The morality of eating animals

December 12, 2009 at 11:08 pm 6 comments

The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg recently engaged Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals, in one of the most thoughtful and interesting discussions on the morality of meat production and consumption I have ever read.

Selected quotes and summaries from the conversation:

Foer concedes that “the goodness of good farmers might have surprised me more than the badness of bad farmers.” Goldberg asks, then, if he would he eat meat produced by these farmers: “Assuming that there was a farm somewhere where the animals, from birth to  painless, unknowing death, where everything was as humane and gentle and kind as possible, would you then eat that animal?”

Foer’s response: No, for two specific reasons. Firstly, “endorsing the exception is to endorse the rule. People would see me as another person eating meat.” He then makes an analogy to child labor. “It’s easily conceivable that there are many situations in which giving a six-year-old a job would improve that six-year-old’s life and, on a case-by-case basis, would be a good thing. But we don’t create systems for the exceptions, we create them for the rule.”

Secondly, a humane model of farming—one in which animals don’t anticipate or feel the pain from death—is simply impossible to scale. The number of humane chickens raised in America every year, for example, is barely enough to feed the residents of Staten Island.

Foer employs another provocative analogy when asked about whether humans are “natural omnivores,” somehow meant, or maybe even designed, to eat meat:

That’s like asking, are women naturally subservient to men? If we look at history, one might have reason to think so. I mean, we certainly treated women as second-class citizens, almost always until quite recently. That doesn’t mean it’s right, that doesn’t mean life is boring if we suddenly treat them as equals. Is a diet less rich without meat? Yes, it is.

But a desire for a more exotic diet does not relieve us, carte blanche, from the responsibilities of moral eating. Foer shares a story about a time he was in a restaurant and a guy at a table next to him ordered a beautiful, mouth-watering steak—Foer knew that his vegetable plate wasn’t going to be as “satisfying” as the T-bone. But “there are a lot of things we crave, there are a lot of things that would make us perhaps more fulfilled in a sensory way that we just say no to.”

One of the more interesting parts of Foer’s case against eating animals was the way he challenged my rationale of selective or aspirational vegetarianism. I personally don’t seek the opportunity to eat fish, but if salmon is on the menu, I may order it. Since being more strict with my eating habits, I was surprised how easy it was for me to give up birds—except for turkey. On Thanksgiving, I excitedly ate more than a few servings worth of dark meat. I feel, in a sense, good when I eat fish, and I felt good when I ate turkey a few Thursdays back—my rationale is/was “at least I am not eating red meat.”

Foer challenges this line of thinking. It may seem like eating birds and fish is less bad that eating beef, which comes from mammals. But it’s not. As he explains:

There are two reasons. One is that it takes 220 chickens to make one cow, so just in terms of individual suffering from a utilitarian perspective, that’s 220 lives versus one life. Also, cows are the only species that still get to live at least part of their lives and, in many cases, it’s most of their lives, in habitats that make sense for them. All cattle in America now spend at least some time on pastures, except for dairies.

Another issue that Foer addresses is the idea that advocates of moral eating are somehow blind to larger, more important social and political issues. As Michiko Kakutani pointedly notes in her review of Foer’s Eating Animals, it is easy and convenient to be a moral absolutist about food when living in a land of plenty. But try making the case to the millions of starving people all throughout the world—try to convince them that “KFC has caused more pain in the world than any other company.” How does one do that? How does one value the life of a dairy cow over a child? Why not make a personal and professional project around the issues of homelessness or education?

Foer responds by saying, “I actually haven’t heard [this argument] anywhere else [aside from the NYT review],” and dismisses it as “flamboyantly silly.” I think this admission may hurt Foer’s credibility a bit among a certain skeptical audience—and I was both surprised and disappointed with his flippant response. After all, these questions have been a part of, if not the central concern of, discussions and debates I have had with friends about vegetarianism.

Yet when he explains further, Foer provides a practical and effective rejoinder:

Obviously I care more about kids than I care about chickens but that’s not to say that I have to choose. It’s not a zero-sum game. People who care about animals tend to care about people. They don’t care about animals to the exclusion of people. Caring is not a finite resource and, even more than that, it’s like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. This is what Tolstoy meant when he said famously that if there were no more slaughterhouses, there’d be no more battlefields. It’s a silly statement in its own right, but it gestures at something that’s true.

Further, the way we farm and eat animals may be one of the more important things for us to debate and make policy about. Foer notes that conventional farming practices and consumer choices are:

  • Responsible for the systematic abuse of 50 billion animals,
  • The number one cause of global warming,
  • According to the UN, the cause of every significant local and global environmental problem in the world,
  • According to the World Health Organization, “a prime factor in the generation” of Avian and Swine influenza viruses,
  • “Making our antibodies less effective and ineffective,” and
  • “Causes 76 million food-borne illnesses every year.”

