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Are We All Michael Vick? Our Addiction to Animal Cruelty

Update June 2013: For a longer and revised version of this post, go to:



We are all opposed to mindless, almost mind-numbing animal cruelty. No one was defending Michael Vick and his cohorts in their cruel, torturous treatment of some dogs. If Michael Vick had been selling a product – say dog-skin handbags from the “losing” dogs – that financially supported and enabled the continued torture of more and more dogs, we would not only NOT buy them, we would boycott the handbags and urge other not to buy them.

And yet, we financially support and enable exactly this kind of stomach-churning, nauseating cruelty that we’d like to pretend does not exist. But it does, and it is not a few nasty guys having “fun.” It is torture and cruelty as a way of making money. Lots and lots of money for those who mastermind the factory slaughterhouses. For the unfortunate who have to work in these “farms” and in the slaughterhouses – and who make very little money – it is cruelty as a way of life. The business of torture.

Lots of serious and scholarly authors have been telling us this for a generation. In the last fifteen years Gail Eisnitz, Jonathon Safran Foer, Erik Marcus, and Matthew Scully, just to name a few, have revealed this institutionalized cruelty in abundantly clear ways. And we can see it for ourselves at any time on youtube. It’s perverse and disgusting. But we avoid the books, and avert our eyes from the videos. It is just too awful to contemplate for more than a few fleeting moments.

I want to be clear about my argument. The point is not to oppose meat-eating. My beef is not with Inuit eating seals. Nor with aboriginals hunting wild boars. Nor with those seriously engaged in what was once known as “animal husbandry.”

My objection IS to the factory farming in America that institutionalizes cruelty at an almost incomprehensible level. Factory farmed meat is, if we are honest, ‘cruelty meat.’
Let me be concrete and keep my argument narrow. If we object to cruelty to dogs, we should certainly object to it to pigs, who are friendly, loyal, and more intelligent than dogs. Yet, 95% of pigs are factory-farmed in America. Thus, unless you have very good reason to believe otherwise, it is almost certain that when you buy pork, bacon, or ham, you are supporting an industry that institutionalizes cruelty.

How should Catholics think about this? Well, we might begin with the Catechism of the Catholic Church

2416 Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory.197 Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals. …
2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.

However, God have mercy on us if we only know that cruelty to animals is wrong after consulting the Catechism.

How does the Catholic tradition speak about the wrongness of eating animals that have been factory farmed? One way it thinks about it is to name it as a form of cooperation with wrongdoing. More specifically, it is what the tradition calls formal cooperation with wrongdoing, which is always considered wrong. Some may argue that eating factory-farmed or cruelty meat is a form of material cooperation with wrongdoing, which, if one does not condone the cruelty in eating the cruelty meat, and does it for other reasons e.g. part of one’s typical breakfast or part of a convivial barbeque, then it could be morally acceptable. But it is not.

In American factory-farming, cruelty is not a mere evil side-effect or by-product. Cruelty is an essential and necessary part of the logic of factory farming. For in factory farming, the welfare of the animals is of NO accord. It is entirely a matter of raising the animals in a way that maximizes profits. Any care or consideration given to the animals in the logic of factory farming is ordered to future maximization of profit. That is why we should call it not merely meat, but ‘cruelty meat.’

Thus, when I choose to eat my American factory-farmed bacon or ribs, I consent to the cruelty that is inherent in the production of that bacon and ribs. It is analogous to buying stolen property. Even if you intend only good and upright uses of that bicycle or flat-screen television, if you know (or have very good reason to believe) it is stolen property, then it is formal cooperation with wrongdoing. You consent or even contribute to the wrong, both the wrong done to the victim of the theft, and the wrong of supporting and sustaining the thief in their business. So it is with eating factory-farmed bacon and ribs. You consent and perhaps contribute to the wrong done to the victims of the cruelty, and you support and sustain the wrong done by the factory farm industry. Hence I formally co-operate in the cruelty to pigs when I buy and/or eat the bacon and ribs.

This is especially true since there is no need to eat cruelty pig meat. Millions of Americans don’t eat pigs. And if you want to, you can search for (it’s not easy to find) and pay the premium for pigs raised largely free of cruelty. There’s simply no moral justification (or “duress” in the moral theology terminology) for continuing to buy and consume cruelty pig meat. It’s ignorance, laziness, or gluttony (i.e. inordinate attachment to some kinds of food), or perhaps all three.

