Posts Tagged ‘eating animals

Eating Animals is Wrong, I’ll Have the Burger

» April 24th, 2013

Here are two stories that, taken together, are kind of thought provoking. First: The other day, while running, a friend told me that he was recently at dinner with a colleague whose daughter is vegan. When the topic of her veganism came up, the colleague said, “the problem now is that I know I shouldn’t eat meat and so, when I do, I feel really badly about it.” This awareness, in it’s way, kind of annoyed her. She now knew too much.  Which can be very inconvenient.  

Second: Last night, I got an e-mail from another friend with a Psychology Today blog post attached. The post was written by Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, and the topic was “why are there so few vegetarians?” The article quotes the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, on why so many humans find it difficult to forgo animal products. After reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, Haidt’s consciousness was raised. But note his reaction: “Since that day, I have been morally opposed to all forms of factory farming. Morally opposed but not behaviorally opposed. I love the taste of meat, and the only thing that changed the after reading Singer is that I thought about my hypocrisy each time I ordered a hamburger.”

As vegan advocates and activists, our initial inclination to such a confession might be to castigate it as confirmation of weak character. Morally opposed but not behaviorally opposed? I mean, come on. Lame, pitiful, cowardly, etc, etc. A more generous and productive tact, however, might be to first acknowledge that even the dimmest awareness that the act of eating animals carries moral implications is, albeit regrettably, a sign of moral progress and, next, to bore into why a man as intelligent and morally cognizant as Haidt could say what he said and not be guillotined by the logic police. Ditto for the woman—a professor—who feels bad about eating animals but still continues to dig in. What’s really going on here?

My very strong sense is that neither of the two reluctant meat-eaters noted here would apply their moral/behavioral dichotomy to other situations involving animals. If an organization of psychopaths who derived genuine euphoric pleasure from tossing kittens into the dryer declared that they were morally but not behaviorally opposed to the gratuitous torture of kittens because, you know, it made them laugh hard and feel really good, I seriously doubt Haidt and the professor would grant their approval. So then, why is the moral-but-not-behavioral opposition culturally acceptable when it comes to doing something arguably much worse—like, say, killing and eating animals? It is, I think, a critical question, one we overlook by simply castigating the people who say such things.

I’ve used the term “tyranny of taste” in other contexts. Well, I think we’re seeing it here as well. In fact, I think we’re seeing an especially virulent strain of it. When it comes to our treatment of animals, there’s something different and fundamental about the basic act of putting an edible substance in your mouth (or not, I guess) and declaring pleasure from it. In an odd but understandable way, it becomes less an animal rights issue than right to my body issue, veering perilously into the pro-choice politics and the abortion debate lane. Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do to my body. That’s my business. Keep your laws off my mouth, vegan!  [Please note that I am not agreeing with this perilous lane weaving. I'm just bringing it up, reluctantly, since, the last time I did, I was nearly dragged to another guillotine.]

If I’m at all correct in the claim that humans are arbitrarily quick to subsume animal rights to a false sense of a basic right to taste whatever we please, perhaps even as a right to body issue, it is worth highlighting that we do not sanction the arbitrary satisfaction of other desires, such as, most notably, sexual ones. We cannot go out and engage in sexual acts wherever and whenever and whomever we want to because it feels so good to do so. But still, the right-to-the-taste-my-mouth belief strikes me as very real and perhaps helps explain Haidt’s position. It also highlights a philosophical issue that we must bring into the public sphere.

The other thought I had is that we are, as a culture of meat eaters, working from a basic misunderstanding of pleasure. Of taste. I hear it over and over again, even from people I love and respect, that meat just tastes too good to give up. This is said, again, with a nascent awareness that there are moral implications to the act of eating animals, which only makes the assertion of the culinary euphoria of flesh that much more convincing. But I must ask: does meat per se really taste good? I’m not entirely sure we can even answer questions about something as subjective as taste with objective information, but given the work being done on sugar, salt, and fat—and our physiological response to these substances—I think it’s possible.

I’m sure there’s a lot of research out there on the physiological logistics of deriving pleasure from meat. Or not. But from what I remember, it was never the flesh of a burger that I liked so much as the texture of the bun, the condiments, the creaminess of the cheese, the smokiness of the grill, and, maybe more than anything else, the cultural message that eating a burger satisfied something deep and primordial. But even back then, in the prehistoric pre-vegan days, the idea of chomping down a naked burger was not appetizing.

