John Berkman and I are in the midst of an exchange designed to draw attention to the issue of cruelty to non-human animals–particularly from the perspective of Christianity and Catholic Moral Theology. Check back in the middle part of each week (during the next month or so) for a new post on the topic.
John Berkman’s post on cruelty to non-human animals last week has, quite rightly, received a lot of attention. For far too long almost all Christians have sat on the sidelines of this debate, and in the process we have allowed those who wish to keep the status quo to frame the debate such that those who wish to protect other animals are seen as extremists who have an anti-Christian point of view. But this status quo, as John points out, is a level of barbarity and cruelty that is truly mind-numbing. He is certainly correct that we should stand against animal cruelty with our words, and also that we should also do our best to refuse to participate in the radically sinful social structure of factory farming.
But the latest comment in the post’s thread raises a question that many people may have in mind: is factory farming really that bad? And a related question: is PETA a reputable source for what is happening to non-human animals in these farms? These are important questions, and PETA has stood for things that might make us call into question the veracity of its claims. However, the documentation of factory-farming practices is such that we really don’t need appeal to outside groups for our facts. Perhaps the most influential book on this topic, Animal Liberation, uses the industry’s own publications in support of the claims of non-human animal abuse. A similar book, The Ethics of What We Eat, gives a first person account of actually visiting a factory farm. Though there are still some family farms left, they have largely been driven out of the market by large corporations which can produce the meat at a far lower cost, with the result that 99% of all animals killed for meat are raised intensely in factory farms.
No, the status quo in animal flesh production is well-documented, and it goes far beyond pigs. Consider, for instance, that factory-farmed turkeys are bred with breasts so big that they cannot mate naturally and therefore must be artificially inseminated. The males are, um, manually stimulated by a factory farm worker to procure semen, and the hens are ‘broken’ so that inseminators can insert a straw of semen connected to the end of a tube from an air compressor into their bodies. Or consider that chickens often spend their entire lives in the darkness of a half a square foot of living space, which, because no attempt is made to remove their feces, is full of rotting, dirty, ammonia-charged litter. And these practices, as bad as they are, are just the tip of the cruelty iceberg. I recommend reading both books above for more.
As John pointed out, the Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically prohibits causing other animals to suffer and die needlessly. Very, very few of us need to eat meat, and even fewer of us need to eat cheap factory-farmed meat. For most of human history eating meat was rarely done, and we have learned much about the health benefits of avoiding animal flesh in our diets. For instance, we know that eating meat greatly increases one’s chances of getting various cancers, and Bill Clinton’s going vegan is just the latest story highlighting the relationship between meat-eating and heart disease. When one adds the fact that meat-eating contributes mightily to climate change, other ecological destruction, and radically inefficient calorie production, you’ve got a practice that is the opposite of “necessary.” Indeed, depending on how one uses the word, it might be necessary to stop the practice.
So the reasons to avoid participation in the sinful social structure of factory-farming are many, but perhaps the best one of all was cited by John as coming from the mouth of then Cardinal Ratzinger: the practice is contrary to a Biblical understanding of right relationship between human beings and other animals. True, Roman Catholic theologians need to set a better example with our words and deeds in drawing attention to this fact. We should be writing and speaking more about this issue and engaging in many different kinds of practices which resist the power of factory-farming in our culture. But is that all that needs to happen? Where are priests preaching about this at Sunday mass and writing about it in bulletin messages (especially, perhaps, on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi the week of October 4th)? Where are Bishops forming a culture of non-violence when it comes to treatment of other animals in their diocese (especially, perhaps, in the food that is purchased for official events)? And dare we hope that the Bishop of Rome, well-known as an animal lover himself, will make a clear and direct statement about the logical implications of his view of the Bible on other animals (and that of the Catechism) for participation in factory farming?
Each day that goes by without action is another in which billions of other animals suffer needless, mind-numbing cruelty–while the overwhelming majority of Christians either stand on the sidelines or explicitly support the status quo.
For how long can this situation endure?
I happened to hear a story on the radio yesterday about “test tube meat,” which is basically the artificial production of muscle cells grown from animal stem cells.
Strange as it may sound, I actually think this technological development can help us more clearly determine what it is we find morally abhorrent about the factory farming of animals for human consumption. It can at least clarify the point (with which I would think all of us would agree) that it is not merely the consumption of animal tissue IN ITSELF that poses the moral problem, since it now seems like more than a counter-factual proposition that we could eat animal tissue without inflicting any cruelty upon animals, indeed without ever having to kill an animal at all.
