Friday, October 26, 2007

The Death of Two Pigs

In the New York Times on Thursday (October 25) appeared an editorial by a farmer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, who enjoys talking to his pigs and scratching them behind the ears and who anticipates the day, "very soon," when "a farmer and his son will come to the farm to kill our two pigs." He spends time with the pigs both because he loves being around them (pigs are actually quite similar to dogs in their friendliness towards trusted human friends) and because "taming them means it will be that much easier for the farmer and his son to kill them swiftly, immediately." He adds that whatever one might say about the treatment his pigs receive, it is much better than what happens to the animals that virtually every omnivore purchases at the supermarket.

The editorial brought me back to the ambivalence I expressed in an earlier posting about the Israeli Supreme Court's decision to ban the production of foie gras because of the cruelty entailed. If one is going to keep and kill animals for food, then I would certainly prefer that they treat the animals humanely and attempt to minimize the fear and pain experienced at the end. Indeed, I suspect that what bothers most people who object to the consumption of animals and animal products is primarily the horrific cruelty that animals suffer prior to death rather than the fact that the animals are killed for food at all. But, despite what this particular farmer says, the two -- killing for food and great suffering before death -- are hardly unrelated.

When we eat animals and animal products instead of taking advantage of equally healthy, plant-based alternatives, we have made a decision to treat the experiences of animals as infinitely less important than the experiences of human beings. Animals are, in this framework, and despite their sentience, "things" that we use rather than beings whose interests have weight. It is in this context that existing regulations of farmed animal treatment before and during slaughter barely nip at the heels of the brutality that animates modern factory farming. The primary goal is going to be profit, and humane treatment must not disrupt that primary goal.

In addition to constraining the potential reach of animal welfare regulations, the logic of keeping of animals for eventual killing and consumption provides a very strong incentive to erect an emotional wall between ourselves and the living creatures whom we breed and feed for slaughter and consumption. To do otherwise feels like betraying a friend, and this is why many people in this country find the prospect of slaughtering dogs for food morally horrifying.

This reality of animal welfare law and human nature makes the farmer who is kind to his pigs and gives them happy lives until the moment of death an exceptional phenomenon. He pays for and watches the slaughter of his pigs, but he still enjoys their company while they are alive. I am told that my grandfather was a ritual slaughterer -- a shokhet -- in a small town in Poland, and that he hated his job because he loved animals and played with them every day until it was time to kill them. His wife, my grandmother, had to force him out of the house each day to earn a living by killing creatures he loved. For most people experiencing feelings like his, self-preservation would eventually lead to one of two outcomes: one would quit his job and delegate slaughter to someone who does not care so much for animals -- this is what most omnivores who consider themselves friends of animals do in modern times; alternatively (perhaps because one cannot afford to quit the job), one would harden one's heart to the animals and stop nurturing them. There is much evidence of this second response in the taunting that goes on amidst the screams of the modern "kill floor."

My tentative conclusion is therefore that even if one believes that killing and otherwise using an animal for food is theoretically acceptable, provided that the animal's life is free of abuse and cruelty, the reality will rarely if ever meet that condition in the real world. As a result, the rare individual who meets this condition does not necessarily help matters for the animals. He may instead provide "proof" that eating animals does not subsidize tremendous cruelty, when in fact it does. He thus provides an illusory salve for the conscientious omnivore who wishes to pretend that the meat she buys at the market belonged to a well-treated animal.

Posted by Sherry Colb

28 comments:

Kenji said...

When I read this post, I realize once again how powerful Marx's critique of capitalism remains to be today. Alienation of labor, which accompanies introduction of money, has completely separated production from consumption in modern capitalist society, as a result of which consumers of food usually don't know anything about how the food arrived on their table. We obviously can't roll back the clock, but we need to work hard to close the information gap.

Sobek said...

Gotcha. Being nice to pigs is, ultimately, extraordinarily cruel.

Sobek said...

Marx's critique of capitalism would be more powerful if the alternative didn't inevitably lead to mass murder.

Eric said...