I do wonder, then, whether we really do enjoy the taste of meat or, instead, have merely been sold a bill of goods wrapped in a good story and stamped with approval from those immoral and behaviorally decrepit cretins who profit from the sale of animals. But I wonder about a lot of things.



Extremely Disappointing, Incredibly Predictable

» June 16th, 2012


Yesterday I posted a video of Jonathan Safran Foer, author of a book (Eating Animals) that inspired countless people to go vegan. He was plugging an app that tells consumers where they should buy chicken. The initial impact was as if Martin Luther King, after writing Letter from a Birmingham Jail, had renounced non-violence and taken up arms.

My first reaction, along with many other vegans, was a sort of stupefaction. I’d read Eating Animals. I’d sat on a panel with Foer in Texas and, with him, denounced animal products. I’d listened to friends tell me that he was the bedrock of their veganism. I’d written a glowing review of his book. I thought about all of this as I drove from Louisville to Pittsburg yesterday, passing the time in a state of low-grade agitation.

As the miles clicked by, though, my agitation shifted. It shifted from Foer to myself. Why did I ever imagine Foer to be a vegan representative? Why did I find myself speechless? Why am I overwhelmed with the impulse to call Foer a hypocrite? Why did I go all weak-kneed over this guy? Why did I ignore the fact that Foer was at home on the fence?

Foer never advocated veganism. He rarely engaged the philosophical issues endemic to animal rights. He’s friends with, and sympathetic toward, the “humane” producers of animal products. He has studiously dodged hard questions such as “what should people eat?” (a remarkable accomplishment given that he wrote a book about it). In essence, Foer has never, ever passed himself off as something he’s not. He’s a brilliantly literary guy who wrote a compelling book more or less riffing in fascinating ways about the habit of eating animals. He never decreed squat.

Still, many vegans–myself included–conveniently overlooked these facts about Foer. We came to respect him as some sort of unspoken spokesperson for ethical veganism. But why? That’s the real question at the center of this whole Foer dust-up.

I think our admiration for this talented novelist speaks volumes about our desperation for moral leadership. Perhaps more to the point, it speaks volumes about why the vegan movement lacks its identifiable representatives. I’m well aware that many vegans want a movement without leaders, but my sense is that with Foer many vegans were investing him with genuine vegan-leadership qualities because, well, we otherwise lack a high-profiled and charismatic figure who embodies the values central to our cause.

Again, I know that hierarchy is something many vegans seek to avoid, and for good reasons. That said, the sustainable food movement has its Michael Pollan, and look what he’s done for it. He’s provided vision and clarity. Acolytes rally around him like a guru and charge like a laser into a murky future. The result has been nothing short of profound: the movement has gone from a vague set of ideas to a cohesive and sharply defined ideology with the all the power of a bullet aimed to humanely kill lunch.

But vegans? No such luck. Lacking our Pollan, we seem to prefer fights. And not against the animal exploiters, but with each other. The narcissism of small differences too often wins out over the sensibility of unified beliefs, leaving us rudderless.

Don’t get me wrong—I deeply value our internal debates (hell, I initiate many of them).  But, fragmented as we are, it’s no wonder that we cannot agree on a small set of figures who genuinely embody vegan ideals. It’s no wonder so many of us invested so heavily in Foer. And it’s no wonder that Foer has (temporarily?) fallen off the fence and landed on the side of the happy meat/sustainable agriculture fence. Our side of the fence is jagged and full of mines. Where he now sits there’s green pastures, cool people, sunny skies, and rose-colored glasses to hide the suffering that we refuse to ignore.

Food Movements and Food Courts: A Thought from Sioux Falls

» April 14th, 2012

The Food Movement wants to reform our broken food system. This is an admirable goal that I fully support. Where I differ from the Food Movement is that I want it to engage an essential question: how do we ethically justify commodifying, exploiting, and killing sentient animals for food we don’t need?

This is a discussion that’s long overdue. It’s happening–but only among philosophers, some theologians and legal scholars, and animal rights advocates. The leaders of the Food Movement won’t go near it. And the longer the movement avoids the issue the more its chances of achieving meaningful  change diminish. I’m inspired and in full agreement with the movement when its leaders call for food justice, fair access, living wages, improved welfare, and the end of corporate abuse and unfair subsidies.  But . . .

What confuses me is why, in light of these concerns, the movement fails to justify its implicit promotion of unneeded suffering. Raising an animal to kill and eat, or raising an animal to purloin is milk and eggs, causes suffering. We don’t need meat, dairy, and eggs–in fact, most humans would be much healthier without these products. So, I genuinely wonder: why is it okay to produce these goods?  To say we’ve always done it, or that these products taste good, or that its “natural,” or that the animals were raised with respect, or that I killed the animal myself–these aren’t legitimate answers. They’re evasions.  They beg the question.