“If we don’t say no to this, what do we say no to?”

This is not to suggest Foer dogmatically promotes vegetarianism. He actually takes issue with word “vegetarian,” and promotes a middle way of conscientious eating, which I anticipate is more palatable among an audience that may be turned off by the proselytizing of anti-meat advocates like PETA. Just as it is impossible to scale humane and sustainable farms, it is impossible to expect everyone to stop eating meat:

There are an awful lot of people who care about this stuff and for reasons good or bad, just can’t envision becoming vegetarian. So what do we do with that? Do we throw our hands up in air and say that since I’m not going to be perfect about this I’m completely off the hook. They will say, `I was a vegetarian for six years and I found myself at an airport and I was shaking from hunger so I ate some McNuggets and that was the end of my vegetarianism. It’s just such a bizarre way of thinking about it.

Cutting down on meat consumption, rather than simply cutting it out of one’s diet, might be the best goal for most people. And despite the immense challenges of moving to a meat-free diet, Foer finds much to be optimistic about:

Eighteen percent of college students are vegetarian now. There are more vegetarians in college than Catholics, there are more vegetarians than any major, except for business, and it’s very close, by about 1%. That’s something I feel very good about. How can you feel bad when people have been fed lies, literally from nursery school? I spoke at high schools all around the country and almost without fail, there’d be a poster in the gym from the Dairy Council, or from some sort of meat board, telling them why it’s necessary for their health, why it’s cool. The labeling is manipulative; it’s impossible for people to see where the food comes from. Does that say something about consumers, that we’re buying the wrong things? I really believe, and I think I’m right to believe, that if you were to poll 100 Americans from all over the country, take them to a factory farm, you’d have 95 of them saying ‘I’m not going to eat that.’

The product description of Foer’s Eating Animals:

Jonathan Safran Foer spent much of his teenage and college years oscillating between omnivore and vegetarian. But on the brink of fatherhood-facing the prospect of having to make dietary choices on a child’s behalf-his casual questioning took on an urgency His quest for answers ultimately required him to visit factory farms in the middle of the night, dissect the emotional ingredients of meals from his childhood, and probe some of his most primal instincts about right and wrong. Brilliantly synthesizing philosophy, literature, science, memoir and his own detective work, Eating Animals explores the many fictions we use to justify our eating habits-from folklore to pop culture to family traditions and national myth-and how such tales can lull us into a brutal forgetting. Marked by Foer’s profound moral ferocity and unvarying generosity, as well as the vibrant style and creativity that made his previous books, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, widely loved, Eating Animals is a celebration and a reckoning, a story about the stories we’ve told-and the stories we now need to tell.

play, think
J.R. Atwood


Entry filed under: etc, think. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Ideas Fat minded?

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Josh  |  December 12, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    Great post JR!

    A fascinating topic, with close ties to religion and politics…so sensitive for most people that they’re unwilling to even have a rational discussion about the issue, which makes the book very interesting!

  • 2. JC  |  December 13, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Aren’t humans amazing Animals? They kill wildlife – birds, deer, all kinds of cats, coyotes, beavers, groundhogs, mice and foxes by the million in order to protect their domestic animals and their feed.

    Then they kill domestic animals by the billion and eat them. This in turn kills people by the million, because eating all those animals leads to degenerative – and fatal – – health conditions like heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and cancer.

    So then humans spend billions of dollars torturing and killing millions of more animals to look for cures for these diseases.

    Elsewhere, millions of other human beings are being killed by hunger and malnutrition because food they could eat is being used to fatten domestic animals.

    Meanwhile, few people recognize the absurdity of humans, who kill so easily and violently, and once a year send out cards praying for “Peace on Earth.”

    ~Revised Preface to Old MacDonald’s Factory Farm by C. David Coates~

    Check out this informative and inspiring video on why people choose vegan:

    Also see Gary Yourofsky:

    • 3. Josh  |  December 13, 2009 at 6:36 pm

      Yes! Incredible the rationalizations, the mental gymnastics we’re capable of…

      JR, have you read Marshall Sahlins’ books/articles? I just bought his most recent, can’t wait to read it!

      • 4. J.R. Atwood  |  December 14, 2009 at 7:49 am

        Josh! Is the Sahlins book you referenced “The Western Illusion of Human Nature”? Let me know your thoughts about it. You’ve inspired me to look a bit deeper into his research.

    • 5. J.R. Atwood  |  December 14, 2009 at 7:45 am

      JC—thanks so much for the video links. I find Gary’s lecture particularly provocative.

      • 6. jleeger  |  December 14, 2009 at 9:01 pm

        Hi JR,

        yes, that’s the book I’m waiting for…can’t wait! I’ll let you know how it is.

        Check out his article “Original Affluence” (can download it online) for an idea of the thrust of his work…

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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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