Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eating Animals

"The justification for eating animals and for not eating them are often identical: we are not them."

This line, for whatever reason, stood out to me as I've been working through Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. (Check out the website here.) I'm about halfway through, and was very hesitant to get this book--not because I was "afraid" of what I might learn (though I have learned some things from it, and the book has extensive references), but because I thought the book would be cute and mildly pretentious. (I don't know anything about Foer, haven't read his novels, but have this probably unfair image of him as a NYC literati hipster...hence my reservations.)

But the book is in fact quite good so far. The problem is that between this and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, there isn't very much left to eat on a daily basis that can leave one feeling very good. That is, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the thought that there's nothing one can do right when it comes to eating. (The butternut squash I purchased at the new Meijer store in Richmond today was shipped from Mexico; how much oil did that take? One might say: at least it didn't suffer during the ride...) When one confronts the problems with "industrial" food, whether meat or produce, it's hard to know where to start with righting one's own ship, at least until the local farmer's market opens in June...

I hope to have something more cohesive to say about Foer when I finish the book. I've been eating quasi-vegetarian (with some shrimp and fish--though fish is looking like a worse deal the more I read and learn) for several months, but I don't have strongly settled views about most of the subtleties of the "eating animals" debates.

But back to Foer's line above: what do you make of it? It's easy, perhaps, for the animal liberationist (say, Singer) to say that "we are not them" is a red herring (ha ha) (speciesism, etc.) when it comes to justifying eating animals, but is that right?


  1. I'm a bit puzzled by the Foer line, as I've never heard the case for not eating non-human animals based on their being unlike us, but the reverse: our shared vulnerability to suffering, etc. That we eat them, it is usually argued (I thought), is a function of our not appreciating continuities between human and non-human animals.

  2. The idea is that our not being "animals" means that we can make choices about what we eat based upon moral reasoning, principles, etc. (I.e. what and how we eat can be a moral issue for us; it can't be so for a cat (so far as I know).)

    This would be a response, for example, to the argument that it must be ok for us to eat animals because some animals eat other animals. (The "it's natural" argument.) I assume you know the retort to that (that rape in nature doesn't justify rape in human society).

  3. Oh, I see. I wonder, though, as a matter of persuasion, how effective it is to employ that tack, and whether it doesn't work against encouraging the sort of sympathetic identification that seems to be the real motivator in changing the relevant attitudes and behaviors.

  4. Well, I don't think this is anyone's whole defense of animal liberation/welfare, etc. Can we only sympathetically identify with other moral agents? (That seems wrong.)

  5. I guess I take a quasi-Schopenhauerian perspective on this in thinking that underscoring what seems to distinguish us from other animals poses a greater risk of being an impediment to moving us to positively alter our treatment of them. (The standing temptation to, as it were, anthropomorphize ourselves.)