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December 18, 2014

How to Be a (More) Ethical Meat Eater.

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It is said that pigs on the way to slaughter can sense what is coming and squeal horrifying screams of terror.

Their hairless bodies are reminiscent of those of humans. And their sweet flavor is reportedly so much like that of human flesh that Christopher Hitchens hypothesized the prohibition against pork in Judaism may have originally come about as a way of distancing the religion from human sacrifice.

While eating animals is natural enough to have influenced the very development of human physiology, it is also eerily unnatural. Few proponents of a paleo-diet would be prepared to run down a deer, dig their fingernails into its flesh, and tear into its jugular vein with their bare teeth, after all. Uncooked meat is tough to chew, likely to carry disease, and a struggle to digest. And for those unaccustomed to the art of lapping up the blood of freshly killed mammals, the prospect can be nauseating.

There is an ambivalence involved in meat eating. The main course of any serious meal is likely to consist of meat and when people can afford to they tend to eat more of it. Meat is rich with symbolic meaning. It is a status symbol and often considered sacred. And yet, the meat we eat was once a living and feeling being, who felt the warmth of the sun and loved her offspring. While the relationship to domesticated animals on a family farm tends to be more humane than that of a factory farm, it still involves a dissociation that inevitably occurs when killing members of your community. Those brought up on a farm must care for the animals that eventually become dinner, after all.

The world looks different through the eyes of a cow, yanked by a hind leg and hung upside down on a conveyor belt on the way to slaughter. Factory farming takes thinking and feeling animals and turns them into objects, exploiting every moment of their lives for the profit and pleasure of others. Cramped tight in cages, udders milked through mechanized pumps, bodies carved for maximum profit, factory farms are reminiscent of German concentration camps, industrial era nightmares—which most of us in some way support.

The philosopher Michael Sandel has recently noted that America has moved from having a market economy to being a market society. The process has involved the progressive commodification of all things. And nowhere is this so apparent as in the exploitation of animals. The highest stages of capitalism have given us the leisure to think and feel more deeply into the experiences of animals while simultaneously heightening our capacity to exploit them. Now that we are more capable of feeling for the flesh on our plates, we are confronted by the disconcerting prospect that every aspect of the life that once animated it was carefully controlled for profit and pleasure.

The process of factory farming is in every way kept in the shadows. Slaughterhouse work is dangerous and traumatizing and has tended to be performed by the most desperate immigrants since at least the turn of the twentieth century, when Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle.” Stockpiled manure is noxious and the methane it produces contributes to a few percent of greenhouse gas emissions. But perhaps the biggest impact of meat eating can be seen in the destruction of wilderness, which must be brought under cultivation so cooped up livestock might be fed grains, roughly eight pounds of which produce a pound of beef.

All of this can be done more humanely and more sustainably. We can mandate more space per animal, regulate the use and disposal of animal wastes, and improve conditions in the slaughterhouses. We can also incentivize the integration of animals into farm ecosystems and factor environmental externalities into the cost of meat, which when priced accurately would decrease consumption.

There is a common pattern with which sensitive people grapple with the question of whether or not to eat meat. It begins with unconscious ingestion of animal life, passes to moral rejection of meat eating, and usually ends with a moderation in which meat is eaten with caveats. Sometimes this involves not eating mammals, sometimes not eating factory farmed animals, sometimes simply eating less animals altogether.

Moderation is often a way of simply lessening the moral tensions involved in eating animals, but the cruelty and environmental impacts cannot be imagined away. The question of whether or not to eat meat is so close to us, there on our plates and in our bodies, that once confronted it is difficult not to think of it in moral terms. Yet, it is often the case that we can reduce more suffering and produce more happiness by shifting moral problems into the political sphere.

For me personally, not eating meat is a moral absolute. But for those who are more comfortable with eating meat, but who still have ethical reservations, there is a simple solution: push for stronger animal welfare legislation and an end to the subsidies that make meat so cheap. Since there are so few advocating for this, and since the nature of factory farming is so shocking when exposed, it may not take much advocacy to make an impact proportionate to going vegetarian.

Conversely, ethical vegetarians may wish to reconsider the commitments we ask of others. In asking meat eaters who are morally uncomfortable with the act to occasionally take the time write a letter or sign a petition demanding more humane farm conditions, I like to think I am providing them an opportunity to ease their conscience while doing great good. This seems to me a modest proposal. And sometimes a clever application of modest concern can bring more change than a stronger application of moral pressure. Certainly this is worth exploring.

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Author: Theo Horesh

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Wikipedia

Theo Horesh

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