Another way the Catholic tradition thinks about this is by speaking of the wrong of scandal. By ‘scandal,’ the tradition means that when we, particularly as leaders of a sort among Catholics, do things that are wrong, we lead others to also think that these things that are wrong are morally acceptable. This is the point of Matthew 18:6 – “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Once we understand the evil of cruelty meat, we have a particular obligation to witness that to those who do not understand that.

Of course, there is a lot more wrong with factory-farming than that which I am focusing on. Factory farming contributes more to global warming than all our motor vehicles combined. In a world with so much starvation, the diversion of huge amounts of crops to factory-farmed animals is extremely wasteful. Eating hormone and antibiotic stuffed pigs messes with our endocrine system and makes us far more susceptible to drug-resistent ‘superbugs,’ which kill many more Americans than we’d like to acknowledge. Our meat-heavy diets – diets only made possible all because of cheap industrial meat – are generally bad for human health. While all significant evils, they are not the point here.

I have chosen so far not to describe the various kinds of cruelties inflicted on pigs in typical factory farming. But for those unaware, the following is only the tip of the iceberg with regards to the kinds of things done to the intelligent and sensitive creatures we call pigs. Here’s how PETA describes some of the typical treatment of factory-farmed pigs, but you can read the same basic points in Jonathon Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and all over the web.

Transport Terror: When allowed to live out their natural lives, pigs live for an average of 10-15 years, but factory farmed pigs are sent to slaughter after just six months of life. In order to get the terrified pigs onto the trucks bound for the slaughterhouse, workers may beat them on their sensitive noses and backs or stick electric prods into their rectums.
Crammed into 18-wheelers, pigs struggle to get air and are usually given no food or water for the entire journey (often hundreds of miles). They suffer from temperature extremes and are forced to inhale ammonia fumes and diesel exhaust. A former pig transporter told PETA that pigs are “packed in so tight, their guts actually pop out their butts—a little softball of guts actually comes out.”
According to a 2006 industry report, more than 1 million pigs die each year from the horrors of transport alone. Another industry report notes that, in some transport loads, as many as 10 percent of pigs are “downers,” animals who are so ill or injured that they are unable to stand and walk on their own. These sick and injured pigs will be kicked, struck with electric prods, and finally dragged off the trucks to their deaths.
In winter, some pigs die frozen to the sides of the trucks. In summer, some die from heat exhaustion. Some fall and suffocate when additional animals are forced to pile in on top of them. All are in a panic—screaming and desperately trying to get away—and some die of heart attacks.
One worker reports, “In the wintertime there are always hogs stuck to the sides and floors of the trucks. [Slaughterhouse workers] go in there with wires or knives and just cut or pry the hogs loose. The skin pulls right off. These hogs were alive when we did this.”
In 2004, a transport truck owned by Smithfield Foods and loaded with 180 pigs flipped over in Virginia. Many pigs died in the accident, while others lay along the roadside, injured and dying. PETA officials arrived on the scene and offered to humanely euthanize the injured animals, but Smithfield refused to allow the suffering animals a humane death because the company could not legally sell the flesh of animals who had been euthanized. After an accident in April 2005, Smithfield spokesperson Jerry Hostetter told one reporter, “I hate to admit it, but it happens all the time.”
Slaughter: The unloading at the slaughterhouses is as ugly as the loading. After being kept in an immobile state all their lives, their legs and lungs are so weak that the pigs can barely walk. But when they see space ahead of them, some of them begin running for the first time in their lives.
Like fillies, they jump and buck, overjoyed with their first feel of freedom. Then, suddenly, they collapse and cannot get up. They can only lie there, trying to breathe, their bodies racked with pain from abuse and neglect on the factory farms. Then drivers hook their legs up to winches to pull them, often pulling their legs right off.
A typical slaughterhouse kills up to 1,100 pigs every hour. The sheer number of animals killed makes it impossible for them to be given humane, painless deaths. Because of improper stunning, many pigs are alive when they reach the scalding tank, which is intended to soften their skin and remove their hair.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) documented 14 humane-slaughter violations at one processing plant, where inspectors found hogs who “were walking and squealing after being stunned [with a stun gun] as many as four times.”
According to one slaughterhouse worker, “There’s no way these animals can bleed out in the few minutes it takes to get up the ramp. By the time they hit the scalding tank, they’re still fully conscious and squealing. Happens all the time.”

(See )

There has not been enough leadership on this issue by Catholic theologians. One, however, has spoken out on the issue and his words are worth quoting:

“Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), 78-79.

A little understated, but a step in the right direction.



  1. John, thanks for this challenging piece. You lay out the cruelty issues so clearly here but you also take it a step further by invoking the traditional concept of cooperation with evil. I am unsure the formal/material distinction you are making and was hoping you could say a bit more about it.