It should also make it apparent that there is a need for a clearer articulation of the moral PRINCIPLE(s) behind the opposition of factory-farming. Perhaps the most uncomplicated of these principles would be the effect of factory farming on methane emissions and grain production levels. I think that one would be pretty straightforward and water-tight. The other major principle, though- and the one that seems to be getting the most emphasis in our present discussions- is that of needless cruelty, or the fact that many factory farms seem to take little to no regard for the degree of pain which they inflict on the animals they raise and slaughter. But surely there would be no cruelty involved in the production of test tube meat, would there?
Yet that seems to lead naturally to a consideration of the necessary conditions for an act to be deemed “torture” and an accompanying differentiation between animal species. Is there any cruelty involved in harvesting and preparing clams? (When I “cruelly” force open their shells, for instance?) What about other shellfish like lobsters and crabs? (They have eyes, after all, and can look me in the face as I stick them in the boiling water.) What about the earthworm which I cruelly impale when I take my son fishing? And what about the fish which I catch with that worm (which, again, I can look at face-to-face). You get the idea: is it only because laboratory meat would be completely bereft of nerve cells that it would be OK to consume? Or is there another factor that should determine our moral judgment, like “sentience,” “consciousness” or some other characteristic?
Am I an unfeeling monster because I simply do not find a turkey’s inability to mate to be- in itself- morally abhorrent? What I DO find somewhat questionable about it (although I’m still not sure I would call it vicious) is the fact that this turkey has been effectively removed from the larger realm of interaction from which it has evolved as a natural species. In other words, I would be more worried about the effect of the artificial environment in which we raise many of these animals (and the lack of genetic diversity that comes along with that) more than a chicken’s own “personal” displeasure with the way its cage smells.
That being said, I very much agree that with animals such as cows and CERTAINLY pigs, a proper respect for highly developed forms of sentience should come into play. And in my view, this respect should correspond to the graded hierarchy of living beings of which we are clearly a part. Call me a flagrant speciesist, but I still contend that human beings- as a species- occupy the highest place in that spectrum. Does that mean that dolphins and elephants should not be accorded NEARLY the same sort of respect given to human beings? Absolutely they SHOULD. But does every dolphin have a right to a basic level of health care? There, I think, we see the weight of inter-species differentiation, and it is my opionion that this differentiation is where the bulk of the ethical work should be done.
Patrick…I don’t think you are a specisist (at least in the Singerian sense) if you are appeal species-neutral moral criteria for your claims…and it seems you might be doing just this because you mention things like sentience, consciousness, etc. and seem to be willing to apply them and take them seriously across the species barrier.
Even if we leave aside the other issues (which, as you mention, are pretty straightforward), another moral principle seems clear: we cannot cause other animals to suffer needlessly. Are other animals suffering? There might be some doubt about clams and worms, but I’m assuming you have little doubt about cows, pigs, turkeys, and chickens. Do we need them to suffer? For most of us the answer is ‘no’, right?
Thanks for continuing this important conversation. I do think the “cause no unnecessary suffering” principle needs to be argued. Even if most Christians are not specisist, they do place human beings at the center (top?) of Creation and believe it is their right to eat them, and to buy them at a price that makes suffering unavoidable. If Catechism doesn’t prohibit meat eating, or even make an explicit judgement against factory farming, what does the prohibition of needless suffering and death mean? Especially egregious factory farming? Excessive meat consumption? This can’t be adequate.
I think you and John want to argue that taking this principle seriously DOES mean at least a prohibition on the vast majority of meat eating and maybe all meat eating.
I think I am coming to accept this argument. I’m not sure that I can articulate why it’s wrong for animals to suffer and be killed. Eating vegetarian is easy for me, so I’m willing to go with my basic sense that causing suffering is generally bad. But the ethical problem becomes more difficult when people (especially children) struggle to eat a vegetarian diet and when buying meat that doesn’t cause suffering (excessive suffering?) is very expensive. Then I need a better sense of why this suffering should trump other human needs. Can you help me?
Hi Julie…here is why John’s starting with Michael Vick is helpful.
Many of Vick’s defenders (who actually tied his being crucified for what he did to racism…ESPN recently did an interesting discussion of this) called out as hopeless hypocrites those who criticized Vick but regularly got ate pig and other animal flesh for pleasure. I (and I think John) are sympathetic to this critique, but want to be consistent in the opposite direction. The reason it is wrong to participate in the mauling, hanging, or drowning of dogs (or support it with one’s money) for pleasure is the same reason it is wrong to participate in the torturing and slaughter of pigs for pleasure.
Now, how this gets worked out in an argument might be different for each of us, but for me it goes something like this. The pleasure of paying to watch a dog fight is (obviously) not proportional to the harm to the dogs that one is supporting, and therefore paying to watch (or otherwise supporting) a dog fight is wrong. Similarly, the pleasure I get from a hot dog is (obviously) not proportional to the harm caused to the pigs (in factory farming) that one is supporting, and therefore paying to eat a hot dog (or otherwise supporting factory farming) is wrong.
