Battlepanda: The Moral Maze of Meat


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Moral Maze of Meat

Apropos of this discussion about the rights and wrongs of meateating chez Lindsay, and especially in response to Julian Elson's comments on that post, I am dusting off an old piece of writing (none of you have seen it), slightly amended for the occasion:

I believe that when future generations look back upon ours, the raising and
killing of animals under the barbarous conditions of factory farming would
be considered a great moral failing, much as slavery is looked upon as an
abhorrant evil today. They would all assume that if they had lived in our
time they would all be one of the few moral ones -- vegans, just as we'd all
like to think if we had lived in the days of slavery we would have been
among the abolitionist minority. Once people technologically (or perhaps
culturally) outgrow the taste for meat, moral clarity will come very easily
to them.

For us in the here and now, things are a lot more complicated. First of all,
vegetarianism is often held up as a compassionate alternative to
meat-eating. Some vegetarians will eat factory farmed milk and eggs even as
they criticize meat eaters at the same table for being no better than
murderers. In fact, a milk cow suffers far more terribly than grass-fed beef
animals as they are so intensively kept. And certainly cows and chicken are
sent to the knockers for pet food and burger meat as soon as their
production drops. No peaceful death for them. I'm not saying that
vegetarians are making a bad moral choice -- just pointing out that they are
still making tradeoffs between what they want and what they consider moral,
just like everybody else.

There are two ways to achieve moral clarity on this issue -- (a) to deny
animal suffering any moral weight or (b) to become vegans and consider
everybody else terribly immoral. Neither approach is useful to concretely
improving the welfare of animals in this country. People do not like
thinking of themselves as being immoral, and they don't like being vegans.
So when faced with a stark choice, they will choose (a) over (b) almost all
of the time. When the all-or-nothing approach prevails, the animals lose.

In any progressive movement I can think of, the quest for purity is a
danger. Hardcore, sanctimonious environmentalists who believe that humans
are mid-sized omnivores whose proper population on this earth should be
roughly twice that of bears turned off a lot of people to environmentalism,
casting it as an extremist interest rather than a long-term existential
threat. Same principles apply here -- one can be vegan, vegetarian, pesco-,
ovo-lacto, only-chicken-from-wholefoods or whatever designation one thinks
is appropriate for one's commitment to animals, but the important thing is
to do so in an inclusive way. Everybody from the most consciencious
leather-rejecting vegan to the woman who pays a couple extra bucks for
free-range eggs (that'll be me) shares some values in terms of the way we
think sentient beings should be treated. What we need to find is some way of
uniting our clout to get things changed, not turning on each other for being
bad people or hypocrites.

When people talk about the ethics of meat eating/factory farming, they are almost
always talking about personal consumer choice. But I think real concrete improvement
in conditions is far more likely to come from the political direction. We
won't abolish factory farming, but if we unite the voting power of everyone
who agrees that animals needs to get treated better in this country, we can get
regulation passed that guarentee a certain square footage for each chicken
in a factory farm -- or maximum distance for livestock transport -- or
humane procedures for minimizing stress during the slaughtering process.

Such measures will not go far enough for people who are passionate about
animal rights as an moral issue. But I think one would be hard-pressed to
come up with a scenario in which a narrow, purist approach does more to
reduce the suffering of animals in this country than a broad-based movement
that tackled the most egregious practices first.