    I recently wrote an article about sweatshops in which I argued that buying most clothes can be considered material cooperation with evil. Even though the mistreatment of workers is an inherent part of the system, I found that because the cooperation was remote, not necessary, and certainly not intentional, it was material. It could be mitigated due to the difficulty of finding reasonably priced fair trade clothing. But I still found it serious and worthy of moral consideration. I try to avoid buying new clothes and factory farmed meat as I consider both material cooperation.

    But Cathy Kaveny has argued that cooperation with evil just wasn’t meant to apply to social sin, so it’s a poor fit. I think we can begin to use it in discussion of social sin, and must, because when we all cooperate, we uphold evil systems. But do you think it is more complicated than, say, the classic case of the taxi driver taking a customer to a brothel?

  2. Julie & John–
    Now THIS is moral theology!! John makes the analogy with stolen property. I do think these issues are more complicated in cases of “structures of sin,” but again, the danger on that side of the argument is always to absolve the individual agent of any responsibility. I suspect the issue is hazy. I just ate a hot dog (not a hamburger) at our start of the year picnic. Sin? I mean, quite honestly, I would probably have to call it a venial sin, in the traditional sense. There were veggie burgers – I had one. On the other hand, I was sharing in the community picnic – if I had my druthers, we would have Bon Appetit doing our food service, not Aramark, and they would be thinking about these things.

    But I still think the larger issue has to do with alternate system that are viable, even if somewhat less convenient and sonewhat more costly. This is VERY hard with clothing, though of course one could always do second-hand or simply not buy – on the other hand, this can be done with food… although one would responably have to examine the circumstances in any case. But all this hinges on the issue of culpability, right? Not the objectively sinful character of the act itself. John B is pretty convincing that eating factory-farmed meat is objectively sinful.

    I would also make one other dis-analogy between the clothing issue and the factory-farm issue. There is at least some room for discussion about whether all foreign-made clothing should be considered “sweatshop” – this is one of the difficult judgments. It is hard to make a blanket condemnation, because I do think some progress has been made in these areas. Perhaps not much, but it does seem that there is a debate that could be had about whether this or that set of conditions is counter to the dignity of the workers.

    Such an argument is not possible with factory-farming. It cannot be reconcile with those Catechism verses in any available version, and that is because it would be impossible to produce meat for the typical (cheap) price if you tried. Bell & Evans, my chicken, is corporate and is not Joel Salatin chicken, but they do make a variety of efforts to raise chickens differently… and it costs a good amount more.

  3. Julie and David,

    Thanks VERY much for the responses. Julie, yes, I do need to say more to give a full account of why I think it is formal cooperation. Can’t do that here right now, but I intend to work that out in the near future.
    Having said that, I think there are at least two key differences between the sweat shop and the factory farm that may help understand why labelling the former as material and the latter as formal is a legitimate move. First, as David said, perhaps enough foreign clothing is not sweat shop to make it problematic to boycott it all, though I am willing to be convinced that I am naive on that point. Second, I have been to El Salvador and talked to seamstresses, and it is by no means clear that these workers would prefer us not to buy the clothes they make. Some definitely say we should buy the shirts they make, but also try to bring pressure to improve the conditions, and also find alternative channels to market their clothes to make them fair trade.
    On the other hand, pig meat is 98% factory farmed in America, and you can bet that the hot dogs and sausages its basically 100%. So there’s no room for evasion on that one. Also, there’s no question that it is in the interest of these animals that we not support their torturous treatment, despite what the Chick-Fil-A mascot tells us. (Don’t get me going on the evangelical Christian owner …)
    So I think we have good reason to think cruel treatment is essential to the logic of factory farming in a way it doesn’t have to be with the foreign garment industry, and that may be enough to make the formal vs. material distinction legitimate. I do want to emphasize however, that that by no means legitimates sweatshop labor. Being material cooperation does not make it automatically ok, any more than something not being intrinsically evil makes it ok.

    David, I appreciate your honesty. Really I do. If you ate the hotdog because you’re weak, ok. We all do wrong things. (I’d love to hear the confessional conversation if you confessed it to your local priest!!) However, the “community picnic” line sounds like you’re trying to justify it at the same time you’re acknowledging there’s something wrong about it. That seems pretty weak, especially with the veggie burger option in front of you! How does eating the veggie burger take away from sharing in the “community picnic”? You need to understand that the only reason those veggie burgers are likely to be there is because there are people who let them know they don’t eat the meat. The more you make it clear that you’re not eating the meat, the more opportunities there will be with veggie options.
    As Jonathan Safran explains, the reason almost all restaurants have vegetarian options now is because they’re told it is good for business, since the vegetarian in a group typically has an inordinate say on where the party goes to eat … or at least a veto on vegetarian-unfriendly places.

