Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else?
If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn’t motivating, what would be?
If being the number one contributor to the most serious thread facing the planet (global warming) isn’t enough, what is?
If increased rate of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other ills doesn’t scare you, then what does?
And if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say, not now, then when?
And why is taste, the crudest of our senses, exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses? If you stop and think about it, it’s crazy. How would you judge an artist who mutilated animals in a gallery because it was visually interesting? How beautiful would the sound of a tortured animal need to be to make you want to hear it that badly? Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to animals.
It’s easy to make oneself feel better about it by buying “humane” meat. Unfortunately however there’s no legal definition of humane – it’s simply a label that you have no control over. The margins are low, they can’t afford not to mass produce these animals as through they are objects. In the end they are all killed in the same slaughterhouse as all the others. The stun guns only work 80% of the time. Every day animals get skinned alive in the factory process.
These things happen whether in humane farming or factory farming.
And many people seem to be tempted to continue supporting factory farms while also buying meat outside that system when it is available. That’s nice. But if it is as far as our moral imaginations can stretch, then it’s hard to be optimistic about the future. Any plan that involves funneling money to the factory farm won’t end factory farming. How effective would the Montgomery bus boycott have been if protesters had used the bus when it became inconvenient not to? How effective would a strike be if workers announced they would go back to work as soon as it became difficult to strike?
Before child labor laws, there were businesses that treated their ten-year-old employees well. Society didn’t ban child labor because it’s impossible to imagine children working in a good environment, but because when you give that much power to business over powerless individuals, it’s corrupting. When we talk around thinking we have a greater right to eat an animal than the animal has a right to live without suffering, it’s corrupting.
If we are at all serious about ending factory farming, then the absolute least we can do is stop sending checks to the absolute worst abusers. For some, the decision to eschew factory-farmed products is easy. For others the decision is hard. To those for whom it sounds like a hard decision, the ultimate question is whether it is worth the inconvenience. We know, at least, that this decision will prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural areas, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history. What we don’t know, though, may be just as important. How would making such a decision change us?
Setting aside the direct material changes initiated by opting out of the factory farm system, the decision to eat with such deliberateness would itself be a force with enormous potential. What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we saw down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and the pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption?
Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use, and the regular exercise of choosing kindness over cruelty would change us.
It might sound naive to suggest that whether you order a chicken patty or a veggie burger is a profoundly important decision. Then again, it certainly would have sounded fantastic if in the 1950s you were told that where you saw in a restaurant or on a bus could begin to uproot racism. It would have sounded equally fantastic if you were told in the early 1970s, before Cesar Chavez’s workers’ rights campaigns, that refusing to eat grapes could begin to free farmworkers from slave-like conditions. It might sound fantastic, but when we bother to look, it’s hard to deny that our day-to-day choices shape the world.