Why I Gave Up Meat
I remember the day I decided that I would become a vegetarian. It came while watching the documentary Life in a Day – in particular, the scene in which a cow receives two shots to its skull from a bolt gun (the first one didn’t kill the cow and only made it panic and flail in its narrow metal pen). The scene lasted only a minute, but it haunted me long after the lights in the theater had come back on.
I wasn’t naïve: I knew animals had to be killed to be made into meat, and I had even read Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in which he recounts the horrors of a meatpacking plant in turn-of-the century Chicago. However, this was the first time that I had actually seen the execution (and subsequent dismemberment) of an animal.
As I said, this was the day that I decided that I would become a vegetarian (as in, eventually), but for months, I continued to eat meat. I tried to rationalize my meat-eating (hereafter referred to as carnism), but for each purported justification, I found a convincing rebuttal.
At first, like many, I tried to justify eating meat as natural, but then again, there are plenty of behaviors that are commonplace in the natural world that are also immoral, so the naturalistic fallacy quickly dispatched of that excuse.
I also tried to convince myself that I was eating meat for my health. Surely, without meat, I would not be able to get the protein I needed, I thought. But subsequent research revealed that there are plenty of sources of non-animal protein, and other nutrients that vegetarians tend to miss out on — like the vitamin B12 — are also present in meatless products.
Moreover, evidence continues to pour out showing that eating meat can damage one’s health.
Finally, I tried to convince myself that meat could be produced in an ethical way. But then I came across evidence to the contrary. I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and learned that 99 percent of the meat consumed in the United States comes from “factory farms” – industrial operations that rely on cruel practices in order to produce meat as quickly, efficiently, and cheaply as possible.
In an age when more people across the world are entering the middle class and developing a taste for meat, the large meat companies, it seems, are struggling to keep pace with demand. As a result, it is a fantasy to imagine that it will be possible to simultaneously ramp up production and make it more humane.
In the summer of 2012, after months of research and internal strife (and watching horrific videos through slatted fingers), I altered my diet to align it with my conscience. In the end, I simply could not be part of a system that mistreats and slaughters 10 billion farm animals in the U.S. each year (that works out to 19,000 each minute) or more than 50 billion worldwide.
I learned that there are other benefits to abandoning meat as well, given the effects that meat production has on the environment and on farmers in the U.S. and around the world. But for me, the reason for my change was almost exclusively an ethical one motivated by a concern for animal welfare.
You’re probably wondering by now why I am recounting this personal experience and why it has been published on a political website: it’s because I believe that our preference for meat and our collective construction of a brutally efficient industry for producing it constitutes a moral catastrophe, and, for that reason, a political emergency as well.
Carnism: A Moral and Political Issue
In this case, the moral argument hinges on the following syllogism: It is wrong to harm or kill animals unnecessarily, and carnism involves the unnecessary harming and killing of animals; therefore, carnism is wrong.
While one can indeed make the argument that at one point in our evolutionary history as a species, carnism was necessary in order to survive, today, at this stage in our technological development, this is no longer the case. Nearly all Americans have access to life-sustaining and nutritional food that does not depend upon the killing of animals – a fact confirmed by a visit to the grocery section of any Walmart.
Given this abundance of non-animal based sustenance, our mere preference for meat is insufficient to legitimize the cruelty we pay the meat industry to inflict on billions of animals.
More basically still, some question whether it is indeed wrong to kill animals at all. This argument comes in a variety of forms, such as the belief that God gave humanity “dominion” over the animal kingdom and the philosophical argument, most famously articulated by Rene Descartes, claiming that animals are essentially machines whose incapacity for language and thought precludes the ability to consciously experience pain.
Indeed, this Cartesian argument was so persuasive within the scientific community that it was not until 2001 that the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) revised its definition of pain so as admit that non-linguistic beings, including infants and animals, are indeed capable of feeling pain.
Yet not all philosophers followed this Cartesian line of thinking. The eighteenth-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation that, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Bentham then added, “Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?…The time will come when humanity will extend its mantle over everything which breathes.”
It is this reasoning that shows carnism is a legal and political issue precisely because it is a moral issue.
This connection should not be surprising. The U.S. already has laws in place that prohibit the mistreatment of some animals, such as the neglect or abuse of pets – and this is all to the good, but such selective protection amounts to little more than the codification of our collective cognitive dissonance.
Why, for example, is a man from Nevada who kills seven dogs deemed a sociopath and sentenced to up to 28 years in prison while a man like Tyson Foods CEO Donnie Smith – who owns a network of habitually mismanaged slaughterhouses that kill millions of animals each year – is revered as “a passionate leader in his faith as well as in the corporate setting”?
Would the man from Nevada’s actions have been justified if he then went on to eat the dogs he killed?