    P.S. Jonathan Safran Foer also does a pretty good critique of Salatin’s chickens. They’re all industrial birds from industrial hatcheries, which have messed with the genetics of birds to produce inherently unhealthy birds with ginormously freakish breasts and all kinds of other health problems. Kind of like overly inbred dogs, but way worse. (Turkeys are the absolute worst on this!) If we’re serious about animal welfare, we should only support “heritage” bird farmers, which respect and encourage the former genetic diversity and inherent healthiness of the birds they raise. I go a step further than that and don’t eat them at all, but if one IS going to eat them, that’s where one should be heading, I would argue. I am an Aristotelian with regard to birds; we should not only minimize their pain, we should respect their evolved nature.

    P.P.S. Regarding the hotdog: my grandfather was a meatpacker in the 1920s and 1930s in Toronto. He had five kids and they could barely rub two nickels together. But he, and they as a family, never ate sausages or hotdogs. He knew too much. And that was before the factory farming era began.

  4. Really, really interesting discussion. Could we perhaps define better what we mean by social sin? I mean, the clothing industry and factory farming are, on one level, surely examples of social structures and practices that hurt vulnerable populations. But it seems to be that the harm done in factory farming is not just social, but also direct and nonconsensual. Individual non-human animals are being tortured and killed without consent for our benefit. Now, it is also the case that real, individual human animals are having their choices to work for these companies manipulated by the social structure of global capitalism, but this seems to be different in at least two ways: (1) the human animals are at least choosing to work for these companies (though that choice seems to coerced in various ways), and (2) the harm of paying less than a living wage is indirect given that there is nothing about the harm that is inherent to the practice (someone that already had their basic needs met could work for a clothing factory, for instance). Factory farmed animals obviously have no ability to consent and the harms are direct and internal to the practice itself.

    Please note that I’m not referring to the gravity of the sin involved, but merely whether the category of formal cooperation should apply.

  5. And your answer to that last question would be …. ?

    • I’m not as steeped in this stuff as you and Julie are, but my sense is that it would apply. Sounds like indirect formal cooperation with evil…thought about in a way similar to the UCCB Health care Directives appendix. But, ultimately, if we let such categories distract us from the carnage and cruelty in with we mindlessly participate, we miss the point.

  6. While remaining agnostic on the question of cooperation (I am prudentially waiting to hear John’s arguments for formal cooperation) I think it is important to mention another relevant moral category–vincible ignorance, that is, the ignorance which keeps us from doing something right or leads us to do something wrong which could have been prevented. Such ignorance may mitigate responsibility, but is gravely wrong when it involves serious matters, and factory farming, I think, constitutes serious matter. I have encountered so many people who simply do not know, really know about the reality of factory farming. Most of the meat eaters in this country have not watched Food, Inc. or other such documentaries, nor have they seen a factory farm. A big reason is that they don’t want to know and so they don’t seek out the sort of information that would be relevant to making a decision not to eat factory farmed meat. But another reason is that they are influenced by larger “structures” of sin that keep them in the dark.

    How many commercials have you seen advertising “Meat: It’s What’s For Dinner” or “Pork, the healthy and affordable white meat!”? And on the flip side, any sort of popular coverage of factory farms is likely to include a semi-deranged looking PETA member screaming as they get pulled out of the factory farm they just broke into. The majority of Americans have been kept in the dark and are seriously ignorant about where their meat comes from, and reasonable vegetarian alternatives. I can’t tell you how many times, for example, in the last couple of months, I’ve heard that you can’t be pregnant and vegetarian: “The baby needs meat!” people keep telling me. “How else are you going to get iron/protein/B vitamins/Omega 3 fatty acids”? I think meat corporations are partially responsible for this ignorance, but so are individuals themselves who willfully refuse to find out about the meat they eat. These are largely good people, people who care about animals, health, the environment, etc. But ignorance is a powerful force which keeps people from doing the good. But ignorance is still something we are responsible for, something which still makes us morally culpable for grave sin. And I think that is what is at work here, with the vast majority of the country that still eats factory farmed meat.

  7. John– You’re right about the hot dog. No good reason, other than nostalgia.
    Beth– I’ve wondered about this – when I have taught this material, I have to say that students “not wanting to know” means… that they do know. Not “know” in the sense that they watch it in detail. But they have no interest in seeing the conditions that gave them their hamburger or chicken sandwich. I agree that vincible ignorance is helpful here, because people ought to have some responsibility for the conditions under which their necessities are made, and to willfully ignore this is vincible. But I’m not sure I would describe people as ignorant.

