Monday, March 26, 2007

Meat, By Definition, is Murder (But I'm OK With That)

Recently, famed chef and restaurant owner Wolfgang Puck attracted attention when he announced that his businesses were switching to the use of organic ingredients and meat from more humanely treated animals. He was commended by the NY Times for setting an example that reminded consumers of the "power of the choices they make," and for promoting the idea that "they can eat well and do right all at the same time."

This whole issue over treatment of animals that are soon-to-be-food is one I've always been a little confused about. For obvious reasons, we don't like bad conditions in slaughterhouses. Cruelty toward animals is a behavior that goes against our nature, and I hate it as much as the next guy.

Even taking that into account, most of us wind up rationalizing meat-eating along the lines of (1) it's natural for us to eat meat, (2) meat is tasty--very tasty, I might add, and (3) there are health benefits to eating meat--even if vegetarians can receive those same benefits through their diet and/or with multivitamins.

Whatever, to each their own. (Personally, if I was stranded on a desert island, the only two things I'd really want are a George Foreman Grill and a crate of bacon. My third wish would probably be for Reese Witherspoon.) But how exactly do Mr. Puck's actions, and campaigns like the free-range movement, have any effect on easing people's consciences? The farmer gives the chicken a couple more feet to run around, and all of a sudden you can eat well and sleep easy?

Whether cooped up in a cage or allowed to roam, whether fed too little or too much or just right, all of those animals are being raised for the express purpose of being killed for human consumption. Meat eaters have to come to terms with the fact that the basic moral argument aginst eating meat isn't resolved by treating dinner a little better before it's cooked.

Meat, by definition, is murder. Then again, I'm OK with that, and it's perfectly fine if you feel the same way.

Update - Thank you Neha, Andrew, and Greg for your insightful comments. After reading what you wrote, and thinking about the issue some more, I have become convinced that the killing of animals and the treatment of livestock are separate ethical issues. While I remain unopposed to the former as a biologically natural process (eating animals for the purpose of food), I now concur with the commenters' view that the humane treatment of animals raised for the slaughter is in fact a worthwhile goal.


Anonymous said...

Different people have different moral arguments against eating meat. Some people think that eating meat is murder but that's okay (like you) while some people think that it's wrong but feel like they have to do it anyway for health/taste/whatever reasons, and then some people think that killing plants is just as bad as killing animals, so why not eat meat; and the latter two groups of people would likely feel good knowing that at least whatever they're eating had a decent life before it died. Sometimes you have to do certain things you don't want to do just to get by in life, but just b/c you do one "bad" thing, doesn't mean you lose the license to do other "good" things. -neha

Andrew said...

I don't know about others but I don't favor humanely treating slaughter animals to alleviate guilt from eating meat. I don't have any guilt from eating meat. I think it's fine; the killing can be done relatively painlessly. But I do feel bad about the cruelty, when they're living for [okay I don't know how long their lifespans are] in horrible conditions. That's why I do favor humanely treating slaughter animals to prevent animal cruelty. The ethical issues of eating meat/raising animals to be killed vs treating livestock humanely CAN be seperated, and I feel no hypocrisy supporting one but not the other (not vegetarianism, that is). You seem to be using an argument that the end result (the animals will be killed) renders the rest of their lives irrelevant, but I beg to differ. Would you rather be captured by sociopathic murderers and killed, or be captured, tortured, and then killed? To me, the cruelty is the far sicker element in the equation, and there's no reason we shouldn't stop it.

(Yeah basically what Neha said.)

Greg Johnson said...

> This whole issue over treatment of animals that are soon-to-be-food is one I've always been a little confused about. For obvious reasons, we don't like to see or hear about bad conditions in slaughterhouses. Cruelty toward animals is a behavior that goes against our nature.

I agree with you, Jay, that animal ethics is a really nuanced thing. In December I read a spectacular (lucid, circumspect, level-headed) NY Times magazine article by a bioethics philosopher at Princeton, Peter Singer; the article wasn't about animals (it was a spiel for global philanthropy), but I liked it so much I tracked down his most recent book, about the ethics of food. You might like to read it: Singer is pro-animal-rights but successfully avoids being sophistic or irrational.

A response to your post, in the vein of his book, might be: "Meat is murder" is of course just obfuscating rhetoric (assuming killing to be bad just begs the question), but (like Andrew said) slaughterhouse conditions nowadays are probably the least morally-troubling aspect of using animals for food. (They're now highly regulated to eliminate unnecessary stress, and the time spent in a slaughterhouse is short anyway.) The more troubling aspect is (again like Andrew said) the condition in which animals are raised: a typical industrially-raised animal (and virtually all are industrially raised) spends its entire life in a cage or pen scarcely larger than its body (usually it can't turn around), the cage is never cleaned during each animal's life (waste falls through and piles up, only to be cleared away when the animal is taken off to be killed), food and water are piped in automatically, and there is no opportunity for normal behavior or interaction. None of these conditions seems outrageously cruel on its own in the short term. But animals raised this way exhibit extreme psychological and physiological abnormality, indications of severe depression, and overall poor health (hence the need for preventative antibiotics to keep them growing robustly)--symptoms pretty much exactly analogous to those of humans who have been raised or kept for a long period isolated in closets or basements. A human in such a condition would surely be said to be miserable. (To Singer's credit, he doesn't assume this bad outweighs the good, but he does present reasons one might think so, along with a great deal of background.)

Luella said...

Oh, no! Go back! Meat = not okay! You can't expect animals to be treated better by just going about your business eating them. Animals will never be treated significantly better without rights! You should read Gary Francione's "Rain Without Thunder" or "Intro to Animal Rights." You can find great interviews of him online, too. He explains why animal welfare is and will always be, for the most part, a failure - and worse than a failure. Animal welfare only encourages people to eat meat by adding on the worth "ethical." By encouraging people to eat meat, when they are still treated like utter crap and have no rights, you are doing them every possible disservice. Not only will MORE pigs now be raised in horrifying conditions, but it will now take longer before they ever have serious protection under the law because "ethical meat" reinforces the idea that animals are nothing but economic commodities... oh, yes... economic commodities with the added benefit of calling oneself "ethical."