But this reasoning could change if the good pursued was proportionate to the harm done to the pig. For instance, if I have to use a homemade spear to painfully kill a wild pig or risk starving in the woods, I think the proportionate reasoning (obviously) works out such that it is acceptable to (painfully) kill the pig. But here is it is ‘the suffering and life of a person’ vs. ‘the suffering and life of a (valuable) nonperson.’
Now, you seem to be describing a situation that is a bit more complex. What about when we are comparing the HEALTH of a person (and especially a human child) against the suffering and life of a valuable non-person. This is a tough one, and I’m not really sure there is an obvious answer here. I think decisions either way could be morally acceptable…and here ‘health’ could rise to the level of ‘need’ in the way the Catechism describes. However, I wonder how many people are really in a financial situation where they NEED factory-farmed meat for themselves or their children’s health. There are tons of resources out there for making meat-free choices and getting all one needs health-wise. It does take work, and I’ll admit it that I don’t always do it for myself, but it really does seem to be about doing the research and (for many of us) sacrificing other non-necessities to buy the kinds of non-animal foods that keep us or our children healthy–while avoiding participating in and supporting the torture and slaughter of other animals. Furthermore, the more of us that go this route, and the more we push for subsidizing of healthy vegetarian-friendly foods (rather than high fructose corn syrup and other sugars), the lower the cost will be.
What do you think?
I am very grateful to see this pressing moral issue dealt with in such a comprehensive way. I agree that there is more than enough evidence that factory farming is a moral evil and that our Catholic moral tradition compels us to not only ‘not cooperate’ with this moral evil, but also to advocate for it’s elimination.
My dilemma is how to present this issue to young women and not trigger eating disorders in what is already a highly vulnerable population. I teach high school religion in a Catholic girls school- and specifically Morality to the 16-18 year olds. Because of their exposure to a toxic media culture, and being very goal oriented (and perfectionistic) we have a high number of students who suffer from varying degrees of anorexia and bulimia. To add to that there is a new diagnostic category of eating disorder that has evolved from the reality that so much of the U.S. food supply is toxic, laden with chemicals and hormones, and based on cruel production practices. These people who may already have a tendency towards disordered eating, are eliminating so many foods, and having a hard enough time finding healthy replacements, that they are, in essence, becoming anorexic. I think of some of our medieval female saints here, ‘Holy Anorexia’. This variation would perhaps be a sort of ‘moral’ anorexia.
Here’s what happens when I just begin to broach the horrors of factory farming with these girls: because of their sensitivity and essential goodness, they become vegitarians. Not in a healthy, educated way, but in a just avoiding meat way. This puts pressure on their parents (which could ultimately be seen as a good thing- a way to restructure eating) to find acceptable, cruelty free alternatives. Since I struggle with this myslef I know what these parents are up against- if you are buying cruelty free meat you are spending more time and money. If you are cooking for a vegitarian you are definitely spending more time creating protein sufficient meals.
So for the past 10 years I have been trying to balance giving this information with the harm it could potentially cause. As with so many of the moral issues we discuss teen it feels at times like a high wire act. Factory farming is relatively new–since the 70’s. It could be reversed in this or the next generation if there is the will. I believe that these young people are capable of affecting market forces and creating that change.
As a veteran of Catholic education (35 years) I am willing to put up with the blowback I will get from parents on this. I just do not want to be the ‘trigger’ that pushes any girl over the precarious edge of health into an eating disorder.
I confess to having had a certain amount of sympathy for Michael Vick back at the time, although no doubt for reasons that would not hold up under close scrutiny. In any case, he did express remorse and—to use the old cliche—pay his debt to society. I am not sure it is fair to the Michael Vick of today to use him as the personification of cruelty to animals.
I am sympathetic to the arguments against the treatment of animals by the food industry, but how virtuous can one feel avoiding meat and then eating fruits and vegetables picked by exploited laborers, possibly including very young children?
Hi David…perhaps not very (but we talked about this very issue in the last thread on this topic), but one solution is to shop for those at farmer’s markets and/or grow your own.
Hi Again. I just read Beth Haile’s profile and discovered that her dissertation “A Good Appetite: A Thomistic Approach to Eating Disorders and Body Image Problems in American Women” is in the ballpark of my previous post. I can’t imagine what the Thomistic approach to this issue is and am hopeful, that when she has time (knowing what September is like for teachers!) she will weigh in on my dilemma. Thanks!
Great exchange. I think I am plenty convinced at this point that the moral arguments work, and Patrick’s interjection about clarifying princples was particularly helpful. There are a few things I would like to get further clarity on.
