Monday, May 31, 2010

Respect My Choice?

(Revised; ignore the previous version of this post if you read it; I was not quite happy with it and shouldn't have posted it.)

Foer's Eating Animals is, on the whole, a worthwhile read, especially for someone who needs an introduction to factory farming. An Amazon reviewer characterizes the book as "an urban book by an urban author for an urban audience that surely needs a good shake as it reaches for the package of cheap Tyson chicken thighs at the Fairway." This is not entirely unfair, and Foer is honest about his status as a "city boy." Of course, factory farmed meat isn't "urban"; it's utterly pervasive in the U.S. Nevertheless, there might be something to the idea that Foer's most sympathetic audience will be urban because he is urban. Presumably, this is because we are most inclined to listen to those with whom we might conceivably sit down and have a meal. Those who can't take the "city boy" seriously can always turn instead to books like Howard Lyman's Mad Cowboy, which I haven't read, but appears to be the "country" equivalent to Foer's book (though it's a bit old, given the fact-driven nature of these books. However, my impression is that the basic facts about factory farms haven't changed that much).

As I was reading Foer's book, I was also reading about athletes who've turned to a vegetarian diet (and readers will be glad to know that Prince Fielder has returned to usual form). In reading through some of the (often predictably bad) comments (yes, we all know that reading comments on news websites is a bad idea!), I was struck by the following one, which is somehow connected to the pervasive thought that choices about what we eat are "personal":
I personaly don't care about how the animals are treated, or how they are butchered as they are being turned into my next meal. They are still "animals" as in below humans. And if ya'll don't like it, thats ok, eat your soy and beans, I'll not try to stop you, just please give me the same respect. I'll take mine medium well done thank you.
Really, this is just another thoughtless waste of internet space, and I feel a bit apologetic about framing any thoughts in response to it. (I feel like the man in the cartoon who says to his wife, "I'm busy right now! Someone said something wrong on the Internet!") But there's an idea encapsulated in this stupid remark that I've been thinking about: the idea that what we eat is a "personal" choice.

In discussing my move away from meat (at least mammals and birds), a not-unsympathetic family member attempted to summarize my decision by glossing it as a "personal choice." My response was, "Well, if I thought it was just a personal choice, I'd still be eating bacon, because bacon is tasty!" At the same time, I try to resist the urge to get "moralistic," which is presumably what the commenter above doesn't like. But this is hard once one has a vivid impression about just how inhumane, disrespectful, and plain gross the factory farm industry is. At least, it's hard not to take the occasional jab. Is that disrespectful? Surely not.

I have no idea why anyone would need to "try" not to stop someone from eating beans. What exactly is the corresponding "respect" the commenter above wants? I'm not going to try to take his steak away from him while he's eating. I have other things to do. (Does he have a strong impulse to slap veggie burgers out of the hands of others?) Does he want his choice to be respected? "Respect my choice." What does that mean? Not to criticize it? But that doesn't make sense. Even if a choice is "personal," that doesn't seem to rule out the permissibility of criticism of a sort, as with style and music criticism. But let's grant that criticism of that sort is merely "aesthetic," and so there's plenty of room for disagreement in taste and choice on such matters. Is what we eat merely "personal" or "aesthetic" in that respect? The easy answer, I think, is that it can't be "merely" personal because what we choose to eat affects other living beings (including farmers, who've been either marginalized or forced into being mere "producers" for the meat industry with little control over their animals).

I understand, more or less, why people continue to eat factory farmed meat--which is just about the only kind of meat you can get in a grocery store or a restaurant. The intellectual transition, for me, has taken some time. (And I'm still not really a vegetarian since I'll still eat fish and shrimp, but the more I read about "bycatch" and the environmental problems with fishing, the more my appetite wanes. That said, the practical transition is pretty easy in comparison to the intellectual one.) I'm sympathetic with the idea that grass-farmed animals, and even responsibly hunted animals, could be respectable sources of food. I'm not (yet?) prepared to go vegan, and so it's hard to achieve true "consistency" in food choice. (Eggs and dairy products present lots of problems, too.) But to demand respect, especially on the grounds that one "personally does not care" where one's meat comes from, just seems stupid and obnoxious. And this, as Foer (and others, like Michael Pollan) bring out, is really the problem: most people just don't seem to care where their food comes from. But on what grounds could that indifference--whatever you're eating--possibly be worthy of respect?


  1. "Stupid and obnoxious" seems about right, so I'm not quite sure what other issue you see here. Having said that, I think there are some. Whether these are what you have in mind is another thing. Part of what's going on, I think, is a kind of subjectivist relativism, according to which ethics is all based on feelings and when we don't share the same feelings we must and ought to agree to disagree. There might be something right in this, but it is very crude, and it's insulting to others to assume too quickly that what they feel is completely alien to one's own feelings and potential feelings. There might be a political, historical, cultural aspect too. A common reaction in the South to moral criticism regarding segregation and related issues is along the lines of: "Yeah maybe, but you're wrong, too, to be so judgmental, interfering, etc." Liberal-sounding ideas about states' rights often have such reactionary roots. Some libertarianism follows a similar pattern. If you get used to arguing like this then, when someone suggests you are doing something wrong, it might be natural to reach for an appeal to liberty or autonomy in response. Perhaps this partly explains the comment that interests you.

  2. Hi, Duncan. Thanks for the thoughts. I suspect you're right. The amount of deflection that goes on with resistance to thinking about eating meat (esp. industrially produced meat) is really interesting psychologically. My wife was chatting with her mom last night, and got her to watch some of the "Meet your Meat" video (which I honestly don't like because it's too rhetorical in its narration and thus likely to trigger the usual defense mechanisms pretty quickly). She just refused to acknowledge the images--not in this country, trick photography, etc.

    I've been thinking a bit about Pollan's line that we want our food to be not just good to eat, but also "good to think," and I personally don't get that "bad" thought when I think about fully locally produced, small scale livestock. (Probably because I was surrounded by a small-scale dairy farm in my youth.) See my more recent post.

    But I've also been discussing with Matt Calarco the problem of "going back to the old ways" and that there's a sense in which a "return to innocence" isn't possible. But perhaps engaging with these local farmers isn't an attempt to "return", but rather to commit to something both new (for me) and old. At the same time, like I say in the new post, it's easier to abstain.