  8. Beth and David,

    LOVE this discussion. I’ve never heard of “vincible ignorance,” but I see its point. It seems to me there are two other potential ways to address the ‘knowing but not knowing,’ or the nature of the ‘knowing’ that fails to affect my actions. One is by the notion of self-deception, which I think has applicability in some but not that many cases. The more fruitful category takes us back to Aristotle, or more recently to Anscombe

    “Can it be that there is something that modern philosophy has blankly misunderstood: namely what ancient and medieval philosophers meant by practical knowledge. Certainly in modern philosophy we have an incorrigibly contemplative conception of knowledge. …. For if there are two knowledges – one by observation, the other in intention – then it looks as if there must be two objects of knowledge; but if one says that objects are the same, one looks hopelessly for the different mode of contemplative knowledge in acting, as if there were a very queer and special sort of seeing eye in the middle of the acting.” (Intention, §32)

    So they may know in one sense – have intellectual knowledge – but not practical knowledge of the issue. While I think in some cases there is a lack of intellectual knowledge, it is I believe most often the lack of practical knowledge – i.e. the one that leads to action – that results in a failure to act appropriately. Practical knowledge requires a number of virtues, starting of course with practical wisdom, but others as well, including aspects of justice, courage, and compassion. Most importantly, a sophisticated appropriation of the Thomistic virtues of abstinence (ST II-II 146.1 response) and of fasting (146.2) in a contemporary context could revolutionize our thinking as why it is so hard to resist eating cruelty meat. These little (and widely ignored) sub-virtues in Thomas give us wonderful guidance “on the ground” for so many things.

  9. Thanks for this great post, John. I agree with the claim that “factory-farming,” at least as it is portrayed by those who have given “it” that name, is a structural evil. But I flinch at arguments supporting this claim which principally depend on appeals to “cruelty” and “torture,” and especially ones that involve florid descriptions of that cruelty and torture such as the one you provided here. Again, I agree with your basic claim, but it just seems like the “yuck factor” is playing a bigger role than it should in your argument. One could just as well counter the descriptions of gut-belching rectums with tear-jerking narratives about the needy families who depend on the work factory-farming gives them. Both would rely equally upon spontaneous emotional responses that frame the issue almost entirely from OUR perspective. Your comment about the El Salvador seamstress speaks to this danger, I think. Graphic depictions of filthy despair-ridden sweatshops elicit revulsion for the product or company on which the well-being of the employee depends. Does that mean there we should not do our best to bring about better working conditions for that employee? Absolutely not. But calls to action that depend primarily upon knee-jerk reactions are dangerous in my view, and can at their worst lead to an activist elitism that actually compromises true solidarity with the poor. For instance, would you refuse a hot dog offered to you at the dinner table of someone whom you knew could only afford hot dogs for dinner? Yes, I suppose you could just politely decline and eat only the bun, but you would certainly not start pontificating about formal cooperation with evil, or try to rectify their ignorance, vincible or not.

    The more profitable approach, I think, is to focus on what animals actually ARE. And so the mention of Aristotle is very apposite. It becomes even more effective, I think, when compared to the view of Descartes, who believed (quite sincerely) that animals do in fact feel pain at all. For Descartes, animals are simply machines, completely bereft of the “ghost” from which human consciousness and human dignity derive. It’s too long a story to tell, but it’s my contention that the whole industrial pattern of life is made possible by an understanding of the physical world- up to and including animal bodies- as mere machinery. So I think the sweatshop and the slaughterhouse are very much on the same plane, insofar as they represent embodiments of this view of the material world that are simply applied to the production of two different commodities. That is the root of the evil in my view, and it is a root that runs very deep indeed. Our boycotts can redirect industry so that its products answer to our concerns (and perhaps assuage themon occasion), but its basic paradigm remains the same: consumers often represent merely one more material obstacle to manipulate.

    That may sound a bit stark, but my worry is that in opposing sturctural evils such as factory-farming, it is all too easy to fall back into the very mindsets and practices that make those evils possible. Relying too much to the “yuck factor” can play very easily into the hands of the marketers and demagogues of developed capitalism. Keeping in view the more fundamental issue of how one views and interacts with the natural world may yield less material for “sound-bytes,” billboards and T-shirts, but it can affect how you see and treat those around you, especially those who are most affected by the crass utilitarianism and superficiality of modern industry.