Thanks for this post. I'm glad to see so much discussion in favor of animal interests provoked by this NY Times opinion piece.

David C. said...

Cf. the lelthal injection cases and the debate over the most "humane" way to put humans to death.

Paul said...

Sobek,
You are conflating socialism/communism with totalitarianism. There is pleanty wrong with socialism from an economic stagnation perspective, but socialism/communism, like capitalism, is silent on mass murder.

Paul said...

Also, yes, being nice to pigs does further animal cruelty. This is actually very obvious when you look at the advertising and marketing of the meat industry. Here in California (perhaps nationwide for all I know) the industry spends millions on its "happy cows" campaign. Look at a milk carton - do you see a picture of an idyllic pasture with a single cow happily grazing or do you see a bunch of cows all lined up in small cages with milking robots attached to their utters?

In a very real sense, the meat industry persists in large part because of its successful portrayal that animals are treated well. It is, of course, all a lie, and the occasional anecdote from the rare family farmer that actually does (somehow) care for his animals that he is raising for slaughter helps perpetuate the lie that such things are common.

egarber said...

When I read this post, I realize once again how powerful Marx's critique of capitalism remains to be today.

Interesting. I see the opposite dynamic. To me, it's largely due to market forces that there are a growing number of affordable alternatives out there for people who don't wish to eat meat. In the U.S., I think the market has reacted positively to growing consumer demand -- there are a good number of vegetarians out there -- for variation in the food supply.

And the implication that capitalism has in a way caused us to be meat-eaters seems far-fetched to me. Humans ate meat long before economic systems were developed, and I don't see evidence that there's a proportionate drop in consumption around the world the further you stray from capitalistic economic models. I welcome corrections of course, but don't folks all over the world eat meat in one way or another -- regardless of the economics?

In fact, a market purist might tell you that one reason it's so easy to buy meat is that the government has subsidized farming for so long. The argument would go that government has distorted the price structure in subtle ways, making it more affordable than it might otherwise be in a purely capitalistic society. [I'm not really arguing that -- just bringing up another side of the coin.]

To me, in the end meat is plentiful not because capitalism has dictated that it be so; it's plentiful because the market has simply reacted to large-scale demand. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a meat eater -- o.k., I eat fish -- but I feel like there are plenty of choices out there for me. If public opinion were to sway radically, the market would react, imo.

Derek said...

I think the idea is just that because animals are treated as a commodity, rather than as subjects of experience, and the emphasis in a market system like ours is on efficiency, that you see, as a consequence, cruel measures put in place that maximize efficiency at the expense of the animals' interests.

So, for example, if there is demand for 1000 chickens and a farmer has to choose between raising 1000 chickens in a healthy environment for $100 and raising 2000 chickens in an unhealthy environment (expecting 1/2 to die) for $75, the assumption is that he will choose the latter.

So I guess capitalism itself isn't really to blame, but rather capitalism in conjunction with treating animals as if they were merely part of the system, like ipods and sweaters, without any interests of their own.

And I think that's all consistent with your claim, egarber, that if public opinion about animal welfare changed, the market would react.

Carl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carl said...

Kenji,

Where in Marx does he criticize capitalism on the grounds that it forces people to produce what they don't consume? This is a necessary feature of any large scale industrial economy, including those favored by any Marxist who, like their namesake, are not advocating a return to some kind of subsistence level of existence. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't Marx's principal criticism of capitalism instead that it forces people to produce what the subseqently do not own?

Kenji said...

egarber and carl,

You're missing my point. I'm only referring to what Marx said about alienation of labor. No where in my comment did I use Marx to explain how capitalism caused people to become meat-eaters or "force people to produce what they don't consume."

Carl said...

kenji wrote:

I'm only referring to what Marx said about alienation of labor. No where in my comment did I use Marx to explain how capitalism..."force people to produce what they don't consume."


Yet you point to Marx's account of alienation as an indication of "how powerful Marx's critique of capitalism remains to be today."

But be that as it may, his point is not that the capitalist mode of production uniquely divorces production from consumption but that it alienates the producer from the product of his labor (i.e. someone else owns it). As I said before, however, all advanced forms of production separate the process of producing some good from its consumption. This is not a uniquely Marxist insight.