One, the Michael Vick comparison clearly assumes that the animal suffering is for the purpose of pleasure. This is (presumably) not true in the case of most meat-eaters – they don’t desire the suffering of animals necessarily by consuming meat, right? This gives new relevance to the issue of the object of the act – obviously, what we are saying here is not the intention to make animals suffer is wrong, but the suffering itself.
Two, one student in my class, after reading this, tried to make a distinction between animals that are raised for consumption versus animals with which we have developed companion relationships. I wasn’t convinced, but I also think that Patrick’s “worm” example is relevant here. Should I avoid stepping on any insects? Or poisoning ants that invade my kitchen?
Three, it seems to me that “structures of sin” becomes important here. No consumer willed this structure – no company advertises their product based on the “selling point” that they make animals suffer. At some point (when?), American agriculture crossed a line – and frankly, that line is clearly when agriculture became corporatized (one might also look at the rise of fast food as key here). Of course, we could all become vegetarians. But we could also get serious about the food system as a whole (h/t David Nickol – those commodity strawberries you’re consuming in your smoothie may have cost a lot of human and soil suffering!). We need Benedict XVI’s “structures of grace/gift.”
Four, you are all giving me great material for declaring meat eating to be a luxury 🙂
You are so right to note the emergence of a sort of “moral anorexia” (obviously using the word “anorexia” analogously and not clinically here). Our society has made food the new area of moral obsession (maybe replacing the moral obsession with sex in previous generations). Think about how we describe desserts as “sinfully delicious,” chocolate as our biggest “temptation,” and caving in to food-related desires as “being bad.” Think also about how such attitudes are reinforced by religious practices–giving up candy or chocolate for Lent or fasting as a sign of piety. There is also the issue of a new form of eating disorder which seems to be emerging that we might call something like “extreme picky eating.” With any sort of clinical disorder, there is a combination of biomedical, psychological, and sociocultural factors which contribute to a disease’s onset and maintenance. Consequently, if there is an individual in one of your classes who develops a clinical eating disorder, it is important to realize that you are not the one to blame, though it is good to be sensitive about how our actions may exacerbate preexisting tendencies.
The way I like to talk about food-related issues is not in a vacuum, but as part of a more comprehensive discussion about “the person I want to become.” Dieting, for example, is in itself neither good nor bad but can become good if it leads me to become the sort of person I want to become and bad if it actually detracts from this larger goal. If my obsession with dieting keeps me from other important things that are part of my overall life goals–hanging out with friends, for example, or eating dinner with my family, or seeing myself as a beloved child of God–maybe dieting is not such a good thing. We might think of eating meat in a similar way, posing the issue not as one where eating factory farmed meat as evil and vegetarianism as good, but rather addressing the whole issue of meat in a more comprehensive moral landscape. What sort of relationship do I want to be in with non-human creation? What practices might I engage in that are helping me to cultivate the relationship I want to have? What practices threaten the relationship I want to have? How does my relationship with non-human creation impact the relationship I have with my human communities and with myself? This last question is important because we often forget that factory farms create really horrible spaces for humans to work as well, raising social justice questions. Once we see factory farming in deeper and richer terms than just eating meat, I think we begin to carve out a space for discussing the moral implications of factory farming in more healthy way.
The other thing I think important to address when talking about any food-related issue is how our desires have been habituated by the food industry, by the media, and by the communal practices that we engage in. In my study of eating disorders and body image, I found that there was a discrepancy between what women desired and what they rationally knew. Many women know that extreme thinness is dangerous, unattractive, etc., and yet they have been habituated by the images they see regularly on TV and magazines and billboards to desire extreme thinness as a good. I think something similar is at work with the meat industry. Many of us know rationally that factory farms are deplorable and that animals deserve protection from undue cruelty, and yet our competing desire to eat meat and the habitual understanding that we have of meat as a “good” allows us to act in ways contrary to our rational knowledge and beliefs. We need a “therapy of desire” regarding the meat industry, and not just more information about how awful factory farms are. How this “therapy of desire” plays out in the classroom is a matter of prudential reasoning which I don’t have the space to talk about here.
Finally, I love the title of this post because it uses the word “addiction.” Addiction is a bio-psycho-social phenomenon, and the “cure” is never a simple act of the will. It is a communal endeavor, that takes time, fortitude and patience, a lot of support from friends and family, and grace. Our “addiction” to animal cruelty extends far beyond factory farms to mistreatment of pets to research on non-human animals. The habits and desires which form the basis of this addiction take a long time and a lot of effort to change, and so we need to be patient with one another regarding which stage of recovery we are actually at.
In the september 9th NYT, they ask readers to discuss any ethical issues they see with food in their lives. It is a very broad question. Nearly all the comments left have to do with the moral problems raised by factory farming.