    • Hi Patrick…interesting thoughts. I don’t have much time right now to give a long response, but I wanted to push the following very briefly: the appeal to torture and ‘yuck factor’ stories seem to highlight the thing that is most pressingly wrong with factory farming, don’t they? It is true that the materialist consumerism you point to is the root cause of all of this, but if non-human animals were not tortured and slaughtered in the horrific ways that they are, factory farming would just be one of many, many kinds of sinful structures that consumerism has wrought.

      But I take John’s point (and it is one with which I strongly agree) to be that factory farming is NOT just another such example. It is a particularly horrific and evil practice and structure and for that reason deserves special attention. Indeed, to continue with the Vick analogy, if dog fighting were more widespread, would you be so quick to say in response to those who were trying to highlight its evil, “Guys, let’s stop with the ‘yuck’ stories of mauled dogs and hanging and drowning dogs…we don’t want easy comparisons to families who need dog-fighting jobs to live,”? I suspect not. It precisely the horror and level of evil that exist in dog fighting rings and factory farms that need to move us to act…whatever other goods might be at stake.

      That’s too quick…but I wanted to get it out there before I went back to syllabus work. :)

  10. Patrick, Thanks for your most thoughtful and challenging post. Much food for thought.

    I agree with an awful lot of what you say. And I agree with you regarding Descartes’ crazy (and crazily influential) view of animals as ‘furry machines.’ Ironically, it is only in the last 70 years, three hundred years after Descartes, and well after his views have been completely discredited, that his philosophy about animals has been put so widely into practice. On the one hand, we spend more on luxurious lives for our pets than any previous human culture, and at the same time treat more cruelly and torturously more animals than any previous culture. If nothing else, it’s incredibly bizarre, and so I completely agree that we need to focus a lot more on what animals are, and to understand them. Whether it’s Vicki Hearne’s Adam’s Task, MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals, Bekoff’s book on animal emotions, Raimond Gaita’s The Philosopher’s Dog, or Cora Diamond’s brilliant stuff, or hundreds of other studies that have been done in the last generation, there’s incredible amounts of material for us to rethink our understanding of our fellow higher animals. If St. Albert had the kind of material available to him that we have available to us now, his Summa Zoologica would have looked an awful lot different, and his student St. Thomas would have written rather differently about non-human animals, or so I would argue. And we would do well to integrate this material into our contemporary theology, as Albert did in his time. That is all simply to affirm and reaffirm your point that yes, we really need to start focusing on what animals are. We are a generation behind the philosophers on this topic (all too typical, sigh!), and significantly behind our Protestant brothers and sisters on this, and I really hope we can pick it up on this topic.

    Your emphasis on focusing on what animals are and especially respecting their telos (teloi!?) is what I tried to argue when I was interviewed for an article in the University of Toronto magazine last fall.

    On the issue of the ‘yuck’ factor, I take your point, but I am not convinced I am guilty of doing it in a manipulative way. I would humbly suggest that we need to distinguish gratuitous from appropriately graphic depictions of violence. So it’s bad in the shoot ’em up films, which trivialize horrific violence, but appropriate in e.g. the film Romero or Hotel Rwanda, where we need to see the kinds of things the regimes/militias were doing to the people. With regard to factory farming, I would argue the problem is more the opposite, that awful practices are being systematically and intentionally hidden. IF factory farms and slaughterhouses were transparent operations, then we would not need these descriptions. Everyone could happily see for themselves. But these meat producers keep it hidden and put little stickers on their products with idealized pictures of happy animals whiling away their days grazing in the sun, and it is a big fat lie, and we too often innocently accept those distortions. Furthermore, the factory farming industry is very busy getting state legislatures to make it a crime to photograph or film CAFO operations or factory farms!! Even if there’s NO concern for animals, that is just nuts in terms of public health concerns.

    To sum up, so while I agree with you that one can manipulate with the ‘yuck’ factor, one can also manipulate by sanitizing truly yucky practices. So i would argue that we need to evaluate on a case by case basis the degree of distortion of the specific graphic presentation. Frankly, I don’t think what I quoted is a distortion of what is rather typical. I don’t know how one could describe what goes on without it being pretty yucky.

    I’m open to calling it something else if you think there’s a more apt term than ‘cruelty’ or ‘torture.’ I just can’t think of a more truthful way to describe.

    My other defense (I hope I am not sounding defensive) is that you’ll note I lead with the argument and completed it before I quoted the graphic stuff. And the quote was merely for those who may be truly ignorant of the almost unimaginable scale of the brutality and cruelty that goes on. My main purpose in the quote was to awaken those who may be ignorant with just a brief taste of what goes on, and to encourage them to find out more for themselves.

