about the question of eating animals was absolutely slaughtered (pardon the pun). I can intellectually commit to reducing my meat intake–perhaps to zero–but habitually retraining myself and, in some cases, going out of my way and others’ to behaviorally commit, is another matter.
And, though Safran Foer doesn’t outright name it, his provocation for a “democratic” farm system reminds me much of what I’ve explored this semester regarding Food Sovereignty. I hadn’t heretofore transmogrified that movement into political terms (surprising considering how often I bloviate about American politics). To do so would require replacing “corporate” concerns with “civic” ones and, thus, extremely effort exerting. But, as with the work of John Dewey regarding the philosophy of education, redirecting the means and aim of any system towards democracy seems–to me at least–a noble, fruitful, optimistic endeavour.
I only maintain one worry regarding Safran Foer’s compelling narrative/argument: I find it interesting–if not frustrating–that Safran Foer neglects to mention artificially grown meat. For those unfamiliar, we are now on the cusp of scaling up meat tissue, grown without any animal to raise or kill. If our concern is, as Safran Foer writes, “all of the time […] between cruelty and ecological destruction, and ceasing to eat animals,” then I wonder how our concern would change regarding this “animal-less” (for lack of a better term) meat. That is, if we eliminate the suffering and killing of animals, but still eat “meat,” do we still have an ethical travesty on our hands? The only foreseeable objection to this innovation would be akin to arguments against homosexuality, one of squeamishness: “That makes me feel uncomfortable/That is unnatural, thus, wrong.” If this harmless new method of growing meat becomes scaled in the way the innovating company wants it to be, then how does Safran Foer’s argument shift?
(Link to a podcast in which “Meat Without Misery” is discussed at length: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/meat-without-murder)
In any case, I highly recommend this book, Eating Animals, to all. It’s the kind of book I had to read in one sitting, the kind of book that is a perfect storm of the personal, social, and the ethical. Give it a read, and see where you stand in regards to the question of eating animals.
I’ll tempt you with this brief excerpt: “We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?“