The following is a guest post by my husband, Justin. He doesn't have his own blog yet, but perhaps with your encouragement, he could be persuaded to start one! -AZ
Anna and I are grad students living in Madison, Wisconsin. Our parents, and Wisconsinites from smaller towns, often like to tell us that our fair city is “not exactly the real world”. There's something to this. We live in one of these puddles of urban blue surrounded by rural red. Drive 30 minutes in any direction and the difference in prevailing worldview is palpable.
I happen to really love the prevailing ethos of Madison. One of the many, many attractions for me is that the city is quite vegetarian-friendly. Nearly every single restaurant, even the barbeque joint I went to last night, is obliged by custom to provide at least one respectable vegetarian option--something that is certainly not the case in the south where we both grew up. Probably about half of our friends here are more-or-less vegetarian, and nearly all the others are at least moderately sympathetic to vegetarianism even if they themselves do not practice it. It's easy to take for granted being around people who share a number of our values and who actively reflect on their food choices. Consequently, it can be a bit jarring to realize that in fact we vegetarians and vegetarian sympathizes form a pretty small minority outside of the bubble-within-a-bubble that is the grad student community in Madison.
I was reminded of this recently when I served on a discussion panel on the ethics of meat eating for an Zoology course entitled “The Philosophy and Biology of Human/Animal Relationships”. I was invited by the instructor of the course to advocate for ethical vegetarianism for a class of about 200 undergrads. Before we began, the teacher asked how many of the students tried to restrict their meat intake in some way or another, even if they weren't entirely vegetarian. Fewer than 10 students raised their hands. Clearly I had my work cut out for me. In this post, I want to share the simple argument I shared with those students. I don't claim any striking originality, and clearly the considerations I'll mention are only one small piece of the big picture when it comes to deciding how to eat. At the same time, I don't think I've ever heard a reply to this kind of argument that has satisfied me. I'm curious to hear what you think. So here it is:
Consider the case of Michael Vick. Four years ago, the promising NFL quarterback was arrested for running a dogfighting operation in Virginia. Vick and his partners would force dogs to fight while spectators cheered. The dogs who lost fights were often shot or wet down and then electrocuted. The operation involved a tremendous amount of animal suffering, and for what? So spectators could get the enjoyment and excitement of it. When news of this broke, people were horrified. Vick was condemned by nearly everybody, and served 21 months in prison.
Now think about modern farming. The overwhelming majority of meat Americans eat comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, often known as factory farms. These are operations where animals are severely confined, branded, castrated, and routinely have body parts cut off without anesthetic. In other words, they are places where there is a tremendous amount of animal suffering. And for what? It seems to me that the answer is more or less because people like the taste of meat, and they want their meat to be cheap.
Most people think what Michael Vick did was wrong, while eating meat from factory farms is permissible. If one is permissible and the other is not, there must be some morally relevant difference between them. But what could this be?
Many people object to Vick's actions because he was mistreating dogs. Dogs, as we all know, are pretty smart, lovable and cute. On the other hand, while pigs may not be cute, they are every bit as intelligent as dogs. It seems undesirable to rest a huge difference in moral status on so flimsy a basis as cuteness.
Here's an obvious response: factory farms provide people with food! Unlike Vicks' dogfighting ring, you might argue, factory farms serve a fundamental human need. But the fact is, nearly everyone who doesn't have severe dietary restrictions can be perfectly healthy on a vegetarian diet. Although there are certain parts of the globe where agriculture is difficult (see Minkster's excellent comment on an earlier post), in most places meat production on factory farms uses way more energy, produces way more pollution, and generates less food than if we devoted the same land to growing grains and vegetables. The choice to eat an omnivorous diet as opposed to a vegetarian one is, for nearly everyone, simply a matter of gustatory preference.
You might say: We're not doing the factory farming, we're just eating the products. In contrast, Vick was actually running the dogfighting ring. It's worth noting, though, that Vick could never have maintained his dogfighting ring if people hadn't gone and paid to see the fights. The people who supported the enterprise, and enjoyed themselves while the dogs suffered, were partially responsible for what was going on.
So, it seems to me that it is actually very difficult to provide a principled basis for objecting to dogfighting while consuming meat from factory farms. If you object to dogfighting on the grounds that it subjects dogs to tremendous amounts of suffering merely for the sake of relatively insignificant human enjoyment, you should object to factory farming on the same grounds.
This leaves open the issue of eating meat from more “ethical” sources. (Perhaps that is a topic for another post.) But since well over 90% of the meat Americans eat comes from factory farms, the acceptance of this simple argument would mean abstaining from nearly all the meat that people actually eat.
And yet I realize, as I said, I'm in the minority in endorsing this view. Have I been brainwashed by the Madison bubble? Are there some “real world” considerations that I'm ignoring? If so, what might they be?