    To sum up, I believe that whether it is a picture or video of Michael Vick’s dogs, of conditions in a sweat shop, of a 20 week old fetus, inside a slaughterhouse, or of human victims of genocide or those herded into ships and trucks for human trafficking, we sometimes need to see rather graphically what some humans do to other human beings and other animals.

    As for the hot dog example, I think that’s a bit of an emotionally charged set up. No, that’s not the time to preach or cajole, but you certainly don’t need to eat it. I’ve spent 25 years basically keeping my mouth shut about my views in all kinds of situations, including those like these, unless I am directly and specifically asked. And I don’t think anyone has ever been particularly offended. More for them!

    Thanks again for your thoughts on this Patrick. My sense is that we’re actually much closer to agreement on this than perhaps the exchange suggests, and perhaps our differences are more matters of strategy than principle. And on this topic, may a thousand strategies bloom! (as long as they aren’t manipulative! 😉 )

  11. By the way, to all (if you’re still reading) – this article is GREAT to use with students as an example of moral argumentation. I had two classes get into it today (and Patrick will be glad to know that I did ultimately direct the conversation to the underlying question about the “status” of animals). But I also wanted to say something about the “yuck” factor: that paragraph was extremely motivating for a number of students. If it wasn’t there, I can guarantee that a good number of students who were really arguing for John’s position would not have “digested” his arguments if they had not been motivated by the stories. I don’t quite know what to think of that… ultimately, I want them to have reasons, but it is true that probably for at least 75% of them, they will seek arguments if they are motivated… and it’s the stories that motivate them.

  12. This is a great article (and brief too!) about how we are habituated in our society to regard meat-eating as normative, even if we choose a vegetarian lifestyle:

    The author muses about how to tell his son why the family does not eat meat (John, this should appeal to you especially):

    The next time you go shopping, imagine what a kid gleans from veggie burgers, veggie bacon, veggie sausage patties, veggie hot dogs, Tofurky and all the other similar fare that defines a modern plant-based diet. While none of it contains meat, it’s all marketed as emulating meat. In advertising terms, that’s the “unique selling proposition” — to give you the epicurean benefits of meat without any of meat’s downsides.

    Obviously, this isn’t some conspiracy whereby powerful meat companies are deliberately trying to bring vegetarians into the megachurch of flesh eaters. If anything, it’s the opposite: It’s the vegetarian industry selling itself to meat eaters by suggesting that its products aren’t actually all that different from meat. The problem is how that message, like so many others in American culture, reinforces the wrongheaded notion that our diet should be fundamentally based on meat.

    For those who have chosen to be vegetarians, this message is merely annoying. But for those like Isaac who are being raised as vegetarians, the message is downright subversive. It teaches them that as tasty as vegetarian food may be, it can never compete with the “real thing.”

    That message will undoubtedly inform Isaac’s early curiosity — and maybe his questions won’t be such a bad thing. Maybe they’ll motivate me to spend more time in the supermarket’s raw produce section, and maybe my ensuing discussion with Isaac will help him better understand why our family has made this culinary choice.

    However, that doesn’t mean the subtle propaganda won’t ultimately win out, thus adding another carnivore to a destructively meat-centric society.

  13. Mr. Berkman

    I grew up on a hog farm and spent many years in the pig business so your recent post about animal cruelty is of interest to me. I’ve also been a Catholic for 49 years.

    It would be of interest to me to know what kind of hog farms you’ve been on. I’d especially like to hear your definition of “factory farm.”

    Your use of PETA as a source of information about the livestock business, on which you then build your theological case, is very troubling. PETA is the group whose leader is famously associated with the statement, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” They see no difference between humans and animals. They are apologists for domestic terrorist organizations that threaten the lives of animal researchers and destroy animal facilities. They’re not an objective source of information or commentary on any use of animals and yet you build your theology on their view of reality. What PETA would define as a factory farm would likely include production practices and barns that have been used by many generations of small family farmers, including my own very devout Catholic parents. PETA’s goal is not to improve animal treatment. Their goal is to stop any and all use of animals, no matter the circumstances. Using information from PETA to learn about livestock production is kind of like using The Da Vinci Code to learn about the Catholic church.