I just walked through a Food Court at a mall in Sioux Falls, SD (the town where I’m giving a talk this evening). My experience reminded me that not only am I glad I’m not a teenager, but that Americans are killing themselves with junk food that’s overwhelmingly based on processed animal products. My mind wanders in these settings. I think to myself: will currently unthinking consumers ever be willing to radically reduce the amount of animals they eat? I’m deeply skeptical that that will ever happen.

Then I wonder something else:  how many of these consumers gorging on animal products live with a companion animal for whom they deeply care?  And I wonder how many of them would think differently of eating animals if they knew that the animals they were eating shared so many qualities with the animals waiting for them to come home. And I wonder if, based on this connection, they could break the speciesist barrier and stop eating animals. And, for a moment, however naively, I feel a spark of hope.

McWilliams on Foer: Thumbs Up

» March 5th, 2012

I was cleaning up the laptop and found this review of mine, published in the Austin American Statesman in the fall of 2010. That same week, Foer and I sat on a panel at the Texas Book Festival (along with Novella Carpenter and Jason Sheehan). Good times, good times . . .

At a recent dinner party, the host, for whatever reason, started discussing the rodent problems at her farmhouse. She explained how she’d found a humane mouse trap that can catch a mouse without killing it. The weird thing, though, was that she sang the praises of this contraption while standing in her kitchen, holding a greasy pair of tongs, about three feet away from the pork chops she was sizzling to perfection.

Normally, I wouldn’t have thought much about what it meant to express concern for the welfare of a mouse while cooking a pig — an animal that’s likely smarter than your golden retriever. But it just so happened that I was entrenched in Jonathan Safran Foer’s deeply engaging “Eating Animals,” a book that confronts the moral and practical problems of eating meat. “Our relationship to eating animals has an invisible quality,” writes Foer, who proceeds to employ the literary equivalent of a klieg light to make it visible.

Skeptics of animal welfare arguments need not get defensive. This book is not shrill. It’s not out to browbeat or scold the meat eater. Instead, Foer’s approach is sympathetic and stern, respectful of human vulnerability but attuned to ethical consistency. He demonstrates the same sensitivity to the human condition that he displayed in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “Everything is Illuminated” — his two critically acclaimed novels. Foer wants us to think about what we instinctively ignore — to “bring meat to the center of public discussion in the same way it is often at the center of our plates.” Make no mistake, though. He ultimately wants us to do more than just think. He wants us to quit eating the stuff, too.

But he understands. He’s neither naïve nor self-righteous. We are human, after all, and we justify our carnivorous behavior (all of our behavior, for that matter) by telling stories. Anyone who eats meat and even remotely thinks about the moral implications of eating meat tells stories: “Eating animals is natural. Animals were put on earth to help humans thrive. Animals don’t experience pain the way humans do. It’s those people who eat dogs who are barbaric. Could you pass me a pork chop, please?”

These stories have a quietly powerful impact. Foer knows this well, as he has his own story to grapple with: Meat is inseparable from the memories he associates with his grandmother, the love he feels for his newborn son and the future family meals that will unite the generations. These meals have previously centered on meat (specifically his grandma’s chicken and carrots). And so he wonders: Can the “table fellowship” that defined the past survive a vegetarian future?

To answer this question Foer starts with the fattest target in the meat world: factory flesh. Ninety-nine percent of the meat produced in the United States comes from a factory farm. These places exist in a fathomless level of hell. They spew pollution and make the taxpayer foot the cleanup bill. They ruin our health and brag that they’re “feeding the world.” They engage in animal welfare practices that would weaken the knees of Michael Vick. They thrive on perverse subsidies.

Tyson Foods Inc. won’t return Foer’s repeated requests to visit a farm. Undeterred, he joins an animal welfare accomplice (named “C”), and the two “snooping vegetarians” sneak onto a turkey farm in the middle of the night. “The closer I look,” he explains, “the more I see.”

And it’s just plain awful. Readers of the anti-industrial food canon (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “Fast Food Nation,” “Food, Inc.”) will have some sense of what he encounters. Still, Foer covers this unsavory ground in sobering detail, ending with a graphic step-by-step overview of a slaughterhouse (by drawing on industry literature). But what ultimately sticks, much more than any scatological factoid, is Foer’s affecting juxtaposition of production and consumption.