Even though there are laws on the books that require the humane slaughter of animals such as cows and pigs, these laws are flawed not only in the sense that they legitimate carnism, but also because they do not extend a “mantle of protection” over inhumane practices that comprise meat production.
The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, for instance, does not apply to poultry, which represents 90 percent of the meat produced in the United States. As a result, in many states, egg-laying hens are confined in tiny battery cages the size of a sheet of paper. Also, the male chicks of these egg-laying hens, since they are incapable of laying eggs themselves, are disposed of by the hundreds of millions each year in a gruesome practice known as “shredding,” in which they are dumped into macerators or “grinders” (a practice now being phased out in Germany).
Farm animals are subjected to other cruel yet legal practices. Sows often spend months in gestation crates where they are unable to move, and calves being raised for veal are kept in confined spaces to maximize the tenderness of their meat. While voters in California passed Proposition 2 to ban the use of overly confining spaces for farm animals, in most states, such practices continue because they are deemed “standard” practices (even as companies like McDonald’s and Safeway begin to stop purchasing from suppliers that use them).
Yet tight confinement is not the only inhumane treatment. The law protects practices such as the removal, without anesthetic, of beaks and tails – body parts the animals otherwise destroy in repetitive practices once they are driven insane by their cramped conditions. Animals are also regularly denied veterinary care, especially for injuries caused by selective breeding, growth hormones, and artificial diets that have resulted in larger, disproportionately shaped poultry and livestock.
These kinds of unethical, bottom-line-conscious practices, combined with the use of antibiotics, are responsible for the outbreak of diseases that pose a threat not only to consumers, but to the animals as well. This year, for example, farmers killed 40 million birds because of the outbreak of an avian flu virus that rapidly spread, in large part, because of the dark and overcrowded quarters in which these chickens were housed.
Finally, not only does the meat industry benefit from lax laws that allow it to carry out these practices, but it also lobbies state governments to pass laws that shield its operations from public scrutiny. Since, as Paul McCartney put it, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian,” it is no surprise that the meat industry has pushed for “ag-gag” laws that punish undercover investigators for documenting and revealing what goes on in these facilities.
A Second Abolitionism
Yet some argue that what is needed to prevent these cruel practices and the outbreaks of disease are simply more and proper regulations. Surely, as long as meat production is humane and safe, then the problem has been solved, right?
Here, I would point to IVN contributor Michael Austin’s analysis of the fifth debate between Lincoln and Douglas, the one in which Lincoln turned the argument between them to the “point of stasis” – the crux of their disagreement about the future of slavery. In this debate, Lincoln said, “Every thing that emanates from him or his coadjutors in their course of policy, carefully excludes the thought that there is anything wrong in slavery. All their arguments, if you will consider them, will be seen to exclude the thought that there is anything whatever wrong in slavery.”
And so it is, I argue, with those who argue that meat production can be made more humane.
Even if all farm animals were treated as loved pets and lived comfortable lives (again, something that is unimaginable given the economic pressures on companies and farmers to produce more meat quicker than ever), such treatment would not justify the deliberate birth, husbandry, and killing of animals in a way that terminates their natural life cycle. (As with executing humans, slaughtering animals is not as simple or reliable as it might seem: each year, at least a million farm animals in the U.S. survive their initial killing and are scalded or dismembered while still alive.)
So while states like California and companies and farmers across the country are to be commended for making the meat industry more humane, this trend does not exculpate society from its toleration of a system that, even if it functioned at its most compassionate, purposely kills 10 billion animals each year out of choice, not out of necessity. What I am arguing for is thus the acknowledgement of the need for a second abolitionism – a change in the public’s consciousness, habits, and ultimately laws – that ends, with all due speed, the raising of animals for meat.
This position is certainly a radical one and falls well outside the Overton window (the bounds of normal public opinion and discourse), but, looking back on our history, haven’t the greatest social changes been the most radical ones? Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights – the supporters of these movements were initially dismissed as extremists and idealists and told that, even if their cause was just, the political conditions were not ripe for the reform they sought.
But this pessimism is not infallible sagacity or hard-nosed realism; rather, it is precisely the attitude that sustains the status quo. If the conditions are not yet ripe to begin discussing animal welfare, the ethics of carnism, and the outright rejection of meat-eating in our political discourse, then the right thing to do is not to tarry and expect the conditions to magically arise, but to actively create these conditions and make this conversation as open and robust as possible. (We might start by asking New Jersey governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie to explain why he vetoed a bill outlawing gestation crates in his state.)
This is why I have broached the subject on IVN. All of the great social movements began in a nonpartisan fashion. While the movements ultimately pushed for legal remedies and thus necessitated political action and partisan activity, reforming and ending this immoral practice will require the work of Republicans, Democrats, minor party supporters, and independents.
Regardless of partisan affiliation or political ideology, I hope that all people agree with Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Let us begin to usher in this moral progress together.