    I’ve seen some of the hidden camera videos of animal treatment at some farms and at some slaughterhouses. It’s despicable. I’ve also spent countless thousands of hours on hog farms and have never done or seen anything like it. I also know that hundreds of priests have been guilty of terrible crimes of abuse but that doesn’t mean I condemn all priests and it doesn’t mean that I stop going to Mass or tell everyone else to stop going to Mass lest they find themselves cooperating with wrongdoing. Even though abusive priests are a tiny minority of priests, the Church has responded to the abuse crisis with many new policies and programs designed to eliminate abuse. I think that’s great and needed. Even though the number of abusive livestock workers is a tiny minority, the livestock business has responded with programs and policies designed to eliminate abuse. Also great and needed.

    Unless you have a lot of your own experience on livestock farms or have at least made an attempt to gain information from objective sources, I think you’ve gone way out on a theological limb regarding a subject you don’t know much about and have told a lot of very good people that they’re participating in evil.

    Finally, I don’t know what our beloved Pope thinks about livestock farms. I know that he once said one of his favorite dishes is weisswurst, a product usually made with pork. The simple statistics of pork production would make it very likely that he has for years consumed weisswurst that came from pigs that PETA would define as having been raised on a “factory farm.” Again, it would be very helpful to know what you think is a factory farm so that I know if you think the Pope is cooperating with wrongdoing.

  14. Just a short response: I’m delighted to have stumbled upon this post via Charles (who I first met at the AAR and who just directed me here). I teach Animal Theology, Animal Ethics at my school (Claremont School of Theology) and I actually contacted Julie last year about her recent article (applying sweatshop labor to Catholic teaching on evil) because of my interest to apply it to food choices. It’s great for me as a nonCatholic to think through these issues these ways. Keep blogging about this stuff!

  15. Gracekao, there are many many organizations other than PETA that do undercover investigations in factory farms and the sad truth is that they always invariably find the same abuse and cruelty committed in these places. What is being described here is standard practice in the industry and by no means isolated cases. If industries are so nice to the animals, why don’t they set up cameras to show the public what really goes on in the factory farms, transport trucks and slaughterhouses? And having read your post, I wish to ask you what YOU think animals are if their capacity to feel pain, suffering and fear death is different than humans’.

  16. I’m sorry my comments are so late, as I’ve just read this, the first of “Are We All Michael Vick?” in April 2012.

    I agree it’s not morally wrong for the Inuit to hunt seals, or for Aboriginal people to hunt wild boars but only because they appear to have no choice. In such case, I think hunting is neither moral or immoral — lack of choice doesn’t make killing a moral act. At best it’s a means to survive.

    But I do think it’s morally wrong for people who seriously engaged in “animal husbandry” to breed, raise, and kill nonhumans for food because they likely do have a choice, or like all of us, are obliged to create moral choices whenever possible.

    On “traditional”, “free-range, and “family” farms, nonhumans are still debeaked, their teeth are filed, their tails are docked, their horns are removed, most males are castrated, females are artificially inseminated all without anesthesia; mothers are separated from their young, which is traumatic for both. These types of farms almost always transport nonhumans to slaughter.

    In an article in the New York Times, an farmer wrote that he gives each farm animal a name; and treats them kindly, until he has them slaughtered, an act in which he felt obliged to be present. I gather he thought he was doing the right thing, but real kindness doesn’t end in killing. It is the ultimate betrayal, I think, to inspire nonhumans to trust us and then have them killed.

    I think we should also explore the myth that small farms are supposedly better for the environment. Recently, the New York Times also published an Op-Ed by James E. McWilliams, “The Myth of Sustainable Meat”, April 13, 2012:


  1. Are We all Michael Vick? Our Addition to Animal Cruelty, Part II | Catholic Moral Theology Are We all Michael Vick? Our Addition to Animal Cruelty, Part II | - [...] Berkman’s post on cruelty to non-human animals last week has, quite rightly, received a lot of attention.  For far…
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  3. Are We All Michael Vick? (Part IV): What is to be Done? | Catholic Moral Theology Are We All Michael Vick? (Part IV): What is to be Done? | - [...] Berkman started this whole thing a few weeks ago by challenging us to rethink our relationship with the factory…
  4. Brian’s Links 20 October 2011: Carnivory, Science, and Art « TheMoralMindfield - [...] 1) Our addiction to animal cruelty (1) [...]
  5. Theology in the Blogosphere: The Dangers of Online Speech? | Catholic Moral Theology Theology in the Blogosphere: The Dangers of Online Speech? | - [...] admit that there has been more than one day of heavy comments and vigorous debate (the memorable Vicks and…
  6. This Side of the Pond | Peter Singer is Not the Anti-Christ - [...] of human beings, and even Pope Benedict (now known in some circles as the “Green Pope”) has condemned factory…

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