Production: factory farms, manure lagoons, genetically deformed animals, antibiotic-laden feed, a diseased environment. Consumption: a family gathering, “table fellowship,” holidays, warmth, son, grandma, love. Connect the dots across the production-consumption divide and it all starts to make sense: “It’s much easier to be cruel than one might think.” Remembering Grandma’s chicken and carrots is one thing; forgetting what had to happen for it to get to the table is another. When we remember, we also forget.

If you’re part of that privileged one percent that buys meat from alternative sources (free-range, grass-fed, cage-free, etc.), you have a friend in Foer — sort of. Foer met with several producers who raise meat according to strict environmental and animal welfare standards. He makes no bones about his bias — he likes these people very much. He admires their ideals, the respect they have for their animals, their style. In stark contrast to the factory farms, they welcome Foer, hide nothing and tell their stories. In the end, people like Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn — proprietors of the well-respected Niman Ranch label — end up looking something akin to heroes.

But Foer doesn’t let them off the ethical hook. He brings in a PETA representative, Bruce Friedrich, to address the Niman narrative. And boy does Friedrich have something to say. Whether your flesh is factory-raised or free-ranged, he explains (according to Foer’s paraphrasing), “that piece of meat came from an animal who, at best — and it’s precious few who get away with this — was burned, mutilated and killed for the sake of a few minutes of human pleasure.” Foer doesn’t disagree with the assessment.

To his credit, even though he seems to not want to, he goes on to note that Niman Ranch brands its animals for no good reason, castrates without anesthesia and uses nose rings to keep hogs from rooting the pasture. He concludes, “ethical meat is a promissory note, not a reality.” He knows these words will hurt his friends.

But that’s how this book is: bold, honest, thoughtful. We live in an era in which factory farming is becoming less and less acceptable. Still, many ethical consumers find themselves feeling powerless in the face of an industrial agricultural system that’s gone global. Foer reminds us that we are “the powerbrokers that matter most.” We might not like what he’s asking us to do, but it’s hard to deny that he’s right.

What’s So Natural about Butchery?: The Artifice of Eating Animals

» March 4th, 2012

One of the most common justifications for eating animals is that it’s “natural.” It’s considered natural, in part, because animals eat animals in the wild. Why should humans, as confirmed omnivores, be exempt from this struggle for survival? If it’s natural for a lion to hunt down and kill a gazelle, why is not equally natural for a human being to hunt down and kill a gazelle?

Standard objections to this argument stress the fact that humans are the only species with a moral compass. We are the only species that can design and promote plans explicitly intended to make the world a more peaceful place. We should therefore not eat animals. Such a response seems perfectly reasonable.

The practical problem with it, though, is that defenders of the “red in tooth and claw” viewpoint use the moral distinction to make the wrong case. Instead of  interpreting our moral capacity as a reason to avoid unnecessary animal suffering, they argue that it makes humans so superior to other species that we can justifiably transform them into sausage and cook them on a grill. I don’t in any way agree with this claim, but I hear it so often that I’m wondering if it might make more sense to confront the “animals do it too” argument from another perspective.

Of course, animals do a lot of things in the wild that humans have, thankfully, chosen to avoid. But what strikes me as potentially important is the way animals eat other animals in nature. Essentially, they kill them with their own claws or fangs and devour them raw. As far as I can tell, no non-human animals in any way significantly prepares the meat he kills (although I would not be surprised if insects did something insanely sophisticated). The blood and flesh are unprocessed. That’s generally how it works in nature.

For humans, however, eating animals is mediated by layer upon layer of artifice–and, I would argue, all of these layers require human inventions designed to protect us from the hard reality that we’re eating products from sentient animals. We butcher, process, and cook; sterilize, package, and ship. An array of synthetic devices never found in the nature–guns, arrows, traps, knives, ovens, stoves, etc.–make the experience of comfortable alienation possible. None of this is natural in the way that animals eating animals is natural. Not at all. If we had to obtain our animal products through the same natural mechanisms as animals in the wild do it, we’d likely end up a) eaten, b) so disgusted we could not swallow our catch, or c) sickened by zoonotic disease.  It is here, I think, where the “animals do it” argument is seriously weakened.

Indeed, maybe it’s through this angle that vegans might make the case that eating for humans–and humans alone– is a choice. It’s moral choice that–no matter how assiduously we compare our experience to those of non-human animals–reflects well on humanity when we choose to leave animals out of our diet. Compassion, I would venture, is natural, too.