Is Being a Vegetarian Important?

Have you ever been in so much pain that you thought you were going to die?

Have you ever suffered so much that you wanted to die?

Every year, many unseen individuals in the U.S. do suffer to death. Slowly. Excruciatingly. Pigs, transported hundreds and hundreds of miles in open trucks without food or water, freeze to death. Chickens raised to be “meat,” genetically manipulated to grow unnaturally fast, have their legs break under their own weight, leaving them incapacitated and unable to get to food or water.

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It can be shocking to learn that, even before they have a chance to reach slaughter, modern agribusiness is so inherently brutal that it will cause countless individuals to die agonizing deaths. As Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times:

More than any other institution, the American industrial animal farm offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism can look like in the absence of moral or regulatory constraint. Here in these places life itself is redefined — as protein production — and with it suffering. That venerable word becomes “stress,” an economic problem in search of a cost-effective solution, like tail-docking or beak-clipping. Our own worst nightmare such a place may well be; it is also real life for the billions of animals unlucky enough to have been born beneath these grim steel roofs, into the brief, pitiless life of a “production unit.”

For a growing number of people, these facts compel them to stop eating chickens, pigs, ducks, cows, and turkeys. More and more people are making a daily, public statement against the breathtaking viciousness behind meat production.

For me, being a vegetarian is not the conclusion of an impartial set of utilitarian calculations, nor the endorsement of “animal rights.” Rather, being a vegetarian is a statement about the person I want to be. I could not live with myself if I were to be a part of such cruelty to thinking, feeling individuals.

But of course, not everyone makes this choice. With factory farms concealed, slaughterhouses hidden, and society structured around consuming faceless, disembodied, sanitized “meat,” we can easily ignore reality and just go along with the crowd. And if confronted with the hidden realities of modern agribusiness, we can seek out the “less bad” and call it good.

Michael Pollan, quoted earlier about the horrors of big ag, isn’t a vegetarian. In fact, he actively mocks the “moral certainty” of vegetarians. He fabricates fantastic fantasies to continue to justify eating animals. For example, he says that thinking in terms of individuals is human-centric, and that instead, we need to think in terms of species’ interests. Of course, this is exactly backwards. “Species” is a human construct, an abstraction that inherently can’t have interests. Only individuals have the capacity to experience pleasure or suffer pain and thus have interests. To argue that we should eat the flesh of our fellows to advance the “interests” of a species is so absurd, such a complete inversion of reality, it is truly stunning that a seemingly intelligent person would be willing to put forth such ludicrous nonsense. Pollan is the perfect example of Cleveland Amory’s observation that people have an infinite capacity to rationalize, especially when it comes to something they want to eat.

This may seem an unnecessarily harsh condemnation of a man who at least is willing to write about factory farms. But Pollan not only mocks vegetarians via laughable straw-man arguments, he even endorses the brutal act of force-feeding geese to create foie gras! This level of repulsive rationalization should be exposed for what it is. Pollan’s unwillingness to honestly consider vegetarianism, combined with his firsthand experience of “our own worst nightmare,” leads him to praise “happy meat” from “humane” farms. Having had the time and resources to investigate the various farms, the pinnacle of Pollan’s praise is Polyface Farm, where “animals can be animals,” living, according to Pollan, true to their nature.

So what is Polyface like? Rabbits are kept in small suspended wire cages. Chickens are crowded into mobile wire cages, confined without the ability to nest or the space needed to establish a pecking order. All year ‘round, pigs and cattle are shipped in open trucks to conventional slaughterhouses. Seventy-two hours before their slaughter, birds are crated with seven other birds. After three days without food, they are grabbed by their feet, upended, and, without any stunning, have their throats slit.

This is the system that Pollan proclaims praiseworthy. While mocking vegetarians, he argues that we should ethically and financially endorse Polyface’s treatment of these individuals.

But really, how can we expect better? In the end, Polyface’s view is the same as Tyson’s: These individual animals are, ultimately, simply meat to be sold for a profit. It is logically and emotionally impossible for there to be any real respect — any true, fundamental concern for the interests of these living, breathing, thinking, and feeling individuals — when they are being raised only to be butchered and sold for maximum profit. If we insist that we must consume actual animal flesh instead of a vegetarian alternative, it is naïve, at best, to believe that any system will truly take good care of the animals we pay it to slaughter.

image001See also: Humane Meat and the Arc of History

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If, in the end, you see an individual as meat, you will treat them as such.

Of course, I applaud anyone who looks honestly at “our worst nightmare” and begins to take steps toward more compassionate choices; most people find it easier to go along with the crowd.

Yet for those of us striving to live a truly moral life, it is important to avoid getting caught up in rationalizations. In the end, we have to address the most fundamental question: Do we respect individuals, or do we support slaughter? Details aside, the bottom line is that meat is the flesh of a unique individual — an individual who had thoughts and feelings, friends and fears, and who struggled and fought to stay alive.MattChicago2016

We can each recognize and respect these chickens, cows, ducks, pigs, and turkeys as the incredible individuals they are. We can recognize that rather than being food, if given the chance, they could each be a friend.

-Matt Ball