The Conscientious Carnivore
Talking about battery hens in this space the other day, I ran across a review I wrote for TAC in 2008, of Farm Sanctuary, a book about animal welfare and factory farming that I expected to dislike (because I am allergic to PETA-style sentimentalizing of animals), but ended up loving. I think it holds up. Excerpt:
Farm Sanctuary takes us back to the confinement crates, the stockyards, the slaughterhouses, and so on, exploring the revolting particulars of contemporary animal husbandry. It is hard to read this stuff without flinching or worse, not simply because one is tenderhearted about animals.
Killing a living creature and preparing it for the table is not and never can be a clean, easy, and carefree act. What’s so troubling about factory farming is how the system thoroughly instrumentalizes animal life, treating animals not as creatures that have an inherent nature, the limits of which we are bound to respect, but rather as abstractions, units of production that can be infinitely manipulated to suit man’s desires. In his 1991 encylical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II condemned as “anthropological error” the common modern assumption that human beings are free to exploit the natural world without respect to its “God-given” purpose.
Factory farming subjects cows, pigs, and the like to conditions that are perverse in the sense that they radically disfigure the animals’ nature. And when the suffering creatures go mad or become ill as a result, farmers often deform them (e.g., burning off chickens’ beaks) or jack them up with antibiotics to mask the effects of their mistreatment. What can we call a system that condemns animals raised for our nourishment to such a pitiless, unnatural existence, if not evil?
Accounts such as Baur’s unavoidably raise the question of how participation in the system deforms our own moral nature. What does it do to our collective character to ignore, dismiss or remain indifferent to the torture of factory farming because our appetite and convenience depends on keeping the system going? On the other hand, though, what about the slaughterhouse workers (many of them poor immigrants) and the farmers who, given the way the industry is structured, have little choice but to conform if they want to support their families?