I agree with you entirely that this is one of the biggest obstacles we face in convincing people to stop eating meat. But to characterize it as a distinctily Marxist insight is to misunderstand both the nature of large-scale economies and Marx's own contribution to their analysis.

Or to put it another way: production can be separated from consumption without laborers being alientated from the product of their labor in Marx's sense. A moment's reflection suggests this must be that case if, as Marx believes, laborers will not suffer such alienation once they come to own the means of production.

Sobek said...

Paul said: "You are conflating socialism/communism with totalitarianism."

They are one and the same. Any contention to the contrary defies all historic data.

And it's not just the practice. Marx's theory was expressly conditioned upon the historic inevitability of violent uprising (i.e. mass murder), and he nowhere suggests that's a bad thing.

But theory aside, I prefer the historical data. Marxism equals mass murder, mass starvation, and mass disregard for human rights.

Sobek said...

Carl said: "I agree with you entirely that this is one of the biggest obstacles we face in convincing people to stop eating meat."

Stop eating meat, or stop eating meat that is produced in a certain way? Because if the former, then neither Marxism nor anything in Prof. Colb's post (or the subject article) has any bearing on that, for the simple reason that in pre-industrialized society, when people were more closely tied to the land, vegetarianism was far less common. One cannot imagine a farmer in 1940s Iowa decrying meat consumption as unethical, yet that's the kind of person we most expect to know exactly what slaughtering a cow entails. There's no education problem for hypothetical Elmer the farmer: he knows more about food production than a hypothetical Manhattanite ever will, and he chooses to eat beef.

That's not to say Elmer would approve of cruel production methods -- he would just reject the idea that the only reason any meat consumption is tolerated is because of ignorance -- or Marxist nonsense about alienation.

Carl said...

Sobek asks:

Stop eating meat, or stop eating meat that is produced in a certain way?

The latter.

Sobek said...

"The latter."

Fair enough. And I agree with you, in spite of the shrivelled, conservative blackened lump that I call a heart.

But Prof. Colb's argument is a very different one: that all meat consumption is immoral, and the only reason it continues is through ignorance. That's a terrible argument, because humans have consumed meat for most of history, and been closer to the production process through most of human history. Industrialization may remove most consumers from the reality of the process, and also encourage inhumane production methods, but that is a historically recent phenomenon, and does nothing to support the premise.

Carl said...

But Prof. Colb's argument is a very different one: that all meat consumption is immoral, and the only reason it continues is through ignorance.

She also allows that it may continue even where people know what is going on if they are able to detach themselves from it emotionally.

I think this is probably true as a general empirical claim. I'm not sure, however, what its moral implications are. After all, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with not being emotionally attached to animals, so we cannot condemn a practice simply because it requires us to become so detached. A lot of perfectly acceptable professions may require some degree of emotional attachments - medicine, law, and the military being notable examples.

Sobek said...

"She also allows that it may continue even where people know what is going on if they are able to detach themselves from it emotionally."

That was no defense of the morality of meat consumption, only an explanation of a mechanism of meat production.

Carl said...

That was no defense of the morality of meat consumption, only an explanation of a mechanism of meat production.

Her appeal to ignorance was not a defense of the morality of meat consumption either, as I read her. I doubt that she thinks people who are ignorant of how meat is produced do nothing wrong when the eat meat. They may be less blameworthy than people who are able to continue eating meat once they know what is entailed in its production, but those are two distinct issues - one concerning what makes eating meat wrong (which I assume she believes is the pain caused in producing it), the other concerning when eating meat is blameworthy (which she seems to think turns on whether we know what's involved in producing it).

Your previous comments suggested that she could not explain why people who know what's entailed in the production of meat continue to consume it. I was simply pointing out that she has an explanation - they detach themselves emotionally from the process. I was not suggesting that she takes this to be a morally valid response. On the contrary, I took her to be implying that there was something wrong with this defense mechanism, which I am less certain about.

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